Sunday, June 9, 2013

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris

Another certain acquisition from the library’s used book sale, this one tattered and water damaged. Like Long Remember, the name of the author drew me, but this time with more anticipation. Holidays on Ice--and more specifically the Santaland Diaries it contains--is one of my favorite pieces of writing.

Another mom was having trouble controlling her little boy and she said to me, “Mister Elf, tell little Tommy here that if he doesn’t behave Santa’s going to bring him nothing but coal.” “Actually,” I said, “Santa doesn’t deal in coal anymore. If you’re naughty he just comes into your house and takes things. He’s going to steal all your appliances, including your refrigerator, and all your food will go bad and stink up your house.” “Okay,” the mom said, “that’s enough.” “He’s going to take all your lamps and towels and blankets, Tommy, and leave you in the cold and dark with nothing. Boy, let me tell you, when he gets done with you, you’re going to wish you never even heard the name Santa.”

Funny stuff. So imagine my surprise when I found myself not liking this book. There are certainly some flashes of the same funny in Me Talk Pretty One Day, but they are fewer and farther between--and the stuff in between is sometimes difficult for me to relate to.

Sedaris is no doubt an elitist curmudgeon. And that’s good. That’s his essential appeal. But if he’s taking his eloquent pot shots at things you don’t think are stupid, or at things you don’t at least feel the same intolerance for, then the biting edge of his writing begins to drift towards banality. This was especially the case in the first half of the book, where the essays are exactly that--short essays about things unconnected other than through Sedaris’s contempt for them. Nothing has a beginning or an end--just a series of middles--and it left me unsatisfied.

The second half is better, whose essays are loosely tied together by Sedaris’s experience of learning French while living in France. Here’s a sample in which you must remember that the students are forced to speak only in French, regardless of how broken it must sound to native French speakers.

The Italian nanny was attempting to answer the teacher’s latest question when the Moroccan student interrupted, shouting, “Excuse me, but what’s an Easter?”

It would seem that despite having grown up in a Muslim country, she would have heard it mentioned once or twice, but no. “I mean it,” she said. “I have no idea what you people are talking about.”

The teacher called upon the rest of us to explain.

The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. “It is,” said one, “a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and...oh, shit.”

She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid. “He call his self Jesus and then he die one day on two...morsels of...lumber.”

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

“He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.”

“He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.”

“He nice, the Jesus.”

“He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.”

And so on. It’s funny, but unfortunately, it’s only a few short pages in the book.

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