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Me Talk Pretty One Day (Sedaris)

Me Talk Pretty One Day
David Sedaris, 2000
Little, Brown & Company
288 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780316776967


Summary 
Me Talk Pretty One Day contains far more than just the funniest collection of autobiographical essays—it quite well registers as a manifesto about language itself. Wherever there's a straight line, you can be sure that Sedaris lurks beneath the text, making it jagged with laughter; and just where the fault lines fall, he sits mischievously perched at the epicenter of it all.

No medium available to mankind is spared his cultural vision; no family member (even the dynasties of family pets) is forgotten in these pages of sardonic memories of Sedaris's numerous incarnations in North Carolina, Chicago, New York, and France.

One essay, punctuated by a conspicuous absence of s's and plurals, introduces the lisping young fifth-grader David "Thedarith," who arms himself with a thesaurus, learns every nonsibilant word in the lexicon, eludes his wily speech therapy teacher, and amazes his countrified North Carolina teachers with his out-of-nowhere and man-size vocabulary.

By an ironic twist of fate, readers find present-day Sedaris in France, where only now, after all these years, he must cling safely to just plural nouns so as to avoid assigning the wrong genders to French objects. (Never mind that ordering items from the grocer becomes rather expensive.) Even the strictest of grammarians won't be able to look at the parts of speech in the same way after exposing themselves to the linguistic phenomena of Sedarisian humor. Just why is a sandwich masculine, and yet, say, a belt is feminine in the French language? As he stealthily tries to decode French, like a cross between a housewife and a shrewddetective, he earns the contempt of his sadistic French teacher and soon even resorts to listening to American books on tape for secret relief.

What David Sedaris has to say about language classes, his brother's gangsta-rap slang, typewriters, computers, audiobooks, movies, and even restaurant menus is sure to unleash upon the world a mad rash of pocket-dictionary-toting nouveau grammarians who bow their heads to a new, inverted word order. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—December 26, 1956
Where—Johnson City, New York, USA
Education—B.F.A., Art Institute of Chicago
Awards—Thurber Prize; Time Humorist of the Year;
  Advocate Lambda Award.
Currently—lives in London, England, UK


According to Time Out New York, "David Sedaris may be the funniest man alive." He's the sort of writer critics tend to describe not in terms of literary influences and trends, but in terms of what they choked on while reading his latest book. "I spewed a mouthful of pastrami across my desk," admitted Craig Seligman in his New York Times review of Naked.

Sedaris first drew national attention in 1992 with a stint on National Public Radio, on which he recounted his experiences as a Christmas elf at Macy's. He discussed "the code names for various posts, such as 'The Vomit Corner,' a mirrored wall near the Magic Tree" and confided that his response to "I'm going to have you fired" was the desire to lean over and say, "I'm going to have you killed." The radio pieces were such a hit that Sedaris, then working as a house cleaner, started getting offers to write movies, soap operas and Seinfeld episodes.

In subsequent appearances on NPR, Sedaris proved he wasn't just a velvet-clad flash in the pan; he's also wickedly funny on the subjects of smoking, speed, shoplifting and nervous tics. His work began appearing in magazines like Harper's and Mirabella, and his first book Barrel Fever, which included "SantaLand Diaries," was a bestseller. "These hilarious, lively and breathtakingly irreverent stories...made me laugh out loud more than anything I've read in years," wrote Francine Prose in the Washington Post Book World.

Since then, each successive Sedaris volume has zoomed to the top of the bestseller lists. In Naked, he recounts odd jobs like volunteering at a mental hospital, picking apples as a seasonal laborer and stripping woodwork for a Nazi sympathizer. The stocking stuffer-sized Holidays on Ice collects Sedaris' Christmas-themed work, including a fictional holiday newsletter from the homicidal stepmother of a 22-year-old Vietnamese immigrant ("She arrived in this house six weeks ago speaking only the words 'Daddy,' 'Shiny' and 'Five dollar now'. Quite a vocabulary!!!!!").

But Sedaris' best pieces often revolve around his childhood in North Carolina and his family of six siblings, including the brother who talks like a redneck gangsta rapper and the sister who, in a hilarious passage far too dirty to quote here, introduces him to the joys of the Internet. Sedaris' recent book Me Talk Pretty One Day describes, among other things, his efforts to learn French while helping his boyfriend fix up a Normandy farmhouse; he progresses "from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. 'Is thems the thoughts of cows?' I'd ask the butcher, pointing to the calves' brains displayed in the front window."

Sedaris has been compared to American humorists such as Mark Twain, James Thurber and Dorothy Parker; Publisher's Weekly called him "Garrison Keillor's evil twin." Pretty heady stuff for a man who claims there are cats that weigh more than his IQ score. But as This American Life producer Ira Glass once pointed out, it would be wrong to think of Sedaris as "just a working Joe who happens to put out these perfectly constructed pieces of prose." Measured by his ability to turn his experiences into a sharply satirical, sidesplittingly funny form of art, David Sedaris is no less than a genius.

Extras
• Sedaris got his start in radio after This American Life producer Ira Glass saw him perform at Club Lower Links in Chicago. In addition to his NPR commentaries, Sedaris now writes regularly for Esquire.

• Sedaris's younger sister Amy is also a writer and performer; the two have collaborated on plays under the moniker "The Talent Family." Amy Sedaris has appeared onstage as a member of the Second City improv troupe and on Comedy Central in the series Strangers with Candy.

• If I weren't a writer, I'd be a taxidermist," Sedaris said in a chat on Barnes and Noble.com. According to the Boston Phoenix, his collection of stuffed dead animals includes a squirrel, two fruit bats, four Boston terriers and a baby ostrich.

• When asked what book most influenced his career as a writer, he's what he said:

I guess it would be Cathedral by Raymond Carver. His sentences are very simple and straightforward, and he made writing seem deceptively easy—the kind of thing anyone could do if they put their mind to it. (From Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews 
Mr. Sedaris comes across, much as he did in Naked, as a self-dramatizing narcissist, by turns egomaniac and self-deprecating, needy and judgmental. He cannot abide people who smoke Merit cigarettes, wear cowboy boots or ''consider the human scalp an appropriate palette for self-expression.'' .... Mr. Sedaris's bitchiness can easily wear thin..., and in the slighter pieces—like one about his brief stint as a writing teacher—his efforts to send up himself and his supporting cast are neither comical nor convincing, merely petulant. Indeed, the stronger chapters in this book tend to be the ones that mix satire with sentiment, brazenness with rumination. Those pieces reveal a writer who is capable not only of being funny, but touching, even tender, too.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Time


[Sedaris's] need to hang onto his neuroses permeates his fourth collection of comic pieces...an assortment of frequently very funny, too-often bland and ultimately frustrating essays. This is not to say that Sedaris is not a very funny writer. Many lines and several of the premises are brilliant, worthy of our best comic essayists—Calvin Trillin, Woody Allen, Christopher Buckley, Dave Barry. At his best, he makes you laugh out loud, which indeed may be worth the price of admission.
Jonathan Reynolds - New York Times Book Review


His brilliance resides in a capacity to surprise, associate, and disassociate, and the result is something like watching lightning strike in slow motion.
Boston Book Review


Deftly navigates some unsettling subject matter.... Ultimately, it's his notes of rapture that leave the strongest impressions.
Seattle Times


If wit were measured in people, Sedaris would be China...his talent is that huge.... Sedaris' wit should be regulated. Experiences this enjoyable are usually illegal.
Denver Rocky Mountain News


Sedaris is Garrison Keillor's evil twin: like the Minnesota humorist, Sedaris (Naked) focuses on the icy patches that mark life's sidewalk, though the ice in his work is much more slippery and the falls much more spectacularly funny than in Keillor's. Many of the 27 short essays collected here (which appeared originally in The New Yorker, Esquire and elsewhere) deal with his father, Lou, to whom the book is dedicated. Lou is a micromanager who tries to get his uninterested children to form a jazz combo and, when that fails, insists on boosting David's career as a performance artist by heckling him from the audience. Sedaris suggests that his father's punishment for being overly involved in his kids' artistic lives is David's brother Paul, otherwise known as "The Rooster," a half-literate miscreant whose language is outrageously profane. Sedaris also writes here about the time he spent in France and the difficulty of learning another language. After several extended stays in a little Norman village and in Paris, Sedaris had progressed, he observes, "from speaking like an evil baby to speaking like a hillbilly. " 'Is thems the thoughts of cows?' I'd ask the butcher, pointing to the calves' brains displayed in the front window." But in English, Sedaris is nothing if not nimble: in one essay he goes from his cat's cremation to his mother's in a way that somehow manages to remain reverent to both of the departed. "Reliable sources" have told Sedaris that he has "tended to exhaust people," and true to form, he will exhaust readers of this new book, too—with helpless laughter.
Publishers Weekly


Sedaris, noted essayist and NPR radio commentator, is a master at turning his life experiences into witty vignettes that both entertain and comment on the human condition. This latest collection draws on his quirky childhood in North Carolina, where he was subjected to speech therapy sessions to correct his lisp; he countered by conveniently avoiding words that contained "s" sounds. Additional family recollections include his father's desire to create a jazz combo from his offspring—unfortunately, none of them exhibited any talent or desire to follow this career path, but Sedaris uses this opportunity to deliver a stellar Billie Holiday rendition. From there he moves onto a brief stint as a "clearly unqualified" writing teacher in Chicago, where his unorthodox lesson plans included watching soap operas and having the students write "guessays" on what would happen in the next episode. Then it's on to New York and ultimately to France. Sedaris chronicles his attempts to learn French and the confusion experienced by people who don't share the same culture or language. A little sadder at times and overall a little less uproariously funny than in previous works, Sedaris remains the champion of the underdog. Once you listen to him read his own words, it's hard to imagine settling for just the book. Very highly recommended for all libraries. —Gloria Maxwell, Penn Valley Community Coll., Kansas City, MO
Library Journal


The undisputed champion of the self-conscious and the self-deprecating returns with yet more autobiographical gems from his apparently inexhaustible cache. Sedaris at first mines what may be the most idiosyncratic, if innocuous, childhood since the McCourt clan. Here is father Lou, who's propositioned, via phone, by married family friend Mrs. Midland ("Oh, Lou. It just feels so good to...talk to someone who really...understands"). Only years later is it divulged that "Mrs. Midland" was impersonated by Lou's 12-year-old daughter Amy. (Lou, to the prankster's relief, always politely declined Mrs. Midland's overtures.) Meanwhile, Mrs. Sedaris—soon after she's put a beloved sick cat to sleep—is terrorized by bogus reports of a "miraculous new cure for feline leukemia," all orchestrated by her bitter children. Brilliant evildoing in this family is not unique to the author. Sedaris (also an essayist on National Public Radio) approaches comic preeminence as he details his futile attempts, as an adult, to learn the French language. Having moved to Paris, he enrolls in French class and struggles endlessly with the logic in assigning inanimate objects a gender ("Why refer to Lady Flesh Wound or Good Sir Dishrag when these things could never live up to all that their sex implied?"). After months of this, Sedaris finds that the first French-spoken sentiment he's fully understood has been directed to him by his sadistic teacher: "Every day spent with you is like having a cesarean section." Among these misadventures, Sedaris catalogs his many bugaboos: the cigarette ban in NewYork restaurants ("I'm always searching the menu in hope that some courageous young chef has finally recognized tobacco as a vegetable"); the appending of company Web addresses to television commercials ("Who really wants to know more about Procter & Gamble?"); and a scatological dilemma that would likely remain taboo in most households. Naughty good fun from an impossibly sardonic rogue, quickly rising to Twainian stature.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for Me Talk Pretty One Day:

1. What better place to start a discussion of a Sedaris book than with the parts you find the funniest? Which parts make you LOL (laugh out loud)? Go around the room and share your belly laughs with others.

2. Are there sections of the book you feel are snide or mean-spirited? Perhaps his criticism of Americans who visit Europe dressed "as if you've come to mow its lawns." Or perhaps the piece about his stint as a writing teacher. Is petulance a part of Sedaris's schtick...his charm?

3. Talk about the Sedaris family, in particular his parents. How do they come across? Whom does he feel closest to? Sedaris makes an interesting statement about his father: it was a mystery that "a man could father six children who shared absolutely none of his interests." Is that unusual?

4. David Sedaris is a descendant of Woody Allen's brand of humor—personal idiosyncrasies or neuroses raised to an art form. What does Sedaris reveal about himself, his insecurities, angst, secret hostilities, and do you find those parts funny or somewhat touching, even sad? Actually, do you like Sedaris as he reveals himself in his book?

5. Are there parts of Me Talk Pretty that you disliked, didn't find funny, found overworked or contrived?

6. For a book club meeting: it would be fun to get the audio version and listen to selected segments. I especially recommend the French lessons in Paris.

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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