Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris

Every David Sedaris book is like a treat for me. I hoard them like chocolates in a secret corner of the fridge, and pull them out when I need something sinful and delicious. My latest indulgence is Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, his collection of narrative essays from 2013.

Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls - David Sedaris - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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It won’t come as any surprise to fellow fans of Sedaris that Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls contains very little about the titular diabetes, or owls. The title was taken from a conversation he had with a reader at a book signing, who asked him to inscribe one of his books with something along the lines of ‘explore your inner feelings’. Sedaris said: “I never write what people ask me, so I said ‘I’ll keep the word explore’, and I wrote ‘let’s explore diabetes with owls,’.” There you have it.

The essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls aren’t closely tied to a particular theme or servicing any overarching narrative. Rather, there’s a few threads that loosely connect a few of them, more like a mind map than a straight line through a story.

Sedaris’s voice remains as singular as ever, though – curious, awkward, wry, self-deprecating, at times angry, mostly baffled. He waxes rhapsodic about his relationship with his French orthodontist, he overcomes his fear to hand-feed a kookaburra at a regional Australian cafe, he grumbles about the futile but irresistible task of cleaning rubbish from the English countryside, and he wonders what exactly it is about him that gives a taxidermy shop attendant the (correct) impression that he’d like to see human remains they keep out the back.

A couple of motifs appear multiple times throughout. Many of the essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls were written or set during the early Obama years, for instance, so quite a few of them reference the 2008 election and the world’s fascination with the American political side-show. Sedaris’s father is also a recurring character, at times an menacing presence in the family home and at others an object of fun. Any other writer might struggle to communicate to the reader that a man who rarely wears pants inside the house can intimidate a child, but Sedaris isn’t just any writer. Without ever explaining it explicitly, Sedaris impresses upon us his lifelong struggle to satisfy his father – only to delightfully resolve the tension by finally conceding to his father’s demands that he get a colonoscopy, which makes the old man happy.

My love for Sedaris is so great that even the cruelest subject matter doesn’t put me off his writing. In Loggerheads, he describes a disastrous childhood experiment keeping captured baby sea turtles in a bedroom aquarium, despite knowing nothing about them (not even what they ate). The sea turtles met an unfortunate end, which would be enough to put me off any other essayist, but Sedaris has engendered enough goodwill that I can forgive it.

In that vein, delicate readers might be put out by some of what I’d diplomatically refer to as some cultural insensitivity in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – in the chapter about examining a taxidermied Congolese Pygmy for instance, or the one about food and hygiene habits in China. It’s dicey ground, but I like to assume the best of intentions in Sedaris and I hope that other readers can do the same.

Really, the slightly sour note in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a layout issue more than anything else. Sedaris includes comedic fictional monologues throughout the collection, which he explains in the foreword, but they’re not flagged as such in text. So, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls led to frequent experiences of whiplash, realising that Sedaris was writing in character and not, in fact, relating a story about being a teenage girl who gets ripped off on a school trip to England or a woman who is duped by her gay son into wearing a Big Proud Dyke t-shirt to a conservative rally. These stories are funny, and no doubt fun for Sedaris to write, but I could’ve done without them – or at least would have preferred they be signposted a bit better.

All told, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was another wicked delight, and I’m already eagerly anticipating my next treat from Sedaris.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls:

  • “A turd left floating in a toilet is far funnier than one mans take on politics in the US.” – amlphx
  • “As a resident of the south who got to go to one of his book signings it now makes me re-evaluate whether or not he actually wanted to be there or secretly was hating our guts cause we might be conservative.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Do you really want to read about the taxidermist who used a human head as his subject, for example, or about his sisters’ reactions to some pervert exposing himself? In two words, this book is childish trash.” – Spot
  • “Too mean-spirited and kind of snobby and elitist – like this guy has the monopoly on good taste. Get over yourself.” – Anonymous
  • “Reading this was like going to your favorite restaurant, ordering a lobster and having the waiter lift the lid of the serving dish to reveal a dead rat. I tried three time to read this mound of steaming crap.” – Tom Hemeon

2 Comments

  1. Great review, my favourite story from this collection was Dentists Without Borders, with the good time teeth 😆

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