BOOK REVIEW: David Sedaris, "Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls"

The moment I heard that David Sedaris’ new book of essays, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, was scheduled to arrive this year, I literally cackled with glee.  I first discovered Me Talk Pretty One Day, arguably his best work, in 2007 and have since eagerly gulped down all of his collections of humorous essays.  Sedaris’ wry looks at his family and the world around him have consistently made me laugh aloud while reading, a rare feat from an author.  For better or for worse, he spares no one, including himself. 

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls, unfortunately, fails to reach the same levels of pure ecstatic humor of the best of his previous efforts.  The pieces of the puzzle are all there—some essays handling his odd family; a few devoted to his life in Europe with his longtime boyfriend Hugh, whose personality is revealed more in this book than in any of Sedaris’ previous efforts; and some intermingled character studies in which he creates entire conflicts with bystanders all in his head—but they fail to add up to the same level of quality I had been expecting. 


It’s when Sedaris attempts to address issues such as race that his typical self-effacing yet self-absorbed style left me uncomfortable.  This issue is particularly evident in “A Friend In the Ghetto”, where the author reveals, via a frame narrative, that even in later life, his narrow-minded, privileged, white-savior mindset about race hasn’t changed much.  The story opens with a call from a telemarketer in the present day who Sedaris imagines has a voice with “snakes[…]dysentery[…]and mangoes” in it and with whom he wants to talk again, if only to learn about the desperate poverty he imagines the telemarketer endures (“an old refrigerator beside a drainage ditch” as a home).  He then relays the story from his childhood in North Carolina, with the advent of integration in schools, when he pretended to date an outcast black girl (whose name he does not remember) to make his white family feel uncomfortable, imagining her to be “virtuous” and humble by nature.  What the author reveals through this unpleasant vignette is that people of color and the less fortunate remain mere props, examples to make him feel better about his life, which he readily admits but shows no sign of remorse or regret about.  His tendency to think of nearly every person of color he comes across as some kind of starving, oppressed saint or person eager to be saved is becomes grating.

Another chapter, in which he eviscerates the entirety of Chinese cuisine, is similarly painful to read in this regard; this particular episode has been criticized for this reason by other reviewers.  This volume reveals a Sedaris who has grown meaner and who has sharpened his edges with age.  Thus the ensuing contrast of stories like “A Guy Walks into a Bar Car”, when he describes with a certain tender air the events that led him to first give Hugh a call, is all the more glaring.  Clearly, if you get on his bad side, you’re likely to stay that way, and to be railed against on the page—and even those he loves are not entirely safe.

Sedaris, curiously enough, devotes a chapter that seemingly obliquely addressed the criticism he has faced over the embellishment of his essays, and their challenged statuses as works of nonfiction.  His humorous essays, it seems, are too good to be true.  In a piece titled “Day In, Day Out”, he chronicles his longstanding habit of diary keeping and how his entries have changed over the years.  Nowadays, he writes down small snippets of scenes he observes, using them as fodder that he then expands into polished essays he can hopefully read to live audiences, on the radio, or send to publications.  In one particular example, he chronicles how while he wrote down a particularly odd exchange between a woman and a young girl, he regrets that he didn’t take more time to describe their clothing and various other physical details.  In this way is Sedaris perhaps offering a mea culpa about his process, or is he challenging the same critics who condemn his embellishments.  If he can’t remember every detail of every encounter he has or observes, he seems to argue, why not embellish, and make a better story?

Sedaris also pulls no punches when discussing his long-suffering father, shedding more light in what seems to be a complex and at times, frustrating and adversarial relationship. But with the light of his heavy fictionalization in mind, do we really know Lou Sedaris at all via his son’s writing through the years, or do we have only the most meager impressions of him?  Are we indeed learning more about Hugh’s personality when, in an essay entitled "Rubbish", Hugh develops a nonsensical idea to reduce the litter that blights the roads of the couple's new home in the English countryside, or is it once again David's voice filtered through another character in his life?  In this regard, the call for greater honesty, or at least, for a reduction of embellishment in Sedaris’ essays has some definite weight.

Sedaris is by now in his mid-fifties, yet, thankfully, his observations of the current generation (of which I am a part) are warm and affectionate.  He expressed gratitude towards his younger fans on his last book tour, for example, by handing out condoms at book readings.  When he inevitably does mock youngsters, he manages to be funny without being overly curmudgeonly.

Interspersed throughout this book are short speeches the author wrote for students to use during speech competitions, which are an interesting throwback to the short-form fiction of Barrel Fever, his first book.  Unfortunately, these stories tend to follow the same sort of pattern and contain wildly exaggerated depictions of vile, selfish people.  First these speeches, which are all written in the first person, slap the reader in the face with an outsize, impossible to love persona, and then the speech gradually unfolds and escalates to reveal the often-cruel punch line.  These people are all classical Sedaris caricatures, people so comically villainous that they only could be born from his mind, based no doubt on some negative encounter.  One particular speech, however, in which Sedaris inhabits the mind of man who goes on a murder spree in response to the New York legislature’s legalization of gay marriage, is rendered rather poignant when we consider the vitriol Sedaris has likely faced during his life due to his sexuality.

If any of my readers enjoy listening to audiobooks, I do recommend buying the audiobook for this volume.  Sedaris' readings of his own material have grown by leaps and bounds in terms of expressiveness, and his wry, colorful delivery of many of these essays gives them a whole new level of enjoyment.  

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls (which explores owls but not diabetes), should not be missed by a true fan of Sedaris’ work, but I would not recommend it to a reader new to the author.  I will continue to point those readers towards Me Talk Pretty One Day or Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another higher-quality, more consistent effort.


  1. Yes, yes, yes! I read this last month and felt the same sense of discomfort, especially with the anecdotes about Chinese cuisine.

  2. Hmm, that's a bummer. Maybe I'll skip this one. Could it be he's out of ideas?

  3. I read the first essay and thought it was interesting. I will continue to read although with a different expectation after reading your review. I will say however, that perhaps his perspective on life is changing as he ages? Well written review...and it had to be tough to be critical because you are such a fan!


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