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Book review: Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, by David Sedaris

As the only literate person in the English-speaking world who has never read anything by David Sedaris, let me just say his latest work, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, certainly is … uh, different. And not "different" as in "different from other things David Sedaris has written," but "different" from just about anything else out there on the shelves, including the bestiaries of the late Middle Ages, which probably never featured the sorts of beasts that populate this readable little book's pages.

But as easy it is to read, it's tough to review. It's not every day that one is handed a collection of short morality tales featuring such contemporary conundrums as whether it is racist to observe that the snake behind the counter at the Department of Generic Government Services is a black snake, and whether it's wrong to be jealous of other members' storytelling prowess at sharing time at your AA meeting (the mink that sold its own pelt for a bottle of Kahlua had 'em rolling in the aisles). And what do you do when the hippopotamus-anus leeches you've been hired to remove all burst into song, leaving you to wonder what right you have to take them from their happy - albeit hippopotamus-feces-plastered - home?

It does leave one wondering what goes on Sedaris's head, that he could dream up such tales. None are whimsical and they are often darker than Dahl and as gruesome as Old Testament retribution. Witness the disturbing tale of the Motherless Bear, the closing images of which so upset this reader that I had to put the book down and leave it alone for a while. But before long I was peeking at it again, compelled to take in another of Sedaris's bizarre histories (although resolved to keep my guard up).

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Sedaris's reinvention of the literary bestiary does more than keep you reading. It gets you thinking as well. In this, it bears witness to the tradition of bestiaries, generally books of Christian morality, using animals (both real and fantastic) as allegorical lessons. Certain animals had identifiable moral traits, such as the stork, which represented Christ, and the partridge, which was seen as a thief. It doesn't appear that Sedaris has adopted any of the historical precedents, instead giving everything from leeches to lab rats their own unencumbered roles. The storks in the tale of The Parenting Storks get caught up in a heated discussion as to whether it's a good idea to tell their chicks the truth of the facts of life or to just lie to them, and tell them that the mice brought them. The results are grim, but without that grim result, where is the moral lesson? Lie to your kid, and he'll (spoiler alert) fall out of the nest straining to see whether the mouse on the ground below is carrying an egg. These are definitely not your Aesop's-fables type of gentle morality slap on the wrist. Don't even get me started on what happens in The Crow and the Lamb.

The book defies critical analysis, at least within the usual parameters. What can be said about something that is, despite springing from a long literary tradition, almost sui generis? It's humorous, all right, and slyly instructive, leaving that itch of self-recognition in its wake. And despite the occasional moral being delivered as an appalling pun (the warblers who cry "cheap, cheap, cheap"), the stories definitely do resonate with one's moral code. Every little brute that creeps and flaps and caws and croaks through these pages is a clearly recognizable human being, with clearly recognizable human imperfections. They bicker, they fall in love, they neglect their children, they sleep around on their faithful but pathetic wives.

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk is an extraordinary little book, almost indescribable, but one that also feels (perhaps because of the humanity of the beasts) quite familiar. Sedaris rattles our cages with his "modest bestiary," painting us in our barber's chairs, our dinner tables, our sickbeds. We need to have that mirror held up to us, from time to time, by someone like Sedaris, who has the talent and the means to remind us that - sometimes - human behaviour can be simply beastly.

Diane Baker Mason is author of Last Summer at Barebones and Men with Brooms.

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