Monday, November 07, 2005

Bring on the Funny

Okay, I'm aware that I've been blogging the bejeebus out of everything except books these days. Want to know why? I believe my feelings about the books I've been reading recently are best summed up with the following emoticon:


I've been putting off writing about it because some of these are books that were kindly recommended back when I was bitching about the fact that there are so few funny authors out there. And I didn't want to hurt anyone's feelings. So before you read any further, promise me you won't feel bad, okay? It's not you, it's me.
Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett (#44)
Now, this book was
kind of fun. It takes place in a magical land called Discworld where the wizards are doofuses and the witches are sardonic and the general citizenry is amusingly dim-witted.

The premise of the story is that elves -- which live in a parallel dimension -- are trying to get into the Discworld dimension, and they're not very nice... if you take "not very nice" to mean that they steal babies and eat people and make a general nuisance of themselves. The fate of Discworld is in the hands of three witches. I'll leave you there.

The story had all the classic fantasy trappings. There are trolls and unicorns, and I believe there may also be dragons, though I can't be one hundred percent sure of that. And Pratchett puts a nice absurdist spin on these elements, which made me think of him as a sort of
Piers Anthony for grown-ups.

But when I finished
Lords and Ladies (and I'll grant that the second half of the novel rollicked along in a satisfying way), it didn't make me want to shout from the rooftops or race to pick up the other Pratchett novel, Monstrous Regiment, that I'd also checked out of the library. And when I think back, I don't remember even smirking once while reading it, much less being surprised into laughing aloud, which is one of the most satisfying feelings I can think of.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (incomplete; status unlikely to change)
I just couldn't get into this at all. I liked the whole "literal underworld" element and wished that I knew London better so that I could appreciate the clever parallel mapping of the two worlds, but that was about it. The main character felt like an obvious take on
Arthur Dent, in being a regular schlub who is irrevocably trapped in a completely foreign environment, but I just didn't care what happened to him, or to Door, or to any of the other characters.

Do you hate me yet? No? Keep reading.
Frisco Pigeon Mambo by C.D. Payne (#45)
For a 180-degree change of perspective, I turned to this book, a sort of
Richard-Adams-by-way-of-Bukowski story about a group of pigeons who get released from a test lab where they're accustomed to drinking sherry and smoking cigarettes. And they all believe they're human.

The story follows the reluctant escapees -- led by the narrator, Robin, who has a tendency to channel
Sam Spade in moments of stress -- in their attempts to get back to the lab, incidentally wreaking havoc on the entire city of San Francisco in a series of increasingly bizarre events.

Payne is good at constructing outlandish plots, but his efforts here put me in mind of his hugely superior novel, Youth in Revolt, which I read a few years ago. looooved, and recommended to everyone I knew.
Frisco Pigeon Mambo just didn't measure up.


Right now I'm trying to get into
Jasper Fforde's Lost in a Good Book but, notwithstanding the fact that I'm in love with his name, I'm just not feeling it. And man, there's something so depressing about reading an ostensibly funny book and not getting it. It's like the time a few years back that Rusty was in southeast Asia for six straight weeks, so I was already sad and lonely and then I got sick and stayed home from work and rented two movies: Eyes Wide Shut, because I wanted to see what all the hubbub was about, and Dog Park, because I thought it'd be a good idea to have something funny on hand to watch after the Kubrick film and any movie featuring Janeane Garofalo, Bruce McCullough, and Luke Wilson must be funny, right? And so I watched Eyes Wide Shut and it was a downer, but I was expecting that so I could roll with it. But then I watched Dog Park and when it was over and I hadn't even smiled once, I cried.

What was I talking about? I forget. Anyway, by now you're probably sitting there all, "Whatever, Judgey McJerkypants. Why don't you name some funny books then." Alrighty then.

I judge a book to be funny when it surprises me by making me laugh out loud. When it compels me to pester Rusty incessantly with, "Oh my god... okay, now let me read you THIS part." When I need to foist it on everyone I know because I simply cannot stand the thought that they exist another day without experiencing the sheer unadulterated FUNNINESS of this book.

Given these criteria, here are the funniest books I've ever read:

  • Forrest Gump by Winston Groom -- Of course, no one will touch this book since the movie came out. Their loss. It's a thousand times weirder -- and darker -- than the movie, and there's even an orangutan named Sue, who accompanies Forrest on a space mission (yes, that is correct)! I laughed my ass off many, many times.
  • Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams -- It's probably blasphemous to say this, but I think this book contains some of Adams's best, funniest writing. This non-fiction account of Adams's quest to see several endangered species in their natural environment is absolutely brilliant and quite touching, to boot. His description of the mating habits of the kakapo, a fat, flightless species of parrot, is one of the funniest things I've read. Ever.
  • The Code of the Woosters by P.G. Wodehouse -- To my mind, this novel is the jewel in Wodehouse's crown. All my favourite characters are here -- Bertie, Jeeves, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Madeline Bassett, Aunt Dahlia, Anatole the chef -- and it has a fabulous rant that ends with the magnificent rhetorical question, "Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"
  • The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde -- Come on, dude. Oscar Wilde is dirty and catty and bitchy and really knew his way around a double entendre (and perhaps even the rare triple entendre). The verdict? Guilty, your honour, of making me chuckle pretty much continuously throughout reading it.
  • Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman -- I've already written about my big love for this book. I wish Pratchett and Gaiman would pair up again.
And soon. I'm dyin' over here.


Romantic Pen Name said...

If you like funny travel books, some of the funniest books I've ever read are by Tim Moore, who's sort of like a less judgemental Bill Bryson. "French Revolutions" (where he tries to cycle the route of the Tour de France) and "Frost on my Moustache" are especially funny (but avoid "Grand Tour" like the plague, I thought the premise was terrible). I think they're very funny, I laughed out loud constantly. Although I won't be insulted if you don't think so.

Anonymous said...

I imagine you're already familiar with Saki... but just in case you're not, turn to him next. I see him as being in the family with Wodehouse and Wilde, but he surprises me far, far more -- his wonderful lines come out of absolutely nowhere, where Wilde's setups are visible, and he works in far more tones, and has the ability to go much darker, than Wodehouse.

Tina said...

Read "Their Hearts Were Young and Gay" by Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough. I think that's the funniest book I've ever read.

Tina said...

Sorry! I thought of something else--really, anything by Robert Benchley.

landismom said...

Tony Bourdain's "Kitchen Confidential." So much better than the cheesy Fox show they made from it.

Anonymous said...

I'm so very, very glad that someone else in the world feels the same way about Neverwhere and that stupid Fforde guy as I do. Both instances of great concept and tragic, heartbreaking execution. For better Gaiman, try Coraline - it's Uncanny with a capital U, and has the best understanding of what it's like to be a kid of any book I've read bar The Daydreamer. For legitimately hilarious writing, try The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith. Not sure if you've heard of him - he's a woefully neglected 1920s sort of guy - but that book makes me laugh out loud at least three times at every reading, and I've read it a billion times, and I rarely laugh out loud when I'm reading. Pure genius.

Anonymous said...

Ooh, one more, seeing as you have a baby (and, come to think of it, a baby called Sam - great name): Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott. Trust me. Run don't walk.

Anonymous said...

My first time reading your site, and you talk about my favorite of all favorites, Oscar Wilde. Thus, you rule.

Rebecca said...

I liked Youth in Revolt when I read it a few years back, and a lot of it has stuck with me, which makes me think it's time to read it again soon.

I'm sorry you didn't like Neverwhere, but I would second Kristin's recommendation of Coraline. And Lords and Ladies was one of the Discworld "witches" books, and I've never been really fond of them. Monsterous Regiment was so much better.

But I'm going to add Wilde to my "To Be Read" list.

Anonymous said...

See, now it's way more stressful to recommend something. I don't want to make you cry. But, I feel pretty confident in recommending To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. I got it as a present from my sister-in-law, and have since made my husband, several sisters, and a brother-in-law read it, and everyone has loved it. The very beginning is a little difficult to get through sometimes, but trust me, it is FABULOUS.

Anonymous said...

You know that The Eyre Affair comes before Lost In A Good Book, right? LINGB (if it's the one I'm thinking of) is the weirdest of the four and you really have to get into the world and the character of Thursday before starting it.

Anonymous said...

As Anonymous said, if you don't read The Eyre Affair first, there's no reason to read Lost in a Good Book (which I believe was my least favorite of the four). Don't bother with Fforde's Nursery Crime series; they're not funny in the slightest.

And your prayers may be answered! I saw Neil Gaiman recently and he said he and Terry may be teaming up for a Good Omens sequel. I, for one, would cry tears of sweet, sweet joy.

Anonymous said...

I third the Coraline suggestion. And I didn't even get 200 pages into American Gods, so I know what it's like to not feel the Neil Gaiman love.

Anonymous said...

I also find Oscar Wilde to be hilarious and deliciously catty, so perhaps you might enjoy Straight Man by Richard Russo or McCarthy's Pub by Pete McCarthy....both of these made me laugh out loud more than once.

katiedid said...

I love Jincy Willett's writing - it's the sort you can't read on a train or anything, because you actually do laugh out loud. A lot. Her book, Winner of the National Book Award, sounds annoyingly pretentious, but it's anything but. So, so funny.

I also love David Rakoff's work. His essay Christmas Freud (it's in his collection of essays entitled Fraud) is quite simply one of the best things I have ever read. The whole book is worth reading and rereading, but Christmas Freud is perfect.

Anonymous said...

I remember Coraline as more creepy than funny, but eh! Nevermind about Neverwhere... I've also gone off the Discworld books, although Men at Arms still makes me laugh. I've never finished Lords and Ladies.

I REALLY REALLY have to agree with you about Last Chance to See though. And I don't remember if you've read Bill Bryson, but Notes from a Big Country (or whatever it's called) made me howl when I read it. Admittedly, I was 15.

The last book I didn't get was 'Everything is Illuminated'. I didn't finish it, which is rare, because I FORCED myself to finish A Christmas Carol. (I have Dickens-HATE.)

OH! Okay, this is odd. The last book I bought, I think, was called The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, by Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith. You could buy it "for" Master Sam! Although it does depend on whether you find the original joke funny or not...

Anonymous said...

Been reading for a while. So glad I'm not the only person who didn't thing Fforde was the best thing since sliced bread. I was start to wonder if I was wrong in the head.

Heatherkay said...

Seriously -- To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis! Especially given your Wodehouse-love. Seriously . . .

Anonymous said...

I'd third Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog, and add her novel Bellwether to the list.

Anonymous said...

To Say Nothing Of The Dog was brilliant! AND made me feel smart. CW can be a bit sketchy, but TSNOTD works as a historical novel/romance novel/science fiction novel/novel of manners/Victorian novel (the big Victorian question, say, of evo vs God)/Victorian parody (Three Men And A Boat obviously, which, btw, is itself one of the funniest novels I've ever read)/road novel/mystery novel/and, of course, comic novel in the spirit of Wodehouse or even Heyer. Btw, I thought that Neverwhere novel was too much concept and too little novel - same with the unfunny Fforde stuff.

Anonymous said...

The Giggler Treatment by Roddy Doyle is technically a kids book, but lawds, it KILLS me with the laughing. So bloody funny, and Sam will love it soon too!

PS: I couldn't get into Neverworld until I saw the BBC mini. Now? Love.

Em said...

Oh God. I read a Discworld book not a month ago and have already forgotten the title. I'd been hearing for so long that Terry Pratchett would change my life and the books were awesome...and it just...wasn't. And somehow the book's shortcomings made ME feel stunted. Like I know sometimes I don't *get* things right away, but it's been a while and I still can't recall a reason to recommend it to others.

Matthew E said...

Just so you know where I'm coming from when it comes to funny books: I like Discworld, like Neverwhere, like Wodehouse, hate Forrest Gump, like Good Omens, don't like Jasper Fforde.

I support many of the above recommendations. But I also recommend you pick up some Donald Westlake - one of the Dortmunder books, or Dancing Aztecs, perhaps. Westlake is king.

And don't let anybody tell you to read 'A Confederacy of Dunces', either. It's terrible.

Anonymous said...

I'm so glad to see "Last Chance to See" on your list. It's really quite enjoyable. I prefer it over some of his other books, if such heresy can be said.

Anonymous said...

Try "Small Gods", by Terry Pratchett. It's a Discworld book, but it doesn't require knowledge of the other books, stands completely on its own, and just might be my favorite thing I've ever read about religion.

Anonymous said...

I know Matthew wrote above that A Confederacy of Dunces is terrible, but I have to disagree. I just finished reading it last night, and am already planning on passing it off to some of my friends. It's a little strange, but I got hooked relatively quickly. There were even a few parts that made me laugh out loud, something that almost never happens.

Anonymous said...

I loved 'Last Chance to See.' Aside from being hilarious, it made the whole argument for the preservation of species accessible. And made me realize how freaking smart Douglas Adams really was.

Anonymous said...

I know I've had laugh-out-loud moments with David Sedaris, especially Naked (that would be a title, not any lack of attire).

Anonymous said...

I know a long while back I recommended reading Winner of the National Book Award by Jincy Willett (as katydid ... did ... above), but that was before I had finished reading Jenny and the Jaws of Life also by Willett. It's all short stories, but unlike most short story collections which usually end each tale on a decidedly "down" note, them's are just plain funny.

Especially "Best of Betty" which I imagine would be like reading The Vine if Sars lost all of her patience.

Anonymous said...

I think you might enjoy The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, by Gideon Defoe. It's fun and ridiculous, and quick (just in case you hate it).

Sellevision, by Augusten Burroughs, is very funny, and I think it's the sort of book that would make you laugh out loud. It's a gleeful mocking of a home-shopping network, and it really just revels in showing the characters' ridiculous obsessions.

Have you read any Miss Manners books? She has a very dry sense of humor, and if you like the wordplay of Wodehouse, you might like her wit.

Anonymous said...

Ack! I forgot to mention Diary of a Provincial Lady, by E. M. Delafield, which you would probably like if you like Wodehouse. I can't remember if you've been over at Chicklit lately, but that was a Classics book selection there.

Anonymous said...

I have to second _Operating Instructions_ by Anne Lamott, which is positively hysterical (and, according to the mothers I know, one of the most honest books about motherhood out there).

Also, anything by Laurie Notaro is fluffy and mindless, but will also make you laugh until your stomach hurts.

Anonymous said...

as far as funny books go, I like wit rather than humour which is slapstick so Terry Pratchett and Eoin colfer for me!

Oscar Wilde isnt bad too, very morbid humour though.

But you missed out Roald Dahl! And not just his children's stories, even his adult ones are hilarious, they redefine anti-climax!

haha well, i'm more fond of humorous poetry more than anything.. so you've got it coming : Ogden Nash. the man could make me laugh even if I saw a kitten being run over by a Lorry...

P.S : about the Eoin Colfer, childish but i'm allowed to act 10 now and then ;-)

Anonymous said...

Seconding the Fforde hate (he just can't write), the Pratchett apathy (except in Good Omens, which I too love), the Tim Moore and E. M. Delafield and To Say Nothing of the Dog and Pirates! love (I actually moderate the classics book club and selected the Provincial Lady for our November read, so I strongly recommend that you head over and check out the discussion there!). I had to get off a bus a stop early when I was reading Moore's Frost on My Moustache because I was laughing so much (I was actually quoted on the paperback edition of Moore's last book, which is, sadly, one of my professional achievements of which I am most proud). But I particularly adore Gideon Defoe's Pirates, whom I discovered when I got sent their latest adventure for work. It made me cry with laughter - it's the funniest thing I've read in a very long time.

Also, he's almost impossible to find these days, and probably meaningless to anyone unfamilar with English school stories, but anything by Arthur Marshall is probably going to be hysterical.


Anonymous said...

Top of my list for funniest book ever (and my list contains many of yours above) is Gerald Durrell's "My Family and Other Animals". I have read it at least once a year for 30years and still cannot read it on a plane for fear of gibbering in front of witnesses. He wrote lots of books to fund his animal conservation projects and some of his other books contain the same mixture of sadness/humor as “Last Chance to See” but “My Family” s about his unconventional upbringing in Corfu and a solidifying of his lifelong passion for animals.

Another on my list, although it has more juvenile humor, is “Next of Kin” by Eric Frank Russell. On the back of my book there is a comment by Terry Pratchett “I wish I had written Next of Kin”. BTW I feel “Lords and Ladies” and “Monstrous Regiment” are two of Pratchett’s weaker books, if you still fancy giving him a try I would recommend the Vimes/Carrot plot books such as “Guards, Guards”. Much as I love Pratchett though he does not for me get into the rare ‘hold your sides laughing category” like Durrell/Bill Bryson.

Anonymous said...

Try "The Education of Hyman Kaplan" by Leonard Q. Ross 1937 by Harcourt, Brace and Company. Sweet and very funny

RabidHamster said...

Bit late, I know! But the first feedback I got after publishing my novel was:

Absolutely hilarious. Thanks for publishing that. I laughed so hard my
landlady now thinks (read: knows) that I'm insane.

The Banjo Players Must Die

Anonymous said...

Checkout "The American Revolution - Redux", a satire about the current political environment. It's very good.

Anonymous said...

Charles Portis, "The Dog of the South"

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