Review: ‘When You Are Engulfed in Flames’


Review at at glance: “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” covers a range of topics and eras in its humorous essays, but reads more pleasant than memorable when compared to David Sedaris’ other collections.

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Essayist David Sedaris continues to turn out pieces on his life, his observations and his travels for publications and for his book collections. The 2008 work, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” darts from his coming out as a young adult to his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Japan with his partner Hugh.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames, David SedarisWhile past collections have resonated with me — notably “Naked” and “Holidays on Ice” [aff. links] — this one seemed off. Call it the curse of success. As Sedaris has risen in popularity, his life has evolved from struggling unknown to worldly traveler and best-selling author. Nothing wrong with that, but it doesn’t make for readily identifiable situations.

He still trolls the past for tales both heartfelt and absurd. “The Understudy” recalls a memorable week in which Sedaris and his siblings were left with an unfamiliar babysitter, Mrs. Peacock. Or “That’s Amore,” when he and Hugh lived in an apartment building in New York and spent time with his feisty neighbor, Helen.

Mixed in with the exceptional chapters are the lesser efforts, including the last quarter of the book, “The Smoking Section,” a diary-style account of Sedaris’ love affair with smoking and his escape to Tokyo as an attempt to shed the habit.

While readers can empathize with his struggle to shake his addiction, the unfocused group of stray observations on Japanese culture and language make it a watered-down mish-mash. It feels more like an attempt to satisfy a word count or a required book length than a gem of an essay.

“When You Are Engulfed in Flames” gives us a brief glimpse into Sedaris’ life abroad and before his big break. Amusing at times, it is a pleasant if unmemorable read.

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