Funny thing

Funny thing is, now that Christmas is over, I realized that quite a few of the books I was giving as presents weren't actually on my "favorites" list. Or anyone else's that I knew of, for that matter. So although it's too late for Christmas, it's not too late for a year-end wrap-up. What follows are some of the funnier books of the year that aren't novels (Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart would be my nominee for one of the funniest novels of 2006, Eddie Campbell's The Fate of the Artist the quirkiest, most amusing pseudo-memoir).

Previous year's delights in this category have been Molvania, How to Survive a Robot Uprising, Jon Stewart's America and anything by Chris Ware.

Books I read in public and embarrassed myself by howling at during 2006:

1. Dictator Style: Lifestyles of the World's Most Colorful Despots, by Peter York. When it comes to the monumental vulgarity of tyrants, it's easy to snicker at their bunker decorating, and GQ columnist Peter York has uproarious fun doing just that to 16 of them here. Mussolini, the poor dear, never learned how drapes can lend some badly needed color to a despot's cavernous sanctum. But amidst the bitchy putdowns (all of the their hankering for grand French antiques lends a generic "Louis the Hotel" style to many dictator's headquarters), York makes some smart observations about how dictators either ram their provincial tastes down the throats of their country's elite or hanker desperately (futilely) for tasteful legitimacy.

2. The Areas of My Expertise, by John Hodgman. Yes, this book originally came out last year, but it was released in an expanded paperback form in 2006, which is how I caught up with it. As the author of this demented Schott's Miscellany, Hodgman, best known from his pudgy appearances just about everywhere (The Daily Show, This American Life, the PC vs. Mac TV ads), has an almost-perfect control of tone, a blend of bland astonishment ("Can this be true?") and complete, stupid assurance, even as he relates the most ridiculous items, listing presidents who had hooks for hands or the 700 names of hoboes. An almanac of misinformation and deadpan literary parodies, Areas fades, gets tiresome, is best read in bits and pieces, but it's a rich lode of nonsense.

3. They Call Me Naughty Lola: Personal Ads from the London Review of Books, edited by David Rose. Line for line, this may be the funniest, most enjoyable book of the year. I used to be in the habit of scanning the personal ads in The New York Review of Books and the Village Voice because they often were wonderful and off-the-wall. But as the readership aged and the internet wiped out most personal ads and dating services, the ads became precious or tediously earnest. The London Review of Books, on the other hand, has maintained a high level of British silliness. OK, so perhaps the editors are making them all up. At the least, the ad writers clearly started competing with each other to write the most self-pitying pitch ("Either I'm desperately unattractive or you are all lesbians"), feebly defiant declaration ("I've divorced better men than you") or embarrassing personal revelation ("Last time I had this much fun, I was on 40 tablets a day.") But let's face it, they're British. They excel at that stuff. The book's only weaknesses: Its title (there are a lot wackier lines than that here) and its footnotes, which are welcome when it comes to only-the-Brits-would-know trivia but a little ridiculous when they explain cultural references any semi-awake LRB reader ought to know. I mean, Seamus Heaney? Dave Eggers? "Shrooms"? Hello?

4. I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence, by Amy Sedaris. The surprise here is actually how much of this guidebook really is useful, although personally, I'd prefer fewer bits of real info (all those recipes) and more of the cheeky entertainment pointers (advice about drunks -- "Better to cut them off rather than pretend it's not happening and then allow them to stay over and wet your bed" -- or how to make yard-sale money at your own parties). Kitschy photos, a white-trash-meets-Jewish-New-York practicality -- what's not to like?

December 27, 2006 4:52 PM |



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