Books: David Sedaris: ‘The Best of Me’

If you’re craving for a good old-fashioned belly laugh, you might want to turn to the pages of David Sedaris collected essays, The Best of Me (2020). In my opinion, this is the best thing that the famed American humorist has written for over twenty-five years. It is written with Sedaris’s magpie sensibility with a genuine fascination with the human condition, along with a keen eye for folly, a bent for the bizarre, and a healthy dose of self-deprecation that is a Sedaris trademark. Whether he is reflecting on falling in love (or out of it), aging, the pain we inflict on one another, or bizarre incidents like shopping for a rare taxidermy or spitting a lozenge on a fellow passenger’s lap, Sedaris delivers his observations with deft and sharp comedy. This is altogether a rollicking funny collection of essays, astutely selected by a celebrated humorist who has been billed as :the funniest man alive.” (Time Out, New York).

Here’s are excerpts from the book, in a chapter titled, “Me Talk Pretty One Day”


At the age of forty-one, I am returning to school and have to think of myself of what my French textbook calls “a true debutant.” After paying my tuition, I was issued a student ID, which allows me a discounted entry fee at movie theatres, puppet shows, and Festyland, a far-flung amusement park that advertises with billboards picturing a cartoon stegosaurus sitting in a canoe and eating what appears to be a ham sandwich.

I’ve moved to Paris with hopes of learning the language. My school is an easy ten-minute walk from my apartment, and on the first day of class, I arrived early, watching as the returning students greeted one another in the school lobby. Everyone spoke in what sounded like excellent French. As an added discomfort, they were all young, attractive, and well dressed, causing me to feel not unlike Pa Kettle trapped backstage after a fashion show.

The first day of class was nerve-wrecking because I knew I’d be expected to perform. That’s the way they do it here – it’s everybody into the language pool, sink or swim. The teacher marched in, deeply tanned from a recent vacation, and proceeded to rattle off a series of administrative announcements. I’ve spent quite a few summers in Normandy, and took a month-long French class before leaving New York. Yet, I understood only half of what this woman was saying.

“If you have not meimslsxip or lgpdmurct by this time, you should not be in this room. Has everyone apzkiubjxow? Everyone? Good, we shall begin. She spread out her lesson plan and sighed, saying, “All right, then, who knows the alphabet?”

It was startling because (a) I hadn’t been asked that question in a while and (b) I realized, while laughing, that I myself did not know the alphabet. They’re the same letters, but in France, they’re pronounced differently. I know the shape of the alphabets but had no idea what it actually sounded like.

“Ahh.” The teacher went up to the board and sketched the letter a. Do we have anyone in the room whose first name commenced with an ahh?”

Two polish Annas raised their hands, and the teacher instructed them to present themselves by stating their names, nationality and occupations, and a brief list of things they liked and disliked in this world. The first Anna had front teeth the size of tombstones. She worked as a seamstress, enjoyed quiet times with friends and hated the mosquito.

“Oh, really?” the teacher said. “How every interesting. I think that everyone loved the mosquito. How is it that we’ve been blessed with someone as unique and original as you? Tell us, please?” The seamstress did not understand what was being said but knew that this was an occasion for shame. Her rabbity mouth huffed for breath, and she stared down at her lap as though the appropriate comeback were stitched somewhere alongside the zipper of her slacks.

The second Anna learned from the first and claimed to love sunshine and detest lies. It sounded like a translation of one of those Playmate of the Month data sheets, the answers always written in the same looping handwriting.

When called upon, I delivered an effortless list of things that I detest: blood sausage, intestinal pates, brain pudding. I’d learned these words the hard way. Having given it some thought, I then declared my love for IBM typewriters, the French word for bruise, and my electric floor waxer. It was a short list, but still I managed to mispronounced IBM and assign the wrong gender to both the floor waxer and the typewriter. The teacher’s reaction led me to believe that these mistakes were capital crimes in the country of France.

“Were you always this palicmkrexis?” she asked. “Even a finscrzsa knows that a typewriter is feminine.” I absorbed as much of her abuse as I could understand but find it ridiculous to assign a gender to an inanimate object incapable of disrobing and making an occasional fool of itself.

The teacher proceeded to belittle everyone, from German Eva, who hated laziness, to Japanese Yukari, who loved paintbrushes and soap, Italian, Thai, Dutch, Korean, and Chinese. We all left the class foolishly believing that the worst was over. She’d shaken us up a little, but surely that was just an act designed to weed out the deadweight. We didn’t know it then, but the coming months would teach us what it was like to spend time in the presence of a wild animal.

Over time, it became impossible to believe that any of us would ever improve. Fall arrived and it rained every day, meaning we would now be scolded for the water dripping from our coats and umbrellas. It was mid-October when the teacher singled me out, saying, “Every day spent with you is like having a caesarean section.” And it struck me that, for the first time since arriving in France, I could understand every word that someone was saying.

“You exhaust me with your foolishness and reward my efforts with nothing but pain, do you understand me?” The world opened up, and it was with great joy that I responded, “I know the thing that you speak now. Talk me more, you, plus, please, plus.”

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