Book review: “Fast Funny Women: 75 Essays of Flash Nonfiction,” edited by Gina Barreca Previous item Poem: Robot factory Next item Book review: “Everyman” by...

Book review: “Fast Funny Women: 75 Essays of Flash Nonfiction,” edited by Gina Barreca

Some of the 75 essays of flash nonfiction in Fast Funny Women have punchlines, such as “Binging on Ozark” by cartoonist/writer Nicole Hollander. It’s a piece that has to do with her often dysfunctional (on her part) relationship with her close friend Sandy.

Like the rest of the book’s essays, Hollander’s is only about 750 words, so she gets into the story, tells it with dispatch and then gets to the end where the reader, in the last few words, gets a surprise twist that both widens and ties up the tiny tale.

With its punchline, the Hollander story is like a stand-up comedian’s joke. Most of the Fast Funny Women essays, however, aren’t so laugh-out-loud.  Instead, they tend to be wry takes on the many aspects of life as a modern woman.

For instance, sisters.

Novelist Jo-Ann Mapson’s piece is titled “My Loving Sisters,” and, in her few hundred words, she makes it evident, with clear and clever restraint, that these older women are bitches from hell.  It opens:

“My earliest memory is of bedtime, and hearing my sister whisper, ‘There’s a tiger under your bed!’  The repetition drove me to tears that earned me a slap across the face by my mother.”

With a light touch, Mapson details decades of smiling torture at hands of her two siblings and ends:

“I invited the tiger into my life and sent my sisters out the door.  The tiger is my beloved confidante.  We conquer this motherf—ing world every day.”

Hara Estroff Marano, a Psychology Today editor, opens her essay:

“I have a bold confession to make.  Although I have conceived and given birth to two sons, I never lost my virginity.

“No, I know exactly what I did with it.”

What happened when she was 19 with “a really interesting grad student” isn’t Marano’s subject.  It’s what society has long imposed on such an event — that, through it, she “lost” something or simply “lost.”  That it is socially acceptable for the guy to crow about what has occurred, but the girl is expected to mourn.  As Marano writes with deep sarcasm:

“If we misplace our own virginity — something that’s integrally a part of us — how can we dithering creatures possibly hope to manage anything else of value?  We just can’t be trusted to get important things right.  At bottom, we’re all just a bunch of dumb broads.”

This isn’t laugh-out-loud funny.  This is nod-your-head-ruefully funny. 

Textured and nuanced

Like Marano and Mapson, a goodly number of other writers are fueled by anger, often at the cluelessness of men.  Yet, Fast Funny Women is much more textured and nuanced than a mob of snarky screeds against the male of the species.

There are two heartfelt, whimsical and, yes, droll obituaries of well-loved fathers — “Obituary” by Monique Heller and “Love Language” by Kari Collins.

There is the tale of some strange roommates — “Stranger Roommates” — in which Erica Buehler writes near the end: “Even the odd experiences build character.  I may have too much character now, to be honest.”

There is Mimi Pond’s story “Whole Cloth” about learning to love the vast cosmos of fabrics while reading wedding announcements with her grandmother — and not just fabrics:

“Maybe I was hooked when my grandmother showed me the sense of promise in the yardage department at JCPenny — so many colors and patterns and textures! The trims and ribbons, buttons and thread, zippers and snaps were called NOTIONS.  The pattern books transported you to a heretofore-unknown world of style and glamor…”

Harrowing

One story deals with a situation that could be burlesqued to the max, but, as Dawn Lundy Martin tells it, it’s downright harrowing.  It starts:

“Sometimes — it happens — you might lose a tampon in your vagina and not even know it until the evidence beseeches you.  No one wants to talk about it.”

In “How to Remove a Lost Tampon,” Martin, a poet, writes about her frantic, fevered efforts to figure out what to do when she discovers her problem in a cab on the way to the Mexico City airport.  Finally, she succeeds but only through psychic distance:

“In order to keep steadfast, I leave my body.  The ‘I’ is floating in some other space, and the body is breathing and heaving quietly…It is a kind of prayer: Release me.”

Common human experiences

A few of Fast Funny Women essays seem more interested in instructing readers in self-care or self-esteem than in finding the comic wrinkles of even awful moments, but they’re far outnumbered by writers who want to entertain and connect with readers — even men — through common human experiences.

Who, after all, would be unable to resonate with a first-date story?  Especially when Lisa Nic an Bhreithmh’s “My First Date…With a Girl” is told with such sweetness, innocence and euphoria?

I also particularly liked novelist Alison Umminger’s “On Being a Contrarian” in which she explains:

“I am a late adapter, a skeptic, a back-talker, an audible-sigh-of-a-human-being.  I am evidently remembered (fondly?) for inquiring at an English department meeting as a new hire whether everyone in the room was ‘smoking crack.’ ”

Indeed, I liked the essay so much that I ordered one of Umminger’s novels.  I also liked the essay by 84-year-old Ilene “Gingy” Beckerman with advice on being an elderly woman in which she urges the use of makeup and notes, “Helen Mirren doesn’t look like Helen Mirren before makeup.”  After reading this piece, I ordered Beckerman’s memoir Love, Loss, and What I Wore.

“Further information”

That’s a danger of a book such as Fast Funny Women.  You end up learning about a lot of very witty writers, and it can wreak havoc on your book budget.

One writer in the collection I already knew was Jane Smiley, and I’ve read many of her novels — the best of which, to my mind, is The Greenlanders.  In any case, maybe because I’ve met her in person, I was totally delighted with her contributor’s bio in the back of the book:

“Jane Smiley is 6’2” and seventy years old.  She has written more books than she can keep track of and has enjoyed four husbands.  Her children would like her to keep further information to herself.”

Patrick T. Reardon

5.9.21

This review was originally published 3.1.21 at Third Coast Review.

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