No flames for ‘Flames’: Discovering Sedaris

This summer I decided I liked David Sedaris without having ever read a single word from one of his six collections of short stories. I don’t know why I did this, but it’s something that happens rather frequently. Usually once I decide that I’m interested in something, I watch or read everything I can find on the subject. Then miraculously I am not only an expert on the subject but I actually enjoy my chosen area of expertise.

What I did not prepare for, however, was not enjoying Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day while I was in Boston, riding the T. I accredit this surprising occurrence to the fact that I had also decided to like the T before ever riding it. If there is one thing I have learned from this habit, it is that my chosen “interests” should never be combined.

Perplexed but undeterred, I told myself again: I am going to like David Sedaris. This is why I then read his other works and his most recent collection of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames. And somewhere in between Harvard Avenue and South Hadley, I found out that I really do enjoy Sedaris and his reflections on seemingly mundane subjects.

As in Sedaris’s earlier collections, the essays in Flames focus on those he knows best—his family, his boyfriend Hugh and his friends. With Sedaris’s distinctive storytelling ability that blends keen observations with unmatched humor, these very real people become characters and in essence the glue that holds his works together. But it is Sedaris himself who becomes his stories’ best character, whether he is central to story’s plot (That’s Amore) or just the narrator (Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?).

Then there are stories about the people who change your life, such as a traumatizing childhood babysitter (The Understudy) or an irritating airplane seatmate (Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle).

Sedaris’s storytelling skills are at their best when he recounts his attempts to quit smoking over a stay in Japan in Flames’ final essay, The Smoking Section. In this three-part story, the author describes his life as a smoker with the brand of humor that has become the Sedaris standard. It is his uncanny ability to tell his personal stories in a way that at once feels familiar and reminds us to see the lighter side of life.

Flames is yet another excellent compilation of humor writing by the one and only Sedaris. Having read six of his essay collections in the last three months, I can finally vouch for their worth. Sedaris’s writing is witty and hilarious while at the same time sentimental and touching.

Just never read his work while riding public transportation: although you might feel as though you are in one of his stories, it is not the way to truly appreciate Sedaris.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames
David Sedaris
323 pp. Little, Brown & Company.

Source: Mount Holyoke News, Books

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