Fun In The Sun: Laugh-Out-Loud Summer BooksRead these books at the beach, and people two towels over will wonder why you're chortling. There are plenty of books that will make you laugh, but critic Heller McAlpin separates the mere giggles from the all-out gut-busters.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.