When You Are Engulfed in Flames, By David Sedaris

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The Independent Culture

In his sixth collection of – what are they... essays? memoirs? shaggy dog stories? confessions? – the American humourist David Sedaris continues to excavate the minutiae of his life and mines comedy gold from such incidents as his argument with a fellow airline passenger, and the time that he experimented with wearing a catheter. He includes some memorable grotesques, including the babysitter whom his parents once left him with, a fat woman with skin the colour of Vaseline who demanded to be constantly serviced with a back-scratcher; and the short, foul-tempered old woman in his apartment building, whose remarks he would save up for later use at dinner parties when he was in the mood to shock.

The impulse to provoke disgust remains strong in Sedaris, who is now into his fifties, but you sense that it derives from a genuine fascination for all of the facets of life; the unpalatable as well as the absurd. This is a consistently entertaining and funny book that is about everything and nothing; frequently trivial and just occasionally profound. Accordingly, if read straight through it is exhausting, but in small doses a tonic.

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