Uganda Be Kidding Me by Chelsea Handler
Review by Kathryn Lackey
As a guilty fan of Chelsea Handler’s previous books, her new collection of short stories Uganda Be Kidding Me came off as a disappointment. The same uncensored humor is still there, from uncontrollable bowels, to redheads, to unapologetic sex. But what has changed from her last books to this one? The answer seems to be a whole bunch of money.
Uganda Be Kidding Me suffers from a loss of the reader’s ability to relate with the narrator. From funny childhood mishaps to her party lifestyle in Los Angeles, Handler’s last books presented a narrator that happily took the role of what may be best described as a comical drunk whore. This character emboldened women by proudly proclaiming both promiscuity and independence. Her new book however, depicts a character with only shadows of the former protagonist, replacing her with something more like rich bitch.
Handler’s story “Telluride” opens with her describing her new opulent lifestyle. She insists that “brewing a pot of coffee, or peeling an orange” are tasks that she no longer participates in, taken over instead by a mélange of caretakers. In the story, she buys her dog walker a house with a yard, in order for him to adopt a misbehaving puppy she no longer wants. This seems like an interesting choice for how she spends money, but not yet grossly appalling. Unfortunately, the story then progresses into an argument Handler is having with her friend Brad about the implications of privately flying her dog to New York. I found myself aghast. Is she really spending her money flying her dogs by themselves on private planes? And second, how is this funny? We expect Handler to be shocking, but this is not funny in the same pleasurable way of her previous books.
Underlying this book is also a misanthropic sourness towards her fans. In her story, “Trapped in Bel Air” Handler is sitting at the end of her driveway waiting to be picked up for brunch when her neighbor stops to get an autograph for her nine-year-old daughter. After Handler “glare[s]” and “fake-smile[s],” she grudgingly acquiesces to the few minutes of tremendous signature-signing burden. I don’t pretend to know the trials or tribulations of being a celebrity, but to include, in multiple stories, how annoying she finds her fans seems to be an odd tactic, considering her books are read by these exact people.
But if these fans want an inside look at Handler’s life, this is made especially easy given the collection of pictures included in her new book. I found these added, rather than detracted, from the content. Most pictures are entertaining; especially the various squatting poses as she relieves herself in the outback in her African safari stories, “Out of Afrika” and “Camp Dumbo.” Since a lot of her stories are told through strings of dialogue, often as series of partially incongruent thoughts without substantial detail or scene development, the readers can depend on the pictures to create a little of this for us.
There are some redeeming features of Uganda Be Kidding Me. It makes for a quick read and her stories, while lacking, are still fun. When she does take a break from the monotonous dialogue, her descriptions are expectedly crass and delightfully entertaining. In her story “Camp Dumbo,” she describes a guide at an African safari camp, saying, “Corbin was like a human calzone.” She goes on to say:
I imagined the phone in his house ringing and him running from the kitchen to answer it in nothing but that Hawaiian shirt and a pair of tube socks with his dick swinging around like a ceiling fan, and in one hand holding a tube of Velveeta.
This example of her creative imagination represents her forte in her work. Her ability to pull humor into almost every thought is a talent to be envious of.
Maybe what we want from Handler is a little more genuine depth. In her short story “The Bahamas,” she has a jarring paragraph that speaks briefly of her brother’s death, but then the story moves quickly on without developing her thoughts. Undoubtedly, there is more to Handler than the heaps of money and fame, but she isn’t willing to share that side of her. Perhaps it’s the inability to develop this depth that makes her book unfortunately fall flat.