In On the Joke, by Shawn Levy****

Shawn Levy has taken on an ambitious project, researching and writing about the pioneers of women’s stand-up comedy. In his author’s note, Levy says that while it may seem counterintuitive for a man to write about women comedians in this era of #MeToo, nobody else has done it, and because they are heroes, forging the way forward, performing for audiences that were frequently hostile. The result is in On the Joke, a well-researched book that tells the stories of the women that emerged from the vaudeville era to make history, roughly between the World War II era and Watergate.

My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

There are eight chapters in this book, each dedicated to a particular type of comic. He starts with Moms Mabley, whom I had never heard of, and continues down the line with Totie Fields, Phyllis Diller, and several others, and ends with “The Scrapper,” Joan Rivers. I confess it was Rivers’ face on the cover that drew me to this historical work.

Levy has cut no corners, and the documentation is flawless; his style of reporting is conversational and written for a general readership. All told, he’s done a fine job here.

My only sorrow—and one that isn’t the author’s fault—is seeing what horrible things these women had to do to themselves in order to meet with success. One after another, women comics have mounted the stage, day after day, night after night, to make self-deprecating jokes, many of them downright vicious. They tell about how ugly they were as children, and how ugly they are now; they tear themselves apart like Christians diving voluntarily into the colosseum pit where the lions await. I expected to laugh my way through this thing, but most of the time I wanted to sit down and sob for these artists.

As I expected, my favorite among them is Rivers. Eventually she eased up somewhat on the self-attacks and began roasting other public figures. I saw some of her work when she was still alive, and at the time, I thought some of her jokes were too mean to be funny, but as Rivers pointed out to her critics, she always “punched up.” Using her well known catch phrase, “Can we tawk,” she eviscerated the most successful celebrities, politicians, and other newsworthy public figures, and a lot of her material was absolutely hilarious. In fact, I’d have finished reading and reviewing this book much sooner had I not kept setting it aside to watch old footage of her routines, as well as some of the others Levy covers.

If you are looking for a book to make you laugh your butt off, this isn’t that book, but it’s an excellent history of the women that paved the way for the likes of Gilda Radner, Tina Fey, Hannah Gadsby, and many others.

Recommended to feminists, and those interested in entertainment history.

Happy Release Day!

I reviewed this outstanding collection earlier, but today it is available to the public. Hill won awards for the first collection, and this is, if anything, even better.

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Breath Better Spent, by DaMaris B. Hill*****

At the start of this, her second published poetry collection, Hill mentions the lessons we have learned from Audre Lord and others. I like Lord’s poetry, too, but it’s time for Lord to move over and make some space. Hill is a powerhouse. Her recent collection about imprisoned women, A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing, is phenomenal, and it’s won her awards and many accolades, but this new book, an ode to Black girlhood, is better still. Her perception, intimacy, vulnerability and fearlessness all come through in what is most likely the best poetry collection we’ll see in 2022. My thanks go to Net Galley and Bloomsbury for the invitation to read and review; it becomes available to the public January 25, 2022.

In the preface, Dr. Hill discusses her influences, as well as the way she has divided this collection into sections. She starts by discussing the murder of Breonna Taylor, right there in her home state of Kentucky, and she goes on to point to the increasing incidents of disciplinary measures against Black girls in school, along with a disturbing rise in their incarcerations. Society is failing Black girls, and we need to do better.

In reading this collection, I find I process the poems best if I only read one or two each night. As I go, I highlight the titles of my favorites. There’s not a bad one in the bunch, but I am most taken with the first, “Jarena Lee: A Platypus in A Petticoat;” “How the Tongue Holds,” which is completely horrifying, and and so well done; “What You Talking ‘Bout;” “Hotter Than July;” and one dedicated to a family member that served in the military, “Those Sunless Summer Mornings.” At the end is a series themed around missing Black girls, here and in Africa. Again, I am drawn to a segment dedicated “to my niece and her bullies.” And breaking up the intensity are occasional moments of surprising humor that make me laugh out loud.

The thing that comes through, strong and long, is Hill’s affinity for, and understanding of Black girls. I have written scathing reviews several times, one quite recently, when authors include children prominently in their books without having taken the time to learn the developmental stages of their characters. Here, it’s the opposite. Hill knows girls, and she knows them well and deeply. She mentions that some parts of this collection are “semi-autobiographical,” but her knowledge runs much, much deeper than one gets simply by having been a girl. And so, though this collection will be useful to those teaching or studying courses in Black Studies, Women’s Studies, and of course, poetry, the people that absolutely need to read this collection are teachers in training. This should be mandatory reading for anyone planning to go into education. For that matter, it would also be excellent material for teacher in-services.

Several of Hill’s poems are contextual, dealing with the current political climate, and it’s now, with voting rights in question, cop violence rampant, and racism becoming increasingly overt, that we need books like this to counter the reactionary elements. It’s brave and powerful writing, and if you don’t order a copy, you risk missing out. Highly recommended.

Voices from the Pandemic, by Eli Saslow****

Eli Saslow is the journalist that wrote Rising Out of Hatred, the story of former White Supremacist Derek Black, in 2018. When I was offered the chance to read and review his new book, Voices from the Pandemic, I jumped on it, because I like this author a lot. Once I had it, I avoided it like the plague (pardon the reference) for a couple months, wondering just what I had been thinking, to sign on for something like this. In the end, I am glad to have read it.

My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the review copy.

Saslow tells us in the introduction that he expected to become depressed, perhaps numbed, by all of these interviews, but ultimately was galvanized by “their empathy, their insight, their candor and emotional courage.” Fair enough, but an awful lot of these stories are gut-wrenching. For whatever reason, he chooses to start with some of the most horrific ones, but as we work our way into the book, there are several that are not about the excruciating, grim death of a loved one, but are interesting for different reasons. There are stories of essential workers, of coroners, and medical professionals. One that has stayed with me is that of a middle aged man, ex-military, who is finally compelled, when everyone in the household loses their livelihoods, to visit a food bank. He gets there two hours before it opens to be on the safe side, and discovers that there’s already a huge, hours-long line.

My favorite story is that of Bruce MacGillis, a wily old man that barricades himself in his room in his nursing home, lets nobody in, throws open his windows in subfreezing weather, and stuffs towels underneath the doorway to keep out other people’s germs. He ends up being one of two residents that are spared, out of eighty-nine residents. (My notes say, “Hell yeah!”) On December 28, he lets a nurse come in to administer his vaccine. I hope that man lives to be a hundred.

There are some stories by vaccine deniers, mask avoiders, included here, but if you are among them, you probably won’t enjoy this book. It leans heavily toward science, and away from conspiracy theories.

After I’d procrastinated reading this thing, I checked out the audio version at Seattle Bibliocommons to give myself a leg up. I thought it might be easier to hear these stories while I was also engaged in some other task, so I fired it up while I was slicing bell peppers and marinating meat. If anything, it was worse that way. Well—to be fair—worse, and also better. There’s a separate reader for each story, and the hard ones are read with such searing emotion that it makes them all the worse. The saving grace is that each person’s story is concisely told, so there was only one time that I hit the stop button and fast-forwarded to the next one. At the outset, I only listened for a few minutes at a go, and then turned to listen to another book, something light and fictional, to restore my mood. By the second half, I no longer needed to do that.

The book only covers the 2020 portion of the pandemic, but I’m not sure it would sound much different had he waited to include the whole horrible thing. (It will be over someday…won’t it?) Recommended, for those that can do this.

Pianos and Flowers, by Alexander McCall Smith**

Well, heck. I have so loved this author’s most famous #1 Ladies Detective series, and more recently have loved his new, satirical series starring Mr. Varg. When I saw this stand-alone collection of short stories—a genre I enjoy—I leapt at the chance to read and review it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Doubleday, but this one fell flat for me.

The collection is scaffolded by vintage photographs from The Sunday Times. Smith provides one of these photos at the start of every story, and then writes something (fictional) about the people and events displayed. I am initially deflated by these, thinking it might be a good fit for some readers, but for me more of a cure for insomnia, because Zzzzzz, when I find the italicized portion, which is intended to be a you-are-there insert. Why, why, why does every Caucasian reader under the sun think that the best way to add some World War II spice to a story, is to interject some of the racist slurs used widely at that time against Japanese people? True, it was a much more mainstream practice back then for white people to use nasty, racist terms to describe anybody and everybody that wasn’t Caucasian; you weren’t entirely safe if you were from Eastern or Southern Europe, so predominant was this tendency. Yet every author understands that if your book is to see wide circulation, you’d better not go tossing anti-Black references in as casual conversational terms. But ah—the Japanese! Now, that’s different. The Japanese don’t fight back all that much, so probably it means they don’t care. (Pause while I retch for a moment or two.)

This cheap-and-easy bit of vile, racist pop culture took this collection down from three stars to two. However, I can assure the reader that had it initially been a four or five star read, it would nevertheless have dropped to an unfriendly rating when I ran across such ugly language.

I am so done with that.

This thing is for sale if you really want it.

Well-Read Black Girl, by Glory Edim, editor****

Ahem. Yes, I am in fact, over two years late with this review. I can explain.

My dog ate…no, wait. I got a flat tire when…oh. Yeah, that doesn’t work.

So now I have to tell the truth, having failed miserably, as I usually do, at lying. Here it is. About a month after I received the galley to this book, courtesy of Net Galley and Random House, national news and social media went into a virtual frenzy discussing cultural appropriation. And I froze. I started examining everything I did through that lens, and I may have gone overboard. I looked at this galley and I thought, I have no right to review this thing. And when I read the introduction anyway, I feel it even more so. Not written with me in mind, was it? Was this the literary equivalent of reading someone else’s mail? And so I did the easy thing, which was to shove it onto the back burner and read something else. Repeatedly.  

Several months later, it occurred to me that nobody would even have to know if I were to sneak it out of my files and just read the article by Jesmyn Ward, which was actually why I had originally requested it. Ward is on my read-anything list. I read it, and I liked it, and then I shuffled it back into the file. No harm done.

This spring, as the world tentatively emerges, one hopeful toe at a time, from the isolation imposed on all of us by the horrific pandemic, I realize what I should have known all along: that anybody can read anything, and form an opinion about it; and that since I was granted the galley, I actually owe a review. I straightened my spine, dusted myself off, and sat down to read it. There was no blinding light or thunder from the heavens. Nothing smote me. I read it, and I lived to tell the tale.

Most of the authors here are new to me; in addition to Ward, I also know Jacqueline Woodson’s work a bit, mostly from my years teaching language arts, when I used her YA book. Everyone here included in this compendium is a strong writer, and they are largely preaching to the choir, since the audience are also bibliophiles. But the common thread, the point they drive home—and rightly so—is the importance of finding literature about girls that look like themselves. They speak of it as empowerment and validation.

Back in the stone age, when this reviewer was enrolled in a teacher education program, we were likewise taught the importance of inclusive literature. It seemed so obvious to me, this obligation teachers surely have to make sure all of their students are represented in the books their students read, or have read to them. I figured it was a no-brainer. But when I arrived at my first teaching position in elementary school, (heaven help me and those children both,) I was shown the supply closet and there were the classroom book sets. The main characters were Caucasian boys; Caucasian boys and girls; fluffy woodland animals, mostly male; and more Caucasian boys. I sadly examined my battered Visa card and drove to the bookstore to order better books. And I was further amazed to learn, later, that my colleagues, all of whom were Caucasian, believed that the school’s book collection was terrific. Their students loved those books, and that included the children of color that made up approximately half of the population there, they told me.

Sure they did.

The essays in Well-Read Black Girl are a much-needed reminder that racism isn’t always overt; sometimes racism is exclusionary, unintentionally so. And what silences young voices, and what teaches children that books, and life in general, are not about them, worse than discovering that they are not important enough to be included in books?

When I moved to secondary education, where I belonged, I visited the book room there, and I found a set of books about African-American boys, but the message inherent was that they are constantly exposed to drugs and gangs, and it will be hard as heck not to be drawn in. And once again, I scratched my head. These Black kids, most of them were from middle class homes, or loving, well supervised working class homes. Drugs? Not so much. And what did these books teach their Caucasian classmates about Black people? I sighed and got back in the car, already apologizing silently to my Visa once more.

This collection of essays is important, not because of any particular brilliance in composition; they are well written, but not memorable for the writing itself. Instead, they are the key to understanding, from primary sources, why Black girls need books that depict Black girls and women in a positive light.

I’ve assigned four stars to this book for general audiences, but for teachers in training, it is five stars. Every teacher training program should include these essays as required reading. We have to read it until we get it right.

Girlhood, by Masuma Ahuja****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, February 9, 2021.

From the beginning, it was plain to me that this would not just be another anthology. Every school library has books that include children from many places around the world, but this one is more diverse than most, and it conveys more of the girls’ own words. Included are girls from 31 countries, and most of them are people of color. The United States does not dominate the collection; there are two girls from the U.S. included, but they are not given anchor positions, and neither is from New York or California.

Each entry contains writing done by the girl herself, more extensive than anything else I have seen; I cannot tell whether some of them have been translated, or if all of them wrote in English originally. There are multiple photographs of each girl, her home, and the things that are important to her. Most are students; one is a mother herself. There are a variety of social classes, though none appears to be from a wealthy family. The girls that live at or near what we in the developed world would call the poverty level, do not speak about being poor, but about everyday life. My favorites are the Cambodian, Syrian, and Irish girls, but they’re all interesting. I am pleased to see several Black girls in the mix.

Though the collection is inclusive, none of the girls appears to be, or says she is, disabled in any way. I would like to see at least one such girl. But more concerning to me is that, although twenty percent of girls worldwide is obese, all of these girls in the anthology are either near the ideal weight, or on the thin side. Ahuja does not say how the girls were selected, but I can just about guarantee that the big girls that view this book will not see themselves. I hope future endeavors along these lines will correct this omission. Right now, the message large girls will have is that nobody wants to look at someone like themselves.

Nonetheless, this is one of the best such collections available today. It would be wonderful if there were a way to offer it in different languages and sell it in other countries, too. I recommend this book for middle and high school girls, and in particular to school libraries and humanities teachers.

The Awkward Black Man, by Walter Mosely**

I had intended to read this author’s work for some time now, and collected a couple of his paperbacks that have sat unread for years. I’ve been so busy reading galleys, with the goal of being done by their dates of publication, that I read very few of the books I’ve bought for myself. When this galley came available, I figured my problem was solved; and in a way, it has been. My thanks go to Net Galley and Grove Atlantic for the review copy. This book is for sale now.

Like some other reviewers, I assumed that these short stories would be from the detective fiction genre that has made Mosely famous. As it happens, they aren’t. I could live with that; they aren’t especially compelling, but they’re not badly written. If not for one problem, I would go with three stars, or perhaps even three-and-a-half and consider bumping it up. However.

Mosely seems to have a problem regarding women. It isn’t that he hasn’t gotten the memo that women would like to be regarded as human beings; his writing gives one the impression that he simply disagrees. The first story of the collection is the title story, and it’s one of a physically large but socially clumsy African-American man that takes a liking to a receptionist where he works. His duties take him to her desk now and then, and he begins finding extra reasons to drop by. He chats with her a bit, but her response is unenthusiastic, and she doesn’t make eye contact. Believing that his intentions aren’t plain, he commences leaving a gift at her work station each day, beginning with a simple token and culminating, at the end of the week, with a Bonsai tree that costs him hundreds of dollars. She never thanks him for any of these, which confuses him. When he approaches her, she deals quickly with his work business, and then asks if there’s anything else she can do for him. His every overture is politely turned aside. Eventually, he is called into the boss’s office; he is accused of sexual harassment. The young woman he’s been trying to woo is scared to death of him, and only then does he realize that she actually can’t leave her station when he approaches her. It’s her job to be there. But he is distraught at having his reputation at work sullied, his position nearly terminated. He’s pretty sure it’s because he’s large and Black.

Huh. Well, perhaps the thing to do here, would be to not hit on women he works with. Maybe that’s the best plan for any man in any work setting, unless someone is clearly, plainly interested in him, has, for example, offered him a phone number. But I remind myself not to dismiss an author, especially one so well regarded for so many years, on the basis of a single story. So I read the others.

Indeed, the other stories don’t overtly demonstrate the same dismissiveness toward sexual harassment in the workplace, but the stereotypes never stop with this guy. Women that appear in his stories do so exclusively in relation to men. Even when they show up as mothers, their worth is in relation to their families; sons, grandsons, nephews, and of course, husbands. Women can be vixens, scheming and deceiving for their own evil ends; they can be victims. What women never are in Mosely’s stories are respected professionals, or community members, or anything else that suggests that they make a valuable social contribution that stands alone, that doesn’t bear directly on the life of whatever male character the story is really all about. It’s almost as though the last fifty years of the women’s movement and its achievements never. Fucking. Happened.

So, who wants my paperback copy of Devil in a Blue Dress? Cause now I know I won’t be reading it.

Recommended to those that love short stories and have no respect for women.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

Dogwinks, by Squire Rushnell**

The old saw about not judging a book by its cover has come home to me in a big way. I was invited to read and review, and although I usually do some homework before accepting or disregarding such offers, I saw the beagle on the cover and leapt on the widget. And somewhere out there, at least one publicist must have my love of said dogs on file, because otherwise it would make absolutely, positively no sense to offer me this book. Dubious thanks go to Net Galley and Atria Books; I know you meant well. This book will be available to the public October 20, 2020.

Here’s the thing I didn’t understand when I signed on. This is not merely a book of dog stories, as I had supposed. Apparently, there is a “much-loved” series known as “Godwinks,” and so the title of this one is a play on that name. Since I read no religious material ever, it’s unsurprising that this fact eluded me.

Having foolishly committed myself, I tried to keep an open mind, because in addition to being religious in nature, this is also a collection of dog stories.  I want to be fair, and I hoped I could disregard the preaching and focus on the hounds.  But it’s impossible to enjoy these stories; the writing seems formulaic, the sort of thing you’d read in Reader’s Digest. The figurative language is stale, and the story arc of each is transparently manipulative. Guys, I just can’t.

By wild coincidence, my current reading includes Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and I’m finding it to be better written and infinitely more agreeable than this superstitious bilge.

If you have a MAGA hat in your closet and a firm belief that your prayer group is protecting you from COVID19, then this collection may suit you down to the ground. Otherwise, I’d suggest you steer clear.