When You Are Engulfed in Flames
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224 of 247 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 9, 2008
Reading a David Sedaris short story is like watching the author think. Each one is told as a stream of consciousness that somehow ties together beautifully in the end. This collection includes some laugh-out-loud essays, and others that are touching and poignant. All are interesting and so original they are obviously taken from real life.

If you're not familiar with him, Sedaris is the Dave Barry of the National Public Radio set. I've been a Sedaris fan for a long time through NPR's "This American Life." This book is like a collection of the best of those quirky radio essays. (I also have the audio CD set, a 9-hour, 8-disc marathon that plays like an NPR fundraising marathon without those annoying pleas for cash.)

The stories are filled with memorable characters. Irritated Becky, who sits next to Sedaris on a plane flight and inspires incorrect answers in Solution to Saturday's Puzzle. Gravel-voiced Helen, who lives next door to Sedaris and is the unlikely heroine of That's Amore. Sedaris' sister Amy, the owner of a magazine called New Animal Orgy in Town and Country. Woven throughout the essays is the fast-walking Hugh, Sedaris boyfriend, who demonstrates true love by lancing a boil in Old Faithful.

Not all the essays are mass appeal (my husband, who is not a big NPR listener, hated the first one but loved the third) but I think there's plenty of good stuff in here to please just about any thoughtful adult reader. There is plenty of sex and language, however, so it's not for your pre-teen or Aunt Betsy. But for most anyone else who wants a good laugh, it's a must-read.
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124 of 136 people found the following review helpful
I have been waiting for a new David Sedaris book for a long time. I read the entire book yesterday afternoon and I could not stop laughing. His descriptions, dialogue, and demented details are uniquely Sedaris. This book did not disappoint; I knew what I was getting into the moment I read through the table of contents. Some critics are saying that there is nothing new here, blah, blah, blah. What do they want from a David Sedaris book? Romance? Epic Adventure? YA Fiction? I am a huge fan of Mr. Sedaris (David, not Lou), and his essays on his life leave me laughing. The section on smoking was not only funny, but very truthful. I could taste the menthol while reading. Very descriptive-very hilarious! Thank you David Sedaris.
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116 of 142 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon June 25, 2008
Okay, so it's funny. (ish). There were probably a total of six pages that gave me the kind of squirt milk out of your nose laugh that I love. The rest were just mild chuckles that were spread further along than usual with a Sedaris book. i can't say I found it disappointing, I just wanted to bellyache a bit more. The only conclusion I can come up with after finishing the final longest essay about him quitting smoking, is that like everyone else he's growing older, maturing, and feeling a sense of responsibility. While this made for a sweet and somewhat poignant conclusion, I couldn't help but feel like some of his comedic acid was mellowing with age.
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48 of 57 people found the following review helpful
Writer/humorist David Sedaris' sixth book delivers the hilarity and razor-sharp wit, social commentary, and tenderness of his previous books, but fans of Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, and Naked may be in for a bit of a disappointment. His previous smashing success has made it increasingly hard for him to top himself. Upon diving into Sedaris' latest collection of autographical essays, one can't help but feel De' Ja' Vu. Any fans will have already seen all of these essays featured in the New Yorker magazine already over the past three or four years. I was a bit disappointed to get the "Wait a minute, I've read this before!" feeling with the opening story, "It's Catching," about his mother-in-law's medical bout with a worm living under her skin. But I guess we can't really blame Mr. Sedaris for the fact that we love him so much that we've already read pretty much all of these in The New Yorker, Esquire, etc. magazines.

Fans of Augusten Burroughs will enjoy Sedaris and also recognize him as a much more believable writer of the memoir. Unlike previous collections which each focus on one part of his life, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames," covers the range of Sedaris' anecdotal life: from childhood and life at home with his mom and sisters, to his adult life, including when he first moved to Paris and dropped out of French classes and ran around telling everyone "D'accord" because of his limited vocabulary. Because this book covers such a wide Sedaris life range, it feels almost like a "best of" kind of collection.

The book manages to only give you a good quiet laugh, not the rollicking hilarity of his previous works (check out "Santaland Diaries" from 'Holidays on Ice,' where Sedaris chronicles his days working as a Macy's elf, and "Repeat after Me" from 'Dress Your Family...' and 'David Sedaris: Live at Carnegie Hall). But remember this is David Sedaris here, so a quiet laugh still far exceeds any other American humorist writing today. Some of the highlights in this collection include: "Keeping Up," a day around the zoo with Sedaris and his partner Hugh, and in the mind of Sedaris' during a lover's quarrel; "Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?"--Sedaris chronicles his trial use of an external catheter (Window seat in a cross-country non-stop flight? Don't mind if I do!); "Memento Mori," one of the funniest stories here, chronicling Sedaris' purchase of an actual human skeleton, and the ensuing spookhouse terror of keeping it in his home; and the memorable "What I Learned," Sedaris' speech to graduates of Princeton, his alma mater.

Fans will want this book to add to their Sedaris collection, but it could also be a good, safe introduction to Sedaris newbies, as the 10-15 page essays here aren't as bizarre as previous works ('Naked' being the weirdest). Where the book is worth a read (or a purchase) is in the 60-some page "The Smoking Section" memoir. Here Sedaris chronicles his life as a smoker, from childhood when he first began to smoke (including how in school they went on field trips to the cigarette factory and were given cigarettes to "take home to your parents"), to his efforts to quit by moving to Hiroshima. (The title of the book is derived from an actual public smoking warning during his stay in Japan.)

This is so-so Sedaris, which is still a heckuva lot funnier than anyone else out there. For more laughs, check out his other books, PLUS don't be surprised if you get addicted to his audiobooks, which he and his sister Amy Sedaris read. The audiobooks themselves are gold as his readings make the essays even more hilarious.
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78 of 95 people found the following review helpful
A very enjoyable read, with a couple of pieces that may be among Sedaris' very best. It does however, feel like there are couple of essays that should have been left out of this collection-pieces that did not add to the book as a whole, or seemed too similar to each other. I do think that "Solution to Saturday's Puzzle" is one of the great pieces of humorous writing, up on a level with Wodehouse's "Clicking of Cuthbert," which it resembles in almost no way. Frankly, the book is worth it for the giggles and guffaws to be found in that story alone, the rest of the collection is icing on the literary cake (though perhaps occasionally spread a bit too thick).
Buy this book and enjoy the sharp hilarity of our dreary lives...and if you like it, you might want to try Marc Acito's new novel. He's another one of our wittiest writers.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on June 28, 2008
When You Are Engulfed in Flames isn't very funny, and Sedaris doesn't really want it to be. Certainly, I laughed a few times, but the quality of Sedaris' humor has changed; he relies heavily on scatological jokes and much less on wit and child-like observation. But when the theme of your book is death and dying, scatological humor rings the truest. After all, When You Are Engulfed in Flames is Sedaris' midlife crisis, on paper, and available for purchase at most bookstores.

Of course, then, this alters the focus of the book. Indeed, all of Sedaris' books are essentially about him, but When You Are Engulfed in Flames is much, much more about him. In Naked, Sedaris fleshes out the character and human qualities of his mother. In Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris successfully creates characters for his father, his boyfriend, his grandmother, his brother, and at least two of his sisters. As magnanimous as Sedaris is in those two books, his writing could still be read as self-centered. But it's only in When You Are Engulfed in Flames when he populates too many essays with random, undeveloped characters, which forces the focus on him, and he makes that peculiar turn into selfishness and forgets the reader. This is most evident in the last 80+ pages of the book when Sedaris subjects the reader to his diary as he tries to quit smoking.

The only stories I really liked were "Keeping Up" and "That's Amore," the latter of which is a wonderful blend of the mournful midlife crisis tone that Sedaris wants to explore, and it's also touching and funny. The rest of the essays do not have such careful crafting. I recommend all of Sedaris' other books, but I would pass on When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
I knew it was a bad sign that I had made it to almost page 100 without laughing aloud - and barely even cracking a smile. That has never happened to me with any of Sedaris' other books. I was crying (in public) when I read 'Me Talk Pretty One Day' from laughing so hard. Not so much here.

Finally, there got to be some moments of that, but not many....and never to the tears in the eye stage. I refer to him being on a plane with a woman sitting beside him as the highlight of the passages.

I found with this and his last book - he writes less and less about his family, which were such perfect fodder for his earlier works. Maybe living abroad keeps those encounters less frequent - or maybe he or they just don't want them for public use.

The Smoking Section was ok - but I wasn't really in the mood to read his day to day diary, let alone on the topic of stopping smoking or travels in Japan.

All being said, Sedaris' writing seems a bit more focused and tighter, which isn't a bad thing. But sometimes it was the perceived ramblings that made things humourous.

For those looking to read, I would wait for paperback. Probably not worth the hardback price.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 7, 2008
I am a big fan of Sedaris, so I was hot to read this book and I did, in one sitting. "April In Paris" was fabulous, I will never look at a spider quite the same, however I still hate them . I found his smoking piece a bit tedious as Iam not a smoker,thus lacked empathy, but luckily it took place in Tokyo, making it a facinating and funny travelogue. I find the rehashing of old material endearing, as opposed to objectionable, as Iam fond of his family history and NYC/drug/alcohol stories so I mine them for new nuances and chuckles every time I read them. Not his best work ("Me Talk Pretty One Day" is), but I laughed out loud several times and for pieces like the tender (yes, I know it's about spiders) "April in Paris", I say kudos.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
I was introduced to David Sedaris when a relative of mine was in a coma for 5 months. I was told that someone was coming to the hospital, sitting beside the bed and reading from the "Chicken Soup" series of books. I was horrified as I'd been told that a person in a coma can still hear and I couldn't fathom the torture my loved one must be in - unable to move or communicate and being subjected to a torture akin to mental water boarding. Immediately I put the word out for some other essay series that could be read to him that would nullify the damage being done by this well intentioned person. David Sedaris was suggested several times and this is how I met him (literarily speaking).
I have "Engulfed" in the audio version that's read by the author. My favorites from Sedaris are always when he relates tales about his boyhood and goofy family. There's plenty to be found here. In this compilation I found the new bike essay interesting, the crotchety lady neighbor hilarious, but the whole smoking cessation portion was so close to home that it was a bit unnerving. He went to Japan, I went to Mexico. It worked for him, not for me...
I highly recomend this book - you can never go wrong with Sedaris (even if your in a coma)...bg
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on June 26, 2008
Here you will find essays as funny as anything Sedaris has ever written. Unfortunately you will also find some of the most self-indulgent. When Sedaris writes of relationships -- with family and friends and lovers -- we can relate. He takes the ordinary and stretches it to the absurd, often tapping into secret feelings and emotions we thought only we had, and that makes us laugh at him and ourselves. But when Sedaris takes several months off to quit smoking and rents an apartment in Tokyo, as he does for about the last third of the book, he loses something. It's not that he has to smoke and be high to be funny (he doesn't), it's that most of us don't have the time or the dough for such extravagant vacations. We have jobs and we have bills. When Sedaris becomes not an exaggerated one of us, but a neurotic twit with so much money and fame he can slap his name on the cover of anything and know we will buy it, it is hard not to feel a bit duped. The last section of the book is mostly a collection of paragraphs, not essays. It feels lazy. It's hard to imagine anyone outside of his loyal fans (I consider myself one) finding any pleasure here. In the beginning the Sedaris wit says, "Look at us. Aren't we funny." Here, Sedaris is simply saying, "Look at me. Look at me." The joke is growing stale. I am reminded of Picasso, who in his last years would scribble on paper, sign his name, and laugh all the way to the bank. "I am so brilliant, I deserve this."
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