Friday, May 8, 2020

"Calypso," by David Sedaris--Nonfiction Review

It’s Friday, and we’re all about that review game here. Today’s review is “Calypso” by David Sedaris. It’s a collection of funny essays, commenting on politics, society, the author’s own life just like—well every other David Sedaris book, I presume, I’ve read a lot of them but not all as of yet. And no, the fact that it’s titled “Calypso” has nothing to do with the fact I reviewed “The Odyssey” last week. It’s just one of those coincidences. Set up by the Illuminati to control the world!

David Sedaris

What I love about this book:

David Sedaris is very funny. He can be everything between charming or witty to acerbic and petty while feeling no compunction to apologize for who he is at any time. This gives him a blunt refreshing honesty, and you’ll find out relatively soon whether or not you like him or not. 

Every Sedaris story is the same formula, which goes like this: here is a weird situation that David Sedaris is in—and it’s all about how in response to the situation, likely he’s put himself in, he’ll be weird about the whole affair. Now at first, I’d forgive you for thinking that this sounds like a bad thing. After all, a lot of popular culture, especially in the part that reviews things, either implies or outright points out that repetition is a bad thing. But I’d argue that sometimes, like in his case, he’s perfected his craft to such a fine point that it’s always fun to read. 

Here’s an analogy I’m sure he wouldn’t appreciate much, but it’s like watching the home run derby. Essentially the same thing is happening over and over again. We’re watching a guy hit home runs, one after another, over and over again. That’s what reading “Calypso” is like to me, watching Sedaris set up each story about his life, and then with supreme comedic timing, knock it out of the park repeatedly. 

My absolute favorite chapter of this book is “Stepping Out,” which is about how Sedaris became obsessed—like he often does with random things—with his Fitbit. It’s a perfect distillation of his humor and who he is as a person, displaying all of his positive and negative qualities in one neat package. While I don’t have a Fitbit of my own, I do have a step counter on my smartphone. More than once, I saw myself in some of the things he was saying in the chapter. This chapter was especially exciting for me because before reading it, a few years back, I had happened to see a headline to an article with a picture of David Sedaris standing next to a garbage truck. Upon clicking on the article, I found out that his local council named a garbage truck after him—and this chapter finally explained why.      

What I don’t love about this book:

The actual chapter titled “Calypso” that the book is named after is probably my least favorite of the bunch. He starts by talking about the Ebola scare the United States experienced recently, and his mockery for frightened people, which doesn’t land particularly well, considering current circumstances. Most of the chapter is about his quest to have a lipoma removed from his body—not because it was life-threatening or anything—and feed it to a sea turtle that lives near his vacation home. Why? Because he’s an odd bird. 

Furthermore, the title of the chapter “Calypso” has nothing to do with anything other than a throwaway joke about how “Calypso” would be a stupid name for a cat. Which he then proceeded to name this chapter after—and then the whole book. I get the hypocritical joke he’s making here, but when I discovered the genesis for the title of this book, all it caused me to do was roll my eyes.

In the chapter “The Spirit World,” towards the end, he describes the last time he saw his sister, Tiffany, before she took her own life. I struggled with whether to put this in the section for things I love or don’t love because I respect him for not sugar-coating how poorly he treated her in that last meeting. In the audio version, you can hear in his voice the regret. The subtext he plays within this chapter is how, in the end, we all desire catharsis—reconciliation, and how he will never get that with his sister. Ultimately, I put this topic here because it’s a net negative for me. My disappointment in him for that moment is too great to not.

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Parting thoughts:

I’ve read a few of David Sedaris’ books, the first of which, “Me Talk Pretty One Day,” was a cherished gift I received a few years back. I got hooked on him again, like with most things, because of Audible, where he narrates his own books, which make the experience of them all the better since they’re in his voice. Sedaris does a lot of public speaking at events where he does what he does in his books, which is talk about some story from his life while making humorous observations.

So it was on one of these youtube time sinkhole journeys, watching him speaking at this or that, that I discovered an undercurrent of some commentators and even some reviewers who really don’t like David Sedaris. At first, I thought, the funny gay guy who tells odd stories? This can’t be right.

All the negative reviews and comments mostly about him primarily fall into the same vane, attacking him for not being a very nice person. They’re far more florid than that, of course, but you’re on the internet—well at least to read this blog—so you know what anonymous internet people are like—they’re dicks. So I don’t feel the compunction about not being any more explicit.  

There are even a particularly nasty few who take issue with how he handled the suicide of his sister, which he talks about in this book. There is a lot of self-righteous squawking about how he was insufficiently sensitive toward his troubled sister, Tiffany. As I previously mentioned in this post, I, too, was a bit disappointed about some aspects of his interactions with her, but I don’t think it’s fair to judge a person’s entire character based on one bad moment. Especially when it comes to family, families can be messy, dynamic, and complicated. A few stories here and there aren’t enough to judge what it was truly like to live with her as a family member, and since the last time he saw her was years before her suicide, I’m certain he could never have predicted that would be the last time he saw her alive. 

David Sedaris never claimed to be a saint or a perfect person, or even to aspire to be either of those things. I feel like we demand too much of people who live in the public eye. We expect them to be better than us, and when they have shortcomings, they’re castigated harsher than we’d expect for a private person. I believe this impulse comes from a place of jealousy, which is always an ugly feeling to express. So instead, it gets couched in a “belief” of superior morals allowing for a downward glance along the nose at the universally low moral turpitude of the elites—which is bullshit. 


  1. I'm glad you finally called out those who hide behind the cloak of the internet in spewing their moronic beliefs and thoughts - which are based only on opinion, not fact, and jealousy of others who achieved more than they have. Bravo!

    1. I often think that people look for reasons to be critical strictly because it feeds into an addiction to being angry. What they are angry about isn't important.