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'How Did You Get This Number': Dial W For Wit

Humorous personal essays, spiked with sparkling observations and mordant opinions served up in carefully calibrated cocktails of self-absorption and self-deprecation, require a steady hand. It's the rare writer -- David Sedaris, Nora Ephron -- who gets the mix just right, avoiding navel-gazing self-indulgence or shrill rants. Two years after her success with I Was Told There'd Be Cake, Sloane Crosley's nine new essays in How Did You Get This Number prove she's on her way to joining their witty company.

Crosley's first book focused on a 20-something, single, working woman (her day job is a publicist at Random House) enduring the trials of nasty bosses, friends' weddings and Manhattan real estate. In Number, she has crossed the great divide past 30 but still finds herself lost in space. She's a stranger in various strange lands, groping for her physical bearings in Lisbon, Paris and Alaska, and her emotional bearings in New York, while dealing with a kleptomaniac roommate and a two-timing boyfriend.

None of this is uncharted territory, but Crosley refreshes familiar rites of passage with a keen sense of the absurd and indelible images. A shared refrigerator is described as "a condiment ark. We had two of just about everything." She writes of her late-blooming "mild-mammaried chest," and of being mugged in a taxi by "twin thugs named Vomit and Cologne." Travelers are "tofu-like ... able to absorb whatever environment they're dropped into." A menagerie of childhood pets buried in Tupperware swathed in duct tape, on the other hand, are able to absorb nothing.

Crosley's chronic disorientation stems in part from what she describes as a severe spatial-temporal disability. In response, her preferred approach to life is "to record all traumas and save them for later, playing them over and over so they can haunt me for a disproportionate number of weeks to come. It's very healthy."

Her ability to process and transform these saved experiences into entertaining anecdotes with a deeper layer of resonance is a gift. In "Light Pollution," Crosley describes a trip to Alaska for a close friend's wedding. On a nature excursion requiring the bridesmaids to don bells in their ponytails to scare away bears, she's shocked to witness a baby bear hit by a drunk driver and then put out of its misery by a gun-wielding passer-by. She recognizes that "each time I tell this story, I damage my memory of it. Each time it moves a little further away from what happened ... And yet I can't resist the retelling. Look how real Alaska got."

After quipping that "Alaska is what happens when Willy Wonka and the witch from Hansel and Gretel elope, buy a place together upstate, renounce their sweet teeth, and turn into health fanatics," she works her way to a more moving conclusion:

And here is a portrait of a writer to watch.

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Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.