One of my “problems” as a fiction addict with first crack at the new books (oops, note to self: in future, don’t use “crack” and “addict” in the same sentence — it’s not THAT kind of a problem) is that I’m slow to read books given to me as gifts, since they have no due date. In the past few weeks, I’ve made a concerted effort to get to some of the backlog (so far, no luck in getting myself to tackle Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, though — sorry, Chris!) but I did get to Junot Diaz’s Drown and Sloane Crosley’s book of essays I Was Told There’d Be Cake. These two books don’t belong in the same review, unless you’re grouping by approximate book weight, type of cover, and size.
I loved Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao when I read it over a year ago. It’s still one of the first books I think of when someone asks me what book has really made an impression on me lately. Drown is a collection of stories he wrote before Oscar Wao; all of the stories’ main characters are Dominicans or Dominican Americans, and the reader can see some of the groundwork for the novel. Drown was critically acclaimed when it came out, and Diaz won the PEN/Malamud Award for Short Fiction. He also was named as one of twenty writers to watch in the twenty-first century by the New Yorker. Maybe it was reading the later, bigger book first, or maybe I get more engaged with the characters in the longer form, but Drown didn’t have the same effect on me as Oscar Wao. Still, if you can’t tackle Oscar due to aversion to footnotes or lack of time (or if you prefer short stories), Drown might be better for you. Here’s a link to an NPR page with a podcast of Diaz reading from Oscar.
The cover of Sloane Crosley’s I Was Told There’d Be Cake is full of the kind of raves (“twenty-first century Dorothy Parker” says Jonathan Ames) that can backfire. And the fact that Crosley is young, cute, and a book publicist to boot doesn’t help. Some of the raves on the cover are from authors she’s promoted, but others aren’t. While I wouldn’t put her in Dorothy Parker’s league, some of the essays (“Smell This”, “The Height of Luxury”) are very funny. At least one (“The Pony Problem”) successfully walked a line between funny and genuinely touching. Others grated a bit for me. If you like your fiction with a healthy shot of humor, she’s worth checking out. She also constructed dioramas for a couple of the essays, as well as a hilarious video featuring a hand wearing pants walking through one of them. They’re on her website.
Author photos, from top: