Posted by: chartroose | November 18, 2008

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

David Sedaris, 2008, 323 p.

(I’ve read that he sometimes draws little pictures under his autograph at book signings.  Isn’t that fun)?

David Sedaris makes me sad.  He makes me feel all puffy and angsty and a little depressed.  I don’t believe this is the typical reader’s response to his humorous slice-of-life essays, but, then, I’m not a typical reader.  No matter the subject, there’s often an underlying air of melancholy in his tales that appeals to my marshmallow side.  He’s a humane satirist, and the way he views the world is both unique and familiar.  I’ll bet that’s why he’s so well liked–he’s one of us, but he’s also very much himself.  And boy, Sedaris is really popular!  He sells out Carnegie Hall.  He’s the most popular presenter on radio’s “This American Life.”  When Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim was published, David appeared on CNN and Letterman, and a Manhattan bookstore was so mobbed during one of his signings that it took many hours for his die-hard fans to make it to the front of the line.  I think he’s probably the most beloved American humor writer since Twain.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames showcases a more mature and more irritable Sedaris.  There were a few instances when I thought that he was a little over-the-top with his intolerance and crankiness.  Don’t get me wrong; I thoroughly enjoyed …Flames, but cripes, David, take a chill-pill every once in awhile!  Your misanthropy is showing more than ever!

As is the case with every Sedaris book I’ve read, some stories worked better for me than others.  That’s the way it is with humor, though, it can’t possibly satisfy everyone.  I suspect that humorists feel successful if they can amuse around 50% of their audience at any given point in time.  So, I approached When You Are Engulfed in Flames with a realistic attitude based upon my past relationship with Mr. Sedaris’ writing.

I must say that many of the vignettes in …Flames are quite a bit darker than the pieces in Sedaris’ other books.  I like that, though, since I have a bit of a morbid side.  My favorite essay out of the entire bunch is entitled “Memento Mori.”  In this trip down memory lane, Sedaris writes about a full-sized human skeleton he bought for Hugh’s (his longtime companion’s) birthday.  Hugh is an artist and wanted to own the real thing to use as a reference.  The live-in skeleton gradually works his way into David’s subconscious and repeats this litany:  “You are going to die.  You are going to die.  You are going to die.”  At the end of this story, David begs him to stop, so the skeleton changes it just a tad and says, “You are going to be dead…some day.”

I also enjoyed the part about quitting smoking, although I wonder if lifetime non-smokers will appreciate this portion of the book quite as much as I did.  As a rule, non-smokers have a hard time understanding how completely satisfying and beautiful smoking can be.  Even after many years of living smoke-free, I sometimes develop intense cravings, and it’s all I can do to keep myself from running to the nearest 7-11 to purchase a pack.  I don’t think this addiction will ever completely go away. 

When You Are Engulfed in Flames is both more bittersweet and more rancorous than Sedaris’ previous collections.  He’s looking at the flip-side of fifty, so I think his perceptions have changed a bit.  …Flames is a darker and deeper look at life in the David lane, and while it ain’t always pretty, it’s nearly always pretty witty.

I’d like to give this copy away.  If you want it, leave a comment, and I’ll say eenie-meenie-miney-mo on Friday, November 21st.



  1. Oh, I’d love to be entered! I’ve never read any of Sedaris’ work, but I would like to. milou2ster(at)

  2. I’ve never read any of his work before, but I’m sure that I’d love him, especially since you did. I wonder if this would be the right book to start with? I like morbid humor, though, and I find the title to this book completely satisfying in and of itself. 🙂

    I smoked on and off during college, but I never got addicted. I could take it or leave it. My father says the same thing as you about smoking. He hasn’t smoked in 30 years give or take and still feels that way. There are times myself where I smell a cigarette outside and think it smells wonderful – especially if the person is smoking menthol. I also still occasionally enjoy smoking a clove cigarette – especially when the tips are dipped in rum. Yum! I’m not helping matters, am I? I’ll stop now. 😉

  3. You don’t have to enter me, but I just wanted to tell you that I enjoyed your review on this one. Sedaris is very hit and miss for me; although the way people react to him makes me think that I must be a literary idiot because I’m not seeing what they do. 🙂

  4. Really great review.
    I’ve heard so much about this book, but it seems you describe it much more poignantly.
    I want to read it. So enter moi!
    I’m really really curious now !

  5. Don’t enter me either, because I’ve read this one, too. Great review…it is a darker book. After three of his books, I think I’m over him at this point. For all that I’m a sarcastic person, I don’t feel the need to read more of his sarcasm.

  6. I feel the same way! It drives my husband crazy. Sedaris always bums me out, and want to go out and protest of petition or something- anything- but my husband just thinks he is hysterical. Which he is, but you know what I mean.

  7. I didn’t realise what a star he is until I read your review. He’s virtually unknown in England, although he’s beginning to receive limited exposure. So I stumbled across this book largely by accident earlier this year. And I liked it a lot, although I don’t really feel an urge to read any more of his stuff.

  8. Sure, sign me up. If I win, I’ll give it to my husband to read first – he’d heard this one wasn’t as funny (which I think your review supports) so he’s been on the fence about wanting to read it. But he does have his morbid side too, so he might like it anyway.

  9. Haha yes your header graphic is awesome!

    It’s cool to hear that Engulfed is a bit darker than his other collections, he seems like he could do moody perfectly.

    Sometimes Sedaris bums me out, but more often I find myself thinking ‘ohhh so other people do and think crazy things too.’

    No need to enter me, I’ve a copy on my tbr and I think I may jump into it soon. Great review.

  10. Hmm. I’ve heard so much about Sedaris. He must be popular because none of his books are ever in the library!

  11. Count me in! I haven’t actually read any of Sedaris’s works, but I’d like to. Me Talk Pretty One Day has been on my wishlist for ages.

  12. It’s funny, the one book by Sedaris that I’ve read (Me Talk Pretty One Day) left me unimpressed, but after reading that book I fell in love with with stories on This American Life and thoroughly enjoyed the audio version of Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. I’d be curious to read this one, just to see if I enjoy it more now that I have his voice in my head.

  13. Enter meeeeeeeeeeee! I…uh…I’m struggling for something clever to say. Hrmph.

  14. Don’t sign me up, I already have a copy of the book. I just wanted to agree with your assessment that Sedaris is sort of melancholy underneath. It’s easy to miss if you’re just reading for the humor, but there is something a little sad about his stories. I love that he is willing to put himself out there with each book though.

  15. oh enter me!!! i’ve been wanting to read something by sedaris! oh i hope i win!!

  16. I think you have captured my reactions to his books perfectly. I too find them sad at times. And sometime I find his humour irritating too.

    Like Stephen, I would say that he is not much known in India too. Thats why his books are really hard to find here. And even if i do find them, they are very expensive.

    Please enter me (if international)

  17. I agree with you good ma’am! This is a very much more grown up Sedaris and I like that. This one had me rolling on the floor. And I’m right there with you on having the quitting smoking story be much more funnier if you can relate to a smoker. He actually made me NOT want to quit :p

  18. Enter me please. I’ve been wanting to read this book for some time. Loved your review. I have read Naked and Me Talk Pretty One Day and look forward to reading all his other works. I remember reading Naked on a plane and laughing so hard I was crying…I hope no one saw.

  19. i would love to entered.
    sounds like an interesting read.

  20. Oh I would love to read his book!

  21. I really need to read Sedaris (but don’t enter me, I’ve won enough lately! I’ve been super blessed and super busy, naturally).

    I was able to quit smoking cold turkey but it was a really easy habit to pick up again (and quit the same way again.) I’ve got an addictive personality but I seem to be able to break them easily. (More likely, switch. 🙂

  22. Please enter me. I’ve only read “Me talk pretty one day” and really enjoyed it. I’ve never been addicted to smoking, but I’m a raging chocaholic! Is that the same thing?

  23. I’ve read Naked. (But I was dressed when I read it, I think.)

    I remember hunting for his books and it was not where I expected. I can never find what I’m looking for in bookstores!

  24. I’ve heard a lot of people say they didn’t like this one as much as his others (haven’t read through the comments to see if others agree), but I admired him for looking at some of the darker things. I still thought he was grippingly funny. Memento Mori was a great essay, and I loved the one where he hacked the cough drop onto the irritable woman’s jeans on the plane. The title escapes me. 🙂

  25. He drew a picture when he signed my copy of “Naked.” I asked him what Ira Glass (the host of “This American Life”) and Sedaris drew me a picture of him.

  26. Robert–
    That’s great! He seems like such a fun and genuine person. Maybe that’s why he sells out practically every show!

  27. I have been so dying to own this! Love him!

  28. […] reading When You Are Engulfed in Flames (see my review here), I was in a Sedaris kind of mood, so I picked up my old copy of Holidays on Ice and reread it.  […]

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