Who would think it would be so hard to find good books that are funny without being stupid? Not just wry or ironic, but laugh-out-loud funny, the sort of humor that takes you by surprise. While a great book can transport you without carfare to another world, a good laugh can be more revitalizing than many a vacation. All of these books — two novels, two collections of personal essays and a memoir — feature prose as sparkling and refreshing as sand and water. Read them on a beach, and people two towels over will wonder why you're chortling.
Dead End Gene Pool: A Memoir
By Wendy Burden, hardcover, 180 pages, Gotham, list price: $26.00
The Vanderbilt dynasty may not strike you as the stuff of great comedy, but Wendy Burden, a four-times-great-granddaughter of old Cornelius, captures the extravagant decline of her wealthy family with the bite of a standup comic, reminding you that your life and material are what you make of them. After her father's suicide when she was six, Burden and her brothers, were repeatedly shipped off by their self-absorbed, tan-and-man-obsessed mother to join their eccentric, alcohol-soaked paternal grandparents in their lavish New York, Maine and Florida homes.
Despite weekends and holidays spent catered to by a battalion of servants in "Burdenland," the author was made to feel decidedly second class as the only girl, and clearly would have traded it all for a loving maternal hug. She was obsessed with ghoulish Wednesday Addams, and regaled her grandparents' dinner guests with her plans to become a mortician, "with an emphasis on restorative art." Discussing her great-grandmother, who lost her husband early to leukemia, Burden writes with typical wry humor: "With the help of a butler, a footman, a French chauffeur named Lucien, a cook, several maids, and a governess, Gran had raised her two sons on her own." (Read from the chapter titled "Thirty-one Moons," in which Burden, then 7, and her brother Will, 8, board a flight — by themselves — to visit "Gaga and Grandaddy" in New York.)
The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books And the People Who Read Them
By Elif Batuman, paperback, 293 pages, FSG, list price: $15.00
If you want smart, weighty and hilarious, this is your book. It's not often that literary criticism makes you guffaw (with other than derision). But in seven delightfully quirky essays that combine travelogue and memoir with criticism, Elif Batuman, a first generation Turkish-American educated at Harvard and Stanford, takes you on an unconventional odyssey through the world of Russian literature, seeking "direct relevance to lived experience, especially to love." Batuman both plays the game of literary exegesis and skewers it, finding beauty, substance and absurdity at every turn.
Her descriptions of a conference of 25 international Tolstoy scholars at Yasnaya Polyana and a field trip to Chekhov's estate with an incontinent elderly professor called Vanya achieve the sublime silliness of Tom Stoppard's Travesties. (Read Batuman's account of her introduction to the Russian language, and the awkward parallels between her own life and those in the Russian-language primer "The Story of Vera.")
How Did You Get This Number
By Sloane Crosley, hardcover, 271 pages, Riverhead, list price: $24.95
Few literary forms are as fun to read — or as hard to pull off — as the humorous personal essay, a literary fling that doesn't require a reader's long-term commitment or deep emotional investment. It's all about the voice, the wit, the gentle self-deprecation, the utter lack of sanctimony. Sloane Crosley's got the genre down, as she proves once again in her vivacious follow-up to I Was Told There'd Be Cake.
The nine essays in How Did You Get This Number find her struggling to orient herself both abroad (Lisbon, Paris, Alaska) and at home in Manhattan. SATs are "a canary into the mines of your future. A dead canary, and you were looking at a nail-polish-merchandising degree from Pump My Stomach State." A refrigerator shared with an incompatible roommate in her first apartment resembles "a condiment ark. We had two of just about everything." Living in New York, she explains, "The question is never 'Should I be annoyed?' but 'How annoyed should I be?'" (Read from Crosley's essay "Show Me on the Doll," and find the answer to the question, Would you like to see a 3:00 a.m. performance of amateur Portuguese circus clowns?)
The Three Weissmanns of Westport
By Cathleen Schine, hardcover, 293 pages, FSG, list price: $25.00
Cathleen Schine's twist on Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility substitutes divorce for primogeniture as the event that abruptly reduces a woman's material circumstances. When Joseph Weissmann tells his wife of 48 years that he wants a divorce because of "irreconcilable differences," 75-year-old Betty finds herself exiled from their sprawling, elegant Central Park West co-op to a borrowed beach shack in Westport, Conn. Her two grown daughters, also at loose ends, rally around for support. Joe's "irreconcilable difference" turns out to be an avaricious younger colleague named Felicity, "although Betty referred to her, pretending she could not remember the correct name, sometimes as Pleurisy, more often as Duplicity."
A master of the modern domestic comedy, Schine lobs zingers at divorce lawyers, McMansions, infomercials, insecure authors, adult sibling rivalry, and easily bamboozled old men, among other targets. She's alternately uproarious and moving. (Read as Joe Weissmann sorts out the terms of his divorce from his wife Betty — with his young lover Felicity. "Poor Betty. I don't envy her. At her age," says Felicity, trying to discourage Joe from forking over in the settlement the "burden" of a $3 million apartment.)
The Frozen Rabbi
By Steve Stern, hardcover, 370 pages, Algonquin, list price: $24.95
Underappreciated novelist Steve Stern cleverly weaves together a zany search for spiritual meaning in a depraved society with an unusual romp through the miserable history of Jews in the 20th century in this wonderfully entertaining, inventive new novel that evokes Amy Bloom, Michael Chabon and Isaac Bashevis Singer. His "ice sage" is a 19th-century mystic rabbi encased in a block of ice during an out-of-body meditation. Shepherded from Poland to Memphis by succeeding generations of a beleaguered but indomitable family, he's finally discovered by sad-sack adolescent Bernie Karp in 1999 while rummaging through his family's basement freezer in search of a slab of meat with which to duplicate an outrageous feat from Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint.
The defrosted rabbi is initiated into overstuffed but undernourished modern culture by binging on television. He comments: "Shopping bazaars it's got, and Dodge Barracudas and Gootchie bags made I think from the skin of Leviathan, churches from Yoyzel it's got big as Herod's Temple, but it ain't got a soul." (Read as Stern's sad-sack protagonist Bernie Karp shoves aside "rump roasts, Butterballs, and pork tenderloins" in search of liver — and instead finds "an old man in the meat freezer.")