Funny Books

When last week I mentioned P.G Wodehouse and his writing, especially the Jeeves novels, it got a little worm running round my brain. Essentially: what is a funny book? Is it just personal taste, or is there more to it?

Funny Books 1

My personal likes start with the endlessly charming, laid-back approach of Wodehouse. I don’t find him a laugh-out-loud author, just gently amusing. Yes, before you start, he’s probably politically very incorrect and sexist; although his male characters are always subservient to the women, whether by authority or romantic attachment. Like all writers, he was of his time, but lines like: “if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled” show why he never fails to cheer me up.

Straight away I think of Terry Pratchett, but he cannot be considered as purely a comic writer. His books move people, including me, to tears as well as laughter. Very few books, however, reduce me to helpless giggling as much as his do. This is often to the bemusement of others in the room. Who else would have a character like Cohen the Barbarian, an elderly warrior who, despite sciatica and piles, manages to triumph by sheer experience and cunning?

‘Three Men in a Boat’, by Jerome K. Jerome (great name!) is the story of a Victorian boating trip. Oddly, my father read it to me as a young child. It’s got some parts which seem to me to be very funny, interspersed with travel writing and passages of what used to be called purple prose. It’s probably now outdated for most readers. A follow-up called ‘Three Men on the Bummel’ (that’s a bicycling holiday) is not as amusing. A favourite part: when they try to open a can without a can opener, beat it into “every shape known to geometry” and then throw it away. Sounds dull? You have to read it to get it, I suppose.

I’m already fast coming to the conclusion that humour in books is purely down to personal taste. What I find hilarious may well be completely unamusing to you, especially if there is a big age gap. As an example, there is a book I inherited from my father called ‘It Don’t Cost You a Penny’, the memoirs (allegedly) of an old soldier who became a batman in World War 2. The humour is of its time again: a Sapper Beer is hilariously known as Supper Beer. It would seem pretty racist to younger readers.

Funny Books 2

Michael Green, author of ‘The Art of Coarse Rugby’ and many others of that ilk, as well as the now forgotten ‘Squire Haggard’s Journal’, was very funny, but I don’t know that you’d want to read his books continuously, in the same way as you’d read a novel. Similar is Peter Tinniswood, who wrote marvellously inventive books of cricket anecdotes, starting with ‘Tales from a Long Room’, allegedly by a very eccentric Brigadier. They are also books for dipping into, although probably short enough to read in one go, and probably books for cricket aficionados of a certain age only. Pratchett, working in the fantasy genre, and Jerome, whose books are at core Victorian travelogues, have more absorbing material: the humour is an integral part of a narrative.

Similarly, Bill Bryson’s books succeed both as humour and as absorbing travel books. He is another author who needs a “Do Not Read in Public” warning on his books, to avoid the embarrassment as you are snorting uncontrollably. I think he is probably more universally appealing than some of my other choices, though of course I have no evidence.

I am obviously attracted by humorous tales about teaching. Gervase Phinn, Jack Sheffield and others have written many of this ilk. I find them mildly amusing, not hilarious. Perhaps it’s all a bit too familiar for comfort. My colleagues and I wrote a brief parody of our workplace towards the latter part of my career. I still find it highly funny, but it’s very much for a niche audience, which consists almost entirely of the authors. I particularly liked:

“…..a bemused group of breakfast club children munching on the ‘Healthy Option’ of bacon, eggs, black pudding, sausages, baked beans, fried bread and hash browns.” Thanks to whichever of us wrote that bit. It might have been me. I don’t remember. (No. that option was NOT part of our school menu.)

I have written fragments of funny writing. (Well, I laugh.) Some of this is on my other blog:  Oblique Fictions (Well, I still laugh.)

So, there you have it. As usual, just a gentle ramble. My rather trivial conclusions are that humorous literature is very individual and often confined to its time. Consequently humour can easily become out of date. It’s very difficult to write a book whose only aim is to be funny; it’s much better to write a good story or travelogue and incorporate the humour.


Holiday Reading

Blame H. for this. She asked for recommendations for holiday reading. This got me started……

Holiday Reads

Initially I thought that there were two types of holiday read: the books you take away on holiday, and the books you read if you are lucky enough to have some extended time off (say, more than just a weekend). Of course, the two categories overlap so much as to make it pointless to distinguish greatly.

I am a notorious packer of books for holidays, although I have got better over time. When we went on an extended extra honeymoon with my in-laws (yes, really, my in-laws) I literally took a bag of books, to their muted incredulity. I now only recall a few books, which I would recommend to the right reader. First are I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I have re-read them and still find them absorbing: together they make a well-told historical story, based on fact but with Graves’s well known individual, not to say idiosyncratic views. On that holiday I also read Labyrinths, a collection of short stories by Jean Luis Borges. They are erudite fantasies. They are deep, dense and needful of concentration; but they are short and rewarding. The collection is very dippable. (Is that a word? It is now.) Please note that I have read that there are better collections of the Borges stories.

The Kindle, of course, makes it much easier to take a good number of books on holiday, but I Iike to have a physical book to take, particularly a new one. It seems so full of potential. It also can remind you of your holiday.

If you wish you can always take a pile of your favourites, or a Kindle full of them. Comforting books can enhance your holiday relaxation.The Jeeves books and anything else by P.G. Wodehouse works for me- after all, it’s a holiday, isn’t it?

Your holiday reading of course depends on your personal bookish interests. I have an abiding fascination with science fiction, and recommend The Martian, a recent best-seller (and the basis for a good film), written by Andy Weir. This is great hard sci-fi, in which engineering saves a stranded astronaut. I greatly enjoyed the technological aspects (others might differ), but it’s a gripping plot.

For fantasy enthusiasts there’s nothing like a holiday in the company of Terry Pratchett- but it’s good to find new adventures. As I have mentioned on more than one occasion, Ms Oblique #1 is a great provider of new reads, especially in the fantasy genre. I recently greatly enjoyed Cinder by Melissa Meyer. This is an updated version of the story of Cinderella; the heroine is a cyborg. There are others in the same vein.

There seems to be a feeling that holiday literature should somehow be escapist, should take you to different places. I picked Victoria Hislop‘s novel, The Sunrise, for this reason; sadly I just couldn’t get into it at any time, but others have recommended it for holiday entertainment. A good choice might be two books by Tove Jansson, author of the Moomin books. The Summer Book is a short novel, set on a small Finnish island, about a young girl and her grandmother; The Winter Book is a collection of short stories. They are charming.

Naturally, you could use your holidays to catch up on those classics you always meant to read, but I would advise you to have some back-up material and not to persist if you’re not enjoying your reading.

As far as newer material goes, I’m not a critic and I’m really not extensively read, but of my recent reads I’d recommend:

  • The Song of Achillesa refreshing retelling of the Greek myth by Madeline Miller

  • Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith– just a good detective story.

If you haven’t encountered the crime fiction of Ian Rankin, a holiday would be a good time to start. Or is that a bit grim? The volumes of Collected Short Stories by the now unfashionable W. Somerset Maugham are altogether a more relaxing and escapist read. Period pieces I suppose.

Just remember: holidays are meant to be fun.

Reading the Classics

It always amuses me to see the classification systems that bookshops use for their stock.

I dislike some of these. It always irritates me to see Science Fiction and Fantasy put together; I feel they are distinct genres.

A while ago there was a trend for ‘misery memoirs’: real life stories of harrowing experiences. These were very distressing, but I felt that they were being trivialised by being categorised as “Tragic Life Stories” or something similar.

These now, thank goodness, seem to have fallen out of fashion. One category that never seems to fade away is that of “Classics”; it is often called “Classic Literature”, but can then become just “Literature”.

What do these labels mean? Off the top of my rather bald head, I see classics as being of a certain age, somewhat distinguished by time. I have big problems with Literature. Why is one novel Literature, another just…. a novel? (And by the way, just how patronising is “Chick Lit”? Is it literature for chickens?)

Like many people I was amazed and astonished to see that Morrisey’s memoirs had been published under the Penguin Modern Classic imprint. Surely a Modern Classic is one that has stood the test of time, just not such a length of time as a classic. Oh dear, this is more and more confusing.

I have a fairly clear idea in my head of whether a book is a classic or not. Dickens, Austen, Eliot, Tolstoy. I know, they are all dead (and were all white), but that is possibly the point. Perhaps you have to have died before living memory to be a classic author.

I have recently re-read ‘Pride and Prejudice’, but have also tackled some classic novels unfamiliar to me. ‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell was one. I have read ‘Cranford’, probably her most famous book, but one I found a bit thin, and ‘Wives and Daughters’, which I find thoroughly enjoyable and should probably have featured in my Re-reads and Re-rereads blogpost. (Why is she often referred to as “Mrs Gaskell”, as if she had not been not a person in her own right but a wife?) I came to it after hearing it dramatised on the radio one winter when I was ill in bed (at the age of 39, newly married, with mumps- don’t ask).

Here’s a sub-theme: coming to classics through film, TV and radio. I used to have a rather puritan view that it’s better to read them first, but now I’m not so sure. If adaptations get people to widen their reading, fine. This was the case for me with ‘North and South’, following a fine BBC TV dramatisation some years ago. However, I found reading the book a bit disappointing. There are so many long interior monologues and authorial discussions which make it hard going for a plot-driven reader like me.

At the moment I am reading ‘Middlemarch’ by George Eliot, inspired by a Sunday supplement article about her. Again there was a good BBC dramatisation, which I have largely forgotten. The book is (so far) rather more fun than I had anticipated, although again spoiled for me by some long discussions, for example of 19th century medical trends. It appears to have a large cast of characters and so I have taken to using a diagram of them and their connections, as I have done with Dickens and Tolstoy. (See ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’ by Charles Dickens and War and Peace.)

Ah, Dickens. I am happy to say I still have some of his novels to read and hope to do so before I’m finished. ‘Barnaby Rudge’ and ‘Dombey and Son’ come to mind. Dickens is very readable, as long as you can keep track of the characters.

Oh dear, as so often this has become a ramble. In the hope of spreading some enlightenment I would recommend Anthony Trollope as another accessible classic author. I’ve never quite got to grips with the chronology of his ‘Barchester’ novels but I live in hope. Austen of course is thoroughly entertaining: just ignore literary criticism of her work.

In fact, that’s a general rule: don’t read literary criticism. A good edition of a classic novel with footnotes can be very helpful, but they are often sadly lacking in Kindle versions.

Now I have reached the point in my life where I read what I want to, because I think I will enjoy a book, and sometimes also because I think it will, in some nebulous way, benefit me. And, dear reader, unless you are studying for a qualification, I suggest you do the same.

Reading the Classics

Re-reads and Re-rereads

Having last week discussed unfinished books, I thought I’d turn my attention to books I have re-read. I’m not even going to call them favourites, but they are books I keep coming back to time and time again.

Reads and Rerereads 2‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

I have lost count of how many time I have read this. It’s comforting- I know what’s going to happen- but I do find fresh insights every time I read it. Most recently, a little of the dialogue seemed a little stilted to me, but this is not to say I will not be reading it again and again. However, I avoid all the critical notes in my battered Penguin edition. I am not reading as an academic and they detract from my enjoyment.

Reads and Rerereads 5‘Truckers’ by Terry Pratchett

In fact, anything by Terry Pratchett; but I feel I should stick to one book. In this, aimed at children but so enjoyable for adults, a tribe of nomes (sic) are living in the spaces between humans, in the countryside and in a department store. It sounds ludicrous and fanciful, and it is, but Pratchett makes it playful, logical, and deeply insightful into our world and our condition; as he does more extensively with his Discworld books. I read this many times to children. Again, I now find some of his later work less fluent and enjoyable than when I first read it; but the invention, as ever, is always entertaining.

See also “It should have been me.”

DSCF0586‘Stolen Journey’ by Oliver Philpot

This is one few people now will have read. It is the true story of the “Wooden Horse” escape from Germany in World War 2, written by one of the three escapees. I suppose this is again a repeat read because it is comforting; I know he always escapes. It is from my grandfather’s collection and it is precious.

See also My grandfather’s books: A gentle tribute to a gentle man

Reads and Rerereads 1‘No Highway’ by Nevile Shute

Again I could pick anything by this author. He is now deeply out of fashion, but I read him again and again because he is very strong on the virtues of common men and women, triumphing because of their humanity. I wish I could persuade others to read his work; in fact I plan a future post on him, as I do with the next author….

Reads and Rerereads 3‘Mona Lisa Overdrive’ by William Gibson

I picked this book out of many I could choose by William Gibson because it has a great title. He is apparently the originator of cyberpunk. I reread his entire output every few years. His language use, plotting and invention are what keep me coming back. His novels repay rereading in that you start to understand just what is going on…..

Reads and Rerereads 4‘The Village Cricket Match’ by John Parker

This is a delightful tale of…. of the village cricket match of the title. It reminds me of watching village cricket in a village much like this one in Sussex, when I was a boy. (And I went to school with the author’s son, who was eventually the captain of Sussex. And was outstanding at all sorts of sports. And Oxbridge.)

dscn6090‘The Pickwick Papers’ by Charles Dickens

I like just about all Dickens, and this used to be my favourite. I used to read it when things were really bad. If I haven’t re-read it for some time, perhaps that’s because things haven’t been so bad.

As so often, by writing this post I found some new insights. I discovered that it was authors I reread, not individual novels, apart in the case of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Stolen Journey’. Of course, there are others, but Shute, Gibson and Pratchett are the writers I keep coming back to. (There is some non-fiction I re-read: ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ and others; but mostly I dip into it.)

And your choice is?

Unfinished Books

Recently I read about a survey of the books most commonly started but left unfinished by the British reading public. Statistically, this type of research is usually dodgy, but the results are interesting.

Of course, having written the above I conducted a search to find the list, but can’t find the one I originally read. There are several: there is a link to one here:

Unfinished Book List

I do remember that the list I originally saw featured ‘A Brief History of Time’ by Steven Hawking (I’ve read it, could have been better with a few more simple equations), the ‘Harry Potter’ series by J.K. Rowling (I’ve read them, need editing) and at the top ’50 Shades of Grey’ by somebody I can’t be bothered to check up (I haven’t read it, won’t be bothering).

I detect a certain air of smugness in myself when I have read books other have struggled to finish. ‘War and Peace’ comes to mind as often being in lists like this; I have read it but have mixed feelings about it (see my blogpost on War and Peace). Dickens often occurs in these lists. I love most of his novels but gave up on ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. What else have I abandoned?


Looking on my sadly depleted shelves (see yet another post: Decluttering 3: A final one on books and two more), I firstly find unfinished non-fiction, which I start with good intentions but then plough to a halt. I thought this trend might stop when I retired, but it hasn’t. I started ‘The Making of the British Landscape’ by Nicholas Crane, then found it….. just uninspiring, despite great reviews. So I tried the identically named book by Francis Pryor. I got a bit further, but have paused in my reading of it. Perhaps it’s the subject matter. Perhaps it’s me.

20180503_142925Then there’s ‘The Ancestor’s Tale’ by Richard Dawkins and Yan Wong. ‘The Blind Watchmaker’ by Dawkins is a book I have read and re-read, and find inspiring. However this one is proving hard to finish, well-written as it is.

20180503_142859Another critically acclaimed and well-written book is ‘Jerusalem’ by Simon Sebag Montefiore. (What a great name that is.) It’s fascinating. It’s packed full of vivid detail. But. But. I just can’t get going on it.

20180503_143145I have just enough scientific education and interest to tackle ‘The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen’ by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw. It is very readable, but does need a bit of concentration. However, once again I have pressed the pause button and the pause is lengthening.  (I must point out that all these books are very good and I do intend to finish them. Some day.)

20180503_142838On a different note entirely is my failure to finish ‘Savage Continent’ by Keith Lowe. It’s an account of Europe in the years immediately following the end of World War 2. It’s very, very good. I have read most of it. However, I just cannot face any more. It’s such an awful indictment how people can treat others with disgusting savagery, often because they are a different nationality, religion or ethnic grouping.

In a lighter vein, I have some unstarted books in my collection, which I may never start. They are books I have inherited from my parents and in-laws. Two of them, pictured here, are a biography of the sadly missed Brian Johnston by his son Barry (one of my mother’s); and ‘Don Quixote’ by Cervantes (in a version “adapted for the young” by one M. Jones) which must have been my grandfather’s. The latter looks unread and will probably remain unread. I may tackle ‘Johnners’ one day.

This moves us neatly on to fiction. I find this more difficult to illustrate, as I have generally got rid of fiction books I have not finished; I tend to hang on to non-fiction in the folorn hope that “I’ll get round to it some day”. I have selected a few abandoned books from my reading log (more on that another time) with some of the comments I wrote:

‘The God of Small Things’- Arundhati Roy: Beautifully written, but I found it too distressing to finish.

‘The Sunday Philosophy Club’- Alexander McCall Smith: not a patch on ‘The No1 Ladies’ Detective Agency’.

‘Anima’- M. John Harrison: I didn’t really get it.

‘The Three Musketeers’- Alexander Dumas: Tiresome

‘How To Be Good’- Nick Hornby: Didn’t finish. Long interior monologues, not very entertaining.

There are more. I was hoping for a pattern to emerge here, but I can’t find one. I seem to have found books tiring, or tiresome, or dense, or too full of exquisite description. I feel that often I give books up because I have a weakness for plot; if something doesn’t move I can’t be bothered.

I always advise people not to finish a book if they are not enjoying it. I realise, however, that this might mean you miss something. Recently I read a review of a novel which described it as almost impossible to read, but advised that it would give you huge rewards if you stuck with it. I find it difficult to envisage what these rewards might be (for fiction) if it’s not enjoyable. Now into my 60s, I don’t want to waste my time on anything; but whatever your age, there are impossibly more books than you will ever be able to read. Move on.

I apologise to my regular readers who were heartbroken when a post didn’t happen last Sunday. The Muse was not inspiring me.


“Are You OK?”

Really totally inconsequential.

There must be something about me. I love wandering round bookshops- and record shops, although few now exist. In either, I seem to be a target for assistants who ask me: “Are you OK?” or “Can I help you?”

Firstly; yes, of course, you are right. They are genuinely trying to help. It’s their job. There is not a hidden agenda. They do not suspect me of shoplifting.

Secondly; yes, of course, I always reply politely. And yet, and yet…..

If you look back at the first proper sentence, you will see that I like wandering round bookshops. It’s one of life’s great pleasures. It’s best when I have an excuse. My family all know that a book token is an infallibly pleasing gift. I spend it, in my thoughts, many times over.

Being interrupted in my happy daze doesn’t make me cross, or irritated. I even, as you can guess, feel a little guilty at my slight resentment. However, it does detract from my bookshop experience.

Sometimes it makes me want to reply honestly: “No, I’m not OK”, then tell them about my problems. Or, when asked if they can help, say “I doubt it” and explain why. That, of course, would be rude. So I don’t.

(Mind you, wouldn’t it be good if you could tell all your problems to those assistants, in all sorts of stores, who have “Happy to Help” badges? They might get a shock or two.)

Perhaps I am just the sort of customer who looks as if he is not OK, or is in need of help. That’s strange, as bookshops are some of the places in which I feel very safe.

Perhaps I should strike up a book related conversation. That would be nice.

Anyway, bookshop assistants, if you see a tall, bald, bespectacled 61-year old man wandering round, looking lost: it’s me. I’m not lost. I’m happy. Please leave me to wander (unless you really want to discuss William Gibson’s later novels, or good retellings of Greek myths, or whatever I am into at the moment). But thanks for the thought.

Are You OK

(Oh, if you are interested, I bought the two books in the picture today, and felt very relaxed after my wander.)

Post-Publication Footnote: See also “Are you alright?” , which I had totally forgotten writing.

Reading in Public 2

Another miscellany of books I have observed being read in public since 30th October. Well, I enjoyed writing it……

Braving the Wilderness by Brené Brown A lady was very absorbed in this in Waitrose; for a mad moment, I thought it was the new autobiography by recent British Prime Minister (briefly) Gordon Brown. How bold of him, I thought, to use such a title. Then reason re-asserted itself; at this time his memoir had not yet been released in hardback, let alone paperback. Also the photo on the back cover appeared to be of a lady, and I was not aware of Mr Brown having had any spectacular reassignment of his preferred gender. I fell to speculating what the reader was thinking as she read; was she absorbed in a fiction? Then she looked to see how many pages she had left, rather shattering the illusion. The book apparently addresses “the quest for true belonging and the courage to stand alone”. (Did Gordon Brown need this, I wonder?) The author is apparently a TedTalk phenomenon- a good recommendation- and a New York Times bestselling author. Nevertheless, it doesn’t appeal.

Next: in Brasserie Blanc, of all places, was a lady dining alone and reading. How wonderful that somebody combines those two great pleasures, solo, with no apparent self-consciousness. The light was a bit dim, but I worked out that the book was by Colm Toíbín. It was one of those covers where the author’s name is bigger than the title. Hmm. Possibly the book was his latest, House of Names, a “brilliant retelling of a Greek tragedy”. Hmm. Possibly another one I shall pass by. His work sounds dry, but as usual, who am I to judge? (Did you notice I was able to put the accent on the í?)

Following this, I spot a gentleman in the Waitrose café reading Tom Clancy’s True Faith and Allegiance: a Jack Ryan novel by Mark Greaney. Now there’s a title that needs a bit of unpacking. It appears that Tom Clancy did not write his later novels alone and that after his death further novels under his name were written by others. They are thrillers, for those like me who have not read them. Apparently they have a rather conservative world view; that’s an American conservative world view, with Reagan as a hero. Apparently. Correct me if I’m wrong. Again it’s a comforting thought, whatever your politics, that people enjoy reading when they’re on their own in public.  The next day, however, I saw the same gentleman reading on a Kindle. How I wish I had the nerve to ask what titles are being read on Kindles and the like. Plato, Porn, Proust, Pamuk, Patterson…. ? On another occasion, a reader had their Kindle propped up on a stand. Obviously in for the long haul.

Equally I wish I’d asked the title of the slim tome  being read by a (student?) girl at a bus stop. Is it inappropriate to ask a stranger of the opposite sex such a question in this day and age, even with Mrs O. chaperoning? Strange times.

I had another difficulty at the swimming pool the other day, where I saw somebody reading; but I didn’t have my glasses on, so had no chance of finding the title. (Note: if I don’t acknowledge you when swimming, I’m not ignoring you; if I stare fixedly at you, it’s not that I find you attractive or unattractive in your costume; it’s just that beyond a distance of about 3m you all look like pink or brown blobs if I haven’t got my specs on.)

There was also a child reading at the pool, but I don’t think it counts; she had so obviously been told to “do some reading” while a sibling was having a lesson. Back at my usual haunt, a boy (the same young gentleman who partly inspired Reading in Public) is reading Third Year at Mallory Towers by Enid Blyton. Maybe a strange choice for this day and age? I had my Enid Blyton stage, but that was a long time ago.

Another reader, with a laptop, who is obviously going to be in the café for a long time, has a bag (with Minions on it) from which she pulls a procession of academic texts. I identify The Handbook of Person-Centred Therapy and Mental Health: Theory, Research and Practice by Stephen Joseph and a title of which I can only read one word: “Authentic”. When I look up the first title on Amazon I find that “Customers who viewed The Handbook of Person-Centred Therapy.…” also viewed Authentic by the same author. It’s all too deep for me; and doesn’t really count as getting involved in a book. Nor does the lady who is looking at her diary; despite Oscar Wilde’s thoughts on the matter, she was probably just checking on birthdays. Ooh, the academic lady has just got a book called ‘Learning and Being’ from her Minions bag. I think this must be Learning and Being in Person-Centred Counselling by Tony Merry. You see where she’s going with this? I hope it’s a good journey, and has a real relevance to her career or life, or both.

There you are then. No deep conclusions, just the abiding thought of how lovely it is to see somebody lost in a good book.

(Of course, having finished this post and not published it, the list slowly goes on lengthening. Part of this interest- all of it, really- is just an abiding curiosity as to what people are reading. The above-mentioned young gentleman is now onto The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl. I’ve just noticed a lady reading The Girls. Investigation tells me it is a coming-of-age story centred on Charles Manson, written by Emma Cline. Hmm. Think I’ll stick to the Ms Oblique library for the near future.)