After putting out a collection of his diaries and dabbling in short fiction, David Sedaris returns to nonfiction essays in his new book Calypso. The essays are often funny but at times also become very serious. Aging and death are reoccurring themes in the book. Tiffany, the author’s troubled sister, killed herself in 2013, and the author’s father is now in his nineties and is not getting along all that well living by himself.
This doesn’t mean that Calypso is a downer. It’s obvious that the author had a difficult relationship with Tiffany, in large part due to mental health problems she suffered from. He doesn’t seem to know quite what to make of her death. He feels bad but also admits that they hadn’t spoken in a number of years. In a way it’s quite refreshing to see someone so honest about dealing with a family member’s suicide. I saw some comments on the internet that David should have used some of his money to help Tiffany, but these criticisms ignore the fact that the mentally ill sometimes don’t want help and don’t think there is anything wrong with them, which is what he faced with his late sister.
My favorite essay in the book was about the only type of bonding David can ever seem to do with his father: listening to jazz. The elder Sedaris has a talent for focusing on the negative. If he comes to one of David’s readings and it’s sold out, he will count the number of empty seats in the auditorium and report the number to David after the show. It’s your usual no-matter-what-you’re-doing-it’s-not-good-enough parenting. Listening to jazz is the one time they are guaranteed to get along because it involves sitting together in silence while they listen to music. At last, they have nothing to argue about and can agree on the greatness of whatever musician they are listening to.
There is also a wonderful essay about the local wildlife around David’s house in England. He starts feeding a wild fox and soon finds that it’s bonding with him and following him around the back yard like any regular pet. Less successful is an essay about David and his sisters buying strange clothes while visiting Japan. It seems to highlight the siblings’ quirkiness but never really goes anywhere beyond that. Despite the occasional stumble, there are far more good than bad essays in this strong collection.