David Sedaris

"When You Are Engulfed in Flames"

(reviewed by Poornima Apte JUN 25, 2008)

It was the New York Times columnist, Roger Cohen, who recently said that to find stories, you must give yourself to the moment. “Time must weigh on you, its lulls, accelerations and silences. The life within, the deeper story, does not yield itself with ease,” he wrote.

For years, humorist David Sedaris has made a career out of rooting out precisely such stories—drawing deeply on his personal experiences and turning them into essays that have won him a wide fan following. Sedaris’s family and his childhood have been fodder for many of his stories. In fact it was getting to be so bad that in his previous collection of essays, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, Sedaris joked that his sisters would preface most of their conversations with: “You have to swear you will never repeat this.” 

And while one could argue that his family (and his childhood) was quite quirky, Sedaris has always had a special talent of showcasing that quirkiness and underlining it in a way that was also deeply introspective. With Sedaris’s touch, every episode was more than just funny. It was also touching. In my favorite essay of his, “Santaland Diaries” (which was included in the collection Holidays On Ice), for example, Sedaris uses a stint as an elf at a local department store and turns it into a subtle critique of American consumerism especially at Christmas.

There are a couple of such gems in Sedaris’s latest collection of essays When You Are Engulfed in Flames. My favorite is an essay about the collecting of art: “Adult Figures Charging Toward Concrete Toadstool.” Sedaris describes his tentative forays into art at a young age: “Even with my babysitting income, paintings were out of the question, so instead I invested in postcards, which could be bought for a quarter in the museum shop and matted with shirt cardboard,” and also details how his parents caught on to the craze.

On the other hand, there’s an entire essay (“April in Paris”) devoted to his pet spider and how Sedaris found and kept her, catching flies for it everyday. Catching flies became addictive, he says. “There were days when I’d throw a good three dozen of them to their deaths, this at the expense of whatever else I was supposed to be doing.” It is essays like this that make you wonder if Sedaris has had time weighing a little too much on him.

“It sometimes helps to remind myself that not everyone is like me,” Sedaris writes, “Not everyone writes things down in a notebook and transcribes them into a diary. Fewer still take that diary, clean it up a bit, and read it in front of an audience.” There are a few essays in When You Are Engulfed in Flames that drive home the point that maybe Sedaris should start getting a little more selective about exactly what he puts down in his diary.

There has been some speculation as to whether Sedaris varnishes the facts just a little, in other words—just how much does he “clean up” the stories he presents. Sedaris himself briefly wonders about such embellishments in an essay called “Of Mice and Men,” where he finds that he inadvertently spiced up a newspaper article when he narrated the account to a friend. “Had I somehow imposed my own life on the newspaper story?” he asks. Whether or not there are slight embellishments in his essays is anybody’s call but that doesn’t detract from the basic promise of Sedaris’s work as an engaging humorist.

While the latest collection (many stories from here have been published previously in the New Yorker) might not qualify as Sedaris’s best, (that honor would arguably belong to Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim), it certainly qualifies as a valued addition especially for his many fans. 

Many readers, for example, will be tickled by this description of a flight to Europe in “Crybaby”: “Between takeoff and landing, there’s a brief parody of an evening: dinner is served, the trays are cleared, and four hours later it’s time for breakfast. The idea is to trick the body into believing it has passed a night like any other—that your unsatisfying little nap was actually sleep and now you are rested and deserving of an omelet.”

For the most part, the essays in When You Are Engulfed in Flames are funny and are loaded with such “Aha!” moments. But they lack that added Sedaris touch: introspection. Many of these essays are more Seinfeldian in nature—they are little more than wry observations of life’s little oddities. Not, of course, that’s there anything wrong with that!

  • Amazon readers rating: from 379 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from When You Are Engulfed in Flames at Hachette Book Group

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"Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim"

(reviewed by Poornima Apte JUL 3, 2004)

Ardent listeners of NPR will admit to many a “driveway moment” when you reach your destination but can’t get out of the car until a story being narrated on the radio is over and done with. David Sedaris is the originator of my most memorable such moment when his Billie Holiday rendition of the Oscar Meyer bologna commercial had me in splits for the better part of the day. Sedaris has been a regular at NPR more specifically at “This American Life,” and it is hard not to imagine his high-pitched grinding voice when one reads the essays in his latest collection.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is arguably Sedaris’s most mature volume to date and he writes with a pathos and empathy that can only come from deep introspection. Even in the funniest of moments, sometimes, one can sense an underlying current of sadness. The family eventually gradually moved away and apart from each other so parts where he recalls at least fifteen minutes of childhood happiness during a summer visit to a potential vacation home, are beautifully touching. “What would ultimately last were these fifteen minutes on the coastal highway; but we didn’t know that then,” he writes, “when older, even the crankiest of us would accept them as proof that we were once a happy family: our mother young and healthy; our father the man who could snap his fingers and give us everything we wanted, the whole lot of us competing to name our good fortune.”

Sisters Lisa and Tiffany generate regular material for Sedaris’s work even if he is warned over and over again not to use any of the stories they share with him. “In my mind, I’m like a friendly junkman, building things from my little pieces of scrap I find here and there, but my family’s started to see things differently,” Sedaris writes, “Their personal lives are the so-called pieces of scrap I so casually pick up, and they’re sick of it. More and more often their stories begin with the line “You have to swear you will never repeat this.” I always promise, but it’s generally understood that my word means nothing.”

Mama Sedaris is here as well cigarette in hand and keeping all her children in check. “As a relative newcomer to the middle class, she worried that her children might slip back into the world of public assistance and bad teeth,” Sedaris writes, “The finer things were not yet in our blood, or at least that was the way she saw it. My thrift-shop clothing drove her up the wall, as did the secondhand mattress lying without benefit of box springs upon my hardwood floor. “It’s not ironic,” she’d say, “it’s not ethnic. It’s filthy.” The piece “Let it Snow” where she dispatches the kids outside in snow after a severe case of cabin fever, is another beautiful gem in the book.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim is filled with warm and funny episodes. It confirms yet again what we have suspected for a long time: above all, David Sedaris is a really nice guy. He is someone we can all identify with whether he is looking at his own house through the eyes of a stranger (as in the hilarious “Nuit of the Living Dead”) or holding down a job cleaning apartments in New York City in “Blood Work.” In “Repeat After Me,” Sedaris and his sister, Lisa, are amazed when a movie they watch has a family exactly like their own. Similarly, there is not a reader who will pick up the book and not find one of their own in these pages. This has always been Sedaris’s biggest strength, and it shines through again in Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 355 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim at Hatchett Book Group

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"Holidays on Ice"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark OCT 31, 2002)

At first I thought that David Sedaris didn't really belong on this "bookshelf" because it is reserved for humorous fiction, and Sedaris, from what I had understand, doesn't write fiction. He writes autobiographical essays. After reading this collection of stories, I'm not so sure that description is oh so acurate. The majority of the material is about as autobiographical as any fiction is; that is, the ideas are based on the writer's keen observation of human behavior. But most of these "essays" read a lot like short stories. However you want to label them, as we say in New Hampshire, they are wicked funny. This guy can sure write. The stuff in this book will have you breaking into paroxysms of laughter.

There are six stories/essays in this special holiday collection. The book was originally published in 1997; then released in paperback; and now, AOL TimeWarner has released it again in hardcover. The first essay is his SantaLand Diaries, which is certainly working its way to becoming an annual holiday classic, and well worth owning the book just to have a copy of it.

SantaLand Diaries are based on David's two Christmas seasons working as an elf in Macy's Department store on New York's Herald Square. He draws us into the day-to-day experience in applying for the job, being trained and then working as an elf in Macy's SantaLand through the busy holiday season, right up to Christmas Eve. His delivery style is a deadpan monologue in which he gives brief notes on his experiences as he progresses through the season. "This morning we were lectured by the SantaLand managers and presented with a Xeroxed booklet of regulations titled 'The Elfin Guide.' Most of the managers are former elves who worked their way up the candy-cane ladder but retain vivid memories of their days in uniform." Sometimes the humor is juvenile, like when he and another elf realize that Santa can spell Satan and they start substituting this new word. But overall, it's a story about working with the public at Christmas while wearing "green velvet knickers." Despite it's astute observations, I also found it to be a bit nostalgic; reminding me of when my parents would take my sisters and I to Boston see the "real" Santa at Jordan Marsh (now Macy's). (If memory serves me correctly, I believe they only took us once or twice before giving up on this annual sojourn.)

Sedaris originally read some of the SantaLand Diaries on National Public Radio (NPR) two days before Christmas in 1992. When it was first broadcast, it generated more requests for tapes than any story in Morning Edition's history except the death of Red Barber earlier that year. At the time he was making a living washing windows (really!) and continued to do this for a while. NPR was a little daring in airing this piece because it included a part on his flirtation with another male elf called Snowball. Since then, SantaLand Diaries have taken many forms including a script that is performed in theaters during the holiday season.

The next story, Season's Greetings To Our Friends and Family, has also been previously published, but it is worth having a copy. It's a farce of the annual Christmas letter that so many people like to send out at the end of the year. From the start we know this isn't going to be the typical letter, "Many of you, our friends and family, are probably taken aback by this, our annual holiday newsletter. You've read of our recent tragedy in the newspapers and were no doubt thinking that, what with all their sudden legal woes and 'hassles,' the Dunbar clan might just stick their heads in the sand..." In Sedaris's pitch perfect, matter-of-fact style, he unveils the Dunbar's year leading up to the events referred to in the opening letter. I swear this is one that you have to read out loud.

Dinah, the Christmas Whore is another autobiographical essay in which David, who yearns to be different than all others, learns that his sister Lisa has been holding out on him. Up until this point, David thought of her a boringly ordinary person (like everyone else except him). Yet on this evening, her actions result in their having the most unique visitor in their kitchen, setting them apart from all the other homes celebrating Christmas.

The next three essays/stories are new material. At least new from the point of view that they were first published in this book. Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol proves that Sedaris holds nothing sacred during the holiday season, not even children's Christmas pageants. In this brief story, the narrator critiques this year's school plays. Naturally he doesn't stop with the kids, Based on a True Story pokes fun at a television producer's attempt at signing up the rights to best Christmas story ever. And finally in Christmas Means Giving you have two neighbors who competitively one-up each other in their material lives, and this escalation takes a sudden downward slide as they try to outdo each other in charitable giving. I can't decide which story in this book is my favorite, but I'm inclined to point to this last one. It's so absurd that it smacks at the truth of what a lot of charity work really is about.

Giving books as gifts is usually a tricky thing unless you know a person truly well. But I'd say that if you are looking to give someone a little Christmas cheer, Holidays on Ice should do it fittingly. Yeah, you could dress it up a bit and throw in a bottle of booze, but I tell you, you don't need to. The way Sedaris writes these stories would make even a Scrooge-like being stop their griping and sit back and chuckle. Yeah, we humans and our rituals really are funny and the holidays do bring out a certain amount of predictable behavior. As Sedaris cites in SantaLand Diaries, "All of us take pride and pleasure in the fact that we are unique, but I'm afraid that when all is said and done the police are right: it all comes down to fingerprints."

  • Amazon readers rating: from 186 reviews

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About the Author:

David SedarisDavid Sedaris made his comic debut on December 23, 1992 by recounting his strange-but-true experiences of being a Macy's elf clad in green tights, reading his SantaLand Diaries on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Sedaris' sardonic humor and incisive social critique have since made him one of NPR's most popular and humorous commentators. Sedaris now can often be heard on public radio's This American Life, distributed nationally by PRI and produced by WBEZ in Chicago. His essays appear regularly in Esquire.

David and his sister, Amy Sedaris, collaborate under the name The Talent Family and have written several plays which have been produced at La Mama, Lincoln Center and The Drama Department in New York City. These plays include Stump the Host, Stitches, One Woman Shoe, which received an Obie Award, Incident at Cobbler's Knob, and The Book of Liz (published in book form by Dramatist's Play Service in fall 2002).

David Sedaris taught writing at the Art Institute of Chicago for two years, and In September 2001, he became the third recipient of the Thurber Prize for American Humor; was named by Time magazine as Humorist of the Year 2001; and, won the 2001 Advocate Lambda Award. Holidays on Ice was nominated for an Audie, which is The Oscars for Audio Books) for best package design.

David Sedaris resides in Paris with Hugh Hamrick.

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