Wednesday, October 13, 2010

When You Are Engulfed In Flames: Mildly Amusing Memoirs From A Man Sitting Still.

The Good: Well-written, Some amusing essays
The Bad: Collection is hit-or-miss, No theme that unifies the book.
The Basics: My first experience with the works of David Sedaris, When Your Are Engulfed In Flames is a quick, entertaining, but unmemorable, read.

I suspect that there is some sadist in my wife. Back when my wife was just my fiance, she picked up books to read aloud to me as I drove us on our first long distance trip. This, in itself, is not a sign of any sort of sadism, but the fact that my then-fiance chose books that were funny - purposely! - to keep us entertained while on the trip from New York City back to Michigan, does give me pause. After all, didn't my beloved know that others are terrified by my driving? The truth is, my fiance is very mellow and I relax a lot more when driving with her in the car. She calms me down.

So, when we stopped at my hometown library briefly on our way back through the area from our fantastic New York City adventure, she went looking through the stacks for a new book to read to me. What my fiance found was When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris. My instant reaction was to ask my fiance, "Have you ever seen Strangers With Candy?" I have found asking about shows, as opposed to stars a better way of getting the information I am looking for in this case. What I was actually asking was "Is David Sedaris any relation to Amy Sedaris?" I knew Amy Sedaris from her work on Strangers With Candy and I figured if Amy and David were related, the book might be funny because humor tends to run in families. So, when my fiance told me that she had not seen Strangers With Candy, I let the matter drop . . . until we were halfway through the book and the author made reference to his sister, Amy. At that point, I commented on Amy Sedaris and my fiance said simply, "Yeah, he has a sister, Amy, who is a great comedian who has written a number of books of her own." I suppose Amy Sedaris is just a bit more well-rounded than I ever gave her credit for.

So, my first experience with the comedy of David Sedaris was to be When You Are Engulfed In Flames, a mildly amusing collection of essays that truly kills the time when traveling cross country, being read to one while driving. This is a collection of twenty-two essays or anecdotes (personal stories told in humorous ways) that are bound solely by Sedaris's presence in them and telling of them. There is no theme to the overall collection and as such, When You Are Engulfed In Flames is rambling, light reading that is pretty much hit-or-miss with each chapter.

From this collection, readers learn that David Sedaris is a somewhat slovenly guy who takes his time walking. He lives abroad with another man who he's had a long-term relationship with for years and whom he is constantly trying to catch up with. Sedaris is able to afford many of the finer things in life (like human skeletons to give as gifts), still has childhood issues he is working out (like terrible babysitters he was subjected to) and he recently quit smoking. He has a conversational humor and the book is written such that anyone who knows American English will get the jokes and appreciate the casual tone of it.

Sedaris writes about living with germaphobes in his family and people who have been infected with worms, quitting smoking, the statement a bowtie makes, and his personal history with art and how he got his parents into buying art. He writes about birds at his windows - in a chapter I was thoroughly prepared to love given that alluded to Kate Bush's c.d. Aerial in less-than-flattering tones -, living on the same block as a convicted sex offender, and different conversational styles and how some people are actually interested in what others have to say. He makes frequent allusions to living in Europe and his partner, Hugh, and throughout, there is a sense of an "Odd Couple" relationship between him and Hugh and Sedaris and life itself. David Sedaris is not the neat, fastidious one.

Sedaris writes about several subjects that some might find uncomfortable, if not entirely unlikable. So, for example, the chapter "The Monster Mash" focuses on Sedaris's week spent at a medical examiner's and the morgue there. He describes the process of observing dead bodies and some of what he witnessed while there. While it is recalled in humorous notations and with plenty of disarming asides, he still spends time discussing dead bodies. Similarly, from pages 173 - 175, Sedaris describes in an awkward amount of detail a porn magazine from the '70s that Amy found involving bestiality. So, some of the humor is like that.

Perhaps the chapter I enjoyed most, though, was "Solution To Saturday's Puzzle." In that, Sedaris described the dichotomy of being stuck on a plane with an unpleasant woman who he hopes might think better of him because he is doing the Saturday "New York Times" crossword puzzle. After an altercation with the woman next to him wherein she begins insulting him, he relates "An elderly woman in aisle A turned to look at me, and I pulled a Times crossword puzzle from the bad beneath my seat. That always makes you look reasonable, especially on a Saturday, when the words are long and the clues are exceptionally tough . . . Seventeen across: a fifteen-letter word for enlightenment. 'I am not an asshole,' I wrote, and it fit. Five down: six-letter Indian tribe. 'You Are'" (129-130). The story continues with Sedaris making up scenarios and filling in the puzzle completely independent of the clues. It is funny and original.

Much of the rest of the collection, though, failed to impress me as much and my fiance kept frowning and reassuring me, "His other stuff is better." With that kind of endorsement . . . This is not to say that I did not find myself smiling through the reading, but little of it achieved more than a smile and even less stuck with me in any way I would define as meaningful. "Diverting" might be the most accurate description I can give for this book. Sedaris can write, but this collection is less engaging than he is usually rumored to be.

Then again, perhaps this was all part of my fiance's plan. Perhaps she knew that reading to me would be a distraction and she didn't want me that distracted. This kills the time, but I can't recommend for the buy or even the read, unless one is in a pinch.

For other quirky books I have reviewed, please check out:
Portnoy's Complaint - Philip Roth
Vineland - Thomas Pynchon
Letters From The Earth - Mark Twain


For other books I've reviewed, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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