I’ve been getting bogged down in some truly depressing novels of late. It seems that in everything I’m picking up there are either far too many unpleasant characters, or the likeable characters are undergoing such hideous suffering that I can’t bear to read on. My desperate desire for something cheerful led me to write today’s top 5: quite simply, it’s my pick of the books that never fail to make me laugh. If like me you’re stuck in a rut of literary misery then maybe one of these is the way forward!
- “Three Men in a Boat” by Jerome K Jerome – An oldie but a goodie, this nineteenth century classic proves that disastrous holidays have been a feature of life since time immemorial. Three men (and their dog) decide to take a break from the tedium of everyday living with a relaxing boating holiday. Unfortunately their ineptitude combined with a series of unforeseen disasters result in a trip which is a very long way from the one they had in mind. A hymn to the British determination to persevere with a plan no matter what, it’s a very funny read.
- “Stark” by Ben Elton – This early Ben Elton novel does what many of his books do: it makes a serious comment on an aspect of modern society in a side-splitting and riotous way. I’ve loved everything I’ve ever read by him, but this one has a special place in my heart as it’s the first one I tried. Its theme is the environment, and it’s at once ridiculous, extreme, farcical – a scarily, a little bit believable.
- “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” by E.M. Delafield – If you’re a regular visitor to my blog you’ll know that I wrote a review of this a few days ago. She may be a creation of the 1930s but the Provincial Lady is just like any one of us (I particularly appreciate the way in which she fends off the melancholy of her financial woes by going shopping!) Her neighbours are as hilarious as they are hideous, and it is with great wit that the heroine endeavours to maintain her integrity in a stratum of society where keeping up appearances is the name of the game.
- “Does my bum look big in this?” by Arabella Weir – I never took to Bridget Jones as a character, and in fact would go so far as to say I found her incredibly unlikeable at times. This, however, is what “Bridget Jones’ Diary” would have been like if it had a more naïve and endearing heroine. The subtitle is “The diary of an insecure woman”, which tells you exactly what you’re going to get: jokes about cellulite, sex and dress sizes abound, and pretty good jokes they are too. It might all sound a bit hackneyed, but for a bit of girly silliness you can’t do much better.
- “Down Under” by Bill Bryson – I knew I had to get a Bill Bryson book in here, as no author has ever made me laugh quite as uncontrollably. The question was which one to choose; in the end I went for this one purely because there’s a scene involving a visit to a small, provincial museum that is as close to comedy perfection as you’ll ever get. Bryson can come across as somewhat curmudgeonly on occasion, but there’s no doubting his comic gift.
Well, that’s brightened my evening no end! As always I’d love to hear your thoughts – which books make you laugh out loud?
I’m quite an old-fashioned girl at heart. Many wonders of the modern world, such as on-demand TV (I prefer to, as I still refer to it, “set the video”) and Apple-pay (I still have a cheque book in a drawer somewhere) are yet to become a part of my life. I can’t even claim that I’m shunning technology and going retro because that’s what the trendy people are doing right now – I quite simply haven’t moved with the times. All of which probably explains the sense of comfort I feel when reading novels such as “The Diary of a Provincial Lady”; set in the 1930s, it’s a period that doesn’t feel so far removed from the present day as to be considered “historical” as such, but is distant enough to evoke a real feeling of nostalgia. One thing hasn’t changed though: the fact that many of us spend a fairly high proportion of our lives feeling wholly inadequate compared to those around us.
That feeling of inferiority, whether of appearance, intellect or financial circumstances, is the recurring theme of the Provincial Lady’s diaries. Downbeat and self-absorbed, though, they are not. Our hugely entertaining diarist may spend her days flying into a panic about not having an appropriate outfit to wear or the fact that her woeful attempt to grow indoor bulbs is being met with disdainful comments from her neighbours, but ultimately every setback is faced with endearing good humour. What is more, she’s totally upfront in acknowledging that the very people she’s trying to impress are usually the ones whose attitudes and lifestyles she despises. Among these surrounding characters are some brilliant comic creations: Lady Boxe, the supremely arrogant, self-appointed lynchpin of village life; Pamela Pringle, who works her way through inappropriate men at an astonishing rate, and “Mademoiselle”, French nanny to the Provincial Lady’s two children and who is prone to frequent bouts of mild hysteria. I laughed out loud countless times; the author is so astute at nailing (mostly unflattering) observations of her fellow humans – all through the protagonist’s eyes of course – and the level of cringe-inducing awfulness on display is something to which we can all relate. I’m sure at one time or another most of us have encountered the pretentious bore at a social gathering intent on making sure everyone knows how well-read they are, or the person who subtly slips into conversation the fact that their forthcoming holiday is more exotic or their dress more expensive than yours. Most hilarious of all are the beleaguered diarist’s internal responses to all the odious people around her – perfect, pithy comments that of course she – like all of us – never voices out loud.
The book is actually made up of four stories – novellas I suppose you could call them. The first, “The Diary of a Provincial Lady” centres around everyday village life; the subsequent three, “The Provincial Lady Goes Further”, “The Provincial Lady in America” and “The Provincial Lady in Wartime” follow our heroine to London and the United States. I have to say that for me, none of these worked quite as well as the first story. There is still a lot of fun to be had and the author’s skill at creating finely-drawn comic characters remains, but I found the mundanity of the day to day tribulations found close to home much more engaging than the pressures of the London or New York social scene. The subtle observations of a WI meeting, a village fête or a family picnic are exquisite in their accuracy, and when the lead characters venture away from that cosy setting some of the sense of reality is lost. It’s also about that feeling of nostalgia I mentioned earlier: the inherent cosiness of a long vanished rural way of life appeals to me much more than a metropolitan setting.
Despite these reservations this novel definitely still gets a recommendation from me. If you’re feeling a bit low it will lift your spirits, and I think sometimes that’s what we all need from a book.