Wednesday, February 25, 2009

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

I just finished David Sedaris' sixth book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, a book of true essays from his life. His books are very bizarre and comical, yet they appeal to a lot of people. Sedaris is a very popular writer of our generation, and this book will show it.

You never really know where Sedaris is going whenever he starts one of his essays. This is one area that I would criticize in terms of his writing. They don't always follow a trajectory that has a solid storyline. He can start with one story, and then it branches off into something completely new and different. Then you end on a completely different note, all of these random stories somehow connecting into one essay. I do enjoy some/most of the stories, but sometimes their connections are very far off and distracting.

I read this book through an audio tape where Sedaris actually reads his book aloud. I've read a lot of his books this way, and it's really cool to hear the author actually experiencing his own book. He really gets into the characters and acts them out, which is pretty amusing, and he puts a lot of emotion into reading it. Some of the tracks were recorded from a live reading he did which was really cool to hear the audience's reaction to his writing. It is very funny when read aloud.

Here are the chapters included in the book (read on tape) and a little bit about what they're about:

"Keeping Up" - Sedaris tries to keep up with Hugh, his boyfriend, who walks too fast. They live in Europe and he always gets lost in his tracks.

"The Understudy" - Sedaris tells of a bad white trash babysitter he had when his parents went out of town on vacation and the terror of being under her rule.

"This Old House" - Sedaris' experiences when he moves into a boarding house.

"Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?" - Sedaris talks about various "accessories."

"Road Trips" - On Sedaris' homosexuality, specifically a hitch-hiking experience when he was given the opportunity for his first experience with a truck driver.

"What I Learned" - The prestige about going to Princeton and how that effected him after he left and couldn't get a job.

"That's Amore" - An essay on an obnoxious neighbor named Helen who bugged them like crazy in Europe.

"The Monster Mash" - Sedaris becomes fascinated with dead bodies.

"In the Waiting Room" - Sedaris talks of his language barriers in Europe and the consequences with that, specifically when he misinterprets taking his clothes off in a waiting room instead of putting on the robe.

"Solution to Saturday's Puzzle" - Sedaris has a tet-a-tet with a woman sitting next to him on a plane. He thinks she is trashy, and it escalates when his throat lozenge falls onto her lap.

"Adult Figures Charging Toward a Concrete Toadstool" - Sedaris recollects his parents bad taste in art and how his appreciation and interest grew.

"Memento Mori" - Sedaris buys a human skeleton for Hugh and it starts to talk to him, foreboding death.

"Town and Country" - Sedaris listens to a trashy conversation when a couples swears every other word, and then he hops into a cab where the cabdriver in New York talks about his sex life. Then he goes to his sister's and looks at an animal sex book. He realizes that they're all trashy and obsessed with sex.

"Aerial" - Sedaris uses album covers to scare away birds when they rap at his windows in France.

"The Man in the Hut" - Sedaris befriends a neighbor in France who was sent to jail for molesting his wife's grandchildren. He debates whether he should be his friend or not, especially when the man wants to become very close to him.

"Of Mice and Men" - About icebreaker conversations. How to start conversations with people. Sedaris uses newspaper articles, really weird stories, and his stories backfire on him when they cause controversy and people do not believe they are real.

"April in Paris" - Sedaris's recollections of a spider and how he took care of the spider almost as a pet.

"Crybaby" - Sedaris sits next to a grieving man in an airplane and thinks that he's overdoing it a little bit. He also talks about how we experience death and how that somehow makes us special.

"Old Faithful" - Hugh lances a boil off of Sedaris's backside.

"The Smoking Section" - Sedaris documents all of his experiences with smoking, leading upt o him quitting in Japan.

The final essay is really the meat of the book. This is where the title occurs. The title was found in a hotel in Japan when Sedaris opened up a book and the title of one of the chapters was "When You Are Engulfed in Flames." He cleverly titled his book this, and surprisingly enough, many themes from the book are mirrored from this title. I thought that the story with the flying burning mouse was about the title, but nope, it comes later.

"The Smoking Section" is a really interesting piece on smoking. It occurs in three parts, and it really documents how he gets over smoking, what he misses, how people withdraw, how ex-smokers think about smoking and once they've quit, etc. It would be a really great pairing with an Augusten Burroughs essay on quitting smoking as well. They're very similar. They both compare cigarettes to the people that smoke them (what does it say about them). They both try different methods to quit and are both very funny about discussing it.

The cover is also a great choice too. It shows the skeleton he bought Hugh (which reflects the theme of death ever-present in the book) and it is smoking, which leads to death (and also alludes to the theme of smoking which appears at the end). Clever cover.

If you enjoy the bizarre writings of David Sedaris, then you will enjoy this book, When You Are Engulged in Flames. If you like to read humor, then this book is for you, especially if you really enjoy memoir and nonfiction.

So, what did you think of When You Are Engulfed in Flames?


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