10 April 2009

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames Oddball neighbours, adopted spiders, parental art collections, overefficient houseguests, bad attempts at poetry and more successful one at fending off noisy birds with album covers - this collection of essays covers all that and more; and it’s capped off with a chronicle of a quit-smoking process in which cigarettes are replaced with the ultimate distraction - trying to learn a language for which he has no talent whatsoever.

Throughout the book I found myself nodding vigorously - at the challenges of being short, Sedaris’s poor foreign language skills and sense of direction (oh, how I can relate!), and the social awkwardness of being a non-drinker. (If he thinks it’s awkward having quit drinking, he should see the reactions when you tell people you never started.) I also broke out in giggles while reading about the various germophobes in his life, the skeleton-shopping expedition and the subsequent bone-shedding, and the catalogue of fashion disasters. Couldn’t fathom his problem with glasses, though - surely if you just choose simple frames you’ll never have to look back and cringe. But then, I would never dream of taking the “if it’s more than six feet away I’ll deal with it when I get there” approach to life, which sounds highly impractical and not at all suited to people-watching.

I enjoyed reading this collection and spent most of the time smiling. Nevertheless I couldn’t help comparing Sedaris to various Courier-Mail columnists, which worked out well in favour of the locals. He’s good at combining humour, satire, and depth, but take those qualities individually and Mike O’Connor, Paul Syvret, and Kathleen Noonan (respectively) beat him, even if they do have the disadvantages of lower word counts and frequent close ties to current events. I doubt any scene from this book will stay with me like the image of Syvret’s memory of nearly torching his bathroom in an attempt to exterminate a huntsman; and I would love to see someone publish a Noonan anthology. Also, I couldn’t grasp (or approve) Sedaris’s apparent serene conviction that spending years of your life experimenting with whatever illegal chemical cocktail comes your way is somehow normal - or at least nothing extraordinary.

It’s good light entertainment, but I suspect it will soon be largely forgotten.

Rating: B-


Lezlie said...

My favorite part was when he and his boyfriend were at the zoo. I was laughing so hard I was crying. Not a good thing when you're driving! Don't worry. I was listening to the audiobook, not trying to read *and* laugh. :-)


BookWormz said...

hahaha - Lezlie - I was just thinking of the same scene!!

I have to say, this was my least favorite of his books. I LOVE David Sedaris, and I highly recommend his audio collections. I loved Dress Your Family in Courderoy and Denim, and many of his short stories leave me literally crying with laughter. But this one didn't make me laugh as hard as his other ones. Not that it wasn't good, just that it wasn't AS good. :)

Sarah said...

I've tried to stay away from this one because if I brought it home from the library, my mom would be scared of the cover. I probably would be too. In the shallow mindset of "don't judge a book by its cover," is this book as creepy as its cover image?

Shannon C. said...

I normally adore Sedaris, but sometimes I don't entirely get him and I get the sense he probably wouldn't be my first choice to hang out with at a party. But I didn't even know this collection existed. I may not hurry up and buy it, but thanks to your review I now know to look for it.

Dorte H said...

I don´t know about the book, but I certainly enjoyed your review - and the wonderful cover. I made a powerpoint presentation for my students once about crime fiction, and they loved all the little animations of skeletons I had put on the slides.

Kailana said...

I really need to read some David Sedaris! I have a couple books by him, but haven't read any of them yet!

Amat Libris said...

Lezlie: With the dingoes that looked just like dogs! I suppose they are rather unimpressive compared to their fierce baby-snatching reputation.

BookWormz: I can see I'll have to check out some of his others, see if I like them more.

Sarah: I found it creepy too! I kept turning it face-down or putting another book on top. But no - the book's not creepy.

Shannon: No . . . but it might be amusing to read his opinion of the party later.

Dorte: It would make a good crime novel cover, wouldn't it?

Kailana: Lost in the TBR pile?

Dorte H said...

You are absolutely right. Perhaps I should write a story for it? ;)

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