It takes a certain special sense of humor to enjoy the works of David Sedaris. My mother, for example, would likely find his books vulgar and distasteful, as would many men and women in their later years. Even so, Sedaris’s wacky, darker sense of humor is not usually what I find entertaining. There is something innately off-putting and occasionally disturbing but nonetheless highly original about Sedaris’s storytelling. He likes to strip life bare of the varnish of civility and present his unusual take on often hot-button issues, especially now that he has established himself irrevocably in the American psyche.
I first began reading his books in graduate school, after hearing some rave reviews and realizing that I only had time to read short stories. Soon, reading an essay by Sedaris became, ironically, a compulsive nightly ritual. I started at the beginning, making quick work of Barrel Fever, Naked, Holidays on Ice, and Me Talk Pretty One Day before moving on to exhaust the rest of his collected works. My routine seemed counter-intuitive. Sitting, curled in bed and doubled over with laughter seems like a poor catalyst for easing off into a peaceful night’s sleep. Nonetheless, there was something cathartic about the process that never ceased to drive any of the day’s lingering demons away.
Having long since exhausted my supply of essays, the tradition gradually faded. Still, I was particularly excited to see Sedaris’s latest collection plastered over just about every book advertising venue available: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Over the years, I had heard wonderful things about Sedaris’s live performances and books on tape, so I decided to shirk my habitual medium for engaging with his work , opting to listen instead. A good decision. While Sedaris is sidesplitting in writing, the audio simply adds another dimension that rounds out the experience.
I have always had a personal preference for Sedaris’s stories about life as an ex-patriot, travel, and social/political issues. While his tales about his eccentric, dysfunctional suburban family are entertaining, these essays feel akin to the slapstick part of a comedy show, there is something a hair more highbrow about his travel pieces.
In my book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls delivered on all fronts–it’s classic Sedaris even if it lacks a revolutionary spark. Having not read any of the collection’s essays that were previously published in The New Yorker or The Guardian, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls was entirely new for me. Sedaris maintains his traditional voice, misanthropic and cynical, with a particular contempt for the foibles of humanity, in particular the average American.
I enjoyed Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls more than some of Sedaris’s earlier works because he focuses less on his family drama and more on his life abroad. Visa troubles. Trips to China. Trash collection in the UK. Dentists in France. Kookaburras in Australia.
Although I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite essay, I particularly enjoyed his piece about the limitations of learning languages via CD.
Besides skewing his content toward his international adventures, Sedaris takes a particularly strong political stance in a collection of brief essays at the end of Owls designed for speech contests. Liberal verging on vitriolic, they may alienate some of Sedaris’s more conservative fans, if he has any.
Still, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a must-read (or listen) summer title. If future generations get a hold of Sedaris’s writing and it is studied as a reflection of the human condition in the 1990s/2000s, I will be happy.