David Sedaris has long been one of my favorite humorists; his essays on NPR, starting many years ago with "The Santaland Diaries," never fail to amuse and entertain me. His "Me Talk Pretty One Day" kept me laughing out loud during a long run in California a few years ago.
Therefore it was with great anticipation that I popped the first disc of "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls" into the player.
And although there are perhaps not as many laugh-out-loud moments in the new collection of essays, there are plenty of things to giggle over, or sometimes gag over ... as in the very first essay, "Understanding Understanding Owls" (yes, two "understandings"), in which Sedaris goes on a quest to acquire a stuffed owl to give his partner Hugh as a Valentine's Day gift and winds up in a London taxidermy shop where the proprietor shows him the secret stock in the back, including the skeleton of a pygmy and the skull of a murdered teenager, among other horrors. Sedaris wonders how it is that the shop owner recognized in him that weird, unexplainable fascination with such objects, while Hugh never does.
"Everything the taxidermist saw is invisible to him: my superficiality, my juvenile fascination with the abnormal, my willingness to accept and sometimes even celebrate evil — point this out, and he'll say, 'David? My David? Oh no. He's not like that at all,' " says Sedaris, who narrates (as is most appropriate) the collection.
Much of Sedaris's appeal lies in his hysterical retelling (in, one would hope, a much exaggerated fashion) of stories from his childhood in Raleigh, N.C. This time around, his father comes off as much more hardhearted, if not cruel, than in past essays —as does Sedaris himself, who manages to be both self-deprecating, bitter and misanthropic at the same time.
A couple of the essays in this collection have come under fire: "#2 to Go" was assailed by a Chinese-American writer in San Francisco for its broad-brush dismissal of the entire Chinese culture as being filthy — especially the food. And although "A Friend in the Ghetto" seems to have some resonance in today's racially-charged atmosphere, it also opens with a telephone sales call from someone obviously not an American (his voice full of snakes, and mangoes) and has a weird, unpleasant edge to it.
The essay ultimately has to do with Sedaris' ninth-grade relationship with an African-American girl who was being bused to his newly desegregated school. Pressured to have a girlfriend, Sedaris chooses a shy 300-pound girl who barely acknowledges his existence as his "date" to his grandmother's senior-citizen complex. "I understood that friendship could not be manufactured," he writes after encountering Delisha several years later.
Sedaris continues to have a sharp eye for the absurd in both American culture and in his adopted homes in the U.K. and France, but somehow his delivery here seems to have moved beyond the comic to the acidic. Sometimes funny, sometimes not.
The collection's final disc is a collection of short monologues, generally in different personas than Sedaris' own, that he sells as suitable for high school forensics competitions, but they fall short of the other essays — and too many of them seem more mean, and mean-spirited, than humorous.