We go from the serious to the slapstick in this month’s set of books we’ve read recently and loved.
In on the Joke by Shawn Levy
Today, women are ascendant in stand-up comedy, even preeminent. They make headlines, fill arenas, spawn blockbuster movies. But before Amy Schumer slayed, Tiffany Haddish killed, and Ali Wong drew roars, the very idea of a female comedian seemed, to most of America, like a punch line. And it took a special sort of woman—indeed, a parade of them—to break and remake the mold.
In on the Joke is the story of a group of unforgettable women who knocked down the doors of stand-up comedy so other women could get a shot. It spans decades, from Moms Mabley’s rise in Black vaudeville between the world wars, to the roadhouse ribaldry of Belle Barth and Rusty Warren in the 1950s and ’60s, to Elaine May’s co-invention of improv comedy, to Joan Rivers’s and Phyllis Diller’s ferocious ascent to mainstream stardom. These women refused to be defined by type and tradition, facing down indifference, puzzlement, nay-saying, and unvarnished hostility. They were discouraged by agents, managers, audiences, critics, fellow performers—even their families. And yet they persevered against the tired notion that women couldn’t be funny, making space not only for themselves, but for the women who followed them.
Hammer by Joe Mungo Reed
It’s 2013, and much of the world still reels from the global economic collapse. Yet in the auction rooms of London, artworks are selling for record-breaking prices. Seeking a place in this gilded world is Martin, a junior specialist at a prestigious auction house. Martin spends his days catering to the whims of obscenely wealthy clients and his nights drinking in grubby pubs with his demoralized roommate. However, a chance meeting with Marina, an old university friend, presents Martin with a chance to change everything.
Pursuing distraction from her failing marriage and from a career she doesn’t quite believe in, Marina draws Martin into her circle and that of her husband, Oleg, an art-collecting oligarch. Shaken by the death of his mother and chafing against his diminishing influence in his homeland, Oleg appears primed to change his own life—and perhaps to relinquish his priceless art collection long coveted by London’s auction houses. Martin is determined to secure the sale and transform his career. But his ambitions are threatened by factors he hasn’t reckoned with: a dangerous attraction between himself and Marina, and half-baked political plans through which Oleg aims to redeem himself and Russia but which instead imperil the safety of the oligarch and all those around him.
Black Ghost of Empire by Kris Manjapra
To understand why the shadow of slavery still haunts society today, we must not only look at what slavery was, but also the unfinished way it ended. One may think of “emancipation” as a finale, leading to a new age of human rights and universal freedoms. But in reality, emancipations everywhere were incomplete. In Black Ghost of Empire, acclaimed historian and professor Kris Manjapra identifies five types of emancipation—explaining them in chronological order—along with the lasting impact these transitions had on formerly enslaved groups around the Atlantic.
Beginning in 1770s and concluding in 1880s, different kinds of emancipation processes took place across the Atlantic world. These included the Gradual Emancipations of North America, the Revolutionary Emancipation of Haiti, the Compensated Emancipations of European overseas empires, the War Emancipation of the American South, and the Conquest Emancipations that swept across Sub-Saharan Africa. Tragically, despite a century of abolitions and emancipations, systems of social bondage persisted and reconfigured. We still live with these unfinished endings today. In practice, all the slavery emancipations that have ever taken place reenacted racial violence against Black communities, and reaffirmed commitment to white supremacy. The devil lurked in the details of the five emancipation processes, none of which required atonement for wrongs committed, or restorative justice for the people harmed.
Slow Horses by Nick Herron
London, England: Slough House is where washed-up MI5 spies go to while away what’s left of their failed careers. The “slow horses,” as they’re called, have all disgraced themselves in some way to get relegated there. Maybe they botched an Op so badly they can’t be trusted anymore. Maybe they got in the way of an ambitious colleague and had the rug yanked out from under them. Maybe they just got too dependent on the bottle—not unusual in this line of work. One thing they have in common, though, is they want to be back in the action. And most of them would do anything to get there─even if it means having to collaborate with one another.
When a young man is abducted and his kidnappers threaten to broadcast his beheading live on the Internet, the slow horses see an opportunity to redeem themselves. But is the victim really who he appears to be?
Some of My Best Friends by Tajja Isen
In this stunning debut collection, award-winning voice actor and cultural critic Tajja Isen explores the absurdity of living in a world that has grown fluent in the language of social justice but doesn’t always follow through.
These nine daring essays explore the sometimes troubling and often awkward nature of that discord. Some of My Best Friends takes on subjects including the cartoon industry’s pivot away from color-blindcasting, the pursuit of diverse representation in the literary world, the law’s refusal to see inequality, and the cozy fictions of nationalism. Throughout, Isen deftly examines the quick, cosmetic fixes society makes to address systemic problems and reveals the unexpected ways they can misfire.
In the spirit of Zadie Smith, Cathy Park Hong and Jia Tolentino, Isen interlaces cultural criticism with her lived experience to explore the gaps between what we say and what we do, what we do and what we value, and what we value and what we demand.
Cleopatra and Frankenstein by Coco Mellors
Twenty-four-year-old British painter Cleo has escaped from England to New York and is still finding her place in the sleepless city when, a few months before her student visa ends, she meets Frank. Twenty years older and a self-made success, Frank’s life is full of all the excesses Cleo’s lacks. He offers her the chance to be happy, the freedom to paint, and the opportunity to apply for a Green Card. But their impulsive marriage irreversibly changes both their lives, and the lives of those close to them, in ways they never could’ve predicted.
Each compulsively readable chapter explores the lives of Cleo, Frank, and an unforgettable cast of their closest friends and family as they grow up and grow older. Whether it’s Cleo’s best friend struggling to embrace his gender queerness in the wake of Cleo’s marriage, or Frank’s financially dependent sister arranging sugar daddy dates to support herself after being cut off, or Cleo and Frank themselves as they discover the trials of marriage and mental illness, each character is as absorbing, and painfully relatable, as the last.
Little Foxes Took Up Matches by Katya Kazbek
When Mitya was two years old, he swallowed his grandmother’s sewing needle. For his family, it marks the beginning of the end, the promise of certain death. For Mitya, it is a small, metal treasure that guides him from within. As he grows, his life mirrors the uncertain future of his country, which is attempting to rebuild itself after the collapse of the Soviet Union, torn between its past and the promise of modern freedom. Mitya finds himself facing a different sort of ambiguity: is he a boy, as everyone keeps telling him, or is he not quite a boy, as he often feels?
After suffering horrific abuse from his cousin Vovka who has returned broken from war, Mitya embarks on a journey across underground Moscow to find something better, a place to belong. His experiences are interlaced with a retelling of a foundational Russian fairytale, Koschei the Deathless, offering an element of fantasy to the brutal realities of Mitya’s everyday life.
Build Your House Around my Body by Violet Kupersmith
Two young women go missing decades apart. Both are fearless, both are lost. And both will have their revenge.
1986: The teenage daughter of a wealthy Vietnamese family loses her way in an abandoned rubber plantation while fleeing her angry father and is forever changed.
2011: A young, unhappy Vietnamese American woman disappears from her new home in Saigon without a trace.
The fates of these two women are inescapably linked, bound together by past generations, by ghosts and ancestors, by the history of possessed bodies and possessed lands. Alongside them, we meet a young boy who is sent to a boarding school for the métis children of French expatriates, just before Vietnam declares its independence from colonial rule; two Frenchmen who are trying to start a business with the Vietnam War on the horizon; and the employees of the Saigon Spirit Eradication Co., who find themselves investigating strange occurrences in a farmhouse on the edge of a forest. Each new character and timeline brings us one step closer to understanding what binds them all.
The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan
If every war needs its master chronicler, Ukraine has Serhiy Zhadan, one of Europe’s most promising novelists. Recalling the brutal landscape of The Road and the wartime storytelling of A Farewell to Arms, The Orphanage is a searing novel that excavates the human collateral damage wrought by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. When hostile soldiers invade a neighboring city, Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives, now in occupied territory. Venturing into combat zones, traversing shifting borders, and forging uneasy alliances along the way, Pasha realizes where his true loyalties lie in an increasingly desperate fight to rescue Sasha and bring him home.
Written with a raw intensity, this is a deeply personal account of violence that will be remembered as the definitive novel of the war in Ukraine.
Vigil Harbor by Julia Glass
A decade from now, in the historic town of Vigil Harbor, there is a rash of divorces among the yacht-club set, a marine biologist despairs at the state of the world, a spurned wife is bent on revenge, and the renowned architect Austin Kepner pursues a passion for building homes designed to withstand the escalating fury of relentless storms. Austin’s stepson, Brecht, has dropped out of college in New York and returned home after narrowly escaping one of the terrorist acts that, like hurricanes, have become increasingly common.
Then two strangers arrive: a stranded traveler with subversive charms and a widow seeking clues about a past lover with ties to Austin—a woman who may have been more than merely human. These strangers and their hidden motives come together unexpectedly in an incident that endangers lives—including Brecht’s—with dramatic repercussions for the entire town.