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Originally published Friday, June 20, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Book review

In "When You Are Engulfed in Flames," some stories burn brighter than others

"When You Are Engulfed in Flames" by David Sedaris Little, Brown, 336 pp., $25.99 "When New York banned smoking in restaurants, I stopped...

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearances

David Sedaris

The author discusses "When You Are Engulfed in Flames,"

7:30 p.m. Monday, Elliott Bay

Book Co., Seattle; the talk is sold out but will be broadcast into the café and some limited overflow standing room will be available (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).

His reading at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Third Place Books, Lake Forest Park is entirely sold out (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).

"When You Are Engulfed

in Flames"

by David Sedaris

Little, Brown, 336 pp., $25.99

"When New York banned smoking in restaurants, I stopped eating out. When they banned it in the workplace I quit working, and when they raised the price of cigarettes to seven dollars a pack, I gathered all my stuff together and went to France."

David Sedaris is nothing if not dramatic, and I love him for it. We have a fabulous relationship that goes back over many years. I don't need to disclose this, because Sedaris has no idea who I am. I do feel I know him, though, like so many of his other readers, imagining him as a gossipy best friend who spins out stories in a droll, you-can't-fool-me-sister tone of voice that sounds even better in person than it does on the page (his public readings are SRO). This is the rare writer who makes you feel more charming and witty after every encounter.

After years as a failed painter and dedicated drug user, Sedaris became a breakthrough talent based on a single NPR segment called "SantaLand Diaries." It turned out he had an extraordinary gift for telling the smallest tales. He's a master of modern minutiae, forever getting himself stuck in some oddball situation and having to lie, cheat or chat his way out of it. This can lead to him wondering what to do on an airplane after he's hacked a lozenge onto the chest of a sleeping woman who's just been yelling at him. Or to his using old album covers to defeat a bird attack on his country home in France ... which makes him think about 9/11. When you're in David's world, that's just the way it is.

"When You Are Engulfed in Flames" is the sixth collection of Sedaris essays and easily his darkest (literally: the shadowy sepia cover has a skeleton smoking a cigarette). The title comes from a tourist advice card he discovers in Hiroshima, Japan, where he's gone, by some David-ish logic, to quit smoking. The trip costs $23,000, but it works.

Not so all the stories. "Flames" reads like a hit-and-miss set; some selections simply run out of ideas before they're over.

The best pieces, as ever, are the most closely observed, including those about his boyfriend, Hugh, that resolve into bittersweet comments about their mutual love and dependency. Artist Hugh, along with being an apparently tremendous companion, is also great material. When it's his birthday, he wants the perfect skeleton for use as a drawing model and that warrants a hunt through all of Paris (no, they didn't get the baby skeleton).

Maybe Sedaris is making some of this stuff up, but who cares?

Also appearing are members of Sedaris' family: his parents, who start collecting art to prove they know more about it than he does, and his sister Amy, the actress, who tries to amp up his wardrobe with the constant advice: "Buy it." (This applies to anything "from a taxidermied horse head to a camouflage thong.")

The ultimate Sedaris character this time is his old neighbor Helen, who drives the entire neighborhood crazy but cannot be ignored as she's dying: "I am not a terribly physical person," Sedaris writes. "Helen wasn't either ... so it was odd to find myself rubbing her bare shoulders and then her back. It was, I thought, like stroking some sort of sea creature. ... The windows were steamed, Tony Bennett was on the radio, and saying, 'Please,' her voice catching on the newness of the word, Helen asked me to turn it up."

"When You Are Engulfed in Flames" isn't the best way to introduce a new reader to Sedaris. But for fans, it's good just to be back at the table, hearing that unforgettable voice chatting away. Kind of like catching up with one of your best friends. It's not always what they have to say, but the endearingly entertaining way they say it.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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