The 22 essays in David Sedaris' new collection, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (Little, Brown, 288 pp., $24.95), are collectively as funny and compassionate as any of his previous four collections (The Santaland Diaries, Barrel Fever, Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day). They may actually be funnier because by now we know the characters so well: his parents, Sharon and Lou; his siblings, Tiffany, Lisa, Gretchen, Amy and Paul; his partner Hugh; and Sedaris himself, the slyly self-effacing chronicler of his family's mostly well-intentioned madness.
As usual, Sedaris' dysfunctional tribe dominates the action here, but the author does leave them behind a few times to explore foreign territory. In "Blood Work," for example, he writes of his adventures as a maid in New York; in "Six to Eight Black Men," he explains the Netherlands' seemingly inexplicable Christmas traditions; and in a strange, hilarious and somewhat disquieting piece called "Possession," the author describes his manic desire to move into and redecorate the Anne Frank house, which is now a museum: "I raced on to the bathroom, and then to the water closet with its delft toilet bowl looking for all the world like a big soup tureen.... [T]hen back upstairs to reconsider the kitchen countertop, which, on second thought, I decided to keep."
But Sedaris doesn't abandon for long what has earned him both critical and popular acclaim. The bulk of the pieces here focus on his laugh-out-loud insights into the hidden dynamics of family relationships. With essays covering every period of the author's lifefrom his childhood in North Carolina to his life today in FranceSedaris articulates better than any other American humorist the comic and sometimes heartbreaking underbelly of family life. He is a master at recalling the right piece of family history at the right time, as when he remembers why he'll never convince one sister to accept logic: "When she was 13, Tiffany got braces, and when she was 14 she tried to remove them with a set of pliers."
Emerging from a delicate balance of cynicism, compassion and paranoia, Sedaris' comedy is sometimes sublime, sometimes outrageous and usually both. He reads at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on June 29 at 6 p.m.
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