Non-Fiction Book Review: Calypso By David Sedaris
In Calypso, it starts with David Sedaris buying a beach house on the Carolina coast. Sedaris envisions long, relaxing vacations spent playing board games and lounging in the sun with those he loves most. And life at the Sea Section, as he names the vacation home, is exactly as idyllic as he imagined, except for one tiny, vexing realization: it’s impossible to take a vacation from yourself.
With Calypso, Sedaris sets his formidable powers of observation toward middle age and mortality. Make no mistake: these stories are very, very funny–it’s a book that can make you laugh ’til you snort, the way only family can. Sedaris’s powers of observation have never been sharper, and his ability to shock readers into laughter unparalleled. But much of the comedy here is born out of that vertiginous moment when your own body betrays you and you realize that the story of your life is made up of more past than future.
This is beach reading for people who detest beaches, required reading for those who loathe small talk and love a good tumor joke. Calypso is simultaneously Sedaris’s darkest and warmest book yet–and it just might be his very best.
A Sneak Peek Into “Calypso”
Though there’s an industry built on telling you otherwise, there are few real joys to middle age. The only perk I can see is that, with luck, you’ll acquire a guest room. Some people get one by default when their kids leave home, and others, like me, eventually trade up and land a bigger house. “Follow me,” I now say. The room I lead our visitors to has not been hastily rearranged to accommodate them. It does not double as an office or weaving nook but exists for only one purpose. I have furnished it with a bed rather than a fold-out sofa, and against one wall, just like in a hotel, I’ve placed a luggage rack. The best feature, though, is its private bathroom.
“If you prefer a shower to a tub, I can put you upstairs in the second guest room,” I say. “There’s a luggage rack up there as well.” I hear these words coming from my puppet-lined mouth and shiver with middle-aged satisfaction. Yes, my hair is gray and thinning. Yes, the washer on my penis has worn out, leaving me to dribble urine long after I’ve zipped my trousers back up. But I have two guest rooms.
The consequence is that if you live in Europe, they attract guests—lots of them. People spend a fortune on their plane tickets from the United States. By the time they arrive they’re broke and tired and would probably sleep in our car if we offered it. In Normandy, where we used to have a country place, any visitors were put up in the attic, which doubled as Hugh’s studio and smelled of oil paint and decaying mice. It had a rustic cathedral ceiling but no heat, meaning it was usually either too cold or too hot. That house had only one bathroom, wedged between the kitchen and our bedroom. Guests were denied the privacy a person sometimes needs on the toilet, so twice a day I’d take Hugh to the front door and shout behind us, as if this were normal behavior, “We’re going out for exactly twenty minutes. Does anyone need anything from the side of the road?”
That was another problem with Normandy: there was nothing for our company to do except sit around. Our village had no businesses in it and the walk to the nearest village that did was not terribly pleasant. This is not to say that our visitors didn’t enjoy themselves—just that it took a certain kind of person, outdoorsy and self-motivating. In West Sussex, where we currently live, having company is a bit easier. Within a ten-mile radius of our house, there’s a quaint little town with a castle in it and an equally charming one with thirty-seven antique stores. There are chalk-speckled hills one can hike up, and bike trails. It’s a fifteen-minute drive to the beach and an easy walk to the nearest pub.
Guests usually take the train from London, and before we pick them up at the station I remind Hugh that, for the duration of their visit, he and I will be playing the role of a perfect couple. This means no bickering and no contradicting each other. If I am seated at the kitchen table and he is standing behind me, he is to place a hand on my shoulder, right on the spot where a parrot would perch if I were a pirate instead of the ideal boyfriend. When I tell a story he has heard so often he could lip-synch it, he is to pretend to be hearing it for the first time and to be appreciating it as much as or more than our guests are. I’m to do the same, and to feign delight when he serves something I hate, like fish with little bones in it. I really blew this a few years back when his friend Sue came for the night and he poached what might as well have been a hairbrush. Blew it to such an extent that after she left I considered having her killed. “She knows too much,” I said to Hugh. “The woman’s a liability now and we need to contain her.”
His friend Jane saw some ugliness as well, and though I like both her and Sue and have known them for going on twenty years, they fall under the category of “Hugh’s guests.” This means that though I play my role, it is not my responsibility to entertain them. Yes, I offer the occasional drink. I show up for meals but can otherwise come and go at my leisure, exiting, sometimes, as someone is in the middle of a sentence. My father has done this all his life. You’ll be talking to him and he’ll walk away—not angry but just sort of finished with you. I was probably six years old the first time I noticed this. You’d think I’d have found it hurtful, but instead I looked at his retreating back, thinking, We can get away with that? Really? Yippee!
“We’re not pessimists, exactly, but in late middle age, when you envision your life ten years down the line, you’re more likely to see a bedpan than a Tony Award.”
I’d counted the days until my sisters’ arrival, so why wasn’t I next door, sitting with Hugh in our perfect-couple sixteenth-century kitchen with its stone floor and crackling fire? Perhaps I worried that if I didn’t wander off, my family would get on my nerves, or—far more likely—I would get on theirs, and that our week together wouldn’t be as ideal as I’d told myself it would be. As it was, I’d retreat to my office and spend some time doing nothing of consequence. Then I’d head back into the house and hear something that made me wish I’d never left. It was like walking into a theater an hour after the picture has started, thinking, How did that kangaroo get his hands on those nunchakus?
One of the stories I entered late concerned some pills my sister Gretchen had started taking a year and a half earlier. She didn’t say what they were prescribed for, but they were causing her to walk and eat in her sleep. I saw this happen the previous Thanksgiving, which we spent together in a rental house in Hawaii. Dinner was served at seven o’clock, and around midnight, an hour or so after she’d gone to bed, Gretchen drifted out of her room. Hugh and I looked up from our books and watched her enter the kitchen. There, she took the turkey out of the refrigerator and started twisting off meat with her fingers. “Why don’t you get a plate?” I asked, and she looked at me, not scornfully but blankly, as if it had been the wind talking. Then she reached into the carcass and yanked out some stuffing. This was picked at selectively, one crouton mysteriously favored over another, until she decided she’d had enough, at which point she returned to her room, leaving the mess behind her.
“What was that about?” I asked her the next morning.
Gretchen’s face adjusted itself for bad news. “What was what about?”
I told her what had happened, and she said, “Goddamn it. I wondered why I woke up with brown stains on my pillow.”
According to the story I walked in on late, Thanksgiving had been a relatively good night for Gretchen. One morning a few weeks after the turkey episode, she walked into her kitchen in North Carolina and found on the countertop an open jam jar with crumbs in it. At first she thought they were from a cookie. Then she saw the overturned box and realized she had eaten something intended for her painted turtles. It was a nutrition bar, maybe four inches long and made of dead flies, pressed together the way Duraflame logs are. “Not only that,” she said, “but when I was through, I ate all the petals off my poinsettia.” She shook her head. “I noticed it on the counter next to the turtle-food box, and it was just a naked stalk.”
I returned to my office more convinced than ever that this would be our last Christmas together. I mean, flies! If you’re going to eat your pets’ food in your sleep, why not think preventatively and exchange your turtles for a hamster or a rabbit, something safe and vegetarian? Get rid of the houseplants while you’re at it—starting with the cactus—and lock up your cleaning supplies.
Later that evening, I found the sisters stretched out like cats in front of the woodstove. “It used to be that whenever I passed a mirror, I’d look at my face,” Gretchen said, blowing out a mouthful of cigarette smoke. “Now I just check to see if my nipples line up.”
“Maybe ours wasn’t the house I’d have chosen had I been in charge of things. It wasn’t as clean as I’d have liked. From the outside, it wasn’t remarkable. We had no view, but still it was the place I held in mind, and proudly, when I thought, Home.”
Oh my God, I thought. When did that start happening? The last time we were all together for Christmas was 1994. We were at Gretchen’s house in Raleigh, and she started the day by feeding her bullfrog, who was around the same size as her iron and was named Pappy. He was kept in a murky, heated thirty-gallon aquarium on her living room floor, next to three Japanese newts who lived in a meatloaf pan. It was a far cry from a normal Christmas, but what with our mother recently dead, it seemed better to break with tradition and try something completely different: thus my sister’s place, with its feel of a swamp rather than the house we had grown up in, which now felt freighted with too much history. Gretchen’s waist-length hair has gone silver since that Christmas, and when she walks in her sleep, she limps a little. But then, we’re all getting older.
3 Words to Describe This Book
LENGTHY, UNREMARKABLE, WITTY-ISH
I must admit, when I decided to pick up this book, I had no idea who David Sedaris is. Had no idea how famous he actually is. The sole reason why I picked Calypso was simply just because of the fact that the summary of the book sounds interesting, as well as the cover. And yes, the 4-5 star reviews on Goodreads certainly helped build rapport as well.
It wasn’t until I start––excitedly––telling people that I will be reading Calypso by David Sedaris––because your girl is still very new to the non-fiction game and every single new book excites me––that it finally dawned on me that this isn’t a book written by lesser known authors, the author of this book is actually famous!
And now looking back, I believe that knowledge of who David Sedaris is and his fame lead me to put a higher expectation that I should have. Which eventually leads to my downfall with Calypso. Because I didn’t like the book.
Honestly, even after finishing Calypso and letting it simmer for a day or two, I still don’t get what this book is trying to tell its readers. Some review says that this book has opened their eyes to the realities of mid-life crisis, which, if I were to be honest, I don’t really think so. Unless, your mid-life crisis consists of you walking around picking up trash on the streets to hit that daily mile goal because you’ve been made slave by your Fitbit and gossiping about others, then I’m sorry to say, this book isn’t about the realities of being in your fifties. But hey, who am I to say. Who knows, one day I would be 50 and suddenly found myself relating to everything Sedaris wrote.
For a reader who hasn’t ever read a Sedaris book before, reading Calypso kind of felt like if you’d just been dragged halfway across the building and splashed into this swimming pool that is Sedaris’ life. While it was narrated humorously––or at least he tried––it still didn’t negate the fact that I didn’t exactly learn anything or take away anything from this book.
“We’re like a pair of bad trapeze artists, reaching for each other’s hands and missing every time”
Rather than a book with concise beginning and ending, personally, it feels like Calypso feels more like reading someone’s journal that has been edited and modified in a way that is consumer friendly. Which again, is nothing wrong with that. If that’s how he made his coins, then props for him. But upon finishing Calypso, for some reason I don’t feel full like how you feel after a good book. I felt strangely…empty.
CYNICAL AND SARCASTIC
Obviously, the book is narrated by Sedaris himself so while reading Calypso, the readers are in his mind and seeing the world through his eyes. I don’t say this very often with the books I read, but I have to say, sometimes being inside David Sedaris’ head is tiring at best and nauseating at worse.
I commend the fact that he is not afraid to speak his mind and be honest with himself. Because admit it, we’ve all had these dark and egoistical thoughts every now and then. It’s all part of being human, and that’s okay. My problem with reading Calypso was the fact that David Sedaris was in that mindset all the fucking damn time. I don’t know how much of it is real and how much of it is faked for the sake of entertainment, but from Sedaris seems to have an ego the size of a fucking elephant for a man that small. Or maybe it’s because of that.
In his book, there is a section where a fox came to his lawn and they eventually became friendly with each other. Then an argument was brought up by his husband, Hugh, about why did Sedaris have to feed the fox by hand instead of just throwing the food in the yard. And his answer was that he wanted the fox to know that he, David Sedaris, was the one who gave food to the fox. And had David just put the food in the yard, then the fox wouldn’t have been as attached to him as it was.
“You’re not supposed to talk about your good deeds, I know. It effectively negates them and in the process makes people hate you. If there’s a disaster, for instance, and someone tells me he donated five thousand dollars to the relief effort—this while I gave a lesser amount, or nothing at all—I don’t think, Goodness, how bighearted you are, but, rather, Fuck you for making me look selfish.”
Implications of that sorts are found many times in Calypso. It seems as if, if David did a good deed, he wanted the whole world to know and acknowledge that he is the one that they all must thank and bow to. Sure, that kind of sarcastic narration might have worked with other readers, it is a little too pretentious for my liking.
OPENNESS OF FAMILY ISSUES
There are parts––scattered here and there throughout the book where David talked about his family and their issues. How his sister committed suicide, how his mother was an alcoholic, and how bad his relationship with his dad is. These parts, although very few in between, are the ones that hit the hardest I’d say.
“At what point had I realized that class couldn’t save you, that addiction or mental illness didn’t care whether you’d taken piano lessons or spent a summer in Europe? Which drunk or junkie or unmedicated schizophrenic was I crossing the street to avoid when I put it all together?”
The one that got to me most was how David felt like he would never be enough for his dad. How his father would never be proud of him no matter what he did and how much more fame and success he amassed. No matter how much he tried, in his father’s eyes, he would never be enough. And towards the end of the book, it seems evident that David just eventually stopped trying. He found happiness in his life doing what he enjoys doing, and while it is a shame that that’s not––and will never be––enough for his dad, David seems to have long made peace with that fact and has long moved on.
I don’t know why, but for some reason it made me reflect about life and in the things that I thought are important now in my 20s, eventually might not mean anything at all. It’s as if the longer you live and the older you get, the less shit you can be bothered to give. So maybe it is true that the older you are, the more cynical you get.
WHAT YOU SEE IS WHAT YOU GET
While there are a lot of things that I could nitpick from this book, I really do want to commend Sedaris for his openness and rawness while writing Calypso. His thoughts in Calypso are thoughts that many if not all of us has had at least once in our lifetime. Humans are selfish beings, we are egoistic and self-centered. And in the days of social media and cancel-culture where one wrong thing you say could upend your whole livelihood, I really do commend Sedaris for being able to be so honest and real with his readers.
“Happiness is harder to put into words. It’s also harder to source, much more mysterious than anger or sorrow, which come to me promptly, whenever I summon them, and remain long after I’ve begged them to leave.”
It’s either he’s not afraid, or just simply doesn’t care how the world perceives him after reading his book. And that courage is not something that a lot of us have. Not even me. Because naturally, we all want to only show our highlight reel and good side to the public. For Sedaris to rip open that veil and show the world the negatives of his world, is something that I applaud him for.
Even though I do wish to be a whole lot more positive about life when I’m in my 50s compared to Sedaris, one of the trait of his that I’d like to have is to be able to love myself so much that I don’t care about how others perceive me. Because as long as I know who I am, and love me for it, why does other people’s opinions matter?
Would I recommend? No. Especially if you’re a new reader of Sedaris’ books. It wasn’t until I’ve finished Calypso that I read some other readers said that Calypso might not be the best book to start with. One that I hear a lot of people keep recommending is, Me Talk Pretty One Day. So maybe check that one out first if you’ve never read Sedaris before and is looking to start. Although of course, take my word with a grain of salt as I’ve never read that book before as well. It’s just what I have heard around my neck of woods is all.
Altogether, Calypso had been an okay journey. While I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped I would, I didn’t regret getting the book. As far as memoirs go, while it’s not all that memorable, the format was quite refreshing from all the serious memoirs that I’ve read to date.
Sedaris has been many times been remarked as an author who is funny and quirky. The quirky part was, eh, true I suppose. But the funny part, we might need to rethink about that. I don’t know if this is how he narrates his other books, but in Calypso he comes off a the kind of person who would hang out with you, only to talk about you behind your back. Sure, I wouldn’t mind sitting and chatting with him once, but it’s not an experience that I’d wish to repeat ever again. And the same could be said with his books.
For me, I don’t think I will be picking up any of his books again in the foreseeable future as it just doesn’t seem like something I enjoy reading. And as we all know, life is too short to waste your time on mediocre books and bitchy authors when there are so many books out there that’s still left undiscovered.
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