To alleviate the “morbs” that might have descended on you from reading those books with pandemic and epidemics as themes, how about a few laughs to cheer you up? The only books on this list are those that made me actually grin or giggle out loud. No joke books, comics, autobiographies by comedians that are supposed to be funny, or adult colouring books are included, only novels, essays and short stories. I’ve also left out my personal favourites, my go-to novels when I need a laugh, namely all the books by Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. But you know that’s classic humour.
I was surprised, after having done lengthy searches, at how few writers of funny novels there actually are. I suppose the reason is that humour depends on culture and locality, and what is funny to you, may be offensive to someone elsewhere, so any humorous author’s readership would be limited. But I could not believe that people categorized novels like George Orwell’s 1984 and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as humour. Deep, dark, anxiety-inducing satire perhaps, but funny? I think not.
Best Laid Plans – and anything by Kathy Lette
Kathy Lette is amusing in a feminist way. She writes what could be termed “domestic humour” or “comedic romances” and often the worst things happen to the male characters in her novels. She has written Nip ’n’ Tuck, How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints), To Love Honour and Betray (Till Divorce Us Do Part), Love is Blind, Courting Trouble, and Best Laid Plans (2017). All her books have acerbic wit, and are very much about playing out women’s darkest, most vengeful fantasies. She says:
“I only write because it’s cheaper than therapy. I also write the way women like to talk when there’s no men around. Guys, you’re welcome too but be warned, you’ll be ovulating by the end of the novel.”
If you think that women’s minds are much nicer and cleaner than those of men, read one of Lette’s novels and you’ll understand why being stuck in a change room or hen party with a bunch of ribald women is pretty darn hair-raising – even for a woman. Her next novel will be HRT: Husband Replacement Therapy, due out on April 28th this year. (Next week!)
Let’s pretend this never happened – and all the rest by Jenny Lawson
I laughed ’til I cried when I read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened so I had to read it with a roll of toilet paper at hand. I read it on the train and tried to stop laughing because the other people were looking at me like I belonged in a hospital ward. I ended up having to restrict myself to small doses of a couple of pages at a time because it was so deliciously hilarious and I did not want it to end. So you’ve been warned.
Jenny Lawson, The Blogess, is in the process of opening her own bookstore, the Nowhere Bookshop, in San Antonio Texas, US, since 1) books make everyone happy, 2) introverted book lovers need a physical sanctuary. Obviously the COVID-19 thing has set her plans back a bit, but watch her blog to keep updated on the progress. (And of course, you must read the next part of her autobiography, Furiously Happy, and her blog.)
My Twenty-Five Years in Provence
In My Twenty-five Years in Provence Peter Mayle pokes gentle fun at the French, which made my toes curl with delight, as well as at expat Brits. The collection of essays is about sunshine, food, wine, interesting veggies and vistas, and there’s not a moan, groan or panic anywhere. It’s all so lovely and genteel and charming, it’s a balm for the soul.
Mayle died in 2018 but his words will live on after him. I suggest you read anything he’s written. He was never one to write upsetting things. Remember the film A Good Year, that starred Russell Crowe as a hard-as-nails businessman who inherits a French wine farm? It was based on the book of the same name by Mayle – and the book is much more amusing than the film. Sure, many English authors make fun of the French, but I’m sure French authors return the favour.
I enjoyed an example of this recently while watching the rather brilliant French TV comedy-drama series, A Very Secret Service (Au service de la France), where the French Secret Service agents cannot make sense of the American Secret Service agents wanting to sabotage J.F. Kennedy. It is hilarious, and so very, very French. (Watch it with subtitles if your French is iffy. “Pour quoi?” indeed.)
Welcome to Night Vale – Who’s a Good Boy?
Well, what’s not to giggle at in the Night Vale series? “Night Vale”, the town in the desert that you cannot get away from, has a mayor who may or may not be an extraterrestrial alien, a town council that consists of screaming shadow beings, a public library that is unusable due to horrors amongst the shelves, and now, in Who’s a Good Boy (2019), there are strangers that come closer to you than is healthy, and a cute but threatening beagle that goes “huff huff huff!”. Is it a good boy? Or will it chew your face off? At least radio host “Cecil” can still soothe you with his calming voice.
Night Vale has now become such a phenomenon that fans, listeners and readers are contributing to the stories. It has taken on a life of its own. Ooooh, that’s creepy, isn’t it? All right, it’s creepy but funny. This is the scripts of the podcasts, so it has limitations, but even just consumed in byte-sized chunks it’s still good stuff. The latest Night Vale novel is The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home, which was published just a month ago.
The Merde Series – A Year in the Merde
Stephen Clarke’s Merde series was a roaring success right from the first book. The best thing about these novels is the confused, easily rattled, naive, but terribly horny narrator, “Paul (“Pol”) West”, an Englishman who gets a job in Paris to set up a series of tea rooms. In the first book, A Year in the Merde, the jokes are all about him trying to survive the French business culture and French bureaucracy and, critically, meet French women. He really does end up in the sh** a lot.
A running gag is what to name the tea rooms. “My Tea is Rich” is the answer, which is a stupid phrase similar to “la plume de ma tante” when you are learning French, or “Der Mann raucht eine Pfeife”, when you are learning German. The language jokes and puns are staples in all the novels, and Clarke makes people look like twits on both sides of the Channel.
Readers (me too) wanted to know how much of it is true, and Clark said that he had asked France’s famous INSL (Institut National des Statistiques Littéraires) to analyze his novels and they eventually came up with an answer, which was 64.3%. So there you go. You can safely snigger out loud. Not all of France was harmed in the writing of this novel. The other books in the series are Merde Actually (also called In the Merde for Love); Merde Happens; Dial M for Merde; The Merde Factor and the latest, Merde in Europe (2016).
Calypso (or anything by David Sedaris)
He is wickedly funny. Nothing is sacred. Anything can be torn into tiny shreds by his sarcasm and piercing observations. The man’s words are knives – just be grateful you can chuckle at it and not be the subject of those digs. It’s not howlingly funny, but it’s clever wit that stays with you after you’ve put the book down. There’s always a smidgen of sadness or self-deprecation in the essays. Sedaris has written a lot, and has a long-running column in The New Yorker magazine, so you can delve into this collection of essays or his previous one, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls (April 2013) or Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary (2010).
A Man Called Ove, and other novels about grumpy old folks
OK, I’ve forgiven Fredrik Backman for writing formulaic novels, because his formula is, actually, quite well structured and witty. A Man Called Ove was better the second time I read it – I saw more of the social criticism. I think all grumpy, rude, mean old people are kind of funny. We’re all heading that way, but while you’re younger than 80 or 90, that kind of old age is still amusing. He’s also written Things My Son Needs to Know About the World, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, and four more. His next novel will be Anxious People, due to be released September 2020. And while we’re on the subject of grumpy but entertaining old people, I can also recommend The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old, by Anonymous, and The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared, by Jonas Jonasson.
About the header
On 21 April 2020, Studio Ghibli released free Zoom backgrounds of scenes from their films that people can use while video conferencing. So you can immediately go and download yours. This one is from The Secret World of Arrietty, and seemed suitably cheerful. The Japanese Goddess of Mirth, “Otafuku”, cradling a good-luck crane, has moved into the bedroom of “Arrietty”. “Otafuku”, also known as “Okame” or “Uzume”, is the female half of a traditional Japanese Kyogen theatre pair. She is considered to be the Goddess of Mirth and is frequently seen in Japanese art, and is depicted with a round face and smiling eyes. The image of the goddess is from the painting “Otafuku, the Goddess of Mirth (Uzume), Holding a Baby Crane”, by Kawanabe Kyōsai, 1875.