Look Alive Out There – Sloane Crosley

★☆☆☆☆

Like Sloane Crosley’s other two books, this is a collection of essays about her life (although I think she’s also written a novel?), reminiscent of David Sedaris. The only problem is when I’m reading these stories, I feel like I’m intruding on her personal space — like she doesn’t want me there.

At the beginning, it was fine. She wrote about the time she had a walk-on role on Gossip Girl (which was interesting, although I’ve never seen the show), and there were enough other people in the scene so that I didn’t feel weird. Then she wrote about going on vacation (lovely) and climbing a mountain in South America with some guys she didn’t really like (tense), and then got altitude sickness (I wanted to help, but I was in the way). 

Toward the middle, she holed up in her apartment, her neighbor died, and she got vertigo (not related to the neighbor). We didn’t interact with any other people, and she wasn’t talking to me. I felt like I was sitting in the corner of her living room pretending to be invisible, like I’d been invited in earlier, but missed my graceful exit. But she knew I was there and planned exactly which button to push to get me out of her space.

She’s all, “I don’t necessarily want kids, but I’m not gonna go telling people I hated baby dolls or anything” (paraphrasing) and I thought, whoa — I didn’t like baby dolls and I don’t want kids. It doesn’t have to be like this, Sloane. And then she said, “I’m not one of THOSE women who’s scared to have kids or just doesn’t want one — I mean COME ON, GROW UP.” And my gloves came off. Ok listen! You’re making this unnecessarily personal! Some people have other issues going on, and it’s not because I haven’t “grown up” or I’m trying to poop all over your personal standards. Maybe there are medical issues involved, or phobias, or maybe some people weren’t raised in an environment that’s conducive to actually raising a viable human being.

Okay, maybe I’m not being totally fair. She doesn’t know me, and she’s just writing her own feelings (as I’m doing now). But I’d gone through the last half of the book getting more and more annoyed with this narrator as a character, and the last chapter was the last straw. I don’t remember what the concluding sentence was, but when I read it I thought, “man, go fuck yourself!” and threw it on the ground.

I didn’t have this reaction to her first two books of essays — in fact, I liked them a great deal (which is why I read this one). Your milage may differ, but I can’t recommend this book. Start with “The Pony Problem” in  “I Was Told There’d Be Cake“.

The Last Black Unicorn – Tiffany Haddish

★★★★☆

I’ve gotta be honest, I didn’t know who Tiffany Haddish was until she hosted Saturday Night Live a few months ago. After a few lines of the monologue, I liked her. I felt like I knew her.

Her book is called The Last Black Unicorn, which was a huge draw for me because I loved The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I knew when I started reading that Haddish’s Unicorn would be nothing like Beagle’s, but she had my attention.

From the beginning, she got me with her voice, which reads just like the SNL monologue. The narrative is conversational and intimate about her difficult life. Her stories are hilarious, heartbreaking, and vulnerable, and I couldn’t help but love her at the end.

While I’ve read meatier books, or ones that make a stronger point, as a matter of character, this is one of the better memoirs I’ve read.

Lightness by Catherine Meurisse

★★★☆☆

Lightness follows one of the survivors of the Charlie Hebdo massacre and how she learns to see beauty again.

I had to read this book in small doses because of the subject matte’s gravity. While the “plot” of the book can be summed up tidily, the author pulls us into her head by showing how faulty her memory had become after the attack and by tying her past to her present. She sees the attack everywhere she goes, from the police escort that follows her in Paris, to the statues in Rome, to paintings in the Louvre. She sees her dead colleagues when she experiences things they would have enjoyed.

When the attack happened, I was working at a French salon in New York. Everyone was glued to their phones in horror as the news came through (and then again at the end of the year when the Bataclan was attacked). For me as an author, I thought about what it meant that a group of cartoonists were murdered — sure, I didn’t write the same kinds of things they did, but surely I was objectionable to someone. And even if what is written really is offensive (my boss at the salon bought the first issue Charlie Hebdo released after the attack, and when he showed it to his clients, there were a few cartoons he refused to translate because “that one’s really bad”), do they deserve to die for it? And I have to admit, I was swept up in the “Je Sui Charlie” hashtag along with my writing community, because of course, that answer is NO.

The style of this book reminded me of Guy Delisle’s travel graphic novels. Story-wise, there’s not much to them, but through the eyes of the narrator, you see a place you might never go yourself — and in the case of Lightness, feel something you (hopefully) will never feel.