David Sedaris’s previous book, 2010’s Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, was an exploration of human foibles told allegorically through animal tales. It was an attempt to break out of his comfort zone, and for this brazen experimentation Sedaris was duly punished. Though know that by “punished,” I mean that it was the first time, as far as I know, that a Sedaris book has met with something other than universal acclaim. The Guardian’s critic outright condemned it, while several others offered the kind of faint praise someone trying an unfamiliar dish might give in the presence of the cook: “Well that’s… different.”
Despite the animal reference in its title, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls is a return to Sedaris’s familiar yet killingly hilarious essayistic form. (These are, as usual, mainly reprints of pieces that first appeared in The New Yorker and other publications.)
Though Sedaris still manages to extract the odd gold nugget from his upbringing with his overbearing Greek family, his experiences living as an expat overseas and with his long-time partner Hugh have proved the richer mine of late. We thus get topics ranging from dentistry in France to litter in the Sussex countryside to Sedaris’ attempt at a paradigm shift on legalizing gay marriage: “If you don’t want to marry a homosexual, then don’t. But what gives you the right to weigh in on your neighbor’s options? It’s like voting on whether or not redheads should be allowed to celebrate Christmas.”
One of the best essays is about Sedaris’ experiences with the Pimsleur language program, which, despite outward consistency, Sedaris discovers can’t help revealing national character. “There’s no discord in Pimsleur’s Japan, but its Germany is a moody and often savage place,” he writes, adding that in the Japanese and Italian programs, the response to the question “How are you?” is “I’m fine, and you?” whereas, “In German it’s answered with a sigh and a slight pause, followed by ‘Not so good.’”
Sedaris has courted far more adoration than controversy, but one essay, “#2 to Go,” about a trip to China he once took with Hugh, had some accusing him of arrogance and cultural insensitivity when it originally ran in The Guardian, where it was titled “Chicken Toenails, Anyone?” After stoking cultural animosity by comparing China’s hygiene and cuisine unfavourably with Japan’s, Sedaris goes on to describe China’s feces-bespattered sidewalks and “wads of phlegm glistening like freshly shucked oysters on staircases and elevators.” In the countryside, he is served a rooster “senselessly hacked, as if by a blind person, a really angry one with a thing against birds.”
“Loggerheads,” in which Sedaris recalls collecting handfuls of baby sea turtles as a boy then watching them slowly die in an aquarium full of rotting hamburger meat, would be considered just as outrageous were it set in the present day, but in the 1960s, as Sedaris points out: “Animal cruelty hadn’t been invented.”
Six experimental pieces told from various imagined perspectives, including a Jesus freak and a sixteen-year-old female anglophile, are described by Sedaris as “brief monologues that young people might deliver before a panel of judges.” Though it seems cruel to admonish someone for the laudable goal of expanding his repertoire, the tone of these pieces is heavy-handed and overly caustic, especially in contrast with Sedaris’ proprietary blend of self-deprecation, nuanced social observation and neuroticism.
Subtract these from the mix, however, and this is one of Sedaris’ most consistently funny collections yet, one I strongly suggest you don’t read in a library or on a high mountaintop—you’ll need all the oxygen you can get.
—Emily Donaldson is a freelance critic and editor