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Regular listeners to This American Life will be familiar with David Sedaris' reading of his own work. Sedaris writes wonderfully funny stories about himself and his family, and he reads them well too. I don't remember laughing more than the first time I heard him read "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities," in which he recreates his childhood imitation of Billie Holiday, singing an advertising jingles for Oscar Meyer bologna to the appalled stare of his guitar teacher. Me Talk Pretty One Day is as good as his previous work. I'd recommend getting the "unabridged" 5 CD recording of Sedaris reading, even though his reading of "Giant Dreams" changes that advertisement to one for Cadillac cars, which is not quite as suggestive.
The contents of the book and the CD are not exactly the same: the book has 28 stories, while the CD has 24. The CD does not include several stories that are in the book: "You Can't Kill the Rooster," which appeared previously on Barrel Fever and Other Stories, or "Big Boy," "The Great Leap Forward," "Smart Guy," and "The Late Show." "Genetic Engineering" is not listed on the CD, but is included in another story. But the CD contains stories not in the book: "Bend Over and Say 'Ah'," "Precious Moments," "Poems About Dogs," and "A Million Bubbles," all of which are vintage Sedaris. Sedaris nearly always reads better in front of an audience, and about one fifth of the stories are live -- some of the studio recordings seem muted, especially if one has heard him read the stories live elsewhere.
Some of the stories rely on shock value ("Big Boy" is about a giant turd he discovers in the toilet at a friend's house) but most are more subtle in their depiction of the awkwardness of everyday life and how strange people are. His family is the topic he returns to again and again, and they are a rich source of comedy, in their crazy love for each other. In earlier works, he wrote about his mother at length, but here it is father who is the unfortunate victim of his son's wit. People do not look good when described by Sedaris -- they generally seem a little crazy or pathetic, and often sadistic. But his stories also contain a good deal of self-mockery, and a great deal of empathy for the fellow underdogs who suffer the torture of the sadists.
In this book, Sedaris brings in his experience of moving to France with his boyfriend Hugh. He has to learn the language and deal with the cultural differences: since he has an ambivalent relationship with his homeland, he often finds himself pleased with the novelties of his new country of residence, especially the friendliness shown towards smokers. His tales of mistranslations and culinary peculiarities are a little less distinctive, but since they are based on his experience, and include more distinctive characters, they still work.
As with any comedy, Sedaris' stories work best when they hint at true sadness, real hurt, and righteous indignation. He was an unusual boy -- his idea of an ideal gift for himself was a vacuum cleaner -- and of course he grew up in North Carolina knowing he was gay, which was bound to make his life more difficult. It is in these stories about his youth, which he reads on the CD with a hint of melancholy, that one gets the clearest sense of emotional truth.
© 2001 Christian Perring. First Serial Rights.
Real Audio File: This American Life: Music Lessons, June 5, 1998, Episode 104, including David Sedaris reading his story "Papa Was Not A Rolling Stone" which is a version of "Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities".
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