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.

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.

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.

Best Horror 2018

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The Water Diviner and Other Stories, byRuvanee Pietersz Vilhauer****

ALT.FINAL_The WaterI read this book free and early thanks to Net Galley and University of Iowa Press. This distinctive collection is for sale now.

All told there are fifteen stories, all of them featuring Sinhalese Sri Lankans, most of them expatriates that have moved to the United States.  Before commencing I knew very little about the culture of this small island country, apart from its having been colonized by Britain earlier in its history. I still know very little, but this collection is an approachable way to introduce oneself, in addition to being well crafted fiction.

Several of the stories are dark, dealing with the racism and ignorance with which immigrants are often greeted. The angriest of the stories is “A Burglary On Quarry,” in which a student is accused of burglary by her well-to-do, bigoted landlord who doesn’t want to face the obvious perpetrator: her own son.  It reads like a manifesto, and it makes me want to pump my fist and yell, “Tell it!”

This, however, is something none of the characters in these stories would do, apart from the privileged Caucasian American in “Accident.”  David nearly comes to great harm while visiting his new wife’s homeland, largely due to his own obliviousness; it hasn’t occurred to him that he himself might be deemed unacceptable for his race and nation of origin, having lived all of his life as an affluent member of the dominant culture. He is from Texas, and he’s drunk, and he doesn’t even try to understand discretion or subtext. As his wife’s neighbors ogle him suspiciously and the police consider that he may have caused an auto accident for which he is not responsible, he continues to assure his wife—in English—that everything is just fine. He says nothing quietly, ever, and it takes a political connection on the part of his wife’s relatives to extricate him from the hard place he doesn’t know he’s in.

Other entries are also bittersweet, and “Sonny’s Last Game” stands out as one of these. However, “Leisure” literally made me laugh out loud. Well, guffaw, actually: “Cutex! Who does she think she is!”

The last entry, “Hello My Dear”, is both funny and bittersweet, as Prema is faced with the question of whether an email from a stranger is a scam or the real deal.

I enjoyed this collection tremendously and would read Vilhauer again in a heartbeat.

The O Henry Prize Stories 2018, by Laura Furman, editor*****

TheOHenryPrize2018This collection is guaranteed to be good, and I was thrilled when I received a review copy, thanks to Net Galley and Doubleday. Those that enjoy strong fiction should buy it and read it, even if you have to pay full jacket price. This year’s edition holds 20 prize winning stories along with a bit of judging commentary at the end. This book is now for sale.

The first story in any short story collection is bound to be good, and so I knew that Joanne Beard’s Tin House would be strong, and it is, in a dark, surreal way. I wouldn’t read it at bedtime lest it enter my dreams, but it’s memorable, original, and gritty. I also enjoy Brad Felver’s Queen Elizabeth, and Past Perfect Continuous, by Dounia Choukri. My favorite of all of them, the one that made me laugh out loud, is Why Were They Throwing Bricks, by Jenny Zhang, a story that features a cagey, manipulative Chinese grandmother and the grandchildren whose lives she enters, leaves and reenters. Zhang appears to have mostly published poetry up to this point, but I hope she writes more fiction, because I want to read it.

The only aspect of any short story that I don’t enjoy is the open-ended sort that conclude with no real resolution. This screamingly frustrating inclination is minimal here, showing at the ends of a just a couple of the featured stories.

Short stories are terrific to leave, once you’ve finished them, in your guest room, because people that stay with you briefly can read a story or more without the frustration of having to either leave an incomplete novel behind or beg to borrow it, not knowing when they can return it. If you need an excuse to get this excellent collection for yourself, there it is.

Highly recommended.

My Own Words, by Ruth Bader Ginsburg****

MyOwnWordsThis one is a crushing disappointment. I seldom buy books anymore, but I was so pumped about this collection that I went all out and got a hard copy, expecting to love it enough to keep it in my home library forever. Sadly, this isn’t what I expected.

Obviously, no U.S. Supreme Court justice is going to have enough time to sit down and write his or her memoirs, let alone an octogenarian justice, but I had hoped to find a collection of her meaty and sometimes even audacious opinions, particularly her dissents. Instead, this slender volume is packed with filler. There are two co-authors whose names are written on the cover in miniscule print, and it is they that write sometimes windy introductions to just about everything;  to make matters worse, they don’t tell us anything you cannot find in other biographies written about this feminist luminary.

And what of Ginsburg’s writing? I didn’t buy the book to see the precocious things she wrote as a child, as an adolescent, or in college. I just want to read her court opinions. That’s it. And that’s not what I got.

I can’t give anything that bears Ginsburg’s name a rating below four stars, but seriously, if your discretionary income forces you to buy books strategically, either skip this one or get it used. Surely at some point something more scholarly will be released, and then I’ll wish I still had the dollars that I spent here.