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.

Ten Steps to Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby*****

Hannah Gadsby appeared from seemingly out of nowhere—to those of us in the States—with a searing personal story about her own trauma that was built into her standup comedy routine. Nanette singed our eyebrows and made a great many of us absolutely love her. When I saw this memoir, I knew I had to read it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the review copy; that said, I would have paid an exorbitant price for a personal copy had it been necessary, and I would not have been disappointed in what I bought.

This book is for sale now.

In some ways it seems useless to review this memoir, because those that are interested in reading it are already fans; those that recoiled in horror from her blunt revelations and assessments of the world around us won’t read it, no matter what I say. But for the few that haven’t seen her standup routine, I counsel you first to watch Nanette on Netflix, and then watch Douglas, too. Of course, you can go into this memoir green, but you’ll appreciate it more if you understand her references to the show.

For those that are fans but are wondering whether the memoir is going to be her standup material, recycled—and surely, plenty of other people have done that sort of thing—I can reassure you that it is not. There are references to Nanette, and there are also references to her newer release, Douglas, the show she named after her dog. But there’s a good deal of information here that you won’t get anywhere else, and that’s what makes it worth it.

After discovering that Gadsby made it in the entertainment business despite coming from no money whatsoever, with no connections to anyone in show business in her native Australia or elsewhere, and having a host of disabilities, foremost among them autism, I wondered whether her success was a piece of rare good luck, or the result of hard work and perseverance unseen by most of her viewers. It’s the latter. And not only has she worked long and hard to make it as a comic, she is also one hell of a fine writer. The depth of analysis and critical thinking in this memoir took my breath away.

Since I’ve been reviewing, I have built myself a bit of a reading routine. There are particular times of day when I read, and also times when I put my books down to get other things done. Gadsby destroyed my orderly timetable. It’s been a long time since any book, however enjoyable to read, has caused me to say, Nope. Not stopping. This one did.

I highlighted a lot of passages, but I’ve decided not to use any direct quotes here, because all of them are so much better in context. But I will say that I am truly ashamed at the way that teachers let her down. As a child she was disciplined, bullied, and received everything at school except the help she desperately needed. I am devastated that my profession failed this brilliant woman. I’d love to believe that things have improved significantly since she was a child, but in my heart, I know there are still little Hannahs out there. Some are falling through the cracks, whereas others are pushed. The horror!

Most of her story is not horrifying, however; it is immensely entertaining. Nobody could safely walk through the room while I was reading without having to listen to a passage or two. On the other hand, nobody minded much, either, because Gatsby.

The most engaging aspect of this memoir—and its author—is authenticity. She never pulls punches, whether describing her own poor choices, or those made by others. One or two very popular American performers have taken passive aggressive swipes at her, and she uses this opportunity to swipe back, right at the start of the book, no less! I wanted to stand up and cheer, but instead, I did it sitting down so as not to lose my place.

The only question remaining is whether you should read this brilliant, darkly funny and disarmingly frank memoir in print or audio. I haven’t heard the audio, but since she reads it herself, you know it’s good. On the other hand, there are several passages that are so well written that I went back over them before moving on; you might miss those with an audio book. True fans that can do so should get both versions.

Highly, hugely recommended.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire, by Conn Iggulden*****

Though I usually review books that are either newly published or are about to be, once in awhile I reach back and discuss books that have been around for awhile. This one is excellent, and I consider it unmissable.

This book is phenomenal. How much do any of us know about Genghis Khan?

One thing I learned in discussion with my spouse, who is a Japanese citizen, is that whereas we from Western cultures pronounce the warrior’s name with a hard G, Asians–including the Mongolian culture from which the Khan emerged–pronounce it softly, like a J. I figure Mongols know how the name should be pronounced, so I have begun to pronounce it that way, too.

I wanted to read this series, or at least the first entry, because although I have read at least something about most of the greatest warriors in the world over time, I had read nothing about Genghis. We have a nonfiction tome, but it’s the sort of slog one only undergoes out of desperation, or as assigned coursework.

The first two or three chapters seemed fine, but not great. I wasn’t even sure if I would read the rest of the series. By the halfway point, however, my mind had changed completely! I found myself online doing image searches for the housing, clothing, and other parts of the nomadic life.

I have purchased the next in the series. I rarely buy books for myself, because I have so many already and have such constant access to galleys that it isn’t necessary; yet now and then, there’s a book I’ve gotta have, and that’s how I feel about this series.

Highly recommended for those that are interested in this time and place in history; in Genghis himself; or in military history.

All In, by Billie Jean King*************

There are books, and then there’s this: the autobiography of an icon that will be read for generations. I passed—perhaps foolishly—on a review copy, because I was afraid there would be large passages of minutiae about tennis, which doesn’t interest me. I was mistaken in my concern, but it worked out well, because I borrowed an audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and the author reads her own book. She is an old woman now, and hearing her detail her own remarkable life is a matchless experience. It’s hard to imagine there will be a more important, or more enjoyable book published in the coming year.

Billie Jean Moffitt King is born in 1943 and grows up in Southern California in a conservative working class family; her dad is a firefighter, and her mother stays home, as most mothers did back then. There is Billie, and there is her brother, and the family are devoted Methodists. Who is to know that both children will be famous one day? Brother Randy becomes a professional baseball player, and Billie Jean becomes a record-breaking tennis star and a passionate social justice activist. If you, reader, are younger than sixty, you probably don’t even know how much you owe Billie Jean.

Growing up, King enjoys all sorts of sports, but when she is introduced to tennis, a light comes on. The problem is, tennis is a sport for the elite, even more so back then than now. To find a tennis court, you needed to either have a private court built on your palatial estate, or belong to a country club, and of course, to do that, you also have to be Caucasian. Billie Jean’s family is nowhere near affluent enough to belong. And so, early on, her passion and her obvious talent draw support from people with enough pull, or enough money, to give her access. She takes the time to thank them, but doesn’t let this bog the story down.

Over and over, however, she is shut out on account of her gender. Prize money typically pays enough to help an athlete pay their own travel expenses and buy equipment, but when women are allowed to compete in competitions prestigious enough to offer prize money, it’s only for the men. Women are expected to be grateful that they are included at all. And as King gets better at her sport and her confidence grows, she begins to push back. Nobody wants to watch women play tennis? Since when? And since when should people of color be shut out?

Although she doesn’t say so, it becomes obvious to me that in addition to athletic talent, confidence, intelligence, and almost endless energy, King has one more talent, one that isn’t recognized as such in the mid-twentieth century: she has amazing people skills. Over and over, she is able to reach compromises, make deals, and shorten the gap between conservative perceptions of women athletes, and what all athletes deserve. She discusses the various battles (though she doesn’t use this word) and how they are resolved, and I am amazed at the grace and dignity she demonstrates. Perhaps the most telling moment is when she befriends Bobby Riggs, the obnoxious bastard that she has defeated in front of the world, and later, when he is on his deathbed, takes a call from his wife. Riggs is asking for her, and he doesn’t have much time left. She is too far away to get to him in time, but she tells him on the phone that she loves him. Wow.

If you are or were a girl that participated in high school sports, or if you or your loved ones have benefited from Title IX, thank Billie Jean, who testified before Congress. She also started the first professional tennis circuit for women.

Over the years, King wins 39 Wimbledon Grand Slam titles and a host of others as well. I am a child when she plays Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes,” and she beats him squarely. What I don’t know (and would still not have known if I’d been paying attention,) is that she does her very best not to play this tournament. Riggs is much older than she, and he hounds her—in fact, today his behavior would violate anti-stalking laws. But she calmly tells him, over and over, that she isn’t interested, and then she ignores his calls and turns away from his in-person visits. But when a fellow women’s tennis champion plays him and loses, Billie turns to her husband and manager, Larry King, and with a sigh, says, “Okay. You’d better set it up.”

At this point, I turn away from the audio book and head to YouTube to watch The Battle of the Sexes. This trip back to the society in which I grew up is hair-raising. The ways that men talk about women, in public forums! The remarks by Howard Cosell, who was the most liberal of sportscasters, about her physical appearance, and the patronizing remarks of others are appalling. I wouldn’t go back for anything in this world! But when she is asked antagonizing questions, Billie Jean comments, briefly, calmly, and without showing even the slightest offence. Her coolness on the court is mirrored in her cool public appearances. It’s remarkable.

When Gloria Steinem starts Ms. Magazine, King supports her, but she is always either asleep or busy, so husband Larry handles the mail. When he sees the request to add her name to a list of famous women that support a woman’s right to choose, as the controversy over Roe v. Wade heats up, he signs for her and then forgets to mention it to her; had he read more carefully, he would have noted the line, “I had an abortion!” King doesn’t know it’s about to be public knowledge, and her parents didn’t know she’d terminated a pregnancy. It’s not a good moment.

Later, when her feelings for other women grow stronger, she and Larry separate, but not completely. For years, she stays with him when they both show up in town at the same time, and they continue a romantic relationship, though infrequently. It is when she grows close to South African tennis player Ilana, and Ilana makes her choose, that she divorces Larry; again, they remain friends.

I could carry on all day about this woman, a champion on the court and off, but if you are interested enough to read this entire review, then you’re interested enough to get this book. I’m sure the print version is lovely, but the audio book—which sounds like a garrulous old lady telling her story, like Forrest Gump, but authentic and more accomplished—and hearing her voice wobble when she speaks of her most moving experiences, is simply unmissable.

Go get it.

Funny Farm, by Laurie Zaleski*****

“You never know what you are capable of until the day comes wen you have to go places you hadn’t planned on going.”

Laurie Zaleski knows how to make a debut. Funny Farm: My Unexpected Life With 600 Rescue Animals has created a tremendous buzz, and all of it is deserved. My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, February 22, 2022.

Laurie’s early childhood was in many ways an enviable one; her mother stayed home to raise Laurie, her brother, and her sister, and her father made enough money to hire household help and buy a couple of vacation homes, too. There was nothing they lacked for, other than physical safety. Because while her father could be warm, and loving, and generous, and funny, he could also be a monster. His reign of terror was worsened by alcohol consumption. As the beatings became uglier and more frequent, Annie, their mother, chose poverty for the children and herself over the constant terror and danger of living with their dad.

“’I almost became a nun,’ Mom would joke years later. ‘Then I met the devil…’ Annie McNulty and Richard Zaleski fell in love like tripping into an open manhole: one wrong move followed by a long dark plunge.”

There’s one searing episode Zaleski recounts, toward the end of their life with Dad, in which they are all hidden in a bedroom with the door blocked shut, and their father is sneaking up on them, commando crawling up the hallway toward them so they won’t see his shadow approaching, and he has a large knife between his teeth. It sounds like something from a Stephen King novel, doesn’t it?

And so, when Annie’s efforts to build a modest nest egg to finance their flight is uncovered, she has no other option but to leave without the money. She finds a dumpy cabin in the woods, half fallen down and in no way legally rentable, and strikes a bargain with the owner. To say that their standard of living decreases is the understatement of the year, but they make it work.

Once she has made her escape, apart from the creepy forays from an unseen enemy that occur from time to time, Annie can’t turn away anyone else, human or otherwise, that is in a dark and vulnerable place. The woods surrounding their little shack begin sprouting makeshift outbuildings; there’s a little lean-to here, and a sort-of paddock there. And it keeps growing.

Zaleski is a gifted storyteller, and she alternates her narrative from the present to the past, breaking up the nightmarish episodes of her childhood with hilarious stories, most of which are about the critters. Her writing is so nimble that I find myself repeatedly checking to see what else she’s published, because there’s just no way this can be her debut. But then, that’s what they said about Harper Lee, right?

Perhaps the most glorious aspect of this book is seeing how Annie McNulty’s can-do attitude, sterling work ethic, and positivity transformed her life and lit a path for her children. She provided them with an outstanding role model, and in return, they did everything possible for her when cancer forced her to slow down.

This book will inevitably be compared to Educated and The Glass Castle because it is a memoir of someone that has overcome horrifying challenges in childhood and emerged triumphant. But make no mistake, Zaleski’s story is in no way derivative, and likely will be held up as an example for future writers. It makes my feminist heart sing!

Highly recommended.

Agent Sniper, by Tim Tate***

I was invited to read and review this book by Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press. I accepted because I do love a good spy story, and there aren’t many of them being published at this time. Tim Tate has had a long, illustrious career as a documentary filmmaker and as an author, but is new to me.

So, when I began reading and found my attention wandering, I thought it was a personal problem. Too many distractions. I tried again, and when that didn’t go well, I procured the audio version and listened to it while I prepared dinners during the week. Eventually, I threw in the towel and admitted that this is simply not an engaging book. The topic sounds fascinating, but just as a gifted, dedicated author can spin dull material to gold, so can an indifferent one tell an electrifying spy story in a way that leaves the reader checking the page numbers and the clock—is this thing over yet?

It’s not all bad news: the research here is top drawer. For the researcher, this book has use, although I would caution the uninitiated into reading carefully, because history is always politically charged. Every fact that is included, and every fact that is not; the interpretation; the language used, all give a biased account, even when a researcher and writer is endeavoring to be as balanced as possible. I don’t care for this writer’s interpretation, which makes him sound like a hardened right winger, but I have no doubt that the facts that he uses are accurate ones.

Then we come to the audio, and I must wonder why, if we’re primarily dealing with the CIA and its agents, we have a narrator with a clipped English accent (and a few pronunciations that sounded very odd to me,) telling the story. I found it disorienting, but if this had been a more engaging story, I would have overlooked it.

Ultimately it comes down to wordsmithery, and I didn’t find much of it. Those interested in dabbling in this genre would do better to read Ben McIntyre and Tim Weiner.

This book is for sale now.

The Road Less Traveled, by Philip Zelikow***

Is this going to be on the test?

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

I am initially drawn to this title when I see the subtitle—an opportunity to make an early peace that went unanswered—and I also want to read more about World War I. I love military history, and am sick to death of World War II material, so this felt like it might be a breath of fresh air.

Or not.

There is no doubt that Zelikow knows his field, and his research is above reproach. Students and researchers may find this book useful, albeit with a careful eye toward a very conservative point of view that affects his analysis. However, for those of us just in it for the joy of learning, I must caution that this is a slog. I read the first half in the digital format I was given, and after publication, I also availed myself of the audio version available at Seattle Bibliocommons, and it’s difficult to focus on either for long at a time, because it’s just Zzzzzzzz

Oh, I’m sorry! Was that me? Let me try again. The research is splendid; the analysis is reactionary; the presentation is a little zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

I might have spared myself some frustration had I researched the author. Once I was able to focus long enough to get a feel for his political leanings, I ran a brief Google search, and discovered he’d been with the U.S. State Department under the Reagan and Bush administrations.

Oh.

At this point, you know enough to decide whether you want to read this thing. If you have a strong interest in the topic and aren’t squeamish about drawing information from the far right, then this is your book. Not mine, though.

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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Invisible Child, by Andrea Elliott*****

I was invited to read and review this book by Random House and Net Galley, and immediately I accepted, because it’s right in my wheelhouse. However, I also understood that it would be a painful read, and I postponed it for months, because 2021 was already a terrible year, and I wasn’t feeling brave. So my apologies for the delay; at the same time, this book is not quite as wrenching as I expected, and the research and writing are stellar. It’s for sale now.

Dasani Coates is the firstborn child of an impoverished, disorganized African-American mother with few marketable skills.  She is named after the premium brand bottled water, because her mom thinks it’s a beautiful name. (Wait till you see what the next baby’s name will be!) They live in Brooklyn, and not long after Dasani is born, she has a sister. And another. And another, and then eventually a brother and a couple of step-siblings. None of them are the result of poor family planning; all are planned and wanted. But at the same time, they have very few resources, and the slender safety net provided by relatives doesn’t last forever; and the city fails to protect its most vulnerable denizens.

As a retired teacher that worked in high poverty schools, I have seen families similar to this one, and the children suffer the most, every stinking time. I’ve also seen children take on the role that Dasani assumes without ever planning to do so, that of the adult in the house (when there is a house,) caring for a large group of tiny people when the actual adult isn’t adulting. If you watch closely enough for long enough, it can eat you alive; as for the far-too-young surrogate parent, I have seen them cope admirably, right up until they become adults themselves, and often, it is then that they fall apart. I don’t know whether that holds true for Dasani, because we don’t see her as an adult, but I can well imagine.

Elliott, a Pulitzer winning journalist from The New York Times, follows this family closely for eight years, sometimes sleeping on the floor of their house or apartment. In her endnotes, she explains her methodology, her relationship to the family during this project, and the parameters determined by the paper, for whom she originally did this research. Dasani was the subject of a front page series on poverty in New York which ran for five days. Elliott’s documentation is impeccable, and she can write like nobody’s business.

Because I am running behind, I check out the audio version of this book from Seattle Bibliocommons, and I want to give a shout out to Adenrele Ojo, the narrator, who is among the very best readers I’ve yet encountered. Though I continue to use my review copy at times, I like Ojo’s interpretation of the voices for each of the large number of characters so well that I find I prefer listening to reading.

As I read, I become so attached to Dasani that I skip to the end—which I almost never do—because if she is going to get dead, I need to brace myself for it. I’ll tell you right now, because for some of you, this might be a deal breaker, and I’d hate for you to miss this important biography: it’s dark, but not that dark.

I don’t find myself feeling nearly as sympathetic toward Dasani’s mother, Chanel, as the author does, but I do think Dasani’s stepfather, who is the only father she knows, gets a bad, bad break. He jumps through every single bureaucratic hoop that is thrown at him in an effort to get some help for the seven children left in his care, and every time, the city turns its back on him, right up until a social worker comes calling, finds that they don’t have the things they need, and takes his children. This made me angrier than anything else, apart from a few boneheaded, destructive things that Chanel does.

For those that care about social justice and Civil Rights issues, this book is a must read. I highly recommend it to you.  

Enough Already! by Valerie Bertinelli***-****

3.5 stars, rounded up. Valerie Bertinelli rose to fame as a child actor, and as a child I watched her show, “One Day at a Time,” together with my parents. I admired and envied her, and when my mother enthused how darling, how pretty, how adorable she was, I also resented her just a teeny bit, the way we tended to resent the homecoming queen or student body president. When I saw, recently, that she’d written a memoir, I was all in. My thanks go to Net Galley and Harper Collins for the review copy. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, January 18, 2022.

For me, this is more of a three star read, but I choose to bump the rating up to four stars because there were several barn-sized hints that I should have noticed before I began reading, yet blew obliviously past. First, I didn’t get the memo that Bertinelli has written diet books and cookbooks, and has won Emmy Awards for a cooking show on the Food Network. All of these things should have given me pause, because although I do like Bertinelli’s earlier work, I never watch food programs on television. If I want to learn more about food, I’ll buy a cookbook or a diet book, but I don’t need it on my TV or any other streaming devices, and I also (giant clue number two) hate mixing recipes and cooking tips into a novel or memoir.

Yikes!

So, whereas I believed I would be reading a memoir suffused with feminist mojo that makes the author ready to turn the page on body shaming and chronic dieting, instead, I got a recipe, right up front. Pffft.  And as a woman who’s lived in plus-sized fashions for decades, I find it hard to get excited about Bertinelli’s brave decision to stop losing the same ten pounds, over and over. Ten pounds? Oh please. I guess maybe actors and models go into crisis over ten extra pounds, and feel tremendously brave about deciding to own them, but where I live, ten pounds is nothing.

When I was in third grade, my teacher said that those of us that roll our eyes stand in danger of having them get stuck up there. Since there’s no way not to do that while reading this thing, we’ll call mine a case study. If they get stuck, I’ll report back. In Braille.

As the memoir continues, I find that more than anything, this is Bertinelli’s grief book. She and her ex-husband, Eddie Van Halen, have remained unusually close in the years since their divorce, and this book is almost more about him and their son Wolfie than it is about her. I never enjoyed Van Halen’s music, which I found to contain more heavy metal than I am geared for; since I have this memoir, I figure I should take myself to cyberspace and find out whether growing older has changed my tastes. As it turns out, nope, it hasn’t. Still not a Van Halen fan.

And lastly, the narrative comes with all sorts of red flags when she talks about the warm relationship she and Eddie have continued to share—because, you know, they are both (full grown) Wolfie’s parents. When it becomes clear that he will lose his fight with cancer, she and he nip out of whatever family party they are attending to go sit in someone’s car and confess their love to one another—despite the fact that they have both remarried. (Imagine I’ve written that last bit in 24 point font, bolded, red.) The hell? I know that Hollywood types sometimes do things a bit differently, but…? And so, once more I travel through cyberspace to track down Bertinelli’s current husband, who is scarcely even mentioned in this emo memoir. I find an image; oh, so that’s him! And yup, at just about the same time the book was in the publication pipeline, the marriage crashed to a halt, with Bertinelli fuming about how she refuses to be “shamed” for how she grieves. Uh, okay. Her grief is her grief, but if I was that fellow, I’d feel as if my marriage was a party to which I hadn’t been invited. And if it was hard to play second fiddle to the famed guitarist when he was alive, I can’t even imagine how anybody can compete with him now that he’s dead. So. For those diehard fans of hers, of Van Halen’s, or of the food programming to which her career has been directed in recent years, this might be a great read for you. As for me, I came away feeling awkward and uncomfortable. If, knowing all these things, you are still interested, then go for it; but if you’re not so sure, either give it a miss, or read it cheap or free.