Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris is next up on our 100 Bestsellers List reading challenge. The full title of this book is Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, A Modest Bestiary. Bestiaries, a collection of stories using anthropomorphic animals to deliver moral or religious lessons, were a popular literary format in the Middle Ages. Interestingly, the title used for UK publication is Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk, A Wicked Bestiary. I wonder why the publishers thought “modest” would sell better in the US than “wicked.” Personally, I think wicked describes these stories much more aptly than modest.
This post does contain spoilers.
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk by David Sedaris
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In August we read The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, which featured a dog, Enzo, as the main character. As I mentioned in my review, I really liked The Art of Racing in the Rain and the fact that we were inside the mind of a dog, reliving his story from his viewpoint, worked for me. I cared about Enzo and really hoped he would achieve his goal of being reincarnated as a race car driver. But throughout the book, Enzo was a dog, with all the limitations of a dog. He couldn’t actually speak to humans, he couldn’t act in any way that was outside the norms of being a dog.
In Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk we have animals that act as humans, talk as humans, interact with other animals as humans, all while still being animals, and this didn’t work at all for me. Take the story of “The Mouse and The Snake” that Roberta mentioned in her review. Early in the story the mouse is talking about her snake to a friend:
She’d then describe how he slept at the foot of her bed and woke her each morning with a kiss.
Um, I’m sorry, but snakes can’t kiss.
Also, if the animals in these stories are able to talk and act like humans, why are not ALL of the animals doing so? In this same story, the mouse tries to teach the snake to talk.
In those first few months, their lunch was followed by a speech-therapy session. “Can you say, ‘Hello, mouse friend’? Can you say, ‘I love you’?”
Eventually she saw the chauvinism of her attempt. Why should he learn to speak like a rodent. Why not the other way around? Hence she made it her business to try and master snake. After weeks of getting nowhere she split her tongue with a razor. This didn’t make it any easier to communicate, but it did give them something else in common.
In all the other stories, the animals just magically understand each other. Squirrels talk to chipmunks. Owls talk to hippos. Cows talk to turkeys. There’s no mention of learning another language – they just all understand each other. But not in this story.
Where’s The Hilarity?
I read the hardcover copy of this book and on the back of the jacket there are several short blurbs from other reviewers mentioning how much this book made them laugh, or how funny they found it to be. I failed to find any humor at all. It’s bizarre, it’s dark, it’s strange, it’s horrifying, but funny it is not. There was more than one story where I simply had to put the book down and not read anymore due to the horrific ending. Yes, these stories illuminate the oddities and inconsistencies of humans and human interaction, point out the hypocrisy and pretenses that we all have, but does that make them worth reading? For me, it did not. More often than not, Sedaris’s intended messages were lost on me. If anyone can explain the meaning behind the last story, “The Grieving Owl,” I’d be happy to hear it.
The Bestseller List
The bigger question is, why did the computer algorithm pick this particular book to include on it’s list of 100 Bestsellers. I can see how faithful readers of David Sedaris might have made it a bestseller by purchasing the book when it was first published simply because they loved his other books. But why did the computer pick it over so many other bestsellers? After all, we’re not reading and reviewing all of these books just for the fun of it. These are books specifically chosen by the computer algorithm mentioned in The Bestseller Code, Anatomy of the Blockbuster Novel. So what did the computer algorithm see that I did not?
The Bestseller Code discusses the similarities between two of the top-selling authors of today, John Grisham and Danielle Steel:
But perhaps the most interesting similarity between Grisham and Steel is that their to-shared topic also happens to be the topic our model found most useful in identifying bestsellers. It is the topic that is most overrepresented in bestselling books when compared to non-bestsellers, and thus it has considerable predictive power…. It is more specifically about human closeness and human connection. Scenes that display this most important indicator of bestselling are all about people communicating in moments of shared intimacy, shared chemistry, and shared bonds.
Perhaps it is fair to speculate that the portion of the American public that actually reads fiction likes to read more or less about itself.
The stories in Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk are 100% about human connection, shared intimacy, and shared bonds. Perhaps the computer algorithm was better able than I to overlook the inconsistencies of animals doing human things and simply see the stories as human stories. Flawed humans, but humans all the same.
What did you think of Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk? If you’ve read any of David Sedaris’s other books, how would you rate this one compared to those?
- Book-beginnings, a discussion of the first line of the novel
- Karen’s review from a reader’s perspective
- Roberta’s review from a writer’s perspective
You can also join us on social media:
- The Bestseller Code 100 Pinterest Page
- Twitter: #BestsellerCode100
- Facebook: Bestseller Code 100 Reading Group
- The full list is now posted on GoodReads
What are we reading next?
If you ever have questions about what we are reading next or when we’re starting the next discussion, check the 100 Book List tab in the navigation bar at the top of the blog. Links in the list go to the landing page from this blog where the discussion starts. However, this is an open-ended challenge so feel free to jump in with any of the books at any time after the discussion starts.
77. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini (2013) – Discussion begins September 18, 2017
Genre: Historical fiction