Get a grip and lighten up

Look Alive Out There
A collection of 16 humorous essays of wide-ranging topics, including a mishap in Ecuador, a mythical creature sighting and a rude teenager.

Sloane Crosley is the New York Times-bestselling author of I Was Told There’d Be Cake, a collection of personal essays that was a finalist for the Thurber Prize for American Humor. To this day “The Pony Problem” — one of the funniest essays in that collection — continues to make me laugh. Leaving her New York City apartment, should Crosley die in some tragic accident (“say someone pushes me onto the subway tracks,” she writes), 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.

Crosley’s newest book demonstrates her humor-writing continues to be among the best and spot-on hilarious. The majority of these new essays reflect a lively openness to life, along with an energetic willingness to embrace its absurdities. In one, Crosley writes about traveling to Vermont on assignment to capture a story about a mythical South American creature the locals claim to have seen. In another, she writes about appearing on a TV show as herself, only, she can’t be herself because of the scripted lines. And then there’s the essay about crashing a neighbor’s Shiva and the one about hiking unprepared in Ecuador with a gung-ho Sherpa.

In my favorite essay, Crosley goes after an annoying teenager who lives next door. Slouching in a lawn chair in the backyard, he watches viral videos on his phone at full volume. Crosley acknowledges that New Yorkers learn to accept the city’s abundant noise, but in this instance, it was not a temporary disruption, rather a 24×7 reality TV show invading her living space – all five of her apartment windows faced that backyard. She bought a white-noise machine, yelled out the window and even dropped a complaining letter in the family’s mailbox. Nothing worked. Finally, out of her mind with frustration, Crosley devised a solution that rose up out of her hilarious cleverness — one that I don’t want to give away. Suffice it to say, this talented humorist is blessed with undaunted audacity and cunning whimsy.

These are among the lighter topics that appear in the book’s beginning, where Crosley seems to be warming us up for more serious topics that come later. Among those is the essay called “Cinema of the Confined.” Here Crosley learns she has Ménières disease,  a rare, incurable condition of severe vertigo. But even when she takes us into such a concerning topic, her descriptions and pondering still embrace humor. Consider Crosley’s first response to the doctor’s diagnosis: It was not worry or fear, rather to tell him she recently decided to become proficient at playing the violin. The scene is illogically laughable and also touching.

One of the great things about this skilled humorist’s comedic outlook is that it registers and lingers. By that I mean, long after you’ve finished reading many of her personal essays, out of the blue, some of the funniest moments will come to mind. It happens for me with “The Pony Problem,” and I’m sure it will happen with the essays in this new collection. It’s a bountiful parting gift because the remembering becomes a reminder that it’s good to keep a sense of humor, no matter what’s going on.

Look Alive Out There: Essays by Sloane Crosley is published by MCD/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. A version of this review was broadcast on WOSU 89.7 NPR News.