Saturday, September 27, 2008

Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris


The other night I sat in bed and read David Sedaris's newest book, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, in one big gulp. Like his earlier books, this is a series of essays about Sedaris's life--in fact, though he admits that his work is only "realish" and "97 percent true", his body of work feels like it adds up to one long memoir. This book was also hilarious, as all of Sedaris's books are. I kept laughing aloud, which made my husband look up from his book and say, "What?", which meant I had to read the paragraph to him. But it was okay, because the jokes were often better the second time around, and spoken aloud.

Sedaris's books often make me laugh out loud, but I'll admit the laughter is sometimes uncomfortable. This is because Sedaris is not just self-deprecating, he is unrelentingly honest. He says the stuff the rest of us are afraid to say, or at least to say out loud. And he has a finely-tuned sense of the absurdity of human nature. His observations often reveal his acceptance of the dark side of humanity, too. Yep, dark and absurd, that's what we people are, and Sedaris doesn't shy away from showing it.

Sedaris is the ultimate outsider. He writes about his painful and painfully funny childhood, his adolescence, his parents, his addiction to drugs, his homosexuality, his marginal jobs, his life as an expat, and it feels as though all of this has created an outsider in Sedaris, or it all comes from Sedaris feeling like an outsider originally. It's chicken and egg, I suppose, but that outsider's viewpoint is what makes Sedaris so funny and so sad. It's a wonderful perspective for a diarist to have, and while Sedaris's writing is self-aware and sometimes a little depressing, it's never bitter.

This book is also about mid-life, as Sedaris is approaching 50. He is obsessed with death and dying, and his mid-life crisis also includes his attempt to quit smoking. The end of the book is devoted to the three months Sedaris and his partner Hugh Hamrick spent in Japan while Sedaris was trying to quit smoking. Again, his outsider's perspective spears the absurdities of Japanese culture, but he also spears himself, as a westerner trying to learn the language and failing miserably, and trying but never succeeding in understanding Japan.

The outsider in me loved this book and will always like Sedaris's work. It's not a comforting read for anyone approaching middle age, but it will make you laugh.

16 comments:

Carrie K. said...

I recently listened to his Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim on audiobook, and I loved it - laughing aloud often.

Bybee said...

I think I'll like this A LOT especially the Japan part because Korean culture is a lot like Japanese culture...although the Koreans would wince if I said so to them.

Sedaris may exaggerate and be "realish", but the feeling is 100% real.

Gentle Reader said...

carrie k.--I love his voice, his intonation is so funny--it really adds to the experience. I think I need to listen to more of his audiobooks :)

bybee--I agree, the feeling is 100% real. And I'll bet you will like the stuff about Japan--I'm sure as an expat, you'll relate!

litlove said...

I have this to read and I am looking forward to it so much, having read several Sedaris books and laughed myself silly over all of them. Wonderful review!

Dorothy W. said...

This sounds great! I listened to one of Sedaris's books on audio, and it was wonderful, because he did the reading himself, and I sat in the car and laughed and laughed!

Gentle Reader said...

litlove--you'll laugh, you'll cry...enjoy :)

dorothy w.--his voice is an added bonus. I love him on This American Life. I'll have to get some of his books on tape. I'll have to make sure I don't listen while driving, only while parked, since I know I'll be laughing...

Jeane said...

Every review I read of this book makes it sounds better and better (I was pretty skeptical at first, I think because of the cover). I'm going to have to get my hands on it soon, I need a good laugh.

Matt said...

I garee that he's unrelentingly honest about himself. I have enjoyed his previous books and so this would be my next. The homosexuality part actually appeals to me that I can even put myself in his shoe.

I'm spreading good karma to start off the work week. Someone pats me on the shoulder on an award. Now I have to pass on the love. I have given you an award. :)

Gentle Reader said...

jeane--I laughed a lot, hope you do too!

matt--I like the way Sedaris writes about his homosexuality, and many other aspects of his personal life, as he is so accessible. I also like how he writes about his relationship with his partner Hugh. Thanks for spreading the good karma, and giving me a wonderful award. Now I have to think about passing on the karma!

Susan said...

I'm going to have to read this now. I haven't read anything by him yet, and you make this sound fascinating. That's 3 books today I've found on blogs to get!! Great review :-)

Gentle Reader said...

susan--I hope you like Sedaris. And I hear you on book blogs making that "to read" pile just grow and grow!

Iliana said...

What a great review! I love his stuff and hope to read this one soon.

Gentle Reader said...

iliana--if you like Sedaris, you'll probably like this. Laugh-out-loud funny :)

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