A solid but not groundbreaking chronicle of women’s long, excruciating fights for laughs.



The struggle to do stand-up comedy while female.

Journalist, producer, and documentarian Fields (Confessions of a Rebel Debutante, 2010) interviewed dozens of female comedians—or what she calls “comedienne-ballerinas,” a term Phyllis Diller coined in 1986—to create this informative, timely, occasionally pedantic work about feminism and women in comedy. Charlie Chaplin famously said, “all you need to make a movie is a park, a policeman, and a pretty girl,” underscoring the age-old notion that women performers could be pretty but not funny. Indeed, women in Vaudeville burlesque would usually be depicted by men in drag. However, generations of American women since Lucille Ball and Elaine May have exploded that notion (the author sticks to American comedy), and Fields doggedly pursues these pioneers, from the crucial early influences (Moms Mabley, Sophie Tucker, Diller, and Ball, among others) to the lively current crop of active female comedians—Amy Schumer, Mindy Kaling, and others. What drives these women to expose themselves to ridicule by men, especially, or to endure the “two a night” rule (only two women comics onstage per night)? One primary reason is to support a family, as Diller had to do when her husband was out of work and she had six children to raise. Fields focuses on certain elements of stand-up comedy, as embraced by women—e.g., how to talk “blue” (about sex) and about “women’s issues” like abortion and menstruation that make men “queasy.” Should women comics pander to sexist stereotypes or challenge them? Ball was the first to use the experience of women’s everyday life to fill her shows as well as demonstrate the strong bond (rather than rivalry) between women friends (Lucy and Ethel); this dynamic would be replicated to enormous success in TV shows from Maude to Saturday Night Live. Despite some preachy passages about feminism, Fields provides a useful history and handbook for aspiring comics.

A solid but not groundbreaking chronicle of women’s long, excruciating fights for laughs.

Pub Date: Aug. 8, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5107-1836-4

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Arcade

Review Posted Online: May 31, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2017

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.


Maya Angelou is a natural writer with an inordinate sense of life and she has written an exceptional autobiographical narrative which retrieves her first sixteen years from "the general darkness just beyond the great blinkers of childhood."

Her story is told in scenes, ineluctably moving scenes, from the time when she and her brother were sent by her fancy living parents to Stamps, Arkansas, and a grandmother who had the local Store. Displaced they were and "If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat." But alternating with all the pain and terror (her rape at the age of eight when in St. Louis With her mother) and humiliation (a brief spell in the kitchen of a white woman who refused to remember her name) and fear (of a lynching—and the time they buried afflicted Uncle Willie under a blanket of vegetables) as well as all the unanswered and unanswerable questions, there are affirmative memories and moments: her charming brother Bailey; her own "unshakable God"; a revival meeting in a tent; her 8th grade graduation; and at the end, when she's sixteen, the birth of a baby. Times When as she says "It seemed that the peace of a day's ending was an assurance that the covenant God made with children, Negroes and the crippled was still in effect."

However charily one should apply the word, a beautiful book, an unconditionally involving memoir for our time or any time.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 1969

ISBN: 0375507892

Page Count: 235

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1969

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