Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

18 06 2010

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David Sedaris

David Sedaris is a well-known author of strange essays. I suppose that’s the best way to frame him and this collection: quite strange and quite entertaining. The essays are straightforward slices of the bizarre, touching on schizophrenia, death, and strange solicitations from people who pick up hitchhikers. Sedaris matter-of-factly presents each scene to his audience, describing each bizarre situation and extravagant character from his life with a dry sort of with that eases the reader comfortably into each absurdity, making it easy to accept them as the reality of the novel.

On a purely shallow level this book is very easy to read. The tone is conversational, as if you were listening to a story told by a very sarcastic friend who has lived a relatively quirky life. There are some truly hilarious parts– the sicker your sense of humor, the more of these seem to crop up.

Definitely worth a glance if you’ve never read a book by Sedaris before, but if you want his best stuff you’d be better off starting with Naked. His earlier works focus more on the strange set of continuing characters in his life and are a bit heavier on the humor than this one. The longest essay in the collection, “The Smoking Section,” is one of the most boring and least humorous of the bunch. I have a short attention span when it comes to literature and that particular essay definitely tested its limits.¬†Despite its modest shortcomings, if you’re into sarcasm, wit, and bizarre yet well-written humor with just enough personal reflection thrown in to force you to look at your own strange life, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is the way to go.

For: People with a sense of humor favoring on the bizarre who enjoy reading a series of bite-sized essays rather than a single novel.

Rating: 7.5/10: Not the best of Sedaris’s novels, but still an excellent piece of literature that’s handy to read in bits and pieces as the urge to read something off the beaten path strikes.

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One response

19 06 2010
Driftwood

Lovely review. Although I agree with your assessment that this isn’t Sedaris’ crowing title, I feel he brought more of himself into the book than in previous novels. I may have a skewed perception of this because I was introduced to Sedaris about six years ago and I was simply reading through already present work. When Flames came out I was truly a fan, so I kept up with his updates and promo work.

Overall, I’d rate it about the same. The symptom that I have with Sedaris’ work (and comparable authors, such as Augusten Burroughs) is his books don’t center on a theme – they are merely stories of his life. There are some tales I remember much more clearly due to their absurdity (Me Talk Pretty One Day’s ‘Go Carolina!’ – his early years dealing with a lisp or ‘Naked’ – Sedaris visits a nudist colony) to the painfully delicate (‘Ashes’ from Naked, which details his mother’s death) to his delightfully awful Christmas stories.

Have you read anything else by Him (aside from Naked?) – If so, what’s your favorite book/chapter?

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