Sunday, July 27, 2008

Review: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim

The enjoyable thing about reading memoirs, essays regarding familial life, and autobiographies of people we would term more or less "ordinary" is that often your own family looks better in comparison. These contain instances we snigger at, instances that would never in a million years be present in our own abode. When that isn't the case, there generally is the feeling that this family is your family's type of crazy; that you could easily see these antics and these characters in your own family tree, and so a sort of warmth and affection comes through toward these people -in some instances long since dead- because they prove that no, your family isn't, in fact, completely off their collective rocker and that there is a club and in this club behavior that is often present in your particular home is in fact the "norm". It is all those other families who do not have relatives throwing shoes down the hallways in order to ward off burglaries that have something wrong with them. My Life and Hard Times manages that side of it.

Sometimes a book manages to deftly balance between the two; David Sedaris' Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is one of those. This is a book I've put off reading for quite a while for various reasons, not the least among them being that I tend to not like modern memoirs. This is because there is a dark underbelly to memoirs that do not fall into the "enjoyable" realm. In some cases, reading about these various lives leave me feeling vaguely dirty -like just by reading about someone's violation or slow starvation in Ireland I have somehow both experienced the same incident and yet also contributed to its existence in the first place. Angela's Ashes was one of those books. I made it as far as the baby's death the first time I read it; the second time I managed to bully my way through about half the book. I had begun reading it because both of my parents insisted that it was hilarious; when I found it to be the very opposite, they told me it was because I wasn't reading it with an Irish brogue. Well, okay, but even with an Irish brogue, babies are still dead, fathers are still drunkards, and these kids still had miserable lives. People told me David Sedaris was funny, but I'd already been burned once by that line, thank you, and wasn't about to try again.

The other reason I had for not reading this particular book is not against David Sedaris in particular or the genre in general but a real antipathy for the book's title. It grew out of having to write a paper about the blue jean as an aspect of American visual culture. There is a surprising lack of academic study done on the topic, and so Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim would always pop up among the first three or so results. And nearly every single time, I would approach the book as if it were something other than a compilation of essays about this particular man and his family, as if it truly were about denim and potentially dressing your family in it. For that reason -and the fact that I seriously considered (and, I believe, actually did) bulking up my works cited page with children's books about fashion- I was less than pleased with its consistent appearance.

And so I harbored a real resentment for this particular book; but in between my reading about Hillary Clinton and various reasons why the teaching of religion was necessary and the nefarious way Jesus and Christianity had been co-opted by the right wing facets of America, I decided to try David Sedaris based on having seen him on The Daily Show. My library, being a part of my tiny, "blink and you miss it" town, didn't have his newest book. In fact, we had two books by him; but the one copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day was out, leaving Corduroy and Denim as the only offering available.

And I loved it. As usual, my interest waned in the adolescent years; and though there were the incidents that made me feel superior about my own family's position -descriptions of his brother Paul and his sister Tiffany were the best for this- other moments felt comfortingly familiar. And he can write. That won't be much of a surprise to many others, but I generally go out of my way to ignore recent authors, even ones my friends and family recommend and read. I am more at home among Steinbeck's work, Austen's work, Salinger's short stories, etc. Much like my music choices, I like my books to have been aged and critiqued by at least 50 years of readers before I take a dive into their pages. David Sedaris has, in one book, managed to make me think about potentially rethinking that philosophy.

I found myself marking passages mentally, to revisit. The book was able to both be new and fascinating and wholly engrossing and still feeling familiar and worn and comforting. Passages describing the Netherlands' celebration of Santa were amazing, amusing, and able to highlight others' idiosyncrasies without appearing smug. In the end, I have to say that the praises heaped upon him by the back of the book jacket are right: Sedaris is in possession of a certain pleasurable satirical wit; his talent probably could rival the size of China. I'll be sure to read him again, and soon. I just have to get through When Did Jesus Become Republican first.


MediaMaven said...

I just finished this book the other week, except I listened to it in my car. I didn't love it as you did; I just didn't find it that funny. I liked hearing about his family, but didn't care for the essays that focused on his life with Hugh in Paris. The funniest one was the Santa Clause one you cited. It was also my first David Sedaris, but I'm not sure if I'm going to read more. What was the significance of the title?

petpluto said...

You mean the actual significance of the title? None that I can think of, except being for the sole purpose of annoying the crap out of me.

I didn't really fully like the essays about Hugh either; but I loved his description of getting kicked out of his house because he was gay, only he didn't realize that was why he was getting kicked out. It was those sorts of moments -and how he started thinking about how his brother almost drowned while he was watching the guy get married- that just sort of made the piece for me.

I'm never going to buy one of his books, but I think I may request his new one through that weird interlibrary system.