Riverhead Books, June 2010
Genre: Essays, Humor
My Rating: 4 stars (A genre I have a weakness for)
Like her previous book, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, this book is a collection of essays. I’m a sucker for these types of books, and when I find a contemporary writer who specializes in essays with a humorous bent, I will doggedly read that author until their well of experiences run dry. David Sedaris is the master of the art of of the humorous essay and is the gold standard by which I judge all other essayists. Augusten Burroughs started out as a memoirist and then evolved into an essay writer, turning out two or three essay collections that worked quite well before returning to his memoir roots. Anna Quindlen and Jacquelyn Mitchard both began by writing essays before making the leap to novels. Nora Ephron has made a career out of writing witty essays; her book Crazy Salad was one of my first introductions to the genre. Sloane Crosley is one of the few female essayists I’ve come across in recent years, and it was a pleasure to find her. (And, hey, Chuck Klosterman–I’m coming for you next!)
To be honest, I think I’m attracted to essays because if I’m going to be any type of writer, I think I’d be an essayist (before make the inevitable jump to writing the Great American Novel. HAHA! Or, more realistically, a moderately successful trade paperback.) When it is done right, a humorous essay is like visiting with a really funny friend who tells you about their latest mishaps, vacation or adventure or revisits their childhood to tell you about their crazy relatives. A successful essayist can mine the comedy gold inherent in childhood, vacations, the school years, work, dating, marriage and motherhood and make you laugh while nodding your head in recognition. When done well, it seems effortless. (Though I’m sure it is anything but.) The key, though, is having a perspective that comes at things from a slightly skewed perspective that makes the mundane and ordinary seem fresh and interesting.
Well, enough about essays already! How was this book? Although the writing was a little uneven and could have used more focus, I found the book pretty satisfying. Like any collection of essays, you’ll always like some more than others. In this book, there were a few essays that could serve as a model of “how to write a humorous essay.” Then there were some that just didn’t quite find the right rhythm and tone. Considering an essay is only about 20 to 30 pages, if my mind is starting to drift on the third page, things are not going well. Yet in each essay–no matter how much I thought she veered off course or lost her rhythm–Crosley manages to eke out a turn of phrase or make an observation that makes her stuff worth reading.
Here is a brief rundown of the nine essays in the book and some excerpts that really delighted me.
- Show Me On The Doll–A travel essay about Sloane’s impromptu solo trip to Portugal that answers the question: Would you like to see a three a.m. performance of amateur Portuguese circus clowns? The essay is filled with comic moments of trying to get by in a country where you barely speak the language and the stresses and joys of traveling by yourself–especially when you have are severely directionally impaired.
I found myself waiting online for Lisbon’s main attraction: an antique freestanding elevator that springs up the city’s center and leads to nowhere. When I got to the highest level, I climbed the narrowest staircase to the tippy top. America is lacking in this, I thought. All of our public structures are self-explanatory. When you press the PH button, you’re going to the penthouse. Not the stairs that lead to the landing that lead to the lookout above the penthouse. Our basements are conveniently located at the base. No cellars that lead to subfloors that lead to catacombs of ruins.
- Lost In Space–An essay about Sloane’s temporal-spatial deficit, a learning disability that means you have zero spatial relations skills. After reading this essay, I self-diagnosed myself with the same disorder. It explains so much!! Such as why I have trouble reading a clock, telling my left from my right, and my marked disorientation when outside of my home area. (Confession: After we moved to our current home, I would get to places by driving to my old house and proceeding from there. This was all good until Mr. Jenners caught me doing it and insisted I learn more fuel-efficient routes.)
- Take A Stab At It–An essay about looking for a post-college apartment in New York City. This was one essay that I felt veered all over the map and could have used more focus, but it still provided this little gem:
All immediate hints of purpose went out of the rooms themselves. Showers in kitchens, toilets in living rooms, sinks in bedrooms. It was if Picasso were born a slumlord instead of a painter. Nothing was where you thought it would be, which would be eccentric in a mansion but disarming in an apartment. Once, at a party, I opened a door expecting to find a toilet but found a stove instead. Just a closet with a stove in it. And a bare bulb hanging, as if to say “Here is where we roast the chicken.”
- It’s Always Home You Miss–An essay about the perils of riding in a New York City cab that should be a must-read for any bloggers planning on attending BEA in the future.
- Light Pollution--Another travel essay about Sloane’s visit to Alaska to be in the wedding of a friend. A classic “fish out of water” tale that will convince you to never mock a bear bell. Includes a hilarious anecdote of what happens when an SUV filled with city-bred bridesmaids hits a bear in the middle of nowhere. Yet despite the comedy, Sloane manages to capture the impossibility of capturing the grandeur, scale and stunning beauty that is Alaska.
What I want to say is: Here is a country that is ours but not ours. A crazed landscape of death and marriage with designated bells to acknowledge both. Here is the longest breath of fresh air you will ever take, the bluest stream you will ever dip your hand in, the humane thing to do.
- If You Sprinkle–An essay about encountering “that” girl from grade school later in life–the popular mean girl who you aspired to be friends with but who could cut you off with a glance or a reminder of why you weren’t worthy to be part of popular crowd. If you didn’t have a girl like Zooey Ellis in your life at some point, consider yourself truly blessed.
So many years and miles away from the second-floor girls’ room where Zooey Ellis used her first tampon, her voice was unmistakable.
My mouth dropped open. Was she not supposed to be in Arizona, fending off scorpions and practicing her golf swing? It’s difficult to conceive of the geography of the whole wide world when you’re in middle school. When your classmates move away, it seems impossible that they could ever come back. As if the world’s events since have happened to you but not to them. It’s the reason you can look at your middle-school yearbook and still see your peers. But someone else’s middle-school yearbook looks like a bunch of thirteen-year-olds.
- An Abbreviated Catalog of Tongues–An essay about the history of pets in Sloane’s family.
- Le Paris!–Another travel essay, this one describes Sloane’s two trips to Paris–one a youthful backpacking trip with her friend Emily and the other to visit her friend Louise who is living in Paris. Of the two visits, the youthful one with Emily had me giggling like a fool, especially when Sloane decides to make confession in Notre Dame–despite the fact that she is Jewish, despite the fact that she only speaks English and the priest only speaks French/Japanese. It is a hilarious little bit that may have been the part that had David Sedaris blurbing “If you needed a bib while reading I Was Told There’d Be Cake, you might consider diapers for How Did You Get This Number.” (Just for the record, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Sedaris; I didn’t feel in danger of peeing my pants at any time while reading this book–though I may have chuckled out loud one or two times.)
- Off the Back of a Truck–For me, this was the pièce de résistance (oh la la … such a fancy term!) of the book. Simultaneously telling the story of a love affair gone bad and Sloane’s highly suspect relationship with a dealer in black market furnishings, this was by far the most compelling, funny and touching essay in the bunch. I’ve never quite seen the pain and ridiculousness of recent heartbreak quite so accurately described:
Within a week, I had transitioned to a kind of purgahurt where the idea of being mollified by pints of ice cream and the idea of stabbing myself in the chest seemed equally unviable. And yet the world seemed hellbent on handing me daggers. Every cab ride home manged to swing me past his sublet apartment, what was apparently his actual apartment, or his office building. Who was he, the Church? NYU? It seemed greedy for one individual to have so much landmarked property. I’d look out the opposite window, longing for a time in the near future when it wouldn’t occur to me to look or not look. Every restaurant suggested was one I had been to with Ben. Horribly insensitive friends marked their own birthdays with celebrations, resigned leases in his neighborhood, and used words with vowels that he also used.
My Final Recommendation
An interesting (if uneven) collection of essays by a writer who has her own unique view of the world and a gift for crafting memorable turns of phrase. Although some essays seemed to lose their focus, overall I found this book a pleasurable read. If you’re a fan of essays like I am, I would recommend the book. However, I’m not sure how good this book would seem to the casual reader of essays or those new to the genre.
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The Whys and Wheres: As I said, I’m a big fan of essays and enjoyed Sloane’s first book so I planned on getting a copy of this when it was released. Lucky for me, I was able to obtain an ARC via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program.