Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

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Reviewed by Simon Thomas

It’s a shame, in some respects, that our divisions on Shiny New Books don’t allow for subcategories within non-ficton, because you might be assuming (if the name ‘David Sedaris’ means nothing to you) that Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls will help you with all your avian diabetes needs. Sorry, but no, you’re on your own there – this is simply the latest vein tapped in the seemingly endless source of David Sedaris’s memoirs, recollections, and thoughts – essays, if you will of which there are now nine collections.

As before, he ranges from his childhood to the present, stopping off at the days he spent living in squalid apartments to litter-picking in south England. My favourite essays, perhaps because they run deepest, are those which deal with his family – whether that is the aftermath of his sister almost being attacked or introducing his mother to a childhood ‘girlfriend’. More poignantly, because it recurs so often, is the clear rejection Sedaris still feels (in his 50s) at his father’s lack of approval or congratulation.

But no topic seems to be off-limits for Sedaris. Everyday moments and memories are extended into well-paced anecdotes, including subjects as diverse as call centres, inadequate language-learning tapes, and dentistry. There are some political moments (he is very good on Europe’s mania for Obama), but mostly Sedaris takes his audience’s liberalism for granted, and discusses the minutiae of his life instead of a broader canvas.

His tone is almost unswervingly curmudgeonly and funny, presumably because that is the niche he has built for himself. Whether he is talking about author tours, immigration officials, or his father’s habit of eating without any trousers on, Sedaris can be relied upon to find the cloud attached to any silver lining. In this respect he is far more at home in Britain than in America; grumbling is a way of life on this side of the Atlantic. For the most part, it is just grumbling – the reader doesn’t really feel that Sedaris hates his fellow man as much as he protests – and it is almost always amusing. Sedaris is certainly gifted at the dismissive one-liner, and (unfortunately for the censor in me) the one I liked best was this one, about queuing at an airport and the dishevelled people one finds there:

It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, and then suddenly threw down his sponge saying, “F*** this. I’m going to Los Angeles!”

There are odd moments, however, where Sedaris celebrates the good things in life. Sometimes (rather touchingly) that is his partner Hugh. Sometimes, on the other hand, it is sea turtles. Unsurprisingly, I find his love of reading the nicest part – and very much enjoyed this description:

Their house had real hardcover books in it, and you saw them lying open on the sofa, the words still warm from being read.

Quite often, I got the impression that he had written pieces to be read aloud, and I know a lot of people are familiar with his slots on Radio 4. There were plenty of sentences which seemed to be written so that they could be given the pauses and comic timing which are only possible when a piece is spoken – for instance, this:

I should have quit the restaurant and found something more substantial, but I told myself I needed the free time, needed it for my real work, my sculpture.

It’s a great sentence, even when read in a book. But I can imagine it being read by Sedaris, slowing down as he went… the biggest pause (guaranteeing the biggest laugh) at that final comma, so that ‘my sculpture’ is given all the self-knowing absurdity it deserves. These elements do make the essays feel a bit like transcripts, at times, which could be either a good or bad thing, depending on your outlook.

At the beginning of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls there is an Author’s Note which reads as follows:

Over the years I’ve met quite a few teenagers who participate in what is called “Forensics.” It’s basically a cross between speech and debate. Students take published short stories and essays, edit them down to a predetermined length, and recite them competitively. To that end, I have written six brief monologues that young people might deliver before a panel of judges. I believe these stories should be self-evident. They’re the pieces in which I am a woman, a father, and a sixteen-year-old girl with a fake British accent.

Oh, David. These were the sections which didn’t work at all. It’s very hard to see why they were included – he may have done this in previous volumes (he didn’t in the only other one I’ve read, the excellent Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), but the Author’s Note leads me to suspect this is a new aberration. Is his inspiration running dry? Has he finally recounted everything of note in his life? Or did he simply want to have some fun? Whatever the reason, these sections are definitely skippable.

They’re essentially one-note short stories, where Sedaris picks easy – well, made-up – targets, such as the man who is so self-involved that he can’t remember which of his parents is alive, or the teenage American girl who loves the idea of being British so much that she hates everything about America (was it deliberate that the next essay used the – to British minds – atrocious word ‘burglarized’?) His essays are funny because they are self-deprecating even at their most obstreperous, and because they tell of real events. The absurd people and instances actually happened, and we assume – exaggeration aside – that he isn’t lying. The ‘Forensics’ are just viciously self-righteous demolitions of non-existent people, without the attenuating merit of laughing at himself as well. And as for ‘I believe these stories should be self-evident’… well, they’re not marked, and thus I am often found myself a confused page or two into a piece before realising what was going on. All a big misfire, in this reviewer’s opinion.

But don’t let that put you off the book. If you’re prepared to skim six chapters, there are still 20 to read, laugh at, and enjoy. Sedaris is still top of his game when it comes to the observational essay, and he is still willing to expose the flaws and misdeeds of strangers, loved ones, and himself alike. If he can keep himself from unsuccessful attempts to diversify, and if he manages to find ever more memories which amuse, annoy, or embarrass him, then there will doubtless be many more brilliant collections ahead.

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Simon is one of the Shiny editors.

David Sedaris, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (Abacus, 2013) , 275 pages.

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