Between the Lines Book Club: Humor Books

between the lines book club logoHello my dear book clubbers – I apologize for being late with this post. Like many other posts, it fell victim to the Evil Death Virus that hit me at the beginning of the month. I hope you are all healthy and happy and not in a panic about finishing your taxes.

While our in-person club is on hiatus, I’m encouraging all of us to read outside our preferred genres. Since April is the month of taxes and allergies, here’s a link to my post on funny books – ranging from dark humor like Catch-22, classics such as Lysistrata, and many more. Enjoy, and happy reading!

Wednesday Videos: Donald Trump and Game of Thrones Mash-Up

WednesdayVideoWell, this is both hilarious and depressing. College Humor has discovered that Donald Trump fits all too well into Westeros. Look, Trump, if Tyrion is giving you That Look, then you should shut the hell up.

I must say that I am deeply saddened by the lack of a “Dany sics her dragons on him” sequel.

Book Review: Raising Steam, by Sir Terry Pratchett

tumblr_mzcolqBAfe1qe712jo1_1280Terry Pratchett’s new Discworld book, Raising Steam, has been out in the UK for months.  Finally US readers get a crack at it as it is officially released in the US today.  Run to your bookstore!  Run, I say!

Raising Steam takes place in the fantasy world called Discworld.  This is part of a huge series of more or less stand alone books.  In each book, Pratchett takes a satirical, usually hilarious, look at some element of modern life.  My personal favorite, Maskerade, makes affectionate fun of opera and of the Phantom of the Opera.  The Truth sees Discworld get its very first newspaper.  Guards!  Guards! introduces us to the police force…and so on.  My advice on where to start is to see where your passions lie and follow that trail, although I’ve listed some specific suggestions at the end of this review.

Raising Steam sees the invention of the first locomotive.  Lord Ventari is, of course, anxious that this new invention not destabilize his realm, and he puts Moist Von Lipvig, a reformed con man who has already fixed up the postal service (Going Postal) and the bank (Making Money), in charge of making sure the railway is built, and that the railway is built in such a way as will work to the advantage of Lord Ventari.  Meanwhile, the dwarfs are experiencing civil unrest over the fact that dwarves are leaving the mines for the big city, and working with and even marrying trolls and humans.  Most of the social commentary in the book comes from the sections regarding dwarves.

I loved this book, but its tone is a little different from the earlier Discworld books, including those featuring Moist.  The humor is sharp but less laugh-out-loud in nature.  In fact there are very few sections during which I whooped with laughter, or rushed to quote a passage.  The Discworld books have always had some serious points to make, and my sense with this book and the previous book, Snuff, is that Terry Pratchett has no interest in messing around – if he has a point to make, he’s just gonna come out and make it.

Terry Pratchett has a rare form of early onset Alzheimer’s which does not affect his ability to make books although he can’t actually physically write or type (he dictates them).  I haven’t noticed any problems with his more recent books in terms of writing quality.  The only difference I observe is this switch to a more serious, pointed tone – which is saying a lot, since the Discworld books have always been pointed and often quite dark, despite an overall sense that goodness and hope struggle to persist, no matter how mad the world may be.   This sense continues to pervade Raising Steam.  Pratchett’s writing seems more urgent to me in his last couple of books, but that may be less a matter of what’s happening with him and more a matter of what’s happening with me, a devoted reader who hears the clock ticking on a beloved series.

The dwarf plot and the train plot go together in a way that feels less like a natural progression of the story and more like someone trying to figure out how to connect two completely different plots and saying, “Well, we could always do this”.  Toward the end a whole new dwarf thing is introduced, which means we get all our social metaphors packaged together.  I’d sum it up as a message that inclusion and diversity are good things.  This didn’t bother me too much because as messages go I’m quite fond of the messages involved in the dwarf storyline, but it the message was a bit heavy-handed even by Discworld standards.  If you are deeply opposed to things like legalizing gay marriage, or equal opportunities for women, or racial and ethnic diversity, then you won’t like this book although I’d argue that you certainly ought to be reading it.

I don’t recommend Raising Steam as the first Discworld book you should read but I do highly recommend it overall, and if you haven’t read other Discworld books, don’t worry, you’ll catch up just fine.  I loved this book even though I missed the madcap feel of earlier installments.  If you are new to Discworld, here’s some suggestions on where to dive in:

The Color of Magic:  The very first Discworld book!  This one introduces the wizards.

Equal Rites:  Introduces my very favorite characters – the witches.

Guards!  Guards!  Meet the City Watch!

Reaper Man:  Hello, Death.

Going Postal:  Moist von Lipvig is introduced and stamp collecting is born.

My personal favorites:  Maskerade, Lords and Ladies, Carpe Jugulum, Hogsfather.  Of those four, three are about the witches so I guess there’s some bias there.  I did not read the series in order and you don’t have to either.  Just have fun with it!

Gateway Drugs: The Humor Edition

door opening onto poppiesIn January, February, and March, the Friday Book Club is looking at books by humorists.  In honor of this, I give you Gateway Drugs:  The Humor Edition!

Humor is personal and everyone likes something different.  These humorists made some kind of lasting mark on literature with their humor writing.

I’m splitting this into three sections:  The Classics, Those Wacky Brits, and The Crazy Americans.  I have read things by authors from other countries, but it suddenly occurs to me that I haven’t read much humor writing by authors from Africa, South America, Australia, or Asia.  If you have a favorite humorist, please share in the comments, especially if they are from one of the parts of the world I’ve neglected.  Some of this neglect is because in general I’m just not as well-read when it comes to places other than Northern America and the British Isles and some may be because humor is difficult to translate.  I’m not specifically listing Shakespeare’s comedies because you all know he’s funny, right?  RIGHT?

Really, to try to keep the focus on novels is silly.  Humor writing blurs all over the place – people read the plays, they act out scenes from novels, stand up comedians write down their sketches, and let’s not forget the joys of humorous poetry.  In addition, some of the best humor is often found embedded in other genres.  Joss Whedon is particularly famous for blending humor, drama, and horror.  But I’m sticking to humorous novels here with one exception purely to narrow the field – which is huge.  These aren’t necessarily my favorites so much as they are a small sample of selections that I think have had a big influence on genre.

The Classics

Lysistrata, by Aristophanes

Our one play on the list, this is one of the earliest “battle of the sexes” stories and one of the earliest works in which humor is used to make a serious point.  In this play, originally performed in 411BC in Greece, them women of Greece refuse to have sex with their husbands until their husbands end the Peloponnesian War.  This play is poignant, funny, and gleefully risqué in it’s wordplay.  Sample line:  How true the saying: ‘Tis impossible to live with the baggages, impossible to live without ’em.”

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, by Miguel de Cervantes

Influential, funny, and sad, this is sometimes considered to be the first novel ever written (certainly it’s one of the earliest and most influential novels).  Everyone interprets is differently but everyone agrees this novel is touching and important.  Sample line:  “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.”

Candide, by Voltaire

Why, hello, satire.  This novel of snark and sarcasm follows the misadventures of Candide, an optimist who ends up having all kinds of terrible things happen to him until he becomes a pragmatist.  Voltaire uses allegory to take on the establishment, much like Jonathon Swift did in Gulliver’s Travels, another incredibly influential humor novel (although modern readers tend to take it more as straight fantasy and miss the jokes).  Sample line:  “Optimism,” said Cacambo, “What is that?” “Alas!” replied Candide, “It is the obstinacy of maintaining that everything is best when it is worst.”

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

The most influential romantic comedy since Shakespeare, Jane Austen launched a genre that remains beloved today.  Sample line:  ““For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbors, and laugh at them in our turn?”

Those Wacky Brits

The pinnacle of British humor is surely Monty Python’s Flying Circus.  As far as modern novels go, I give you:

The Jeeves stories and novels, by P.G. Wodehouse

The stories of aristocrat Bertie Wooster and his valet, Jeeves, give us some of the funniest wordplay and metaphors, and some of the craziest slapstick comedy, ever.  Also, they permanently defined two archetypes – the twit of nobel birth and the servant with the level head who solves all problems.  A whole parade of capable butlers followed in Jeeves wake (my personal favorites being Alfred, from Batman, and J.A.R.V.I.S., from Iron Man, but the list is not limited to science fiction and fantasy).  And Wodehouse’s use of metaphor, simile and pun has never quite been matched although many have tried!  Sample line:  “The voice of love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number”.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams

I’m not sure how to define the influence of the Hitchhiker books expect to say that I simply can’t imagine books without this series.  Its wacky, bizarre, sardonic look at life influenced, well, everybody.  Sample line, ““For instance, on the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

The Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett created the sprawling, loosely connected series of books based in the fantasy Discworld universe.  Each book is a satire of a different topic.  For example, one of my favorite of his books, Maskerade, is a parody of Phantom of the Opera that turns into a loving deconstruction of the insane world of theater.  His wordplay has influenced writers both in and out of science fiction and fantasy genre.  For instance, Jennifer Crusie, who is best known for contemporary romance, cites him as an influence).  Sample line: “But that was just it – hate was exactly the right word. Hate is a force of attraction. Hate is just love with its back turned.”

Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding

Love it or hate it, Bridget Jone’s Diary sparked a new genre, rather insultingly nicknamed “ChickLit”.  This modern take on Pride and Prejudice launched a new genre and a million conversations about modern women.  Sample line:  “I looked at him nonplussed. I realized that I have spent so many years being on a diet that the idea that you might actually need calories to survive has been completely wiped out of my consciousness. Have reached point where believe nutritional idea is to eat nothing at all, and that the only reason people eat is because they are so greedy they cannot stop themselves from breaking out and ruining their diets.”

Those Crazy Americans

The Adventures of  Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain

Mark Twain had a glorious literary career during which he made fun of pretty much everybody.  His book Tom Sawyer painted a picture of growing up in small town, pre-Civil War America that very much defined the ways people picture that period of time and way of life.  But nowhere was he more scathing or his legacy more controversial and enduring than in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, in which a runaway outcast boy travels down the Mississipi River with a runaway slave.  Sample line: “Hain’t we got all the fools in town on our side? And hain’t that a big enough majority in any town?”

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller

This dark satire shows that war is not only cruel but also ridiculous.  If you are a fan of films like M.A.S.H. and the literary works of Kurt Vonnegut, you owe a shootout to Catch-22.  It also coined the phrase “Catch 22”), as seen in this sample quote:  “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane, he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to, he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.”

Rubyfruit Jungle, Rita Mae Brown

Rubyfruit Jungle is a ground-breaking coming of age story (published in 1973) about a lesbian girl’s transition from being a child in the South to an aspiring author in the big city.  It’s explicit and ribald and launched so many coming of age stories that people sometimes criticize the book for being cliche, forgetting that this book originated the elements that became cliche later on.  It’s not unlike a lesbian Sex in the City.  Sample line:  “Whoever heard of a neurotic frog? Where do humans get off thinking they’re the pinnacle of evolution?”