Monday, September 21, 2009

When You Are Engulfed In Flames by David Sedaris

I wish I was rich. I kept thinking that over and over while I was perusing David Sedaris’s new book with the initial intensity of a child who had found a bag of old Valentine candy, knowing I’d try it no matter how old and sticky they looked. I couldn’t help not thinking it. Other than an occasional essay in the New Yorker, you know on my frequent business trips when I fly around the world…I’ve not read much Sedaris, but I’ve heard great praise for his work, so I wanted to try out his new collection of essays.

Don’t get me wrong here. Most were hysterical. He has a gift of making the mundane, the ludicrous and the little issues that hide in corners of our everyday relationships, bone-ticklingly funny. Almost every essay discusses his boyfriend Hugh in some way. Keeping up with Hugh who walks way faster than he does, putting up with the 200 year-old skeleton Hugh wants to hang in their bedroom, you know, typical relationship stuff, although I try to keep my skeletons in my closet, not hanging over my bed.


When he’s not discussing Hugh, he writes about early Sedaris family life, his parents art collection growing up, his parents cork-lined paneling, how he and his siblings survived the white trash babysitter. Interspersed in little increments throughout we hear about his multiple homes in France, his many travels by plane, his many book readings, and in conclusion, how he spent 20K on three months in Japan while trying to quit smoking. I’ll admit by that point I was tired of it, almost bored. David Sedaris, the person, seemed a little to full of David Sedaris, the writer.

The clincher might have been his bio on the last page: David Sedaris half-dozen books have been printed in 25 languages, including Estonian, Greek, and Bahasa. What? Bahasa? I guess that means he's not just famous, but really super world famous. Or maybe he's just being funny. That's the thing I'm figuring out about this man. You can never tell for sure.

But, I hear his earlier stuff is great, so maybe he’s reached a point in his career where he tries to provide his own fodder and now it feels forced? Unnatural maybe? I’m not really qualified to make that assumption, but I do know I will try his earlier stuff as I hear Naked and Holidays on Ice are some of his best, most sincere early work.

Who knows, maybe back then he only lived in one house and traveled by horse-drawn buggy. Well, I can dream can't I?
3 stars


hamilcar barca said...

wow. i may have to approach this one with caution. i keep looking for it at the used bookstore, but it hasn't shown up yet.

Naked is good; so is Me Talk Pretty Some Day. i may be prejudiced about the latter one because a large chunk of it is about Sedaris ineptly learning French, and i can relate to that.

OTOH, the early version of his Holidays On Ice was hit-and-miss and over-priced. Trixie's review of that one indicates they've reworked and expanded it, so maybe it's better now.

Amanda said...

I'm not interested in Sedaris at all, his humor isn't for me, but I've heard this book is much better in audio. I have a feeling he's the sort of writer who's works have to be spoken. I have a friend like that. I didn't understand his stories at all until I heard him read them. They're meant to be spoken aloud. I wonder if that's the case here.

hamilcar barca said...

all of Sedaris' books, including WYAEIF, receive high praise over at 5-Squared's god-blogger site, FiftyBooksProject. i suspect it is a matter of everyone's sense of humor being different, but you make a good point. it might be an interesting exercise to listen to one of his books on audio-CD.

Amanda said...

My friend Karen told me earlier this year that she listened to this one or one of his others (can't remember which) on audio and thought it was hysterical.

The Great Catsby said...

I started this once in a book store and got about 20 pages in. From what I read it seemed good, but not enough to tempt my money out of my pocket.

That being said I thought the review was great, love your writing. I am interested to possibly pick this back up again.

L said...

hamilcar- I definitely liked his funny takes on life, and his writing is excellent, I just want to try the humbler Sedaris versions before he became so famous. I have a feeling they'll be different. I read that in an interview he did for this book he admitted to spitting out a cough drop on his neighbor on an airplane to see what happened so he could write about it. In the actual essay he doesn't mention that. To me, that's stretching it too thin for material - although still, v-e-r-y funny. Does it really matter how he got it? Maybe not I guess.

Amanda - I've heard that about the audio version. Does he read it, do you happen to know? That would be cool if he read it himself.

P&P - Thanks! Sedaris is one sick, twisted, and hysterical writer. You should definitely try it out, you know, on one of your many trips around the world, by leer jet, or space shuttle..;D

Julie said...

I find it interesting that it sounds like this might be better on audio so what I'm wondering is if Sedaris is a good public speaker? Perhaps, in real life, he's interesting to listen to which may add to his fame. I don't know him or haven't read any of his books or heard him speak but I'm just curious. (?)

I also like the way you write. Great review!

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

I LOVED the audio version of Dress Your Family in Corduroy; ...Engulfed in Flames (not so much).

Amanda said...

Okay, I asked my friend and yes, he reads his own audio on it.

L said...

I've got to find these on audio then. His writing is so animated, I bet his voice is too. He must be much requested as a speaker, he did mention that more than once in this book.
And thanks Julie!