When You Are Engulfed in Flames
David Sedaris
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Buy *When You Are Engulfed in Flames* by David Sedaris online

When You Are Engulfed in Flames
David Sedaris
Back Bay Books
336 pages
June 2009
rated 3 1/2 of 5 possible stars

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David Sedaris has quit smoking, and so have many of his stories - the fire has gone. He is best when he's attacking and biting and scraping away the day-to-day to expose the raw and wild underbelly lying beneath. But now, neither addicted to nicotine or alcohol, he has taken on a human quality in his tales. If you wanted to read that, you'd check out a Somerset Maugham collection.

Here, Sedaris has collected a selection of short essays as openers for the final "The Smoking Section," a kind of mini-novella. This is the story of traveling to Tokyo for three months in order to quit smoking. It is variously hilarious and touching and rude, all the stuff we've come to love Sedaris for.

In one passage, after he's left Tokyo and returned to London, he writes about swimming in a local pool.

At the pool I currently go to, one of the regulars is a woman with Down syndrome. She's fairly heavy and wears an old-fashioned swimsuit, the sort with a ruffled skirt. Then there's this bathing cap that straps beneath her chin and is decorated with rubber flowers. Odd is the great satisfaction I take whenever I beat her from one end to the other. "I won three out of four," I told Hugh the first time she and I swam together. "I mean I really creamed her."

"Let me get this straight," he [Hugh, David's partner] said. "She's obese. She's as old as you are. And she has Down syndrome?"

"Yes, and I beat her. Isn't that great!"

"Did she even know you were having a race?"

I hate it when he gets like this. Anything to burst my bubble.
Hilarious. In one paragraph, the writer has trampled the handicapped, the obese, and the bad swimmer. And we love him for it because ultimately he'll trample his own inadequacies even harder and make us adore him that much more.

The short pieces are fine, but not in the same league with "The Smoking Section." He should have devoted the entire book to it.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at www.curledup.com. Steven Rosen, 2008

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