My earliest David Sedaris memory: "Come here, it's the elf!" my parents would yell.
We'd go to the kitchen, where my mom stood gripping the counter, as if what the radio elf was doling out could knock her down laughing. We'd listen to that voice, it's distinctive timbre and thrilling gay accent, as it delivered dark and confidential information, letting us in on life's droll secrets.
"That's a damned funny elf," my dad said.
The elf, of course, was American writer and humorist David Sedaris, whose "Santaland Diaries" would make him famous as he skewered the ugly and poignant side of American life.
Years later I went to hear Sedaris at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, where he read from "Me Talk Pretty One Day," about moving to Paris with his boyfriend, Hugh. His book famously dealt with French lessons, and how excruciating it is for a person who depends on conversation and dialogue to be denied its fluent use. He vowed a deep love for the Heathman Hotel in Portland, and how he would like to reside there permanently.
Sedaris now lives in London and contributes to BBC Radio 4.
In story collections such as "Dress your Family in Corduroy and Denim," he mines his childhood and teenage years. Kicked out of his parents' house at age 22, he moves into his sister's apartment. When his mom drops him off, crying, he wonders, "What do we look like to other people?"
Sedaris recently talked to Fresh Air's Terri Gross about his new book "Theft by Finding, Diaries 1977-2002" ($28, Little, Brown & Co.).
The title refers to the obligation a person has to turn in something they find so the rightful owner may claim it. If you don't, that's theft by finding. It's a fitting title for any Sedaris book since he wantonly steals from everything he sees and overhears. "Theft by Finding" is based on Sedaris's early journals from 1977 to 2002, and it's fascinating to watch the writer emerge in stages. The years encompass an early meth addiction, and the deaths of his sister and his mother, and giving up drinking. The massive book, Sedaris writes in the forward, isn't intended to be read cover to cover, as much as dipped in and out of.
But I think that's just him being self-effacing.
Early diary entries date back to when Sedaris roamed around the United States with a friend named Ronnie, doing odd jobs. During this time, he's in Portland, Hood River and Odell, where he meets a man with wooden legs and works pulling leaves off pears or repairing fruit bins until his hands bleed. They end up in Portland, as in this unpretty entry:
"October 29, 1977, Portland, Oregon: Ronnie and I are at the Broadway Hotel, a cheap and depressing place. Scary. There is a real poor and a funky poor. This is the real kind. The lobby is full of dying old people, cripples, and a girl who ate hamburger after hamburger, pouring ketchup on every bite. ... Our fellow guests, winos and the down-on-their-luck, are the ones our parents always warned us about."
In the late 1990s he is taking French lessons in Paris:
"September 7, 1998, Paris: We got a new student today, a Moroccan who's clearly the best French speaker in the room. She correctly and confidently answered one question after another until the teacher shut her down by saying, 'This is not your little occasion to show off. This is for people who don't know the language.'"
Sedaris fans will be off to the races after just one or two entries because "Theft By Finding" is an addictive read no matter what page you land on.
Sedaris will read from "Theft By Finding" at Powell's at Cedar Hills Crossing, 6 p.m. Friday, June 23, and he will return to Portland on Tuesday, Nov. 14, to talk at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall. Presumably staying again at The Heathman Hotel.