Wednesday, July 30, 2008

REVIEW: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris. Published 2008 by Hachette Book Group. Nonfiction. Humor.

Like a lot of people, I'm a big fan of David Sedaris. As a matter of fact, until When You Are Engulfed in Flames came out, I had no idea how many people were big fans of David Sedaris. The first Sedaris book I read was Holidays on Ice, and I bought it on impulse one early morning having coffee in Borders in downtown Boston, when coffee out was a luxury and new hardcover books were an extravagance. But it just looked so funny, and so me. And it was, and for years I thought I was the only one in on the joke- nobody else I knew read him. I mean, I curl up with "The SantaLand Diaries" every Christmastime the way more normal people read A Christmas Carol or "The Night Before Christmas." It's my little tradition.

Since then I've become positively addicted to Sedaris's unique witty sarcasm and bitter irony. I rolled around on the floor laughing to Me Talk Pretty One Day; bystanders who thought I was having some kind of fit, offered to call me an ambulance as I fell over to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. When I read The New Yorker magazine at the gym, I had to put it aside when one of his essays appeared for fear I would fall off the crosstrainer.

Alas, no one thought I was having a medical emergency as I read his latest collection of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames.

I rushed right out to buy his latest as soon as it hit the shelves- I was in such a hurry to get to my favorite bookstore to get it, I didn't even know Sedaris himself was reading from the book at another bookstore not a mile from my house. I found the book disappointing. Oh yes, it's full of pithy little essays on being an expatriate in France, and being a writer, and family stories and character sketches of eccentric neighbors and friends. But it's missing something. I don't know if his sense of humor has dulled, or if mine has, but the stories, almost all of them, struck me as a little duller and a little more domesticated than I'm used to. Reined in. Or something. Oh sure, I laughed now and then, but they were quiet laughs- chuckles- when what I expect from David Sedaris are belly laughs and the kind of fits and squeals that make people question my health and/or sanity.

The last essay, "The Smoking Section", an almost-novella about Sedaris's trip to Japan to quit smoking, comes close to the old David though, and mostly because it reminds me of some essays in Me Talk Pretty One Day when he first goes to France with his partner Hugh. The culture shock, the language lessons, the awkwardness fitting into a new environment, the tortured English of the locals- it's all rendered with characteristic humor and bite, and it's by far the best part of the book.

Overall I'd suggest When You Are Engulfed in Flames for die-hard Sedaris fans, but also for anybody who'd like to while away a little time with some mildly humorous essays about life and love. The first essay, "Keeping Up," is actually a very tender little love letter to Hugh- sweet and touching, and very different from the Sedaris I'm used to. But then the whole book is different from the Sedaris I'm used to, so maybe it all makes sense.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclsoure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.


Anonymous said...

Marie - I loved this review! I was laughing at your descriptions of reading Sedaris' previous works. I haven't read any of his collections; would you say *Me Talk Pretty One Day* is the one to try, if I'm going to give him a go?

Candy Schultz said...

I am very glad to read this as I am in the midst of Engulfed and I am not finding it very funny. I thought it was just me. This is his first book I have read. I have most of his others so maybe I will switch to one of them.

Kelly said...

I really enjoyed Holiday on Ice, I'm looking forward to reading this one. Thanks for the great review!

Marie Cloutier said...

sheistoofondofbooks- yes, absolutely yes, start with ME TALK PRETTY.

Anonymous said...

justareadingfool (at) gmail (dot) com

I'd be interested in reading it, even though it may not be up to par with other of his works. The parts of it that are funny should be worth it.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic review! I didn't realize how many fans there were either until I saw that he was a spotlight author on audible. They're even offering a free download of one of his short stories. I don't remember the exact link but it's on

I just downloaded it and think it is a GREAT introduction to someone unfamiliar with Sedaris. Although, I have to agree that Me Talk Pretty One Day is his absolute BEST book of all time.