Monday, July 21, 2008

Book Review: When You are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris

The first David Sedaris book I read was Me Talk Pretty One Day on a train traveling to Florence from Verona in June 2006. I was alone and craving the English word. The bookstore that I found tucked away in piazza sold all of about fifty English novels and Sedaris instantly popped out at me.

At the time, I had no expectations of the book. I had vaguely heard of it and knew it was a collection of short stories. I'm weary when it comes to short stories - the number of collections I've read can be counted on one hand, I think. Still, I paid my six euros and caught my train, book in hand.

I was surprised to find myself stifling guffaws on a packed train. Knowing all of a handful of Italian, I wouldn't have been able to apologize for my outbursts so I tried to keep it to a dull roar. The odd giggle still managed to escape, though, and I was greeted with knitted brows.

Since then, I've been a huge fan of Sedaris. If ever there was a life I wished I could have, it would be his. He is one of those people who gets into situations and has the knack and the talent for describing them so well that you can't help but believing every word, no matter how preposterous it gets.

When You Are Engulfed in Flames is his latest collection of stories about life and family and it is no less appealing than any of his previous works. It's been forever since I actually devoured a book, but I spent the majority of my Friday night (wow, I'm a real winner...) entertained by Sedaris' tales, which include the schizophrenic house-mate who was too handsome for his own good, his total dependence on his long-time boyfriend Hugh for everything, a strange but really beautiful relationship he builds with a spider in Normandy, and his attempt to quit Japan.

What surprised me, and perhaps what I liked most about this collection, is his candidness about his alcohol and drug problems. It seems like he's wrestled with some mighty demons in his past. His narrative is nothing short of amazing though - even when he describes arguing drunkenly with his former NY neighbor Helen, a crazy old bat with a mouth to match a sailor, you are aware that even though this was a major problem in his life, he could find the humour in it and he lets that be the focus of the story. He isn't seeking pity or sympathy for overcoming addiction, he's just describing the sheer lunacy of those times in his life.

I would recommend this book to anyone who loves to laugh or thinks their life is screwed up. Not much compares to Sedaris' tragi-comic adventures through his life. With each new book you wonder just how much this guy has gone through but by the end of the last page you wind up wishing there was more!

5/5 Gold Stars

Monday, July 14, 2008

Book Review: Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Pirates. Vampires. Ruthless tycoons. Lately, hot cops. Those have been the men that turn me on fictionally. Never once did a Highlander come into the equation. They wear kilts! As a Catholic schoolgirl, I wore a kilt and it was none too comfortable, let me tell you. I can't fathom wearing one in a balmy Ontario winter, let alone while traipsing across the Scottish moors.

So you can appreciate my level of skepticism when I purchased Diana Gabaldon's Outlander, the first book in the Outlander series. To be fair, I bought it during my brief stint as a bookseller and I was convinced by the cohorts of women who would ask me where the book is kept that it was worth the read.

I can finally say that they were right. Having had a bit of a stressful May and June, I wanted something light and fun to read - I certainly got it.

We meet Claire Beauchamp (my ten years of mandatory French refuses to let me pronounce it "Beach-am" as Gabaldon states in the book), a pragmatic young nurse, on her honeymoon with Frank, in the Scottish Highlands. Having been married for several years already, they haven't had the time to go on a honeymoon due to a little thing called World War II. Frank is a stodgy sort of fellow, a historian by profession, who seems more interested in Scottish history than he is in Claire.

Claire is transported into the strange and unfamiliar world of sixteenth century when she falls through a rocky portal on an ancient hill called Craig na Dun. There she meets a young Scotsman named James Fraser. Fraser is the exact opposite of her twentieth century husband - a clansman by birth, an outlaw by circumstance, he is courageous, swarthy and fills out a kilt like nobody's business. I'm not even a fan of red-haired men, but boy, did I fall in love with Jamie!

Invariably, Claire does as well, which makes this one of the best historical romances I've read. No wonder the series is so popular - Gabaldon infuses the characters with such personality that it's hard not to love them. Claire is a spitfire - smart, funny and handy when you need a shoulder relocated. As I said before, Jamie makes me swoon.

Still, I'm not convinced I'll read the rest of the series. I want to think they will all be as good as the first one, but they never really are, are they? I'm a fan of quality, not quantity, and if that means I have to settle with just a taste of Claire and Jamie, I don't really mind all that much!