Thursday, August 28, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

I've read a couple of Sedaris' books and I think When You Are Engulfed In Flames is now one of my favorites (previously, it was Naked). As always, it's a collection of essays about the author's life, but this time I finally got why he selected these specific stories in this order. In some of his other books I haven't understood how the different stories were connected, but in this one it somehow made sense. Perhaps this was because I read them in a more spaced out period. Most of his books I read straight through, but this one really took me about a month. I would read one essay and then come back to the book a few days later. That's the one plus to reading essay-style books: You don't have to worry about losing the momentum of the story if you put it down for a few days.

While I had read a number of poor reviews of this book and I think that may have been part of the reason it took me so long to get through it, I personally enjoyed the book. I envy Sedaris his ability to find humor in everyday interactions with people. I particularly liked the last section of the book when he described his stay in Japan. His accounts of the Japanese people were not cliche and I felt he was able to really give a glimpse of what life would be like there.

Toward the end he describes a scene that unfolds one day when he's riding the train with his boyfriend, Hugh. A Japanese couple is riding with their young child, who insists on standing up to look out the window. The mother removes the child's shoes and places a towel on the seat where the child will stand. The child proceeds to leave handprints and smears all over the window as it looks at the scenery. But rather than leaving the window all smeared up at the end of the ride, the mother cleans the window before leaving, puts the child's shoes back on and folds up the towel. It's this respect for other people that I think Sedaris conveyed well in his stories about Japan.

And, of course, I'm always a sucker for his stories about Paris and Normandy. I love that Sedaris doesn't sugarcoat his experiences in France the way many authors do. He acknowledges the Parisians' disdain toward him and his accented French. His realistic stories of living in Paris give readers a taste of what it would be like to be an expat. And I love that Hugh is often in these stories. He's one of my favorite characters to show up in Sedaris' books.

If you're a Sedaris fan, you've likely already read this book. If you haven't picked up one of his books before I'd suggest this one or Naked. I enjoyed them both.


Dale Brayden said...

I think you're on to something by reading a book of essays over the period of a month. When I read essay collections cover to cover I find myself wishing I were done about midway through, no matter how good the essays are. There's not enough flow to be compelling and even humorous essays can start to feel like a chore when too many are strung together.

Lezlie said...

I just listened to that scene with the Japanese family on the train on my way to work this morning. It did stop me in my tracks, so to speak, as did many of his observations in this book. It was my first Sedaris, but not my last.


Lightheaded said...

You're the first blogger I noticed who never mentioned Sedaris' Me Talk Pretty One Day as a favorite. Have you read that one? It's hilarious!

And not because it's my favorite Sedaris :) Hopefully I can have my hands on When You Are Engulfed in Flames within the week.

Becca said...

Lightheaded: Me Talk Pretty One Day was one of the Sedaris books where I was confused as to why the essays were selected to go together. I felt like they were all disjointed and didn't flow in the way that Naked and Engulfed did.

However, I did really enjoy the last half of Talk Pretty because it was all about his first experiences in France. I especially loved the essay about the Americans mistaking him for a "froggy" on the metro. When he said all they'd have to do is look at his shoes to know he wasn't a Frenchman I laughed out loud because that same observation was in several journal entries from my first time living in Paris. And this is why I trust his travel essays so much.

Nymeth said...

I think I've actually only seen positive reviews of this one so far! I read my first Sedaris very recently and I can't wait to get my hands on this one.