About the author:
David Sedaris (born December 26, 1956) is a Grammy Award-nominated American humorist and radio contributor. Sedaris became prominent in 1992 when National Public Radio broadcasted his essay „SantaLand Diaries.“ He published his first collection of essays and short stories, Barrel Fever, in 1994. Each of his four following essay collections, Naked (1997), Holidays on Ice (1997), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000) and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004), have become New York Times Best Sellers. Until 2004, his books had collectively sold 2.5 million copies. Much of Sedaris‘ humor is autobiographical and self-ironic, and it often concerns his family life, his middle class upbringing in the suburbs of Raleigh, North Carolina, his greek ancestry, various jobs, education, drug use, homosexuality and his life in France with his partner, Hugh.
„Me Talk Pretty One Day“ by David Sedaris is a collection of 27 short autobiographical stories divided in two parts. The stories tell about his childhood in a big family, his adolescence, where he discovered his homosexuality and his time he lived in Paris with his boyfriend Hugh.
In elementary school Sedaris has to attend a language training lesson because he can‘t pronounce the „s“ correctly. Because of that he becomes a very introverted boy with few friends. In the course of his childhood, David tries a lot of things to make them his hobby, but he isn‘t good at any of them. His parents are disappointed, but suddenly it turns out that his sister has a great talent in painting. David wants to get his share of her popularity too, but instead of being celebrated as well he starts to take speed to get ideas for strange art performances.
He finishes the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and gets asked if he wants to teach a writing class. But he fails again and spends the school year sitting around with a bunch of unsatisfied students, not knowing what to teach them. Sedaris moves to New York, but can‘t find a job. He spends his time with walks through the city, being jealous of other peoples houses and lives. Later he meets Hugh, who has a house in the french countryside and they start to spend their holidays there. After some years, they finally move to France completely and David lives a lonely life in Paris, having trouble to learn the language and meet new people.
About the characters:
David seems to be someone who isn‘t in line with himself. It‘s hard for him to find friends and meet new people and he can‘t find his talents, not to mention use them. All that makes him a shy person, with little self-consciousness and a strong leaning towards taking the wrong decisions. Already in the first chapter you learn that David didn‘t belong to the „cool“ kids at his school: „I started keeping watch over the speech therapy door, taking note of who came and went. Had I seen one popular student leaving the office I could have believed my mother and viewed my lisp as the sort of thing that might happen to anyone. Unfortunately, I saw no popular students.“
His insecurity doesn‘t change as he gets older and so he starts using drugs to master his life better. David seems to be the exactly right person to take drugs: Unsatisfied with the course of his life and himself and having a weak personality: „…where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. (…) The moment I took my first burning snootful, I understood that this was the drug for me. Speed eliminates all doubt. Am I smart enough? Will people like me? Do I really look all right in this plastic jumpsuit? These are questions for insecure potheads. A speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does in brilliant.“
David is a person who always wants to be liked, but because of this desperate attempts to make himself popular, he just makes everything worse. The first lesson with his writing students proves how far that inability goes: „They wrote their names upon their leaves, fastened them to their breast pockets, and bellied up to the long oak table that served as our commercial desk. „All right then,“ I said. „Okay, here we go.“ I opened my empty briefcase and realized that I‘d never thought beyond this moment.“
With his moving to France, you also learn about David that he is neither talented in learning a language nor tolerant for different cultures. He‘s the stupid ignorant American that you imagine when you think of an American. The fact that he is a writer made me think first that he isn‘t like that, but not all the writers can be cosmopolitan: „Of all the stumbling blocks inherent in learning this language, the greatest for me is the principle that each noun has a corresponding sex that affects both its articles and its adjectives. Because it is a female and lays eggs, a chicken is masculine. Vagina is masculine as well, while the word masculinity is feminine.“ It goes like that for half a page and I asked myself how closed somebody can be for a new language. The only thing Sedaris seems to have a talent for is making fun about his own incompetence.
Interpretation and own opinion:
The first story is also the one that gave the book its title. Sedaris tells about his time is school where he had to attend language training lessons because he lisped. The story is witty, especially the descriptions of his attempts to avoid the letter while speaking. Every paragraph has a good punch line, but the chapter hasn‘t. You expect something outstanding or at least interesting to happen at the end, but then you realize that the story is just told for the joke‘s sake. The only thing you get from this story is picture of young David, shy and an outsider.
The book goes on with a story about his music-loving father. He always wanted to make David play an instrument, but you soon learn from the story that David isn‘t blessed with the gift of music at all and the chapter runs into a list of funny descriptions of his former guitar teacher.
The chapters that follow are all of the same kind: Young David, unable to succeed in anything, but always taking it with good humor and the knowledge that he is a little bit different then the others. He is to shy to show his „non-masculine“ talents tough and stays an outsider who disappoints his father. Later, his sister is discovered as a great artist and David wants to be celebrated that way too. But he never uses his real talents in decorating things and sing and so he ends up with a group of methamphetamine-addicts doing strange performance art in an empty fabric hall. You somehow wait for an event that saves David, that makes him confident and shows him his abilities, but somehow he stays an untalented young man with no direction to go.
After that, Sedaris turns the focus away from himself and puts the spotlight on his brother, who was also not very successful in his young life. It seems as if David wanted to steer the reader‘s attention into another direction to give him/her hope that later in the book, something remarkable will happen in David‘s life too. Unfortunately it doesn‘t…
Also the next chapter isn‘t about David, but the dogs the Sedaris family possessed in their life. You also learn something about his parents, a typical american couple with a small bandwidth of ideas, but with the simple wish to be happy. Again, Sedaris shows great humor in that chapter with witty lines, but no talent to bring something to the point. You can‘t get rid of the feeling, that all the chapters are just created to press in all that jokes.
Finally, you learn more about how David‘s life goes on.
After he finished the School of the Art Institute in Chicago he was asked to teach a writing class. Again he failed and cared more about the picture the students have of him than what he can teach them. The students have no respect for him and are as unhappy with him as he is with them.
After telling about his poor teaching skills, Sedaris tries to cheer the reader up with a short anecdote about a funny situation involving him at a friend‘s house and his excrements. You are entertained, but there is always this empty feeling left behind that makes you ask yourself: And so what? The chapters are always lacking content, or anything remarkable David did or experienced in his life. It sounds very american to me.
Following is Sedaris‘ life in New York. Spending time in admiring other peoples lives and envy them, he is always looking for a job, eventually becoming a professional house cleaner or furniture packer. Again, funny anecdotes and little stories light up the chapter, but I couldn‘t figure out the real reason he wrote most of the things. Was his life really that boring? Funnily the chapter is called „The Great Leap Forward“.
It goes on with David‘s thoughts on expensive restaurants and a story about a friend of his sister, visiting him in New York. He is annoyed by her ignorance and her „american-countryside“ behavior, but I asked myself if he is better. His thoughts about France that come later in the book prove the opposite.
After a chapter about his father and one about his fear of computers, part two of the book, which is called „Deux“, begins. But it‘s not only called „Deux“ it‘s called „Deux*“ with a star indicating that the other star that stands in front of „*two“ belongs to it. It‘s nice to see how high Sedaris rates his reader‘s intelligence quotient.
The second part is a bit more interesting tough, showing Davids opinion of France and countries outside the US in general. While most of the writers are cosmopolitan, Sedaris does not seem to belong to that kind. He can‘t understand french culture at all and it takes him five years to expand his vocabulary to a level that he can communicate with french people. But first he has to write several pages of his opinion about the distinction of genders in french. He asks himself how the guy looked who sat in his office and gave the words genders and shows again the great ability of americans to understand different cultures or languages. He tells you deliberately that he isn‘t able and willing to learn the genders of things because he can‘t understand why. But his ignorance and stupidity seems funny to him so makes a bunch of good jokes about it.
Also the fact that the french people don‘t think that the US is the greatest country in the world seems so peculiar to him that he spends a whole page discussing this topic. Is that so unbelievable for an American? It always seems that Sedaris is feeling superior to the Frenchmen, that they‘re underdeveloped and that the things they do, especially their language, is ridiculous. Other authors write about different cultures too, but they usually don‘t seem to be as ignorant as Sedaris.
In part two Sedaris has the possibility to change my opinion once, but he fails here too. An american couple offends the french people loudly in the metro, thinking nobody can hear them. David stand right besides them, gets offended to, but can‘t bring a word out of his mouth the whole chapter. So he will never be the hero to me that defends france as an American.
Sedaris moves to Paris and attends an french class. He doesn‘t really learn anything, he is just fearing his teacher and being alone in the big city with no friends. All that is written very long and with a lot of humor, but the quintessence is his inability to learn french and his loneliness. At the beginning of the chapter I thought that the turning point will now come, the small-minded American in the city of love finding his true meaning in life, but it didn‘t happen. Sedaris hasn‘t got a job or a social life, just his tapes and the cinema, which he visits 6-7 a week. He has his partner Hugh, but strangely loses just a few words about him. I would have found that interesting, a homosexual relationship between two Americans in a foreign country, but again Sedaris misses the point.
Part two continues with various descriptions of that life in Paris, at a point where I didn‘t expect anything special to happen anymore. Sedaris is formulating his thoughts about the environment, about Hugh‘s life, which is much more interesting than his, and a visit to a festival. I asked myself how he would close the book now, after talking so much about quite boring things and with just a few pages left. It turned out that the penultimate chapter is about his sleeping problems and that he is inventing stories in the long hours before the next day dawns. He writes down a few of these stories, every one including him with a special talent or ability that makes him famous. It seems as if Sedaris has the urgent wish to be respected for something he is doing, to be admired for a certain skill. At least he can write entertaining books.
The last chapter is a hilarious anecdote about his father who likes to store food until it‘s rotten and to eat it then. The book ends with his father telling his family that he had just eaten a part of his old cap, because he thought that it was one of his year-old aliments. I found that funny, but maybe not adequate to release it in that book.
The problem that David has is probably his incapability to value his talents. Everything he does in life doesn‘t match with his real talents and so he gets insecure and lonely. He can‘t find the right job, he can‘t find a place to live and he can‘t find friends. You somehow wait for the moment when David discovers his real personality and finally finds his way, but it doesn‘t happen. He tingles between jobs and places to live and he is always unhappy. I thought that the end of the book would be a description of how he came to be a writer, but the book ends before that. The book is just not a success story, but a story of a man who failed so often that he can do nothing but make fun of it.
„When painting proved too difficult, I turned to tracing comic-book characters onto onionskin typing paper, telling myself I would have come up with Mr. Natural on my own had I been born a few years earlier.“
I think that this sentence indicates Davids problem very well. He starts to paint just to make his family admire him, because his sister does the same. But he can‘t see that he has no talent like his sister and yet he keeps trying, telling himself that he could have been better. He is wasting his time with things he‘s not good at instead of trying to discover his own special talents.
„The night before my first life-drawing class, I lay awake worrying that I might get physically excited be the nude models. Here would be this person (…) displaying his tanned and muscled body before an audience of students who, with the exception of me, would see him as nothing but an armature of skin and bones.“
That is the only paragraph of the book where Sedaris mentions his homosexuality. He leaves out the rest and you learn nothing about his first boyfriend or the outing in front of his parents. I would have found that worth mentioning too, but Sedaris seems to prefer more boring themes that aren‘t that deep going.
„My performing career effectively ended the day my drug dealer moved to Georgia to enter a treatment center.“
That phrase is showing how poor David is. Needing drugs to create anything that would interest people must be a horrible feeling. What can you rely on, if it‘s not your own brain? And what if that brain is not capable of anything remarkable without a certain substance? I can‘t imagine to live like that…
„…realizing that I was afraid of France. My fear had nothing to do with the actual French people. I didn‘t know any actual French people. What scared me was the idea of French people I‘d gotten from movies and situation comedies. When someone makes a spectacular ass of himself, it‘s always in a French restaurant, never a Japanese or Italian one. (…) My understanding was that, no matter how hard we tried, the French would never like us, and that‘s confusing to an American raised to believe that the citizens of Europe should be grateful for all the wonderful things we‘ve done.“
With that paragraph Sedaris reduced my respect for him drastically in just a third of a page. How ignorant can an American be? Fearing France because of a restaurant scene in some stupid sitcom? Being confused that the French don‘t thank America for the great things they‘ve done? When I read this, I considered that paragraph as the best summary of the problem Americans have with the world that‘s beyond the borders of the United States. Raised by TV and patriots the Americans are brought to believe that Europe is outside of their world, some retarded human beings that just don‘t understand America‘s brilliance. Some Americans are educated enough to know that America is a product of Europe, not the other way around. Sedaris does not seem to belong to that kind of people.
„I‘m often told that it‘s wasteful to live in Paris and spend all my time watching American movies, that it‘s like going to Cairo to eat cheeseburgers. „You could do that back home,“ people say. But they‘re wrong. I couldn‘t live like this in the United States. With very few exceptions, video killed the American revival house.“
This quote is showing how lonely David was in Paris. He does not only act like a spoiled American, who can‘t stand to live in another country without consuming American products, but he has also no social life and wastes his time alone in the cinema. I don‘t know why you should write a book about such an unremarkable life, but maybe he just did it to cheer people up, that are happier than him.
I chose that book, because I heard that it is incredibly funny. In fact it is, but there is nothing behind it. So it amazed me that the book has had so many good reactions. At the back seven of them are listed, but inside the book there are incredible five pages full of positive and enthusiastic comments on the book. Then I realized that all these critics were released by american magazines and that the content is almost always something like „Very witty and entertaining.“ Now I understood: The book is for Americans who just want to read a entertaining little story (the chapters are on average ten pages long) before going to bed. The book should entertain you and leave you with nothing behind but the thought: „How funny that David Sedaris is.“ You are not supposed to think about the things he wrote or be worried about that lonely poor man, you are just to laugh about the story and forget it.
For me Sedaris is just another ignorant American with no great talent and a weak personality. He is just able to find fun in his quite unspectacular life and entertain the people with it. There is chapter about his intelligence test he once made and his weak result. Unfortunately you note that while reading the book. He is no great thinker who wants to express something, the book is just a flat, unauthentic piece of work to make Americans laugh.
I would have found his thoughts on homosexuality and his greek derivation very interesting, but he seems to prefer subjects that are more superficial. I first thought it is a story about someone who works himself up, but it‘s just a quite unremarkable character living his life. I can‘t be mad at Sedaris because his life was that boring, but he could have just written something else.