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When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

By Melissa | Books | March 18, 2010 |

By Melissa | Books | March 18, 2010 |

In the space of about a month, I’ve gone from not having read any David Sedaris to being a bit of a fan. My brain now has a big old crush on his brain.

That said, I liked When You Are Engulfed in Flames a little less than Me Talk Pretty One Day. It wasn’t bad, by any stretch of the imagination. All of the trademark self-deprecating humor and wackiness that we have come to expect from David Sedaris is in this volume. I absolutely love his take on the world, how he describes himself dealing with it, and how he sees and experiences even the most mundane things to be strange and hilarious. If David Sedaris wrote an essay on the proper way to brush your teeth, he could probably make it entertaining enough that I would happily read it. But what struck me most about Me Talk Pretty One Day is actually how well-suited his writing style is to writing about the mundane stuff of life, especially childhood experiences, and we have little of that subject matter in this volume. His work really shines in the context of writing about something like taking music lessons, for instance, or talking about the significance of childhood pets. In this book, he covers very different ground: relocating to Japan, the increasing acceptance of homosexuality that he’s observed over the decades since his adolescence, and the many challenges of quitting smoking. It’s a more subdued and serious David Sedaris here, one who is somewhat less interested in relaying the bizarre and funny scenes of his life, and is a bit more interesting in touching on a deeper meaning.

But this volume of essays seemed to me to be less effective, in a way, than the earlier collection that I’ve read. His takes on life, love, sexuality, relocating — all seemed to be more mellow, less cutting in their critique of the world, less funny. And it is possible that he is trying to explore new things with his writing now, as some of these essays seemed to me to be more reverent than his previous work that I’ve read. At the same time, though, I miss the younger, more irreverent David Sedaris, and this collection didn’t seem to be playing to his strengths quite as much as the earlier volume that I read. Of course, I was still laughing out loud for most of it, but When You Are Engulfed in Flames was more about the sustained giggle as compared to Me Talk Pretty One Day’s loud belly laughs. It’s possible, though, that I need to rethink my own image of him. I need to remind myself that Sedaris is still an incredible humorist and an amazing writer, I’m just not used to him being a serious essayist. I may need to give this book another shot eventually, this time with different expectations.

Anyways, because I still think it is best to hear him read his own work, here is Sedaris reading from When You Are Engulfed in Flames on Letterman. Jump ahead to the 5:40 mark if you’d like to skip the interview and go straight to the reading.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Melissa’s reviews, check out her blog, Shut Up and Color.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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