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Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris

May 31, 2013


I think Sedaris is one of the funniest comedy writers around. A compilation of his 20 best humor essays would be a fantastic book. One or two might come from this book. That’s not to say the rest are all duds; the collection is just a little uneven.

A number of reviewers have criticized this collection’s handful of serious moments. A couple of the essays are about Sedaris’s father, who apparently was a real jerk, and one has some darker moments when his sister was attacked by a sexual predator when he was young. I didn’t mind that Sedaris broke out of his typical observational humor for these essays. I think he should be allowed to do something other than what he’s always done. And I liked getting to know him in a different way.

What I found more off-putting was the bitter undertone that crept into a couple of the other pieces, particularly the six fictional pieces included at the end. Sedaris writes that, over the years, a number of students have mentioned that they do his stories in what’s known as “forensics,” which is a kind of performance of a memorized story. So, knowing this, Sedaris made up a few stories he thought might be appropriate. They’re fictional, told from the point-of-view of various unlikable, hyperbolized characters (e.g. gun-toting, gay-hating murderer; a self-centered, spiteful sister, etc.). The problem is that they’re fictional. Sedaris is no longer just observing and commenting on the world. He’s now creating a world, projecting his own biases onto fictional caricatures. His bitterness and his prejudices show through in some rather heavy-handed themes.

Still, there are a number of essays in which Sedaris is at his best: “Dentists Without Borders,” which compares his U.S. dentist with his blasé French dentist. There’s “Understanding Understanding Owls,” about his search for a good taxidermied owl (my favorite part of which is when the owner of one shop explains a particularly unfortunate creation: “What we’ve done is stretch a chicken over an owl form.”) But the best essay is “The Happy Place.” It’s about a colonoscopy, and I’ll just say that it’s much funnier than it probably sounds.

Overall, not Sedaris’s best, but still much funnier than most.

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