Review: Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, David Sedaris

David Sedaris comes to Louisiana on book tours. And I want to tell you that right now, because nobody comes to Louisiana on book tours because publishers I guess think that we are stupid and illiterate. If they do come to Louisiana, they only come to New Orleans, but not David Sedaris. David Sedaris has been known to come to Louisiana and go to more than one town. He does it so regularly that I was convinced he must be from Louisiana. Which he’s not. He just comes there on book tours because we are not illiterate and we buy his books just like people in other states.

That is why I have really strong positive feelings for David Sedaris while only liking his books a medium amount.

I read Me Talk Pretty One Day in tenth grade. It was lent me by one of the many book-crazy people in the state of Louisiana, my friend Nezabeth, and I thought parts of it were really funny — like this one story he told about going into a bathroom at a party and finding a huge poop in the toilet and not wanting to leave because he didn’t want people to think he had left a big poop in the toilet and not flushed — because yes, I am predictable and poop stories always make me laugh — and parts of it really stressed me out because I didn’t know what was true and what he was making up.

Many years on, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, I felt exactly the same way. I mightily enjoyed a number of the essays, like the one about obsessively keeping a diary and the one about having his passport stolen and the one about medical and dental care in France. His love for his sisters and for his boyfriend, Hugh, are obvious and touching. I felt fine about all that. It is cool with me that David Sedaris exaggerates for comedic effect the things his dentist said and how many baby turtles he accidentally killed as a child.

What really, really, really stresses me out are the essays that talk smack about his parents. Maybe his parents are awful. Maybe they are great. Maybe he had a happy childhood and these jokes he makes with them about how inadequate his father finds him and how much of a bully his father was are fine with everyone. Maybe they all laugh merrily about it at Sedaris family dinners. Like, probably so, right? Probably he wouldn’t make these jokes if it wasn’t all fine with everyone? Surely? Except when I read some of these essays it kind of feels like kidding on the square, like HA HA HA YOU NEVER REALLY LOVED ME DAD HA HA. But it must be all joke. Not serious at all. Right?

You can see me getting anxious about it before your eyes. I can’t help it. If I said anything remotely negative about any of my sisters in a published essay, I would fret about  it extensively and probably end up taking it out and instead saying “Social Sister is a beautiful goddess.” Because, you know, once you’ve written something down you can’t take it back. It’s out there!

And that is how I feel when I read David Sedaris, and is why, in spite of how great it is that he regularly visits Louisiana, I don’t read his books very often.

Cf. other reviews.

  • Who was it that said that having a writer in the family was like having an assassin in the house? I feel the same; I can’t enjoy the page while I am imagining the damage done to the relationships. That’s why I loved Catherine Gildiner’s TOO CLOSE TO THE FALLS. Because everyone was dead or disappeared.

    • Hahaha, I’m sure Catherine Gildiner is delighted that you enjoyed her losses so much. (Anyway, Roy wouldn’t have been hurt if he’d read that book. He would have been pleased. It was so affectionate of him.)

  • Jenny

    David Sedaris also comes to Spokane (where I live)! No one comes here, except Sherman Alexie, and he grew up here! Dude must make a point of going to the small, book-crazy places.

    • He must! What a cool guy.

  • I have still not read any David Sedaris, although I finally have a book of his on my shelf (Engulfed in Flames). I am not sure if reading it will make me feel uncomfortable in that way or not…

    • I’d be interested to know if you enjoy him or not. I enjoy some of his essays a lot — it might be that the best medium for me to consume his work is wherever the essays are published in the first place, the New Yorker or whatever.

  • I’m that way about writing things about my relatives too, which is why I almost never post anything about them online. There are times I would love to complain about my relationship with my mom, but then I think, what if someone who knows her sees it, which is likely because my oldest sister has started reading my blog more often.

    As for David Sedaris books, I haven’t been able to get into them at all, but that’s entirely my fault. It’s a rare thing for me to like humor books of any sort. Unless it’s something like Calvin and Hobbes, because they’re the best. 🙂

    • Yeah, I try to keep references to my family brief and complimentary. It’s not hard because they are very cool. 🙂

      I have a hard time with humor books too! They start out okay, but after a while I want there to be more to them. It’s hard to write a long-form piece of humorous writing without becoming arch.

  • Nat

    I’ve only read the essay on French doctors and felt it was one of those things that are only funny to Americans. I mean, I can tell what’s supposed to be funny about it, and joking about doctors is always funny, but I couldn’t help thinking… “obsessions with dental care? Pff, Americans.” So, there’s that. And there must be some common ground between what he writes about and what I can empathize with, but… meh.

    However, afterwards I listened to that episode of This American Life in which he sings old jingles in the voice of Billie Holiday and it was hilarious, so there’s also that. I’ll let it rest for awhile and try again later, I think.

    • Eh, that one wasn’t my favorite. I cringed because I’m very frightened of dental care and clean my teeth obsessively to minimize the amount of dental care I’ll have to receive later. And also I try to talk my dentist out of replacing one of my fillings every time I go in. I don’t want a new one! I like the old one fine!

      …I believe that has proved your point about Americans and dental care so I should withdraw from the field. :p

      • Nat

        I listened to this week episode of This American Life and there was another story by David Sedaris and… I can’t win against This American Life. TAL wins at life. So I’ll finish “Let’s Explore DIabetes with Owls”.

        Still don’t understand why you seem to be so collectively obsessed with perfect-looking teeth, though (and flossing!) It’s unnerving. But I think I can live with it. I mean, I wouldn’t trade the NPR podcasts for the chance to be free from cultural pressure to go to the dentist, so I guess it’s not a deal breaker 😛

  • I love almost everything David Sedaris writes (and said so today, in my review of this book–synchronicity!). He wrote some pieces about how he had to quit writing so much about his family, because they wouldn’t say anything in front of him anymore.
    Pretty sure he paints a complete picture of his parents in all his writing, because the picture of his dad, for instance, is so consistent. That’s another reason I think “Laugh, Kookaburra” is a work of genius. He takes pain and makes it beautiful. That two word ending.

    • Hahaha, I’d love to read those pieces. I think part of my discomfort around people writing about their families relates to the fact that they don’t address it. Here they are doing this pretty invasive thing and acting like it’s totally normal, and that disparity bothers me. I was hugely relieved to read Alison Bechdel’s piece (I now can’t remember where I read it) about how she dealt with her family members when she was writing her memoirs. She hadn’t found a perfect solution but it just made me feel so much better and more relaxed, somehow, to know that it was under consideration.

  • Katy

    David Sedaris also comes to Fairbanks, Alaska, because he is awesome.

    • Every comment about the towns David Sedaris goes to that other authors don’t is making me like him more and more.

  • I’m waiting to get this one from my library, but I have to say I’m a Sedaris fan. At the same time I can definitely see all the potential ways he can fail to deliver for some readers, and I do think some of his pieces are better conceived than others.

    I’ve played with the idea that degree of Sedaris fandom may come in proportion to your direct experience of severely dysfunctional family, the kind that involves adults with actual mental/emotional illness. Sedaris’ version of his family doesn’t give me that feeling of uncomfortable uncertainty of wondering which parts of his descriptions are faithful and which are exaggerated: my gut tells me whole thing is a faithful exaggeration.

    It’s like there is a super-dysfunctional-family code book. You don’t need to have memorized the the code book by the time you were ten to appreciate Sedaris, but it makes his stories extra enjoyable if you have. In some families you’re only allowed say how bad something is if you all agree to laugh about it. Which is better than no truth at all. At the same time, it’s actually so bad that it is kind of funny (yeah, your family makes your sense of humor), so it’s not really like you’re kidding on the square. Kidding on the square has a sort of puppy-dog-eyes wheedling about it, saying “look past the laughs and see my pain.” Sedaris says, “My pain is my laughter and I just made it into some art, here you go, try some.”

    • Just realized I said basically the same thing as Jeanne in 3 times as many words!

    • You did not, you said some similar things and some quite different things. I think your idea might be the right one, or at least close to the right one. Hm. Interesting. I can acknowledge that the whole portrayal of his family is a faithful exaggeration, but I guess the two distinct things that bother me are:

      1) How faithful is it and has he talked with them about whether it’s okay to say these things?; and
      2) How exaggerated is it and has he talked to them about whether it’s okay to exaggerate these traits this way?

      Which, yeah, I guess both of these concerns are related to the fact that my family places a pretty high premium on not hurting each other’s feelings. And that’s not every family.

      Does “kidding on the square” have that connotation? I’ve never used the phrase before. I was trying it out for the first time.

  • I loved reading your review. Loved. It’s never really stressed me out the way he talks about any family member, though at some point listening to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, I thought to myself, “I bet his mom didn’t appreciate that very much.” But given his humor, I guess I just kinda figured he got some of that from them, so maybe they get it.

    I’ve read all of his books except Naked (saving) and this one (too new). I do prefer listening, though.