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Friday, June 04, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Book Review
Fans of David Sedaris will love 'Dress Your Family'

By Mary Brennan
Special to The Seattle Times

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I don't remember what I needed, or why, but I needed it right away, and so I went screeching off to the cavernous Safeway down the street (ordinarily I would not have been caught dead there, being much more of a pretentious organic-coffee-bean-loving PCC type). But when I got there, I must have sat for 20 minutes in the car — much longer than it would have taken to drive to the PCC — listening to the radio with the engine running.

There was this guy on National Public Radio, reading a story about his mother and father and their Great Dane. The mother and the Great Dane died, but it was so funny I couldn't turn it off. I sat in the Safeway parking lot, littered with wrecked shopping carts, listening and laughing like an insane person. But when the story was over, even while my sides still ached, it felt overwhelmingly sad.

I still think about it sometimes. I had never heard of the guy — who was he? He was David Sedaris, and the story was "Youth in Asia," one of the funniest, saddest, most perfectly woven little bits of autobiography in recent memory. That was several years ago, around the time when Sedaris was suddenly everywhere, vaulting to the top of the best-seller lists with one after another of his collections of essays.

David Sedaris
He had the perfect biography for the place and time: He had grown up gay in North Carolina, had worked as a department-store elf and a house cleaner, was a playwright, a "This American Life" radio-show contributor, and, perhaps most important, one member of an exceedingly odd — or perhaps just perfectly normal — American family. But it wasn't just serendipity that made him so popular: His essays were also really funny, and much stranger and more poignant than any fiction.

Sedaris' latest collection, "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim," (Little, Brown, 272 pp., $24.95) is just as good as his previous books. He lives in France now, and several stories are set in Europe.

In "Possession," Sedaris prowls the Anne Frank house (it's a "triplex," actually) in Amsterdam with the shrewd eye of a potential real-estate investor. In "Nuit of the Living Dead," Sedaris chats in the middle of the night with a group of lost elderly tourists who have stopped outside his village house because they see lights. The lights are on because Sedaris is trying to drown an injured mouse in a bucket, but there is no point in explaining this to one of his visitors.

Author appearance

David Sedaris will read from "Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim" at 2 p.m. Thursday, Bailey/Coy Books, 414 Broadway E., Seattle (208-323-8842); and 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Elliott Bay Book Co., 101 S. Main St., Seattle (206-624-6600 or
"I see that you have a little swimming mouse," the tourist remarks politely. "My wife and I have a dog."

Not to worry, there are more micro-portraits of the author's unique family members. Sedaris' astonishingly foul-mouthed younger brother Paul, known as Rooster, gets married and has a baby daughter, setting off a competition among his childless siblings "for the titles of best-loved aunts and uncles." In typical fashion, Rooster becomes obsessed with getting a spell-and-say toy, the Alphabet Pal, to curse. But the wholesome plaything is apparently equipped with some kind of decency chip and thwarts him at every turn.

As funny as he is, Sedaris also has a masterful way of conveying the complexity and pain that have shaped his family relationships. Perhaps the most bittersweet essay is "Put a Lid On It," about a visit to his sister Tiffany, who struggles to get by as an adult after an adolescence spent in reform school, unrescued by her family. There's nothing Sedaris can do about that now, of course, so instead he rolls up his sleeves and washes her dishes.

Most of the stories here have already been published elsewhere, but that's no matter: If you're a Sedaris fan, you must have this book for your collection. If you've never heard of him, this book would be a great introduction.

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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