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FX and Ryan Murphy create riveting drama with ‘Feud: Bette and Joan’ – a recap

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Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). Photo from FX

Ryan Murphy is one of the busiest men in entertainment, creating anthology shows that roll out fascinating stories of crime, intrigue, or horror. His latest project is Feud, which centers on famous rivalries. In the premier season, Murphy zeroes in on Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and their infamous collaboration in the 1962 film What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. Murphy’s muse Jessica Lange stars as Joan Crawford and she trades barbs with Susan Sarandon’s Bette Davis. The 8-episode season starts with “Pilot” in which we’re introduced to the start of it all. Murphy is a camp aficionado and a camp manufacturer, so it’s not surprising that he aims his talents toward icons like Davis and Crawford, both of whom achieved immortality because of camp. What is surprising is how invested the film is in the characters, and how interested the script is in making Davis and Crawford real people instead of outlandish cartoons.

Working with a script with Jaffe Cohen and Michael Zam, Murphy veers away from easy cliches about Joan Crawford and Bette Davis. Yes, the bitchery and the sniping is still there, but he leavens it with desperation and fear. In 1962, both Crawford and Davis were experience mighty ebbs in their careers: Crawford was struggling to pay her gardeners, while Davis was slumming it, in the theater, hamming away at a small part. The film industry – a notoriously sexist and ageist business – had little use of the two women, and this was played out in an early scene at the Golden Globes, where Crawford had to watch the then-It Girl, Marilyn Monroe collect a Golden Globe (“I’ve got great tits,” Crawford sneers, “but I don’t throw them in everyone’s face”).

In the face of such opposition, Crawford seeks out a role for herself. She and her trusty housekeeper Mamacita (a funny Jackie Hoffman) comb the libraries for stories about women. Crawford wisely sums up women’s roles in three categories: ingenues, mothers, or gorgons.” For some reason Henry Farrell’s 1960 novel Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? stands out – mainly for its title – though, if Crawford had read it up to that point, she’d realize that both Blanche and Jane are monstrous gorgons. But she’s hooked and wants to make the film.

And then Robert Aldrich (played by Alfred Molina) enters the picture. A b-movie director in very much a similar situation to Crawford and Davis, he hopes that Baby Jane will enliven his career, sputtering in a morass of tawdry flops. After convincing a very-profane Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci, playing bitchy very well) to distribute the picture, Crawford needs only one more element in her project: a costar.

Unlike Crawford, Bette Davis doesn’t tear through her life crippled by insecurities. Where Crawford is portrayed as paranoid and despondent, Davis is efficient and cold. While Crawford was a great star, she was a so-so actress who could pull off a good performance if coaxed by a strong director; Davis, meanwhile, was a brilliant actress – a skilled technician who often outclassed the material she was given.

But it isn’t just talent that sets these two women apart: it’s also class. Crawford has severe complexes because she believes people see her as jumped-up white trash who made good. Her slightly-vulgar Hollywood mansion has plastic on the furniture, while Davis’ East Coast residence is tasteful. These markers of taste and class weigh heavily on Crawford as she repeatedly laments throughout the film. Her goal isn’t just to merely stage a successful comeback. She wants something far more elusive: industry respect.

The film is presented as a flashback and is introduced by Catherine Zeta-Jones playing Olivia de Havilland (Davis’ costar in the Baby Jane quasi-sequel Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte). Zeta-Jones barely performs – though, she does get a great line, when a reporter asks her to comment on the hatred shared between Davis and Crawford. “Feuds are never about hate,” she corrects him. “Feuds are about pain.”

With that in mind, Murphy, Cohen, and Zam work to create a story that is not only about ambition but about hurt. Crawford is hurt that the film industry is tossing her aside. Crawford is hurt that her peers don’t respect her. Lange does a tremendous job in showing that pain, which never really is successfully hidden by her hollow bravado. Lange could’ve looked to Faye Dunaway’s operatic turn as Crawford in Mommie Dearest, but instead chose to create her own Crawford.

In fact, that is what makes Feud so successful. Both Sarandon and Lange look and sound nothing like the women they’re playing. But instead of working at imitating them – and the two could’ve just YouTubed draq queens doing Crawford and Davis – the actresses set aside accuracy, and instead chose to create characters from the script. Sure, there are stabs at creating physical similarities: Lange sports the Kabuki-like makeup of Crawford, but the actresses are far more interested in developing interesting performances than just to simply sound and look like their subjects.

And that is what saves Feud from being merely an empty camp bitch-fest. The expected one liners are still there – mostly served with relish and venom by Sarandon’s Davis. Also some of the supporting characters pop in with flamboyant turns (I’m thinking specifically of Judy Davis’ broad turn as Hedda Hopper).

As a piece of film history, Feud also works because there is great attention paid to all kinds of details. The sets are wonderful and beautifully-made. And when the filming of Baby Jane starts, viewers get a glimpse of what it looks like behind-the-scenes.

The plot of pilot has Crawford and Davis agreeing to star in the picture together. Even though it would be in their best interest to set aside any petty differences, they begin to snap at each other almost immediately: at a photo-op in which the two divas sign their contracts, they both go for the left chair (to get top-billing in the photo caption), with Davis prevailing (though Crawford looms over Davis’ left shoulder).

When filming finally begins, Davis has a meeting with Crawford and is seemingly supportive, telling her costar that she has the goods to put in a great performance – this disarms Crawford, before Davis spits back “But lose the shoulder pads and cut back on the lipstick. You’re playing a recluse who hasn’t seen the sun for 20 years.”

And though Crawford tries to ingratiate herself with the crew of Baby Jane with presents and a Pepsi vending machine (she’s the soda giant’s “brand ambassador”), Davis manages to upstage her with skill and commitment to her craft. Crawford is vain, worried about how she looks. Davis is all too happy to make herself out to a grotesque. In this script’s version of the events, Davis is the one who creates Baby Jane Hudson’s monstrous look: the tatty white dress, pitiful blond curls, and bone-white pancake makeup. Smearing the white greasepaint on her face, she gleefully turns herself into a horror, and her perturbed daughter B.D. (Kiernan Shipka) is aghast, asking “Do  you really want to look like that.”

But Davis is a pro. Crawford’s a neurotic mess who wants to recapture her glamorous youth when she was a screen goddess, but Davis – never a sex symbol – is more interested in doing the work itself. Though Davis is being a beast about it, she’s right. When the two sit in a screening room, looking at what they filmed, Crawford is immediately thrown into despair at how badly she looks and how much she’s aged; Davis, meanwhile is moved to a single tear (before she quickly wipes it away) because of her strong performance.

Legend has it that Davis and Crawford were horrible to each other, sometimes even resorting to physical violence. That these two over-sized egos are crammed into a single film set is fascinating to watch. Right now, the film seems to lead its viewers to feel sympathy for Crawford who is riddled with self-doubt. As the filming of Baby Jane continues, it’ll be interesting to see how the two will continue to work side-by-side, given that neither trusts the other.

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Renée Zellweger is incandescent in third installment of ‘Bridget Jones’ franchise

Bridget Jones's BabyIn my opinion, there’s nothing sexier than a beautiful, confident woman basking in middle-age glory. In the third installment of the Bridget Jones series, Bridget Jones’ Baby, Renée Zellweger is a glorious goddess. Beautiful, smart, and witty, this Bridget is far more self-assured than the hapless heroine of Bridget Jones’ Diary (2001) or Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason (2004). And Zellweger plays her with dignity and maturity, even in the more slapstick moments (such as falling face first into a mud puddle, or being carried awkwardly by two men while in labor). While the third film is not the classic the first one was, it’s light years ahead of the mediocre stumble of the second film.

Bridget Jones fans will realize that unlike the first two films, the third isn’t based on a novel. Helen Fielding’s third Bridget Jones novel, Mad About the Boy has a different tone and plot surprises that may alienate some fans. Instead, Fielding teams up with comedic writer Dan Mazer and Renaissance woman Emma Thompson (who has a hilarious cameo as Bridget’s dry ob/gyn) for a wholly new story that has Bridget dealing with pregnancy and romance.

Colin Firth returns as the taciturn and terse Mark Darcy, the man that seems so right for Bridget, yet so wrong. As in the first two films, Mark is often frustratingly stiff and uptight. Like Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (the inspiration for Fielding’s works), Mark hides his feelings beneath a hard shell, constructed for self-preservation.

After a chance meeting at a funeral, Bridget learns that Mark is engaged to be married. We learn that in the ensuing decade after Edge of Reason, Bridget and Mark had an on again/off again relationship which has ended sadly. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, as she would’ve done in the first film, Bridget moves on with her life, partying with her work chum, TV host Miranda (Sarah Solemani), at a music festival. It’s here that we get most of Zellweger’s flair for physical comedy, as she stomps through sodden fields of mud in inappropriate white pumps, before face planting in a field of mud, only to be rescued by handsome American Jack Qwant (Patrick Demspey, charming). The two have a one-night stand, and Bridget leaves happy.

The rom-com gods have Bridget reunite again with Mark at a christening, in which she discovers that he’s leaving his wife. The two share a magical night and make love, and it’s lovely.

That is until she finds out she’s pregnant. The big mystery of the film is who is Bridget’s baby daddy, Mark or Jack? Both men are dreamy candidates and for Bridget it’s an embarrassment of riches.

Fielding, Mazer, and Thompson put together a funny film that manages to be appealing and light, despite its potentially-appalling premise. Though the summary sounds like a British take on Maury, it’s all handled with grace and dignity. And the movie’s funny. Funny as hell. There are great one-liners and even the most absurd situations (Bridget going into labor) are written with humor that we can overlook some of the implausibility.

At the center of it all is Renée Zellweger, who is gifted with a fantastic role, and matches it with a beautiful performance. Her Bridget is slightly bruised and her maturity gives her a hard-earned gravitas. There’s also a lovely poignancy to the performance – Bridget is going through a lot, being pregnant and single (and going through a “geriatric” pregnancy as she’s reminded repeatedly throughout the film), and there’s a slight feeling of melancholy to a middle-aged Bridget. She’s lived a lot and seen a lot and is better for it.

Being a thoroughly British comedy set in contemporary times, there are gentle nods toward the current climate in the UK – most notably in the characterization of Bridget’s mum, Pamela (Gemma Jones). Running for local office as a conservative, she quickly shifts to the left when learning of her daughter’s situation, embracing diversity and becoming a liberal candidate instead. This feels a bit like wishful thinking, but it’s a good way to remind viewers that Bridget Jones is a symbol and heroine for the underdogs: for the single girls, for the heavy girls, for the queer boys, for anyone who feels a bit left out.

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Andy Cohen’s new book ‘Superficial’ is deeper and more thoughtful

Andy Cohen’s second collection of diary entries Superficial: More Adventures from the Andy Cohen Diaries reads a bit like a solid descendant of Andy Warhol’s diaries. Like Warhol, Cohen’s tome is filled with entries of running into celebrities and his unvarnished opinions of those famous people. And while the title is self-referential and tongue-in-cheek, Cohen is surprisingly introspective and candid throughout the book. Even though he’s pretty free with his judgment on his celebrity pals, he’s often hardest on himself.

For most, Cohen will be reality TV’s ultimate carnival barker. A former executive at Bravo, he has since become a TV star in his own right, a sort-of 21st century answer to Truman Capote (though are less literate). He’s most famous now for the Real Housewives franchise. Because of him, women like NeNe Leakes, Brandi Glanville, Teresa Guidice, and Bethenny Frankel are household names. Cohen’s successfully shepherded these women into fame and has foisted them onto the public consciousness.

But as shown in Superficial, the housewives are just one part of a busy life. One thing readers will notice about Cohen’s life is that it’s busy. Yes, he’s not working in a coal mine, but for a rich privileged white guy, he’s got an exhaustive schedule of meetings, appearances, talks, TV and radio spots, brunches lunches and dinners, and vacations. Celebrities pop in and out of his professional and persona life – Anderson Cooper, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kelly Ripa are regulars in Cohen’s world. To his credit, though the book is heavy with names dropped, he’s not obnoxious about it.

In fact, despite enviable wealth, good looks, lots of friends, a rewarding job, Cohen’s approach to his life and work feels like a yeoman effort. Often Cohen sounds tired, irritable, and lonely throughout the book. He doesn’t grumble about his work, and he does have perspective, but often his tone reflects a “done with it” attitude. It’d be very lazy – though tempting – to suggest that he’s going through a midlife crisis; it does seem though that Cohen’s life is a less rosy than outsiders would assume.

And though Cohen’s public persona is that of an affable gay BFF, he’s a bit crustier in real life. He’s honest though about his moments of petulance – there’s the shockingly immature reaction to his “loss” at a silly lip sync show, in which he owns his “sore loser” status. Also, he owns his ignorance and naiveté about intersectionality and cultural appropriation when he obliviously (and quite stupidly) stepped into a controversy about race after criticizing Amandla Stenberg’s public statements about cultural appropriation (which he dimly reduced to a celebrity feud between Stenberg and Kylie Jenner over hair) It’s commendable that the author doesn’t try to pass himself off as perfect. Far from it. In fact, the Cohen we get is fully three-dimensional, and quite interesting.

Some will be disappointed by Superficial after finishing it: Cohen’s US Weekly public image, his association with trashy reality TV, and the candy-colored dust jacket of the book will lead readers to assume that this is a breezy, silly affair. And a lot of it is dishy, gossipy tea about celebs that orbit around Planet Andy, but there’s just as much of Andy Cohen, the hardworking, sometimes unlikable, sometimes lonely man who is looking for companionship and stability in his whirling, high-paced world.

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Kathy Griffin’s funny new book is a case of not enough of a good thing

Kathy Griffin’s comedy comprises of tales of the comic’s dealings with celebrities, good or bad. Throughout her career, she’s had many confrontations with famous people, and instead of ruing and being moody about, she has taken the experiences and made a multi-Emmy winning and Grammy winning career. In her new book, Kathy Griffin’s Celebrity Run-Ins: My A-Z Index, Griffin has compiled a selection of celebrity encounters, good and bad, and laid it out in alphabetical order like a dictionary.

Because she’s somewhat trapped by the format of the book, some of the stories feel abrupt and some of the celebrities get such a short shift, you wonder why she included them in the first place. And the stories that do get more ink feel somewhat rushed, too, which is a shame because Griffin’s an ace at translating her quick-fire wit to the page. And when she wants to be – as in the passages devoted to late pals Joan Rivers, Jackie Collins, and Garry Shandling – she can be an emotional writer, too. Those readers who remember her first book, Official Book Club Selection, will know that despite her reliance on humor and wit, she doesn’t shy away from darker aspects of her life. Celebrity Run-Ins is different, though, much lighter in tone and content, so there are only a few spots that feel like a shift away from the general jocular tone of the book.

And that’s a shame, because the years since Official Book Club Selection, a lot has happened in Griffin’s life, including the deaths of several friends (including mentor Joan Rivers), the cancellation of her talk show, the embarrassing Fashion Police fracas, the end of her popular reality sitcom,  her win of a Grammy, a notable dust up with Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and a seeming end to her relationship with Bravo. Some of these events are alluded to in her book, but it would be great to read more about how she dealt with these difficulties, and how she sees them now, with perspective. Of course, none of these stories would fit into the rigid format she’s constructed, so hopefully she has another book in her.

That’s not to say that Celebrity Run-Ins isn’t funny or not worth picking up. It’s hilarious and often an astute look at our celebrity culture. What inspired the book, according to Griffin, is she realized with a start that she knew or worked with the principal figures in the excellent documdrama Straight Outta Compton. And the list she’s compiled is an impressive array of figures from sports, politics, film, television, theater, and music (her adorable bother, Maggie, a celebrity and fan favorite in her own right also gets a chapter). While expected names make appearances  – Gloria Estefan, Anderson Cooper, Gloria Vanderbilt, Chris Colfer – it’s the names of folks you wouldn’t necessarily expect like Suge Knight, Warren Zevon, and Marshawn Lynch that may be a pleasant surprise for readers (the Suge Knight story is very funny). And because she’s known for her brutal irreverence for celebrity (along with her devotion and obsession with it – she’s our Andy Warhol), some of the celebrities included – and I’m looking at Jon Hamm in particular – may want to skip her assessment of them.

Celebrity Run-Ins works best when Griffin is indulging in her love of gossip, Hollywood, and admiration for her subjects. The book hits various high points, most notably when she writes with great affection about Anderson Cooper, Cher (who gets dialogue written in funny phonetic spelling) Jackie Collins, Gloria Steinem, and Jane Fonda, among others. It’s in these passages that she combines her sharp wit with her big heart. It makes for fun reading that gets sentimental, but never gloppy. Her relationship with Cooper in particular is wonderful because the two have a sibling-like love for each other, and Griffin is forever subjecting him to her hilarious pranks, and he seems to be the perennial good sport about it all.

Hopefully there is a weightier tome in Griffin, yet. Her Twitter has posts that reflect her attitude and opinion on politics, race, age, gender, the election, queer rights, and culture. I’d love for Griffin to pen an essay collection in which she addresses Black Lives Matter, ageism, sexism, homophobia, Trump, Clinton, as she does in her stand-up and social media. But that’s for another time. For now, Celebrity Run-Ins does a commendable job in providing its readers with some laugh out-loud moments.

 

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Megyn Kelly’s ‘Settle for More’ is a jumbled but admirable effort

Megyn Kelly’s public persona is a study in contradiction: on the one hand, many see her as simply one of a giant roster of beautiful blonde talking heads on Fox News. On the hand, she’s a feminist hero, bravely standing up to the bullying tactics of Donald Trump. The truth is a messy in-between, which Kelly tries to present as an authentic human being instead of a two-dimensional figure concocted by a team of TV producers, image experts, managers, and hair and makeup people. In Settle for More, Kelly works to humanize the glossy image she presents so successfully on her various appearances, by sharing anecdotes of her childhood, her frailties and vulnerabilities, as well as her ambition and drive. She makes a convincing case for herself as a complex and complicated person with many sides to her. But often her rather stark limitations as a writer fail her, muddying the impact of her words.

Some of why Settle for More fails in part is because Kelly seems unsure of what kind of book she’s writing. As a straight-up memoir it doesn’t work because Kelly’s childhood and upbringing isn’t that interesting, and she doesn’t have the literary flair of a Sarah Vowell or a David Sedaris to inject her storytelling with anything amounting to interesting yarn spinning. She grew up in a solidly middle class New York State family, and went through a hellish year of bullying in junior high and suffered through the unexpected death of her father. To be sure, these are traumatic events, and Kelly’s perseverance is to be admired. But these experiences aren’t enough to warrant a book, at least not the one that Kelly’s written.

It’s when she writes about her professional life that Settle for More becomes far more interesting. Her career is fascinating in that she started off as a lawyer, but disaffected and unsatisfied, she decided to shift gears in mid-career and jump over to broadcast journalism. When she writes of her time as a female attorney dealing with condescension and sexism, Kelly’s work shows much more promise. Here we see the assemblage of the public persona and image of Megyn Kelly, and she does a solid job of showing the real person underneath. She shares anecdotes of sparring with politicians and fellow journalists (including an amusing bit about a terse tete-a-tete she shared with Daily Show‘s Jon Stewart), and she highlights some of the misogyny and sexism that she faced.

Unfortunately, because she’s part of the Fox News brand, she cannot indulge in any semblance of feminism – and she even indulges in some stupid and simply untrue characterizations of feminism – and hedges her bets continuously throughout the book by stressing just how much gender doesn’t matter. This theme becomes tiresome and feels a little bit like overcompensation, as if she was worried that if she sounded too much like Gloria Steinem (whom she dings for wearing a “I had an abortion” t-shirt), her fan base may abandon her. In her quest to downplay gender, she comes off a bit desperate to be “one of the guys.”

But despite her ambivalence toward gender issues, they are major themes throughout Settle for More. And why shouldn’t they? After all, as a lawyer and then a journalist, Kelly has succeeded in male-dominated industries that still operate in large part, on the boys club mentality. Throughout her career, she has faced obstacles that will be relatable to female readers, including sexual harassment and unwelcomed advances by colleagues and superiors. The most notable – and high profile – passages in the book involve Kelly’s interactions with Donald Trump and Roger Ailes.

Trump’s fights with Kelly were well-publicized. The now president-elect took to Twitter to slam Kelly’s questions during the debate, using typically boorish and sexist language (referencing her menstrual cycle). Kelly tells a riveting tale of rabid Trump supporters who take to social media with sexist and misogynistic threats and slurs. Surrounding herself with security detail, Kelly would become haunted and hunted by Trump’s supporters, and became an unlikely hero of the left, while the right thought of her as a turncoat. What’s important about Kelly’s account is that she is taking control of the narrative, instead of allowing for the media to shape it, and her writing does a solid job in complicating the reductive assumptions people came to, when the Trump fracas was dominating the media.

Her disclosure of her experience with sexual harassment at the hands of Roger Ailes is also important in that highlights an important issue that too many people disregard, minimize, or trivialize. Many question Kelly’s timing and motives for her candor – some will go the predictable route of victim-blaming, victim-shaming, misogyny, and dismissal, which is why it’s so vital that we continue to hear stories like Kelly’s, and that we continue to encourage victims to speak. Our job as readers isn’t to question why or how Kelly dealt with her experience of harassment, because there is no one right or ideal way of responding to sexual harassment. Our job is to hear Kelly’s story and listen.

If Kelly had focused on her career when writing Settle for More, she would’ve had an above-average book. If she focused on gender issues, and stopped hedging her bets when it comes to gender identity and gender politics in law and journalism, she’d have a great book. Unfortunately, Kelly chose the traditional memoir, and as a result, she merely has produced a competent book, with flashes of great potential.

 

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Amy Schumer bares her soul in the hilarious and heartbreaking ‘Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo’

Amy Schumer is one of the buzziest comedians working today. Due to an exhausting work schedule, she finds herself in an enviable position, one that few stand-ups can claim: not only is she household name, but she’s branching out – along with a hit sketch show, she’s also got a $100 million film under her belt, and has become one of the most influential comedians. Unfortunately, this bright-hot fame has its downsides: her politics have been shoved into the public eye after two women were shot and killed during a showing of her movie Trainwreck in Lafayette, Louisiana; she also is a constant target for online haters and trolls, picking apart her politics, her looks, and her intelligence; and recently, she’s gotten flak because a writer/friend on her show released a string of sexist tweets regarding rape and victim-blaming. But this kind of up-and-down seems a consistent in Schumer’s life, as she chronicles in hilarious and heartbreaking detail in her first book, Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo.

Part memoir-part essay collection, Girl is an intimate look at one of comedy’s brightest and smartest acts. She writes that her book is not a how-to manual or an advice guide, but like Kathy Griffin’s memoir, Official Book Club Selection, Schumer’s book works as evidence that a hard work ethic is the most valuable tool one needs to make it in show business. And Schumer is a hard worker. She writes of paying her dues in clubs before “making it” so to speak, by appearing on a reality show (Last Comic Standing), only to  bomb consistently on the show’s tour. But she keeps plugging away, working hard on her craft, creating a strong and distinct comic persona. Girl doesn’t undo that persona, but it adds more layers to it.

The most surprising thing about Girl is how disarming and vulnerable Schumer allows herself to be; for most comics, the microphone is a symbol of power – for female comics, it’s even more potent and subversive because of societal standards of female gentility. On stage, Schumer presents herself as a joyous and witty Wife of Bath for the 2010’s – sexual and liberated. She’s also presented as a lustful life of the party – one who can probably drink even the hardiest party animal under the table. Her willingness to embrace this loud and raucous side of her is what makes her such a powerful comedian – she lays claim to territory that is rightfully her’s, even if prudes find her distasteful and inappropriate. But in Girl, Schumer also allows the more sensitive side of her to shine – one that may not be as loud and dynamic as her stage persona, but one that is equally potent.

Despite the f-bombs and the hilariously lascivious tales, Schumer is a deep thinker and an intellectual. She approaches her comedy from a very smart place, and that translates to her writing, too. Also, she allows herself a larger, wider breadth, to explore introspective and sometimes-darker parts of her story. She’s very upfront about being a victim of sexual assault and domestic violence, and bravely shares these deeply personal stories with her readers. As evident with the recent racist/misogynist online attack of Leslie Jones, women are still reduced and dehumanized – Schumer’s candid approach to her story gives a huge spotlight and megaphone to an issue that is still sorely misrepresented by the media and law enforcement. And just as personal and profound is her grief over the deaths of Mayci Breaux and Jillian Johnson, the two women who dies in the screening of Trainwreck. Schumer puts on another guise, that of policy wonk, as she details why our current gun laws are too lax, and lays out the tragic consequences (there’s even a helpful part in the appendix in which Schumer shares the names of those in congress who benefit from the gun lobby).

But these departures from the funny don’t feel inorganic or forced. Instead, they present a complicated, complex, and very interesting woman. One who is devoted to her family and friends. Her family life can be described as difficult and she works out some stuff about her relationships with her mom and dad (who is living with MS). She loves her sister (a writer on Inside Amy Schumer and a very funny lady in her own right) and their relationship looms largely, as it seems to influence a lot of her work. Her writing about her mother is fraught with tension – at times her mom comes off as self-involved and self-destructive, this is especially true in the passage that deals with her mom’s infidelity, one that destroys her family when it comes to pass that Schumer’s mom and her best friend’s dad leave their respective spouses and marry each other. But Schumer is equally honest about her dad, whom she admits to idolizing, but who also had affairs and a string of wives (which resulted in the phenomena of a string of temporary step-siblings, too).

What is so remarkable about Girl is how assured its voice is. This book does not feel like a debut, and in reality it really isn’t, as Amy Schumer has been telling her story for years now. It’s just different now because she’s committed it to paper. What elevates Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo from the library of similar books-by-comedians is that its author has a strong and highly-developed literary voice. One that will make readers laugh out loud, but one that can also bring readers to tears. The book is a fantastic read that brings together all sorts of issues including feminism, rape culture, comedy, gun violence, politics, sexual politics, self-esteem, and family. Like Tina Fey, Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, and Kathy Griffin before her, Amy Schumer has masterfully created a literary persona: one that is wise, funny, bruised, and resilient. I can’t wait to read her next book.

Click here to buy Amy Schumer’s Girl with the Lower Back Tattoo on amazon.com.

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Summer reading for 2016 (so far…)

Because I’m not in school right now, I’ve been able to pick up on my reading. I burned through quite a few books this summer so far. My goal was to read more fiction – something I find hard to do since I graduated from college back in 2010. Aside from my yearly reading of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice I tend toward creative nonfiction, specifically travel books or food writing.

I took a class in a-realism literature and we read some challenging literature, including László Krasznahorkai’s Sátántangó and Jesse Ball’s Samedi the Deafness, both books that kinda knocked me on my ass when we read them as a class. So I re-read them on my own, with more time – they’re fantastic books, and am glad that the professor – Kyle Beachy, a fantastic author in his own right – assigned them.

Anyways, my summer so far has been a crazy mix of YA (which I don’t normally read), fantasy (Again, I don’t read), plus some great stuff by feminist authors (which I do read, a lot of…).

  1. Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs by Dave Holmes
  2. I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro
  3. Flight 232: A Story of Disaster and Survival by Laurence Gonzales
  4. Crackpot: The Obsessions of John Waters by John Waters
  5. Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America by John Waters
  6. Role Models by John Waters
  7.  Approval Junkie: Adventures in Caring Too Much by Faith Salie
  8. My Holiday in North Korea: The Funniest/Worst Place on Earth by Wendy E. Simmons
  9. The House of Hidden Mothers by Meera Syal
  10. I Know What I’m Doing – and Other Lies I Tell Myself: Dispatches from a Life Under Construction by Jen Kirkman
  11. Sátántangó by László Krasznahorkai
  12. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  13. Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  14. Library of Souls: The Third Novel of Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  15. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
  16. All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation by Rebecca Traister
  17. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler
  18. In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi
  19. Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson
  20. A Boy Called Mary: Kris Kirk’s Greatest Hits by Kris Kirk

I’m sure I’m missing some, but these are the books I read throughout the second half of May and all of June. Overall, I was pretty happy with the books I’ve read – nary a dud in any of them. The most surprising thing is that I enjoyed Riggs’ books so much. It’s a fantastic trilogy about a young boy named Jacob who travels through time with band of kids. There are time loops and the author references historical events, namely WWII and parts of the novels’ action takes place during the Blitz. The Riggs Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children novels are YA, but they’re quite violent and disturbing – especially with the allusions to the Holocaust. Like X-Men, Riggs uses the concept of children with special powers to highlight discrimination and bigotry. In that respect, he’s not doing something new, but having the kids try to navigate throughout different time periods, all the while battling larger, more evil forces made for some gripping reading. My favorite were the first two, the third one being just slightly less interesting – it felt episodic and padded. Tim Burton is making a film from the first novel, and already I see that his screenwriter Jane Goldman has played with some of the plot points, which have elicited angry comments in the comments section of the trailer’s YouTube page. While I’m wary of these changes, too, I’m hoping Burton – who has a great track record – won’t make hash of this book.

I also was on a mini-John Waters break. I’m a fan of his movie work, and now he’s pretty much retired  from movie making, so he’s writing books and traveling the country on his one-man tour. I enjoyed his books – they’re similar in style and humor to his films, though alternative. Role Models is a great look at different people that Waters has run into in his life – people like Little Richard, Cy Twombly, Tennessee Williams, and Leslie Van Houten, are among the people he profiled in the book. Leslie Van Houten is especially sad – Waters recognizes that his fascination with Charles Manson can be seen as morbid and macabre, and he paints a sympathetic, but not white-washed, image of Leslie Van Houten. The Little Richard interview was fascinating because of the rock legend’s rigid need for control over his image. Carsick was interesting in that Waters split the book up into thirds: one part of the book was a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip that goes well, the second part is a fictional account of a hitchhiking trip from hell, and the third is a factual account of Waters’ hitchhiking trip from Baltimore to San Francisco. I thought the book’s structure was a neat gimmick, and the first two parts of the book were pretty funny – especially the disastrous trip. The authentic story in the book was also good, but felt a bit like a let down because the trip wasn’t all that memorable. I did like how respectful he was of the kind locals who picked him up – creative types can be a bit dismissive, if not downright condescending, so it was a relief that he imparted a dignity to everyone he passed by. Crackpot is an earlier piece (I read it almost in one sitting, during a long subway ride out of the city to visit my dad and stepmom), which is a collection of essays on a wide range of topics – celebrities, cities, films, etc. My favorite essay is a crazy interview he conducted with Pia Zadora – I love Pia Zadora for the same reasons everyone else does, she’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous that there is such a thing as Pia Zadora – and though Waters definitely sees the camp value in his subject, he’s not mean and ends the peace on a high note (Zadora’s reinvention from b-movie star and c-list pop star to respected torch singer). I was always a big fan of John Waters’ work, and was sad to learn that he slowly faded from film making. One thing that was interesting was John Waters’ fascination with Christmas: he has a Christmas record and one of the last film he was hoping to put together was a twisted tale of Christmas. I know this because when I bought Crackpot from After-Words New and Used Books (a fantastic bookstore), the kind seller behind the counter shared with me the tidbit about the aborted John Waters Christmas movie.

Earlier in the summer, I blogged about going to see Lindy West and Rebecca Traister at Chicago’s Printers Row Lit Fest. I was prepared for the event and I read both West and Traister – I enjoyed West’s book a lot. I love humor essay collections, and I love funny ladies (nothing greater in the world than a funny dame). West, a comedienne who is married to a stand-up comic, became known for her funny, heartfelt, and emotional response to popular culture, specifically how it shapes women and feminists. The book is very funny, but also quite heartbreaking at times, none more so than when she talked about the stress of battling against the comedy world over the permissive use of rape jokes. She writes about how comedy essentially broke her heart. I love Lindy West’s sharp sense of humor and I laughed out loud many times reading Shrill, so I hope that one day she and comedy can have a healthy reconciliation. Traister is a journalist I’ve been following for a bit now – she wrote a fantastic essay on Hillary Clinton (and I’m currently reading her book on the 2008 elections). All the Single Ladies is more “journo-speak” than Shrill, though it’s still funny and personal at times. It charts the history of married women in the United States and charted the growing number of single women – and what that meant for gender parity.

There were two other feminist books I read this summer: Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once, which is a great takedown of corporate feminism and the commodification of feminism; and Susan Faludi’s engrossing In the Darkroom which chronicled her late-in-life relationship with her estranged father who came out as trans. Zeisler is the editor of Bitch magazine, one of the best sources of media criticism ever (I say this even after I was rejected for writing fellowship). Zeisler takes on this trademark feminism that has sprung up in advertising, television, pop music, and film, and examines how destructive and ultimately emptying a neo-liberal/capitalist takeover of feminism is. In Faludi’s book, we are treated to a difficult father-daughter relationship as she starts to rebuild her tie with her father, who came out as trans at the end of her life. Faludi – whose book Backlash is still required reading according to me – treats her father with great respect, but the book is weighed with the pain she felt when she was younger, hurting because of her father’s abuse. When Faludi shifts away from her interactions with her dad and onto more journalistic writing, the book loses some of its power – I also find it difficult to read trans narratives – particularly criticism or theory on trans issues – when written by cis authors.

Along with Lindy West, I read some other comedic memoir/essay stuff. Jen Kirkman is one of my favorite comediennes of all time. She’s great at skewering popular cultures obsession with motherhood and shaming women into having children. Dave Holmes was an MTV VJ – one I had kind of a crush on – and he writes about his childhood and adolescence, as well as his career trajectory, framed by the titles of pop songs. Faith Salie is an NPR favorite of mine, and I devoured her book, too – I especially loved her writing about her close relationship with her gay brother. The strangest of the comedic memoirs was Tig Notaro’s I’m Just a Person. I almost don’t consider this a comedic memoir, but Notaro’s a comic, so…For anyone who hibernated underneath a rock, Notaro is this fantastic stand-up who had a year of complete hell: her mom died, she had a bacterial infection that landed her in the hospital, her relationship collapsed, and then she was diagnosed with breast cancer. It’s a pretty heavy book, but with some beautiful writing. It’s not light, easy reading, and those who marvel at the brilliance of Notaro’s voice on stage will be floored at her candor and her insight, especially when she writes – with devastating humor – about the reactions of those around her, who want to claim she’s brave and a hero (though she is a comedy hero of mine).

I picked up Flight 232 for a number of reasons. One, I remember hearing a rapturous review, I think on NPR. And two, it’s the inspiration, in part, of one of my favorite films, Peter Wier’s 1993 film Fearless, starring Jeff Bridges, Isabelle Rossellini, and Rosie Perez. United Airlines Flight 232 was an airplane that crashed in July of 1989 – it was a catastrophic crash landing that killed 111 people. The miraculous thing about the incident was that 185 people survived the crash, mainly due to the work of the pilots, flight attendants, and heroic passengers who helped each other. It’s a heavy book to read and obviously not a fun one – but Gonzales has done some exhaustive research and was able to piece together a compelling work that often read like a novel. And he maintained a dignified restraint, eschewing dramatic or gory language that would feel exploitative, given the subject matter.

When I found Dave Holmes’ book, I initially though it would be essays about music. Kris Kirk’s  A Boy Called Mary is a collection of essays about pop music and its intersection with UK queer culture in the 1980s. So much of queer culture in the 1980s was wrapped up in pop music, which was at its gayest. He interviews various pop stars, including Dusty Springfield, Erasure, Bronski Beat, and Boy George, and he writes about AIDS, drugs, gay rights, drag. It’s a fantastic book – one of my favorite. Kirk later would die from AIDS and he became a folk hero of sorts because he was one of the first people in the UK to come out as being HIV+.

Wendy E. Simmons’ My Holiday in North Korea was a great read. Funny, harrowing, and sobering. I picked it up after reading about Otto Warmbier, the college student who got 15 years of hard labor, after being arrested in North Korea for trying to steal a poster from the hotel in which he was staying. Warmbier’s plight broke my heart, but I ‘m ashamed to admit, I wondered “what kind of person wants to visit North Korea?” Which is super racist and super xenophobic on my part, because all I know of North Korea is from Western media that portrayed the country as some kind of far-away monster. Simmons’ book is useful because it shines a spotlight on a country that everyone seems to have an opinion on, but hardly anyone has actually visited it. Her stories of her trip are interesting in that she writes about traveling in a country that is highly restrictive and under a government that is highly controlling. There’s just the right amount of gallows humor to make the book as fun a read as possible (we are talking about North Korea, after all).

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