Blessed with several weeks of summer holiday, a spinster’s solo, quiet apartment, and stacks of great books in the TBR, this week’s reading was inhaled pretty much nonstop for the past few days. I read David Sedaris’s Calypso and Kate Quinn’s The Alice Network, utterly unlikely companions, but enjoyable and compelling in their unique ways.
I’ve been a Sedaris fan ever since I read one of his accounts in The New Yorker, oh, eons ago. It was a hilarious story about one of his first flights in first class. He was excited about the ice cream they would serve and the roomy seat from which he’d watch a selection of movies. His delight in these indulgences is foiled by his sobbing seatmate. This poor guy, it turns out, was on his way to Poland for his mother’s funeral. I totally understood Sedaris’s childish pleasure in small luxuries, the guilt that took over when he realized his seatmate’s situation, and the resentment at his fun’s ruination. I loved him on first reading. Sedaris is unfraid to expose his pettinesses, our pettinesses, certainly my pettinesses. Most of us like to imagine ourselves replete with magnanimity, smiling beatifically, eyes swimming in sympathetic tears … but, truth be told, impatient, time’s wingèd chariot ruining our fun, how long do we have to be sympathetic before we can eat our ice cream and watch our film in peace, sympathetic murmurs and “there, there”‘s done with? I love Sedaris because he’s not just off the empathy train, he was never on it to begin with.
Calypso is no different from that first New Yorker essay, no less a superb example of Sedaris’s blend of pathos followed by surprising, and for me, delightful, bathos, with its greatest victim at its centre, himself. Sedaris isn’t interested in foibles, he’s downright mean and inappropriate, and even savage, but he’s a truth-teller and we need those. He’s like those marvelous Shakespearean characters, Puck and Ariel. Maybe all’s well that ends well … but the anarchic spirit that calls bullshit is the loudest and most triumphant. Sedaris’s honesty is unrelenting. I don’t really care if the details are true or not, I care about the fearless truths he tells in and by them. I know empathy-mongers who would be horrified at Sedaris, but I had to stifle my laughter and hold onto my stomach for fear I would HOWL and wake the neighbours when I read into the night. Sedaris shows up the hypocrites and isn’t afraid of his vanity.
I’ve always been interested in Sedaris’s Greekness (his father is/was: is he dead?), because I too am, in my case, Canadian-born to Sedaris’s American, of Greek-born parents. He doesn’t do much with it explicitly (there are hilarious accounts of his Yiayia and Pappou here and there, which are spot on, btw), but I like to think it permeates his humour. I’ve grown up laughing at anecdotes and stories around dinner tables that would horrify my what-I-perceive-to-be humourless friends. I’ve also guffawed through telling a story, only to realize my audience is staring at me, agape and with horrified, rounded eyes. Crap, I think and pretend to be nicer than I am. This propensity for laughing at cruelty, of derision and ridicule, coupled with flashes of maudlin sentimentality, it’s not for everyone, but I totally get it. Sedaris holds an unbearably bright mirror up to himself as much as he does to others … and the ensuing laughter, devoid of self-illusions, is liberating.
I also loved Quinn’s The Alice Network because it’s a rollicking good page-turner. Quinn’s done fascinating research to tell the story of two women: WWI spy Eve Gardiner and American college girl, Charlotte St. Clair who seeks Eve’s help in finding her French cousin, Rose, in the aftermath of WWII. Two wars, two women haunted by the ghosts of the past, the beauty of France, and its tragedy in bearing two wars, two occupations, and one handsome “braw” Scotsman (YUM!) and Quinn’s novel is unputdownable good. It’s a mystery, revenge story, coming-of-age account, and road romance: all balanced beautifully with a sure writing hand and intermingling, alternating narratives for a stupendous conclusion and dénouement. The heroes are women, their sidekicks and aides, men; the villains are vile and deserving of their fate. Quinn doesn’t have any literal “chin” to her story, but the female vindication, she is as strong and braw and marvelous as her hubba-hubba Scotsman.
For your reading pleasure, I wouldn’t miss either Sedaris’s Calypso, or Quinn’s Alice Network.
7 thoughts on “What I Read This Week … So Far”
I loved ‘The Alice Network’–one of my top books of 2017. Everything about it hit me just right, especially the revenge plot. And the romance was so sweet–Charlie’s reward for facing her demons and growing up. Eve–oh how I loved Eve! Now I feel the need for a re-read! good thing I bought a copy for my keeper shelf*.
*Ha, what a misnomer! More like 3 bookcases…
I so totally agree, what a great book! I find so much historical fiction plodding, like the cue card research is inserted and then fictional characters kind of walk around it in a desultory fashion. But this was so seamless and compelling and MOVING. I loved them all and I especially loved the hard-won HEA. It’s on my keeper shelf too … I already have Quinn’s next book in the TBR, The Huntress. And I’m so glad I put this on my students’ summer reading list. I hope they love it.
This is a great review of Calypso and Sedaris more generally. When I first heard his Christmas Diaries story on NPR many years ago I loved it, but he hasn’t worn well for me so I avoid him now, for a variety of reasons. But your review reminds me of why so many people find him irresistible and what his gifts are.
I have to be honest and say that after reading four or five in a row, I got a little tired of his endless snark. But reading this one reminded me what his value is to me, as a reader.
Gosh, I remember hearing that on This American Life and what a hoot. But he can be so cruel, ya know? He is as hard on himself though. He’s open about his sister’s suicide in some of these essays, for example, and they’re no excuses accounts. And, frankly, I know the kind of Greek (ahem, right-wing) father he grew up with (not that I did, but have met many) and it’s a difficult relationship he had to navigate. I think if there’s any tenderness to be found, it’s in Sedaris’s remarks about his mother. But the bathos creeps in everywhere.
I really appreciate your comment!
I recommended The Alice Network for my book club to read. Always an iffy proposition as we are a diverse group. Much to my surprise and pleasure everyone loved it. Her author’s notes at the end of the book were illuminating, and heart breaking.
Oh, I’m so glad everyone enjoyed and your rec was a hit! I really really loved it too. And am greatly looking forward to The Huntress. I agree: the author’s notes were fabulous, interesting, heart-felt, and -breaking. I’m a Great War buff, but know way too much about men’s roles in it, having come by way of Wilfred Owen’s great poetry. I loved getting to know some of the women’s stories. And I enjoyed how she wove the Clavell story in too.
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