The editors of MercatorNet and Clare Cannon of Good Reading Guide bring you, in no particular order, a selection of books to make you laugh, smile and give thanks. And then, just in case you are too cheerful, some classic gloomy numbers. You are welcome to submit your own faves.
For good cheer
Jerome K Jerome
Three Men in a Boat (1889)
Boating was all the rage in the 1880s when Jerome wrote what was intended to be a serious travel guide but turned into a comic novel – a humorous and often hilarious account of three upper-class young Englishmen on a boating holiday on the Thames. Episodes such as the trio’s efforts to open a tin of pineapple without an opener are a riot, and no doubt can be seen to advantage in the screen versions — of which there are several.
Everything he ever wrote (1914 to 1977)
PGW was a phenomenon. He wrote about 100 novels over the course of his long life, all of them full of the same frothy, debonair, witty high spirits. Forget about realism: you enter a kind of upper-crust turn-of-the-century British fairy-tale where the most serious problems are lost cravats and dragon-like aunts. This blissful innocence is reflected in perfect plots: mind-boggling complexities are all solved in the last chapter. His hilarious and highly-cultured prose makes him a masterful stylist, eg, “He groaned slightly and winced, like Prometheus watching his vulture dropping in for lunch.”
Alexander McCall Smith
The No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and sequels
McCall Smith’s series of stories starring Mma Precious Ramotswe are full of gentle humour generated by the intuition and common sense of their well-built heroine. There are tragic moments, as in real life, but these are fleeting shadows in the broad daylight of a Botswana seen through the shrewd and affectionate eyes of Mma Ramotswe. There are few dilemmas that cannot be solved with the application of her knowledge of human nature and a cup of bush tea. Guaranteed to cheer.
The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1939)
From British to American humour. This is the most famous of Thurber’s short stories, the protagonist’s name having become a byword for an ineffectual daydreamer. The action takes place within one day as Walter Mitty drives his wife to town for the weekly shop and hairdresser’s appointment. For Walter, the day is a series of heroic fantasies ending with himself in front of a firing squad, “inscrutable to the last”. Nonsense words like the famous “ta-pocketa- pocketa-pocketa” (form this aerial warfare fantasy) capture Thurber’s wry, even sly, but sympathetic humour.
The Little World of Don Camillo – and all the rest (1945 – 1963)
With a mix of satire, humour and wisdom Guareschi creates the most lovable priest in fiction and his nemesis, the communist mayor of his small Italian town, Peppone. The two are constantly at war, but the warfare is more theatre than real fire since each grudgingly admires the other. Don Camillo for his part is kept in check by his frequently consultations with the Crucifix in his church. Guareschi wrote 347 of these “Mondo Piccolo” stories and they had a readership of over 10 million people of all creeds around the world by the 1960s. Comrade Don Camillo, a book-length story published in Italian in 1963, is a wonderful send-up of communist myths and at the same time a heartfelt tribute to communism’s victims and prisoners.
I Promessi Sposi (1827)
The Betrothed, as it is translated in English, is the greatest Italian novel. Inspired by the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, Manzoni wrote a book which is far better than anything of his master. This is a vast novel set in 1628 in northern Italy about how Renzo and Lucia eventually get married. Just as they are about to be married, the beautiful Lucia is kidnapped by a local nobleman who has taken a fancy to her. Uniting the two young lovers takes up the rest of the book. While the book is overflowing with vividly sinful characters and the drama of violence and plague, it breathes a serene confidence that “God’s in his heaven; all’s right with the world”. An enchanting experience.
The Hobbit (1937)
Ever popular (witness the new movie series) The Hobbit is really nothing like JRR’s epic Lord of the Rings. It is a story for children about the stealing of a dragon’s hoard by some dwarves with the reluctant aid of a little hobbit, but there is enough invention and depth in the tale to charm both children and adults. One writer says that the best way to understand The Hobbit is to think of Tolkien, or another adult, in a chair by the fireside telling the story to a semi-circle of children sitting on the floor. Being a children’s story it has plenty of laughs to break the tension of death-defying adventures… Movies are all very well but this approach sounds just right.
Mary Ann Shaffer
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008)
Reading this book is like enjoying a cool, refreshing beverage on a hot day. A witty journalist has entertained a World War II depressed nation with her humorous column in the national newspaper. Post-war, she’s tired of entertaining and seeks inspiration for a more meaningful composition. She stumbles across ‘The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society’, an unconventional book club which was hastily invented by several inhabitants of the German-occupied island to excuse a breach of curfew… Gloriously honest, enchanting and funny, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society is sure to win your heart.
L’Auberge set in a small village in the French Pyrenees, where the inhabitants are horrified to learn that a young English couple, Lorna and Paul Webster, have bought the local auberge. Most residents are resistant to change, everyone is convinced that the English can’t cook, and the unscrupulous mayor, Serge Papon, wants the auberge for his brother-in-law… This one of those books in which you laugh and cry; light and easy to read, and hard to put down. Julia Stagg captures the atmosphere brilliantly, having herself spent six years running a small auberge in France, and her writing evokes some of the qualities that make novels like Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, and Giovanni Guareschi’s Don Camillo stories so attractive. The characters are well-drawn and lovable, and humanity pervades the book, with some great insights into the importance of not judging others and the beauty of forgiveness.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012)
This is a sensitive, respectful, and beautifully moving story of a long bereaved couple’s reawakening into the world of feeling. A contemporary Pilgrim’s Progress involving Harold’s six-hundred-mile journey up the centre of England, the novel proceeds as both a literal and psychological journey. As he walks to reunite with a long-lost and terminally ill friend, Harold becomes an inspiration and an accidental confessor of sorts to most of the people he comes across. A truly endearing character, his own simplicity and good-heartedness provide a solid foil for the eccentricities of others. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a gem. Its ending alone would make it well worth the time spent reading.
And now for a bracing dose of real gloom…
No sense in overdosing on good cheer and blithe spirits, though. If you feel yourself getting a bit giddy and light-hearted, here are some classics which will bring you back to earth with a very big thump.
Everything he ever wrote (1870s and 1880s)
Hardy must have eaten something that disagreed with him very early in life, as gloom pervades his novels, short stories and poetry. A mother and her recently hanged son, love triangles, failed marriages, pregnant fiancées cast out of doors, snakebite, suicide, mismatched couples, fallen women, deserted wives and so on. But the characters are vivid and the writing lyric.
The Heart of Darkness (1899)
Conrad was not a cheerful novelist at the best of times, but this short account of a steamboat’s journey up the Congo River into the heart of brutal oppression and dehumanising colonialism is mesmerizingly gloomy. The narrator, Marlowe, finally finds Kurtz, a mysterious company agent, after a perilous journey, and takes him back to civilization. But Kurtz, weak and sick, dies uttering the words, “The horror! The horror!”
“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect-like creature.” This is one of the most famous sentences of 20th century literature. Why or how Gregor became a cockroach is never explained. The most horrifying aspect of the story is how quickly he and his family adjust to the situation, as if nothing much had changed in his life, except his inability to report for work as a travelling salesman.
Lord of the Flies (1954)
After a nuclear disaster, a group of British schoolboys is stranded on a desert island. They quickly turn into two factions, one reasonable and civilised, the other blood-thirsty little savages. All the good guys die. This is reputedly one of the most popular books of the 20th century, perhaps because it is an allegory of the violence unleashed in two world wars and countless other conflicts.
The Road (2006)
Cormac McCarthy is probably the premier American Gloommeister. The only unsatisfactory bit in this dark novel is its denouement, in which there is a glimmer (mercifully brief) of optimism. It describes the journey of a father and his son through an apocalyptic American landscape filled with ash. All animals, all plant life, is dead. Humans are the only living beings, wandering aimlessly, looking either for canned food or other humans whom they can cannibalise. It is a book full of horrors, but its spare and rhythmic prose is hypnotic and its final message is the power of a father’s love.