Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review: When You're Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You're Engulfed in Flames 

Written by: David Sedaris

Published: 2008

Synopsis: Trying to make coffee when the water is shut off, David considers using the water in a vase of flowers and his chain of associations takes him from the French countryside to a hilariously uncomfortable memory of buying drugs in a mobile home in rural North Carolina. In essay after essay, Sedaris proceeds from bizarre conundrums of daily life-having a lozenge fall from your mouth into the lap of a fellow passenger on a plane or armoring the windows with LP covers to protect the house from neurotic songbirds-to the most deeply resonant human truths. Culminating in a brilliant account of his venture to Tokyo in order to quit smoking, David Sedaris's sixth essay collection is a new masterpiece of comic writing from "a writer worth treasuring" (Seattle Times).

Challenges: Humour for Book'd Out's Eclectic Reader Challenge

Guys I am in a crazy review slump at the moment. I have all these books I've read (ok, like 2 but still) and really loved but then I sit down to write my review and I just can't think of anything to say, which is weird because normally my reviews are crazy long and I have to forcibly stop myself from talking rubbish for 2000 words. So bear with me for the next week or two, my reviews will probably be pretty short but hopefully decent enough. And even if  they're rubbish, BE NICE OK.

David Sedaris is one of those authors I feel like you're supposed to read. And while I usually find myself yawning at those 'must read' authors, I've always been sure I'd enjoy David Sedaris. So when I was at the library the other week I decided to see which of his books they had and now I can finally say that I've read one of his books, AND that I enjoyed it. Success!

There were a lot of things I loved about this book. The essay format made it easy for me to read on public transport, the writing is stream-lined whilst also feeling like a conversation with a friend, his self-deprecating style of writing and humour is very familiar, the writing is great, and the stories are a combination of bizarre and completely normal/mundane making them completely unpredictable. Basically it hit all the hallmarks of a remarkable and memorable book of autobiographical essays, and if the rest of his books are as honest, forthright and funny I am going to thoroughly enjoy getting to know Sedaris's work.

One of the things I loved most is the structure he uses to tell his stories. They typically opened with some sort of anecdote or conflict which then morphs into the actual thrust of the story. Sometimes the opening element has a clear tie to the rest of the essay, while other times it seems completely at odds until you get to the final paragraph where he ties the two together with finesse. Regardless, they come across as very intimate stories, almost like being in his head as his thoughts stumble across one another and make sense of the collection of actions and reactions and events which have occurred in his life. It's a process, and rather than have him dictate a story or lesson to you, it's like he's explaining it to himself as well as you. You're in it together so to speak. It's nice, I came out the end of the book feeling like I knew the man, which is especially great since I jumped in with one of his more recent books.

I always find books of essays or short stories hard to review, because I'm never sure if I should discuss each story/essay or just my favourites, or an eclectic pick, or some of the weaker ones or.... you get the gist. I think in this case I'm just going to pick two or three that I found the most captivating.

This Old House - Coco Chanel said that before leaving the house you should look in the mirror and take one accessory off. This story sort of felt like Sedaris's discover of that in terms of his own identity. In wanting to be different from his family and the place he grew up he went to the complete cliche hipster extreme, revelling in nostalgia.

That's Amore - This was maybe my favourite story of the lot. It's the story of his New York neighbour Helen. She's sort of your stereotypical New York old lady, basically Ruth Gordon as Minnie Castevet in Rosemary's Baby, loud, a know it all, gossipy, a sticky beak, forthright, a little delusional but the kind of person you love to know. Sedaris's descriptions of Helen and her various indiscretions were hilarious, heart-warming and just GREAT.

The Smoking Section - Spanning 80 pages, this is David Sedaris's farewell to nicotine. It starts with his parent's smoking habits, progresses into the start of his tumultuous relationship with cigarettes, drugs and alcohol and then finishes with the lonely and difficult decision to give up smoking in Japan. It's about his smoking first and foremost, but there are so many other things going on in this story - family, addiction, disconnection, relationships, isolation - that make it phenomenally personal and intriguing. A perfect way to wrap up the book.

I've seen a few critcisms in reviews where people have said that once you've read one Sedaris you've read them all. I'm hoping that isn't true, because I love his style and voice and would love to read, and enjoy reading, a bunch more of his books. I guess that isn't something I'll know for sure until I've tried some others, but it does make me a little hesitant to pick another one up. But I've also seen a lot of people compare Sedaris to Woody Allen (which I get, but only in a neurotic American male writer kinda way), and I love A LOT of Woody Allen movies, so I'm going to assume that that is proof that I'll be fine and enjoy Sedaris for the rest of my life. Or at least for the foreseeable future.


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