|A Review byRebecca James|
|Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules Edited by David Sedaris (2005)
Performer, comedian, and prolific writer David Sedaris has been entertaining audiences for years with his self-deprecating and sarcastic humor. His autobiographical Me Talk Pretty One Day was released in 2000 to rave reviews, including my own accolades in Letters. Sedaris has a talent for recalling life's most awkward moments and turning them into comedy. His books have caused me to laugh out loud in public on more than one occasion, and his latest collection is no exception.
Readers are treated to Sedaris's quirky humor in his introduction to the collection of short stories with a variety of different authors. Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules includes both contemporary writers and older classics. At first I was disappointed to be shorted Sedaris's own insights, but after reading the introduction I realized that is was even more entertaining to search for and find the thin thread running through all of the different selections.
In his introduction, Sedaris candidly explains the codependent nature of his relationship with reading. Fans familiar with the author's explorations of childhood self-esteem issues will recognize the strains of self-doubt and a lack of identity during his younger exploration of books. It all began, he claims, with the torturous and humiliating experience (in school, of course) of publicly acknowledging a predilection for the song, Indiana Wants Me:
"The phrase [the best song] 'in the history of all time' may have been used, but what I remember is not my recommendation so much as the silence that followed it, an absence of agreement I can only describe as deafening."
Although he quickly recounted his opinion, the damage was done and it was years before he would state a preference without first determining the prevailing opinion in the room. This transferred to many aspects of his life, including reading. It was only after years of choosing books to support a constructed identity that Sedaris took a chance and began to devour books from all genres, from Richard Wright to D.H. Lawrence.
When he began looking for stories to include in this most recent collection, Sedaris turned to passages that "had stuck with me over the years, and that I turn to again and again." He admits, "While I am an honest enthusiast, I'm not very good at explaining why I like what I like. Most of the time I come off sounding like a stoned teenager ('It's got, like, monkeys in it and everything')." His selections, however, work well together. It is easy to understand why these stories have moved him.
And then there's the monkeys.
One of the more recent authors included is Jhumpa Lahiri, whose award-winning collection of short stories, The Interpreter of Maladies, has been resting patiently on my to-be-read shelf since last summer. I was pleasantly surprised to find the title short story in Children Playing. Lahiri's main character, Mr. Kapasi, spends his weekend afternoons escaping from his lonely marriage and boring job and earns a little cash giving tours to tourists visiting his native India. One particularly sultry afternoon finds him keeping an eye on the glistening cleavage of a dolled-up American of Indian descent, visiting her parents in the company of her equally child-like husband and bratty children. She is contemptuous of her guide at first, until, apparently to annoy her husband, she takes an interest in Mr. Kapasi's regular job as an interpreter in a doctor's office. Mr. Kapasi, who has deemed himself a failure after his youthful dreams of travel and international interpreting fame dissolved into his present career, suddenly glimpses himself through the lovely eyes of Mrs. Das.
The story (which does involve monkeys) is the perfect accompaniment to Sedaris's introductory admissions. It's a titillating experience, difficult to ignore, to see a fresh and romantic view of yourself through someone else's eyes. He begins to identify as this larger self, and spends the afternoon imaging the relationship that he and Mrs. Das will build through future correspondence. The dangers of succumbing to this temporary thrill are evident, however, by the story's close.
Alice Munro's Half a Grapefruit also witnesses the complications of creating a public persona that does not reflect the interior self, a theme again echoed in the older classic, Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party. The former story actually mentions the latter in passing, which is an interesting nod to the theme as well. Finally, Jean Thompson's Applause, Applause fits in nicely with its exploration of two middle-aged writers with differing perspectives on success.
Sedaris rounds off his Cosmopolitan collection with Flannery O'Connor and Tobias Wolff and a few others, leaving the reader with a note from Sarah Vowell, who is involved with Sedaris's 826NYC writing program for city students of all ages. Proceeds from the sale of Children Playing go to help fund the program.
Overall, Sedaris's collection is a fun walk through the inner workings of a witty mind. Sedaris may not be able to articulate exactly why he likes these stories, but they are craftily arranged and a smart pleasure to read.
Rebecca James teaches high school English in Allentown, Pennsylvania. She spends her free time reading in Rehoboth Beach.
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 15, No. 5 May 20, 2005