Reviewed by L.D.Y.
Hardcover, 325 pages, 2008
Reason for Reading: I’ve read Sedaris’ books Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and Me Talk Pretty One Day and enjoyed them both.
Synopsis: David Sedaris is back with another collection of humorous essays, with topics ranging from buying a human skeleton, to quitting smoking in an incredibly expensive way, to the often awkward interactions of his daily life. An American now living mainly in France with his boyfriend, Hugh, Sedaris is prone to all sorts of quirks, oddities and troubles that make for generally quick essays that will delight any neurotic hipster.
Why you should read this book: If you’re a person who likes to analyze things to death (and maybe comes up with some odd conclusions), you’ll find Sedaris’ books to be enjoyable reads. What, for example, should he do when he accidentally lands a throat lozenge onto his incredibly rude seat mate on a plane? Is a burning mouse a good icebreaker conversation, and, if so, how to work that in to a conversation upon first meeting someone? And what’s wrong with spending your time catching flies to feed a spider (which you’ve named), despite it being perfectly capable of doing so itself? Okay, so it’s hardly teeming with good advice, but if you want a good laugh, this is an excellent choice. While the focus is on humour, Sedaris throws in just enough sentiment amongst all his honesty to make you really care and connect to him and the other people he’s writing about, which can actually make the funny bits seem even more humorous. When You Are Engulfed in Flames will keep any current Sedaris fan happy, and get new readers hunting for his previous books as soon as they finish the final page of this one.
Why you should avoid this book: I always want to hear more about David’s sister, Amy Sedaris (who has a book of her own, I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence); heck, I wish he’d just go ahead and write an entire book about her because it’s always hilarious, interesting, and full of a sense of whimsical fun, whereas his own stories often rely more on finding the humour in neuroses. While not a book aimed exclusively at jaded hipsters, it certainly helps if you fall within that target audience.
My friend Patsy was telling me a story. ‘So I’m at the movie theater,’ she said, ‘and I’ve got my coat all neatly laid out against the back of my seat, when this guy comes along -‘ And here I stopped her, because I’ve always wondered about this coat business. When I’m in a theater, I either fold mine in my lap or throw it over my armrest, but Patsy always spreads hers out, acting as if the seat back were cold, and she couldn’t possibly enjoy herself while it was suffering.
The thought of the same footware day after day might bother some people, but if I have one fashion rule, it’s this: never change. That said, things change. I like to think I’m beyond the reach of trends, but my recent infatuation with the man-purse suggests otherwise. It seems I’m still susceptible to embarrassing, rashlike phases, and though I try my best to beat them down, I don’t always succeed.
As with pot, it was astonishing how quickly I took to cigarettes. It was as if my life was a play, and the prop mistress had finally shown up. Suddenly there were packs to unwrap, matches to strike, ashtrays to fill and then empty. My hands were one with their labor, the way a cook’s might be, or a knitter’s.
‘Well, that’s a hell of a reason to poison yourself,’ my father said.
My mother, however, looked at the bright side. ‘Now I’ll know what to put in your Christmas stocking!’
Also recommended: I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence by Amy Sedaris; How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen; The Learners by Chip Kidd.
Also by this author: Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim; Me Talk Pretty One Day; Holidays on Ice; Naked; Barrel Fever.
Fun tidbit: The cover of When You Are Engulfed in Flames features an early painting by Vincent Van Gogh titled ‘Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.’
Would I read more by this author? Yes, I’m sure I’ll be going back to read Sedaris’ first three books as I get my hands on them.
© Lisa Yanaky 2003-2008