Thursday, June 26, 2008

David Sedaris - "When You Are Engulfed In Flames"

Let me preface this by saying that if you're looking for a totally fair, unbiased review, you should probably stop here. I love David Sedaris, and will unabashedly pimp Me Talk Pretty One Day to anyone who holds still long enough for me to throw it at them.

With this in mind, When You Are Engulfed In Flames is not my favorite book. It isn't a bad book, by any means, or even a mediocre book. From any other author, it'd be far and away amazing, but since this is David Sedaris, and I'm unreasonable, I expect just a little bit more.

First, the good. Stories that stood out enough for me to remember the titles were "That's Amore," the saga of Sedaris's encounters with a demanding elderly neighbor; "Adult Figures Charging Toward a Concrete Toadstool," describing his and his parents' wildly differing tastes in art; "Memento Mori," a dialogue with the human skeleton he bought his partner, Hugh, for his birthday; "April in Paris," the tale of his pet spider; and "Old Faithful," a story which somehow seamlessly blends descriptions of Sedaris's serial monogamy and an enormous boil just above his ass crack, as only Sedaris can. Despite its being completely, totally disgusting, "Old Faithful" was probably my favorite story of the book, and it illustrates a lot about his relationship with Hugh, something I've always wanted to hear more about. He hasn't written terribly much about Hugh in the past, so this was a nice change, as maybe half the stories in the book are about him this time. "Old Faithful" also demonstrates his fantastic cleverness with titles, for reasons I won't get into here.

The above stories are just what I've come to expect from Sedaris: hilarious, yet oddly moving, and ultimately just something you can relate to. "Memento Mori" has him speaking to a skeleton, which only responds with "You are going to die." "Adult Figures" depicts the bizarre battle we all have out with our siblings as our parents grow old, squabbling over the weird little things you grew attached to as a child. "April in Paris" describes his childish attachment to a spider in his window, and his heartbreak when she leaves him.

In an unusual move, Sedaris has devoted maybe a third of the book to a single story, "The Smoking Section," which details his move to Tokyo and his successful attempt to stop smoking. It's a good story, but I think he'd probably be better off sticking to his shorter format; it tends to lose the thread of everything and ramble a bit.

Now, the not so good. A few of the stories just seemed awkwardly constructed; I didn't understand the connection between the various parts, or the ending seemed rushed. One example of this is "All The Beauty You Will Ever Need," which, despite the cool title, wasn't one of my favorites. Half of it is about buying drugs, and the other half is about their house in Normandy. The connection between the two halves is sort of tentative, and the ending felt tacked on, as though he had exceeded his word count. There were a few other stories with this same problem, and I'm not sure why; the book is hardly long as it is, and I'm sure his regular readers wouldn't mind a bit more.

All in all, though, I'm really just nitpicking because it's David. From anyone else I'd think this was an amazing effort, and it really is hilarious. Plus, David is a generally nice guy (he answers all of his fan mail by hand, and is happy to chat in autograph lines), so you should buy his book. I'll leave you with something I overheard in the autograph line for "Children Playing Before A Statue of Hercules":

Woman in visor: Wow, this is a long line.

David, while signing her book: Yeah, it's pretty big. Not as bad as Chicago, though.

Woman in visor: Doesn't your hand get tired from signing all these autographs?

David, with a perfectly straight face: It used to, but then I started masturbating five times a day to strengthen my wrist. It works pretty well.

Woman in visor: ...

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