While on vacation I indulged by reading my favourite author of all time, David Sedaris. I picked up this quirky little collection of animal-themed stories Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk at the Calgary Reads book sale a few months ago, and because this is a departure from his typical books of essays, I was excited to read it. Once again he did not disappoint, and I happily read a few stories aloud to my husband, which is our tradition when I read Sedaris’ books. Although much shorter than usual, this collection is yet another memorable one that I’m choosing to gift to my cottage’s book shelves.
Published in 2010, the subtitle of this book is “A Modest Bestiary” because unlike the majority of his books, this collection isn’t about him at all. Instead, each story is told from the perspective of a different animal, but each animal is given human traits, so it’s basically like reading about a bunch of different people interacting with one another, with many animals-themed puns thrown in. Each story has at least one accompanying illustration by Ian Falconer (whom I recognized immediately as the artist behind the children’s Olivia books) and is fairly short – most I could complete under 15 minutes, but I drew out the reading of this book over a few days because I wanted to savour them. My favourite story is “The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig” which is all about a Parrot who is also a journalist looking to spice up her city column, and accuses the new museum director who is a Vietnamese Pot-Bellied Pig of bringing an Asian influence to the town’s museum in order to stir up racist sentiment (and more readers). There are 16 stories in all, each featuring a world in which animals talk and humans are ignored, which to many of us, sound like the perfect place to be.
By giving human thoughts, societal expectations and (much to my delight) bad behaviour to animals, the ridiculousness of people is highlighted in a spectacularly entertaining way. Sedaris flourishes when discussing the quirks of humanity; how petty we can be, how outraged we become at demonstrations of rudeness, the jealousies between siblings, etc. When these everyday interactions are placed within the animal realm, we are slapped in the faced with the silliness of our human experience.
Sedaris is known for his descriptions of the mundane, like waiting in line at the airport, and these stories are similar to his other collections in that they focus on small personal interactions. For example, one story is about a bear whose mother dies, and then wanders between other bears, other places, and other situations looking for sympathy until she is caught by a travelling circus. After she’s caught the story ends. Many of the stories end abruptly, in fact I often found myself turning the page and being surprised there was nothing else, but Sedaris rarely writes past a punchline, as humour is generally the point to almost everything he does.
One of the quirkiest stories is about two rats in a cage, one very sick, and then another really healthy one who basically claims he stays healthy by thinking positively. A hand then emerges from above and injects the healthy rat with the AIDS virus, so the reader immediately realizes they are lab rats and the story ends, all within 5 pages, plus a gruesome picture at the very end by Mr. Falconer. I really can’t wait to see hear from the next guest at my cottage that picks up this book – what a treat they have in store for them!
I’ll leave you with a quote, because these stories are just too funny to not get a little taste. Below is the beginning of the story “The Faithful Setter” all about two dogs who cheat on each other:
“Back before I met her, my wife lived on a farm. It was a small operation, organic vegetables, pick-your-own strawberries, and a dozen or so chickens, each and every one of them, to hear her tell it, ‘an absolute raging asshole.’ “-Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris, p. 60