Friday, January 13, 2017

Book Review: The Penguin Book of Women's Humor

Happy Friday the Thirteenth, Gentle Readers...

A Fair Trade Book 

Title: The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor

Editor: Regina Barreca

Editor's web page:

Date: 1996

Publisher: Penguin

ISBN: 0-14-017-294-7

Length: 649 pages of text, 7 pages of credits

Quote: “It must be built not of carved stone and stained glass, but of some cheap, easily combustible material which does not hoard dust and per­petrate traditions. Do not have chapels. Do not have museums and libraries with chained books and first editions under glass cases.Let the pictures and the books be new and always changing. Let it be decorated afresh by each generation with their own hands cheaply. The work of the living is cheap; often they will give it for the sake of being allowed to do it.”

This little burst of temper (by Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas) seems to have been taken seriously in too many schools and libraries today, and is the main reason why The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor is out of print. When Thomas Jefferson proposed that laws and cultural traditions should be subject to reevaluation and possible rejection by each generation, he presupposed that responsible citizens—by whom he meant educated people—would understand the value of history. So, in her saner moments, did Virginia Woolf; this little scream of rancor must be considered an early symptom of the frenzied swirl of “negative emotions,” incapable of rational thought, that would later drive her to drown herself.

Tragically, like other obvious symptoms of psychosis such as self-mutilation, delusions of “hearing voices,” and identifying with famous people living or dead in more than a whimsical or metaphoric way, the urge to purge is commonplace enough to form whole communities of sick, angry, violent people. Barreca identified Woolf’s screech as humor, which it may have been. 

Barreca knows (as did Woolf, when she was closer to a normal state of mind) that useful social changes, like the idea that women deserved equal pay for equal work, are made by preserving and carefully studying history, and even statistics. Violent upheavals, urges toward purges, are characteristic of sick and dying creatures—including sick or dying civilizations. Before the urge to gut libraries and curricula, to replace studies of historic documents with “studies” of celebrity gossip, had really become conspicuous, perhaps people could agree that it was so preposterous as to be funny.

But that’s only one paragraph among 649 pages of every kind of comic and satiric writing, most of which has never been taken seriously and so remains hilarious.

The mood of the 1990s, as well as Barreca’s personal political bias, becomes obvious after one has read all the way through this book a few times. Each individual selection is funny, to men as well as women. In the belief that he was using listening and muscle relaxation to keep stubborn hypertension from turning into cardiovascular disease, my husband had me read most of this book aloud to him, a few pages at a time. It didn’t keep his hypertension from finally becoming recognizable as multiple myeloma, and he said a few of the one-liners sounded more peevish than funny, but by and large he enjoyed The Penguin Book of Women’s Humor. It takes a good long time to have drained enough of the laughter-producing (and therapeutic) value out of this book that you notice a bias.

Nevertheless, some bias does appear after you’ve stopped laughing and begun analyzing. Barreca was part of the twentieth century’s left-wing feminist movement. Penguin’s assignment would have required her to pick the pearls out of the historic books by women to which Penguin, the paperback reprinter, had acquired rights; this means that some “conservative” and “domestic” women writers, e.g. Jean Kerr and Phyllis McGinley, are included. Contemporary women writers whose work was still being sold by its first publishers, e.g. Sue Townsend, aren’t included, and women of the recent past whose work has been kept alive by its first publishers, e.g. Laura Ingalls Wilder, aren’t included, regardless of their political orientation. If you were looking for one of Ayn Rand’s satirical barbs, or a funny story from Kathleen Norris’s then bestselling books, or Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s contemporary observations of the time in which Jubilee is set, or Bailey White’s NPR performances, or even any reflection of the most recent books by the authors Barreca appreciates most, keep looking; those books were not available to Penguin.

But, although you might have laughed more often and more heartily over McGinley’s essays than you did over Linda Stasi’s, Barreca still gives you page after page by Stasi and only one poem by McGinley; several variations on a theme Fay Weldon used best—“She set herself against [oppressive traditional notions of] God”—and no mention of Madeleine L’Engle’s “Had Mary been filled with reason / There’d have been no room for the Child.” Virginia Woolf, who appealed most to “revolutionary” or “Jacobin” readers when she voiced their form of insanity, strikes Barreca as funny; P.L. Travers or Dinah Maria Mulock-Craik, whose essays for adults must surely have been available to Penguin, do not. Mary Daly strikes Barreca as funny; Teresa Bloomingdale does not. And so on.

This does not mean that people who weren’t on the left wing in the twentieth century won’t enjoy this book; it just means that, whether or not you had any political opinion in the twentieth century, or were even able to read in the twentieth century, this book leaves a lot of funny writing by women still waiting for you.

To buy it here, send $5 per book, $5 per package, and $1 per online payment to the address at the very bottom of the screen. (Yes, Saloli is the "Message Squirrel" that routes legitimate requests for merchandise to the appropriate, Paypal-linked address.) If you want two copies or want to add a book to the package with this one, send $15 or $16. The Penguin Book of Women's Humor is fat enough (although appropriately light) that only two books of this size will fit into a package, but you could add more than one book if the others are small and thin. For any and all Fair Trade Books in the package, we'll send $1, or 10% of the cost of the book plus shipping charge, to the author(s) or a charity(ies) of her (or their) choice(s).