Talking about a collection of short stories or essays is kind of hard without talking about each individual section, so I usually hold off on discussing them. But in an attempt to both become more comfortable with it and discuss as many books as I can, today I’m going to talk about When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris.
I’d read Barrel Fever almost two years ago and enjoyed it. It was funny without trying too hard to be hilarious. Since then, I’ve been wanting to check more of his work out but for whatever reason, it’s taken this long. I found a few books of his in the library and randomly grabbed one of them.
My experience with When You Are Engulfed in Flames was similar to Barrel Fever. It was entertaining, it kept me smiling, and I was glad to have read it after finishing. The essays regarding his life are interesting; David Sedaris seems to be a pretty well-traveled person, as many of his stories indicate. They take place in multiple locations, including France, London, Japan, and several locations in America.
His observations of people are one of the things I love most about his writing. He picks up on all the mannerisms of random people you’d encounter on a check-out line, on the street, in the halls — and he can make them seem very real and relateable. Relateable, of course, meaning that if they tend to annoy you or rub you the wrong way, David Sedaris will probably portray that pretty well. I think one of my favorite examples of this was in the essay “That’s Amore,” where he writes of his relationship with an elderly, critical neighbor, and “This Old House,” which describes a particularly annoying neighbor bothering him in during his stay at a boarding house.
He’s also got a dry wit, and every now and then he depicts some random observation or replies with unexpected sarcasm that I couldn’t help but crack up at. In his last essay, “The Smoking Section,” he describes his stay in Japan while attending classes to learn Japanese. In a comically immature manner, he forms a strong dislike for the one student in class to do worse than him (because he’s just about on par with her) as well as someone that scored a perfect 100 on an exam and commented on Sedaris’ failing grade. It’s very reminiscent of grade school jealousy, and I really enjoyed how even though the author portrays himself as a mature, well-experienced person, he’s not above resorting back to childish, imaginary name-calling.
I think the only real issue I have with this collection of essays is that David Sedaris either feels like too different of a person from me or too much older, as there were several parts throughout the book that I felt pretty disconnected with. That’s not a technical flaw with the book, but when it comes to short story/essay collections, the degree that I can relate to the narrator can make the difference between enjoying a book and loving one. But that’s a nitpick. It was an entertaining read, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in this type of observational humor or nonfiction.
Info for my edition of When Engulfed in Flames:
- Published 2008 by Little Brown and Company
- Hardcover, 323 pages
- ISBN 978-0-316-14347-9