|The Greatest Joy
Oh gentle reader, there are many joys to being a writer and finding out that your work has touched someone in one way or another. Over the years I've received letters from readers telling me how my books helped them get through their divorce, a serious illness, or even the death of a loved one. I've received heartfelt thanks from parents whose children would not read until they were given to one of my books.
Readers have given my books credit for giving them new perspective on their spiritual lives, as well as opening their horizons to new and humorous ways to go about living their lives -- Joys, all great joys, all flattering and humbling and profound, but my greatest joy, my most satisfied moments come when I read letters from people whose spouses have thrown them out of bed for laughing while reading my stuff.
(This second only to those people who write to say that they have embarrassed themselves on public transportation by laughing at my stuff. Sometimes I get the impression that my readers do little but ride busses and trains giggling like loons. Excellent!) All this leads me up to the writer who has caused the mysterious woman with whom I live to banish me to the spare bedroom more than any other: David Sedaris.
Sedaris is hardly an obscure discovery; He's a fine essayist, and has been doing humorous commentary for years on NPR, but what puts him into my picks, and what he does to get me thrown out of bed, is he sneaks up on you. You'll be reading along, a perfectly ordinary informal essay on say, life as a performance artist and you run across a passage like this:
"A week after my drugs ran out, I left my bed to perform at college, deciding at the last minute to skip both the doughnut toss and the march of the headless plush toys. Instead, I just heated up a skillet of plastic soldiers, poured milkshake over my head, and called it a night."
Sedaris writes about just about every aspect of life, from his speech therapy as a child, to his strange family, to fake film reviews, to ex-pat life in France, but the one thing that holds it all together is that it's very funny stuff. My favorite is Me Talk Pretty One Day, but Barrel Fever, Naked, and Holidays on Ice are fun as well.
Tim O'Brien's Tomcat in Love is the story of the life, loves, and revenge of Thomas H. Chippering, a 49-year-old Linguistics professor at a Minnesota University. He's pompous, self-righteous, narcissistic, and at times, downright hilarious, but hilarious in a sneaky way that unfolds as you read his story and come to realize how completely full of shit he is. Imagine C.D. Payne's Nick Twisp all growed up -- an educated narrator that drips with intelligence and erudition, but in the end is using his command of the language to disguise, and finally inform what a complete rascal he is. And language is an important theme in the book, with Chippering examining individual words with a scholar's focus tempered by what seems like a borderline personality disorder. You'll follow Chippering through his divorce, his plots of revenge, his love affair with a statuesque Dutch blond whom he will only refer to as Mrs. Robert Kooshof, even in the throws of passion.
If you like Tim Sandlin, I'd say that Tomcat will definitely float your boat. The writing is exquisite, the characters fully drawn, and the humor is paced and low key.
Tim O'Brien is a seriously good serious writer. He's the guy you can talk about at cocktail parties while you're pretending that you don't really watch Buffy, eat junk food, or read my books. You can proudly carry an O'Brien novel to an NPR fundraiser, set it on the edge of your table at a Bohemian café, or even let it slip out of your PVC Urban Outfitter's bag at a SoHo Gallery opening. O'Brien is so good that he makes you snob-proof, but here's the rub, the secret weapon: He can also be funny. He's a guiltless pleasure.
O'Brien's other books reflect his Viet Nam experience much more than this one, are much more serious, and really wouldn't fit into Chris's Picks without some shoe-horning, but Tomcat in Love is a definite fun read.
For some more funny fiction that was suggested by readers, check out these new offerings:
No Way to Treat a First Lady by Christopher Buckley
Buckley is back to beating the Washington satire drum with this story of a First Lady who is put on trial for killing her philandering President husband with a Paul Revere spittoon. Very thinly veiled Washington characters romp through this courtroom comedy, leaving you with more smiles than snickers, but still it's a fun read. If you watch Crossfire or Meet the Press you'll probably like No Way to Treat a First Lady. If you aren't the political type, I'm not sure this one will float your boat.
Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
This is actually half a comic novel followed by half a tragic novel, but the first half, the comic part, can be very funny. This is the story of the author's fictional journey back to the Ukraine to find the roots of his Jewish family. The narrator is Foers tour guide, Sasha, a young Ukrainian who, along with his ancient grandfather and a flatulent hound named Sammy Davis Junior Junior travel the Ukrainian outback looking for the roots of Foer's family which was torn apart during World War II. The funniest parts of the book come from Sasha's diction -- he writes like one of the Wild and Crazy Guys from Saturday Night Live, using great phrases like
"Grandfather is in the back seat manufacturing some zees."
"Finally it was agreed that Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior must don a special shirt that father would have fabricated which would say: Officious Seeing-eye Bitch of Heritage Touring. This so she would appear professional."
Anyway, the first part, cutting between Sasha's narrative of the trip and the story of Foer's family back to the 1700s and can be pretty funny. As the journey proceeds and the story of the family progresses into the 20th century, then suddenly you find yourself in a tragedy with all the attendant war crimes you can expect when you mix up Central European Jews and Germans. Still, it has it's moments and Foer is only about six years old, so you have to give him his props for a good first novel.
The Eyre Affaire by Jasper Fforde
This is the story of Thursday Next, single girl and investigator for department of literature, which is a big job indeed, in a world where Literature is the main past time, where people can actually travel into books and interact with characters, much to the chagrin of the plucky Thursday, who must put things right lest all the editions of a given book be changed forever. If you are bibliophile or just an English lit major who is still wondering what in the hell you're going to do with a degree in English lit, well this is the book for you. Go to a world where Baconites battle it out in the streets with Marlowites over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, where every corner sports a booth complete with animatronic actors spouting old Will's best passages for the drop of a coin, where the airship is still the main mode of mass transportation and Thursday Next solves crimes of literature. It's more fun than funny, but a very fun trip. Thursday's second adventure, Lost in a Good Book, should be available in the States any day now, too.
A Couple of Notes
I'm always happy to get suggestions for Chris's Picks and as I said, all of the above picks were suggested by readers, but do take a look at the other Chris's Picks before scolding me about your favorite author being left out.
Meanwhile, this "Picks" had a couple of guys you won't necessarily find wandering around the literature of entertainment shelves (O'Brian and Foer) but I think you guys are big enough to figure out what you'd like to read and what would turn you off, so please don't write to tell me how wrong I was about these suggestions.
Currently I'm catching up on a new pile of your suggested reads, so expect another "Picks" soon. Happy reading.
Back to Chris's Favorite Book Pics page