The giants of fiction turn heads with their sweeping themes, their solemn meditations, and their grand plots. Their abilities often leave many a mere mortal either green with envy or drooling with appreciation, but there is something special about a writer who can provoke such a reaction with non-fiction.
David Sedaris takes his cues from his childhood experiences to his adult misadventures, crafting a book of essays interspersed with an occasional short piece of prose. The essays are a pleasing mixture of wistful wit and opportunities for identification, while the prose is wickedly fun and often more than a little dark. His writing is, amongst other things, exceedingly cunning. In the opening essay he describes his relationship with his dentist, hardly a subject associated with hilarity. It speaks to his proficiency that he can charm an audience by relating that he flosses every day. In another essay he recalls his father’s admiration for a childhood peer (a boy who excelled at swimming), and one is hard-pressed not to feel the visceral envy he describes.
He openly discusses the little feelings that all of us get, the suppressed squirming worms of shame or neuroses or vindictive triumph, without judgment but rather with disarming honesty. The anecdotes are so relatable in part because they play on common situations that one is likely to have experienced: financial trouble, culture shock, protecting a sibling, adolescent anguish and even feeding a bird. What lends them a sparkle are the innumerable particulars. Many of us have fed birds; few have passed strips of meat to a kookaburra. Many of us have chatted to a neighbor (in this case an old lady) while in line for something, few have driven them away by discussing the appropriate spelling of “Freaky Mother******”. Many of us have known the trouble of getting the perfect Valentine’s Day present; few of us have gone to a taxidermist for the solution.
David Sedaris has a peculiar genius, one that can make his audience choke up and laugh out loud (never too much of one or the other). He writes with an air at once bittersweet and deadpan, achieving a unique alchemy.
‘Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls’ is a thoughtful and incredibly funny compilation of essays, lighter than his previous ‘Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim’ (2004). It is subtler than his uproariously funny ‘Me Talk Pretty One Day’ (2000), while still very much being a credit to Sedaris’ reputation as humorist. I would, on a personal note, suggest that those who have not read Sedaris before to start with his essay ‘SantaLand Diaries’ from ‘Holidays on Ice’ (1997) before reading ‘Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls’. It was read on NPR and was Sedaris’ first break; it illustrates the man who would later become a hero of comedic style.
Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, Published by Little Brown (2013)
By Morgan Kwok