When You Are Engulfed in Flames

July 7, 2009

when-you-are-engulfed-in-flames Summary: When You Are Engulfed in Flames is a collection of essays by humorist, writer, and NPR personality David Sedaris. The book was on the New York Times Bestseller list for weeks and weeks, and I’ve wanted to read it for a long time, but it was always checked out of my library. Finally, however, I was able to borrow the audiobook version (read by the author himself), and at last got to experience my first Sedaris book.

Actually, I didn’t know what the book was about prior to listening to it, so I was a bit surprised to learn that it was a collection of essays. But I immediately fell in love with Sedaris’ writing style and humor, and was enthralled by most of the chapters. I particularly enjoyed “Keeping Up” (about Sedaris’ efforts to stay in visual contact with longtime lover Hugh whenever they go on vacation, as Hugh walks faster than normal humans should); “That’s Amore” (about David’s stormy relationship with an elderly NYC neighbor named Helen); “Solutions to Saturday’s Puzzle” (about a confrontation with another passenger on an airplane); “In the Waiting Room” (about a strange trip to a hospital in France); and “Town and Country” (about a NYC cab driver who talks explicitly about sex).

The final essay was called “The Smoking Section”, and was so long that it had to be broken down into three parts. This section dealt with Sedaris’ attempts to finally quit smoking after a three-decades-long addiction to Kools. Surprisingly, Sedaris and Hugh moved all the way to Japan to facilitate the effort, spending three months and $20,000 to do so.

Liked:

  • As I said, I found Sedaris’ writing style to be very appealing and interesting. Even the essays that weren’t particularly funny were at least readable because of his skill with words and phrases.
  • I loved how Sedaris got the title for this book from a safety pamphlet in a Japanese hotel. Japan is full of wonderfully weird English phrases like this!
  • The people in David’s life sound terrific. He did a tremendous job of letting the reader know what Hugh and a couple of his sisters were like. I know that Sedaris talks about them in greater depth in other books, but even to a first-time reader like me, I got a very strong sense of who these people are.
  • I loved that four of the essays in the audiobook version were read in front of a live audience. It was great listening to how people reacted to Sedaris, and their reactions just heightened my own. I wish all of them were live!

Disliked:

  • I’ve got to say that I thought the Smoking Section really dragged the book down and made it end on a low-note. For one thing, the essay seemed self-serving and self-aggrandizing. Eighty pages about how he quit smoking? Really? For another, the fact that Sedaris spent $20,000 on a three-month stay in Japan just made him seem like a high-maintenance, neurotic diva. That’s not how normal people quit smoking! Most of us would be pushed to the brink paying for run-of-the-mill Orlando vacations, never mind exotic three-month sojourns in Tokyo! Yes, Sedaris is rich and famous so he can do things differently, but since the rest of the book was pretty much devoted to showing how he’s just like a regular person, this final essay felt out of place.
  • I didn’t like the way “The Smoking Section” was written, either. Instead of Sedaris’ usual essay form, we basically got diary entries that were not connected by a common thread. One entry would be about his train ride to Kyoto, while the next would be about his struggles in Japanese class. This style made the whole essay feel very disjointed and rambling.

My Rating:

Despite how little I liked the last essay, I was still pleasantly surprised by When You Are Engulfed in Flames as a whole. How encouraging, then, to read that many longtime fans think this is Sedaris’ weakest book by far. I give this one 4 stars out of 5, and am very excited to tackle some of his older stuff!

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