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.