three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
36-Sept-Oct-2008
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-When You Are Engulfed by FlamesIn his sixth collection of essays, David Sedaris—master of the art of riffing on things trivial, mundane, and bizarre—shares his midlife crisis. He’s now over 50, and smarter (and perhaps meaner) than ever.

The Topic: In essays he claims are 97 percent true, David Sedaris ruminates on his life’s purpose—or lack thereof. As the title, taken from a list of instructions in case of fire in a Japanese hotel room, suggests, midlife has him obsessed with death and dying. Still, there’s plenty of room to discuss art collecting, the French countryside, his boyfriend Hugh’s boil, his pet spider, his revenge on a rude airplane seatmate, and a French pedophile he befriends. While most of the essays explore the present, a few reflect on the past, including those about a rowdy neighbor who forces Sedaris to retrieve her dentures and a babysitter who asks the Sedaris siblings for a strange favor. The collection culminates with Sedaris’s three-month sojourn to Japan to quit smoking, because, after all, it could lead to death.
Little, Brown & Company. 323 pages. $25.99. ISBN: 9780316143479

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"[‘The Smoking Section’] is more descriptive and, yes, more serious than the other essays. It also hints that Sedaris is perhaps ready to produce essays that are not merely collections of memories but examinations of his current life." Christopher Muther

Charlotte Observer 4 of 5 Stars
"When David Sedaris takes us on a trip, he navigates with a rusty compass. First steps are direct, but before you know it, you’re taking in the sights down some shady alley that somehow leads in a great circle to the objective. And the journey is worth every misstep." Mark Washburn

Rocky Mountain News 4 of 5 Stars
"Sedaris can be tender, touching and sad, as exemplified by a visit to the memorial in Hiroshima marking the aftermath of the atomic bomb the U.S. dropped on Japan. … The best thing about Sedaris is that he can be read in easily digestible chunks; few of his essays run more than four pages, and when they do, they’re broken into sections that run only five to 15 paragraphs." Mike Pearson

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The main stage is occupied by a mix of highly pixelated memories, chance meetings with freaks and scenes of Sedaris fretting over his eventual demise. … With Sedaris in this state of mind, the centerpiece of the book should have been an obvious gimme: a diary of his quest to quit smoking." Vanessa Grigoriadis

Entertainment Weekly 3 of 5 Stars
"The proceedings carry a whiff of beloved-but-stale syndication, akin to late-night reruns of Seinfeld: There’s the one about the child molester, the one about the spiders, the one about the skeleton. … Flames doesn’t bring a lot more to the table, though we do learn Sedaris has no better linguistic luck with Japanese [than with French]." Whitney Pastorek

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"His writing seems a perfect mirror of a confessional culture that revels in personal revelation—a self-dramatizing, post-Seinfeldian talk-show culture in which nothing (not even a boil on one’s butt or the use of a catheter with a self-adhesive condom) is too embarrassing or too private or too trivial to recount. … With many of these tales, the reader has the sense that Mr. Sedaris is scraping the bottom of the barrel for material." Michiko Kakutani

Critical Summary

The essays in Engulfed, most of them previously published in the New Yorker and Esquire, won’t be new to readers who have been following Sedaris’s travails the last few years. Yet overall, critics embraced this newest collection, while acknowledging that it lacks some of the cohesiveness of his earlier essays (which discussed his childhood and growing up gay). Yet the meandering nature of these essays doesn’t disappoint; although they might veer wildly from readers’ initial expectations, many of them end up in more interesting, insightful, and tender places. But as Sedaris embraces middle age, one critic fears that he "seems awfully close to exhausting his material" (Entertainment Weekly), and the New York Times, while highlighting a few standout essays, cited a total lack of introspection. Ah, middle age.