Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris

Ok, confession time.  I’ve often seen David Sedaris’s book Me Talk Pretty One Day in bookshops, and thought it was a good title.  At some point along the way, this noticing must have developed into delusion, because for some reason I was sure it was a novel about a girl with mental development problems.  Erm… nope.  Turns out it’s memoir.

A similar thing happened with Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004) which I received from my friend Laura in a book group Secret Santa in 2011.  I took it up to the Lake District with me, thinking it was a novel.  Indeed, I was about thirty pages into it before someone referred to the narrator as David, and I suddenly realised that (a) the narrator wasn’t a woman, and (b) it was autobiographical.  I felt somewhat justified in my false assumption, though, scouring the blurb, because nowhere does it say that it’s autobiographical.  Lots of talking about him being a humorist par excellence (more on that anon), comparing him to Woody Allen and Oscar Wilde (because they have so much in common…), and talking about ‘his world’, which I suppose is a clue, but could equally apply to the world created by a novelist.  Eventually, in tiny letters by the barcode, I found the word ‘autobiography’, and all was solved.

As when I read Ali Shaw’s The Girl With Glass Feet and only discovered halfway through that Ali was a man, it was an instructive lesson in how such things influence my reading.  When I thought it was a novel, I was quite enjoying it; when I discovered it was a sequence of autobiographical essays, I started to really like it.  And I wouldn’t be able to tell you quite why that was, except that true events don’t need to be as sparklingly innovative or well-structured – they have the virtue, instead, of being true.

Many of the anecdotes do have the ring of fiction, though – truth stranger than fiction and all that.  I found the tales of Sedaris’s life in his first apartment away from home rather unnerving, with the kleptomaniac young girl next door – then there is the time he is mistaken for an erotic cleaner.  As you are.  But the word ‘family’ is in the title for a reason, and it is Sedaris’s vivid depiction of his family which makes this book so extraordinary (and, one presumes, the same is true of his other memoirs – indeed, I don’t know how he had this many stories left to tell after publishing all those other essay collections).

Don’t go thinking this is Swiss Family Robinson or Little Women, though – Sedaris’s family is a pretty bizarre bunch, with many unpleasant elements.  And Sedaris doesn’t sugar coat.  His sporty, brash, vulgar brother is no treat; there is more affection when he discusses his sister Lisa, and her feelings about potentially being portrayed in a film of his books.  There is, of course, an irony in publishing an essay about choosing to shield his family from intrusion, but it is still a beautiful moment nonetheless.

There are a couple of misfires in the collection.  I could have done without his story of manipulating children to undress and sit on his knee – not (to my mind) wholly redeemed by the fact that he was also a child at the time.  The vignette of house-hunting and finding the ideal home in Anne Frank’s attic was a one-line dark joke which didn’t work as an essay.  But that is not a bad hit rate, out of 22 essays.

What makes these essays special, and wonderfully readable, is Sedaris’s eye.  He lets us into his family circle – with every blemish well known, and every annoying trait magnified through repetition, but also with a glow of affection – sometimes, for Sedaris, reluctant – which cannot truly evaporate.  How he gets this into words, and through the most eccentric anecdotes, I have no idea.  But it works brilliantly.  I am far from the first to discover the wonder of Sedaris’s tone, but perhaps I am not the last – and I want to encourage you, particularly if you are in the US where his books are everywhere (why didn’t I buy any when I was there?!) to pick this up and see what you think.  The good personal essay, the expertly wry memoir, are seldom found.  My thanks are due to Laura, for giving me a copy of this at a Secret Santa and giving me a chance to find an excellent practitioner of that rare form!

16 thoughts on “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris

  • December 16, 2013 at 11:23 pm
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    I like David Sedaris and listen to him reading his work on Radio 4 Extra whenever I can. He has such a distinctive voice and having a mildly dysfunctional family myself, I find him very funny and quite soothing – his family makes mine look positively normal.

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  • December 17, 2013 at 2:21 am
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    I like listening to Sedaris's books. Holidays on Ice is perfect for this season and so so funny!

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    • December 24, 2013 at 2:04 pm
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      Noted! I've been meaning to get into audiobooks, so perhaps this is a good place to start…

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  • December 17, 2013 at 4:47 am
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    I've read his pieces in The New Yorker – some of which I think end up in the books? but not the books themselves. The most recent in TNY was a wrenching piece on his sister's suicide and the family's attempts to deal with it. I also remember one about living in the UK, where he mentioned that it was fairly easy for writers to get residency status – which had me wondering if I could claim to be a writer & apply – would a blog count?

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    • December 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm
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      I think the books probably are made up from pieces published elsewhere – this one certainly felt like a miscellany. And I had no idea his sister committed suicide, gosh.

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  • December 17, 2013 at 7:44 am
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    I adore David Sedaris! He's my imaginary BFF. I've heard him read live and, like Geranium Cat, try to catch him on Radio 4 – his piece on getting a colonoscopy is brilliant.

    Holidays on Ice is my favourite. I took a reading from it to my book group last week and everyone enjoyed it – though I think you really have to hear it read in his voice to properly appreciate it.

    I am so full of David Sedaris love!

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    • December 24, 2013 at 2:05 pm
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      Heehee! I do love that you have an imaginary BFF – you should definitely try to make it non-imaginary. Although you might end up in a story…

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  • December 17, 2013 at 8:53 am
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    Glad you enjoyed him. I read Me Talk Pretty One Day earlier this year, and loved parts of it (esp the first half about his childhood), but I love listening to him on Radio 4 even more – he's on at the moment.

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    • December 24, 2013 at 2:09 pm
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      I will have to catch him on Radio 4 catch-up, given the popularity of it in the comments – and definitely want to read more by him in 2014 (it'll fill some of the tricky 1990s years!)

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  • December 17, 2013 at 6:30 pm
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    He is one of my favorites, but I initially thought the same thing you did about Me Talk Pretty One Day! Too funny!

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  • December 18, 2013 at 11:04 am
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    I'm another fan of Sedaris on Radio 4 – he makes me laugh such a lot. I'm going to see him live at the theatre next year! Can't wait!

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