Thursday, August 21, 2008

Reading Flurry: When You Are Engulfed in Flames


I've been experiencing something of a reading flurry. After all that slumping post-Breaking Dawn and on through The Solitary Vice (hissss), I picked up David Sedari's When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and suddenly all was right with the world. He's funny. SO VERY FUNNY. I've heard many readers say that this collection is not as humorous as his others, but I would disagree. For me, it was just as funny, but admittedly with darker undertones.

It's hard to say there's a particular premise to any Sedaris book. He talks about his family, he discusses his life abroad, his relationship with Hugh, his past drug use and alcoholism, his neuroses. It's all in this one, too, so there are no surprises there. However, I will concede that this book is something darker than Sedaris usually writes. Darker than Me Talk Pretty One Day, darker even than Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. It seems ole David is focusing more on his mortality these days and the mortality of those he loves. Even the mortality of the spiders that live on his windowsill in Normandy.

Was it less funny? Hell no. I laughed my rump off, and that's saying something. It's quite a rump. Each story does seem to make more of a point, though--some greater observation--and they're not always happy. In one particularly telling essay, "It's Amore," Sedaris introduces Helen, a crazy neighbor he met while living with Hugh in New York City in 1991. Helen was a firecracker, an outspoken, potty-mouthed, rebel of an old lady. His descriptions of her made me cackle until I hurt all over.
On the first morning of the strike, Hugh left the house at 7:00 a.m. A short while later, Helen called. I normally wouldn't pick up at that hour, but her voice on the machine was slurred and frantic, and so I answered. Since I had known her, Helen had, in her words, 'taken' three strokes. They were, she'd admit, little ones, but still it worried me that she might have had another, and so I got dressed and headed across the hall to her apartment. The door jerked open before I could knock, and she stood in the frame, her lower jaw sunken, the lip invisible. It seemed that she had been at her window, surveying the scene below, and when the super in the building across the street threw a lit cigarette into our trash can, she yelled at him with such force that she blew her lower plate right out of her mouth. 'Itch in da schwubs,' she said. 'Go giddit.'
While many of the essays in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, "It's Amore" included, end on a sad or pensive note, I enjoyed the thoughfulness and introspection in these essays. The funny is still there, as is the ridiculous, but there's also the wisdom and humor of a man who's aged a good deal since his first book. Sedaris is great. Incredibly witty. But wouldn't it be a shame if he just cranked out the same book over and over? He's grown, and I'm glad.

Whether it's an essay about an unlikely acquaintance with a pedophile, an argument on a plane, or an 83-page diary-like account of quitting smoking in Japan (my personal favorite), Sedaris is in top form. I'll be buying my own copy as soon as possible.
Coming up: A review of Mark Kalesniko's graphic novel Mail Order Bride.

23 comments:

  1. fabulous! another one waiting on my shelf!

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  2. I saw him on The Daily Show and bought the book and have started it and will finish it at least before I see him on December 10. He's doing a reading and meet/greet after so I'm muy excited!!

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  3. I love your blog! I wanted to ask you if you would be interested in reviewing books but can't find an email address. If you think you would be interested, please contact me at amateurdelivre at gmail dot com. Take care!

    Tracee

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  4. I haven't read any Sedaris but now I definitely want to!

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  5. Great review! I've heard others mention the smoking essay....I can't wait for my turn with our library's copy!

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  6. This one is on my list. I haven't read any Sedaris before but he is in Australia at the moment and I heard him speak on a radio show the other day - just that snippet made me realise how funny he is.

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  7. I just starting listening to this on audio in my car, and I'm surprised I haven't had an accident from laughing so hard! This is my first Sedaris book, and I'm loving it! His little tantrum at the Australian zoo had me in stitches!

    Lezlie

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  8. I still haven't read anything by Sedaris although I think I have Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim around here somewhere. I bet the account of quitting smoking in Japan would be fun. Some places are starting to be smoke-free now but for a long time Starbucks was pretty much the only place. :(

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  9. I need to add this to my collection! I'm so glad it didn't disappoint and I'm really looking forward to reading it. He's great.

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  10. Helen was my favorite part of the book - my guy kept getting mad at me because I would read the different stories out loud to him!! Glad you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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  11. This is on the way to my library, and I can't wait. I love Sedaris.

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  12. I keep meaning to go back and listen to the recent NPR interview with him that I only caught a few moments of. I was drawn right in though I only heard a bit of it. I've heard nothing but praise for this book, need to add it to my library list.

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  13. I absolutely must read this. I read Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim recently and I also found that some of the essays had a dark or melancholy tone. But that made me like them even more.

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  14. I'm still in the middle of reading this, but the essay on his bitchy airplane seatmate had my dying laughing. I too love the fact that his essays have matured and become more introspective without losing the humor that made him so funny in the first place.

    I wish I'd stopped by here earlier in the week. I could have told you guys how I was giving away a copy of this book on Friday (I had two copies). Ah, well. Maybe next time...

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  15. I picked up Naked one day, and a little of that went a long way with me. But, so many people are praising this "Smoke" book (people I trust and admire like YOU), I think I'll have to revisit him. I like how you said it would be sad if he did the same book over and over, which would indeed by discouraging.

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  16. It's been on my wish list, but I could not find it in the bookshop the other day :( Must try Amazone next. Great review, thanks.

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  17. Enjoy it, Mariel!

    Dale, I hate that I missed him on The Daily Show!!! Maybe it'll pop up on YouTube at some point. And I'm pea green with envy that you get to see him live!

    Thank you, Tracee! I'll send that e-mail right off.

    Krishna, I hope you enjoy him as much as I do!

    Looking forward to your thoughts on it, Kristen. That smoking essay was a doozy.

    Karen, I really think you're in for a treat. He's absolutely hilarious and a great writer to boot.

    Lezlie, that tantrum had me cracking up, too. I'm pretty darn sure I'll download all of his stuff on audio eventually, even if I've read the printed version. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim almost sent me off the road several times. My mom's reading Naked right now, and I hear her giggling from across the house.

    Nat, you will love him!!! Go ahead and bump Corduroy and Denim up on the TBR if you have time because it's wonderful.

    Have fun with it, Iliana!

    Cold, I kept doing that to my mom. In her case, she just decided to read what I have of his lying around the house. She's on Naked right now and is loving it.

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  18. Enjoy, Purl!

    And I'm going to have to track down that NPR interview, Carl! It's probably on one of my podcasts that I can't download until my computer gets back from the doc. lol

    Amen to that, Nymeth! Corduroy and Denim was the first or second book of his I read and I just loved it.

    Awww, I'm sorry I mised that J.S.! I would've known, but my computer woes have cut into my blog surfing time. My Google reader is just about full!

    Bellezza, I hope you like this one better. I did find this one quite a bit more thoughtful and multi-faceted than some of his others, although the humor is undoubtedly similar. Maybe it'll be a better balance for you this time. :)

    I hope you can get your hands on it, seachanges! It's such fun and so nicely layered.

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  19. This is waiting on my bookshelf...as soon as I finish Breaking Dawn. Hee! I can't wait. I just stumbled across your blog and am really enjoying it-

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  20. Thanks, Annie! I'm glad you found your way to the blog, and I hope you enjoy this book when you get around to it!

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  21. Plan a trip to Toronto then Andi for December. I mean, you're never very busy anyway. :-)

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  22. I loved this book, too. Someone won it from my blog, and I'm being a real slacker about sending it out. I think my favorite essay was about the birds who kept smacking themselves into his window. I know just how those birds can be.

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  23. God, I love David Sedaris. I bought this right away but still haven't read it yet. I think I might get the audio version, too - we like to listen to his stuff in the car.

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