Joan of bark: Rivers' new book spares no one

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This book cover image released by Berkley shows "I Hate Everyone...Starting with Me," by Joan Rivers. (AP Photo/Berkley)
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"I Hate Everyone ... Starting With Me" (Berkley), by Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers' tongue is as sharp as her plastic surgeon's scalpel, and she holds nothing back in her latest book, "I Hate Everyone ... Starting With Me."

Few have worked as long and hard at show business as Rivers, who at nearly 79 (her birthday is Friday) stars in two TV shows, runs thriving jewelry and beauty businesses, and still finds time to travel, perform and write.

Comedy's grand dame wrote best-selling memoirs long before publishers began dispensing celebrity book deals to anyone strolling a red carpet. Her new book is a series of humorous observations about people and circumstances that annoy her. Rivers' signature sarcasm starts on page 1 (she dedicates the book to Son of Sam killer David Berkowitz and O.J. Simpson) and carries through to the insulting end acknowledgments.

The vitriolic tone of the book is so over the top, it could only be satire, but some jabs cross the line and may make readers cringe instead of cackle. Rivers uses her pen as an automatic weapon, firing jokes on the page, with little prose in between. The zingers are packed so tightly, you have to wonder if she's getting paid by the punch line.

While many clever musings succeed ("If God wanted me to cook, my hands would be made of aluminum"), others feel tired, and after a few chapters, the unrelenting negativity becomes tedious.

Rivers is at her best when she commiserates about experiences that irritate us all. Who doesn't hate double dippers, nose pickers, annoying parents and people who talk during movies?

Clearly not mellowed by age, Rivers stays relevant. Her use of foul language and raunchy, graphic descriptions of genitalia belie her grandma-in-Chanel-suit persona. (Many of the funniest quotes are too obscene to print here.)

The book is also chock-full of contemporary pop culture references, with digs at everyone from Snooki to the Kardashians to cougars. "I hate women who date much younger men. I don't ever want to wake up in the morning and wonder, Is this my date or did I give birth last night?"

When Rivers says she hates everyone, she means it. She fearlessly mocks third rail historical figures including Ghandi, Anne Frank and Jesus. At points, she overreaches and may lose even the most politically incorrect readers. Her wrath — aimed at traditionally off-limit targets like cancer survivors and 9/11 victims — isn't amusing, it just feels mean.

Defenders may say she stays true to her art by pushing buttons. What's missing here is balance. In previous works, Rivers combined her caustic approach to life with honesty and vulnerability. We know she's as tough as her gel-manicured nails, but she's written about her painful struggles as a pioneer comedian, working mother and widow after her husband's suicide. Her human side inspires and empowers fans to survive challenges through laughter. "I Hate Everyone" lacks that compassion.

One look at the scores of venomous comments reacting to almost any story online and it's clear there's no shortage of haters. Rivers' persistent pessimism may be trying too hard to appeal to that crowd. She can hate everyone, but she doesn't have to be offensive to be funny. She's asking readers to swallow a bitter pill with this book. She'd better hope they don't choke.