Thursday, January 3, 2019

Book 162: Me Talk Pretty One Day

"After a few months in my parents' basement, I took an apartment near the state university, where I discovered both crystal methamphetamine and conceptual art. Either one of those things is dangerous, but in combination they have the potential to destroy entire civilizations. 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. The speed enthusiast knows that everything he says or does is brilliant. The upswing is that, having eliminated the need for both eating and sleeping, you have a full twenty-four hours a day to spread your charm and talent."

Dates read: July 20-23, 2017

Rating: 7/10

Lists/awards: The New York Times bestseller

What is the standard for calling something "nonfiction"? It can't be 100% objective accuracy, because there's always something that gets left out of the telling. No one will ever be able to capture all the nuance, every single gesture and word that went into an interaction. I couldn't recount the full details of a three-minute conversation I had with my boss a couple hours ago, much less look back into my childhood and perfectly recreate important moments. So if it's not total undisputed truth, is it mostly true? More true than not? True in spirit? It's hard to draw a line.

When you make your living writing books of essays, usually prominently featuring your childhood, you're definitely liable to accusations that your treatment of the truth is...flexible, which is something David Sedaris knows all too well. Me Talk Pretty Some Day is the first of his books I've ever read, and I have to admit, some of the pieces it contains do strike me as a little too good to be exactly, totally true. The book is separated into two parts: the first focusing on his early life, mostly his childhood with his family, and the second focusing on his adult life, mostly the portions in which he lived in France with his boyfriend. He didn't speak French before he spent time there, and his frustrating attempts to learn the language are a major through-line of the back half of the book.

As in any essay collection, there are hits and misses. For me, personally, there were many more of the former than the latter here. Humor in books is a tricky thing...even if I find something funny, the most it usually provokes is a smile. An out-and-out laugh is a rare thing, but Sedaris managed to get a few good chuckles out of me (including while I was reading it on an airplane, which made me seem A+ sane I'm sure). "A Shiner Like A Diamond" (about David's sister Amy freaking out their father by wearing the bottom half of a fat suit on a trip home) and "Make That A Double" (about Ugly Americans refusing to even try speaking French, and the weirdness of learning to speak a language with gendered nouns) were particular highlights for me, but most of the pieces were decent to good, in large part because they weren't ever boring.

And that's where we get into the truth-telling. These are funny stories, based in fact. But are they true? There's been more than one examination into the accuracy of the stories Sedaris tells (this one from The New Republic is particularly thorough). So if they aren't really all that true, sometimes, does it really matter? For me, I guess the answer is that it depends. For these kinds of books (memoir-ish essays, usually humorous or meant to be), I'm generally proceeding under the idea that there might be some minor embellishment, usually to fill in dialogue or some of the finer details. But it seems like some of these stories in this book (particularly the one about the guitar teacher) are more than just slightly spruced up. And that's a little more bothersome. Part of the reason some of these stories are so funny isn't just because they recount humorous situations, but because those situations are supposed to have been real. If they're not actually real...I feel like there should be some sort of acknowledgement that these stories are based in fact but might have been dazzled up to tell a better story, maybe?

That probably sounds more negative than I intend it. At the end of the day, even after I read about the likelihood that some of these stories weren't exactly real life, I did enjoy reading the book. And for me, that's what counts. I enjoyed it enough, honestly, that I'm likely to continue reading other David Sedaris books, because I like his writing. My husband tells me that this is his best collection, so I'm curious to read more and see if I agree with him. I'd recommend Me Talk Pretty One Day to anyone looking for a mood-lifter (especially if you, too, have suffered through the indignity of learning a foreign language).

One year ago, I was reading: Pond

Two years ago, I was reading: The King Must Die

Three years ago, I was reading: Thirst

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