Abacus, £12.99 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, By David Sedaris

A collection of essays from a masterful humorist that are perfectly judged and nuanced

What is it that's so seductive about David Sedaris? The careful, quiet voice saying the unsayable? His precision? The way his writing grabs you, simultaneously, by the funny bone, the throat and the heart, like a mugger with an extra arm – one with more function than the mummified half-limb he describes in the essay "Understanding Understanding Owls"?

Sedaris is on a quest to buy the perfect Valentine's gift – a stuffed barn owl – for his boyfriend and tracks down a taxidermist who "does" owls. Ultimately, he has to settle for a tawny, but not until he's experienced the disorientating effects of being "recognized for the person I really am". Along with the severed forearm, the taxidermist shows him the 400-year-old head of a teenage girl and the skeleton of a pygmy, hunted down in the nineteenth century. Sedaris feels as if the man has "looked into my soul," and seen that he was "the type who'd really love a pygmy and could easily get over the fact that he'd been murdered for sport".

Romantic, shocking and punctuated with the kind of funnies that, if you're reading while eating, make you snort food through your nose, "Understanding Understanding Owls" is one of (many) highlights of Sedaris's ninth book, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. Another is "Memory Laps", in which the essayist returns to the home turf that supplies so much of his material. This time, he takes us to his (second division) country club with its "chemical bath" swimming pool.

Young David S. makes the swimming squad, but only ever wins when he's in the relay team. Meanwhile, his father, Lou, is so impressed with a swimmer from a competing club that he goes on and on about the boy. "'Man alive, that kid is faaaantastic.'" Young David S. is envious. He does mean things to his sisters to distract his father. Time passes and he starts to notice that this other boy, Greg, isn't that good. And one day he beats him. And still, his father seems unimpressed: "that was, what—one time out of fifty?".

Reading all this feels a bit like watching a surgeon at work. Or a vivisectionist. Until the final paragraph, that is, where Sedaris unexpectedly pulls focus, and explains that the "crummy side of swimming is that while you're doing it you can't really see much: … you can't pick things out—a man's face, for example, watching from the sidelines when, for the first time in your life, you pull ahead and win."

Most of this collection is as perfectly judged and carefully nuanced. The only off-key parts are the six short monologues Sedaris has written for teenagers to "deliver before a panel of judges", when they're participating in something called "Forensics … a cross between speech and debate". Short, pithy and voiced by shrill caricatures with no self-awareness, they may well be perfect for their natural habitat. But, alongside Sedaris's infinitely more variegated essays, they stand out like, well, shrill caricatures with no self-awareness.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
books
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'