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Friday, May 10, 2013
This slightly uneven collection may be of greater interest to Sedaris newbies than to his seasoned followers, because most if not all of the pieces have previously appeared in The New Yorker or other publications. Even so, it is fun to revisit them and relish again the author’s wry perspective and his singular way with words.
“Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls,” his eighth book, is studded with stories in which Sedaris is a victim of brand-new circumstance. With each milieu he parachutes into, he’s overpowered by a sense of surprise, disgust or frustration.
Australia, for example, is “Canada in a thong.” Of a rugged Down Under bush town where such un-bushlike consumer products as petits fours, moisturizers and artisan soaps are available, he writes: “If Dodge City had been founded and maintained by homosexuals, this is what it might have looked like.”
Sedaris nervously feeds a strip of raw duck to a kookaburra outside an Aussie restaurant, but only after a waiter speaks to the husky bird in “a soothing, respectful voice, the way you might to a child with a switchblade in his hand.”
Thus is the writer able to steer the ends of seemingly innocuous sentences and paragraphs into unexpected and usually irresistible directions.
As always, Sedaris takes many of his wide-ranging subjects from childhood memories, his extensive travels — often on book tours — and his pleasingly cockeyed family. He and a boyhood pal bonded over “a love of nature, or, more specifically, of catching things and unintentionally killing them.” A flight attendant who asked passengers to pray for American troops was well-meaning, Sedaris concedes, but adds unarguably that “you don’t ever want to hear the word ‘pray’ from a flight attendant.”
(Be sure to check the same piece — “Standing By” — for reference to a cunningly vengeful practice that flight attendants call “crop dusting.”)
Some of the book’s most poignant passages recall Sedaris’ fractious relationship with his father, whose expectations the boy could never seem to meet.
In a recent interview with public radio’s Terry Gross, Sedaris speculated that, rather than mindlessly belittling his sensitive and decidedly nonathletic son, the elder Sedaris may have been trying in his own gruff way to toughen the boy for the life ahead.
But his childhood stories now focus more on his own shortcomings than those of his parents or siblings. Recalling his attempt to befriend a poor black girl in ninth grade, he’s struck by the condescension he was oblivious to at the time. He’s only matured so much, however: In “Standing By,” he’s openly contemptuous of the people he’s stuck with at the airport, and “Now Hiring Friendly People” is about nothing more complicated than being forced to wait in the line at Starbucks.
French medical and dental care, Sedaris’ own colonoscopy (pleasant), food in China (not so pleasant), his dad’s unconventional dinner attire (undershorts) and the author’s eccentric practice of picking up road litter near his English home are among other topics covered in the new volume. Though the book’s title is not explained within its pages, Sedaris told Gross that it originated as an inscription at a signing event during one of his earlier promotional tours.
It sometimes feels as though Sedaris stretches to weight a topic with more humor and substance than it will bear. This makes for a qualitative inconsistency that is unusual for a Sedaris collection. Yet the writer’s irresistible voice is always present and for that reason the book is worth the reader’s time and attention.
Tucked among the essays, by the way, are a handful of monologues that the writer says should be “self-evident” to readers: “They’re the pieces in which I am a woman, a father, and a 16-year-old girl with a fake British accent.”
McClatchy-Tribune contributed to this review.
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