Smile Politely

Engulfed Strikes a Familiar Chord

When I was 18, I brought my first real boyfriend home from Champaign for Easter weekend. I was thrilled — my parents a little less so. After I had gotten “D” settled on our pull-out couch downstairs, I came upstairs — and my father swiftly locked the door behind me. I protested vehemently, but my dad insisted that “D” had a bathroom, a refrigerator and anything else he needed downstairs (i.e. away from his daughter’s room). It didn’t seem prudent to remind my father that I had a single dorm room, so I set my alarm for 6 a.m. with full intention to open the basement door so “D” wouldn’t feel like he was trapped in a bad horror flick.

Around 5 a.m., I was rudely jarred awake when I heard my father padding down the hall saying to my mother, “He’s trying to get upstairs.” I ran after my father and was there at the exact moment that he whipped open the basement door as “D” stood there, white-faced and trembling, holding out an Easter basket that he had wanted to put on the kitchen table to surprise me. It was all I could do not to grab the stuffed bunny and trudge back to my bed to lay in the fetal position. Instead, as Easter morning dawned, I was obligated to counsel “D” on his new phobia with locked doors. Alleluia. He is risen.

Okay, so that was worth at least $50 of therapy, but if you too have a wonderful/wonderfully crazy family maybe you can relate to this scenario. And if you really want to begin the healing process, pick up a copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris. Because one thing that consoled me was that I had nothing on the misadventures of the Sedaris family and friends.

David Sedaris is a noted humorist with Chicago roots. He graduated from the School of the Art Institute in 1987 and got his first big break when Ira Glass invited him on his local radio show. He parlayed this success to a gig on NPR, and would go on to author New York Times best selling essay collections including Me Talk Pretty One Day and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim.

Engulfed in Flames continues in the same tradition. David Sedaris isn’t afraid to explore all the dark and dysfunctional parts of our human nature. His essays relate his everyday experiences, some real, some partially fictionalized, as he explores life in France, his relationships with his boyfriend Hugh and his eccentric family, which includes his sister, comedian Amy Sedaris, and all sorts of weird and wacky random encounters with the general public. The essays span the spectrum from laugh-out-loud hilarious to startling sobering, particularly when the violence and the ugliness of homophobia is exposed as Sedaris explores his various “coming out” experiences.

The collection includes over twenty essays that range an eclectic assortment of topics. Stand-out essays, in my estimation, include “Memento Mori,” that details David’s quest for the perfect present for his partner — a human skeleton; “Solution to Saturday’s Puzzle,” that chronicles his in-flight experience with a not-so-pleasant seatmate; “All the Beauty You Will Ever Need” that relates David’s innovative solution to making coffee without water; and “It’s Catching,” the hilarious account of his sister’s adventures with germ phobia and the parasite that just happened to reside in his mother-in-law’s leg.

With intelligence, wit and charm, Sedaris’s essays appeal and resist the urge to alienate his audience with tales of “wealthy” adventures abroad. Instead, through his writings, he attempts to capture the commonality of our everyday experiences, thus rendering him accessible and beloved to the everyday reader. When you gather up so-called “beach-reads” this summer, forgo the traditional tattered paperbacks with glossy covers, wooden plots, and nary a word above three syllables. Engulfed in Flames will be a refreshing and enormously entertaining alternative. It may help you to confront the past (deep, cleansing breath) or at the very least, enjoy the sunshine of the present.

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