Top Ten Tuesday: Books to make you laugh (or at least smile)

Top Ten Tuesday

I wasn’t going to take part in this week’s Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) because I didn’t think I read enough funny books to be able to make a list…but when I stopped to give it some thought, I actually didn’t have a problem coming up with ten titles.

I have concentrated here on books which were specifically written to be funny or which contain lots of amusing scenes, rather than just one or two funny moments (the list would have been far too long in that case). Let me know if you’ve read any of these or if you can think of any more.

Three Men in a Boat

1. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome – This tale of three friends (and dog) who take a disastrous boat trip along the River Thames had to be top of my list!

Three Men on the Bummel

2. Three Men on the Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome – Our old friends, J, Harris and George get together again for a tour of Germany in this sequel to Three Men in a Boat.

Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit

3. Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit by P.G. Wodehouse – I could have included other Wodehouse books here too, but this Jeeves and Wooster novel is the only one I have reviewed on my blog.

Cold Comfort Farm

4. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons – I didn’t find this parody of the British rural novel quite as funny as other people have but it still deserves to be included here.

The Convenient Marriage

5. The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer – Many of Heyer’s novels feature a bit of comedy and some witty dialogue, but this is one I remember being particularly funny.

The Canterville Ghost

6. The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde – This light and entertaining satire is possibly the least ghostly ghost story I’ve ever read!

The Adventures of Alianore Audley

7. The Adventures of Alianore Audley by Brian Wainwright – Some knowledge of the Wars of the Roses might be needed to fully appreciate this tale of a 15th century Yorkist spy.

Don Quixote - Edith Grossman

8. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes – Who would have thought such an old book could be so funny? The humour doesn’t always work but when it does it’s hilarious.

The Uncommon Reader

9. The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett – A lovely, witty novel about the Queen’s love of reading.

The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow

10. The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by Jerome K. Jerome – Yes, it’s another book by Jerome. This collection of essays is not as funny as the Three Men books, but will still make you smile.

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Have you read any funny books recently? What would be on your list?

The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

The Importance of Being Earnest This is the second play I’ve read this month as part of my personal challenge to read the three on my Classics Club list during June. I’m really regretting my previous reluctance to read plays because it has meant that until now I’ve been missing out on some great ones like The Importance of Being Earnest. It was silly of me to keep avoiding this particular play, because I’ve enjoyed everything else I’ve read by Oscar Wilde (The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Canterville Ghost, A House of Pomegranates and two more of his short stories); why did I assume I wouldn’t enjoy this one too?

At the beginning of the play, Algernon Moncrieff is being visited at his London home by his friend, Jack Worthing, whom he has always known as Ernest. Jack is from Hertfordshire, where he is guardian to eighteen-year-old Cecily Cardew, whose grandfather found and adopted Jack as a boy. When Algernon finds a cigarette case inscribed to ‘Uncle Jack’ from ‘Little Cecily’, Jack is forced to admit that his name isn’t really Ernest – Ernest is a fictional brother he has invented so that he can escape from Hertfordshire from time to time with the excuse that his brother is in trouble and needs his help.

Algernon then confesses that he has also created an imaginary friend – an invalid called Bunbury who conveniently summons Algernon to his deathbed whenever he needs to get away from his responsibilities in London for a while. Leading double lives (which Algernon refers to as ‘Bunburying’) has so far been very successful for both men, but this is about to change when Algernon falls in love with Jack’s ward, Cecily Cardew, and Jack falls in love with Algernon’s cousin, Gwendolen – two women who are each determined to marry a man called Ernest.

Things quickly become very complicated from now on, with the action moving to Jack’s country estate where a series of misunderstandings, deceptions and mistaken identities follow. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot than I already have because I’m sure there are other people out there who still haven’t read or seen this play and I would hate to spoil the fun for you. And this is a fun play to read. I think Oscar Wilde’s famous humour and wit come across particularly well in the play format; even when reading it on the page it’s easy to imagine the lines being spoken aloud.

Some of the best lines go to Lady Bracknell, one of the ‘formidable aunt’ type characters you so often find in fiction. Although this is the first time I’ve read The Importance of Being Earnest in its entirety, I do remember reading the famous handbag scene at school. I was looking forward to reaching that part and fortunately it is in the first Act so I didn’t have too long to wait; it was lovely to finally be able to read it in its proper context!

There’s obviously a lot more I could have said about this wonderful play, about its themes, its characters and its use of language, but I hope you’ll forgive me for keeping this post short. I have another play to go and read!

Irish Short Story Month Year 3: Two from Oscar Wilde

Irish Short Story Month

Irish Short Story Month is an annual event hosted by Mel U of The Reading Life. To participate all you need to do is read at least one Irish short story during the month of March. In 2011 I read Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu. I didn’t manage to take part in 2012, but as I’ve been neglecting my short story-reading in recent months, I decided to join in again this year.

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

Oscar Wilde, 1854-1900

I have previously read one of Oscar Wilde’s fairy tale collections for children, A House of Pomegranates, but none of his short fiction for adults. For Irish Short Story Month I’ve read two of his stories – The Model Millionaire and The Sphinx Without a Secret. Both of these are available online and can easily be read in just a few minutes. They also appear in the collection, Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime and Other Stories.

In The Model Millionaire we meet Hughie Erskine, who is in love with Laura Merton, the daughter of a retired Colonel. Hughie is handsome and good-natured but unfortunately has no money and the Colonel will not let him marry Laura until he has ten thousand pounds of his own. One day, Hughie visits his artist friend, Alan Trevor, and finds him painting a portrait of an old beggar dressed in rags, who is standing in the corner of the room.

The beggar himself was standing on a raised platform in a corner of the studio. He was a wizened old man, with a face like wrinkled parchment, and a most piteous expression. Over his shoulders was flung a coarse brown cloak, all tears and tatters; his thick boots were patched and cobbled, and with one hand he leant on a rough stick, while with the other he held out his battered hat for alms.

‘What an amazing model!’ whispered Hughie, as he shook hands with his friend.

‘An amazing model?’ shouted Trevor at the top of his voice; ‘I should think so! Such beggars as he are not to be met with every day. A trouvaille, mon cher; a living Velasquez! My stars! what an etching Rembrandt would have made of him!’

‘Poor old chap!’ said Hughie, ‘how miserable he looks! But I suppose, to you painters, his face is his fortune?’

‘Certainly,’ replied Trevor, ‘you don’t want a beggar to look happy, do you?’

Hughie asks his friend how much he will be paying the beggar for modelling for him and is shocked at how little the amount is compared to the amount Trevor will make from selling the picture. Although Hughie himself is very poor, he feels sorry for the old man and as soon as his friend leaves the room he gives the beggar all the money he has in his pocket. Later that night he discovers that his act of generosity has had a surprising result.

I thought it was very easy to predict what was going to happen in this story, but I enjoyed it and despite it being so short, I still found it satisfying – and very well written, of course.

The other story I read, The Sphinx Without a Secret, is another very short one. The narrator meets his friend, Lord Murchison, in Paris and seeing that something is wrong, asks him what the problem is. Murchison tells him about the beautiful Lady Alroy, whom he had loved and planned to marry.

He took from his pocket a little silver-clasped morocco case, and handed it to me. I opened it. Inside there was the photograph of a woman. She was tall and slight, and strangely picturesque with her large vague eyes and loosened hair. She looked like a clairvoyante, and was wrapped in rich furs.

‘What do you think of that face?’ he said; ‘is it truthful?’

I examined it carefully. It seemed to me the face of some one who had a secret, but whether that secret was good or evil I could not say. Its beauty was a beauty moulded out of many mysteries – the beauty, in face, which is psychological, not plastic – and the faint smile that just played across the lips was far too subtle to be really sweet.

Finding her to be very secretive and surrounded by an atmosphere of mystery, Murchison decided to follow her one day and saw her entering a boarding house where she stayed for a few hours before returning home. When Lady Alroy tried to deny visiting the house, Murchison became convinced that she was hiding something – but what could it be?

Although I didn’t find either of these to be particularly memorable stories, I did enjoy them both as I love Oscar Wilde’s writing style. I liked the ambiguous ending of The Sphinx Without a Secret; despite the suspense that builds up throughout the story it’s not hard to guess what Murchison is going to discover as the title does give it away, but we are still left with something to think about at the end. This story may have been intended as a satire on Victorian sensation fiction, in which everybody had a secret to hide and an ulterior motive for every seemingly innocent action, as well as being a study of a person’s desire to pretend to be something they’re not.

Have you read any of Oscar Wilde’s short stories? Who are your favourite Irish writers?

A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde

Last week I posted my thoughts on Laura Silver Bell by Sheridan Le Fanu for Irish Short Story Week. I then wanted to read another short work by an Irish author and remembered that A House of Pomegranates by Oscar Wilde was one of the free ebooks that came with my Sony Reader. Perfect!

A House of Pomegranates contains four short fairy tales by Wilde. I originally intended just to read one of them but ended up reading the whole book! Each story has a moral lesson for the reader but first and foremost they are enjoyable fairy tales – although quite dark in tone, as many fairy tales are.

Wilde apparently said that the stories in A House of Pomegranates are “meant partly for children, and partly for those who have kept the childlike faculties of wonder and joy, and who find in simplicity a subtle strangeness.” Having read the book I would agree with this assessment of it. Although I’m sure there are a lot of children who would enjoy the stories (I know I would probably have loved them if I’d read them when I was younger), I think they might be too long and too heavy on description for some, and in many ways will be appreciated more by adults.

In The Young King, we are warned against the love of beauty and luxury. On the eve of his coronation, the young king, who loves all the beautiful things in life, has three dreams in which he learns exactly where his magnificent new robe, sceptre and crown have come from – and suddenly, they don’t appear so beautiful after all.

The Birthday of the Infanta is a poignant story about the King of Spain’s daughter, who is celebrating her twelfth birthday. Among the entertainments that have been arranged for her is a performance by a dwarf, who later becomes convinced that the Infanta is in love with him. It quickly becomes obvious that the Infanta has a very sad and lonely life, but my sympathy was for the dwarf, who can be seen to represent anyone who is the victim of cruelty and prejudice. Even the flowers in the palace garden ridicule him.

The Flowers were quite indignant at his daring to intrude into their beautiful home, and when they saw him capering up and down the walks, and waving his arms above his head in such a ridiculous manner, they could not restrain their feelings any longer.

‘He is really far too ugly to be allowed to play in any place where we are,’ cried the Tulips.

‘He should drink poppy-juice, and go to sleep for a thousand years,’ said the great scarlet Lilies, and they grew quite hot and angry.

The Fisherman and his Soul is the longest of the four stories and to be honest, I didn’t think it needed to be quite so long. It felt very repetitive, which was a shame because it was otherwise an excellent story about a fisherman who falls in love with a mermaid and sacrifices his soul for her. It can almost be seen as a re-working of The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen, but instead of the mermaid longing to become human as in Andersen’s story, this is the reverse.

My favourite story in the book was The Star-Child, about a child who is found by a woodcutter after a shooting star falls from the sky. The child grows up to be selfish and conceited, but finally gets a chance to redeem himself.

A House of Pomegranates is certainly worth reading if you’re looking for something a bit different or if you like Oscar Wilde’s writing (although the wit and humour which shines through in his other works isn’t really present here). I would be interested in comparing this book with Wilde’s other, more popular, book of short stories, The Happy Prince & Other Tales, but I’ll have to wait until I’m in the mood for some more fairy tales!

Have you read either of Oscar Wilde’s two books of fairy tales?

Review: The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde

The Canterville Ghost is a ghost story with a difference. It takes place in an English country house, Canterville Chase, which for centuries has been said to be haunted. When a rich American called Mr Otis moves into the house with his wife and children, Lord Canterville feels he should warn them about Sir Simon, the resident ghost. However, the Otis family aren’t afraid of ghosts and no matter how hard Sir Simon tries, they simply refuse to be frightened!

For anyone reading this review and thinking this book is not for you because you’re scared of ghost stories, I can promise you that it’s really not scary at all – I would describe it as more of a comedy and a clever satire. Wilde juxtaposes an atmospheric gothic setting, the typical British ‘haunted house’, with a practical American family who have an amusing way of reacting to the appearance of Sir Simon.

Right in front of him he saw, in the wan moonlight, an old man of terrible aspect. His eyes were as red burning coals; long grey hair fell over his shoulders in matted coils; his garments, which were of antique cut, were soiled and ragged, and from his wrists and ankles hung heavy manacles and rusty gyves.

“My dear sir,” said Mr. Otis, “I really must insist on your oiling those chains, and have brought you for that purpose a small bottle of the Tammany Rising Sun Lubricator.”

Wilde is clearly having fun creating British and American stereotypes and using them to explore cultural differences, though he does it in a witty and inoffensive way. Another thing I liked is that some of the story is told from the ghost’s perspective, so that our sympathy is with him rather than the Otis family.

Although the ending is a bit too sweet and sentimental, I really enjoyed this unusual little book! It’s funny, imaginative, and so easy to read it’s suitable for younger readers as well as adults.

(As a side note, I read this book on Saturday 16th October, which happened to be Oscar Wilde’s 156th birthday. I had no idea of this until after I’d finished the book, turned on my laptop and saw that Google were honouring the occasion with a Google Doodle. Very appropriate!)