Book Review: David Sedaris’s When You are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed in FlamesWhen You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed Sedaris’s writing in the past, and possibly even more so, hearing him speak at a writer’s festival. He’s funny. Occasionally, he produces a gem of a sentence that is sad, cynical and hilarious, all at once. If I had a better memory, I’d quote him at dinner parties, like people do of Oscar Wilde.

This book was passed onto me (as I will pass it on to a friend who has been giving up smoking, as Sedaris is doing in the last and longest essay in the book) and I noted that it is from 2008.

While Sedaris’s humour always involves some self-deprecation and observation about how strange and absurd the world is, what struck me is that I wonder if his humour (or that of 2008) is going slightly out of date. He often mocks other people and their physical appearance in a way that feels not challenging or outrageous, but just sort of mean. It’s possibly forgiveable since he often makes fun of himself, but it generally gave me the feeling that at this particular point of our history, it’s not funny anymore to make fun of other people.

The other issue is that while I found his recounting of stories from his younger years sharper and funnier, and more full of memorable, absurd detail, I found other stories to be fairly mundane and anecdotal. The final chapter, giving up smoking while in Japan, didn’t grab me: perhaps I’ve read too many ‘Westerners find Japanese culture strange’ stories or had too many friends who gave up smoking.

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