Book Review: Me Talk Pretty One Day

A few months ago, I was looking to join a book club. I shouldn’t have been. It’s not really for me. If anything, I should host book clubs because I know exactly what I want to read for the year (all mapped out in my dot journal) not to mention the rest of my life, so whenever a book club assigns a book not on that comprehensive list, I’m like why am I here? I can’t afford the time for this. On the other hand, I have many book club ideas, some of them already listed on The Starving Artist. Soon, I’ll be bringing all those ideas together for you. Wait and see. Anyhow, I was looking for a book club even though I shouldn’t have been: trying to crawl my way out of the Pandemic hole. After joining any number of book groups that offered book clubs and playing around with the idea of actually joining, I came across a subset of a book club on Goodreads: Under the 2022 Reading Challenge (which I set for myself every year; I am currently 13 titles behind pace), in the Annual Challenges category, is the Clear the Shelves book club. Now, it’s not MUCH of a club. And it’s not especially easy to manage, either (you have to write a message updating your original message every time you finish a post, that is, after you find it again). But how perfect could this be?! The point is to set your own reading list with the stipulation that these books have to be on your bookshelf already and I have hundreds of books to catch up on (with a read or re-read). I easily typed in 50 titles and said I would get to work at the end of the school year.

I just finished #4 of 50, Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. I admit that I had already started some of the books on my list, though I knew this when I set my goal of 50, so… I started Me Talk Pretty at a writing residency, which means that I started it before the Pandemic, in the fall of 2019. I read less than half of it in the evenings, after getting into bed. Now, I want to warn you that one of the genres that I am least qualified to review is comedy. I have read Bridget Jones’ Diary and Haven Kimmel’s memoirs. And, if we dig hard, probably one or two other books that might fit into this category as well as something else (like the sci-fi Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). I made the best-ofs comedy book list because I love to laugh. Stuck on this first title for a few years, it’s not going particularly well. And, like I said, not an expert.

Returning to Me Talk Pretty One Day as a break in the middle of five Zadie Smith titles (they can be a little bleak), I enjoyed and appreciated it more than I remembered. I think I was frustrated at the lack of lol-ing. Still, not much more than a snort or a snuffle, but a few lols before the end. And a few times I just had to read the paragraph out loud because my husband was there and because he would appreciate the satire and because he would snort. Note: published in 2000, Me Talk Pretty has some interesting/disturbing moments of foresight, like the less important one about eating full meals in movie theaters. My husband questions Sedaris’s claims about his low IQ, which he’d heard about without reading the book (we’re long-time NPR listeners). How can you be as astute, observant, and capable of comedy (and writing) without a decently high IQ? Because while being self-absorbed and un-cooly quirky, Sedaris is really all the time making fun of himself and those around him. That’s his job as a comedic essayist.

Which is what this book is. A collection of essays in some sort of life-order. We read as Sedaris, a New Yorker from a childhood in North Carolina (the Triangle, where I live) finds love and moves to Paris. It’s about growing up and family, it’s about being gay (a little), it’s about learning a new culture (and language), it’s about being unapologetic about who you are. I found it to be far more story-telling than stand-up. Definitely there are funny moments and like with most funny guys, Sedaris doesn’t say anything straight. But most of the stories were more amusing than hilarious. Like all good comedy, it makes you think about life, your life, the world, the modern world, but only with so much har-har-ing. There is a dark seriousness here, too. Well, maybe not too serious. More just dark. Dark humor. Or just humor of the mundane. Sedaris says things in a funny way, but it’s more like dysthymic sarcasm, which can be a kind of funny. Read:

“The word phobic has its place when properly used, but lately it’s been declawed by the pompous insistence that most animosity is based upon fear rather than loathing. No credit is given for distinguishing between these two very different emotions. I fear snakes. I hate computers. My hatred is entrenched, and I nourish it daily. I’s comfortable with it, and no community outreach program will change my mind” (p145).

“Every day we’re told that we live in the greatest country on earth. And it’s always stated as an undeniable fact: Leos are born between July 23 and August 22, fitted queen-size sheets measure sixty by eighty inches, and America is the greatest country on earth. Having grown up with this in our ears, it’s startling to realize that other countries have nationalistic slogans of their own, none of which are ‘We’re number two!’” (p157).

So I guess it depends on your sense of humor, but Me Talk Pretty One Day is one of the most-oft chart-topping humor books, so if you want to read and laugh, then this is a book to put on your reading list. Sedaris is also considered one of the top humor writers of our time and has a number of other things to read if you enjoy this one: Barrel Fever, Naked, Holidays on Ice, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Theft by Finding, and Calypso. He’s been a staple of The New Yorker, NPR, and the BBC, which means, among other things, that he is as talented at speaking his work as writing it. I also want to mention his sister Amy Sedaris, only one of five siblings, but the one he talks about the most and incidentally the most famous one. (They do collaborate.) She’s a comedian and actor and I know her from Elf, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Chicken Little. You probably do, too.

And this is why I qualified this review: I’m not very versed in comedy books, yet. Generally (referring to the three I’ve read), they don’t make you pee your pants, but they make you think and snicker. This is a comedy must-read and I basically enjoyed reading it. Would I read more of Sedaris? Likely. Will I enjoy it when I hear him on air? Yes. And will I keep making my way through the comedy book list? Yes, but hopefully a little faster than one every four years.

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