Book Reviews

Carolyn Piper

Copyright 2005

 

The Art of Life, or...

There is no cure for birth and death save to enjoy the interval.
George Santayan Soliloquies in England

It is not easy being the smartest boy in the world. Take the situaCotion that A.J. Jacobs, the author of The Know-It-All : One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World , found himself in as a child. Brought up in a household where intellectual achievement was king, Mr. Jacobs, from childhood, was in a world class father-son competition of the mind. Determined to hold up his end, the author convinced himself at a very young age, despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, that he was the smartest boy in the world.

This conviction, which died out only reluctantly over time, resulted in, among other things, a running debate with his parents regarding the position of car windows. It was hard, without revealing his secret status, to convince them in the dead of winter, to travel with even one window open. "I had," writes the author, "read that C02, could both be found in cars, AND, cause brain damage." So, not being one to put his precious brain cells at risk, each time A.J. was compelled to roll up the window by his father's shouting, "A.J. for god's sake CLOSE THAT WINDOW!!!" he began inching it down again.

As it turned out A.J. of course was NOT the smartest boy in the world. But he did grow up to be an editor of Esquire Magazine, in possession of both an avid curiosity about just about everything, as well as a nagging desire to fulfill his boyhood dream and be the...., well you get the idea.

One of the results of all this is a rip-roaring funny book, in which A.J. takes on the task of reading the entire encyclopaedia Britannica from A to Z. That is, for those of you unaware of the scope of this ambition, some 33,000 pages, and 44 million words. The task took four years to accomplish, during which time he gauged his growing knowledge in a variety of interesting--and hilarious ways. By turns he managed to annoy friends with odd and interesting tidbits, test for membership in Mensa, attend a convention of that organization's members, as well as attend the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, and qualify as a contestant on "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?" in its heyday.

I won't spoil the fun by telling you more. I will say that if you enjoy obscure facts, strange acquaintances and laughing aloud while reading, this is a do not miss book. Living with A.J. is, I suspect, not easy--but always fun-- and never EVER boring.

The same is true of David Sedaris and his terminally funny, and very odd, family. I had been resisting this book, as I so often do best sellers, but there it was on the library shelf this week, and I added it to my bag in idle curiosity. Best sellers usually disappoint me. But there are good reasons why some books make that list. And Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is, for me, one of those books.

Mr Sedaris' offering is one man's take on the absurdities that abound within life. Written with savage honesty and razor sharp wit, it will make you both laugh and cry as well as shake your head in wonder, and disbelief, at HOW on EARTH family love endures in a family such as Mr Sedaris was born into. One might kindly label them all as eccentrics, but one also senses within them all, especially the narrator, Mr Sedaris, a lot of pain. Fortunately for all of us they are also a gold mine of material for a writer of talent and just the right turn of mind.

There is a father who plays endless bait and switch, a mother who locks all five of the children, out of the house in the dead of winter during school vacation (yes yes I know. We wanted to-- but she DID it!) and refuses to open the door even as night falls, and a sister who makes her living scrounging garbage in Boston who, to her brother's total horror, cooked and ate "a perfectly lovely frozen turkey" that she found one day on the curb. Then there is the brother, who once sent the author, who is gay, off to France with a sticker on his back which read. "Hello! I am gay!"

Like Mr Jacobs, and another one of my favorite authors, Bill Bryson, Mr Sedaris possesses attributes which I treasure in both friends and writers--a world class curiosity, and a sense of humor along with a weakness for eccentric people and facts. Take the stranger Mr Sedaris walks to the train station with one day in the Netherlands--the end result of which is the author confiding with us that that wise parents in Holland would do well each Christmas Eve, counsel their young ones with: "Listen, you might want to pack a few of your things before going to bed. The former bishop of Turkey will be coming tonight with 6-8 black men. They might put some candy in your shoes, or they might stuff you in a sack and take you to Spain. They might pretend to kick you or hit you with a tree branch. We dont know, but we want you to be prepared."

What's THIS all about? Read and find out--and don't forget to allow laughing time. Did I enjoy this book? Absolutely! Would I want to be part of the Sedaris clan? I think not. What I do want to do, and as soon as possible at that, is to get back to the library and check out every single book Mr Sedaris has ever written.

I am sure I am not the only one who enjoyed reading the works of Shel Silverstein to my children when they were young. Now there is a special 25th Anniversary edition of his work called Different Dances, which is decidedly for adults only. As usual both the pictures and words are startling and irreverent--and yes, blue. Very VERY blue at times. The contents drop onto the page as if from a very strange unknown world that only Mr Silverstein can see--which of course is exactly what is going on. Keep it on the top shelf if need be, but fans of this unique artist and writer, will not regret adding this to their collection.

Also recommended for the fact enthralled are:
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. A very timely look at the reasons behind the collapse of past societies.

Blink : The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell, who is also the author of the excellent The Tipping Point . This latest offering deals with Intuition, and how it influences our lives.

And next time, I promise you, a novel or two!


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