Saturday, May 22, 2010

David Sedaris "When You Are Engulfed In Flames"

Well I am struggling a bit through my current reading list. It is Animal Farm that has slowed me down. This is funny because it is a tiny little volume and a very cleverly written story. I am sure I will finish it but realise I haven't blogged about anything so will hark back to a book of humorous essays I read over the Christmas hols called "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" by David Sedaris.

David Sedaris has written a number of essay and story collections, "When You Are Engulfed In Flames" is his most recent. I have not read any of the others but plan to, as his writing is sharp, modern and made me wince and gasp with the accuracy of his observations.

A well written essay really can't be beaten for bang for your reading time. Each of the essays in the collection is excellent on its own and works together to build up an autobiographical picture of some of the aspects of the authors character. The collection culminates with the last story "The Smoking Section" which documents Mr Sedaris's elaborate journey to give up smoking.

The essays tend to start with a premise, ramble away from the original idea to things that seem quite unrelated, and then return powerfully to his original theme. I say ramble, but it is generally an enchanting, very witty journey that appears effortless to the reader. Sedaris is self effacing and fearless in revealing his own insecurities and struggles. I think this is why his cutting observations about others are acceptible because they are tempered by his honesty about his own vulnerabilites. I look forward to reading his earlier volumes to see if this has always been a hallmark of his work.

Above all the essays are funny; often in a dark, dry way. Sedaris has a wonderful knack for finding the hilarious and moving in everyday occurrences. For instance "Solution to Saturday's Puzzle" describes the everyday event of sitting beside a stranger on a plane and all of the angst and anxiety that can go with this forced closeness. Unfortunately for Sedaris relations with the lady he is sitting beside started badly and then he inadvertently coughs the remnants of a cough lozenge that he has been sucking onto her while she is asleep. This little event opens the story and what is to follow is a very tightly written and funny tale that rings so true of all of our strivings for wanting to be seen to be clever and fair, yet at the same time needing to get our own way in things. I loved it.

"Adult Figures Charging Toward a Concrete Toadstool" is perhaps my favourite essay in the collection because while it is six months since I read "When You Are Engulfed In Flames" it is this story that lingers in my awareness the most. It is an example where Sedaris reveals something, that I believe would be universal and difficult for most of us to give voice to. The main theme in this story I felt was that no matter how cultured or learned we think we become there are certain humble objects from our childhood that no matter how often they are usurped with bigger and better replacements continue to symbolise, better than anything else what home means to us. When I finished reading this story I was filled with genuine wonderment because it evoked a strong and pleasant feeling about my relationship with my own memories of childhood.

I think David Sedaris is like no one else because he combines the hilariously scathing with heart stopping poignancy and reveals a universal dignity amidst peoples foibles and struggles. For the modern essay I don't think he can be beaten.

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