Sunday, July 13, 2008

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

EngulfedSedaris A few posts back I mentioned reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. I finished reading it last night. It was worth my time. You see, Sedaris is a wickedly funny man. Reading his stories makes me laugh at myself as-well-as the absurd things that rattle around in his head. I tend to read him slowly, a story at a time. I tote his books around to parties, restaurants, and the park. I read a few paragraphs and laugh, read a few more paragraphs and chuckle. Unlike other books I read, I don't want to finish this one. For me, this is the mark of a good read and a good writer.


By David Sedaris.

323 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $25.99.

This collection of stories is different. Sedaris seems older and a tad slower. He writes of his fascination with death and the macabre with the same verve and sickly sweet humor as before, only something is different. Sedaris seems to be coming to terms with middle age. It's a painfully funny process. Take Memento Mori - Where Sedaris tells the story of buying a human skeleton for his boyfriend Hugh.

..."you are going to die"

I'd always thought that I understood this, but lately I realize that what I call "understanding" is basically just fantasizing. I think about death all the time, but only in a romatic, self'-serving way, beginning, most often, with my tragic illness and ending with my funeral. I see my brother squatting beside my grave, so racked by guilt that he's unable to stand. "If only I'd paid him back the twenty-five thousand dollars I borrowed," he says. I see Hugh, drying his eyes on the sleeve of his suit jacket, then crying even harder when he remembers I bought if for him. What I didn't see were all the people who might celebrate my death, but tht's all changed with the skeleton, who assumes features at will.

He goes on to describe how the skeleton morphs into the everyday people in his life. How each person reminds him of his own mortality, and his own shortcomings. I laugh. I cry. I say, "how true," to passing strangers.

I'll pass along this excellent read to my wife. Knowing her, she will read it in one sitting. When she's done, I'll add it to my library where it will sit next to Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, another outstanding book.

Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote a nice book review for the NY Times. Her commentary on the chapter "Smoking Section" is perfect.

With Sedaris in this state of mind, the centerpiece of the book should have been an obvious gimme: a diary of his quest to quit smoking. Even in a more frivolous mood, Sedaris on kicking the habit — he smoked Kool Milds for about 30 years, and his mother died of lung cancer — should be pretty much the best thing ever, like Evelyn Waugh returning to tell us his thoughts on MySpace. Sixteen of the 22 stories in this volume were previously published in The New Yorker, which doesn’t detract from the overall experience since Sedaris is better on a second reading. But in the case of “The Smoking Section,” the deft abridgment in the magazine last month was almost more satisfying than the original. Here the 83-page story is cut into three parts — before, during and after — and while the first section zooms off the page, once Sedaris stops smoking it’s as if he has lost his muse. He travels to Tokyo for a couple of months, for reasons that are murky, and the alienating setting isn’t right for the narrative. Virtue proves less interesting than vice, as he casts around for a sustainable joke — signing up for another language class, reading labels at the supermarket and, naturally, having a random encounter with feces.

The funny thing is that I don't normally agree with NY Times book reviews. I read them after I've read the book so as not to pollute my opinion. In this case "The Smoking Section" was excruciating. It started well, but ended in a tedious and seemingly endless series of small stories, none of which were particularly interesting. I put the book down and said, "Dang. I'm glad that is over". It was only later that I realized that his story painful and lengthy story was brilliant. It captured how it feels to quit smoking perfectly. Quitting takes months. It's boring and life looses its meaning during the process.

For a taste of this book, read the first chapter, It's Catching, at the NY Times. Or, you can listen to David Sedaris read Cry Baby at Authors on Tour.


Robert said...

I just finished this book about a week or 2 ago myself and also really enjoyed it. It was the first book by Sedaris I've read.. Might have to go back and read some of his older material..

Anonymous said...

Great review... :) This book made me laugh a LOT. FYI, there's a short story on free download right now by Sedaris - you just go there and there's like a free download button or something and you can get it without buying anything!!! i actually bought when you are engulfed in flames there but you dont have to to get the download.

I agree with Robert. after listening to this book and the short story, I AM HOOKED!!!