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BOOK REVIEW: Theft by Finding – Diaries: Volume One by David Sedaris

| 24 March 2018 | 1 Reply

BOOK REVIEW: Theft by Finding – Diaries: Volume One by David Sedaris

Little, Brown Book Group
May 2017
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Non-Fiction / Literature, Poetry & Plays / Non-Fiction Prose

9/10

Reading someone’s diary is an intimate, voyeuristic experience. This is even more apparent in the case of author, humourist, and professional people-watcher, David Sedaris’ diaries. Theft by Finding – Diaries: Volume One is named after something an Englishwoman told Sedaris where finding money on the street and pocketing it without searching for its rightful owner is called, “Theft by finding”. Sedaris likens his writing to this very thing. He has also meticulously kept a diary for decades and collected together anecdotes, jokes and general observations from his life so the result is not a commentary per se, but rather a collection of fluid, fragments as documented by a thoughtful eavesdropper who is utterly obsessed with people.

What I prefer recording at the end—or, more recently, at the start—of my day are remarkable events I have observed (fistfights, accidents, a shopper arriving with a full cart of groceries in the express lane), bits of overheard conversation, and startling things people have told me. These people could be friends but just as easily barbers, strangers on a plane, or cashiers. A number of their stories turned out to be urban legends: the neighbour of a relative whose dead cat was stolen from the trunk of a car, etc. I hope I’ve weeded those out. Then there are the jokes I’ve heard at parties and book signings over the years. They were obviously written by someone—all jokes are—but the authors are hardly ever credited in the retelling.

This book is the first of two volumes that are slated for release. Sedaris started with over 150 different volumes spanning 1977-2002. The published copy is one he whittled down and is an edited version of the originals. Some of the earlier entries have been tidied up and rewritten so you get a taste of his early days living in North Carolina and starting a series of odd-jobs before travelling across America and eventually the world. It’s interesting that Sedaris himself admits how different this finished product could have been had a different editor been responsible for pulling it all together:

It’s worth mentioning that this is my edit…An entirely different book from the same source material could make me appear nothing but evil, selfish, generous, or even dare I say, sensitive. On any given day I am all these things and more: stupid, cheerful, misanthropic cruel, narrow-minded, open, petty—the list goes on.

Those familiar with Sedaris’ work will be aware that he often writes in a semi-autobiographical way. His essay the Santaland Diaries was inspired by his days working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. Part of Me Talk Pretty One Day was born out of his French classes overseas where he was taught by an overbearing teacher. These events are documented here in a less polished form to the previously-published works. This diary collection is designed to be dipped in and out of and it’s fascinating to see Sedaris evolve as a writer over time. In the course of this volume he develops his own unique voce- his earlier entries are a little rough and raw but by the end you come to celebrate and enjoy the fully-fledged writer in all his glory:

August 12, 2001 Edinburgh: Hugh was put on standby and promised that if he made it on board, he’d never complain again. Those were his words: never again. I drew up a little contract and he signed it. I now have it in writing. “If I, Hugh Hamrick, get a seat on tonight’s flight I will never complain again.” He got his seat and every five minutes I pulled out his contract and gloated.
It was a small plane. Our flight attendant was named Daisy and she served us a frozen dinner featuring a slab of meat and some sort of jelled-rice concoction. When I say frozen, I don’t mean “thawed” or “reheated,” I mean frozen. Hugh’s rice concoction was impenetrable and my meat was trimmed in ice. I was free to complain all I wanted, but, having signed the contract, he could do nothing but smile and chip away at his rock-hard brownie.

In a lesser pair of hands a diary can be the equivalent of hearing about someone’s dreams- fascinating and indulgent for the storyteller and mind-numbingly dull and banal for the listener. In Theft by Finding however, Sedaris draws us in to his weird and wacky world. You feel like you could be sharing a table with him at the International House of Pancakes (IHOP), a restaurant he frequented for years. You’re also along for the ride through significant events like Sedaris meeting his long-term partner, Hugh Hamrick, his first learning about AIDs, and September 11. These are published alongside lists, recipes and day-to-day activities, like making ends meet as a starving artist lugging furniture and other jobs, to the present day where he occupied himself when Hugh was away by feeding a pet spider in their apartment. Sedaris expertly weaves together the absurd, the relatable, and everyday tid-bits into one rich and droll tapestry or assessment of life:

January 25, 1999 Paris: I spent a total of seventeen hours on my homework. The hardest part was a story the teacher started and asked us to finish. Her opener went like this: “At midnight I decided to leave the party and walk 20 minutes to the train station where I could get a taxi. It was dark and the streets were deserted. I was nervous and hurrying along when I heard a car roll up from behind with its headlights off.”
My completion reads “Surprisingly the trunk was not uncomfortable. There was a pillow there, and a woollen blanket. The floor was carpeted and smelled like pizza. Yes, it was dark, but relatively spacious. While lying there, I would often reflect upon my life before I came to live in this trunk. I’d been walking to the train station where this car stopped behind me. It was dark, but still I could see that the driver was handsome and well dressed. He sensed my nervousness and said, “Come on, then, give us a smile.”
In my story she lives in the trunk for 22 days and falls madly in love with the man who put her there. Eventually they come to tutoie each other through a little hole, and everything’s great until he abandons the car at the airport, with her still in the back. A steep ticket is issued for illegal parking, and when she is held responsible, she cries.

Theft by Finding is one entertaining, fun, and bittersweet read. For the most part, Sedaris keeps the mood light and upbeat but he also isn’t afraid to tackle some serious issues too (like: homophobia, mental illness, and addiction to name a few.) Theft by Finding is a shimmering collection of writings that will make fans of David Sedaris love and appreciate his candid, smart wit and accomplished craft all the more. And for those who aren’t acquainted with Messer Sedaris, meet your new best friend.

Natalie Salvo

Category: Book Reviews, Other Reviews

About the Author ()

Natalie Salvo is a foodie and writer from Sydney. You can find her digging around in second hand book shops or submerged in vinyl crates at good record stores. Her website is at: http://nataliesalvo.wordpress.com

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