June 29, 2009

Book Review: "When You Are Engulfed In Flames" by David Sedaris

Title: When You Are Engulfed In Flames
Author: David Sedaris
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company (Hachette Book Group)
Published: June 2008
Pages: 323
Genre: Non-Fiction; Humorous Essays
ISBN-10: 0-316-14347-2
ISBN-13: 978-0-316-14347-9

To have heard some harsh critics talk about David Sedaris, I—with my plentiful ignorance—thought him to be a pretentious prick passing himself off as a humorist. The east coast liberal elitist. You know, that old chestnut. This was years ago, before I ever heard the man read his work aloud or read it for myself. I know better now.

It's not that I used to hold any real disdain towards the guy. I merely adopted the opinions of talking heads I foolishly assumed knew what they were talking about. To hear them describe Sedaris' work, I figured there'd be little reward in reading it for myself. It's an old, dispicable habit of mine, which I've put an end to and rarely fall back on. It can creep back from time to time, when I form preconceptions on someone else's work before reading it—just ask me about Lauren Conrad or Joe the Plumber each writing a book ... allegedly.

My opinion of Sedaris' work is my own nowadays, and I must wholeheartedly disagree with those who claim he's devoid of literary talent. Sure, he might come off as a little prudish, but it's by his own admission through his writing, and it's not like he revels in it. He seems to chastise himself constantly for his bad habits and irritable attitude. A self-deprecating wit can do a lot to endear a person, as far as I'm concerned.

The collection of essays in this book have, for the most part, appeared in previous publications. But, since I don't read The New Yorker or GQ, then it was all fresh ground for me. Each on their own, these essays are more anecdotal and quaint than anything else. Together, they provide a portrait of a man I found myself inexplicably identifying with on more than one level. It seems he and I are both irked to no end by passersby who say the stupidest crap, yet we can't get enough. He also feels far more comfortable writing and being a fly on the wall than participating in a social setting like a dinner party or something similar—what the heck am I going to contribute this chat on foreign policy?

I didn't laugh uproariously while reading this book, but Sedaris' skill at weaving a story is clear and he knows just how to stack up the unfunny bits to create one very funny one. The favorites I took from this collection included "That's Amore," in which I got to know his old neighbor Helen and her unparalleled callousness and vulnerability, and "Crybaby" with Sedaris' admission and amusement with a fellow airline passenger's grieving, coupled with his own spontaneous fit of tears. That last one I had previously heard recited in a podcast from either Simon Says or the Guardian Book Club, and it's as funny now as it was a year ago.

For the loyal fans of the man, I doubt they felt like they were exploring a lot of new territory with this collection of previously published works, aside from Sedaris' journal from Japan on his quest to quit smoking, titled "The Smoking Section." For someone that hasn't read his work or even heard of the man, it is a wonderful glimpse into the life of a guy with as much neuroses as Woody Allen could ever dream of having. He's not all bad, though. He did manage to quit smoking.


  1. Great review.

    I've almost purchased this book several times now, after seeing him on either the Colbert Report or The Daily Show (can't remember).

    I'm not usually a fan of nonfiction, but this novel sounds like a good read. I think I will pick this up now.

  2. If you haven't read his work, I'd absolutely say go buy it, or at least check your local library (that's what I did). Now, I'm going to see if I can track down his first book.