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When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

• Audio: 9 cds

• Publisher: Hatchette Audio, 2008

• ISBN: 1600241824

• Genre: Humor; Memoir; Essay

• Recommended For: Anyone who’s looking for a good laugh and finds humor in both the mundane and quirky of everyday life.

Quick Review: I highly recommend Sedaris’ writing to anyone–either this collection, or any of his other books. They are all relatable and hilarious, and force the reader to appreciate the absurdity of life’s minutia.

How I Got Here: I’ve been reading about one Sedaris collection per year for the last three years; thus, this is the third Sedaris book I’ve read. I’ve enjoyed each and every book I’ve read by Sedaris, and so, when I was looking for an audiobook to listen to in the car, and this was available at the library, it was a no-brainer.

The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis

Once again, David Sedaris brings together a collection of essays so uproariously funny and profoundly moving that his legions of fans will fall for him once more. He tests the limits of love when Hugh lances a boil from his backside, and pushes the boundaries of laziness when, finding the water shut off in his house in Normandy, he looks to the water in a vase of fresh cut flowers to fill the coffee machine. From armoring the windows with LP covers to protect the house from neurotic songbirds to the awkwardness of having a lozenge fall from your mouth into the lap of a sleeping fellow passenger on a plane, David Sedaris uses life’s most bizarre moments to reach new heights in understanding love and fear, family and strangers. Culminating in a brilliantly funny (and never before published) account of his venture to Tokyo in order to quit smoking, David Sedaris’s sixth essay collection will be avidly anticipated.

My Analysis and Critique:

I love Sedaris’ work and I loved this example of his work. While others might complain that this one is more tame, less focused, or just “not as good as his other stuff,” I found everything that I expect and am looking for in a collection of Sedaris essays (stories). There were moments of hilarity, the grotesque, and morose reflection–staples of Sedaris’ writing. His style is meandering (in a good way), often beginning with a quirky scene at the beginning of an essay, and then moving into the meat of his story, which finally culminates into some sort of reflection on an aspect of his present or past life. I enjoy equally my moments of connection with his stories, as well as the moments of “Whaaat?!” that occur every so often.

This was the first time that I have listened to Sedaris reading his own words, and I have to say, it is the best way to go. While I was somewhat annoyed by the book’s few live recordings of Sedaris reading to an audience (All of the pauses he took while the audience bursts out in laughter made me frustrated. “You guys are interrupting my story!”), I appreciated hearing his voice and getting to listen to his comic timing.

Here are my favorite stories from the collection:

“It’s Catching”: This story revolves around germaphobes, and gives some more insight into my favorite of Sedaris’s sisters, Lisa (she’s quite a character). It also introduces us to Maw Hamrick, the mother of Hugh (Sedaris’ longtime partner), and her unfortunate past experience with a worm living in her leg. Sedaris reflects:

If I was a child and saw something creeping out of a hole in my mother’s leg, I would march to the nearest orphanage and put myself up for adoption. I would burn all pictures of her, destroy anything she had ever given me, and start all over because that is simply disgusting. A dad can be crawling with parasites and somehow it’s OK, but on a mom, or any woman, really, it’s unforgivable. (5)

“The Understudy”: The most popular kind of Sedaris story–a childhood story that tells of the time when Sedaris and his sisters were left with a hillbilly babysitter named Mrs. Peacock, while their parents were vacationing for a week. During the kids’ week from hell, they hold “daily crisis meetings” in the woods behind their house, and record Mrs. Peacock’s offenses in a notebook:

“Can’t speak English,” I wrote in the complaint book. “Can’t go two minutes without using the word ‘damn.’ Can’t cook worth a damn hoot.”

The last part was not quite true, but it wouldn’t have hurt her to expand her repertoire. Sloppy joe, sloppy joe, sloppy joe, held over our heads as if it were steak. Nobody ate unless they earned it, which meant fetching her drinks, brushing her hair, driving the monkey paw into her shoulders until she moaned. Mealtime came and went—her too full of Coke and potato chips until one of us dared to mention it. “If y’all was hungry, why didn’t you say nothing? I’m not a mind reader, you know. Not a psychic or some damn thing.” (26)

“What I Learned”: Sedaris discusses his experiences at Princeton as an undergraduate, and the expectations that go along with attending an Ivy League school. Of course, it’s told by Sedaris, so it’s not at all what you’d expect from that synopsis. To stifle his father’s enthusiasm about his son attending Princeton, Sedaris announces to his parents that he will be majoring in patricide. In this way, the story is a bit absurd, as Sedaris describes his parents’ enthusiasm at this major: “Killed by a Princeton graduate! […] And my own son, no less.” The fun irony is that Sedaris truly lives up to this announcement: he kills his father (and entire family) via the publication of his revealing, humorous essays.

“That’s Amore”: A wonderful character sketch of Helen, Sedaris’ neighbor in New York, who was truly an awful woman. Yet, somehow, Sedaris writes of Helen with love. She’s petty, gossipy, racist, hateful, and oh-so-real. Yet, who Helen was cannot really be contained in a short synopsis: you’ve gotta read this one!

“Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle”: A short vignette describing the awkwardness of getting stuck next to an asshole on a long flight. A woman seated next to Sedaris asks him if he would swap seats with her husband so that the spouses can sit together, Sedaris declines, and then it becomes passive-aggressively ugly.

“Old Faithful”: A story about the growth and eventual lancing of a cyst on Sedaris’ backside sounds pretty disgusting, right? However, this is a wonderful story that ends up illustrating the perks of being in a comfortable, somewhat predictable, long relationship with someone you love.

“The Smoking Section”: My favorite of the essays here, and it’s a long one at 83 pages. This one chronicles Sedaris’ smoking addiction and his journey in quitting the habit. It illustrates his history with smoking, his decision to quit, and the aftereffects of quitting. Sedaris ends up moving to Japan with Hugh, after reading that it helps to change one’s entire environment to give up an addiction, and then shares his adventures in the foreign country while dealing with all the stages of quitting. I found this essay both insightful and inspiring, and I appreciated the peek into the life of an American in Japan. And, since I forgot to mention it, it’s also VERY FUNNY.

I highly recommend Sedaris’ writing to anyone–either this collection, or any of his other books. They are all relatable and hilarious, and force the reader to appreciate the absurdity of life’s minutia.


Goodreads Reviews

David Sedaris Author Page and Complete Listing of Works (from Goodreads)


A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

• Hardcover: 211 pages

• Publisher: Scribners, 1964 (first edition!)

• ISBN:64-15441

• Genre: Memoir/Classic

• Recommended For: Anyone interested in descriptive memoirs, classic authors, “the Lost Generation”, and writing tips from one of America’s best authors.

Quick Review:

An excellent quick read that inspires the aspiring writer and paints a lovely picture of Paris in the ’20s. Really brings Hemingway down-to-earth and makes me want to try to re-read some of his novels (never was a fan).

How I Got Here: My sister is currently on her belated honeymoon in Paris, and one of her goals was to see all the sights that she read about in this book. Before she left, she insisted that I also read the book, thinking that it would be inspiring as a writing book. This books satisfies tasks for A Classics ChallengeEnd of the World Challenge, and the Award-Winning Challenge. It’s also number 72 on my list for The Classics Club.

The Book: Goodreads’ Synopsis

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

– ERNEST HEMINGWAY, to a friend, 1950

Published posthumously in 1964, A Moveable Feast remains one of Ernest Hemingway’s most beloved works. It is his classic memoir of Paris in the 1920s, filled with irreverent portraits of other expatriate luminaries such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein; tender memories of his first wife, Hadley; and insightful recollections of his own early experiments with his craft. It is a literary feast, brilliantly evoking the exuberant mood of Paris after World War I and the youthful spirit, unbridled creativity, and unquenchable enthusiasm that Hemingway himself epitomized.

My Analysis and Critique:

I’ve written quite a bit about this book already, and I’m sure it’s obvious that I greatly enjoyed this book.

I was and am surprised that I enjoyed A Moveable Feast so much as I’ve never been a fan of Hemingway’s. I always considered myself in the Steinbeck camp–Hemingway’s style always felt cold to me. Maybe it’s his minimalist, lean style. However, A Moveable Feast was nothing but heart! I saw Paris through Hemingway’s eyes, I could hear every conversation he transcribed, and I could taste the delicious meals and wine he consumed.

The book is composed of the journal entries he recorded as a young man living in Paris in the ’20s, and this is apparent in his stream-of-consciousness style. It was very engaging. Hemingway reflects upon his favorite spots in the city, the start and dissolution of his friendship with Gertrude Stein, his true friends and his phony colleagues. He comes off as a jerk at times, but his writing reflects his youth, and is as forgivable as any youthful misbehavior.

A Moveable Feast is also full of writing tips from Hemingway, as he reflects quite a bit on his writing process, the obstacles that got in the way of his writing, and how he dealt with said obstacles. Any creative person would get something out of Hemingway’s tips. I would place this on the shelf next to my most-prized writing books.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for its wonderful descriptions of Paris, the lively characters that Hemingway reflects upon (including Stein, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald), and the inspiration it stirs in my writer’s soul. A quick read and worth anyone’s time!

Check out my previous posts below to get a better feeling for the writing in the book!


A Moveable Feast and Paris in the ’20s

Classic Authors: They’re Just Like Us–Ernest Hemingway Part One and Two

Goodreads Reviews

Please note: This list is compiled in no particular order. It is simply a list of my favorite books for this particular genre in 2011.

Afoot and Afield in San Diego

Afoot and Afield in San Diego by Jerry Schad (Nonfiction~Outdoors)

Recommended for anyone living in southern California, particularly those in the San Diego area. Schad has compiled a comprehensive list of all the hiking trails in San Diego county–both urban and rural. Also includes camping sites, tips on all potential obstacles, and lists of flora and fauna and wildlife to be encountered. Indispensable when planning a nature retreat in San Diego!

How to Read and Why

How to Read and Why by Harold Bloom (Nonfiction~Literature)

A treatise on why it is important to read the classics. Includes recommendations on what to read of the classics. Also, critically analyzes canonical works of the following types: short story, poetry, drama, classical novels, and the modern novel. I use this as a reference point both before and during the reading of classical literature.

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls (Memoir)

This well-written, very emotional memoir chronicles a very unconventional, nomadic life. Wells was the daughter of very unconventional parents who move their children all across the country. The parents come off as very unfit, and Wells relates how their life was seen as an adventure when she was young, but then grew to be tiresome as she matured and differentiated from her parents’ life philosophy. Contains some shocking scenes which often anger and polarize readers. I will never forget this well-written memoir-it’s one of the few pieces of biographical writing that I truly enjoyed.

What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew by Daniel Pool (Nonfiction~British Literary History)

I love this book! I always keep it by my side when reading classic British literature, which is often. It includes explanations on the differences between Town(London) life and country life, occupations, titles, illnesses, food, games, dances, and more. It also contains a map of England, which I mark up with the locations of scenes from each novel I read. Highly recommended.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris (Memoir~Humor)

Simply put: I love David Sedaris! Have yet to find a book by him that I didn’t like.

The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters (Nonfiction~Cookbook)

A very good cookbook that supplies simple instructions on simple food. Most of the recipes require little work and few ingredients as they are meals stripped down to their purest, most tasty selves.

Create Your Own Blog by Tris Hussey (Nonfiction~Blogging)

This is the book that started my blog! Read my review(my first review!) here.

The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron (Nonfiction~Writing/Art Self Help)

This book was also very instrumental in creating this blog. It’s a creativity program that requires daily journaling (3 pages daily), Artist Dates (an hour or two weekly that indulges your creative side; I took a trip to a bookstore, a trip to an old cemetery, a few hours looking at and reflecting on old photo albums and yearbooks). Also includes weekly exercises in reflection on one’s self as an artist. Highly recommended for anyone seeking to create.

Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell (Nonfiction~Writing Fiction)

This is the best book on the writing of fiction that I have ever read (well, tied with Stephen King’s On Writing). Bell breaks plot down to a simple formula: create a character, give them a motive, put an obstacle in front of them (what’s the worst thing that could happen to them? Torture them!), see what happens next. Rinse and repeat. An excellent book, the only book that has made it seem possible that I could write fiction.

Sticky Readers: How to Create a Loyal Blog Audience by Writing More Better by Margaret Andrews (Nonfiction~Blogging)

A useful book that has made me want to improve my blog. Read my review here.

Tomorrow’s Post: My Top Ten Books Read in 2011!