Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls

By David Sedaris

(Little, Brown, $27, 288 pages)

Who is this author?

Santa was very, very kind to David Sedaris.

His screamingly funny personal essay, “SantaLand Diaries,” about working at Macy’s at Christmastime (later re-defined as mainly fiction, but still just as hilarious), introduced this sardonic, snarky yet often poignant voice to readers and NPR listeners. Sedaris has gone on to publish seven personal essay collections about growing up in a character-filled Greek family in North Carolina; becoming famous; finding Hugh, his life partner, traveling and living abroad; and other subjects too numerous to recount. “Let’s Explore” makes it eight. The earlier books include the wonderfully titled “Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk,” “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim,” and his essays often appear in The New
Yorker before inclusion in a collection.

What is this book about?

As is his wont, Sedaris jumps all over the place in these essays, telling us about his first colonoscopy (which he rather enjoyed); his  overbearing, often borderline abusive and yet oddly motivating father; his search for the ideal Valentine’s Day gift for Hugh, which turns out to be a stuffed owl; dentistry in France (bad), toilets in Beijing (worse) and a Costco in North Carolina (disorienting). The man is nothing if not eclectic in subject matter. In many ways, this is a travelogue that will convince you to stay home.

The book also contains six rants in the voices of unpleasant (to liberal-leaning readers) characters, such as a Tea Partier and a murderous homophobe who is responding to the growing acceptance of gay marriage. Most reviewers found these pieces, meant to be performed as high school “forensic debate” exercises, as less successful than the humorous essays.

Why you’ll like it:

Observational humor, done with skill, is delightful, and Sedaris has mastered that form of writing. He leads us deftly from a sensible premise – I need to buy a Valentine’s Day gift – through loonier and loonier levels – maybe I should buy a Pygmy skeleton – as though it were the most normal progression in the world.  His brilliant little apercus, such as defining Australia as “Canada in a thong,” will keep you entertained and waiting for more gems to be revealed.

Such as this: “I should be used to the way Americans dress when traveling, yet it still manages to amaze me. It’s as if the person next to you had been washing shoe polish off a pig, then suddenly threw down his sponge, saying, ‘F— this. I’m going to Los Angeles!”

But he can also shift gears to bittersweet recollections about his difficult relationship with his father. In “Memory Laps,” for example, he recalls his dad heaping praise on a swim teammate while ignoring David.

“My dad was like the Marine Corps,” he writes, “only instead of tearing you to pieces and then putting you back together, he just did the first part and called it a day. Now it seems cruel, abusive even, but this all happened before the invention of self-esteem, which, frankly, I think is a little overrated.”

Yet, he told a USA Today interviewer: “I would hate for anyone to think that I would have ever wanted different parents than the ones that I have. Proving my father wrong was what got me out of bed every day. If I had a father who said, “You can do whatever you want, I believe in you 100 percent,” I wouldn’t be where I am. I had to work in opposition to him, and it worked out really well. It’s actually a really good relationship, and I wouldn’t change anything about it.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “Sedaris’s latest essay collection possesses all of the wit, charm, and poignancy his readers have come to expect. His usual cast of delightful characters returns; including a flashback of his father in his underpants berating a schoolboy or, more recently, hounding David into getting a colonoscopy. Many pieces involve travel, animals, or both: his sister Gretchen totes around an insect “kill jar”; in a Denver airport, David engages with a judgmental fellow passenger; and visiting the Australian bush, he has encounters with a kookaburra and a dead wallaby. Seeking a stuffed owl for a Valentine’s Day gift leads him to a taxidermist shop where he is shown gruesome oddities and confronts difficult questions about his curiosity. Another essay explores the evolution of David’s 35 years-and-counting of keeping a diary and provides some great insight into his writing process.This is a must-read for fans of smart, well-crafted writing with a sense of humor.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: A more varied and less consistent essay collection from the noted humorist. In middle age, Sedaris no longer aims as often for laugh-out-loud funny as he did when he attracted a popular following almost two decades ago. Most of these essays revisit many of the areas he’s previously mined for hilarity–the dysfunctional family stuff, the gay stuff, the American-living-abroad stuff–but much of what he returns to in memory seems less antic and more melancholy than before. In the funniest piece, the penultimate “The Happy Place,” he discovers his Eden by embracing what others of his generation resist: the colonoscopy. “Never had I experienced such an all-encompassing sense of well-being,” he writes. “Everything was soft-edged and lovely. Everyone was magnificent….I’m not sure how long I lay there, blissed-out and farting.”

“Sedaris is a remarkably skilled storyteller and savvy essayist. He weaves together vivid images and sensations into a coherent whole that packs a serious emotional punch….Yes, David Sedaris is really that good. And based, on this latest collection, he’s getting only better,” says the Los Angeles Times.

“An acute observer and master of the quick, excoriating takedown, Sedaris claims new territory in this exceptionally gutsy and unnerving collection,” says Booklist.

“David Sedaris still talks pretty,” says New York Magazine.

When is it available?

The new book by David Sedaris is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library and its Blue Hills branch.

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