Death is a funny subject. It can start conversations and end them. It can make people uncomfortable and can cause fear in even the strongest of hearts. It’s inevitable…the one fate we all have in common. Ironically enough, for David Sedaris anyway, death is just the motivation he needs to start living.
In this collection of essays, When You Are Engulfed in Flames, Sedaris discusses everything from his fascination with dead bodies, to moving to Japan to quit smoking…from a crude taxi driver to how his boyfriend, Hugh, was knighted “Sir Lance-a-lot”. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, you’ll find yourself wanting nothing more than to spend an evening with Sedaris and his wack-job family (yes, he’s the brother to the one and only Amy Sedaris, who makes a few appearances in these essays).
When You Are Engulfed in Flames is essentially an ode to Sedaris’s midlife crisis. As he contemplates death and dying, the main theme of this collection begins to emerge: how to quit smoking. In his final essay, “The Smoking Section”, we journey with Sedaris and Hugh to Tokyo, Japan. Set up as various diary entries, “The Smoking Section” is laugh out loud funny. The cultural differences between east and west almost seem too stereotypical to be true. The customs and traditions of the Japanese lifestyle both interest and scare Sedaris…and his various run-ins with electric toilets, poopy hands, and abrasive barbers make his journey all the more enjoyable…for us, anyway.
Ultimately, death always wins—regardless of how it claims a life. “I never truly thought that I would die the way my mother did [lung cancer], but now I really, really don’t think it,” he says, after three weeks of not smoking. “I’m middle-aged, and, for the first time in 30 years, I feel invincible.” Thank goodness for that, both for his sake and his readers’.
NEXT WEEK: Cooking got you down? Tired of the same ol’, same ol’? Why not try an aspic on for size? Or maybe some calves’ brains? The French may be fashionable, but their food…well, that’s another story.
Looking for a new book to read? Check in every Friday for a “Bee Happy” post, where I share reviews of books I’ve read or other book-themed lists.