Book review: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

cv_lets explore diabetes with owlsThis book is in bookstores now.

I’m a David Sedaris fan from way back, but that doesn’t mean that I’m lining up at the bookshop when his latest comes out. I own three of his books already – four might be excessive. But this title intrigued me – Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. What did that mean? Had David been diagnosed with diabetes and was now going to lampoon it with his caustic wit, making it embarrassing and funny and an infinitely cooler thing to have? As someone with Type 1 diabetes, I hoped this would be the case.

But no, there is nothing to do with diabetes in this book. There is gum disease and fatty tumours. There are colonoscopies and OCD diary entries. But the diabetes reference is a red herring, inspired by an inscription in a fan’s book, when Sedaris refused to write ‘believe in yourself’, or whatever it was he was instructed to write, for fear that his book would end up in a second hand bookshop.

I do admire a man who can write an essay about having his teeth scaled and remain endearing. I don’t find him as uproariously funny as I did the first time round, when I read Naked.

In a way, Sedaris has found a formula. He begins with a contemporary shred – a desire to take up swimming again, say – segues to his nutty family, mentions an exotic animal (sea turtles! Albino peacocks! Flying squirrels! Kookaburras!) and then returns to the set-up to round things off. Still, reading Sedaris’s joyous, misanthropic, visceral take on the world is like hanging out with an old friend who tells the same story over again, but you humour him because it may have morphed into something completely different this time round.

Besides, I am endlessly fascinated by his family. I love the vignettes of his mother, smoking cigarettes and pouring wine out of a 50 gallon jug on the bench whilst pregnant with his younger brother. And his dad, who strips down to his underpants as soon as he comes home, his physique like a wrestler’s, albeit not in top condition. He yells at and paddles his kids, calling Sedaris a big fat zero. This is the reason Sedaris writes – he’s still trying to prove his dad wrong. And yet, when Sedaris phones him to say that his book is number 1 on the New York Times Bestseller list, his dad replies, ‘Well, it’s not number 1 on the Wall Street Journal list.’

My other fascination comes in Sedaris describing his process. He is a compulsive diary writer. He can’t leave the house until he has transcribed all of the funny things he’s heard and seen – he says he feels too ‘antsy and incomplete’.

He has particular convictions about the word diary: ‘A journal, in my opinion, is a repository of ideas – your brain on the page. A diary, by contrast, is your heart. As for “journaling,” a verb that cropped up around the same time as “scrapbooking,” that just means you’re spooky and have way too much time on your hands.’

This affords me a view of Sedaris the writer – someone whose material is all around him. He is constantly harvesting story scraps, just as he spends every afternoon picking up rubbish in his West Sussex neighbourhood. I’m reminded of a talk given by Lily Richards at the Auckland Library earlier this year, about when she met Sedaris, and he peered at her glasses, giving them his approval. She wanted a meeting of minds but he wasn’t after conversation – he was after material. And in Lily’s case, spectacles inspiration.

One part of this book which I think is a big mistake is Sedaris’s forays into fiction. In each of them he adopts a voice and spits out the hateful, homophobic rhetoric that rednecks might. It’s cartoonish, it isn’t nuanced. Stop it, David, I wanted to say. You’re preaching to the choir. Maybe it was good therapy for him – to become the person that would never read his books. But they made me cringe and wish that his editor was less indulgent.

The other mistake: the China chapter. Sedaris hates Chinese food – it makes him squeamish, and his squeamishness extends to the whole country. As he points out the turds and the hoik, he wishes it were more sanitary, like Japan, where people rinse the dog pee off the pavement with water bottles. How could he get away with being so xenophobic? I suppose he’s made his millions by speaking his mind, and no one’s going to stop him now.

Would I recommend this book? Yes, with reservations. If you were new to Sedaris you might want to start with Naked or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. And you might like to listen to him on This American Life, to appreciate his deadpan delivery in a nasal drawl. Now, when I read his books, I hear him reading to me, a black-humoured uncle in a Louis XIV armchair, insisting on showing me his ingrown toenail, shocking me with his hilarious childhood tales and random hatreds, and his sometimes poignant view of the world around us.

Reviewed be Sarah Laing
(Ed: Sarah is a writer whose third book The Fall of Light is out in July).

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls
by David Sedaris
Published by Abacus
ISBN 9780349121635