• When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
• Audio: 9 cds
• Publisher: Hatchette Audio, 2008
• ISBN: 1600241824
• Genre: Humor; Memoir; Essay
• Recommended For: Anyone who’s looking for a good laugh and finds humor in both the mundane and quirky of everyday life.
Quick Review: I highly recommend Sedaris’ writing to anyone–either this collection, or any of his other books. They are all relatable and hilarious, and force the reader to appreciate the absurdity of life’s minutia.
How I Got Here: I’ve been reading about one Sedaris collection per year for the last three years; thus, this is the third Sedaris book I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed each and every book I’ve read by Sedaris, and so, when I was looking for an audiobook to listen to in the car, and this was available at the library, it was a no-brainer.
The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis
Once again, David Sedaris brings together a collection of essays so uproariously funny and profoundly moving that his legions of fans will fall for him once more. He tests the limits of love when Hugh lances a boil from his backside, and pushes the boundaries of laziness when, finding the water shut off in his house in Normandy, he looks to the water in a vase of fresh cut flowers to fill the coffee machine. From armoring the windows with LP covers to protect the house from neurotic songbirds to the awkwardness of having a lozenge fall from your mouth into the lap of a sleeping fellow passenger on a plane, David Sedaris uses life’s most bizarre moments to reach new heights in understanding love and fear, family and strangers. Culminating in a brilliantly funny (and never before published) account of his venture to Tokyo in order to quit smoking, David Sedaris’s sixth essay collection will be avidly anticipated.
My Analysis and Critique:
I love Sedaris’ work and I loved this example of his work. While others might complain that this one is more tame, less focused, or just “not as good as his other stuff,” I found everything that I expect and am looking for in a collection of Sedaris essays (stories). There were moments of hilarity, the grotesque, and morose reflection–staples of Sedaris’ writing. His style is meandering (in a good way), often beginning with a quirky scene at the beginning of an essay, and then moving into the meat of his story, which finally culminates into some sort of reflection on an aspect of his present or past life. I enjoy equally my moments of connection with his stories, as well as the moments of “Whaaat?!” that occur every so often.
This was the first time that I have listened to Sedaris reading his own words, and I have to say, it is the best way to go. While I was somewhat annoyed by the book’s few live recordings of Sedaris reading to an audience (All of the pauses he took while the audience bursts out in laughter made me frustrated. “You guys are interrupting my story!”), I appreciated hearing his voice and getting to listen to his comic timing.
Here are my favorite stories from the collection:
“It’s Catching”: This story revolves around germaphobes, and gives some more insight into my favorite of Sedaris’s sisters, Lisa (she’s quite a character). It also introduces us to Maw Hamrick, the mother of Hugh (Sedaris’ longtime partner), and her unfortunate past experience with a worm living in her leg. Sedaris reflects:
If I was a child and saw something creeping out of a hole in my mother’s leg, I would march to the nearest orphanage and put myself up for adoption. I would burn all pictures of her, destroy anything she had ever given me, and start all over because that is simply disgusting. A dad can be crawling with parasites and somehow it’s OK, but on a mom, or any woman, really, it’s unforgivable. (5)
“The Understudy”: The most popular kind of Sedaris story–a childhood story that tells of the time when Sedaris and his sisters were left with a hillbilly babysitter named Mrs. Peacock, while their parents were vacationing for a week. During the kids’ week from hell, they hold “daily crisis meetings” in the woods behind their house, and record Mrs. Peacock’s offenses in a notebook:
“Can’t speak English,” I wrote in the complaint book. “Can’t go two minutes without using the word ‘damn.’ Can’t cook worth a
The last part was not quite true, but it wouldn’t have hurt her to expand her repertoire. Sloppy joe, sloppy joe, sloppy joe, held over our heads as if it were steak. Nobody ate unless they earned it, which meant fetching her drinks, brushing her hair, driving the monkey paw into her shoulders until she moaned. Mealtime came and went—her too full of Coke and potato chips until one of us dared to mention it. “If y’all was hungry, why didn’t you say nothing? I’m not a mind reader, you know. Not a psychic or some damn thing.” (26)
“What I Learned”: Sedaris discusses his experiences at Princeton as an undergraduate, and the expectations that go along with attending an Ivy League school. Of course, it’s told by Sedaris, so it’s not at all what you’d expect from that synopsis. To stifle his father’s enthusiasm about his son attending Princeton, Sedaris announces to his parents that he will be majoring in patricide. In this way, the story is a bit absurd, as Sedaris describes his parents’ enthusiasm at this major: “Killed by a Princeton graduate! [...] And my own son, no less.” The fun irony is that Sedaris truly lives up to this announcement: he kills his father (and entire family) via the publication of his revealing, humorous essays.
“That’s Amore”: A wonderful character sketch of Helen, Sedaris’ neighbor in New York, who was truly an awful woman. Yet, somehow, Sedaris writes of Helen with love. She’s petty, gossipy, racist, hateful, and oh-so-real. Yet, who Helen was cannot really be contained in a short synopsis: you’ve gotta read this one!
“Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle”: A short vignette describing the awkwardness of getting stuck next to an asshole on a long flight. A woman seated next to Sedaris asks him if he would swap seats with her husband so that the spouses can sit together, Sedaris declines, and then it becomes passive-aggressively ugly.
“Old Faithful”: A story about the growth and eventual lancing of a cyst on Sedaris’ backside sounds pretty disgusting, right? However, this is a wonderful story that ends up illustrating the perks of being in a comfortable, somewhat predictable, long relationship with someone you love.
“The Smoking Section”: My favorite of the essays here, and it’s a long one at 83 pages. This one chronicles Sedaris’ smoking addiction and his journey in quitting the habit. It illustrates his history with smoking, his decision to quit, and the aftereffects of quitting. Sedaris ends up moving to Japan with Hugh, after reading that it helps to change one’s entire environment to give up an addiction, and then shares his adventures in the foreign country while dealing with all the stages of quitting. I found this essay both insightful and inspiring, and I appreciated the peek into the life of an American in Japan. And, since I forgot to mention it, it’s also VERY FUNNY.
I highly recommend Sedaris’ writing to anyone–either this collection, or any of his other books. They are all relatable and hilarious, and force the reader to appreciate the absurdity of life’s minutia.