Hard to believe it's been almost half a decade since comedian/actor/author Amy Sedaris "changed the way the world entertains" (her words) with her etiquette/decorating/recipe guide, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence. Now she returns with Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People in which she effectively does the same for crafting that she did for hosting: Makes it really funny and more than a little bit disturbing.
"I am sincere about everything that is in the book," says Sedaris via e-mail. "Of course, I may also be sincerely messed up."
The inspiration for the book, she explains, is that "I’ve always adored simple crafts and admired the people who could make them. I started a Thursday craft club called 'Creative Fridays.' Like-minded people and me would get together, eat good food, chemically enhance our moods and run amok amongst the felt and googly eyes."
She adds, "Sometimes I would convince the people in my club to put up a bookshelf, or wallpaper my hallway, and I would convince them they were still crafting." This last bit is a takeaway from the book's "Creative Fridays" chapter (in which Sedaris states the club's bylaws like, "No two people taking breaks at the same time," "You smoke it or drink it, you bring it" and "No heterosexual couples!") — so you decide if the author is drawing from personal experience or speaking in character. (More on that in a minute.)
A search for Simple Times on the Barnes & Noble website lists it among supposed-similar titles like Martha Stewart's Encyclopedia of Crafts and Man Crafts: Leather Tooling, Fly Tying, Ax Whittling, and Other Cool Things to Do. Sedaris says, "Man Crafts shares the most with my book. Both seem to encourage people to look backwards to a simpler time in America when we made our own furniture, knitted our own blankets and fought the common cold by vigorously bleeding the sick."
Simple nods to those pioneering roots. In among the "My Plumber's Cheesecake" recipe and the "Macaroni Alien Mask" instructions, there are how-tos for a bottle-cap shoe scraper and a door hinge made from a piece of old tire. "Our desperate ancestors used every scrap and tatter in a variety of ingenious ways," Sedaris writes. "Even an old stove was not left for the scrap heap. It was disassembled to make wind chimes, paperweights and other kinds of weights and whatever was left over was woven into a quilt." There is definite ingenuity to Simple — there's the cardboard indoor rabbit dwelling and the bookmark made out of pennies. In fact, a serious crafter could actually find some projects in Sedaris' book — but don't expect the finished products (tampon ghosts, champagne cork toadstools, rusty nail wind chimes) to earn a booth at the next Big Crafty.
Not so long ago, before the DIY movement came around again with its Stitch-N-Bitches and Uglydolls, crafts were the territory of church basement bazaars. Sedaris doesn't shy away from things made with glitter and toilet paper rolls. "I suppose the main criteria in picking crafts for the book was including projects I could actually replicate," she says. "There is a good chance that the sum of all my artistic abilities adds up to 'hokey,' but that is never my destination."
The real craft is Sedaris' exceptional multi-media comedy show, from life observations ("The most difficult part of being elderly is being old. By old, of course, we mean grizzledly dodderingly well past one's prime”) to the tips from curmudgeonly senior-crafters Gene and Jean Woodchuck, to the retro-cluttery photos, to Sedaris' fantastic characters, created with costumes and makeup and the same weirdness that allows her to transform into Strangers with Candy’s creepy star Jerri Blank. In Simple, Sedaris models a cutaway bathing suit, a lot of high-waisted denim and ‘70s-era checkered fabric. She dresses as an old lady, an acne-afflicted teenager and Jesus. "I was always in character and these characters I've been dragging around since I was 5," she says.
Think of Simple as performance art, with large numbers of pages being devoted to safety ("Whenever a crafter announces, 'Hey, I have a better way to do that,' the result is sure to be a violent, albeit rib-tickling, one"), stretching (in which Seadris, in a two-toned, belted leotard, performs — sometimes with partners — more than 60 awkward flexibility exercises) and sausages. But even that meaty chapter has nothing on "Making Love" or, as Sedaris also calls it, "Fornicrafting."
In the book’s intro, the author writes, "It's often been said that ugly people craft and attractive people have sex. This book is not going to dispel that ridiculous fact."
To Xpress, Sedaris says, "I should define ugly – I’m using that term to describe anyone who doesn’t gain employment, bank loans or good grades, solely based on their looks. So 'fornicrafting' is for all those people. Attractive people don’t need help having sex, because they are less concerned about pleasing their partner, and more concerned about how good they look doing it."
Of course, a pair of "Hot-on-the-Trail Moccasins" (pg. 56) or "Gingham Bottoms" (page 195) might take care of the "look good doing it" part, too.
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Amy Sedaris
what: Booksigning event for Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People
where: Asheville Community Theatre mainstage
when: Friday, Nov. 12 (7 p.m., tickets are $33 which includes a copy of the book and $5 seat reservation. malaprops.com)