Who doesn’t like getting naked?

David Sedaris is one crazy man, and I mean that in the best way. I collect crazy people. I only wish that I could add him to my stable of friends instead of just my bookshelf. The David Sedaris I know from his memoir, naked, is the kind of friend you want to hang out with (though probably not live with or depend on in any significant way).  He is not afraid to reveal the most embarrassing details of his life – past and present – and possibly even invent more so as to be even more entertaining.  His self-deprecating manner belies his ego and together make the David we read about a hilarious character in a mundane world.  No subject is off-limits.  Incest, poor job skills, immigrant grandparents, facial tics, cancer – none of these topics fails to get a laugh in his capable hands.

For those who have issues with that big, fat line between the Truth and everything else, this may not be your kind of memoir.  I don’t mean to say that Sedaris is a liar (see: James Frey making up whole sections of his supposed true story of addiction and recovery), but that he relates his past in the way that he experienced it  – full of imagined realities and the recurring wish that his life was other than it was.

The line between truth and fiction is porous and often impossible to find — and really unimportant here. Sedaris seems to write memoirs in order to reveal a truth so universal that we all know it while we spend our lives trying to escape it.  Namely – we are all crazy and misunderstood, but somehow loved all the same.  Families are dysfunctional and damaging but still the thing that made us into the incredibly unique and hum-drum individuals we are today and will become tomorrow.

I took a Creative Non-fiction writing course last summer, and Sedaris was one of the authors we read examples from.  I liked what I read, so his name was added to the ‘maybe’ list.  I saw his Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim at the library and loved it.  I got naked at Borders, along with bonk.  So you all know what was on my mind that day….

Sedaris is often lumped in with Augusten Burroughs, both funny, gay male memoirists.  And while I enjoyed Running with Scissors by Burroughs, Sedaris is more to my tastes.  I think the quality of observation in Sedaris’s writing is thorough and expressive, whereas Burroughs is closer to internal monologue than analytic exposition.  Which is a lot of big words to say that Sedaris has more to say about his life (or imagined life), while Burroughs seems to just describe it –though he does that in an entertaining and skillful manner.  Anyone unaware of my penchant for analysis has not been paying attention.

So next time you have an evening with no friends to entertain you, curl up with with my buddy, Dave, and exercise your mind and your abs at the same time.  Cocktails optional.

Master James

I discovered The Master by Colm Toibin in a Powell’s newsletter.  It won several awards and was short-listed for the Man Booker prize (likely because of it is just the kind of book us lit-geeks love – books about literary figures that are written by powerfully articulate authors) and it was on sale when I saw it on the shelf.  The Master is a fictional account of Henry James’ life from his own perspective.  Henry James, of course, is a huge figure in Modern fiction, a prolific author of novels as well as literary criticism.  His most popluar works are probably The Portrait of a Lady and The Wings of a Dove (both of which I have seen film adaptations of, neither of which I enjoyed very much).

If you had asked me – before I read this book – where Henry James was from, I would have said he was from England.  And if you’d asked me if he was gay, I would told you that I’d heard nothing to the contrary (but I would never rule it out, of course).  Oscar Wilde – everyone (read: English geeks) knows he was gay; Henry James, never heard a whisper.  Well, James was American – and gay.  However, I often confuse Henry James and James Joyce in my head – so I’m hardly a good person to ask these questions of.

James is portrayed as a character on the edge of, but rarely involved in, many experiences and events.  He had two brothers who fought in the American Civil War. He was born and raised in America but spent time in Europe as a child and young adult and eventually made his home there.  He never married but had close women friends and was closest to his sister of all his siblings.  He was welcomed in high society in Britain and Europe as an artist but was not truly included in that strata. He was attracted to men but was not able to truly pursue that as a lifestyle.  He was a lauded author but not actually well-read by the general public.

The Master is engaging and well-written, but doesn’t paint Henry James as a very likable character, at least in my eyes.  Well, not truly unlikeable, but probably not someone you’d want as a close friend or lover.  He seems to have a difficult time actually experiencing any moment that he’s in.  Rather, he removes himself as much as possible from what is happening around him and only later allows himself to feel one way or the other about it.  We probably all know people like this, but few count them as close friends.  Some might think it horrible that he used his personal experiences as fodder for fiction, but that doesn’t really bother me. What bothers me is that he only seems to really be able to connect with people through fiction, either his actual work or the stories he tells only to himself.  So any happiness he might give or receive is difficult, if not impossible.  Instead, he hurts the people he cares most about and doesn’t seem to realize it until after they’ve died and it’s too late to do anything about it.  Such a sad way to live.

Strange coincidence – I read this book right after Sandra Day O’Connor’s book, and Henry James was a friend of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (as young men and throughout their lives).  It even implies – and again, this is a work of fiction based on facts, not a biography of established facts – that James and Holmes had a one-time sexual encounter during their friendship.

Toibin is clearly a skilled writer (a master, one might say) who can create authentic atmosphere and character for people, places and eras.  He made the character of James interesting and sympathetic without ignoring his negative traits.  I will surely be looking for other books by Toibin.  If you are looking for an enjoyable way to learn more about Henry James, artists in the early modern period, American ex-patriots, gay men in the Modern period, the English relationship with Ireland, American views on the Civil War, or the thought processes of conflicted people – all of these and more can be found here.

Adventures on the Mississippi and the U.S. Highway system

I recently moved to the Portland area, which means I can now drive to see my sister in Montana in one day (only 600 miles away – practically next door!).   Having done this drive alone twice before, I knew it could be incredibly long and boring, even with an iPod full of music to keep me company.  I have a friend who listens to audio books while she paints and thought they might be a great way to entertain myself for the 9.5 hour drive. And when I found out that I could get them free from my local library – well, it was all over but the shouting.

For my maiden voyage, I chose The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain – another of those books that I can’t believe I’ve never read.  This recording was about 9 hours long and read by someone named Tom Parker – who did a great job with the accents and didn’t try too hard to be a woman.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to say this – but the characterizations in this book are first-rate.  You know boys like Huck Finn and men like his dad and many of the rest of the people you meet here.  Other than some of the archaic language (and really, there’s not much that isn’t still in use), you have heard people say the very things uttered by characters in this book.  Aunt Polly shows up at the end, and Tom says “What?” all innocent – like my son has done a million times – and she says “Don’t ‘what’ me!” – which is exactly what I say every time.   Cracked me up.  The reality of the characters and dialogue helps to sell the exaggerated, humorous plot.

I laughed out loud a few times at the irony in this book.  The fact that Huck is sure he’s going to hell because he’s freeing a slave, the fact that he thinks less of Tom because he’s willing to help Huck free Jim, his self-deprecation in the face of Tom’s ‘better’ crazy plans – these are just a few of the dozens of things – large and small – that Twain turns on their heads for our amusement.  Of course, Twain was not just trying to amuse people, he was beating up on those who still believed that black people were less than white people.  He constantly talks about how ‘surprising’ it is that black people (whom he refers to as ‘niggers,’ as was typical of the time – and rather jarring to hear) seem to actually care about their families and otherwise behave and think just like white folks when given the chance.  He uses every opportunity to pound home the idea that it is ridiculous to believe anything different.  Twain started writing the novel 10 years after the Civil War, and it was published in 1884.

Twain reminds me of Dickens, with all of the (what I consider) extraneous descriptions of rooms and paintings and physical appearances of minor characters.  He also puts all these vignettes in the book that really have nothing to do with Huck or Jim and – in my mind – distract from the main storyline rather than enhance it.  The drama of breaking Jim out is funny, the story of the feuding families and the chapters and chapters of the con artists were much less interesting.

While the book didn’t keep my legs from stiffening up and making me walk like an octogenarian when I stopped to pee, it did keep me from moaning to myself with boredom until I reached my destination.  And while Huck Finn will never be my favorite book, I enjoyed it enough to consider making The Adventures of Tom Sawyer my next road-trip audio book.