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The Best of Me

Review

The Best of Me

No matter which side of the aisle you are on, we all can admit that 2020 has been a complete and utter dumpster fire. There is political tumult, protests galore, civil unrest and, not to mention, a pandemic. But the publishing gods have bestowed upon us a bright spot, a new book from David Sedaris, which is a collection of his well-known (and a few obscure) essays and stories. We need this now.

In the introduction, Sedaris reflects: “The pieces in this book --- both fiction and nonfiction --- are the sort I hoped to produce back when I first started writing, at the age of twenty. I didn’t know how to get from where I was then to where I am now, but who does? Like everyone else, I stumbled along, making mistakes while embarrassing myself and others (sorry, everyone I’ve ever met).” We are the happy and eager recipients of his efforts.

Sedaris first came to prominence when his stories appeared on the popular radio program “This American Life” in the early 1990s, where we first heard his hilarious misadventures as a Macy’s Elf in “SantaLand Diaries.” Around that time, he published his first essay collection, BARREL FEVER, which sold modestly. But thanks to his radio appearances, his next two books, NAKED and ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, cemented him as our generation’s Mark Twain, if Mark Twain were more biting and obsessed with taxidermy.

"[I]n this season of unrest, get comfy, put your feet up and relax with this wonderful new tome --- not only because it’s comprehensive Sedaris at his finest, but because after this year we deserve it."

Sedaris’ holiday pieces are some of his most popular, like the essay “Six to Eight Black Men,” where he learned the different Christmas traditions in the Netherlands: “Unlike the jolly, obese American Santa, Saint Nicholas is painfully thin and dresses not unlike the pope, topping his robes with a tall hat resembling an embroidered tea cozy. The outfit, I was told, is a carryover from his former career, when he served as a bishop in Turkey.” And even more amazingly, instead of flying in on a sled, their Saint Nick arrives on a boat, traveling with six to eight black men: "In the early years, if a child was naughty, Saint Nicholas and the six to eight black men would beat [the child] with…'the small branch of a tree.'" Incredulous, Sedaris presses his friend for clarification: “Saint Nicholas would kick you?” “Well, not anymore… Now he just pretends to kick you.” Make sure to behave in the Netherlands at Christmastime. Duly noted.

Another holiday favorite is “Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol,” where a local theater critic skewers elementary school holiday pageants: “Once again, the sadists at the Jane Snow-Hernandez Middle School have taken up their burning pokers in an attempt to prod ‘A Christmas Carol’ into some form of submission.”

Sedaris is also a faithful raconteur of his early days, from North Carolina --- in essays such as “The Ship Shape” and “The Girl Next Door” --- to Ohio (“The Incomplete Quad”), Chicago and New York. In the late 1990s, he and his partner, Hugh Hamrick, decided to leave New York and move to France. His struggles trying to learn the language and culture are evidenced in the brilliantly relatable “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Jesus Shaves.” In the latter, he and his classmates try to describe what happens on Easter, in their rudimentary French, to a confused classmate: “He call of his self Jesus, and then he be die one day on two…morsels of…lumber…. He nice, the Jesus. He make the good things, and on the Easter we be sad because somebody makes him dead today.” He’s an American abroad, curious about the customs and trying not to embarrass himself, with comical results.

But perhaps the most memorable essays from this collection are the ones about Sedaris’ family. Everyone knows his lovable, foul-mouthed brother Paul from the classic “You Can’t Kill the Rooster,” but some good less-known ones include “Us and Them,” where he wonders how his neighbors occupy their time since they don’t own a television, and “Let It Snow,” where he and his siblings try to get back at their mother for locking them out of the house on a snowy day by faking one of their deaths. He lulls you in with a nostalgic family story from his past, showing all their foibles, and follows that with a haymaker punch of emotion. One minute, you’re laughing and thinking about your own family, and the next, you’re moved to tears. The raw emotion is best exhibited in “Now We Are Five,” a heartbreaking piece about the aftermath of his sister Tiffany’s suicide. Perhaps that’s Sedaris’ greatest strength --- to be able to move between the two seamlessly within the space of one short essay. It’s an art that’s often imitated but rarely rivaled.

THE BEST OF ME covers the width and breath of Sedaris’ illustrious career thus far. Let’s hope that he continues to stumble his way through life, making mistakes and often embarrassing himself, because we benefit when he does. So, in this season of unrest, get comfy, put your feet up and relax with this wonderful new tome --- not only because it’s comprehensive Sedaris at his finest, but because after this year we deserve it.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on November 6, 2020

The Best of Me
by David Sedaris

  • Publication Date: November 3, 2020
  • Genres: Essays, Fiction, Humor, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
  • ISBN-10: 0316628247
  • ISBN-13: 9780316628242