LOL! Literature Offering Laughs

After writing about war in literature and enemies in literature the past two weeks, it’s time to lighten up. So this post will analyze Dostoyevsky’s use of smiley-face emoticons in Crime and Punishment.

Well, maybe not. But I do plan to discuss some of the funniest novels — ranging from satirical to just plain silly — that I’ve read. Then I’ll ask you to name your favorites!

Obviously, some novels are mostly comedic in content. But many serious, dramatic, poignant novels contain enough hilarious passages to be part of this post, too. Moby-Dick himself was in stitches when reading Herman Melville’s bedroom scene featuring Ishmael and Queequeg. Or perhaps I’m confusing that with Captain Ahab’s leg being in stitches after said whale took a bite…

Let’s start with Charles Dickens’ laugh-out-loud first novel: The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, which features the fabulously funny Sam Weller. Pickwick launched Dickens into a popularity stratosphere he never left — even as his wonderful, increasingly ambitious books were never quite that humorous again. Was Bleak House a jest-fest? Don’t think so.

Colette had a similar career arc, entering the novel-writing realm with the sidesplitting Claudine at School before moving on to weightier (yet still engaging) works. The title character in Colette’s late-career Gigi wouldn’t last a minute in a battle of witticisms with the rambunctious Claudine — and wouldn’t beat Claudine in mixed martial arts, either.

Speaking of first novels, the seriocomic Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone has more laughs per square page than any of the six subsequent novels in J.K. Rowling’s series.

Also hilarious is Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, in which the “thing” that hits an incandescent bulb is not a light-dazzled moth…

Then there’s Jeeves in the Offing, or almost any other P.G. Wodehouse novel or story starring the brilliant British valet and his rather clueless “master” Bertie Wooster. Wodehouse could make a shopping list funny, though Amazon execs didn’t chuckle when the pre-Internet Jeeves declined to buy household supplies online.

In a very different milieu, novels don’t get much more amusing (or ribald) than Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and God’s Little Acre. Delightful “southern humor” can also be found in Charles Portis’ Norwood and The Dog of the South, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle novel and Sneaky Pie Brown mysteries, and Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Mixed with the laughs in those books are serious themes such as poverty, racism, sexism, and homophobia. “What’s So Funny ‘Bout Peace, Love, and Understanding?” Those authors know.

Academia can also be a great source of humor and satire, as evidenced by novels like Richard Russo’s Straight Man, Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire, and, to an extent, Adam Langer’s Ellington Boulevard. The first two books star professors (one beleaguered and the other basically a stalker), while Langer’s work has a disaffected graduate student as a secondary character. Duke Ellington Boulevard is another name for West 106th Street in Manhattan, a rapidly gentrifying borough with rents that are…hilarious.

Returning to older novels, we see Mark Twain mixing strong antiwar satire with goofy humor in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Henry Fielding even naming a character “Lady Booby” (for her personality) in his uproarious Joseph Andrews, and Miguel Cervantes being much funnier than one expects in Don Quixote. (By the way, Rocinante is Don Quixote’s horse, not an artificial sweetener.)

More hilarity? Valancy Stirling dramatically parts with her oppressively conventional mother and other relations in L.M. Montgomery’s moving/inspiring The Blue Castle, but the conversations the newly confident Valancy has with her family are funnier than the funniest sitcom. Italo Calvino is incredibly droll in his short-story-collection-as-novella Marcovaldo. John Steinbeck, so earnest in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, will crack you up in Tortilla Flat, Cannery Row, and Sweet Thursday. And you don’t need an explanation from me about how delightful (albeit unsettling) are Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Given the Queen of Hearts’ predilection for offing heads, I’m grateful the top of this blog post still has one.

Your examples of the funniest literary works?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area โ€” unless youโ€™re replying to someone else.)

For three years of my Huffington Post literature blog, click here.

I’m also in the middle of writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering/meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in New York City and Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson, among others.

229 thoughts on “LOL! Literature Offering Laughs

  1. The first book that I thought of was also Catch 22. But some others that come to mind are Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, and a cute little Australian tale that I recently read called Here’s Luck. Also, I’ve recently finished reading Cloud Atlas which had me laughing so hard, I was nearly crying, but I’m not sure how much the glass of wine that I was drinking contributed to that!

    Also, as already mentioned, Jane Austen is quite funny in places. I remember waiting for a pizza one night, and I thought I’ll just flick through my Kindle for 5 minutes. It’s not long enough to get into anything, but I might read a page or two while I’m waiting. Well I accidentally started reading Pride and Prejudice and fell in love with Mr Bennet all over again. His indifference towards his wife’s excitement at their new neighbour is so funny, especially since I know he’s already called on Mr Bingley. Mrs Bennet of course is very easy to stir up, but I get a real kick out of her husband doing it on purpose. Maybe I’m just weird? Needless to say, I didn’t stop reading once my pizza was ready ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Thanks, Susan, for naming several funny books and authors — and for your great comment in general, which had me laughing in parts of it!

      “Catch-22” is indeed hilarious (as well as sobering and thought-provoking). I didn’t realize “Cloud Atlas” included humor — sounds like a novel with lots of different elements.

      Also, I’m hoping my local library will have “Here’s Luck” by Lennie Lower (I just went on Google to find the author’s name!). Do you have favorite Australian novels or authors you would recommend?

      Last not least, Jane Austen is indeed quite funny at times, as in “Pride and Prejudice,” as you say. Another of many examples is the annoying but laugh-inducing Mrs. Norris, in “Mansfield Park,” who had the future distinction of inspiring the name of a cat in “Harry Potter.” Wonder what she would have thought of THAT? ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • Unfortunately, the only works that I’ve read of Austen’s are P&P and S&S. I will get around to the others, but you know what they say about too many books…

        There was a TV program some time back which counted down the 50 Aussie books to read before you die. I am slowly working my way through that list, but that’s where I discovered Lennie Lower. Another surprisingly amazing find was The Life, by Malcolm Knox. But even I’ve had trouble getting my hands on some of these books, so I’m not sure how you’re going to go. Though if I could add to the never ending Dave Astor list, I could die a happy woman ๐Ÿ™‚

        I hadn’t really read many Australian authors until I started working my way through that list. I enjoyed Bryce Courtenay’s ‘Power of One’, which was turned into a movie, as was John Marsden’s ‘Tomorrow when the war began’, which was another one I enjoyed. Not sure how much of our stuff from down under makes it up to where you are?

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        • Thanks, Susan! For many years, “P&P” and “S&S” were the only Jane Austen novels I read until I finally got around to “Mansfield Park,” “Emma,” and “Persuasion” during the past couple of years. “Persuasion” is now my second favorite Austen novel behind “P&P.” I totally hear you about too many books…

          I appreciate your naming some excellent Australian novels! I’ll see if I get lucky and find one or more in my local library, which has more non-U.S. titles than the typical suburban library. There’s also an independent used bookstore in my town, and the online option as well — I have a gift certificate!

          Great comment, and, to reference your nicely droll line, I could die a happy man if I could finally read an Australian novelist. ๐Ÿ™‚ The closest I’ve come is enjoying a couple of excellent books by Janet Frame of New Zealand — which of course is not really very close to Australia.

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          • Anything terrible out of New Zealand is very far away indeed. Anything good, we claim as our own ๐Ÿ™‚ If you’re looking for good NZ literature, I cannot recommend The Luminaries enough.

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            • “Anything terrible out of New Zealand is very far away indeed. Anything good, we claim as our own” — great quip, Susan! ๐Ÿ™‚

              And I just added “The Luminaries” to my (very long!) list.

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  2. Howdy, Dave!

    โ€” Your examples of the funniest literary works? โ€”

    Both you and other members of the DAOLiterati have appropriately mentioned Joseph Heller as the author of one contender for the title as Piรน Divertente Di Tutti I Romanzi Divertenti. And I believe Hellerโ€™s work indeed would be the undisputed champion in a multiverse devoid of John Kennedy Tooleโ€™s โ€œA Confederacy of Duncesโ€ and Mario Vargas Llosaโ€™s โ€œAunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.โ€

    Meanwhile, I think one of the many interesting things about Hellerโ€™s body of work is the amazing contrast between โ€œCatch-22โ€ โ€” maybe the Funniest of All Funny Novels (โ€œA Laugh on Every One of Its 544 Pages!โ€) โ€” and โ€œSomething Happenedโ€ โ€” perhaps the Unfunniest of All Unfunny Novels (โ€œA Laugh on Exactly One of Its 576 Pages!โ€). Quite a range.

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

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    • Thanks, J.J., for another whimsical and expert comment!

      “Catch-22” is on my reread list (have a copy at home), “A Confederacy of Dunces” is still high on my read-in-2014 list, and “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” is now new to my list. I’ve wanted to read Mario Vargas Llosa, and that novel sounds like a great place to start.

      It IS interesting how engaging a novel can be and how not engaging a novel can be by the same author. Quite a range indeed. I’ve also experienced that (not necessarily in the humor realm), with books by Steinbeck, Jack London, Willa Cather, etc.

      “The DAOLiterati” — ๐Ÿ™‚ Unfortunately, I see “AOL” in there!

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  3. Hi Dave, I just came over to your last column and was surprised by the number of comments that still had been submitted. I was on the phone with one of my sisters last week and, because we talk about books a lot, I was telling her about my comment regarding “My Family and Other Animals”. She apparently believes that she told me about this book rather than the other way around :}. But whatever, she told me that she was in a deep depression after having a ruptured appendix, and what saved her was a friend bringing her a copy of this book, along with a bag of chocolate chip cookies. I just re-read it and still found the most humorous pieces just as funny as I did the first time I read them, with tears streaming down my face. But I’d like to point out that much of the book has to do with the author’s love of zoology and natural history, so be forewarned about that.

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    • Thanks for stopping by again, Kat Lib! Coincidentally, I just started reading “My Family and Other Animals” this morning, and am enjoying it greatly — zoology, natural history, and all. Gerald Durrell is a VERY funny and engaging author, and the Greek island he describes sounds like quite a paradise in certain ways.

      Sorry about your sister’s health issue. I can see how “My Family and Other Animals” (along with those cookies) would take her mind off that at least a little bit. And it’s interesting how one can forget who told who (whom?) about a book. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. Hi Dave…thought to mention Joan Rivers..in this topic, she wrote several non fictions and I have not read any…but just read in USA today , the sales of her books has gone up exponentially in Amazon.

    c&p from a reviewer…” I hate everyone starting with me”.

    “On cities: “I hate San Francisco because I not only left my heart there but my hairdresser.” Show business, nature, even the slogans each state uses to promote itselfโ€ฆnone are immune to Rivers’ often-caustic jesting. Relentless in her pursuit, the author is sure to offend everyone at some point in this book, regardless of the comedic intent. The only thing missing is the sound of a drum roll and cymbals to feel as though one is sitting in a nightclub watching a live comedy marathon.
    The book is best read in small, random batches, with a large martini in hand.”

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    • Thanks, bebe, for your great comment and that review excerpt! Yes, Joan Rivers was definitely a humor author in addition to being a legendary stand-up comic. I can just imagine how her book sales have skyrocketed.

      I thought she was very funny and could also be quite nasty — but that describes many stand-up comics in recent decades, male and female. One of the real pioneers as far as female comedians go, very driven and very gutsy.

      I met her once (was on her daytime show, in late 1990, I think), and she was actually quite warm and friendly when not in performing mode.

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      • Nice to know you have met her, yes she could and was nasty. But she was an equal operatunity insulter. ( is that a right phrase?) . Now I hear she was always for background workers.
        Anyways I am planning to find her book at the library.

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        • Definitely the right phrase, bebe, and a great one! She insulted almost everything and almost everyone — including herself. It helped that she was so funny when doing all that. ๐Ÿ™‚

          Would be interested in eventually hearing what you think of the book you take out!

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        • Joan Rivers could be viciously funny, and occasionally, vicious. You may find her recent statements re Palestinian children go beyond insult, and if she intended to say equally awful things about Israeli children, she was taken from us before she could do so. While she lived, her opportunity to regard Palestinian children with compassion lay all about, but she did not take advantage.

          I love to laugh, and she provided me with several laughs over the years, and I am sorry she died, especially sorry she died the way she did and for the reason she did, but she was more malign– not in the dead past, but mere weeks ago– than you have sketched her to be.

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            • I regretted having written my remarks of yesterday, because I didn’t, on reflection, care for myself on site as a scold. But I had been bumping around the internets for a while before checking in, and everywhere it seemed there was wall-to-wall praise of JR, with no qualifying footnote– and her awful remarks were fresh, not some regrettable statement years old.

              Any rate, I read all the back and forth below it and am happy to see where things went, seemingly without my having offended anyone. This is a great crowd.

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              • jhNY, very nice of you to say that, but I’m glad you wrote what you wrote. It can get annoying when only positive things are said about flawed people after they die. Joan Rivers was admirable in many ways, but not caring about the death of innocent civilians is pretty serious stuff. More people need to realize that civilians shouldn’t be lumped with what their leaders do, whether in Palestinian territories or in Israel (where at least a percentage of citizens are very uncomfortable with their government’s over-the-top military reactions that kill hundreds and hundreds of people).

                Yes, a great crowd here — and you’re a big part of that!

                By the way, as you might already know, new post here: https://daveastoronliterature.com/2014/09/07/a-look-at-young-protagonists-in-literature/ At least one person said they didn’t receive an automatic notification. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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          • I just searched for what you just pointed about was shocked to hear her cruel and totally insensitive comment on Palestinian children. I totally agree what Dave just wrote.
            But the woman is dead, unexpectedly ( that how most pass on I suppose) and at this point I would like to give her the benefit of doubt that had she lived she would sure to retract her venomenous statement.
            Comedians are actors also , sometimes I feel they keep their mouth shut and continue doing what they are known for. In her case be funny and there is nothing funny on cruelty of innocent children.

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            • Thanks, bebe, for your heartfelt thoughts on this. Like you, I would hope Joan Rivers retracted that statement if she had lived. She experienced the death of her husband by suicide, so perhaps some compassion would have kicked in for Palestinians experiencing the devastating deaths of their innocent family members by overwhelming Israeli firepower (much of it provided by the U.S.). Or maybe she was too reflexively pro-Israel to have apologized.

              One thing about Rivers was she didn’t have much of a filter!

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              • Beautifully said Dave.Thank you for proving us this open forum where we could have intelligent and thought provoking discussions .
                So many times political or personal comments or believes of an actor on certain shows turns me off completely that I never could watch their show again. Tom Selleck is one such actor.
                Another reason I am never a fan of an unknown.

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                • You’re welcome, bebe, and thank YOU for your part in the conversation. It IS nice to have a place to intelligently talk about things — including controversial things — in a calm way.

                  I hear you about how the comments, stances, and actions of certain entertainment figures can make us reluctant to see their work. I didn’t go to a movie theater to see a new Woody Allen film for many years after that sordid situation of him getting into a relationship with the adopted daughter of his (then) partner Mia Farrow.

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                    • Great point, bebe. There is definitely a “creepy” factor at times in his movies.

                      I haven’t seen “Magic in the Moonlight,” but WA certainly does seem fixated on women much younger than himself.

                      Also, he rarely has people of color in his films; he doesn’t seem to notice or care that we live in a multicultural world.

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                  • I fell off the Woody Allen boat after “Manhattan”. Teenage girls deserve better at the hands of a nebbish than the hands (and other parts) of a nebbish.

                    Never enjoyed the leers and insinuations of too many of my male elders in the 60’s when they were in the company of girls my age– it was an ugly part of the zeitgeist that Allen carried decades too far.

                    “Lolita” and “Candy” are among the real hallmarks of the period. As themselves, they can stand on their own. As they seemed to give oxygen to some of the more awful impulses of older men of the time: ugh.

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                    • jhNY, I also lost some interest in Woody Allen films after “Manhattan” — with a few exceptions like “Hannah and Her Sisters” — and then lost even more interest after the 1990s scandals hit (incest or near incest, etc.).

                      As you note so eloquently, the sexist, leering, older man/younger woman stuff was offensive in its heyday, and Allen never let it go. “The heart wants what it wants,” Allen said, and my heart doesn’t want to admire the problematic Allen despite his undeniable talents.

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                • Reminds me of comments made by Don Rickles from years past, who always gave to charities anonymously. He felt that if his name was mentioned, he wouldn’t be considered as hateful as people thought he was.

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            • So true now you pointed out Dave….multiracial and multicultural world we all belong..on that note another NBA owner making racial comments when he knows he made his
              billions riding on the backs of African Americans.

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              • It’s especially ridiculous because so many Woody Allen movies are set in very multicultural cities.

                At the same time, Allen can be brilliant and hilarious, so it’s a shame he has some very serious blind spots.

                As for that NBA owner — few or no redeeming qualities in that guy! Racist, lecherous, a nasty landlord… And, as you say, he made much of his money from the African-Americans he intolerantly loathes.

                Great comment, bebe!

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              • bebe, I didn’t realize until reading today’s newspaper a few minutes ago that a second NBA owner made very racist statements. I had wrongly thought you were referring only to the L.A. Clippers’ Donald Sterling, but now I see that the Atlanta Hawks owner is another stupid, close-minded guy. What a jerk. Glad he seems to be leaving more quietly than Sterling.

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                • Hi Dave..yes that was the one I was talking about which is worse than Sterling. Sterling was insanely mental but this one , there is no excuse for that. Last night it was all over the news…but you did not miss much. Not what one needs to dwell upon. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

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                  • You’re right, bebe, Bruce Levenson’s words are worse in a way. The words themselves, the fact that Levenson probably has his wits about him more than Sterling does, and the fact that Levenson is younger than Sterling and thus generationally shouldn’t be as racist (though of course age often has nothing to do with that).

                    Many of these “One Percent” team owners are something, aren’t they?

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  5. It was definitely a lot of scrolling to get here. One of my most memorable and funniest scenes of literature is where Huck and Jim are arguing about why French people don’t speak English, somewhere around Chapter 14 or 15. I still laugh every time I read that section.

    Shakespeare’s comedies are certainly “comedic” for lack of a better word, but as they were written to be funny, one could certainly put them in this category, though I have always found prose to be far more humorous than verse. maybe people have a natural tendency to find prose much more palatable than verse which makes the humor more readily available to understand without puns or figurative language devices.

    Speaking of humor, what I have never found to be funny are those scenes that people view as scenes of “comic relief” in certain Shakespeare plays. To me, not funny at all.

    Most of Twain’s work still makes me laugh.

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    • Yes, much scrolling, Eric. Sorry about that. I still wish the blank comment box could appear above rather than below all the comments, but that might be unchangeable. I couldn’t find anything in my blog’s setting to do that.

      Thanks for reminding me of that funny Huck and Jim scene, one of many very humorous moments in that seriocomic classic.

      Like you, I tend to find prose more funny than verse — and your reason for that makes sense.

      As you might have seen, there has been some discussion in the comments area about how funny Shakespeare may or may not be to today’s readers.

      I agree — Twain remains hilarious, 114 years after his death. Some of his reference are dated, of course, but most still feel universal.

      Thanks for the excellent comment!

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  6. So long as we could agree that hallucination might be considered, if one can jot it down and make it real, a kind of fiction, then I nominate Hunter S. Thompson for another achingly funny writer of fiction, though it is fiction that uses reality as a springboard to itself: “Fear and Loathing One the Campaign Trail”. I remember laughing till tears fell reading about Muskie and Ibogaine.

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    • jhNY, I like your thesis of hallucination as fiction!

      The only Hunter S. Thompson book I’ve read is “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” and it was hilarious. It’s labeled a novel in Wikipedia. Is that accurate? I read it a LONG time ago, but I (perhaps falsely) remember it as a chronicle of a real-life journey — albeit a highly exaggerated, distorted chronicle. Perhaps Thompson’s writing skill fooled me into thinking I was reading nonfiction.

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      • Hemingway was in WWI, on the Italian front, wrote “Farewell To Arms” about an American on the Italian Front. It was fiction, because although he was there and did some of the things he described and witnessed some of the things he described, and heard stories from witnesses to things that he described or made to take place in the storyline of his book, some of the things in his book were made up entirely, some could have been but weren’t, etc.

        Thompson went to Vegas or the Democratic Convention, or wherever, and described things that happened and some that didn’t, people who were present and people who weren’t, made-up people entirely when it suited his purposes, and occasionally made deep and insightful portraits in between slapdash caricatures.

        I can’t come up with some formal and consistent set of distinctions between what the two writers did on paper, except this: that making a character seem real is easier if the character is already a public figure and thus the beneficiary of other news coverage and publicity and even caricature– you build on something already there. Making a fictional character seem real, made as it is out of several parts of several people and some parts wholly manufactured by the author, looks to me like the more difficult task, and more like art.

        Even harder to parse: “A Moveable Feast”– there are passages therein remembered vividly and very differently by other witnesses and participants, and some contemporaries accused Hemingway of making up things to suit himself, using nothing but his imagination for source. And there are a good many things in it that Hemingway got right, according to contemporaries.

        Maybe Thompson was a fiction writer the way Hemingway was a journalist in “A Moveable Feast”.

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        • Excellent thoughts and insights, jhNY, and I love your Hemingway/Thompson comparison. Fiction and nonfiction can really get blurred with certain writers and certain books — and, to sort of quote the “Seinfeld” phrase, there’s nothing wrong with that.

          Melville did similar things with several of his books that were called novels, mixing fact (from his sea voyages as a young man) with fiction to create some new hybrid. Those books included “Typee,” “Omoo,” “Redburn,” and “White-Jacket” — all pre-“Moby-Dick” works ranging from good to very good.

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  7. Great stuff here, Dave. I wish I had n=more time today to re-read some of those wonderfully funny books from back in the day.

    People also forget what a hoot Graham Greene could be, given that he wrote all those deeply disturbing novels. For my money, “Monsignor Quixote” and “Our Man in Havana” are wet-the-undies inducing!

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    • Thanks, Telly! Yes, finding enough time to read and reread — including books and excellent newspaper columns such as yours — is always an issue. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      I’ve never read Graham Greene, and didn’t know he also had a humorous side. After seeing your comment, I will try to get to one of his funny or serious books in the not-too-distant future!

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  8. Great column Dave. It took me awhile to find this site – I’ve been wondering why it’s been so long since you’ve posted on HP. Anyway, you mentioned “Tobacco Road” which I just read. My wife read it first, and told me “This is the worst book I’ve ever read – you have to read it”. I didn’t quite know what to make of this story, which one critic at “Slate” referred to as “a greasy hairball of a book”. I was fascinated. Just when you think one character cannot be any more god-awful, another character outdoes the first. My wife has taken up the habit of calling me “Jeeter” whenever I procratinate my weekend chores. I tell her to be careful, or she I’ll start treating her like the elder Mrs. Lester. I love it when Jeeter falls down in the fields, and is too lazy to even stand up. I recommend this as a great reading experience for anyone who has not read it.

    Another book I recently completed is “Journey to the Center of the Earth”. This was quite humorous – the interactions between the nutty professor, the timid nephew, and the stoic Icelandic guide. I love revisiting these “boy books” as an adult.

    Also – Cannary Row has been mentioned several times. It’s been many years since I’ve read this, but I’ve always wanted to try a “beer milk shake”

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    • drb19810, wonderful to hear from you!!! I’ve greatly missed a number of HP commenters, including you, who I couldn’t figure out how to reach to tell them about this new blog.

      While I haven’t “resigned” from HP (how can one “resign” from an unpaid “job”?!), I’m not sure I’ll be writing for the site again. As a blogger there, I just got tired of the stuff that HP readers also got tired of — the Facebook deal, the deleting of unobjectionable comments, the delays of hours or days to post comments, etc. And I didn’t like the ending of anonymity, either.

      Anyway, to respond to your comment: Yes, there are few admirable characters in “Tobacco Road” (sort of the same with Caldwell’s “God’s Little Acre”). But the novel is extremely funny, and I think the author is also making some kind of statement about poverty and the behavior that might result. Hilarious the way characters from the book have become part of (or threaten to become part of) your family conversations!

      Wow — I read “Journey to the Center of the Earth” so long ago that I forgot it had humorous elements. Thanks for reminding me!

      A beer milkshake should be on almost everyone’s bucket list. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for the excellent comment, and I look forward to more of them. I hope to put up a new post this Sunday night.

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    • Have never read “Tobacco Road”, as I was born in NC and raised (or reared, as those who liked fine distinctions preferred) in TN, always figgering it would be Kallikaks with a drawl. But if it’s really funny, I’ll dig it out– even if the joke’s on me, or my neighbors.

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  9. Dave, I tried and tried to come up with comic writers and came to the conclusion that I have no sense of humor. But just now I remembered Ring Lardner. His humor is very dry and ironic, tinged with melancholy and warmth at the same time. Alibi Ike is his most famous story.

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    • Jean, thanks for mentioning Ring Lardner! I’ve only read a little of his work (perhaps one or two of his short stories and one or two of his sports columns), but I remember enjoying it.

      I just looked up Lardner’s Wikipedia entry, and it seems he was friends with F. Scott Fitzgerald (and possibly a model for a “Tender Is the Night” character) as well as an influence on Ernest Hemingway.

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    • Is that story part of “You Know Me Al” , his epistolary tome writ as by a baseball player, or something else entirely? Long ago, I did read You Know etc., but I can’t recall much about it except he was a bastid with no self-awareness, and that he always signed off ‘yer pal’, which I have used ever since on letters to: pals.

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  10. One of my favorite living writers Milan Kundera’s first novel was built on a series of cosmic jokes placed on four or five characters in the Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia in the late 50s through the early 60s it’s title The Joke. Thing is though while it is a brilliant and thought provoking novel ,as is everything Kundera wrote, it’s just not funny. It occurs to me that there are very few foreign language works in the comments below. I think in general Satire, parody and outright jokes just don’t translate well , perhaps broad based humor and farce, especially in plays fares better but in the end if it needs a foot note the joke loses it’s edge. I would also submit that a cosmic joke of sorts has been played on Mr. Kundera and others like him as since the end of the cold war fiction set in formerly communist environments and all the concerns contained therein are completely out of intellectual fashion. A shame because a lot of those works deserve to be read beyond the political import. The Unbearable Lightness of Being in particular, don’t make the mistake of viewing the art house style movie made from that one though.

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      • Funny “postscript,” Donny! Your shortening of “Anonymous” to “Anon” reminded me that the Natty Bumppo character in five of James Fenimore Cooper’s novels used to say “Anan” as a substitute, I think, for “What?” or “What did you say?” or “Please repeat that.”

        As for your main comment, very interesting thoughts about humor being hard to translate and keep funny. You have a point there, though I can think of a few hilarious exceptions — such as Colette’s written-in-French “Claudine in School” and Italo Calvino’s written-in-Italian “Marcovaldo” (both mentioned in my post and the latter author recommended to me by you this past spring). There are also occasional funny moments in Balzac’s “The Magic Skin,” and Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” and “The Brothers Karamazov,” to name a few more.

        Also, great insights about Cold War-era fiction. Sort of like how (from what I’ve read) Nadine Gordimer’s novels lost a bit of their footing when South Africa’s brutal apartheid era ended.

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        • Absolutely, the general comedy life can be can be gotten across in translation and Calvino’s works occurred to me. It is more things like straight up jokes, puns and word play I think that are harder to appreciate as they often depend on fine nuance of language, the same is true of much great poetry to some degree . Kundera by the way is a much more experimental and fanciful writer than the often hard edged Nadine Gordimer .

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          • I see your distinction, Donny. It has to be a lot easier to translate general humor than specific jokes, puns, etc. — the latter not only having certain language nuances but also often having certain cultural attachments.

            Great point about poetry, too.

            I have eagerly put Kundera on my list, which is growing so large that it will be a struggle to translate all those to-be-read titles to have-been-read titles. ๐Ÿ™‚ But to sort of paraphrase FDR, “I welcome that struggle”!

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    • “The Good Soldier Schweik” was a favorite book of my father’s, and I’ve read it, and it is funny, though I doubt today so much as it was when it first appeared, and I have no doubt that it might be most funny in its original Czech– but neither my father or I have that language under our belts. Translation may well have rubbed off some of the finer detail, but as it’s mostly broad stuff to begin with, I doubt the loss is great.

      There is a bit of dark funniness throughout Walser’s “The Assistant” also, and I find Celine can be a cynical sort of hoot in places.

      I do think the more localized the humor, the less likely it travels well, and I also think that a bit of knowledge of national culture makes for a better understanding of context.

      There is also a fondness for cynical and ironic satire, especially as directed against religious and government institutions, among the European authors who have struck me funny. And their contemporary readership seems to find a sort of naughty thrill in seeing it done, especially in places where church and state are intertwined, probably because, historically speaking, such ideas in print were made at the risk of the author’s mortality.

      So, I guess I sorta agree that humor translates only so well, but believe it does translate better than somewhat, because I have found laughs among the books I have cited, and more.

      Given the specific peculiarities of context, history, wordplay within the language, etc., I think your comment might just as generally be applied to anything literary from other lands– but that when we go to a book expecting something funny, if we do not laugh, we know it.

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      • jhNY, I’ll mostly step aside to let Donny respond, but you posted an eloquent, impressive comment! I did read “The Assistant” (I’m sure you were one of the people who recommended it to me), and there were certainly some darkly humorous moments in it — translation and all!

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      • Interestingly JH Mr. Kundera has written pretty extensively on Jaroslav Hasek’s novel as an under appreciated masterpiece. I take your point about something being lost in translation for any work of literature but it seems to me it’s a question of degree. While certain that had I read Crime and Punishment in the original Russian rather than the often disparaged Constance Garnett version I would have been even more shaken up from my encounter with Raskolnikov as it was it still took weeks to recover. I don’t know more than ten or so words of French and though I take for true critics are correct that Flaubert’s prose in his native language is close to perfect and his search for le mot juste mostly successful that doesn’t change the fact that when I finished Madame Bovary I not only felt I knew intimately Emma ,a woman with whom on first glance I’d had have no interest or use for, but understood with awe his famous remark c est moi on completing the book. I am not arguing that humor or comedy can’t be translated from one language ,time, or culture in a broad sense but that the humor and actual jokes specific to actual words can’t , this is less true of other aspects of great fiction in my opinion though more so concerning poetry.

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        • It’s weird, isn’t it, that we might be moved by things that were we only more adept among languages, we would know had been most imperfectly and unsatisfactorily done? That is my thought re Constance Garnett, at least, who being first to make a translation into English from Russian, is often cited as being first in appearance only, and way down the numbers as a translator. Still, I’ve got A Sportsman’s Sketches here by her, first edition, and I like having it, if for no better reason than I like having the version so many, like Hemingway for example, read in the Twenties and found good.

          In college, I read an early, if not the first translation of Madame Bovary into English, by Karl Marx’s daughter or grand-daughter, I don’t remember which, and it too received little praise and much abuse– still, I was bowled over by the novel and the author. I have a better translation with me now, but nonetheless, I can’t deny the power of my first exposure to that novel, which managed to move the stars despite all the dancing bears.

          Maybe it’s something like cover songs, this phenomenon– some of the most outlandish work well on their own terms, despite keeping no or nearly no faith with the original– because the essence, words and vocal melody, remains largely intact.

          Of course, ideally it would be nice to know when you reading the equivalent of Devo’s “Satisfaction”, so that you know to seek out a copy band of the Rolling Stones if you really want to hear the thing as conceived. The best copy band will make the switching of the fuzz box on and off a part of their performance, just as it sounds in the original recording. Still, that Devo version is a hoot and a great single in its own right.

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          • jhNY, as you might know, Britney Spears also did a cover of “Satisfaction” that was (not surprisingly) gruesome. I heard it when my then-pre-adolescent daughter was a Britney fan, before her (daughter’s) musical tastes greatly matured. ๐Ÿ™‚

            (More terrific conversation between you and Donny!)

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            • I confess a more than passing fondness for her song “Toxic”, as it reminded me of Egyptian pop music, and reminded me of just how much cross-cultural stuff has been taking place since our monomaniacal focus on the Middle East and its treasures underneath post-9/11. As an example, the Spears offering has the advantage of being comparatively benign, its title notwithstanding.

              Had no idea she covered “Satifsaction”. Perhaps one day I will pass by someplace blaring music out onto the sidewalk and that will be the program. Till then, my curiosity will likely go unsatisfied, as I am no downloader and all the record stores nearby once are no more.

              Richard Thompson did a performance of “Oops I Did It Again” on a live recording some years back, pointing out that its chord structure was medieval, and it surely is, despite the videoed misdirection of modern schoolgirl skirt-length.

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              • For your listening pleasure…

                Yes, benign is one word to describe Britney Spears’ music, at least her early stuff — though some of those songs were undeniably catchy.

                Loved your paragraph about Richard Thompson! His “Oops” cover must have been a brilliant piece of parodistic performance art!

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                • That was a long 4+ minutes out my life. Had no idea you had a touch o’ the old sadist in you till today. That’s one revival that should have stayed dead. Pro tip: modulation, though not always, is very often, as in this example, a sign of an unimaginative musical imagination, deriving from a poverty resident in the original material or as in this example, the reconception of same.

                  But thanks, regardless, for your efforts to prove your one word review, “gruesome”, was spot-on.

                  Actually, the Richard Thompson thing is more interesting to hear about than to hear, or at least it was to me when I did..

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                  • Yes, a totally wasted four-plus minutes. Sorry about that. Thanks for the musical analysis that Britney Spears desperately needed!

                    Brings back a memory of my older daughter wanting a Britney Spears video for her birthday (we still had a VCR back then). So I dutifully trooped to the now-gone Tower Records in the East Village and, totally embarrassed, asked for one. They had it in stock. Not very East Village of them…

                    I just listened to Richard Thompson’s version of “Oops I Did It Again” on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V4WGsMplGxU). Actually, not that bad. His typical excellent guitar work, and even some audience sing-along!

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                    • Sorry if what I wrote came across as a dig on Thompson’s performance. It’s just that the song is still no better than it was, even after being placed in its proper musical-harmonic context by a master. I was told about it before I saw it, and I had what I’d call my “Blazing Saddles” Reaction. When that movie came out, my two closest friends of the time described/acted out many scenes to me, and they were so funny at it that the movie itself was a bit of a let-down. Similarly, the fellow who showed me the Thompson performance of “Oops…” me had made more of it than I would have, which made my reaction less than I wish it could have been.

                      Hey! I still have a VCR and a 78 player, and turntable for lp’s and cd player….

                      Last time I walked into Tower Records, I walked from one end to the other unaccosted by salespeople or the sight of any records. When I found one of the former, and a purple-haired one at that, I asked: So am I correct in saying that there are no longer any records in Tower Records? He grunted affirmatively, and I left.

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                    • I hear you, jhNY. Thompson greatly improved the song, but, as you note, it’s still a VERY bad song.

                      Speaking of humor, “Blazing Saddles” was indeed hilarious — though I was lucky to not have anyone act it out before I saw it.

                      Great that you still have all that old musical hardware! I do have a phonograph of relatively recent vintage (with a built-in CD player), but that’s about it. We may have discussed this before, but I have about 100 albums left, and perhaps a 100 or so 45’s.

                      First no records, and then no Tower Records. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ That’s a melancholy tale you told. I think TR is out of business (at least in the brick-and-mortar sense; there might be an online remnant).

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              • I actually love the Richard Thompson Thousand Years of Music project , especially his witty treatment of the Ms. Spears oddity . He is definitely an artist that doesn’t quite get his due ,if it were only his contribution to the early Fairport Convention and their brilliant introduction of classic English folk to modern ears he’d have a place in music history but his solo stuff is consistently marvelous.

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                • Yes, Richard Thompson hasn’t gotten the due he deserves, though, as you know, he does have a very loyal following. I suppose the early-’80s “Shoot Out the Lights” album, with his then-wife Linda, was his highest-profile moment.

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                • Haven’t followed him down all the long years, but like him whenever I happen to happen on him, nearly always. Loved me some “Henry the Human Fly”, his first solo lp when it came out, and a bit later on in his career, the song “Calvary Cross” put a shiver up my back for real.

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                  • Just listened to “Calvary Cross.” Superb.

                    I’ve had a similar experience with Thompson — liking what I’ve heard over the years, but never following him closely and not owning any of his albums.

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    • I was just thinking of one humorous foreigner earlier, which is Nikolai Gogol. In some respects he’s the Russian Charles Dickens. His unfinished novel ‘Dead Souls,’ is based on an absurd premise, in which a con man buys up the deeds on ‘dead souls’ i.e. serfs and resells them or something to that effect. It’s been almost 40 years since I read that novel although I hope to re-read it in the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation sometime. I can’t vouch for how effectively the humor translates but I do know that several of his stories are absurd such as “The Nose,” in which the main character’s nose escapes from him and starts passing himself off as a titular consul or something to that effect. In this sense, it’s almost a forerunner of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis,’ in which Gregor Samsa finds that he’s becoming a roach (?). I need to read that one as well one of these days. Even Dostoevsky, that hymn-singer of the frenzied and tortured madmen, had occasional flights of humor, as in his own Gogol-inspired ‘The Double.” There’s a famous quote from him–“We are all emerging from Gogol’s ‘Overcoat.’ That story, of course, concerned a poor clerk who is mugged and has his overcoat stolen, dies of cold and starvation and comes back to haunt people as a thief of overcoats. So these stories are built on absurd, if not outright hilarious premises.

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      • Having read “The Overcoat”, I can attest to its comic portrait of the most minor possible functionary and the agonies, practical and monetary, he undergoes to first have the coat made, and then after, when he is relieved of it. Can’t say I laughed more than I felt awful for the little fellow’s bad handling by a absurd Providence.

        In any case, you have inspired me to seek out “Dead Souls”, as the premise looks most promising, even if the book is unfinished. Thanks!

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        • jhNY, “Dead Souls” is definitely worth the time. Meanders a bit here and there, but riveting when Gogol is clicking on all cylinders.

          After the way you and bobess48 skillfully described “The Overcoat,” my to-read list is now “wearing” it!

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            • Yes, and what a story “The Overcoat” is! I just reread it online because of the discussion here.

              There’s much about it that reminds me of Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” published 11 years later. Two very downtrodden copyists. Wonder if that Melville story was influenced by Gogol’s haunting, melancholy tale?

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              • I’d guess only a thorough check of the history of translation of “The Overcoat” into English would tell you, but I’m guessing, nope. Unless Melville read Russian. Can’t imagine he did. Otherwise, there’s likely to be a lag between Russian pub date and English translation that’s longer. The Constance Garnett translation into English of “A Sportsman’s Sketches”, for example, didn’t appear until decades after its initial appearance.

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                • Excellent point, jhNY. As you note, there might not have been an English translation between 1842 and 1853.

                  Great authors can end up exploring somewhat similar themes independently of each other, and that is probably what happened.

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                  • Yep,. In 1980, at the height of the hostage crisis, some friends put together a song at a major studio called “Surfin’ Ayatollah” which featured the words: “He’s the meanest mullah north of Angola/He’s the surfin’ ayatollah.” Produced with gorgeous Beach Boys harmonies and Wrecking Crew instrumentation. They got a meeting with a record exec as soon as they had finished recording, and everybody wanted to get this thing out onto the airwaves ASAP. As my friends were literally piling into the car to cross LA and meet with the record guy, a song came on the radio: “Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Bomb Iran.” Without saying a word, they walked back inside. I was there. Watched the whole thing happen.

                    Led me to a concept I call The Gnat Idea– there are some formulation and notions so zeitgeisty and reachable by many members of a culture or historical period that they can appear simultaneously or very nearly,entirely without consultation or coordination. It’s like gnats in the summer: you can reach out your hand anytime you’ve sat long enough on a park bench and come up with a gnat. They’re all over the place, and require no great effort or insight to be captured.

                    Obviously, it hardly means the Gnat Idea has no significance or value. Just that it’s widely available.

                    The office drone was a newish concept, and most of them were situated in government offices, at the time both items were written. Intelligent writers, turning over the circumstances and the likely personalities involved, came up with comparable treatments.

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                    • A real shame for your friends that such an idea was in the zeitgeist of the time. Your gnat theory says it all.

                      The office drone was indeed becoming a “type” back then, as much of the world moved from a predominantly agrarian economy to at least partly an urban, industrialized one.

                      Melville/Gogol mash-up: “I would prefer not to…get my new overcoat stolen.”

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      • Thanks for your great comment, bobess48!

        I read “Dead Souls” a couple of years ago, and while it’s not LOL funny — possibly because I didn’t read it in the original Russian ๐Ÿ™‚ — it was indeed very amusing, absurd, and memorable.

        “Metamorphosis” was also quite humorous in a chilling sort of way.

        I agree that Dostoyevsky, who was SO serious in much of his work, could be comedic at times. Perhaps more so in “The Brothers Karamazov” than “Crime and Punishment.” In “Brothers,” the rivalry between Dmitri Karamazov and his vile father over the same woman (Grushenka) has its painful-laughter moments, as does the scene of all that drinking and eating just before Dmitri is arrested. And Ivan Karamazov’s legendary talk with the devil is in some ways one of the most high-wire hilarious chapters in literature.

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      • I love all of Gogol’s works and while I find his characters often amusing and parts of his absurd plots funny the sense one gets is much more that of a surreal and dark universe rather than a comedic one in my opinion, it also has been speculated by historians that the purchase of “dead souls” as part of a complicated scam to borrow money on low interest would have actually worked.

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        • Surreal more than comedic — great way of looking at it, Donny. Surreal can of course be funny in a way, but it’s mostly…surreal.

          As for your other comment this morning, “Crime and Punishment” is indeed so powerful and so unnerving that if it’s even more powerful and unnerving in the original Russian — wow!

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  11. I’m late to the party, Dave, and that’s no laughing matter! Especially when you write about a subject near and dear to my heart – humor. Lovvvvve Mark Twain – the smartest humorist ever, I believe. And next it would have to be our beloved Jerry Zezima and his hilarious books, “Leave it to Boomer” and “The Empty Nest Chronicles.” LOL smiley face emoticons in “Crime and Punishment!”

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    • Not very late, Cathy — the post is only three days old!

      Thanks for your great comment. I agree that Mark Twain was an amazing humorist, who could be hilariously silly, savagely satirical, or both.

      And while I didn’t include nonfiction in my column, Jerry Zezima is indeed hilarious — both via the written word and verbally. He should be elected president of some organization… ๐Ÿ™‚

      Looking forward to YOUR humor book!

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  12. Not on topic, except that it’s sorta funny:

    Today I saw a shark jumping a shark: Arianna has given Dr. Phil a regular outlet on HP. How low exactly is the lowest common denominator?

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    • Ouch! Hadn’t heard that. HP is moving further and further from its (allegedly) progressive roots. Lowest common denominator indeed, and “online-tabloid-y.”

      “…a shark jumping a shark” — LOL! (That was LOL, not AOL… ๐Ÿ™‚ )

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    • jhNY, another thread seems to have reached its limit, so I’m replying here! You wrote, in reply to my comment about literary power couples:

      As for other authorial power couples: the Brownings, Bob and Liz.

      Also: Rimbaud and Verlaine, though thereโ€™s was a most tempestuous and doomed pairing, involving outraged wife and contemporaries and also, in the pairโ€™s self-imposed exile, a firearm.

      Ann Rice and her husband Stan Winston (I think), though it does lower the tone of our exchange to mass-market. And in fairness, Stanโ€™s poetry got read mostly by Rice fansโ€“ and I think a hubby poem or so might have made it into one of her increasingly weighty, increasingly tedious tomes.

      And who could forget Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron? God knows, each tried to.

      Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee? Each has written books that Iโ€™m nearly certain someone besides reviewers has read.

      And a sorta stretch: Thea Von Harbou and Fritz Langโ€“ she novelist and screenwriter, he, director, to my way of seeing things, one of the most influential in history, if for no better reason than how much Hitchcock learned about making movies by watching Lang. โ€œSpionenโ€ is my fave of their collabos, but they also teamed to make โ€œMetropolisโ€ and โ€œThe Gambler Mabuseโ€ (a close second) and โ€œFirst Woman in the Moonโ€, if memory serves.

      My reply:

      The Brownings! How did I forget them? “Bob and Liz” — LOL! Sometimes, author nicknames are hilariously inappropriate. Chuck Dickens? Annie Bronte? Nat Hawthorne? Hank James?

      Thanks, also, jhNY, for naming all those other wordsmith couples. Your Ephron/Bernstein and Quinn/Bradlee lines were VERY funny.

      Speaking of Hitchcock, his wife Alma Reville was certainly a very strong partner in his work.

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      • I’m going to be using ‘Hank’ James from now on, in my thinking on the man, as it makes him seem so accessible and without any pretense save the pretense of presenting himself as ordinary, which is a pretense foisted on him by me, and is otherwise unsupportable, as he lacked the common touch and no doubt loathed the touch of commoners, unless like some other elitists who fancied rough trade, he did not do so behind closed doors, or at least not always.

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        • Now THAT’S impressive writing, jhNY! Quite a comment. ๐Ÿ™‚

          What little I’ve read of Henry James I’ve mostly liked, and I will eventually read more of his brilliant works. But he did seem to have somewhat of an elitist streak in his writing and in his attitude on life (from the small amount I know about him). There’s something to be said for more “down to earth” authors such as John Steinbeck, though I admire all types of authors.

          And James had mixed feelings about “Middlemarch”!!!!!! (Which he reviewed.) To me, George Eliot is one of the greatest novelists who ever lived.

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          • Aspiring Englishmen have a subset: those who aspire to the upper classes. Of course, when James was busy at it, and succeeding more than a bit, London was the capital of the largest empire ever known– not hard to see the attraction.

            But such aspirations can turn on a fellow from overseas who has risen in English society, as I am reminded by something I read only yesterday, in an excellent book by Claud Cockburn, “The Devil’s Decade.” The man to whom the following sentence was directed (by a Churchillian Tory at the Thirties’ end) was a naturalized American millionaire who had just so aspired and succeeded, while also being a Nazi sympathizer:
            “I suppose I ought not be surprised to see you betraying the interests of your adopted country in the supposed interest of your adopted class.”

            In James defense, I must say it makes sense for him to have ambled over there, as there was at the time so much repose and decorum to be drawn on in high society, that he might have reasonably expected many there who would be able to sit still and nod obligingly at, perhaps even comprehend, his long phrases lashed together between pauses for breath in their drawing rooms.

            Sorry he had ‘mixed feelings’ re the George Eliot book. But it’s also true he had ‘mixed feelings’ about most everything.

            Me, most of all, I admire him for the reason I admire most of my favorites: his narrative voice. And I love the way he makes some of his sentences work, the way a phrase two lines down has a completely unexpected effect on the the meaning of an earlier one, and thus, the whole she-bang.

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            • Superb comment, jhNY!

              The interests of class over country — so typical of some of the rich, including much of America’s “One Percent” in our present times.

              Yes, one can see why Henry James had the aspirations he did, and lived the life he did — though I doubt it would have been my “cup of tea” even if I had lived back then.

              All I’ve read of James is “The Turn of the Screw” and “Daisy Miller.” What are your favorites of his?

              “bobess48,” who often (brilliantly) comments here, is a big fan of James’ work.

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              • I often recommend to people new to Henry James to start with the novellas, particularly “The Aspern Papers,” “Daisy Miller,” and, for exposure to the late style, “The Altar of the Dead” or “The Beast in the Jungle,” which is ultimately one of the most penetrating, aching stories of lost opportunity I’ve ever read. There are also excellent stories such as “The Real Thing” and “the Pupil.” If you want to embark further into novel territory, I’d recommend ‘The American’ and then ‘The Portrait of a Lady’ before attempting later tomes such as ‘The Ambassadors’, ‘The Wings of the Dove’, or ‘The Golden Bowl.’ James’s own critical evaluations of great authors is often baffling. Despite being heavily influenced by Eliot, especially in something like ‘Portrait of a Lady,’ he indulged in a bit of highly erudite, civilized yet ultimately snarky idol-shattering criticism. He referred to Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’ as a loose, baggy monster and I wonder if he even bothered to read Dostoevsky. He did like Dickens and Balzac and they were early models for him. Even his friend Edith Wharton, whose subject matter and intense psychological insight were right up his literary alley he picked apart. Despite all that, he remains a literary master and for me somehow I was ready to dig beneath that convoluted, overanalytical veneer to see the passionate intensity pulsating beneath the surface. His sentences could be foreboding and forbidding but they could also be mazes of lush, beautiful vegetation. There was usually an exposure of hypocrisy along with heavy doses of irony and moral stance-taking, especially in his Americans-in-conflict-with-older-European culture/tradition stories. As far as nicknames, I believe that his family called him ‘Harry’, when he was young. Half a century later he might have been confused with the jazz trumpeter Harry James, if he’d chosen to continue with the nickname or informal shortening of his name which, in recent years, even presidents have done (I’m looking at you, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton).

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                • Also interesting, though not fiction: ” The American Scene”.

                  I defer to you entirely bobess48, and find no fault, and more to read, in your recommendations.

                  As for being mistaken for that other Harry, he hadn’t the lip for it.

                  I wonder, and don’t know: what did he think of Stendahl?

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                • bobbess48, thanks for the erudite and entertaining comment! Eloquent, too, especially in your description of Henry James’ sentences.

                  I know we’ve discussed “Harry” before, and I read (and was impressed with) “Daisy Miller” on your recommendation. For when I get to James again, I’ve refreshed my to-read list with some of the titles you just named above (some of them also recommended by you back in “the HuffPost days”). The “so many books, so little time” problem continues… ๐Ÿ™‚

                  James does sound like he got a bit huffy reviewing the work of certain other authors, including authors he admired and was influenced by. I guess some critics feel they have to say some negative things in order to be “real” critics.

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                  • I find it interesting that Henry James, not known for being a comic writer, has been discussed in this thread far more than most of the other comics that were mentioned in the original post. I’m not pointing the finger at anyone else. I’m as responsible for that trend as much as anyone. Just never thought of ‘Harry’ as an outside agitator or hijacker of discussions. In today’s world of short attention spans and ‘give it to me now IN SHORT SOUND BYTES’ he wouldn’t be able to get three words of one of his ponderous, deliberating and equivocating, labyrinthine phrases in edgewise before he’d find himself talking to one person–himself. Everyone else would have moved on to someone more clever with one-liners at the cocktail party.

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                    • I think it started with jhNY and I joking about nicknames (such as “Hank” James) that sound too casual for certain authors! But it IS ironic that James has been talked about so much in a discussion of comedic authors, comedic novels, and comedic book passages. The power of going off on tangents! ๐Ÿ™‚

                      Your lines about James’ phrases and the imagined cocktail party are inspired!

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  13. I must again bring up Terry Pratchett, probably the greatest living satirist. His way of subtly using modern issues and events in the fantasy setting of Discworld is far better than the other modern satirists I’ve read. He constantly leaves me laughing out loud.

    Another great book, though for children, is “Fortunately the Milk” by Neil Gaiman. It is about the adventures a Dad has while he is getting milk for breakfast.

    To often we ignore these genre gems for either more “literary” books or for our historical masters. It is hard to compete with Twain but you don’t have to, after all his work might be timeless but it is still dated by the issues it addresses.

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    • GL, you’re very welcome to bring up Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman again! I look forward to eventually reading both.

      As for your insightful third paragraph, I hear you! There are indeed many great genre authors and satirical authors today.

      Speaking of that, one of Margaret Atwood’s speculative-fiction-genre novels, “Oryx and Crake,” has some incredibly funny and satirical passages in what is mainly a sober story.

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        • If you end up reading it, I’d be very interested in hearing what you think of it! One theme of that apocalyptic novel is genetic engineering gone awry, which is of course horrifying — yet Atwood manages to find some dark humor in it (including extremely clever wordplay).

          Despite the book’s title, the main protagonist is a loner/survivor named “Snowman.”

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  14. Funny thing: As I tried to remember books that had made me laugh, the first two that came to mind were books that my mother fell into gales of laughter while reading aloud to my sister and me:

    1) Whichever of the Winnie the Pooh books wherein an attempt at a written birthday greeting comes out as ‘Hippy Pappy Bithuthday’, or something close.
    2) Booth Tarkington’s “Penrod Jashber”– a scene of fighting mayhem in which Herman and Verman are featured.

    I have had more than a few laughs out of books, but I think the laughs I shared with my mother and sister way back when might just be the most uproarious and the most enjoyable.

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    • Laughing together with the ones we love — can’t beat that, jhNY. Thanks for sharing those memories! I read a couple of the “Pooh” books, and they were indeed VERY amusing in parts — along with being warm.

      Didn’t realize Booth Tarkington had a funny streak! All I’ve read of his is “The Magnificent Ambersons,” in which I don’t remember much humor amid the compelling story. It also wasn’t funny when Hollywood sliced Orson Welles’ movie version of that novel!

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      • The Penrod books are full of turn of-the-last-century middle-class humor and settings. Hi-jinks involving eavesdropping on sister’s and boyfriend’s porch-swing dalliances, being forced into dancing school, boy to boy rivalries, etc. I enjoyed them as a sprat, but the world was a lot younger and me too.

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        • Thanks, jhNY, for that engaging description! Those books do sound like real period pieces when it comes to ways of having fun and getting into mischief. A more innocent time back then — except for the racism, sexism, etc. ๐Ÿ™‚ (Not necessarily in Tarkington’s books, but I do remember a few cringe-worthy scenes depicting African-Americans in “The Magnificent Ambersons.”)

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          • Herman and Verman are Black American young men, and, while often made sport of, do over the course of things seem to acquire a sort of admirability as forthright children of nature, who are brave and able at at least one crucial moment. They were my favorites among all the characters in the books.

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  15. So there’s a cat, who through diligence and access to great books, trains himself, first to read, and then, after some trial, learns to hold a pen and write– and the first memoir authored by a cat is produced, finds an enthusiastic editor, and a printer(!) But the cat, being cat-like, has mistaken the paper he has employed as scrap paper, and has written his autobiography over the proofs of another author’s memoirs, the Kapellmeister Kreisler, court composer, musician, stage designer, etc. The printers, being printers, reproduce all, and the result is a hybrid mishmash of two very different autobiographies, each of which must be extricated from the other by the reader by means of recognition supplied in the text.

    The cat is a confident writer, certain of his own greatness and the unique importance of his insights, and through the example of his own life, points up the unhealthy pride of certain dogs and the treachery of false friends among his cat acquaintances. The Kapellmeister concerns himself with court intrigues, alliances and crises, his own musical activities, tableaus vivant and allegorical presentations, and his mostly hopeless hopes for love. His personality seems to be of a more hesitant and diffident nature, as compared to the tomcat Muir’s.

    The author of this strange, enchanting and funny book is ETA Hoffmannn (he of the “Tales of Hoffmann,amongst which is the story that eventually inspired the Christmas favorite “The Nutcracker Suite”). “The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Muir” is its title, and it was written in 1821. The book proved to be popular, and was extended to three volumes– or two, but a third was planned (can’t recall)– but was left unfinished by Hoffmann because his inspiration for it, his own cat, died.

    I hope my description might tempt a reader or three to seek it out. It’s in paperback, a Penguin Classic.

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    • Sounds like an amazing book, jhNY — and a wonderful summary of it by you! Now on my list, in which the humorous books are growing by leaps and bounds (befitting an active cat). ๐Ÿ™‚

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      • It’s also very easily a kind of experimental novel– its very construction based on the conceits of printer error and unintended juxtapositions. I’ve never read anything quite like it– but I would,

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        • It IS nice to encounter novels that are not cookie-cutter in approach and content. Glad it was popular back then! That’s not always the case with something that original — then or now.

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  16. I recently read The Vacationers by Emma Straub,a funny,light read that deals with a disjointed NYC family that goes to Mallorca on a summer holiday. They disclose their true selves through honest,poignant actions that speak louder than words,this sets them all free. Each character gradually wears down their own protective shields. Its a summer romp,a crisp,delightful book.

    I agree with your mention of Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes,the film was also well received,first rate story and acting by Kathy Bates and the late Jessica Tandy. I have Flagg’s Standing In the Rainbow on my book shelf,its also a humorous read filled with nostalgia.

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    • “The Vacationers” sounds excellent, and has traveled to my to-read list. ๐Ÿ™‚ I appreciate the great summary of it!

      “Fried Green Tomatoes…” is wonderful, isn’t it? Funny, warm, poignant, pro-social justice — some of almost everything. I haven’t seen the movie, but I heard it’s terrific despite the Idgie and Ruth relationship being turned into more of a friendship than what is probably a love affair in the novel.

      Thanks, Michele, for the interesting and informative comment!

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  17. Hey Dave: I have a problem laughing at most so called comic fiction. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’ve been reading the later, more serious novels of Dickens that I have yet to experience a belly laugh or much more that a slight smile or chuckle. I’m going chronologically through the second half of his career, so after his last completed novel, the ‘probably just as bleak as ‘Bleak House’ ‘Our Mutual Friend’ and then, perhaps that fragment ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, I’ll zip all the way back to the beginning of ‘The Pickwick Papers.’ You’ve built me up to expect a gut-buster with that one, Dave! I have also never laughed at John Steinbeck’s or William Faulkner’s comic novels and definitely never at Jane Austen. I’m glad you mentioned ‘The Moviegoer’ which, admittedly, had no belly laughs but some humorous exchanges (‘Bill Holden exchange’; the little boy asking Binx to ‘do him like Akim’ (as in Tamiroff). The authors that HAVE consistently induced laughter for me are Mark Twain and his descendant, Kurt Vonnegut. There are several passages of hilarity running through most of Twain. Just for examples, Huck’s reference to ‘that little boy the Dolphin’ (he meant the Dauphin). Then there’s perhaps the funniest story I’ve ever read, “Journalism in Tennessee” in which the narrator, a city journalist reassigned to a newspaper in a backwoods settlement in Tennessee, refers to an incident in which the object of a piece of libel/slander in that local paper takes offense and speaks with his pistol. He’s a bad aim, unfortunately hitting the hapless narrator every time. There are passages such as ‘his bullet ended its career in the fleshy part of my thigh’ and something like, ‘nothing serious; merely a finger lost’. Vonnegut is hilarious up until his final writings where he was bitter (after G.W. Bush was elected) and said he found no humor in the world any more. Yet he laughed through WW II and the Cold War. In ‘Cat’s Cradle’, I recall, there’s the wife of the manufacturer, Hazel Crosby, who tells every Hoosier she meets to ‘call me mom’. Need I say more about Kurt’s brazen and audacious ‘Breakfast of Champions’ beyond mentioning ‘wide open beavers’ and Kurt’s drawing of an anus, which he incorporated forevermore in all of his signatures. Then there’s his last ‘novel’ ‘Timequake’ redeemable largely on the basis of one incident, from which I will only recount the punchline involving nudity, hiding in rafters and Chinese wedding bells–‘TING A LING, YOU SONOFABITCH!!’

    I also have memories of hilarious passages in some of poor unfortunate Richard Brautigan’s work. Humor often masks deep depression in certain authors. Unfortunately, Brautigan went the route of Hemingway. However, he did pen a few humorous lines before he went.

    With me I suppose, humor is an unpredictable force but some future literary artisan may force a laugh out of me yet.

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    • bobess48, I hope I didn’t build up “The Pickwick Papers” too much! But I did find it hilarious the one and only time I read it, as a teen. (My gut did survive. ๐Ÿ™‚ ) If I’m remembering right, I had the dim idea back then that most pre-1850 novels were not exactly brimming with humor. Then I read “Pickwick” (and later, Voltaire, Fielding, etc.), and realized that post-1850 authors ranging from Twain to Philip Roth of course had no monopoly on novelistic humor!

      I admire your Dickens reading odyssey! A long odyssey, but well worth it. I love almost all his work, including the later novels that didn’t have as much comic relief.

      We all have different things that make us laugh, so I’m not surprised that you haven’t chuckled at the lighter efforts of several authors you mentioned. I haven’t read a lot of Faulkner, but do remember some humorous moments in “Light in August” — many of those moments courtesy of the cluelessness of certain characters. Twain IS incredibly funny at times; I wonder if there’s anybody who doesn’t laugh when reading some of this work!

      Vonnegut is indeed also (darkly) funny — even his last, unfinished novel: “If God Were Alive Today,” which, as you probably know, is coupled with his first novel (“Basic Training”) in an edition called “We Are What We Pretend to Be.”

      Thanks again for recommending “The Moviegoer.” A quirky, memorable novel.

      You’re absolutely right about humor masking depression in some authors — as was obviously the case with another creative genius, Robin Williams.

      I appreciate your comment, which will provoke a lot of thought in all who read it.

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      • Actually, Dave, my Dickens reading has taken place over the last 35 years or so but every few years I’ve read another of those in the sequence. The first one that I read, ‘Oliver Twist’ was when I was still in college around 1976 (?). Then I read ‘Great Expectations’ in ’79, a couple of years later, ‘Bleak House, then back to ‘David Copperfield,’ forward to ‘Little Dorritt’, back to ‘Dombey & Son’, then on the next ones after ‘Little Dorritt’ over the subsequent 15-20 years, up to my re-reading of ‘Great Expectations,’ which I began on Dickens’ 200th birthday, Feb. 12 of 2012. Unlike my Proust marathon of five months in 1999, the Dickens odyssey has been decades in the embarking.

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        • That is long-term Dickens dedication, bobess48! Nicely spaced out, as you of course read many other authors.

          Most of my Dickens reading was during a relatively brief time (roughly ages 20 to 25). I read about a half dozen of his novels in a very intense junior-year-of-college “Dickens” course, than polished off most of the rest over the next half decade. It has now been so long since then that if I ever reread Dickens’ canon (which I’d like to do), it will almost seem like I’m enjoying the novels for the first time.

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    • A little askew of topic, but I always thought it odd that Shakespeare’s comedies nearly never struck me as such, apart from a smile or three, yet I laughed plenty reading Falstaff’s lines, so it’s not as if he couldn’t write humor.

      I’ve got a letter signed by Vonnegut. I have to say I will handle it with greater care now that I know that star thingy ain’t one….

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    • Hadn’t seen Brautigan’s name in print for a while– thanks for being reminded of this rarest of rare birds. Read a few poems today, by way of making a reacquaintance. There was never anyone like him in print, and there won’t be. How he managed to make beauty out of the dross of his life is no small miracle.

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  18. Hi, Dave! It’s surprising you haven’t mentioned “Cheaper by the Dozen”. It was written by Frank Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey…….I remember it as a very funny movie from the 50’s and while I haven’t read it since I was a kid (lost my copy) it struck me as being hilarious. It describes the trials and tribulations of growing up in a family of 12 in (gasp) Montclair, New Jersey. The parents are both time efficiency experts (true story) and they have won many awards in connection with their work. The book describes how they applied their efficiency methods to raising their family……with often unexpected results.

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    • I’ve heard a LOT about that book, but somehow have never read it despite living in Montclair since 1993. That’s not funny on my part, that’s pathetic… ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks, Anonymous, for mentioning “Cheaper By the Dozen,” and for summarizing it so well and so engagingly!

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        • Valerie, whatever you did, the above posted! ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for the attempt! If you decide to try again, I look forward to one of your knowledgeable, witty comments about literature!

          (I’m also going to put in the bottom of my column a bold-faced paragraph about commenting. I had it at the bottom of previous columns, but forgot to include it this time.)

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      • Laughing at being “anonymous”……..maybe I need to get one of those face mask thingys. I was QUITE impressed by the book and movie. They inspired me to apply time efficiency to quite a few of my chores. I also became quite proficient at speed reading as a result……to this day I am always conscious of expending the least amount of effort in order to streamline production. Sounds boring but it has been of great use to me in my life…….lol. Another book I quite enjoyed as a teenager was “Life With Father”. It was another true story and quite full of giggles as I recall. I just recently purchased a vintage copy and need to give it another read……..

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        • Oh, you were “Anonymous,” Valerie! Given where you placed your “punched in” comment, I should have known that! Under previous columns, I’ve had several other commenters post as “Anonymous” (deliberately or not), so that added to my temporary confusion. Funny line about face masks!

          Anyway, to reply to your follow-up comment: Sounds like the “Cheaper By the Dozen” book and film were not only entertaining but educational! Efficiency can be a very good thing when one is so busy with work and other things.

          Thanks for the mention of “Life With Father” — now on my (inefficiently long ๐Ÿ™‚ ) to-read list. Sounds very enjoyable, and it certainly inspired a successful play, movie, and TV series. THAT is impressive.

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          • I think the Steve Martin version of “Cheaper By The Dozen” was just an absolute shame…….the only thing that was true to the book was the title and the mother’s name. As for “Life With Father”, it is definitely a period piece. You can’t judge it by modern day views on how a family should work. The father was quite a stick in the mud, fussbudget and the mother seemed rather flighty BUT……..she sure knew how to get what she wanted in a seemingly artless manner. There was also a great love between the two of them……proving once again that opposites attract.

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            • You’re right, Valerie, the movie versions of some books barely resemble the original works. But they of course use the books’ titles for the built-in name recognition.

              I like period pieces. One gets a real sense of how life was at a certain time — whether more sexist, racist, etc., or, on the positive side, perhaps less cynical.

              Great description/analysis of “Life With Father”!

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  19. William S. Burroughs, author, gun enthusiast , inheritor of an adding machine fortune and junky is, to my way of reading things, a candidate for inclusion here, though certainly, he is known by most for other things (see description) than his very American and very dark humor. The musings and doings of Doc Benway, the purple-ass baboons, etc. that animate “Naked Lunch” make it nearly possible for non-fans of auto-asphyxiation, to read the chapter titled Hassan’s Rumpus Room in the middle of the work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Humor is such a wide-ranging thing. Some of it is very dark, and may seem UN-funny to many. But I kind of like that brand of humor when it’s done skillfully. Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian,” for instance, is one of the darkest, most violent “mainstream” novels I’ve ever read, by some of it is almost hysterically, self-guilt-inducing funny.

      All of which leads to me say that I bumped the iconic “Naked Lunch” a few notches up on my list. Baboons and humor — perfect together. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks, jhNY, for another first-rate comment!

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  20. As I’ve been reading the replies to this week’s topic, they have inspired me to read “Cannery Row” and “My Family and Other Animals”. Thanks, Everyone! Have a great week, Dave!

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    • That’s great, Pat! I hope you enjoy both! I plan to get to “My Family and Other Animals” myself within a month. And I’ve added more than a half dozen other books to my list after reading the comments here. (I probably should also add a book about speed reading. ๐Ÿ™‚ ) The comments, including yours, have been wonderful as usual.

      Have a great week, too!

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  21. Hi Dave, this is a great topic for this end of summer weekend, after the many horrible and depressing news stories of this past season. I hope things get better soon, but it unfortunately doesn’t seem likely. I’ve been trying without much luck to come up with any classic literature that made me laugh, other than the Jeeves books, although Jane Austen did have some very amusing comic characters, especially Mrs. Bennet and Mr. Collins.

    I agree wholeheartedly with Mary’s comment about “My Family and Other Animals,” as being the funniest book I’ve ever read. I’ve read most of Gerald Durrell’s books, and they are all good and very funny. I happen to love memoirs and just finished rereading Alexandra Fuller’s two memoirs of her childhood in Africa and especially about her fascinating mother (“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” and “Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness”). They are both extremely interesting (I’m fascinated by Africa), moving, and laugh out loud funny.

    As far as fiction books I’ve read in the last year or so that were quite humorous, there are all of Liane Moriarity’s books (a very witty Australian writer), “Where’d You Go Bernadette” by Maria Semple (sorry, Dave, about her first book); “The Family Fang” by Kevin Wilson; and John Green’s YA novels (especially “Paper Towns”).

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    • Yes, Kat Lib, the news this summer has been depressing on so many levels — Ferguson, the Ukraine, Gaza, Iraq. And, like you, I don’t see better news on the horizon. But it IS nice to laugh once in a while amid that.

      Several of Jane Austen’s novels are indeed funny in various spots, especially when she subtly (or not so subtly) skewers pretentious, hypocritical, and/or annoying characters!

      Wow — thanks for the enthusiastic seconding of Mary’s opinion of โ€œMy Family and Other Animals.” Can’t wait to read it! Memoirs can indeed be wonderful; the best ones are like reading a novel. Among my favorites — sort of a combination memoir and true story of an amazing feline — is Vicki Myron’s “Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World.”

      I remember you being a fan of John Green! I MUST try that renowned YA author one of these days.

      Actually, that first Maria Semple novel (“This One Is Mine”) had its moments — some of them very humorous! My local library never seems to have “Where’d You Go Bernadette” on its shelves. ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      Thanks for the great, wide-ranging comment!

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  22. Samuel Beckett (if absurdist laughs are your cup of tea, but we have to admit we are all are part of the joke): the futility of Waiting for Godot. It bears comparisons to the Myth of Sisyphus, the pursuit of futility; this is echoed in the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Flipping a coin repeatedly and getting heads is a laugh riot–to me. The possibility of nothing or nothing is possible.

    Echoing Sisyphus (although not literature), consider Laurel and Hardy’s attempt to deliver a piano up several flights of steep stairs in their (1932?) award-winning short, The Music Box. The “victims” of an absurd Cosmos are often presented in pairs and are eternally confused.

    Still in this ballpark, consider Woody Allen’s play, Play it Again, Sam. Allen’s character is desperate to meet a woman. He has the following exchange with a stranger in a museum, looking at a painting:

    Allen: It’s a lovely Jackson Pollock.

    Woman: Yes, it is.

    Allen: What does it say to you?

    Woman: It restates the negativeness of the universe. The hideous, lonely emptiness of existence. Nothingness. The predicament of man forced to live in a barren, godless eternity like a tiny flame flickering in an immense void with nothing but waste, horror and degradation forming a useless straightjacket in a black absurd cosmos.

    Allen: What are you doing Saturday?

    Woman: Committing suicide.

    Allen: What about Friday night?

    (the “lighter” side of bleak existence).

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    • I remember that Woody Allen-written conversation! Talk about hilariously dark humor. But, as is well known, there’s often a touch (or a ton) of tragedy behind humor. And absurdity, as you eloquently discuss.

      Your mention of Laurel and Hardy reminds me that the Marx Brothers sometimes had real literary types (such as S.J. Perelman) write or co-write their hilarious movies.

      Thanks, Joe, for your very funny, very insightful comment!

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      • Re paragraph 2: And George S. Kaufman!
        Re 3: I almost died, literally, all by myself in my lonely room one night while my wife was away, watching L&H in their attempt, as fish mongers, to cut out the middle man, buy a boat, fix it up and catch their wares themselves. I learned a valuable lesson: never expose oneself to such uproarious hilarity while simultaneously attempting to ingest Chinese take-out. I had broken out in a fit of helpless laughter at the moment a mouthful of beef with broccoli was but halfway down my throat. I couldn’t stop laughing, I couldn’t swallow, and I couldn’t breathe, but mostly I couldn’t stop laughing long enough (a mini-second?) to breathe or swallow. Scary, exhilarating and hilarious is too much all at once.

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        • That’s right, jhNY! George S. Kaufman had a hand in “The Cocoanuts,” “Animals Crackers,” and “The Night at the Opera.” (I just double-checked that online.)

          Wow — scary memory about your time eating while watching Laurel and Hardy. So glad it ended well. And I admire your restraint in not saying, “I almost died laughing.” ๐Ÿ™‚ But seriously, what happened to you had to be terrifying.

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          • And yet, I am happy somehow that it happened, as it really made me appreciate just how limitlessly funny Laurel and Hardy can be at their best. And how powerless I was (and am) to resist them.

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            • jhNY, by the way, I’m now about a third of the way through Elsa Morante’s “History.” Absolutely fantastic. The characters of Ida and her little son Giuseppe are masterfully drawn, and Giuseppe might be the most engaging kid I’ve ever encountered in literature. (The somewhat older Anne of “Anne of Green Gables” is up there, too.)

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                • Yes, the big picture stuff mixed with the “small picture” stuff is one of the book’s strengths. Not sure why “History” isn’t a more famous set-during-war novel. It deserves to be. Perhaps because it was written by a woman and features a woman protagonist?

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                  • It’s a mystery to me also, especially given her marriage to Alberto Moravia, who wrote, among other things “The Conformist” which in the 1970’s was made into a surreally beautiful and disturbing movie by Bernardo Bertolucci which was shown and acclaimed all over the world.

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                    • Yes, being married to another prominent person shouldn’t hurt in terms of things like getting one’s work widely seen! (Though I suppose one member of a couple — often the woman, given our sexist society — can end up in the shadow of the other.)

                      Makes me think of other authorial “power couples,” then and now. William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley and Percy Bysshe Shelley, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda Fitzgerald (well, she wrote one novel!), Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Stephen King and Tabitha King, among others. Can you think of some others?

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                  • Perhaps she failed to reach a wider audience because her overall political view seems skewed leftish, if not despairing of politics entirely.
                    (No more room in the thread, so I wrote you here.

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                    • That could be part of it, jhNY. I’m definitely noticing a progressive tilt in her very humanistic/pessimistic-about-politics novel. That tilt is fine by me, but I realize many media outlets, critics, and readers might not like that.

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                    • As for other authorial power couples: the Brownings, Bob and Liz.
                      Also: Rimbaud and Verlaine, though there’s was a most tempestuous and doomed pairing, involving outraged wife and contemporaries and also, in the pair’s self-imposed exile, a firearm.

                      Ann Rice and her husband Stan Winston (I think), though it does lower the tone of our exchange to mass-market. And in fairness, Stan’s poetry got read mostly by Rice fans– and I think a hubby poem or so might have made it into one of her increasingly weighty, increasingly tedious tomes.

                      And who could forget Carl Bernstein and Nora Ephron? God knows, each tried to.

                      Sally Quinn and Ben Bradlee? Each has written books that I’m nearly certain someone besides reviewers has read.

                      And a sorta stretch: Thea Von Harbou and Fritz Lang– she novelist and screenwriter, he, director, to my way of seeing things, one of the most influential in history, if for no better reason than how much Hitchcock learned about making movies by watching Lang. “Spionen” is my fave of their collabos, but they also teamed to make “Metropolis” and “The Gambler Mabuse” (a close second) and “First Woman in the Moon”, if memory serves.

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          • Funny, isn’t it, that of all the wits ’round the Algonquin table, Kaufman, at this point in history, is attached to the most enduring artifacts of the period: Marx Brother movies.

            Woolcott is seldom read, though he deserves better– most people only get to see him as the inspiration for the character in The Man Who Came To DInner, and are ignorant of the real man. A couple of Parker one-liners are still limping around, but most have been benched, Benchley is mostly now known for his movie shorts, and Fraklin P. Adams is known by few for anything much anymore.

            How many, if any, of the wits at table, say in 1930, would have imagined such outcomes?

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            • Yes, interesting that the Marx Brothers connection has kept Kaufman closer to the memory A-list than his fellow Algonquin wits. The Marx Brothers’ humor, while partly dated, has deservedly endured. Their movies still crack me up, as does Groucho’s one-liners (and superb delivery of those one-liners) in his subsequent TV career.

              As an aside, as I’m sure you know, Harpo was sort of an observer/member of the Algonquin table.

              Your second paragraph — all so true.

              One other Dorothy Parker legacy — in addition to some of her amazing wordplay and light verse, and a few fascinating short stories — is her willing all her money to Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement at her (1967) death.

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                • That surprised me, too, when I read a biography of her a few years ago. Parker seemed sort of liberal but not strongly so, and one thinks of her more as a pre-WWII phenomenon than someone associated in any way with the ’60s and civil rights. Like you, I was filled with admiration when learning of that bequest!

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          • Just ran into a funny Kaufman line this AM: after seeing Raymond Massey’s stage performance in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois”, he remarked:

            “Massey won’t be satisfied until he’s assassinated.”

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  23. Interesting Dave, I’ve always thought sustained humor and serious literature a tough balancing act to preform. I saw Catch 22 already listed and while the black humor in Heller’s novel is brilliant and Yossarian a truly remarkable creation I always found it tough to get emotionally invested in the story. I think this is almost always the case when being funny is a top objective. As a rule I believe the English and the Irish pull it off much better than anyone else. If I were to recommend one author who could make you laugh out loud while telling a story of people you could care about it would be Roddy Doyle and the so called Barrytown Trilogy. The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van ,the saga of a working class Irish family in a Dublin suburb. In the Snapper the just turned twenty Sharron gets knocked up after a drunken tryst with a married friend of her father’s in the parking lot of the local pub. Being a good Catholic she is keeping the baby but being a free spirited modern girl she has no intention of naming much less letting the biological father have anything to do with it. The Van begins with Jimmy Senior out of work due to a bad economy. He and his best friend Bimbo by an old van and turn it into a fish and chips truck. Their business takes off when during the progressing World Cup tournament an unlikely Team Ireland catches fire. As the humor in the books is never forced and rarely of the aggressive sort to give a fair example would require quoting long passages in context. Suffice it to say if you are looking for a read to keep a smile on your face it would be difficult to top Mr. Doyle’s three gems.

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    • “Iโ€™ve always thought sustained humor and serious literature a tough balancing act…” — there’s a lot of truth to that, Donny. Perhaps it’s a matter of serious literature often having periodic rather than sustained humor.

      I also didn’t get that emotionally invested in “Catch-22,” while loving its stellar satire.

      One author not mentioned in my post who does combine the light and the heavy more evenly than most is John Irving — though novels such as “The Cider House Rules” and “A Prayer for Owen Meany” are probably 75% serious/25% funny. Also, T.C. Boyle in “The Road to Wellville” mixes the hilarity and drama pretty well.

      Roddy Doyle is now on my list — thanks! I appreciate the summaries. You got me very interested in that author!

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      • T.C. Boyle absolutely ! I’d especially recommend his short stories as wonderful example of wit and some nice absurdism . The Descent of Man and Greasy Lake collections in particular, the former has a piece the conceit of which being a Madison Avenue adman is hired by the Iranian government post hostage crisis to do a PR campaign for the Ayatollah . It ends with the unholy Cleric wearing a N.Y. Yankees cap ,wow talk about mixing evil and irony ! I’m a BoSox fan by the by.

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        • Donny, that absurd T.C. Boyle tale sounds amazing! Even stranger than when the great Nelson Mandela wore a Yankees’ cap during his NYC visit 20-plus years ago.

          The only Boyle work I’ve read is the aforementioned “The Road to Wellville,” so I definitely need to eventually read more of his stuff.

          Speaking of that Boyle novel, I’ve occasionally toyed with the idea of writing a post about vegetarians in literature, but there may not be enough “meat” for that. ๐Ÿ™‚ “The Road to Wellville,” Geraldine Brooks’ “March,” and then I draw a blank. I’m sure I’m forgetting some works…

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  24. Another great title Dave…yes..”Cannery Row” by my all time favorite author John Steinbeck.
    Couple of names worth mentioning, I would not call them Novelists but their works would be the top of the list as notable American Essayists.

    Nora Ephon and her books of essays comes to my mind. One of the later ones โ€œI Feel Bad About My Neckโ€ on women of certain age and their costly maintenance on beauty rituals the author was compelled to follow as a reasonable maintenance. Then she spots a homeless grey haired gray-haired, bushy-browed, mustachioed woman and wakes up to the reality that she is only only about eight hours a week away from looking exactly like that woman on the street. Then there are so many other books by the author.

    Erma Bombeck and her books are worth mentioning. She was a housewife to begin with then became the funniest essayist of all times.

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    • John Steinbeck is great, isn’t he? Memorable characters and plots, a strong hatred of social injustice, and so funny when he wanted to be. The episodic “Cannery Row” is both humane and humorous!

      In the nonfiction area, Nora Ephron and Erma Bombeck were indeed very funny, in very different ways. (I guess Ephron wrote some fiction, too.) In addition to being a hilarious writer, Bombeck was also an extremely nice person — from everything I’ve heard and from talking with her on the phone a couple of times in the 1980s and 1990s. Never full of herself despite her books selling millions and her column appearing in about 700 newspapers.

      Thanks for the wonderful comment, bebe!

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      • That is awesome Dave, you had the pleasure of talking with Ms. Bombeck. Her personal life was like an open book her husband adored her, one time in a show they showed her in her own home in AZ..that was an awesome setting.

        “Do you know what you call those who use towels and never wash them, eat meals and never do the dishes, sit in rooms they never clean, and are entertained till they drop? If you have just answered, ‘A house guest,’ you’re wrong because I have just described my kids.”

        ~Erma Bombeck

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        • I was very lucky to be able to talk with Ms. Bombeck, but regretted never meeting her. She didn’t attend any of the columnist and newspaper conferences I covered. But, as you note, one knew a lot about her (and her family) from her wonderful columns.

          As you probably know, she was a University of Dayton graduate who lived in Ohio for many years (I believe Phil Donahue was her neighbor at one point). She moved to Arizona after visiting her friend, “The Family Circus” cartoonist Bil Keane, in Paradise Valley and liking that area a lot.

          Such a funny Bombeck quote you cited! Gives one an excellent idea of her brand of humor.

          Thanks, bebe, for the terrific comment!

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  25. I am so glad that you and my brother talked me into reading “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday”! Not only were the works hilarious, but I became so fond of the characters that I didn’t want their stories to end. After I finished “Cannery Row”, I eagerly dug into “Sweet Thursday”! So funny! So, so funny! But I was sad when the story ended.

    I adored “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”. I need to read it again, since I don’t remember details, but I know that I laughed out loud while reading it!

    At the risk of being repetitive, I will mention again that you need to read “My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell. It is not a novel. It is autobiographical and tells the story of a boy’s time on the Greek island of Corfu. It is the funniest book that I’ve ever read!

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    • Mary, so glad you liked those Steinbeck books! That he had a very humorous side was a revelation after novels like “The Grapes of Wrath” and “East of Eden” (mentioned in my column), “The Winter of Our Discontent,” etc. Those books were superb, and had a few funny moments, but nothing like “Cannery Row” and “Sweet Thursday.”

      By the way, I finished the not-humorous but compelling “Doctor Zhivago,” which you had recommended. My prior understanding of it (probably from hearing about the movie version) was that it focused mostly on the title character and Lara. But while that was an important part of the novel, the book spent more time looking at Russian society in general before, during, and after the 1917 revolution. That said, the book really is a major achievement and has an engaging poetic style, even during the depressing parts — and there are many. I can see that Boris Pasternak was also a poet, and can also see why it took him a decade or so to write “Doctor Zhivago.”

      Loved your comment!

      P.S. Still eager to read โ€œMy Family and Other Animals.” If it’s the funniest book you’ve ever read, well, that is seriously funny. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  26. “Gulliver’s Travels” is one that comes to mind in the humor category. Speaking of Jonathan Swift, my favorite funny book takes its title from Jomathan Swift’s “Thoughts on Various Subjects, Moral and Diverting” โ€” I am, of course, referring to John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize winning, “A Confederacy of Dunces.” I never in my life met such a character as Ignatius Reilly, referred to by Walker Percy as “… without progenitor in any literature I know of โ€” slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one โ€” who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age, lying in his flannel nightshirt, in a back bedroom on Constantinople Street in New Orleans … ”

    I have read this book many times, in hand and on CD, never without laughing aloud no matter how much I expected not to, having been insulated against it by repetition, or so I thought. Ignatius’ mother thinks he ought to go to work and doesn’t let him forget it, nagging him into a succession of jobs, each one landing Ignatius into a crazy series of events and yet, the reader cheers him on for doing the crazy things he does.

    As to a descriptiion of Ignatius’ love life, I must again turn to Walker Percy: “His girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff of the Bronx, thinks he needs sex. What happens between Myrna and Ignatius is like no other boy-meets-girl story in my experience.”

    There’s so much richness in the peculiarities of New Orleans itself, that the entire city must be considered one of Confederacy’s characters.

    Just writing this much about Ignatius and his mother has driven other amusing books right out of my head. I want to listen to the book again. Right now.

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    • You’re right, thepatterer, “Gulliver’s Travels” is VERY funny along with being very pointed. The same can be said for another 18th-century novel: Voltaire’s “Candide.” Fielding’s “Tom Jones” has LOL moments, too.

      I’ve had “A Confederacy of Dunces” on my list for many months; I think you were one of the people who recommended it. What a great description you — and Walker Percy — gave it. Now I REALLY want to read John Kennedy Tooleโ€™s novel.

      Percy wasn’t a bad novelist himself. I liked his “The Moviegoer” a lot, and, if I’m remembering correctly, that book was also set in New Orleans and had some humorous moments amid the melancholy.

      Thanks for the terrific and insightful comment! A city as a character — I love that, and it makes total sense.

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    • Loved reading this book, and were it not for my selective memory, I feel sure I would have written something about it here.

      Thanks for your enthusiastic, and hopefully persuasive description, and for employing large parts of Walker Percy’s review, which I had not read.

      Also, and I mean this without irony, it’s wonderful to read something this long re Toole’s book without any reference to his death or his mother’s crusade to get him published– I don’t mean to belittle either topic, but appended to the book, they cast a pathological and unilluminating glare on the wonderful achievement that is this book.

      And I concur: it’s laugh-out-loud funny!

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  27. Hi Dave … I hope this finds you well ๐Ÿ™‚ You mention “Portnoy’s Complaint” in your introduction; I’ve never read that book, and I’m not even sure why. However, I have read and thoroughly enjoyed another of Philip Roth’s works, “Goodbye, Columbus”. Very funny take on religion and class distinctions, mainly the latter. My favorite “funny” novel is Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22”. It’s one of those books I make it a point to reread every now and then. I’ve always had a bit of a dark sense of humor, and “Catch-22” definitely appeals to that ๐Ÿ™‚ It’s basically a story about the absurdity of rules for the sake of rules, isn’t it? There is, of course, a very serious message woven in among all the craziness in that book, but it’s also just flat-out funny.

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    • Hi, Pat! Hope you’re well, too, on this Labor Day weekend!

      I think “Goodbye, Columbus” is just as funny as “Portnoy’s Complaint.” Thanks for mentioning it! And you’re right about how (darkly) hilarious “Catch-22” is. It brings up the question of whether humor can make a viewpoint (in the case of Heller’s novel, an antiwar/anti-authority viewpoint) more palatable to readers and more effective in perhaps changing their minds.

      I’m due for a reread of “Catch-22” myself; I have a worn paperback copy in plain view on one of my bookshelves for when that time arrives. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I appreciate your excellent comment!

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      • You make a great point about the effectiveness of humor, Dave. Maybe you can work that into one of our very enjoyable “assignments” one week ๐Ÿ™‚ I’ve always believed humor, to one degree or another, is highly effective in solving problems and changing perspectives. We tend to relax our guard when we’re laughing, especially when we laugh at ourselves. When we let down our defenses, we’re more open to consider other perspectives than our own. At least, that’s been my experience anyway.

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