By Heidi Simmons
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
By David Sedaris
I can’t imagine a world without humor. Life is challenging enough, take away the laughs and, in my opinion, we’d be living in a very dark and sad place. David Sedaris is a favorite literary humorist and in his new book Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays, Etc (Little Brown, 276 pages) we get a few laughs as well as some tears.
This is Sedaris’ eighth book. Like most of his others, Owls includes his personal experiences and observations that are most often, in the best way, self-defeating and self-deprecating — which is why we love him so. A guy who can spin a yarn, laugh at himself and the world around him is the kind of guy you want at your dinner party.
Sedaris diverges from the essays, and includes five short stories and a poem. In the 26 chapters, we get a Sedaris that is antagonistic and judgmental. Even with his traditional use of sarcasm, this work is less poignant and sometimes just mean.
It starts strong. The first chapter, “Dentists Without Borders”, has you laughing and learning about the differences in health care between the United States and Europe. Sedaris has lived and has had homes in the US, France and England. We get a picture of his hypochondria and the distinct way in which doctors deal with his health issues. In Europe, a simple ‘you’re fine’ and he’s sent home without a prescription and only a small fee. In the states it’s testing, probing, prescriptions, mega-charging and then ‘you’re fine.’
Finishing the first chapter, and scanning the chapter headings, I felt confident I was going to get many of my fears and concerns about health care alleviated through great Sedaris narrative satire. I thought the strange nonsensical title might represent the books overall theme of the changing nature of healthcare and well-being through Sedaris’ crazy experiences and good humor. To be sure, there are chapters related to bodily functions and his health.
Sedaris has a first person short story about a tea party nut that doesn’t have the simple ability to write a protest sign titled “Healthcare and Why I Want My Country Back.” It is a convoluted, ugly character that comes off more cliché. It is all too familiar and it’s just not funny.
“A Happy Place” is an essay in which Sedaris describes a pleasant experience having a colonoscopy. His level of descriptive detail might comfort those who haven’t had the procedure done. So don’t let the title fool you, there is no theme to this book regarding health care or diabetes. Although there is an essay on owls – stuffed owls that is.
“Understanding, Understanding Owls” is a bizarre essay that may not be to everybody’s taste. Sedaris visits an out-of-the-way taxidermy shop in London and sees some sideshow quality items. It’s a bit twisted but also fascinating. The only problem with the essay is that I wanted to know more.
The book may be more travelogue than anything else. He shares his experiences going to Japan, China, France, London and even a train trip from Raleigh to Chicago. Some of the material is a challenge to read and may not be a book to give your grandmother for Christmas. “#2 to Go” is a chapter to skip. You’ve been warned. It’s not pretty or funny. Just disgusting.
But nestled in the semi-funny chapters is a short story that moved me. “Mind The Gap” is a first person narrative about a high school girl who goes to London with the smart kids from the history club. Not that she’s a member, but the club needed one more to make the trip possible.
Her mother, ill with cancer, insisted she not miss the opportunity. Her first time out of the country, the girl realizes there is a whole world that is not “American.” She comes home to terrible news and uses a British accent and jargon her father and friends don’t understand.
Only six pages long, this story made me forgive everything in the book that wasn’t funny. There is a teenage subtext to “Mind the Gap” that Sedaris nails. The protagonist is a creative, sad and lonely child desperate to engage with a bigger world but is stuck in a life that offers little challenge or intrigue. There is so much depth to this portrait that my heart ached for the child and her future. I cried when I realized she lost her mother.
In other chapters, Sedaris shares his own teenage angst. A homosexual, he tells family stories about growing up with a strong father who he seemed to never be able to please. Sedaris also tells of feeling different from the other boys at school. He talks about his beloved partner Hugh and their life together. But in these very personal stories, I felt the humor was most often misplaced and that Sedaris wanted to be thoughtful but couldn’t find the right balance between his humorous and serious voice.
The world is a better place because of people and writers like Sedaris. With humor, he gives us insight to our families, our communities, our world and ourselves. I hope he never stops. But I also wish for him the freedom to write more short stories and to not be afraid to stray into more serious commentary. I’m certain that somehow he can be serious and still make us laugh. In fact, those are the best laughs of all.