Sedaris’ new book engulfs world in mordant wit

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Sedaris’ new book engulfs world in mordant wit

Hilarious curmudgeon David Sedaris is back with a new collection of essays, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames,” and it comes as no surprise that Kyobo Books is already sold out.

Sedaris, who has built up a steady following through his past books, including “Me Talk Pretty One Day” and “Naked,” as well as his contributions to The New Yorker magazine and the radio program This American Life, is an author whose wry wit transcends the borders of his native United States.

In fact, as Sedaris tells in his essays, he’s become somewhat of a frequent expatriate, with much of his time spent in Paris or Normandy. But this time, Sedaris’ travels take him to Tokyo, where he plans to quit smoking ? in a city that’s clouded with more secondhand smoke than even Seoul. Although quitting seems an unlikely task given his surroundings, Sedaris peppers his recounting of the experience with his typically spot-on, side-splitting observations.

“The city has any number of things to recommend it, but what first hooked me was the dentistry. People looked as if they’d been chewing on rusty bolts. If a tooth was whole, it most likely protruded, or was wired to a crazy-looking bridge,” he writes.

Normally, readers would find such a statement offensive, although anyone who’s been to our island neighbor can attest to its accuracy. But Sedaris is able to disarm readers through self-deprecation. To the above passage, he writes: “In America I smile with my mouth shut. Even in France and England I’m self-conscious, but in Tokyo, for the first time in years, I felt normal.”

This long essay, which the author cleverly calls “The Smoking Section,” also includes the zinger on cigarettes: “People in the U.K. genuinely say ‘fags,’ but in America it’s just embarrassing and self-consciously naughty, like calling a cat a pussy.”

The line is hardly as dirty as Sedaris gets (the essays have more than a sprinkling of swear words), but it’s just so true, it’s funny.

While The Smoking Section is the grand finale of When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the whole book is full of gems. One of my favorite Sedaris essays, “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle,” which memorably appeared years ago in The New Yorker, details the author’s passive-aggressive hissy fit toward his seatmate on a short flight to Raleigh, North Carolina.

After Sedaris’ initial spat with his seatmate, he pulls out the New York Times crossword in order to distract himself. However, instead of dissolving his discontent, the end result is far more humorous:

“Seventeen across: a fifteen-letter word for enlightenment. ‘I am not an asshole,’ I wrote, and it fit.

“Five down: six-letter Indian tribe. ‘You are.’…

“After our fight, she’d removed her sneakers, and I saw that her toenails were painted white and that each one was perfectly sculpted.

“Eighteen across: ‘Not impressed.’

“Eleven down: ‘Whore.’”

Again, such an irritated personal essay might make a less skilled writer come across as unsympathetic, but Sedaris has such a gift for timing and self-characterization.

But while Sedaris is a humorist, not all his essays are fun and games. These essays also dwell on topics such as the death of the author’s mother, the author’s devastating visit to Hiroshima and the depressing truth about some former housemates.

The author’s choice to touch on such a variety of subject matter is a reflection of his strength as a writer. It’s one thing to be funny, but another to be laugh-out-loud funny and yet poignant enough to knock the wind out of your readers.

Author: David Sedaris

Genre: Humor essays

Publisher: Little, Brown and Company


By Hannah Bae Contributing Writer [hannahbae@gmail.com]
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