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David Sedaris gives a hoot

In his short story "Understanding Understanding Owls," David Sedaris stands inside a shady London taxidermist's shop, admiring the majestic tawny owls perched against the walls. He's there to purchase a stuffed bird for his partner, Hugh, for Valentine's Day. Right away, the shopkeeper pegs the author for who he really is: a man captivated by creepy things.

In this "narrow, miserly shop," Sedaris is then shown objects that wouldn't seem ill placed in, say, a torture chamber: the skeleton of a Pygmy, a 14-year-old girl's 400-year-old head and, socked away in a plastic bag behind the counter, a severed and tattooed arm preserved by the shopkeeper's grandfather. Sedaris, though intrigued, opts for the owl.

"To me, it was the taxidermy store of my dreams," Sedaris recalls by phone from his hotel room in Manhattan. "People take one look at you, and they recognize exactly the kind of person you are, and that's what the taxidermist did to me. And Hugh loves the owl. The last thing I got for him is a stuffed Yorkshire terrier, and I brought it to him in a big case, and so we call him 'Casey.' I can't tell you since the story was published how many people have tried giving me taxidermy. They've tried giving me really ragged-looking pheasants. I'm not into that. I have standards."

Comic absurdities like these are plentiful in the essay collection "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls," out this month in paperback, which Sedaris will discuss Saturday, June 14, when he appears at Books and Books in Coral Gables. Readers familiar with his popular books may know that Sedaris has always treated his life's bizarre episodes with hilarity and self-deprecation, bringing fresh eyes to the foibles of everyday life, which are then filtered through his own childhood recollections. His dysfunctional family, his living in London and Paris, and book tours are frequent targets of these observations.

In "Loggerheads," a swim with a Hawaiian sea turtle conjures the memory of when, as a 10-year-old, he captured a clutch of loggerheads and attempted to feed them ground beef. Left uneaten, the meat spoiled and killed the turtles. While loitering in an airplane terminal in "Standing By," he recalls the confession a flight attendant once gave him: Out of passive-aggressiveness, she and her colleagues would walk down the aisles and give passengers a good "crop dusting." And in "Laugh, Kookaburra," spotting an Australian bird outside a restaurant prompts Sedaris to remember when, growing up in Raleigh, N.C., he and sister Amy would sing "The Kookaburra Song" late at night in bed. To shut him up, Sedaris' father whacked him with a fraternity paddle.

"There was a story I wrote after the book came out about my sister, Gretchen, who was saying, 'Whenever I used to pass a mirror, I just looked at my face. Now, I just check to see if my nipples line up,' " Sedaris says. "I'm quoting my family at their best. I never feel like I'm making fun of them. Generally, they get the laugh. Someone once asked me, 'Wow, you really hate your father, huh?' and I said, "What on earth gives you that idea?' Dad, who is now 90, is one of those people who has so much confidence, there was none left over for anybody else in the family. The only thing he ever said was, 'You can't do that.' That's what got me out of bed every day. If he had been supportive, I'd have been a bum."

In public, Sedaris has been anything but a bum. His voice is familiar to listeners of NPR's "This American Life," of which he is a contributor, and his essay collections, including "Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls," have topped the New York Times' best sellers list. But in private, Sedaris says he lives "very selfishly," maintaining few close friends and spending the bulk of his afternoons in Paris, tending to what he calls his "latest fad."

"I made the majority of my current friends when I was 18, 19 years old. The problem with me is I'm so scheduled," he says. "I get up in the morning, go to my desk and write until 1:30, and the afternoon is the time for my fad, which until recently was feeding spiders. You couldn't stop me from feeding live spiders. Now, I'm on a fitness bit. I walked 25.5 miles a couple of weeks ago, which took me 9 1/2 hours. It's hard to have friends when you're that disciplined."

Sedaris says his closest friendships are with professionals, whose small talk he finds "enriching." "I've gone from avoiding dentists and periodontists to practically stalking them, not in some quest for a Hollywood smile, but because I enjoy their company," he writes in the story "Dentists Without Borders."

"I appreciate the quality of small talk. I can't wait to see my tailor in England, and they're obviously more important to me than I am to them. I was in this hotel in Charleston, and the employees were all, 'Where you off to this afternoon?' and 'I hope you saved some room for dessert!' " Sedaris says, affecting a Southern accent. "I said to the bellhop, 'I'm sorry, I can't do that. I need more stimulation. You used up my small-talk quota for the year.' "

Book tours, he says, are his favorite places for small talk and public interactions. In "Author, Author?" he describes the self-conscious feeling he gets when "young people" visit a bookstore to hear a "middle-aged man read out loud." So began his tradition of handing out thank-you gifts to visitors: single-use shampoos and conditioners from his hotel room and, more recent, condoms from Costco.

"I travel a bunch, so I've amassed suitcases full of stuff," Sedaris says. "I was in Dubai not long ago, and I bought pencil erasers. I said to a teenager, 'This doesn't look like much, but if you take this eraser, and you throw it as hard as you can at a poor person while making a wish, that wish will come true.' Isn't that just the worst advice you're heard in your life? But to these young people, it probably means so much."

David Sedaris

When: 5 p.m. Saturday, June 14

Where: Books and Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables

Cost: Admission is $17 book purchase, includes one entry

Contact: 305-442-4408 or

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