Review: The Best of Me, David Sedaris

I grew up with David Sedaris’ voice in the background, periodically cropping up on Radio 4 as far back as the 1990s. It was only within the last decade though that I started seeking out his books and then a further leap to track them down to Audible so that I could listen along whenever I needed to. When I’m happy, I listen to David Sedaris and when I’m sad, he’s a gift who almost always lifts the mood. My only concern when I saw that he had released this, his personal ‘Greatest Hits’, is that it may signify some form of ‘farewell’. But instead this is a much more personal exercise, an anthology of what he considers to be his best writing, the kind of things he hoped to write when he first set out on his career. It’s revealing, hilarious and often extremely poignant. In short, this is Sedaris de-luxe.

I can’t quite decide whether this is the perfect gift for the new or established Sedaris fan. On the one hand, it is a handy collection to introduce someone to his stories. On the other, it’s also interesting as a long-term follower to see which ones did or did not make the cut. Ultimately, it’s a worthwhile read either way.

I was surprised about some of the stories which failed to make the cut. I knew he’d become disillusioned with Santaland Diaries even if I do listen to it every year. But did he really leave out ‘Happy Place’? I can never get through that one without fits of giggles. Equally, I was interested to see that Me Talk Pretty One Day was included with no edits or qualifications. Although it is one of his most famous stories, Sedaris has expressed regret repeatedly about the hurt he caused to the language teacher depicted within and his own mistakes in how it was drafted.

The Best of Me is less about the height of Sedaris slapstick, such as in When You are Engulfed By Flames but instead about his artistry. These are the stories which have been worked over. Intended to reveal things about both writer and reader. And yet as a long-term listener, I am accustomed to how Sedaris flirts with his audience. We think that he is revealing deeply personal truths and then he throws it back in our face. He sneers that people claim that he has ‘exposed’ his sister when after all, all he has told us is that she owns a parrot. He is telling us about his family but only exactly as much as he is prepared for us to know.

The Best of Me charts a shifting understanding of the Sedaris clan – and indeed they have always been the source of his richest material. In the earlier stories, they seem like any chaotic large family. Sedaris always bridled against them being labelled as ‘dysfunctional’. Yet as the years passed, he has disclosed painful issues such as his mother’s alcoholism and his youngest sister Tiffany’s mental health struggles and ultimate suicide. Even in the agony of ‘Why Aren’t You Laughing’ and ‘The Spirit World’, Sedaris finds the moments of humour – of humanity.

I heard an interview with him once where he remarked that he found that whenever he burrowed down to his personal darkest deeds, he usually found that he struck on the things that people most recognised. Every time I hear his description of the last time he saw his sister Tiffany, I catch my breath. And as David and his siblings stand around what they presume to be his father’s deathbed (he later rallied), Sedaris hears his father speak the words he has longed to hear, ‘You’ve accomplished so many fantastic things in your life. You’re, well… I want to tell you… you… you won.‘ While Sedaris’ initial response seems acerbic, ‘Seek approval from the one person you desperately want it from and you’re guaranteed not to get it‘, but then the tone shifts again. And the response rings painfully true for anyone who has been in a family, ‘Whichever way he intended those two faint words, I will take them, and, in doing so, throw down this lance I’ve been hoisting for the past sixty years. For I am old myself now, and it is so very, very heavy.‘ Oh, David.

If I’m asked, I say that I read David Sedaris because he makes me laugh. But in truth I do it for many other reasons. At his best, he speaks to the truth in all of us and this book is, as it says on the tin, him at his very best. But despite all the times that he makes me want to cry, there are so many more moments when he has made me guffaw with laughter. This is very far from a depressing book. There’s the hilarity of ‘Just a Quick Email’, the pure joy of ‘Six to Eight Black Men’ (another one that I listen to every year) and the absolute classic ‘Nuit of the Living Dead’ with its incredible opening line, ‘I was on the front porch, drowning a mouse in a bucket when this van pulled up, which was strange‘. The Best of Me showcases him as an artist, one of the true masters in his field. His writing is crafted, clever and incredibly moving – if you aren’t a fan yet, there are wonders that await.

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The Best of Me by David Sedaris
Published by Hachette UK on November 3rd 2020
Genres: Humor, Form, Essays, Literary Collections, Family & Relationships, Siblings, Topic, Marriage & Family
Pages: 464
ISBN: 9780316628259

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One thought on “Review: The Best of Me, David Sedaris

  1. Yes, I do mean to pick this one up for my next feel-good book. I find that humor always is the best antidote. Plus, I just finished reading Lindy West’s Shit Actually, and I really just want to continue the laughter spree.

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