Books To Make You Laugh

A lot of Australians are currently feeling very depressed after one of the longest, most vacuous, federal election campaigns in recent memory1. What we need now are some books to make us laugh2. Here are five books that have made me laugh out loud (or at least produced embarrassing muffled snorting noises, if I happened to be reading them on public transport).

1. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, featuring the eccentric Durrell family and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, often caused by their various dogs, birds, snakes, scorpions and other animal companions. For example, here’s Roger the dog’s reaction to Mother’s elaborate new bathing-costume:

“He seemed to be under the impression that the bathing-costume was some sort of sea monster that had enveloped Mother and was now about to carry her out to sea. Barking wildly, he flung himself to the rescue, grabbed one of the frills dangling so plentifully round the edge of the costume and tugged with all his strength in order to pull Mother back to safety. Mother, who had just remarked that she found the water a little cold, suddenly found herself being pulled backwards. With a squeak of dismay she lost her footing and sat down heavily in two feet of water, while Roger tugged so hard that a large section of the frill gave way. Elated by the fact that the enemy appeared to be disintegrating, Roger, growling encouragement to Mother, set to work to remove the rest of the offending monster from her person . . . “

2. Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, which I have previously gushed about here. The scene in which the siblings drive to Wales is especially funny.

3. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, and specifically, the story entitled Jesus Shaves, in which Mr Sedaris attends French classes in Paris, and his fellow students attempt to explain Easter, in their extremely limited French, to a Moroccan student:

“The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit.’ She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

‘He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.’

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

‘He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.’

‘He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.’

‘He nice, the Jesus.’ “

Unable to translate complicated phrases such as “to give of yourself your only begotten son”, they end up talking about chocolate, which is delivered, of course, by “the rabbit of Easter”. Or rather, as it turns out, the bell of Rome.

There’s also a very funny story about young David’s battles with his speech therapist (although, as a trained speech pathologist, I have to emphasise that we’re not like that at all now).

4. King Dork by Frank Portman, which I don’t have in my possession, so I can’t provide any quotes, but I remember becoming helpless with laughter over the effort the teenage boys put into their band names and album concepts. Favourite band name: We Have Eaten All The Cake. (Unfortunately they don’t put as much effort into writing songs or rehearsing, so their first big gig is a disaster. I should also point out that parts of this novel, especially the conclusion, are not funny at all, although it’s also completely plausible that the narrator and his friend would be as unconcerned about these particular issues as they are.)

5. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, which I have written about here, is so full of hilarity that it’s impossible to choose just one scene. The cows, named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless? Adam clettering the dishes with his twig? The Starkadders pushing each other down the well? The Quivering Brethren’s hymn-singing being conducted by the poker-wielding Brother Ambleforth? Seth lounging in doorways, with his shirt unbuttoned? Mr Mybug’s ludicrous theories about how all the Brontës’ novels were actually written by Branwell? Or those “finer passages”, helpfully marked by the author with one, two or three stars?

Of course, humour is completely subjective and dependent on context, so it’s possible you won’t find these books as amusing as I did. Please feel free to add your own funny book recommendations in the comments. We need all the laughter we can get around here.

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  1. I couldn’t even bear to listen to the vote counting on the radio, so I spent Saturday night watching Series Two of The Thick of It. For those not familiar with this BBC production, it’s about a stupid, bigoted and hypocritical MP named Abbot, who’s inexplicably promoted far beyond his levels of competence into the Cabinet. Each episode involves his spin doctors running around, desperately trying to cover up his blunders.
  2. so we don’t cry.

My Favourite Books of 2012

Here are the books I read this year that I loved the most.

But first, some statistics!

I read 72 books this year, plus approximately 7,853 articles in scientific journals (this last number may be a slight exaggeration). I’m sure you really, really want to see some pie charts about the books I read, so here you go:

Books I read in 2012 by genre

I read lots more children’s books this year than I usually do.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' nationality

Hmm, that is not very diverse, is it? I only read three books that had been translated into English, too.

Books I read in 2012 by writers' gender

That’s probably typical of my reading habits. It’s not that I deliberately try to read more women writers than men, it simply works out that way most years.

Now for my favourites.

My favourite children’s books

'The Word Spy' by Ursula Dubosarsky and Tohby RiddleI absolutely loved Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, which I have previously written about here. I also liked Amelia Dee and the Peacock Lamp by Odo Hirsch, a sweet, charming story about a girl who is inspired to write stories by a mysterious brass lamp she finds in her house. This has many of the usual elements of an Odo Hirsch book (eccentric but benevolent parents, a carefully multicultural cast of characters, a vaguely European setting), but I found Amelia especially endearing and the lessons she learned (that it takes courage to share your thoughts with others; that other people often have complex motivations for their actions; that unchecked anger harms yourself, not just others) were exactly what I needed to think about at the time.
Other books I enjoyed included The Word Spy, an entertaining non-fiction book about the history of the English language, written by Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Tohby Riddle, and Al Capone Shines My Shoes by Gennifer Choldenko, about a boy whose father is a guard at Alcatraz Prison in 1935.

My favourite Young Adult novel

This year I read quite a few YA books that had received plenty of acclaim, but I ended up feeling underwhelmed by a lot of them. I could certainly understand why the books had been praised, but they just weren’t my cup of tea. Sometimes they had beautiful sentence-level writing, but the voice seemed implausible for the teenager who was supposed to be narrating the story. Sometimes they had a great narrator and fascinating premise, but the structure of the novel didn’t work for me. One book I’d seen described as ‘feminist’ was . . . really, really not feminist at all. Maybe my expectations had been raised too high by the hype. Anyway, my favourite YA book of 2012 turned out to be a book first published in 1910, long before the concept of ‘Young Adult literature’ existed. The book was The Getting of Wisdom, by Henry Handel Richardson, which I’ve previously written about here.

My favourite novels for adults

'At Last' by Edward St AubynI found At Last by Edward St Aubyn quite as harrowing as I’d expected, but also hopeful and consoling and unexpectedly funny. It’s the fifth in a series of novels about Patrick Melrose, who was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family and was then subjected to appalling childhood abuse and neglect by his parents. In this book, Patrick has finally overcome his drug and alcohol addictions and is trying to cope with his marriage breakdown, when his mother dies. The novel is elegantly structured around her funeral, allowing a lot of thoughtful commentary on the nature of death, forgiveness and free will, but also some hilarious descriptions of the idle rich. Patrick’s awful relatives and family friends are mostly ‘old money’ who’ve never worked a day in their lives, but complain constantly about how difficult their existence is. I know this all sounds very grim and this book certainly isn’t for everyone, but I thought it was fascinating and beautifully written.

I also enjoyed Insignificant Others by Stephen McCauley and The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler, which I’ve previously written about here. I’m currently halfway through Restoration by Rose Tremain and loving it, so I suspect this book will make it onto my 2012 favourites list, too.

My favourite non-fiction for adults

I read some terrific biographies this year, including A. A. Milne: His Life by Ann Thwaite and Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA by Brenda Maddox. I wrote about both books here. I also enjoyed Alex and Me, by Irene M. Pepperberg, about a very smart parrot.

I will not bore you with my To Read list for 2013, especially as it contains approximately 2,147 scientific articles1 that I didn’t get around to reading this year (this number may be a slight exaggeration).

Hope you all have a happy and peaceful holiday season, and that 2013 brings you lots of great reading.

More favourite books:

1. Favourite Books of 2010
2. Favourite Books of 2011

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  1. Yes, it’s research for my next book. The book that was supposed to need far less research than my last book. Ha ha ha.

Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay

'Saffy's Angel' by Hilary McKayI absolutely loved this book. I’d order you all to read it, except most of you probably have 1. For those who haven’t, Saffy’s Angel is a clever, funny, touching story about the Casson family. The parental figures are all either vague, absent or dead, but fortunately, the children are resourceful and clever. The eldest, Caddy, is beautiful, kind and not nearly as dim as she first appears. When she’s not looking after the younger children, she’s tending to her guinea pigs (“occasionally they escaped and flocked and multiplied over the lawn like wildebeest on the African plains”) or having driving lessons. She has had ninety-six lessons and still can’t reverse or turn right (coincidentally, she’s in love with her gorgeous driving instructor). Indigo, the only boy, is gentle, sensitive and caring2, and keeps himself busy “curing himself of vertigo for when he becomes a polar explorer”. Rose, the youngest, is artistic, determined and very good at managing (or manipulating) their parents. Then there’s Saffy, who discovers that she’s adopted and refuses to believe the others when they insist she really is a Casson. With the help of her best friend, Wheelchair Girl, Saffy sets out to find the stone angel that her beloved grandfather bequeathed to her and she discovers just how much she means to her family.

I was filled with admiration for how well Hilary McKay told this story. The story’s structure, the pacing, the voice of the narrator – all worked brilliantly, in my opinion. The Cassons were quirky and entertaining, but never irritating or implausible3. Saffy’s search for her lost angel was moving, but never tipped over into soppy sentimentality. And I loved that Wheelchair Girl was neither a victim nor a saint, but a flawed, fiercely independent girl who’d learned to turn everyone else’s pity around to her own (Machiavellian) advantage.

Above all, this book was very, very funny. There was one part where I was laughing so hard that I was crying, and had to keep putting down the book to wipe my eyes so I could see 4. I am very happy that there are five more books about the Cassons, as well as another two series by the author, The Exiles and Porridge Hall.

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  1. as it was published more than a decade ago, and is quite well-known, and also won the 2002 Whitbread Children’s Book Award
  2. I love Indigo. He’s my favourite.
  3. Okay, I got irritated at Bill, the father, quite a lot, but he was meant to be annoying, and he was probably the most realistic character in the book. I know some men who are just like him.
  4. For those who’ve read the book, it’s the bit where Caddy takes them on a long car journey, and Indigo, who has “photographic ears”, is doing impressions of Michael (“Don’t call me darling, I’m a driving instructor”), while Rose holds up helpful signs for the other motorists, warning them about Caddy’s driving skills:
    THERE WAS A FOX
    SQUASHED FLAT
    POOR FOX
    SHE IS CRYING
    SO YOU HAD BETTER NOT
    TRY PASSING US YET
    I WILL TELL YOU WHEN IT IS SAFE
    IT WILL BE ALL RIGHT NOW
    HELLO
    WE ARE GOING TO WALES