BANG Book Review: When You Are Engulfed In Flames

Our latest book club meeting was to discuss When You Are Engulfed In Flames, by David Sedaris. We met at Williams Fresh Cafe (formerly known as Williams Coffee Pub), so it was a very casual atmosphere with considerably more gossip than book discussion. Some of us had read all of it, some only parts of it, and some not at all… but it’s not the kind of book you can exactly spoil by talking about it, since it has basically… no plot.


When You Are Engulfed In Flames is a book of essays/stories by the author of Me Talk Pretty One Day (which has been highly recommended to me by a couple different people) and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (in which he is reportedly quite hard on his family).

I had never read anything by David Sedaris before. Our GGG had differing opinions on the book; that is, we agreed that the stories are pretty darn random and bizarre, that we were all confused during the first one, and that there were funny parts – but we had varying perspectives on which of those elements dominated.

I’m just gonna tell you my perspective, since it’s my blog. 🙂

When I read the first story in the book, I was completely confused, and wondering how this Sedaris guy gets to publish books when he’s just writing down arbitrary, impertinent collections of anecdotes that don’t flow together or make sense or conclude logically. It would have helped a lot to know:

  1. David Sedaris is gay;
  2. his boyfriend is Hugh;
  3. and the randomness is part of his charm.

Once I figured these things out and went back and read the first essay again, it did make a certain amount of sense. Still not as much as you expect, but you get used to that.

I am not a person who laughs indiscriminately. Don’t get me wrong, I love laughing, but not all so-called “funny” things will get my funny bone. Must be all those years of playing “Princess” as a kid (my best friend and my sisters and I would get together and one person’s the princess and the others have to try and make her laugh with their antics and she has to not succumb – but I digress).

Especially when reading a book, maybe because it’s an inherently silent activity – even if I’m finding it funny, I’m unlikely to laugh out loud. Something has to really tickle my medial ventral prefrontal cortex. (Oh yes, I know which part of the brain stores humour. I once memorized this term from an in-flight magazine while crossing the Atlantic, knowing it would be eminently handy – and it has been. I’ve used it several times since then, uber-geek that I am… and I’m digressing again. Yikes. Damn you, Sedaris!)

Anyway. The point about this book is, I soon found myself giggling. Aloud. I was impressed with the way this writer can throw out unexpected phrases that just… get me. I found his stories disarming, the way he candidly embarrasses himself and talks about stuff you’re really not supposed to talk about. There were bits funny enough that I got fits of giggles, and still chuckle about them now, remembering. (I’m not going to tell you which ones because you have to find your own.)

There were a few stories where I did think, Dude, you’re stretching it. That is not how you end a story. Did you make more sense when you were on drugs? But mostly, I came to enjoy the weird non-sequiturs and to tolerate the non-conclusions. I got pretty engrossed in the last essay, “The Smoking Section”, a big long one that covered his quitting smoking and his stint living in Japan. (Yes, these two things are related.) Both things I’m curious about.

So, to sum up: I liked this book a lot, and as for you – you might or might not. But you’ll definitely read some things you’re not expecting.

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  1. David and his sister Amy put the quirk in quirkiness. They sometimes aren’t funny, but you have to keep watching and listening and reading, because when they ARE funny, they’re inspired. It’s hit and miss but I want to be along for the ride.

  2. i thought of this after you read me the part about the cheeks full of warm nuts – DS has written a book (i think for kids?) called Squirrel seeks Chipmunk! totally goes with that. 🙂

  3. no, apparently that book is nnnooottt for kids. Dylan was reading it lasnight before bed and it gave him the not-go-to-sleep ers. Too dark too weirdo. …sory butv he is, in fact, asleep on my right hand as I type this. puir laddie dinna get a peaceful rest! moral of story is: squittel abd chipmunk book is not fr kiuds unless your kids are able to handle dark/scary. other takehome lesson: it is easier uo type if have 2 hands.
    Love you and your book reviews, Lady Di!

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