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July 2018

The Three Davids: Last thoughts?

(A long one today; bear with me...)

July is flying by and it's time to weigh in with any thoughts or questions you might have about David Rakoff's Fraud, David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, or David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (or any other books by any of the Davids).


Okay, I'll say this. I didn't enjoy any of the Davids quite as much as I used to (with the exception of David Sedaris--I was always pretty meh* on David Sedaris). But there were definitely moments in each of these books that made me pause or laugh or think lovingly on the David in question--and recapture a bit of the feeling of my own more wide-open and accepting younger years, during which I first read these authors. And I enjoyed that quite a lot. So maybe essays, even the dated and not-as-eternal ones, are timeless in their own ways.

Here's a tidbit from each of the books that I enjoyed.

From David Rakoff's Fraud, okay, wait, I lied, this is from Rakoff's later collection Half Full, which I also re-read for this project, in an essay about the musical Rent and its author, Jonathan Larson:

"Larson worked for years at a diner right around the corner from an apartment I once had. Restaurant work can be punishing and thankless toil, so he is to be applauded for plying his craft so steadfastly after what must have been long shifts on his feet. His is the story of almost every artist. Why, then, in transmuting his own struggle did he so completely drop the ball? (And to those of you who say that dumbing down and sugaring up is innate to musical theater, I say fuck you, homophobe. Go listen to the dark brilliance of Pal Joey or Floyd Collins and then come and talk to me.)" (p. 50.)

I have never seen the musical Rent. I really have no opinion on musical theater, one way or the other. But that entire paragraph just charmed me. There's something so succinctly dismissive about his "fuck you, homophobe" bit that I just fell a little bit in love with him all over again.

From David Sedaris's Me Talk Pretty One Day, in an essay where Sedaris is describing his younger brother Paul:

"It often seems that my brother and I were raised in two completely different households. He's eleven years younger than I am, and by the time he reached high school, the rest of us had all left home. When I was young, we weren't allowed to say 'shut up,' but once the Rooster [his brother] hit puberty it had become acceptable to shout, 'Shut your motherfucking hole.' The drug laws had changed as well. 'No smoking pot' became 'no smoking pot in the house,' before it finally petered out to 'please don't smoke any more pot in the living room.'

My mother was, for the most part, delighted with my brother and regarded him with the bemused curiosity of a brood hen discovering she has hatched a completely different species. 'I think it was very nice of Paul to get me this vase,' she once said, arranging a bouquet of wildflowers into the skull-shaped bong my brother had left on the dining-room table. 'It's nontraditional, but that's the Rooster's way. He's a free spirit, and we're lucky to have him.'" (p. 62.)

Sedaris's stories about his family are always my favorites, and that one is no exception. Seeing how different the CRjrs are from each other also helps me appreciate that story on a whole other level.

From David Foster Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again: Okay, all the quotes I love from the DFW are too long and too difficult to quote out of context. But I enjoyed several of these essays again, particularly the first one about tennis and the one where he visits the Illinois State Fair, and because I've listened to his commencement speech titled "This Is Water" way too many times, I can almost hear him narrating these essays. Which is kind of comforting, actually.

But after I re-read those essays I have a conversation with a friend about Wallace, in which she calls him an abuser, and I never followed up what she meant. Was he an abuser? Of others, in relationships? Of himself? Both? I don't follow it up because sometimes I just don't want to know. If he was an abuser, should he not have been? Well, of course. Can I still read him, even knowing this? And the answer is, yeah, I can. Weirdly, even though I know J.D. Salinger could be a complete shit (especially to Joyce Maynard), I still think his novel Franny and Zooey is one of my favorite spiritual books. How does that work?

I suppose it works because humans are messy (myself included), and I know that, and I try to accept it. Just because someone can put a nice sentence together doesn't mean they're going to be a nice person. They may certainly not even be a person I want to know or converse with in real life.

And there's one of the kickers about essays: I love them because, more than any other form of writing, they feel like a conversation to me. Most importantly, they are a conversation in written word form, which is my favorite type of conversation. I love essays because they allow me to converse with people--with writers, often my very favorite types of people--without, you know, having to converse with people.

Why do you love essays?

*And when I say "meh," it was more of a qualified "he's not really to my taste but I do think he's a talented writer who worked hard at his craft and indexed his own journals, which makes me love him, and his reading of his own Santaland Diaries is one of the best things ever, but still, I could largely take him or leave him," but that seemed a bit too long to type above.

Stacy Horn's Damnation Island and more essay chat.

I've not yet reviewed it here, but I have read (and loved) Stacy Horn's new book Damnation Island: Poor, Sick, Mad, and Criminal in 19th-Century New York. I also had the good fortune to interview Stacy about the book for The Millions. But the big news this morning is that her book got a great review in the New York Times! YAY, Stacy!

The book is not a light read but I loved it for all the usual reasons I love Stacy Horn's nonfiction writing: It's thoughtful, it's well-organized, I know it's been exhaustively fact-checked. But she always brings a little something extra to her stories, even when they're about crime and horrible mistakes that all sorts of people make, not just criminals but also those seeking to reform criminals: sympathy. You finish this book and you're sad, mostly because if you read enough books like this you realize there have never really been any "good old days," but also because you can't believe how much how many people have suffered down through the ages. But at the same time, she never really seems to give up. I like her tenacity. In her last pages she points out how the struggle to figure out how best to incarcerate people still goes on, and that we first have to learn about these problems to start to consider how to approach them.

In other Essay Project news I'm now in David Sedaris's We Talk Pretty One Day. Anyone else read the Sedaris? What are your thoughts? In reading (re-reading? I think I've read it before but can't remember--never a good sign) I find that I'm feeling the same way about Sedaris that I have always felt about him: I largely don't understand the appeal. I think he's a good writer, and he sometimes makes me laugh (mainly when telling stories about his very...ahem...interesting family), but I've never quite understood why he became a huge best-selling essayist. Can someone explain the appeal?