Funny Girls

Three Jewish women humorists bring light and lightness to the end of 2010.

12/28/2010
Jewish Week Book Critic
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This was a year of growth for the e-book and flourishing for the Jewish American novel, with fine new fiction across the generations.

Two of the greatest American Jewish novelists, Cynthia Ozick (“Foreign Bodies”) and Philip Roth (“Nemesis”) published new books, as did younger writers Nicole Krauss (“Great House”), Gary Shteyngart (“Super Sad True Love Story”), Steve Stern (“The Frozen Rabbi”), Joseph Skibell (“A Curable Romantic”) and Israeli writer David Grossman (“To the End of the Land”). And two important writers published posthumously, Henry Roth (“An American Type”) and Milton Steinberg (“The Prophet’s Wife”).

In Jewish humor, Joel Chasnoff chronicled his experiences serving in the Israeli army (“The 188th Crybaby Brigade”), and Sam Hoffman, along with Eric Spiegelman, brought readers a print version of their popular website launched almost two years ago, “Old Jews Telling Jokes: 5,000 Years of Funny Bits and Not-so-Kosher Jokes.”

Three Jewish women humorists bring light and lightness to the end of 2010. They don’t tell jokes with punch lines per se but share stories. The word Jewish rarely appears in two of the books, but their humor is born of the self-reflection typical of Jewish comics. They write with a bold combination of sarcasm and intimacy, fearlessness and feminism, self-deprecation and chutzpah, with some of their humor born of pain, or at least a little discomfort. All write autobiographically, each in a different format – brief essays, comics and verse. They are preoccupied with, among other things, relationships and coming of age, whatever the age, and memory.

Nora Ephron remembers more than she lets on. She looks back with candor on the beginnings of her career as a journalist, her sisters (she’s the oldest of four), things she cares about (“What I Won’t Miss”) and things she doesn’t in “I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections” (Knopf). And she writes of her marriage and divorce in the early 1970s from Carl Bernstein, which she depicted in the book and film “Heartburn.”

“The past is slipping away,” she writes, “and the present is a constant affront. I can’t possibly keep up. When I was younger, I managed to overcome my resistance to new things. After a short period of negativity, I flung myself at the Cuisinart food processor. I was curious about technology. I became a champion of e-mail and blogs — I found them romantic; I even made movies about them. But now I believe that almost anything new has been put on the earth in order to make me feel bad about my dwindling memory…”

Vanessa Davis draws colorful comic strips and black-and-white sketches, with the hand-lettered text as narration and word balloons. Her new book, “Make me a Woman” (Drawn & Quarterly) depicts her adventures at a Jewish day school, where she spent her days with the same eight girls and six boys from pre-K through sixth grade, about her relationship with her mother, dating and romance (and its dark underside), attending Fat Camp and episodes with her sister, friends and gentile boyfriend.

This is the most Jewish of the three titles, with references to Purim, the Jewish film festival her mother runs in Palm Beach, Fla., the “East Coast Jewishness” she grew up with, and, in ways overt and less so, her own Jewish identity. She tells of how her father died the year she stopped going to shul on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, and how she irrationally connected the two things. A few panels later, she writes, “I feel lucky to have been brought up in this broad-minded Judaism, that lets me belong, even when I pull away.”

Davis, who lives in Santa Rosa, Calif., is very open about her life and the choices she makes. The drawings — many are watercolors, with much expressiveness and amusing details — were made between 2004 and 2010, while Davis was in her 20s, and are set in places she lived: Florida, New York and California.

In one strip, her friend tells Davis that she has the best stories: “You are always in the funniest situations! The craziest things happen to you!” Davis replies, “Eh, funny stuff happens to everyone. I just remember it more.”

Judith Viorst remembers “running boards, Victrolas, Frigidaires/And when the really, really rich were merely millionaires/And when it still was legal to start classes with school prayers,” as she recounts in her poem “How I Know I’m Old.”

Viorst, who’s about to turn 80, has chronicled much of her life in humorous verse, with “It’s Hard to be Hip Over Thirty and Other Tragedies of Married Life,” “How Did I Get to be Forty and Other Atrocities,” “I’m Too Young to Be Seventy and Other Delusions“ and others. She’s also the author of the huge best-selling children’s book, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” and the serious nonfiction book, “Necessary Losses.” Her latest book, “Unexpectedly Eighty: and Other Adaptations” (Free Press) continues her tradition of wisely noticing everything about everyday life and the people around her, complaining and counting her blessings, in poetry. For her, the proverbial glass is more full than empty, and there’s probably something amusing about the water inside.

I recently heard her interviewed on National Public Radio, and she sounds more “Suddenly Sixty”—another of her titles — than “Unexpectedly Eighty.” But as she says in the book’s title poem, even as she and her friends try what they can to “slow down time’s sands” and tell plausible lies about their ages, they grasp that “the years that remain are in shorter and shorter supply.” She writes, “Eighty is not the new sixty/Eighty is eighty.”

Reading a poem about her mother, “Jane Ruth,” Viorst is funny and tender. The litany of her mother’s friends, evokes another era: “I remember Lottie and Dottie and Tillie and Yetta and Pearl/The women you called “the girls” and I called “aunts,”/Chattering on our screened-in porch.”

Viorst lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband, political writer, Milton Viorst, who appears in many of the poems. “He knows when he goes for his CAT scan that I’ll gladly take him/I know when I go for some blood work he’ll come and he’ll wait/These are not like those torrid times on that beach in New Jersey/But a date is a date.”

Whether sharing her hopes about the afterlife or driving at night, Viorst’s poetry is ultimately life affirming. Readers closer to turning 30 or 40 or 50 will still appreciate her take on maturing, remembering and laughing at herself. In “Status Report,” she declares that her battery is still charged. “Too old to dream/Too old to flirt/To old to sit and dish the dirt/Too old to drink/Too old to pet/Too old to boogie/Not quite yet.”

And, in the book’s opening poem, illustrated with a bottle of wine on ice, with the long line title, “One Hallmark of Maturity is Having the Capacity to Hold Two Opposing Ideas in Your Head at Once,” she closes with these verses:

A new moon’s arriving.

Sinatra is jiving.

My husband is holding my hand.

The white wine is chilling.

 

I’m still alive

It’s positively thrilling.

 

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