Thursday, November 24, 2016

Book 82: If you do one thing today, read "Bullet In The Brain." Also, don't do just one thing today; that would be a waste of a great holiday.

Because I'm contrarian by nature, I once came up with a theory as to why you can judge a book by its cover. The theory is this: if I like a cover, I will probably like the book. The reasoning behind it is: someone had to design a cover and to do that they had to at least know something about the book. They then distilled that feeling about the book into an image, and they liked the image (or they wouldn't have created it).  If I like the image, I am at least somewhat likely to like the thinking behind it -- i.e., the book.

So I was curious to see if I would like the same kind of stories David Sedaris does. Sedaris, one of my favorite authors, was the inspiration for me to start writing funny versions of my life on here, way back when, and before I stopped doing that so much because it started being kind of repetitious not just of myself, but of other people writing about their lives, as well.

As an aside, I've come to realize that if I think something looks picturesque, probably lots and lots of people think that. I've also come to realize that many of the basic 'truths' we think about life -- parenting, etc. -- are 'truths' that everyone else knows, too, and while I still take pictures I like regardless of whether other people are also taking a picture of the same thing [and it's kind of disconcerting, when you stop to take a picture of someone, to see someone else doing that at the same time], I stopped writing about things I think are more or less just the same things everyone is thinking.

Anyway, Sedaris is one of my favorite writers, and even if people accuse him of making stuff up, he's funny and his stories have, as Stephen Colbert would say, a 'truthiness' about them; plus, they're unique. They manage to somehow wring a universal feel out of, say, putting a bunch of record albums up around his house to stop birds from flying into it.

In Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules, Sedaris picked some of his favorite short stories of all time to put into an anthology. This, I figure, is as much a cash grab as any of the other ones I complain about on here. After all, the only reason I checked this book out was Sedaris' name on the cover; a random collection of short stories probably wouldn't have risen above the clutter otherwise. But my lack of disdain for the project isn't just because I like Sedaris; it's because unlike most 'cash grabs' this one actually has merit.

The only theme joining the stories is that Sedaris liked them all.  Beyond that, they are a very disparate set of works.  (The audio version, which is the one I had, has only five stories; the print version is longer.) In order of least to most favorite,

Cosmopolitan, about a relationship between a neighbor and lonely Indian man whose wife left him after their grown-up daughter moved out, was tedious and felt, to use a word I find apt, typical. The story unfolds in exactly the way you would imagine from that setup, and doesn't contain any surprises; typical stories can be okay, if they're well-done or interesting, but this one wasn't either of those.

Where The Door Is Always Open And The Welcome Mat Is Out was enjoyable enough, the story of a sister in New York getting a visit from her sister from Cleveland, and the stress and disappointment of that visit; the whole story takes place in about 12 hours, and is told from the perspective of the New York sister, whose attempts to see her own life as something her sister would approve of are sadly amusing.

From there the stories pick up a lot.  In The Cemetary Where Al Jolson Is Buried, about the last meeting between two friends, one of whom is dying, is funny until it's not, and was one of those short stories that stick in my mind.  Gryphon, about an unusual substitute teacher who believes in angels and tells students' fortunes was the same; in the latter, the story is told from the perspective of a student in the small town, one who clearly wants the world to be magical the way the teacher says it is, even though he knows deep down that it's not.

The best story is the shortest: Bullet In The Brain, about a man who happens to be in a bank when the bank robbers get there, is a classic, and I won't spoil it for you by telling you why other than to say the title is not a metaphor of any sort, but quite literal.

So: 80% matchup between me and Sedaris on stories we like, which actually is about what I expected when I first began the book, which I correctly judged by its cover.


Andrew Leon said...

I don't buy into the cover thing because, actually, an artist doesn't need to know anything about a book to make a cover for it.
And I've read too many books with good covers that were horrible books.

Briane Pagel said...

But the math! The math checks... um. Wait... *reviews notes, realizes he is looking at an old IHOP menu* We may have a problem here.

Briane Pagel said...

Honestly, that IHOP menu has caused more troubles for me than it's worth, but who doesn't like looking at classic menus now and again?