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February 1, 2016 BOOKLIST
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On July 17, our fellow hardworking book-review editors at Publishers Weekly posted a piece in which they picked the funniest books they’ve ever read. I’m an unabashed fan of PW’s lists, and this one definitely caught my eye. Everyone has the unalienable right to laugh at whatever they choose, of course, but I must say, with a little envy and a touch of incredulity, that the PW team, on the whole, has a very high-minded, intellectual sense of humor. I salute them for it, and while I certainly wouldn’t claim that Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew and Samuel Beckett’s Watt aren’t funny, I know that my funny bone—and perhaps those of many of my fellow Booklist editors—gets to twanging at material of a decidedly lower nature, the sort of thing that might jiggle the bellies of Shakespeare’s “rude mechanicals.” So I decided to put my theory to the test by asking my colleagues to select their “funniest books.”
Before getting to the results, I’d like to begin with the in-absentia choice of one former Booklister whose taste in humor gets directly to my point. Not too long ago, Annie Kelley left Booklist to become a senior editor at the Random House imprint Schwartz & Wade, but I know—I absolutely know—that if Annie Kelley were still with us, the works of Chelsea Handler would appear on our list. Is there more of a yawning gap in the literary firmament than the one that separates Chelsea Handler from Samuel Beckett? I doubt it, and that, in itself, is proof positive that humor is a many-splendored thing that comes in a full rainbow of colors—as is the diversity reflected in the selections below, which, sadly, are not nearly as lowbrow as I might have hoped. But, and this is the real point, they’re all funny to someone. Read both our list and PW’s, and let the laughs fall where they may.
Amy Sedaris, sister of famously hilarious David, is no slouch herself, and while I wouldn’t subject my guests to most of the entertaining tips she presents in I Like You: Hospitality under the Influence, they made me laugh out loud. Here’s one of the best: before a dinner party, fill your medicine cabinet with marbles to give snoopers a surprise.
My two favorite kinds of funny are the funny that everyone can enjoy together and then the funny that annoys the hell out of everyone around you. Listening to David Sedaris read his “Dentists without Borders” (from Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls) on a road trip reduced the entire car to tears of laughter. Reading David Javerbaum’s The Last Testament: A Memoir by God aloud, on the other hand, made my fiancé want to buy earplugs.
Can terrorism be funny? Well, when the would-be terrorist is a 13-year-old foreign-exchange student prone to unwanted erections, yes, it’s funny. There’s much in Chuck Palahniuk’s Pygmy that defies common sense and good taste, but as a favorite high-school teacher once told me, people with a low threshold for humor get to laugh more often than those with more refined sensibilities—and I laughed my way through the whole book.
Double Feature, by Owen King. I can list on one hand the number of novels that have made me laugh out loud. This is a big, clamorous book, but mostly it focuses on a young film director’s struggle to process his disastrous debut, which was stolen from him by an unstable crew member and re-edited to include copious scenes of a naked satyr screwing trees willy-nilly. The book’s overall intelligence and poignancy only add to the WTF absurdity.
I love shrewd and observant humor with a bite and find that short stories are the perfect form for wit. The ever-puckish Margaret Atwood shreds social assumptions in Moral Disorder and Other Stories, and speculative satire fizzes acidly in Lydia Millet’s Love in Infant Monkeys and George Saunders’ In Persuasion Nation.
Jen Lancaster’s memoirs (including Jeneration X: One Reluctant Adult’s Attempt to Unarrest Her Arrested Development; Or, Why It’s Never Too Late for Her Dumb Ass to Learn Why Froot Loops Are Not for Dinner) never fail to crack me up. Maybe it’s because we both grew up in the ’80s and have a certain nostalgia for that decade; or maybe it’s because we share the same snarky, bossy personality. Either way, I alternate between nodding knowingly and laughing out loud on just about every page of her books.
Unfortunately, I can’t even fully support my own premise. Combing my shelves, looking for my own funniest books, I kept coming up with the likes of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and Kingsley Amis’ Lucky Jim. I wonder if there are any job openings at PW? But wait! I almost forgot about my literary-taste twin, David Wright, whose Booklist column “That’s Not Funny—That’s Sick” discussed a whole raft of books that the rude mechanical in me found hilarious. Take this one: Ian Spector’s landmark The Truth about Chuck Norris: 400 Facts about the World’s Greatest Human. For those of you who have been spending too much time with the great works of English literature, Norris just happens to be the male equivalent of Chelsea Handler. Enough said.
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