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Book Club Wed May 21 2008

June 2008 Selection: Naked by David Sedaris

David Sedaris has gained much popularity from his witty personal essays, many of which have been published in magazines and read on NPR's "This American Life" before being collected into books for publication. Naked, his second books of essays, does not focus on any one particular period of time in the author's life, but flits through a variety of ages. From the peculiar tics he was prisoner to as a child to the birth of his younger brother – the family's sixth and final child – to the time he spent picking apples in Oregon to the impending death of his mother from cancer, Sedaris manages to capture a wide range of his experiences viewed through the lens of seemingly trite occurrences. This ability to take what we would merely see as bizarre or funny and extract a profound sense of value and significance – not only for himself but also for his readers – is perhaps Sedaris's greatest gift and the reason behind his incredible success.

The title of the book comes from its final essay, "Naked," which recounts the week Sedaris spent at a nudist colony. Apprehensive about appearing completely nude in public, Sedaris at first confines his nudity to his trailer, commenting on how accustomed to clothes he is: "I realize that it has long been my habit to stretch my T-shirt over my knees while sitting alone at a table. I'm also used to pulling my pants above my navel and tightening my belt to diminish my gut. Jangling the keys in my pocket, thoughtlessly gnawing at the collars of my shirts: these things are lost to me now. It feels dangerous to drink a cup of hot coffee, and twice in the last hour I’ve hopped up to brush glowing cigarette ash off what I once considered to be my private parts." Instead of freeing or exciting, Sedaris learns that seeing everyone naked is much more of a burden - even when he returns to clothed society he can't help imagining what everyone looks like underneath, something akin to a superpower gone bad.

The essays become longer and more involved as the book progresses, changing from simple memories to poignant ruminations on the universals of life. "I Like Guys" describes the moment when Sedaris knew he was gay. Stuck in Greece at a summer camp just before high school, a sexually-charged friendship with a campmate leads Sedaris to realize how, in insulting and ridiculing each other to appear part of the rest of the group, they only ended up further alienating themselves. "The Women's Open" is a sweet and sympathetic chance to explore his sister's feeling on the day she got her period and, later, how she must have felt upon delving into their mother's last gift, a tape of movies she recorded just before she died. "The Incomplete Quad" focuses on the cross-country hitchhiking trip Sedaris took with a college friend suffering from muscular dystrophy. Using her illness to mooch off innocent travelers, the two learn that it's not what you can take from others that's important, but what others are willing to give. Part autobiography, part comedic tale, Naked is fast, but absorbing and entertaining and can serve as the perfect light read while offering so much more.

* * *


David Sedaris was born in New York, was raised in Raleigh, North Carolina, and earned a degree at the School of the Art Institute. His other books include Barrel Fever, Holidays on Ice, Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and the upcoming When You Are Engulfed in Flames, scheduled for release on June 3. You can listen to Sedaris read some of his pieces on the NPR website.

 
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