Book Review: “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” by David Sedaris

February 17, 2010 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

So I told a good friend of mine that I was thinking of writing a book about some of my experiences over the last few years. 

The book had to be clever, witty and funny, I said.  I gave him a few top secret examples of what I intended to write about, and my friend said, “This stuff reminds me of a book I read recently.  It is so awesome.  You have to read it.”

The next day he brought the book for me.  It had a skeleton smoking a cigarette on the cover (which turned out to be a 1885 Van Gogh!).  The author’s name is David Sedaris (award-winning, best-selling author that I didn’t know), and the book’s name is When You Are Engulfed in Flames.  It is his sixth book, and as of 2008, Sedaris had sold over seven million books all up.

However, I was sceptical.  The book cover didn’t really appeal to me, and the blurb on the back was very ‘meh’.  Didn’t seem like a particularly interesting read.

Well, I was dead wrong.  This David Sedaris guy is truly a genius comedic writer.

I don’t throw around such titles lightly.  To me, making people laugh out loud with writing on the page is the hardest thing to do.  A lot of books considered “funny” are really just “amusing”.  I might smile at the book every now and then, but rarely does writing make me laugh out loud, especially when I am in public.

To be fair, I don’t usually read a lot of “funny” books, but in recent memory, only four books have made me laugh out loud, hard, and consistently when reading it: The Basketball Diaries (1978) by Jim Carroll, American Psycho (1991) by Bret Easton Ellis, The Timewaster Letters (2004) by Robin Cooper, and the one I am currently reading, Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball (2009) (review coming soon).

I now add When You Are Engulfed in Flames to that list.

The book is a memoir, a collection of essays, or an autobiography of sorts.  It comprises 22 chapters of varying lengths, each chapter tackling a different topic, scenario, or period in Sedaris’ life.  It’s almost like a collection of short stories, because the chapters aren’t necessarily linked or in chronological order.  However, whatever Sedaris is talking (or writing) about, it’s funny.  Whether it’s retelling a story about burning mice, getting angry at a horny taxi driver, wondering if he should remove a lozenge that has fallen from his mouth into a sleeping passenger’s lap, or trying to quite smoking in Tokyo, Sedaris manages to find the hilarious in daily life.

There is something about Sedaris’ writing.  He talks about everyday things and experiences, but there’s always a twist to it – whether it’s some witty dialogue or sharp thought, or some colourful insight into the dark side of human nature.  Often it feels like he is being self-deprecating, but really, he’s just being brutally honest with himself.  His ability to turn what would otherwise be a mundane topic into a riveting read, often with a touch of poignancy, makes me extremely jealous.  So does his willingness to discuss some extremely awkward, disgusting or offputting subjects, seemingly without embarrassment or hesitation.

I would say that the first 100 pages or so (of the 310-page book) is not quite as good as the rest of the book, which is unusual as there is a tendency to put the best stuff upfront.  The turning point for me was the chapter on Sedaris’ crazy old neighbour Helen.  She’s what would best be described as a loudmouth sociopath who has nothing better to do apart from make the lives of those around her miserable.  But somehow, Sedaris manages to portray her as somewhat endearing, I’m sure, reflecting his own mixed emotions about her.  He brings Helen to life with vivid descriptions of her rants and disregard for normal human decency, but at the same time he makes her almost sympathetic, especially towards the end.

From that point on, the book was virtually unputdownable for me.

5 stars out of 5!

[PS: I do not dare compare myself to David Sedaris.  It is, however, something to strive for.]