How does one objectively review a new book from David Sedaris, an author whose primary claim to fame isn’t necessarily the stories he writes but his style? His is an exacting flavor of observation, one that doesn’t claim to represent the world but attempts to enhance his personal interpretation of it. It’s a style often miscategorized as crude, sarcastic and cruel (though all can and often do apply), but mostly it’s just David Sedaris being David Sedaris, for better or worse.
My press notes reminded me this wasn’t a book of animal fables, sadly. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is his first since 2011’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, perhaps the best children’s book for adults ever published, and his first collection of non-fiction essays since 2009’s When You Are Engulfed in Flames. As expected, many are reprints from The New Yorker and elsewhere and may already be familiar to the most diehard of fans, though a collection of six completely fictional monologues help give the book some extra padding. I’d have preferred a leaner volume (more on the padding near the end) but there’s no question I love just about everything else.
He avoids self-parody by mining the inexhaustible well of life itself, and the lunatics running the asylum (and airports, Walmarts, etc). So you’ll find no critical analysis of the essay’s themselves here, which to be honest are as good as they’ve ever been. In many ways this does a disservice to those readers hoping to experience them fresh and without another’s interpretation, no matter how well-intentioned they may be. Few things in life are as ingratiating to fellow fans than fellow fans, so a brief overview should be more than enough. If you want more than that, buy the book. Like many of you reading this I’m not here for the event, but the atmosphere (and free drinks).
From laid-back dental care in France to the oddities of public defecation and food preparation in China (the two may not be mutually exclusive), Sedaris brings readers up to speed on what’s been happening in his life over the past few years, including a big move to England (and discovering his civic duty with rubbish collection) with boyfriend Hugh, whose relationship has evolved from anniversary chocolates to a near-obsession with taxidermied owls, to the inevitable encroachment of age and the all-new opportunities for self-exploration (colonoscopies). Especially good are his tussles with Pimsleur language courses, including German, as we get to see him distraught and struggle with multiple tongues. Even the cover art is a nice wink-wink to one of the essays (because a diary is, after all, your heart).
Naturally, the usual biographical fill-ins are present, including the usual struggle for acceptance from his father or preference in foes in competitive swimming: “Give me a female opponent with a first-grade education and a leg brace, and I would churn that water like a speedboat. When it came to winning, I never split hairs.”
Less successful are the six thankfully brief and (what I can only hope are) fictional monologues interspersed throughout the regular essays he calls “Forensics” – a literary style where published work is cut down to a predetermined length and recited competitively. These stories should be “self-evident”, he says, and describes his role in them as “a woman, a father, and a sixteen-year old girl with a fake British accent”, which are drawn in the broadest of strokes against hyped-up stereotypes of right-wing GOP conservative Christians.
I’m offended less by the stereotyping than I am with their laziness and fairly transparent appeal to certain groups, and given the targets being fairly ‘self-evident’ that’s not really surprising. Sedaris is popular with the college circuit and many of them, as well as like-minded adults, are bound to count these six crazy-violent revenge fantasies among their new favorites. Or maybe it’s just Sedaris being Sedaris again, and this time it’s me who doesn’t get it. Maybe.
But Sedaris leaves the best for last in Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, at least to me anyway, with final chapter “Dog Days”, a collection 13 mini-poems about just that – our canine pals. Fans of Berke Breathed’s similar Flawed Dogs will love this, so I’ve included a sample to help whet their whistles and leave them salivating for more:
Most every ev’ning Goldilocks
snacks from Kitty’s litter box.
Then on command she gives her missus
lots of little doggy kisses.