David Sedaris is a short story writer who has gained a bit of notoriety over the years for his sharp wit and keen observation of the dysfunctional family dynamic. In reading some of his previous work, I was entertained and frequently provoked to compare my own dysfunctional family to the family he describes as his own. Sedaris doesn't hide the reality from his readers, rather, he illuminates how dysfunction makes a family what it is. I have never thought of his writing as funny at the expense of his family, but simply shining a light on some of the more humiliating facets of an average American family with the result of loving them all the more.
When You Are Engulfed In Flames is less about his family and more about the world at large. Perhaps it is the focus on others that makes me uncomfortable. Somehow, it's acceptable to point and laugh at your own family, but pointing and laughing at others is just cruel. In this collection of short stories, Sedaris does a lot of travel--Paris, London, America, Japan--and he manages to find something to poke fun of everywhere he goes--hygiene, language barriers, local customs, etc. At least he remembers to mention that he does plenty of things worth poking fun at as well.
The last story in this collection explains the title. It is called "The Smoking Section"; a recount of his efforts to quit smoking after a twenty-some year habit. This may have been my favorite chapter because of my personal relationship with nicotine, or because of the humor. In an effort to change his scenery and habits, Sedaris and his partner Hugh go to Tokyo for three months. It is a common belief that to quit smoking, one needs to change one's habits and hangouts. If only every smoker could afford to pick up and move away for three months!
My overall opinion is that while Sedaris is a witty and humorous writer, this particular collection relies too heavily on making entire cultures the butt of his jokes. Even when it's just a single person, he seems to be pointing and laughing in that big bully way that says "See? At least I'm better than that guy!"