I’m a sucker for David Sedaris, especially if it involves hearing him tell his own stories. For this reason, I opted to get the audio version of his newest book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls. Sedaris is one of the few authors whose writing I never tire of and never hesitate to purchase, regardless of reviews–which have been mixed.
Janet Maslin was a bit harsh in her review in The New York Times, which accuses Sedaris of being boring, unfocused, unoriginal, and riding on the coat tails of his own public persona. Sheesh! She is unimpressed by the fact that several of the stories in Let’s Explore were previously published in The New Yorker, but I’m not exactly sure why that’s a bad thing. Perhaps if you’re a Sedaris fanatic and have already read everything he’s ever published, you’d be let down that his new book wasn’t a trove of brand new material; however, you’d probably also be pleased to have all that writing there in one volume. I see his reuse of material more as the result of being a contemporary writer, who is still writing to make a living. I’d heard some of the material on his tour last year, while it was stil in its formative stage. Frankly, I love getting glimpses of the writing process, of seeing a work evolve. Also, Janet Maslin, I have a hunch there are a few Sedaris fans out there who don’t subscribe to The New Yorker, so why shouldn’t they get the chance to read these new essays, as well? Before I move on, I’d like to point out my favorite Maslin zings, the first of which I don’t entirely understand and the last containing a backhanded complement:
1) “Oddball minutiae are to “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” what raisins are to raisin bread.” Um, the best part?!
2) “Why is this book called “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls”? Not for any good reason. It includes a creepily unfunny piece that links taxidermy with Valentine’s Day, but that doesn’t count for much. All the title is really about is attracting attention. In his workmanlike way, Mr. Sedaris is still pretty good at that.”
Odds are that Maslin liked Me Talk Pretty One Day and hasn’t been impressed since. And while she is comfortable informing us about The New Yorker pieces, she has not exactly been seeking Sedaris out. If she had been, she would have listened to his last NPR interview with Terry Gross, where he discusses his book title, among other things. If you have already listened to this interview and are eager for more, Julie Klausner had a delightful conversation with him on her podcast, How Was Your Week (Episode 115), that is definitely worth checking out.
My own impressions of the book are, while it is not the best Sedaris has written, it is still well done and immensely enjoyable. I found myself looking forward to walks, where I could put on my headphones and hear the next story he had to tell–walks where I know I looked like an idiot because I’d burst out laughing for apparently no reason. But Sedaris gives us plenty of reasons to laugh and reflect on humanity in Let’s Explore. We are privy to a look at his relationship with his father in this book, as well as his diary keeping and world travels. There is often a darkness lurking in his prose that prevents his writing from being a mere chronicle of absurdities, instead pushing it towards satire. His most ridiculous stories have been published in previous books, leaving him now with quieter tales to tell that are still fascinating because no one observes the quirks of people and society like Sedaris.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, the reviews of Let’s Explore were not all bad. David Carr, also of The New York Times, takes a more middle-of-the-road approach in his review, differentiating between personal preference and the book’s literary merit:
“To say it is less to my taste is not the same as saying he is not very good at it. In full cry on those things that bother or befuddle him, Sedaris can bring to mind Anthony Trollope, P. G. Wodehouse, Alice Munro and Woody Allen, sometimes in the same paragraph….Sedaris’s persistent dietary provincialism, his fetishization of oddities and his narcissistic idiosyncrasies would be annoying if they weren’t so spectacular to pull up a chair on.”
And The Guardian describes Sedaris as “a poet for everyone who wouldn’t live the ordinary life if you paid them.”
Taking all these things into consideration, I’d say, if you like Sedaris, you’ll like this book. If you’re new to him, perhaps start with an earlier work, such as Me Talk Pretty one Day or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, so that you can truly understand his greatness. And by all means go see him speak if his tour brings him to your city. I promise you’ll be ever so glad that you did.