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Review: Wicked humor ignites glorious laughter

Every new book by David Sedaris requires a tough decision. Do I read it, savoring those wry, well-crafted and wonderfully twisted stories on the page? Or do I listen to the audiobook, read by the author in a deftly sardonic performance that will make me laugh until I cry?

I tried some of both with When You Are Engulfed in Flames, and I still can't decide. Maybe Sedaris' publisher ought to think about package deals.

As the title suggests, fire, literal and figurative, is a theme in this collection of humorous essays. The title comes from the last and longest piece, a diary of Sedaris' three-month stay in Tokyo, where that alarming phrase is a heading in a hotel room safety brochure.

Going to Tokyo, where he knows almost no one and doesn't speak the language, is Sedaris' idiosyncratic method for breaking his 30-year smoking habit. He decides to stop, he writes, not because he wants to or fears for his health, but because he's irritated at being shut out of good hotels: "It's safe to assume that by 2025, guns will be sold in vending machines, but you won't be able to smoke anywhere in America."

The resulting story is predictably unpredictable, covering everything from his misadventures in Japanese language class to a visit to the Hiroshima memorial.

The book's shorter pieces cover a lot of territory as well. His family, who dominated his last book, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim, make some appearances here, in "The Understudy," the tale of the Sedaris children's encounter with the babysitter from hell, and in a hilarious fashion history called "Buddy, Can You Spare a Tie?"

Having been rocked in the wake of recent memoir scandals when some flatfooted critics confused his humor writing with autobiography, Sedaris takes them on in "Of Mice and Men," a wonderful little parable about a flaming mouse and the art of storytelling.

Sedaris has always demonstrated a fascination with the macabre, but now that he's past 50, human mortality takes on some urgency in essays like "The Monster Mash," about his stint in a medical examiner's office, and "Memento Mori," on a rather peculiar gift he gets for his boyfriend, Hugh: "Being told that I couldn't buy a skeleton was just what I needed to make me really want one."

Speaking of Hugh, his and Sedaris' long relationship is the steady flame at the heart of the book. "Old Faithful" documents the history of this "aging monogamous couple," and "Keeping Up" begins with the author eavesdropping on American tourists arguing on the sidewalk outside his Paris apartment, then turns into one of the crankiest and sweetest valentines I've ever read.

Not that Sedaris has turned into an old softy. Anyone who has survived the tortures of 21st century air travel will revel in the vengeful hilarity of "Solution to Saturday's Puzzle" (one well worth listening to in the audio version). Who knew you could turn a crossword puzzle into such a satisfactory weapon?

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Book review

When You Are Engulfed in Flames

By David Sedaris

Little, Brown, 323 pages, $25.99

Review: Wicked humor ignites glorious laughter 07/07/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 7:55am]
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