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Sedaris laugh-out-loud funny even when he's off

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TO say that American humorist David Sedaris has a way with words is like saying Mohammad Ali was sort of good at that boxing thing. Who else could make a colonoscopy sound like, well, like a nice way to spend an afternoon?

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, his sixth collection of comic essays, covers a wide array of subjects -- some excruciatingly funny, others less so.

Much of the material, as usual, is autobiographical. Let's face it: with five siblings, he's never going to be short on material, and the stories featuring his family are among the best. Born in New York State but raised in Raleigh, N.C., Sedaris currently lives with Hugh in West Sussex, England.

As a storyteller, he is formidable, as always. The book gets off to a promising start in Dentists Without Borders, in which he riffs off the laissez-faire attitude of medical professionals in France, where he lived for a time. When he displays a weird lump of flesh in his side -- or, as he eloquently puts it, "a devilled egg tucked beneath my skin," his doctor calmly tells him not to worry: "Dogs get them all the time." Sedaris makes a mental note to pull his bathing suit up a little higher.

The book's title, despite its whimsical originality, is also misleading. Of the 26 pieces, none concern diabetic owls, although there are a few taxidermied hooters in the essay called Understanding Understanding Owls.

Sedaris writes six essays here using alternate voices -- including a woman, a father and a teenage girl with a fake British accent. This is one reason the book at times loses some of that authentic Sedaris flavour.

It could be argued that Sedaris has written better, more consistently funny books, but he still manages quite a few of his expected laugh-out-loud moments.

In Atta Boy, Sedaris is in true fighting form, taking issue with the namby-pamby methods of modern-day parenting. When he sees parents negotiating with "their volcanic three-year-olds," Sedaris longs to intervene.

"I think the best solution at this point is to slap that child across the face" is his advice. "It won't stop its crying but at least now it'll be doing it for a good reason."

And consider his conversation starter with a special-ed teacher; the ever-delicate Sedaris asks, "I hear those words and automatically think, Handicapped. Or, Learning disabled. But aren't a lot of your students just assholes?"

If it were anyone other than Sedaris, one might have cause to be offended, and it wouldn't be the first time he's ruffled some feathers. A piece first published in England's The Guardian in 2011 was criticized for being insensitive towards China and its culture.

The essay appears here, titled #2 to Go. In it Sedaris insults the country's food, its public lavatories and its citizens' predilection to spit on the street.

But Sedaris is equally eager to highlight his own flaws and shortcomings. He sweats so much at the dentist he has to bring a change of clothes, and he is no match for Donny Osmond and his talents, according to Sedaris' father, who tells him, "And the hell of it is, he's even younger than you are."

Sedaris, 56, seems to delight in revealing how no one showed up for a book signing he did at a Costco in Toronto. (There are book signings at Costco?). Fortunately, he got good crowds at the two appearances he made here a few years ago, and appears to have appreciated our good manners. (Thank you, David!)

In a bit of doggerel in the book's final essay, he rhymes "Winnipeg" with "master's leg."

At least we made the book.

Lindsay McKnight works in the arts in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 20, 2013 J9

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