Book Bytesby Marylaine Block
Books Too Good To Put Down: Humor
note: if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here for suggestions on how to find them.
- Douglas Adams. The Deeper Meaning of Liff. There is of course an awful lot of Douglas Adams that could rightfully appear on this list, but I have arbitrarily decided that they belong more in the Fantasy list (the Hitchhiker's Guide books, and the Dirk Gently books) or in nonfiction (Last Chance To See--although the man can't even talk about endangered species without being funny). In this book, Adams contemplates the large number of concepts that have no words to go with them. But he has a solution for this problem. You see, there are all these place names, just sitting around on maps, which could be used as words by a right-thinking person. Hence he gives us much-needed words for both dark dirt that appears on your light clothes ("sutton") and the chalky dirt that appears on your dark clothes ("cheam"). [It is my intention someday to have a pair of kittens, dark and light, named Sutton and Cheam.] Not to mention the proper term for bellybutton lint ("lowestoft"), or for the condition of your skin after a very long bath ("dewlish"), or for many other unworded concepts. For those that like this sort of thing (like me), this is undoubtedly the sort of thing they do like.
- Geoffrey Atkinson. The Creation Memos. Well you didn't really think God could have created the universe without dealing with contractors, did you? Or loan officers? Or housing permits? Or patents? And you don't really think the contractors did everything according to specs first time around, do you? God's correspondence on these matters is reproduced here.
- Dave Barry. Dave Barry's Greatest Hits, Dave Barry Turns 40--if these have a familiar ring to them, either you've been reading Dave Barry for a long time or you've been watching Dave's World (motto: the only program on CBS anyone watches at all); the columns in these books are the rough basis for the TV show. Dave is king of the booger jokes, a man with no discernible taste, but a wonderfully wacky view of the world. The Greatest Hits is an excellent introduction to his eccentric mind. And every woman should read Dave Barry's Complete Guide to Guys--it explains a lot about the male mind we've always wondered about. His first novel, Big Trouble is a hysterically funny fast-paced farce in which one unfortunate family attracts no fewer than 8 separate sets of people with guns. Arthur Herk, who richly deserves to be murdered, is an embezzler and a mean, nasty man. Having made the mistake of embezzling from the mob, he has contract killers after him, who are interrupted by a combination of Herk's dumb dog and the young man who is trying to get a hit (squirt gun) on Herk's stepdaughter. Meanwhile, the police and the FBI are separately after him, as are two incredibly stupid would-be drug kingpins. Funniest moment is probably when Arthur is saved from a bullet by falling face down into a toad and getting hallucinations from it that the dog is a malevolent Elizabeth Dole. (Down, Mrs. Dole, down!) The second novel, Tricky Business, is a stitch too. A Miami based gambling ship owner is not content with the money he makes from that; he has to smuggle drugs as well, which means that he sends the boat out in a hurricane because an exchange of drugs for money is planned for that night. But the lower-echelon smugglers have decided to help themselves to the proceeds, and once they start killing people, they just keep right on. Meanwhile, entangled in all this are two escapees from a retirement home, a cocktail waitress who's really a Coast Guard cop after the smugglers, the owner, dressed as a conch shell, a not terribly good band called Johnny and the Contusions, and the tall beautiful farting dealer who's pursuing one of the band members.
- Henry Beard. French for Cats. One of an ever-growing line of stocking-stuffer little-nothing books centering on cats. (Publishers have figured out that there is an extraordinary degree of overlap among people who read and people who love cats.) Henry Beard clearly understands cats to the point of being an honorary feline. Here he explains the French for some important cat concepts, such as "I do not catch frisbees in my mouth," "Do not put additives in my food unless you are sure that I am dying," and "I do not like the cat carrier," all with appropriate cartoons. A later offering by Beard, Poetry for Cats is an inspired collection of parodies of classic poems, as they might be had they only been written by cats.
Christopher Buckley. Wry Martinis. A collection of his essays and parodies for Forbes and New Yorker and such, including the one claiming Russia was selling Lenin's corpse that Peter Jennings then reported as fact on the evening news, and his review of Tom Clancy, which Clancy took umbrage to, with Buckley responding that he was, like Mark twain, accounting for the literary offenses of the best paid bad writer in America. Parodies of roundups of books reviews ("The New Fly-Fishing Books"), of McNamara's mea Culpa (as Idi Amin and other notables might have imitated it), straight accounts of travels in Brazilian jungles with Malcolm Forbes, of going up in an F-16, of being 4-F and regretful/relieved during VietNam, his review of Pat Robertson's awful novel, etc.
- Stewart Cowley. Do-It-Yourself Brain Surgery and Other Home Skills. You say you're bored, there's nothing to do? Have you really tried everything? Have you tried breeding combat hamsters? Building an ocean liner in your back yard (though I think the man underestimates the problem of getting permits from city government)? Converting your ordinary suburban split-level to a romantic ruin? If not, there are complete instructions, handy diagrams, and useful advice for these and many other projects.
- Dick Crouser. It's Unlucky To Be Behind at the End of a Game and Other Sports Retorts. There's an unlimited market out there for funny sports stories, and this is one of the better collections.
- Jules Feiffer. A Barrel of Laughs, a Vale of Tears. A fairy tale about Roger, a prince who makes everyone around him laugh. His father realizes that if Roger is ever to become king, this cannot go on. His wizard sends Roger off on a quest (not that Roger exactly knows what it is, but he thinks it might be rescuing the beautiful princess who has been kidnapped by a giant). Along the way, Roger becomes a real person. He suffers, he castigates himself for unworthy behavior, and he falls in love with the wrong person altogether--which is okay, since the princess really doesn't want to be rescued, thank you.
- Paul Gallico. The Silent Miaow. Actually, the claim is that Gallico translated this from the feline--supposedly he found a poorly typed manuscript written by his cat, composed of words of advice from an older and wiser cat to young kittens seeking to make their way in the world. It has detailed instructions on how to worm your way into a household on a temporary basis, turn that into a permanent basis, take the household over entirely, and make sure that henceforth, noone will ever do anything without your express permission. Whoever wrote it, I assure you this is God's own truth. And it's got great cat photos besides.
Bob Garfield. Waking Up Screaming from the American Dream. Garfield, roving NPR reporter, presents here some of the unusual folk he has met, people pursuing the impossible dream, from spiritual seekers in Santa Fe to Strip Joints for Jesus to Morris Katz, the man who paints more painting faster than anybody else in the world, the man who manufactures public telephone condoms to protect the public from germs to competitors in a poetry slam. Fascinating stuff.
- William Geist. Toward a Safe and Sane Halloween and Other Tales of Suburbia (re-published in paperback as The Zucchini Plague and Other Tales of Suburbia) and City Slickers. Geist began writing columns about the strange folkways of suburbia--lawn flamingos, bridal expos, sofa-sized art, and such--but then he moved to New York (where he is now a commentator for CBS); Here he found the folkways odder still--the 24 hour espresso repair service, for instance (New Yorkers understand an emergency when they see one!).
- Molly Ivins. Molly Ivins Can't Say That. Molly is that most improbable of creatures, a Texan feminist liberal. But, like her politics or not, you can't help liking Molly, a woman who calls a protuberant abdomen a "beergut that belongs in the Smithsonian." The title of her book stems from the day her column pointed out that if a particular Texas legislator's IQ was any lower, they'd have to water him twice a day. This resulted in an advertiser boycott, and her newspaper promptly put up billboards all over Dallas saying "Molly Ivins Can't Say That, Can She?" But she can, and she does. Her columns cover Texas politics, than which there is nothing more colorful--where else would they be debating a "clean crapper" bill?--and US politics at large. She's brash, she's loud, she's direct, and she's a hoot. The follow-up collection, called Nothing But Good Times Ahead is also worthwhile.
- Shirley Jackson. Life among the Savages. Also, Raising Demons. Shirley Jackson wrote her amazing, haunting stories and novels ("The Lottery", We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House) while raising four children in a large house that kept shrinking as more books, bookcases, children, and animals kept being added. These books are her very funny stories about their family life. Particular funny is her account of the "great grippe mystery," the night when everybody was sick, and everybody wandered from room to room to find a comfortable place to sleep, accompanied by blankets, teacups, books, whatever, and then tried to figure out where everything and everyone had gotten to.
J.M. Johnston. Biting the Wall. A funny novel set in a computing center in a small state university. The best part of it was not the not terribly believable plot -- the incoming veep has been cutting jobs right and left, and eliminates the job of the head of the computing center, apparently to save money, but as it turns out, to facilitate his using the computer center to spy on a CIA relay station -- but because of the academic types populating the story, including an undeground grammarian planting nasty notes about the president's speeches in the computer system (the real underground grammarian's words were borrowed for this purpose). Then there's the English prof who actually speaks in middle English, the head of the library who cannot let a sentence go by without a pun in it, the academic injokes -- one of the profs is named Madox Ford Madox, who talks in Jamesian sentence structures ("Doubtless a tedious, and, at least immediately, unrewarding effort," Madox agreed, "not unlike, if I may conjecture, those of my own in cataloging the entire output, as it currently exists, of Henry James, with whom I seem to become, as fate would have it, more deeply involved, for better or worse, with each passing, which they seem to do with disquieting haste, day."). The head of the post office who is named Godfrey Daniels and is addicted to a wee nip of afternoons. Really quite amusing. The author is
- Gordon Korman. Don't Care High; also, Son of Interflux; not to mention Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag. You've already deduced that we're in the realm of "young adult literature" here, but Korman's stuff is much too good to be wasted just on teenagers. All his stuff is funny, farcical, and fast-paced, with fascinating characters. In Son of Interflux, the son of an Interflux executive leads a rebellion against the company's effort to take over land adjoining their high school. The student plots, corporate responses, and student counterplots keep escalating until the good guys win. In Don't Care High, a student can't stand the apathy of the student body at his new high school, so he creates a myth--he builds up a legend of coolness around a very strange student and dictates the things that this ultimate cool person wants them to do. They buy it, and Don't Care High turns into an exciting place, full of kids involved in school activities, and proud of their school. Semester in the Life of a Garbage Bag shows how desperation breeds ingenuity--a student in need of a project for a poetry class invents his own poet for the occasion (do not try this yourself--when my brother did that, he got in deep, deep trouble).
Tony Kornheiser. Bald as I Want To Be. A collection of his columns about Washington D.C. (Mottos: Live expensively and die. 911-please hold. The Nationa's Capital-Your Buck Stops Here. Bureaucrats Do It Eventually.), Dr. Seuss's death (a wonderfully touching Seussian parody), his untrainable dogs and children, adventures in canoeing, etc. Also see his earlier collection, Pumping Irony
- William Kotzwinkle. The Midnight Examiner. A wacky, fast-paced story about a writer for sleazy tabloids who accidentally becomes the protector of a porno queen who shot a gangster. Full of bizarre people (many of them determined to kill him) and strange events.
- Richard Lederer. Anguished English. Also, More Anguished English. Lederer collects all sorts of funny errors in English usage--advertising copy errors ("We do not tear your clothes with machinery. We do it carefully by hand."), student bloopers ("the difference between a king and a president is that a king is the son of his father but a president isn't"), news headlines ("MAN EATING PIRANHA MISTAKENLY SOLD AS FISH"), and more.
- Edmund G. Love. Arsenic and Red Tape. What Love is good at doing is running into truly strange people, and writing books telling true stories about them. Among the people in this book are a thoroughly confused general wandering helplessly lost around the Pentagon, a civil servant who can do anything at all as long as a government pamphlet explains how to do it, a woman who organizes her family with lists and timetables that would do credit to an organ transplant team, and a man who spends his life turning small museums into grandiose ones. An earlier work, Subways Are for Sleeping (which was made into a Broadway musical), includes a man who lived for free in New York by making a career of apartment-sitting, and a woman unable to pay her hotel bill who kept the management from throwing her out by arranging to have no clothes whatsoever to put on, and others equally bizarre. In The Situation in Flushing, he describes his boyhood in a small town in Michigan, where the 20th century hit about 20 years late. He tells about the bees who attended funerals, the saddest 6th birthday of all time, the man who owned the company that installed the first electric lines, and shut off your electricity if he was mad at you, and more.
- William O'Brian. No Dessert Until You've Finished Your Mashed Potatoes. You know the things you say to kids, without, somehow, remembering how you felt when your parents said them to you? The cartoons in this book are designed to remind you. "Think!" has a cartoon of a very small boy in front of a very large blackboard completely filled with mathematical equations ; "Now go to sleep, there's nothing to be afraid of" is illustrated with a little boy in bed in the dark, straddled by a humongous black bear with very pointy teeth. And so on. Do read this before you raise your first child.
- Jeremy Pascall. God: the Ultimate Autobiography. God is a merciful chap. We know that, because He keeps telling us that. And except for the people who irritate Him enough to be turned into cacti, the evidence seems to bear Him out. True, He has little use for accountants, who He seems to believe are a sort of vegetable--He admits to not keeping track all that well of all his creations. And He's a bit peeved with Moses for only bringing back ten of his commandments (the eleventh was "Thou Shalt Not Turn Thy Sony Walkman Up So Loud That It Annoyeth Others"). But in general, He appears to have been pretty genial, all things considered.
- Stephen Pile. The Incomplete Book of Failures; also, Cannibals in the Cafeteria. Pile is the founding member of the Not-Terribly-Good Club of Great Britain, and he has here assembled stories of some of the funniest and most spectacular failures in human history--the least successful cat rescue, the fastest failure of a driving test, numerous competitors for the crimes that were easiest to detect, the weapon that was too secret (so secret that no instructions were written for the soldiers who were supposed to operate it), the least successful coup (it was only noticed five years after it had happened), the worst Shakespeare festival, and more, much more. All of this is described by Pile with a droll, dry, very British wit.
Bill Richardson. Bachelor Brothers Bed and Breakfast Pillow Book. Twin brothers operate a bed and breakfast that is a natural gathering place for booklovers, on an island off the coast of British Columbia. They share the B&B with the world's most erudite parrot, who quotes the most appropriate verse from Bible and verse, and one of the world's most eccentric housemen. The book is interspersed with recipes, letters from gratified customers, and suggested reading (including a wonderful array of recommended bathroom reading). A great feel for the language, and a lot of charm.
- David Ricks. Big Business Blunders. The reason business people should know foreign languages and understand foreign cultures before they try to sell their products abroad becomes clear in this parade of hilarious but costly marketing disasters:
- The "Pepsi makes you come alive" campaign, that came out in Japan as "Pepsi makes your ancestors come back from the dead"
- The effort to sell the Chevy Nova in Spain, where nova means "it doesn't go"
- The airline that failed to break into the Australian market because it was named Emu (an Australian bird that cannot fly)
- "Body by Fisher" translated in Belgium as "corpse by Fisher"
- Caryl Rivers. Virgins. You don't even have to be Catholic to enjoy the adventures of these two hellions who forever disrupt the peace of a Catholic girls' school. Even though they do try, at least from time to time, to concentrate on being "Mary-like," more often they find themselves doing things like setting the schoolyard on fire, or writing a feature story about a saint called Leon Skorytt (that is, Leon Trotsky) or staging the greatest show on earth in their underwear (no tights). The sequel is Girls Forever Brave and True
- Robert Kimmel Smith. Sadie Shapiro's Knitting Book. Sadie is a wonderful old lady, who hasn't noticed that she's really a bit old to be jogging in tennies and a bright pink knitted sweatsuit. She makes up wonderful knitting patterns, which are going to appear in a book--but, the publisher needs pictures of all the finished patterns. Sadie enlists all her friends in the Mount Edens Senior Citizen Hotel to help her knit like crazy to meet the book's deadline. This doesn't keep her too busy, you understand, to rearrange the lives of everyone she comes near, including her editor; Sadie is, for starters, a born matchmaker. She's innocent, sharp, funny, lovable, and wise, and the world will look much better to you after you've seen it through Sadie's eyes.
- Neil Steinberg. When in Doubt, Involve a Cow. A history of college pranks, paying particular attention to the competition between Cal Tech and MIT for really high-tech stupidity.
- Jane Trahey. Thursdays 'Til Nine. Trahey, a legend in the advertising business, tells a thinly disguised version of her own adventures starting her career, the tricks she used to get a job in the first place, the tricks she used to outwit an incompetent boss who was taking credit for Jane's work, and more. Her heroine is a funny, spunky lady, and one not to be messed with lightly; her methods are well worth studying.
- Hugh Vickers. Great Operatic Disasters. Strange and wonderful things happen in the course of putting an opera on stage, and Vickers knows about all of them. Some are human error, some mechanical error. And then again, if you're an opera singer, you really should try very hard to avoid offending the tech crew.
Return to BookBytes Menu
Return to Marylaine.Com