David Sedaris possesses the scathing talent in which he can make readers laugh in one sentence, and cry in the next. It's a roller-coaster that can be hard to take for the sensitive among us (and that includes me), but by the end of the ride, you want to do it all over again.
Sedaris has now translated his much-beloved writing from memoir collections to a compendium of animal fables, illustrated by Ian Falconer. Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary seems like an odd departure, an obscure choice, but trust him, he knows what he's doing. Sedaris proves quickly that just because the characters aren't human, and are endowed with fantastical human qualities, doesn't mean the book's all fluff.
There are lessons to be learned here; drab, tough maxims about life. The way we learn them though, through Sedaris' magical words, is the rub.
In this droll volume, Sedaris works with the detached voice of a fairytale narrator, only his characters deal not with magic, but banal human situations. “Hello Kitty” follows an acrimonious relationship in an AA meeting, “The Toad, the Turtle and the Duck,” a painful encounter in a DMV-like line.
But in the fashion of old-school fairy tales, the plots darken quickly and harshly; “The Motherless Bear” was shockingly cruel. I'm sill smarting from that one. In fact, halfway through Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, I was almost ready to bag it, as fable after fable was just so dark. However, my courage was rewarded, as by the end of the book, all was made well again by two unassumingly beautiful and delightful tales, including the memorable “The Grieving Owl.”
The owl in this story is on a mission to learn things about the world, when he hears that hippos have leeches living in their rectums. He flies to the zoo and becomes friendly with the hippo there, and sure enough, hears the leeches living in her body. It's only near the end of the story that you learn why he has the grieving moniker, and this lovely passage:
I never liked the world I saw during the day. Then I started hating the one I saw at night and wondered, What's left? What changed things, albeit slowly, was learning. It's like there's a hole where my life used to be, and I'm filling it with information — about potatoes. And hot water heaters. Anything will do.
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