Books to Make You Laugh for the Holidays

“It should be as unacceptable to be without a mask in public as it is to be without pants.”–A local emergency room doctor on Covid-19

The holidays are coming! Our first (and last?) Covid Thanksgiving ! Turkey or chicken? Indoors or outdoors? Skip the formalities, or loll under electric blankets outside?

There is still no mask mandate here–but we are proving that a sparsely populated, usually quiet state CAN compete in the international infection per capita records!

Anyway, as you know, I have been seeking comic novels for distraction. Let me share this list of TEN BOOKS TO MAKE YOU LAUGH. You may need it!

1 Emma by Jane Austen. This, as you may know, is my favorite Jane Austen. I left the Pride and Prejudice crowd, because I can’t warm up to Darcy, and note that Elizabeth Bennet didn’t care for him until she saw how rich he is. No, I prefer Emma, a rich, witty, single anti-heroine with no plans to marry. She enjoys husband-hunting for her friend Harriet, an orphan–only it turns out Emma can’t read people at all, and the men are all in love with Emma (Mr. Elton and Knightley), or using Emma as a beard (Frank Churchill). The reader sees all her mistakes, but still loves Emma, because in real life we don’t have a clue what is going on either most of the time! We are Emma.

2 A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh. Although A Handful of Dust is gut-wrenching,  most critics consider it a satire.  (Yes, it is a satire.)   Is it Waugh’s masterpiece? Well, it is pretty damned good.  Waugh is so harshly hyperbolic in his depiction of London society and the casual wantonness of the charming Brenda Last that we laugh.  But as the novel progresses, we are shocked by the suffering of the innocent Tony and their son. The relationship of the Lasts is the crux of the novel, and I will say no more, because it is one of those novels where the plot DOES matter. So no spoilers here…

3 Mrs. Tim of the Regiment by D. E. Stevenson. A friend suggested Stevenson should “pep up” her diaries and publish them as novels. Stevenson’s delightful quartet of Mrs. Tim Christie books is the result, and I promise they are peppy and witty. Mrs. Tim, a British officer’s wife, is not in the least militaristic; she has a sense of humor, and lightheartedly enjoys the company of the soldiers and their wives. She also hilariously describes family antics, and management of her husband’s moods and the rambunctiousness of their children

Here is a witty quote:

Sit down after dinner feeling very tired. Tim points out that I have done nothing all day to make me tired (which is true, in a way). He continues that I have no business to be tired. I have not got a crowd of half-boiled soldiers to plague my life out from morning to night. Am surprised at this statement (as Tim has been very keen on his territorials up to now), but conclude that something must have occurred to upset him, and resign myself to listen and sympathize instead of starting Sheila Kaye Smith’s latest novel, which I have just procured with vast trouble from the library.”

I recommend the Bloomsbury Reads paperback edition of Mrs. Tim of the Regiment, but do try to check out the other Mrs. Tim books from the library, partly to keep them in circulation.

4 Happy Trails to You by Julie Hecht. This collection of droll short stories by a reclusive New Yorker writer is narrated by an eccentric leftist vegan photographer who adores Paul McCartney and despises Republicans (especially the one she refers to as the “Alfred E. Neuman president”). She despairs of young people who don’t know anything about Elvis and President Kennedy; criticizes the hideous “prostitute fashions” of the 21st century; consults and recommends Dr. Weil’s web site for every health problem; and punches the ATM buttons with the corner of her debit card because of germs.

She would fit right in now that we’re in Covid times!

5 The Limits of Vision by Robert Irwin. It has been years since I read this novel of extreme housewifery, but it is both spooky and witty. The narrator, Marcia, works hard at cleaning, but her war on dirt has become desperate. She converses with Mucor, the “mouthpiece for the Dirt, the Empire of Decay and Ruin, the principle of Evil.” I think I’ve met him while cleaning the cupboard under the sink. Is she mad, or is this science fiction? You decide, next time you talk to Mucor!

6 A Charmed Life by Mary McCarthy.This satiric novel, published in 1955,  centered on several residents of an artists’ colony in a New England village. I loved every minute of it, and empathized with Martha, an artist whose husband keeps her on a schedule to finish a play (she hates writing) and locks her in the attic, as Colette’s husband Willy did to her. There also complications with a violent ex-husband. The artists’ colony is too cozy by half.

7 Lysistrata by Aristophanes. In this brilliant Greek comedy, the women protest the war by withholding sex from the men. But will it work? N.B. One of my profs retired early because he was afraid he would be sued for sexual harassment if he taught Lysistrata. We are all Lysistrata! Isn’t that what we say to censorship?

8 The Charmers by Stella Gibbons. This charming 1965 novel is reminiscent of Barbara Pym’s books. The middle-aged heroine, Christine Smith,  has lost her office job of 30 years during a “reorganization” of the  firm. She feels lucky to find a job as a housekeeper for a group of middle-aged artists and finally blooms among the bohemians.

9 How I Got to be Perfect by Jean Kerr. Jean Kerr, the author of the Tony Award-winning play, King of Hearts, and the wife of  drama critic Walter Kerr,  was  one of the most amusing domestic columnists of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.   How I Got to Be Perfect (1978) includes the best of three previous collections, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, The Snake Has All the Lines, and Penny Candy, and a few “new essays.”  In “Marriage:  Unsafe at Any Speed,” she says that “Till death do we part ”worked  in the Middle Ages when life expectations were short due to the plague,” but she advises a written marriage test in our “enlightened age” of longevity.  I love her questionnaire.  In “As I Was Saying to the Geranium,” she writes about her bad luck with house plants.  In  “The Kerr-Hilton,” she describes their hilarious search for a bigger house after the birth of their fourth son.

Eventually they look at a huge brick castle in “a style that Walter was later to call neo-gingerbread,” with  clock towers, cupolas, and  a courtyard that “strongly resembled an MGM set for Quo Vadis.”  Walter leans on some oak paneling and briefly disappears into a secret closet.  But they buy it because it’s the right size for their family and the layout gives them space from their four sons.

I laughed and laughed.

10 The Nightingales Are Singing by Monica Dickens.  Set in post-war London and Washington, D.C., this fascinating novel is a domestic comedy and an analysis of a marriage of convenience.  Christine, 34, works in a bookstore in London, where she is known as “the estimable Miss Cope.” With no boyfriend and no fiance in sight, she agrees to marry an American naval commander who gives her family much-appreciated food that Americans have access to. In Washington, D.C.  she must adjust to her  husband’s conservatism and a new culture.

Parts are screamingly funny.  Christine gets scammed by a charming vacuum cleaner salesman, but she insists  to her husband that the vacuum is first-rate.  She takes sewing lessons from a woman who cannot thread the machine. The marriage has ups and downs, sometimes funny, sometimes very sad.  Overall, very insightful and entertaining. And it is free on the internet! Maybe Project Gutenberg? Anyway, I found it.

Any humorous holiday recommendations? I’m always ready for wit!