David Sedaris

Barrel Fever - Little, Brown and Company - 1994 - 196 pages

This first book by Sedaris consists of 12 "stories" (fiction) and 4 "essays" (non-fiction).  The stories are mostly bizarre, stream-of-consciousness, depressing tales about people who are total losers.  Recurring themes are abusive (or very strange) mother, alcoholism, homosexuality and a lazy-young-man-who-did-not-finish-college-and-cannot-get-a-good-job.  Although his writing style is often described as "satirical," I see it more as social commentary.  The best of the stories is "Barrel Fever" that is about alcoholism from the view of an alcoholic.  This is fiction but is also a powerful story about the disease that is often passed from parent to child.  Sedaris must have had some personal history with alcoholic family members to write such an account.  These early stories by Sedaris are well written but very depressing to me.  Each of them involves the tortured lives of fictional people.  And, there are so many people among us who exist in a constant state of desperation.

Of the essays, the best is "SantaLand Diaries" which is a true account of his work as a department store elf, a part-time job he had at the age of 33.  His account of his work days is hilarious and sad at the same time.  This essay and his reading of it on NPR radio are two factors that caused him to become a well-known writer and entertainer.  [JAM 10/12/2019]

Naked - Little, Brown and Company - 1997 - 291 pages

In his second book of essays, Sedaris continues his autobiography with tales of his early jobs and vacations.  As ever, he finds himself in difficult situation caused mostly by his own bad decisions.  He collected golf souvenirs for his father ("The Women's Open").  He accidentally smeared hair-color shoe polish on his father clothes hanging in a closet ("True Detective").  He took an unpaid, voluntary job in the local state mental hospital ("Dix Hill").  He hitchhiked cross-country giving each driver a different story and was often dropped into bad areas after dark ("Planet of the Apes").  He worked as an apple inspector for a self-describer child of God ("C.O.G.").  He worked as a wood stripper for a furniture finisher ("Something for Everyone").  And, in the title essay ("Naked"), he took a two-week vacation in a seedy trailer park for naturalists.  These were not examples of bad luck.  His bad fortunes in each of these stories were the result of bad decisions he made.  Fortunately for Mr. Sedaris, he has the ability to write and tell these stories about situations.  Otherwise, he would be unemployable to this day.  [JAM 11/15/2019]

Holidays on Ice - Little, Brown and Company - 1997 - 123 pages

The first 86 pages of this book are reprinted from the first two books (Barrel Fever and Naked) written by Sedaris.  The three new stories ("Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol," "Based Upon a True Story" and "Christmas Means Giving") complete the volume targeted to Christmas book buyers.  "Front Row Center ..." serves as a professional review of various elementary school Christmas programs.  The conclusion is that "the English language was chewed into a paste ..." etc.  "Based Upon a True Story" is a very long dialog by a television sit-com producer speaking to a church group in advance of the traditional Christmas program.  In fact, the speaker is holding their minister hostage while his construction group gets ready to bulldoze the existing building.  Finally, "Christmas Means Giving" is the story about two wealthy families who will do anything to outdo one another at Christmas and other times.  Things escalate to unimaginable limits to the detriment of both families.  It seems obvious that the three new stories were written for the purpose of filling pages for a specialty book led by the author's most popular article: "SantaLand Diaries."  [JAM 1/2/2020]

Me Talk Pretty One Day - Little, Brown and Company - 2000 - 272 pages

This fourth book by Sedaris is much better than the first three.  He is an excellent writer and observer but has had no filter for some very crude stories that could never be told on NPR.  Since I have never heard him speak, I had no idea that he had a problem with lisping.  Instead of working with a speech therapist, his mother conspired with him to use language devoid of the letter "s".  This guy was really given a poor start in life with so many handicaps and a very odd family.  His favorite story of mine is "The Learning Curve" about the time he somehow landed a job teaching a writing workshop.  He had no plan to teach the subject but decided that the students had to smoke to be writers.  At one point, one of his students asks, "Just who in the stinking hell do you think you are?" and, "... exactly how much is the school paying you to be in this room?"  He also tells many stories about living in France and trying learn the language from a teacher who used the sink-or-swim method of teaching by allowing only French to be spoken in class.  These stories are only as long as they need to be.  Sedaris has just one real talent: the ability to tell a story in a hilarious but articulate manner.  [JAM 2/10/2020] 

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim - Back Bay Books/Little, Brown and Company - 2004 - 257 pages

David writes about neighbors who never knew when to celebrate Halloween because they did not have a television; being locked out of his house by his mother; vacation promises from his father; supervised slumber parties; living with his boyfriend in France; his mother's inheritance from Aunt Mildred; making a living as a beggar; getting kicked out of the house for being gay; his parents being slumlords; the strange child who lived next door and terrorized him daily; cleaning apartments for a living; lifestyles of his sisters and one brother; accidentally torturing a mouse; etc.; etc.; etc.

He relates basically true stories about the awful things that happened to him and his family.  The stories are very funny and well written.  But, the readers are generally very relieved that none of this has happened to them.  In the story, "Repeat After Me," he explains his search for stories to tell: "(Lisa's) afraid to tell me anything important, knowing I'll only turn around and write about it.  In my mind, I'm like a friendly junkman, building things from the little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family's started to see things differently.  Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they're sick of it.  More and more often their stories begin with the line 'You have to swear you will never repeat this.'  I always promise, but it's generally understood that my word means nothing."  His own statement explains his writing style and choice of subjects better than I could ever say.  [JAM 3/14/2020]

When You Are Engulfed in Flames - Little, Brown and Company - 2008 - 323 pages

This collection of essays contains the usual series of uncomfortable subjects through page 239: germs, arguments, awful people, death, underpants, skeletons, spiders, profanity and boils.  But, the big difference from previous books is the final topic ("The Smoking Section") which is actually a diary of his quest to kick his life-long smoking habit.  This is the really positive account I have read by him.  For someone who has always taken the low road and indulged in the ugliest aspects of his life, his attempt to finally live a more healthy existence is laudable.  Congratulations! [JAM 6/6/2020]