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I Was Told There’d Be Cake (book review)

July 31, 2010

I Was Told There’d Be Cake
Sloane Crosley
Riverhead Trade, Paperback, $15.00
April 2008 240 pages

Usually, I have no tolerance for embarrassment humor. Public shame, social ridicule, even someone’s private agony over a social gaffe or deception, twists my stomach with dread, and I fight the urge to hide behind the couch. (A defensive position usually reserved for the truly scary episodes of vintage Dr. Who.)

I got a review copy of Sloane Crosley’s latest, How Did You Get This Number, and asked for this prior volume too, because I was completely new to Crosley’s writing. Full of wry humor and social pratfalls, Crosley’s essays celebrate what’s funny in her awkwardness and quirks. In confessing her moments of selfishness, cluelessness and hypocrisy she strikes a note that has me giggling, nodding, maybe even admitting that yes, I do that too.

(Side note for readers who don’t know me in person.. That admission is huge for me! I’m usually so socially uptight that Glee makes me squirm painfully.)

I want to deconstruct why Crosley’s essays are so funny, and yet so comforting in their honesty. But I’m not sure I can, other than to appreciate her craft. From outlining her childhood mental picture of a one-night-stand (jumping on the bed in high heels) to attempting to tame a diabolically awful boss by frosting her likeness onto a cookie, Crosley’s essays are perfect snapshots. It’s frustrating, because I want to take each essay apart, English class style, and deconstruct the secrets of how to get this candor and humor blended into my own writing. It reminds me of reading Billy Collins’ poetry specifically the last few lines of “Taking off Emily Dickinson’s Clothes.”

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that reason is a plank,
that life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

No, I can’t explain why essays about accidental butterfly theft, boorish dinner guests and chocolate tarts, or being the only Jewish girl enthralled with Jesus camp got me to Billy Collins and his mysterious poem about Emily Dickinson. It’s about wanting to root around backstage at a magic show and check the tricks for false bottoms and hidden strings, or getting underfoot in someone’s kitchen, while they’re making a delicious family recipe. I want to know what the secret ingredients are, so I can steal them for my own writing.

I’m optimistic that I’ll feel the same way about Crosley’s next collection, because each essay here is so self contained, with moments that can make me laugh, and cringe without wanting to bury myself behind the furniture.

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