David Sedaris is Engulfed in Flames

Of creativity, that is.

Actually the title of his new book is “When You Are Engulfed in Flames”, the latest in his collection of first-person essays on his unconventional life. Quite apropos, as he has been described as a “furnace of creativity” when working on a book.

I discovered Mr. Sedaris by accident, when Powerbooks was giving away free books as a promo to loyal customers during the annual Manila bookfair and I received a copy of “Naked”. Sardonic and offbeat, I find Sedaris’ writing a cross between Mark Twain and Haruki Murakami, satirical and surreal snapshots of life as lovable loser, in the mould of Woody Allen. From pictures, he even resembles a youngish Mr. Allen.

I missed seeing him at a public reading and book-signing at Powerbooks Greenbelt two years ago. I didn’t know who he was then, and I was there for another book launch, scheduled earlier in the afternoon. They were ushering us out early to make way for Mr. Sedaris and I didn’t linger. Sayang. It would have been a treat to see and hear the man behind the stories.

According to the New York Times:

But at 51 he is as gentle and unassuming as his appearance would suggest. He is slight and on the short side, with a mild-mannered face and surprised eyes framed by short, graying hair. His are the unthreatening kind of looks, he said in his quiet, nasal voice, that cause people to come up to him on the street and talk to him.

Sedaris shares a Paris home with his long-time boyfriend, Hugh Hamrick, having moved from New York City to France ten years ago to escape his growing celebrity status.

For fanatical Sedaristas, his new book offers a change, as it shifts focus away from his growing up experiences and his loopy family to his present domesticated life with Hamrick. Sederis describes the two of them “as an aging monogamous couple”. Not that it’s any less funny, as few can see the bizarre and ridiculous in the mundane as well as Sedaris. Critics have praised this latest collection as revealing an “older, wiser, smarter and meaner” Sedaris.

The present compilation of essays revolve around themes which I can relate to, death and dying. And his attempts to deal with his own mid-life crisis and intimations of mortality, including an apparently successful attempt at quitting smoking.

In ‘Memento Mori’, he buys a human skeleton as a gift to Hugh, choosing between two available items “one a full-grown male and the other a new-born baby” at a French flea market. Settling on the adult skeleton, he brings it home where it constantly reminds him, quite literally, that he is going to die. Admitting that “even as a child I was fascinated by death” he tells of his experiences in a medical examiner’s office in ‘The Monster Mash’, finding the humorous and absurd in the macabre.

He tells a poignant tale of his unusual friendship with a convicted French pedophile in ‘The Man in the Hut’.

The best stories here deal with his life as an American abroad, and Sedaris has a keen eye for detail and dialogue, as funny, perceptive and mordant as Paul Theroux. The centerpiece is the book’s longest essay ‘The Smoking Room’, chronicling his history of smoking and other addictions, and the lengths he went to in order to quit, including living in Japan for a short period, hoping that a change in environment would help. Consider the substitutes that he used to quell the craving for cigarettes, macadamia nuts

and these strange little crackers I’ve been buying lately. I can’t make out the list or ingredients, but they taste vaguely of penis.

He succeed, both in quitting smoking and coming out with a gem of a book that, as the cliché goes, you can’t put down.

Listen to David Sedaris reading an excerpt from his new book.

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