June 28, 2010
Here’s a book written to make you laugh. Sometimes out loud. Sometimes with a big smile. How Did You Get This Number is the second collection of essays from the 30-something New Yorker Sloane Crosley proving she’s the real thing: a writer who sees life in all its hilarity, even when it’s painful.
Some essays are funnier than others, which isn’t a problem. The up and down on the humor meter is as acceptable here as it is in a comedian’s routine, where some jokes are hilarious and others amusing. Also much like comedy routines, the best humor is in the essays where Crosley writes emotionally close to home. So the essays about the smelly New York cabs or New York apartments she lived in post-college or her childhood pets fall into the amusing category compared to the story behind her terrible sense of direction, a condition beyond a quirky personality trait. Crosley is diagnosed with temporal-spatial deficit, a right-left brain discrepancy that gives her zero spatial relations skills — she can’t read maps, play cards or tell time on an analog clock. Aptly titled “Lost in Space,” the essay falls into the laugh-out-loud category as she explains what it’s like to have the village idiot camped out in half her brain.
“Off the Back of a Truck” stands out by far as the best among the nine essays, a reflection on a year of spending too much on things and people she couldn’t afford. Blinded by romantic hope, Crosley mortgages logic for a boyfriend she doesn’t trust. She simultaneously mortgages logic for expensive Fifth Avenue home furnishings way out of her league. They become in her league thanks to a burly guy named Daryl who steals from the warehouse and offers them at much reduced prices. “Some people have coke guys. I had an upholstery guy,” Crosley writes. One of the longest essays, it’s the most revealing and Crosley at her funniest.
The essays take place in New York, Lisbon, Paris and Anchorage, Alaska. They are for the most part about Crosley’s young adult struggles from socializing with Portuguese clowns in Lisbon to reconciling with her middle-school nemesis, Zooey Ellis. As much as they are funny, the essays reach out to say more. In “Lost in Space” she writes, “I grew up watching TV with my mother while she diagnosed the characters as having hyperactivity or attention-deficit disorder. I rolled my eyes and wondered why there weren’t any stupid kids anymore. Why did there have to be something to explain everyone? Were the cave people on Ritalin? I didn’t think so.”
Crosley’s first collection of essays, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. This new collection of essays is right up there in prize-calibre territory. Sloane Crosley, or Solange, as the burly guy named Daryl called her, is too funny to miss.
June 8, 2009
A friend of mine recently took a short business trip. Before leaving town, she confessed worries about “the mess we would leave behind” should she and her roommate die in a plane crash. The worry often comes up in e-mails, prior to her trips. This time, trying to lighten things up, I mentioned Sloane Crosley’s pony problem. It’s the topic of Crosley’s first essay in the hilarious 2008 collection I Was Told There’d Be Cake.
Leaving her New York City apartment, should Crosley die in some tragic accident (“Say someone pushes me onto the subway tracks.”), her loved ones will find an embarrassing mess of clothes and dust balls in her apartment. Worse, in the drawer beneath the kitchen sink, her mother will find her stash of plastic toy ponies.
“…there is that flash of my mother dressed in black, staring aghast into the open kitchen drawer. In a city that provides so many strange options to be immortalized by the local tabloids, it is just as important to avoid humiliation in death as it is in life. … ‘Look!’ my mother would howl, picking up Ranch Princess Pony (with matching bridle and real horseshoe charm necklace!) by her fax flaxen mane. Just before she passed out.”
Crosley posted a YouTube video about the pony problem. She takes us on a tour of a diorama she created to illustrate it. I Was Told There’d Be Cake is not a new release but, having come off two dark books let alone my friend’s doom and gloom e-mail, I’ve been thinking about books that made me laugh. Crosley’s hits the top of the list, as do these two all-time favorites:
My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
This classic memoir about the famous, literary Durrell family relocating to Corfu is told through the 10-year-old eyes of Gerry, who brings his animal friends into the house. The craziness that ensues is very funny. The book originally was published in 1956. The New York Times wrote (as the quote appears on the back of my Pengin Books paperback), “A lot of frolic, fun, and charming ribaldry, as well as the warm feeling of having been transported to a lovely spot where worry is unknown and anything is believable.”
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
I was reading the first two pages of this detective novel to a friend but was laughing so hard I couldn’t get the words out. The detective Lionel Essrog, working in Brooklyn, suffers from Tourette’s syndrome, and it’s his uncontrolled barking and shouting at the wrong time that make for twisted, smart humor. Note: I recommended this National Book Critic’s Circle winner to one friend who loved it and a few times kept saying “Recommend another book like Motherless Brooklyn.” But another friend didn’t like it at all – he went on to read the much more serious Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, which he loved.
Update: Sloane Crosley’s YouTube video was added 4/6/2011 as were better book photos.