Saturday, August 21, 2010

His Big Fat Greek Memoirs

Here are the few things I know about David Sedaris:

1.) He's Greek

2.) He's Gay

3.) He's Allegedly Funny

I say 'allegedly' not because I have a dislike for Sedaris, but because I've heard the essayist only once, on one of the worst programs in American history: This American Life. Only those who bother with National Public Radio have even heard OF it, let alone heard it. I imagine TAL host Ira Glass and I would not get along.

Glass strikes me as the type of man who not only would host salons where, over copious amounts of chardonnay, he and his minions (like Sedaris, John Hodgman aka the 'PC' guy from those television commercials, or Sarah Vowell--who always reminds me of a hyper-intelligent 12-year-old girl in her looks, dress, and voice) would get into an energetic argument over whether Jean-Paul Satre or Albert Camus was the truer existentialist, but would actually refer to these events as salons. He and his cohorts would take a look at me and say, 'There he goes, living in his little Matrix-like world, with his quaint ideas about such things as a literal existence of God or the "rights of the unborn" (as if there such a thing as...well, either). He certainly is not like us (and not just in skin tone, even though we identify with his 'people' and their struggle), here in our ivory towers where we get to look down on everyone, we who not only have read every word of Remembrance of Things Past (which we read in one afternoon) but who have the intelligence to celebrate Darwin-mas. Dear little man, who probably has made the mistake of voting REPUBLICAN at least once in his life'. I suspect that if I ever were invited to one of these soirees, it would be because they were short one Mexican waiter.

What does this diatribe against mild-mannered Ira have to do with Davey? Well, other than the opportunity to express my disdain for the godless Glass (which, given his atheism, is a completely accurate assessment), it's relevant because as I understand it, Sedaris is Glass' protege. Sedaris was taken under Glass' wings (and Glass' glasses) and become one of the stars of Ira's Follies. Yet, I digress. That one time I heard David Sedaris speak on TAL involved his efforts in music. My remembrance of this past thing I confess to being hazy, since TAL has an extraordinary ability to lull me into a pleasant slumber. From what I recall, Sedaris talked about his father, who loved jazz and wanted his son to be a jazz singer (where's Al Jolson, Danny Thomas, or Neal Diamond when you really need them?) So David dutifully took singing lessons, and the last thing I remember was an audition he had in which he sang the Bologna Song from the Oscar Mayer commercial in the style of Billie Holiday. There is the last memory of This American Life I have: a fifty-ish year old man attempting to sound like a drunk Holiday intoning "My bologna has a first name, it's O-S-C-A-R..." Personally, he sounded more like a drunk Truman Capote than Billie Holiday, but I digress. I don't know what happened afterward because at this time, I finally lost consciousness. From what I do remember, the audience was lapping all this up. I was only nodding off.

Now, I figure I might be extremely unfair to Mr. Sedaris. He might be an extremely humorous man. From what little I know he hasn't written any actual fiction; all his books have been essays and memoirs. The private life and adventures of Mr. Sedaris may be quite funny, or at least I've been told. I've decided to venture out again into the world of the unknown, which is why I have obtained a copy of the audio version of When You Are Engulfed in Flames. I go into it a complete virgin: I know nothing of what is contained within those CDs.

One thing I do admire about Mr. Sedaris (or at least from what I know/understand) is that his homosexuality is only a part of his life. David Sedaris isn't a gay man. David Sedaris is a man who happens to be gay. Is this splitting hairs? I think not. Too often today gay men/women are defined (or define themselves) strictly by their sexual inclinations, and from that flows everything about their worldview. Sedaris, from what I gather, is someone who is comfortable and accepting of his sexual orientation but who doesn't focus solely on that. The Billie Holiday story as far as I know had nothing to do with same-sex attraction. The distinction between "being gay" and "being homosexual" frees Sedaris up to write of things beyond sex.

I look at his face, and I think this man will be honest to me about how he sees the world, give me his taken on things that have occurred to him which will be different from how others will see such things. I note a sincerity and yet a certain sadness within it, as if the humor he gives isn't always the reaction he's expecting from the audience. Of course, all of this is pure conjecture on my part. Still, Sedaris has a couple of pluses in his favor. I tend to favor non-fiction, especially biographies (not so much autobiographies, given my own dislike of self-revelation). I also go into David Sedaris not knowing what to expect. Therefore, he gets my full benefit of the doubt.

Well, I confess: his adventures on This American Life (how I LOATH that program) do make me predisposed not to like him. Guilt by association I suppose. Still, David Sedaris isn't TAL. He's only a part of it. That being the case, When You Are Engulfed in Flames allows me to judge him based on his own one-man show, so to speak.

As it stands, I have so much listening and reading to do. I have Vince Flynn's Act of Treason, Truman Capote's Other Voices, Other Rooms, and David Sedaris' When You Are Engulfed in Flames. Since Flynn was in first I'm going to tackle that to begin with. Capote will be read after How The Irish Saved Civilization, but both books are rather short, so I figure I can get through those quickly. I am very excited about my new venture: I'm entering new worlds, discovering new things. What greater thrill is there than that?

I know only two Greeks who are funny: Zach Galifianakis and Arianna Huffington (though they make me laugh for different reasons). Even though Ira Glass and his Court probably wouldn't care for this bourgeois Hispanic Lutheran who isn't much for progressivism in its various forms (social/political), they might grudgingly approve of my venture to explore new things. If only they would apply that sentiment to their own lives...

Friday, August 20, 2010

Flynn Is In

I was surprised to see how quickly my requests were filled by the library. The first one I will tackle is Act of Treason, a novel by Vince Flynn.

This is kind of an experiment with me. I've never been into contemporary popular writers such as Mr. Flynn, and the thriller has never thrilled me. The exception to this has been the film version of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, based on the novel by John le Carré. From what I saw it was not just interested in the details of espionage work, but also on the toll such works takes on the individual.

I don't know if Flynn will take us into the heart of his main character, Mitch Rapp, but I am curious as to why his books are so popular. As I understand it, Rapp is the central character in a series of novel, and Act of Treason is one of the more recent ones. It will be interesting to see if one needs to know a great deal of Rapp's background to follow the plot. My belief, having just started the unabridged audio version of Act of Treason, is that I, the reader, do not have to know Rapp's early years to understand his motivations or thought process.

There's one thing I like about Flynn's work already: Mitch Rapp. One thing I have always taken to heart about writing is that names of characters can tell you so much about the character him/herself. Doesn't 'Tom Sawyer' sound like a young, mischievous lad? 'Sherlock Holmes' is the name of a highly intelligent, aloof, persona; 'Miss Marple' give the impression of a sweet old lady (even if her mind is razor-sharp). In the same way, 'Mitch Rapp' sounds like a man of action, who, like a song from Van Halen says, 'ain't got time to mess around'. Mitch. Rapp. Monosyllabic. Short. Simple. Direct. He's not 'Mitchell', which sounds more elite. 'Mitch' is the name of a guy's guy: one who isn't afraid of challenges. He's got a job to do, and the niceties of the law won't get in the way of what needs to be done.

There are things I've learned about Vince Flynn (curiously, a name that is also monosyllabic) that impress me. He's been open about his dyslexia, and it makes it even more impressive that someone with the disability has made a successful career in writing. My hat goes off to him. I also admire the fact that he left a very secure job to pursue his passion for storytelling. That takes a great deal of personal courage--moving into a venture where failure is a strong possibility is not for the faint-hearted. I gather that he writes from his convictions, and that these thrillers around counter-terrorism agent Rapp come from his worldview: that terrorists (usually Islamofascists but not exclusively) are threatening the country he loves and that at times extra-legal actions are needed to secure the nation. A writer should always be convinced of his own works.

I see his face and this is a tough man, a strong man, one who (like Rapp) isn't afraid of a fight. I imagine he's the type whom I could go and get a couple of drinks with, then go and visit the family. Yet I digress. What about Act of Treason? As I said, I've barely started it, so it's impossible to make an assessment of the work. I want to be a more open-minded fellow, to step away from the biographies and mysteries that I'm more fond of. That being the case, I hope to enjoy Act of Treason, and once finished I will share my thoughts on it, on Mitch Rapp, and Vince Flynn.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Big Life For A Little Man

Well, it took far longer than I thought, but I finally ended the biography of Truman Capote. I guess I knew more about his life than I thought...little drunk (literally).

This isn't to say that I didn't end it with a certain sadness for the man. After writing In Cold Blood, he went off the rails in a big way. Bad romances, drink, drugs...the usual things that bring people down. One of the points of the two Capote films, Capote & Infamous, suggested that the stress of creating In Cold Blood (specifically his relationship with one of the murderers, Perry Smith) all but wrecked him emotionally. There is a certain truth to that: after In Cold Blood, the only things he produced were the short story collection Music for Chameleons and a few hints at his unfinished work Answered Prayers. Oddly, one of those parts, La Cote Basque, destroyed his associations with the very people he longed to be part of. It could have been a desire to destroy himself, I have no idea.

I got through his life story for two reasons: one, the two aforementioned films intrigued me about the real man, and two, his seminal work, In Cold Blood, was listed as one of the books of the Twentieth Century...and has also been challenged/banned. I plan to read In Cold Blood, but first on my list is How The Irish Saved Civilization. I've started on it and find it quite interesting, well-thought out. Somehow, seeing how Western Civilization is in danger of collapsing--what with college students not being able to write in cursive, having no appreciation or even fear/hatred for actual books or works of art (and a lot of modern art being, well, curious at best), and the glorification of non-entities (Jersey Shore, Rob Dyrdek) and second-rate performers (John Mayer), and a shocking lack of knowledge (believing either Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann are actual news sources rather than propagandists for their respective causes), we need to look back on when we were in danger of having vast stores of knowledge erased by the barbarian horde.

I hope to finish How the Irish Saved Civilization in two weeks, but I also will indulge in more popular literature. I have never read a novel by Janet Evanovich, James Patterson, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Nicholas Sparks, or Vince Flynn. I understand they are wildly popular, but they've never appealed to me. However, I think I should give them all a fair hearing. Oddly, that's what I'm going to do: hear them. I confess to enjoying books on audio more, and I am able to finish a story faster that way (I'm a slow reader--what, six to eight weeks for a biography, although And Then There Were None I was able to finish in one sitting, still the only book I was able to do that with). With that in mind, I have requested a title from Mr. Flynn and Brad Thor, who writes similar books--action/espionage thrillers. I can't say whether they're goo or bad. I'm not snobbish enough to dismiss their work as trash, but I can't elevate it to great literature either. It may be that Flynn, Thor, or any of the above want to be thought of that way. Of course, I don't think they want to write garbage either. Good books will always be good books.

Well, there it is. Next book: How The Irish Saved Civilization.