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November 25, 2003

Westlake Makes Me Happy

Dear Friedrich --

During my recent week off I treated myself to one of Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels (which he writes under the pseudonym Richard Stark), and as always with Westlake I had a very good time. But more than that too. What I had wasn't just a very good time; it was a shaking-my-head-in-disbelief, I-can't-believe-how-good-this-guy-is, guffawing-with-pleasure, happy time. I made a note to write a heartfelt tribute to the Parker series on returning to blogging life -- but then, when I started blogsurfing again, I found that both JW Hastings (here) and Terry Teachout (here) had recently written eloquent tributes to the Parker books. Whew! To what both of them have said, I'll add only that I find the Parker series, which represents Westlake's hardest-boiled side, funnier than Terry and JW do.

Freed from the chore of writing an appreciation, what I've found myself thinking about instead -- marveling at, really -- is the way a book of fiction can brighten the mood, raise the spirits and make life a more congenial thing than it often is. I mean, how miraculous and wonderful is that? I also find myself wondering: which living writers of fiction put an almost instant smile on my face? Here's who I've come up with.

* The cop novelist Joseph Wambaugh certainly gives my mood a reliable boost. I've read a half a dozen of his books and even the most minor was a rollicking, companionable, lowdown thing. The best of the ones I've read ("The Choirboys") was all that and a lot more. Just between you and me: if I were into making rankings and lists and discussing the topic of "greatness" -- and of course I'm not even remotely into any such puffed-up, gatekeeper-y thing -- I'd argue that "The Choirboys" (buyable here) deserves to be considered a major novel. Why has it been so underappreciated? I don't feel remotely sorry for Wambaugh, who's made a skillion dollars from his bestselling books, and from TV and movies. But I do marvel at the judgment of the lit set. Why should "V," for example, have the reputation it does, while "The Choirboys" -- infinitely more substantial on a human level, IMHO -- is seen as a mere cop novel? Which of course it is. But it's also rowdy, irreverent, large-scale, rough and ready, humane, and finally very moving.

* I start giggling almost instantly whenever I open one of P.G. Wodehouse's books. Those sentences, his irrepressible silliness -- oops, forgot my own rule about how the writer has to be alive.

* Robert Armstrong's "Mickey Rat" and David Boswell's "Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milkman" make me superhappy, but they're comics, or rather comix. And something -- I don't know what -- isn't right about mixing comix and all-text fiction in the same thought. So, fair or not, I'm choosing to exclude visual books from consideration here. But I make no apologies for loving "Mickey" and "Reid"; in my personal canon, they occupy a spot up near W.C. Fields, which is saying a lot. (Here's David Boswell's site. You can buy "Mickey Rat #2" here.)

* There's nothing quite like a Charles Bukowski story or poem to lift me out of my more foul, damn-those-yuppie moods. Of course the kind of happy Bukowski makes me is a pretty surly, do-me-damage version of happy. But is that a bad thing? Ooops: Bukowski's dead too.

* Are you as amazed by Dave Barry as I am? What a talent. How can anyone be so consistently smart, modest and hilarious? I rarely miss one of his newspaper columns, and I can remember only a few duds. Even his blog (here) is full of mischievous high spirits. Alas, I haven't read any of his fiction, so I can't consider him a contender. Have you read his novels? Are they in a class with his nonfiction writing? My mother-in-law, a hip lady, tells me that Barry's novels make her laugh out loud.

* A nutty British anarchist named Stewart Home who few Americans have heard of brings my Inner Punk Rocker back to life. His books are like some of the more far-out underground comix: full of cartoon mayhem, kinky sex, and characters in the thrall of fringe ideas. They make me feel absurd, selfish, and full of enthusiasm, as well as blinded by and rendered completely idiotic by hormone excess -- as though I've gotten high on laughing gas and rematerialized at an early Clash concert. Respectable people who want to give Home's writing a whirl might want to hide the books from the kiddies. They're naughty through and through, often right to the title; the one I like best is called "Blow Job," and is buyable here.

* Have you read any of the George MacDonald Fraser imperial-England "Flashman" novels? I've only read two so far, but I found them both dazzling: satirical yet exuberant, and full of brains, invention and rip-roaring energy. They're adult versions of boys' adventure books; they're like malicious, black-hearted versions of "Gunga Din." Fraser's another author who makes me want to confront the Pulitzer board and ask them what in the world they've got against fun books. What's not to love about fun? But that rant's probably better saved for another day. Fraser's amazing, in any case. The first of the "Flashman" series can be bought here.

* "How to Make Love to a Negro" by the Caribbean/Canadian Dany Laferriere is an autobiographical novel about a black guy in Montreal. He's a boho trying to write a book, but he keeps getting distracted by white girls who are dying to find out what it's like to sleep with a black man. They act out on him; they project onto him; they throw themselves at him -- and he couldn't be happier to put aside his writing and help himself to the sweet and easy pickings. The novel's an unusual and refreshing experience, as funky as Bukowski but as elegant as a slim French novella. If I can be forgiven an over-generalization, it's unlike most of the black American fiction that I've read, which often sprawls, has heated-up elements of preaching and standup comedy, and much of which is full of protest and political rage. Laferriere's novel is precise, cooled-down, literary, compact, full of wit and observations, and urbane -- droll, sophisticated and Beat at the same time. And the main character's opportunism is hilariously cheery. He isn't incensed by racial matters; he's got a sly and erotic appreciation of them. I go back to the novel for a re-look regularly and always feel cheered up by it. A movie was made of it, but I haven't seen it. I've read two or three other Laferriere books since, and though they've all been wonderfully written -- what a stylist -- I didn't think they worked nearly as well as this one. "How to Make Love to a Negro," which was quite the scandale when it was first published in 1989, is often buyable here.

* Some of the Donald Westlake novels I've read were a bit more satisfying and some were a bit less, but each and every one entertained me royally. Westlake may have the drive and determination to put over a hardboiled series like the Parker novels, but he basically has the soul of a soft-shoe entertainer. As a writer he's a trouper, more like Cary Grant, James Cagney or Bob Hope than he is like Marlon Brando or Richard Gere; he comes more out of the hoofer-and-crooner tradition than he does out of anything self-expressive-y. And god bless him for that. He's also a force of nature, having written about a hundred novels (he seems to amuse himself by citing different figures whenever he's asked how many books he's published). At one point, when he was writing novels under three or four different pseudonyms, he enjoyed having one pseudonym give a blurb to a book written by another pseudonym; one of these blurbs was, "I wish I'd written it myself!" (Take that, postmodernism.) And how to overlook his work as a screenwriter, which has resulted in, among others, the beyond-fab screenplays for "The Stepfather" and "The Grifters"? Here's one of Westlake's good comic novels; here's an uncut audio version of a good Parker hardboiled novel. Audiobooks rule.

I've read better than a dozen of Westlake's books, and each and every one has made me quite dizzy with happiness. So, for his brilliance, his invention, his romping and jolly energy, his incredible reliability, his seldom-failing inspiration -- and for his firm refusal ever, ever to express himself in a stupid, ponderous, or shameless way -- I hereby present the first-annual Michael Blowhard Award for Excelling at Making Me Happy to Donald Westlake.

Speaking of awards, did I ever tell you about the evening I saw Westlake receive an award from the Mystery Writers Association? It was at their big annual get-together: hundreds of people, a ballroom, a podium, speeches, etc -- quite a fete. Awards were going out to best this and best that. Westlake and some cronies were whooping it up; my impression was that the booze wasn't in short supply at their table. Finally, at the end of the evening, Westlake was called to the podium to accept the grand-master award. He shook hands with the presenter, took the award, and solemnly faced the audience. He took a long, portentous pause, and said, in serious-TV-announcer tones, "Whither the short story?" Then he cracked up. And ain't it a pity that more of that kind of spirit doesn't infect the lit-fict world?

A couple of things occur to me as I review my list. First, I'm struck by the fact that all of these writers are worldly. How refreshing I find a little true worldliness in a novel. I read none of these writers thinking, as I so often do reading contempo lit fiction, that I'm in the hands of some introverted, bookish, and egomaniacal neurotic. Corruption exists, people have their reasons, much of what we plan doesn't work out, yet people get by somehow ... These writers don't take issue with the fundamentals. Life's life; let's live it, and be grateful if we can wring a little pleasure out of it before it's too late. If authors can be said to be outgoing in their writing, these authors are. God bless a little extraversion -- but of course I'm someone who much prefers 18th century writing to the Romantics and post-Romantics.

(Even the anarchist Stewart Home seems to have no quarrel with the messy nature of life. For all his high-on-outrage, punk-rockin' energy, he reminds me of the anarchists I met during my own five-minute flirtation with anarchism a couple of decades ago. Many of the anarchists I ran into were anything but wild-eyed bombthrowers. Most were a rather jolly lot, rueful and soulful, and much less strident and annoying than your usual earnest social-democrat lefty. Life is life, and that's OK -- and that's why they were anarchists.)

Another thing: Why are there no women on my list? Leaving aside my crudeness and utter lack of sensitivity, I mean. And leaving aside the unfortunate but apparently-true fact that not many women are funny. (A pause here to acknowledge the just-as-obvious fact that not many men are as funny as they think they are.) So why no women? Hmm. I'm not sure. I think it might be because women writers tend to want to deliver a more complex emotional experience than guy writers do. If there's humor, there's also pain. If there's high spirits, there's also the blues. And then there's all those innumerable other emotions gals get possessed by and want to tell us about too. Lordy, lordy: the hours we fellas spend listening sympathetically to our beloved women talk about the feelings they're having, or have just had... Even the gal writers I like best (Lee Smith and Alice Munro, for example) don't make me happy plain and simple. They make me happy plain and complex.

So a question for FvB: Which living fiction-book writer makes you happiest? Rules for this particular game: let's forget literary rankings, and let's not fall for such English lit-major weasel moves like, "Garcia Marquez gets my vote because being in the presence of genius makes me happy and I'm glad such a titan is alive." In other words, no mixing up dumb happiness, which is my subject here, with "aesthetic bliss." (Aesthetic bliss is highly valued by this blog. Some other time, though.) So maybe a better way of putting my question is this: which living fiction-book writer consistently puts a big dumb smile on your face and some jauntiness into your step? Mood-changing, happy-making, living writers only, please.

Would love to compare notes with visitors too.



posted by Michael at November 25, 2003


As Home brings out your inner punk rocker, have you read his book on punk rock, Cranked Up Really High?

Posted by: James Russell on November 25, 2003 01:32 AM

Nope, hadn't even heard of it, thanks for calling it to my attention. Is it worth searching out?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 25, 2003 01:54 AM

Yikes. You've really hit me on a sore point. I read so little fiction these days that I can hardly point to someone whose books make me happy. Saul Bellow is still alive, and he used to fit in that category, but his last two or three efforts have been pretty lame. Incidentally, I was astonished to see his name in comments to your "greats I don't get" post. Who doesn't get Saul Bellow?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on November 25, 2003 02:21 AM

FWIW, Friedrich, I loved "Augie March."

Living writers...hmmmm....doesnt have to be arty...genre fiction's ok....

Lois McMaster Bujold--the Miles Vorkosigan series. Yeah, it's space opera but it's funny space opera and a rolicking good time. There's a dinner party in one of the later novels that had me laughing so hard I nearly choked on my soda.

Elizabeth Peters-The Amelia Peabody series. Mysteries set in the late 19th early/ 20th c Egypt about Amelia, an Egyptologist and her husband, Emerson. Her son, Ramses and his cat Bastet, is my favorite character. I'm amazed she can keep up a series so long and keep them fresh every time. I always smile when I'm reading an Amelia novel.

PG Wodehouse--I dont care if he's dead. He's good enough to be on any list of "what makes me happy books." My favorites are the Empress of Blandings stories--the pig just kills me.

Terry Pratchett--British satire at it's current finest. The whole series is set on a fictional world called "Discworld" with two or three ongoing story lines that he writes installments on. DEATH, who always speaks in ALL CAPS, is one character who appears in all of them on his white horse named "Binky." I love the witch series with Nanny Ogg, Granny Weatherwax and Agnes Nitt. I run to the bookstore anytime a new one appears.

Here you go, Michael--Dorothy Dunnett. She writes historical novels set in the 15th and 16th century Europe and Scotland. They are long, complex tapestries of characters and events with twists and turns that leave you gasping for breath. Once you get hooked, it's hard to go back to real life. They arent for everyone but it was a sad day in my house when I found out, oops I forgot, she had died.

If you like George MacDonald Fraser's Flashy novels, try "Mr. American." It's about a gunslinger who chucks it all for life as a country gentleman in rural England. It's less boisterous than the Flashy novels, tho Flashman does make an appearance, but still incredibly good.

Laurie King's Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series. Picture Sherlock Holmes married to a young, gorgeous student of Hebrew and solving mysteries together. They are a stitch.

A few women writer's for you, Micheal, that dont carry baggage. ;o)

Posted by: Deb on November 25, 2003 06:33 AM

Books I was sorry to leave when they ended:

Both Tom Wolfe novels
Vanity Fair, Thackeray (which I read because Wolfe cites it as an inspiration in the intro to Bonfire of the Vanities)
Independence Day and The Sportswriter, Richard Ford
The Magus and Daniel Martin, John Fowles
Most James Ellroy, and especially Brown's Requiem
A Good Man in Africa and The New Confessions, William Boyd
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis - One of the real pleasures of this is that Jim carries the day and gets the girl. As I read it the first time, I so liked the character that I dreaded what I assumed would be his inevitable comeuppance.
The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann

I guess the winner has to be Kingsley Amis, though nothing else I've read even begins to compare with Lucky Jim.

Certain non-fiction inspires dumb happiness, too, such as the popular science of Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, or Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach, which turned a boring couple of weeks monitoring groundwater wells in the early eighties into an intellectual adventure (hope I'm not getting into genius/bliss territory here - pleasure was operative emotion).

Posted by: opie on November 25, 2003 09:41 AM

"I'm in the hands of some introverted, bookish, and egomaniacal neurotic." By bookish, you mean "likes the idea of" more than "actually reads" don't you?

P.G. is light? Hmmm. I always thought he came from a dark place. Dark. Too dark for Bukowski. Perhaps my womanly glands are making me read too much into it.

That's the sum of my coffee-free contribution. Willa Cather might make me happy, but really, without the brew, I can't be sure of anything.

Posted by: j.c. on November 25, 2003 10:00 AM

Michael, glad you like Alice Munro too. In fact, I have to say her's is the kind of books that make ME happy - sort of "laughter thru tears".[I understand it could be percieved as "female" thing, but here you go - I am the one.]
Referring to his personal "pick-me-ups", Pushkin once said: "Open a bottle of champaigne or reread "Marriage of Figaro"- and it still works for me, too.[Oops, Pushkin and Beaumarchais both dead for a loooong time]
Out of "genre lit" - Johnathan Gash, Lovejoy series: again, "hilarious/sad" thing. Besides, I find it quite challenging language-wise, which effectively takes my mind off troubling thoughts. And in his case I agree with you on "wordliness" criteria, that's also part of the appeal.
My favorite, though, is a Soviet classic of all times - Ilf and Petrov "12 chairs", sorry they both dead, too.
Thanks for your list, I will definitely try at least some of it.

Posted by: Tatyana on November 25, 2003 10:01 AM

Wow, so many of these, especially Westlake and Wodehouse and Lucky Jim, are my personal favorites of this type, that I feel compelled to join in.

The Adrian Mole books by Sue Townsend, particularly the first, are pure pleasure.

I also can't get enough of the mystery novels set in Ancient Rome by Steven Saylor.

And I smiled my way through the Enderby books by Anthony Burgess, and his Malayan trilogy, and most of all the startlingly good first volume of his memoirs.

Posted by: David R. on November 25, 2003 10:50 AM

P.G. Wodehouse. Patrick O'Brian. Terry Pratchett. Lois McMaster Bujold. Steven Brust. C.S. Lewis. J.R.R. Tolkien. George MacDonald Frazer. Elizabeth Peters.

(Funny...there's a lot of overlap with Deb's list...)

Posted by: Will Duquette on November 25, 2003 11:08 AM

My list includes Harlan Ellison, F. Paul Wilson (his newest Repairman Jack is excellent), Andrew Vachss & Anne Perry.

Posted by: Sheri on November 25, 2003 11:38 AM

A new writer whose books leave me with a smile on my face is Alexander McCall Smith. He's written four charming novels about Precious Ramotswe, a Botswanian woman who opens a detective agency. "The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" is the first novel.

Two women with no sentimentality:

Sarah Caudwell, who wrote four mystery novels before dying prematurely of cancer; "Thus Was Adonis Murdered" was the first. She has a very sharp tongue and skewers everyone while writing some of the funniest books I've ever read.

My favorite living writer may be Florence King. "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady" is actually a memoir, but she tarts it up enough for it to sneak in under fiction. And, though this is definitely non-fiction, "With Charity Toward None: a Fond Look at Misanthropy" always brings up my spirits after too many encounters with "people who love people."

Posted by: C.S. Froning on November 25, 2003 12:34 PM

This seems to be my day for pushing Lois McMaster Bujold -- GrandMistress of Space Opera.

In some degree, comic opera, at that. It would be amazingly difficult to get thru a chapter of her novels without finding SOMETHING to laugh out loud about.

Other women authors who reliably raise a smile:
Connie Willis. Molly Ivins. Dorothy Sayers. Elizabeth Peters. It's not hard to make such a list.

Great thread. Thanks, guys.

Posted by: Pouncer on November 25, 2003 12:34 PM

Rats, I forgot Tolkien--he's on my list too, tho, if I may point out, Will, it was supposed to be living writers. Still, if P.G. makes it so doess J.R.R.

And I forgot a nonfiction selection--the 2 installments of Willima Manchester's 3 part bio of Winston Churchill, "The Last Lion." Sadly, he's too ill to finish them and left us hanging just as Churchill is made Prime Minister. But they are great fun if you like history.

Posted by: Deb on November 25, 2003 01:31 PM

In English
David Sedaris, in very small doses. And the late Saki, James Thurber, and Ring Lardner sr.

In French
Belgian writer Jean-Philippe Toussaint.

In German
The late Kurt Tucholsky. Or Thomas Bernhard, when he isn't downright angry.

In Dutch
Gerrit Komrij, Remco Campert. The late Bob den Uyl, and Karel van het Reve.

In Frisian
The late Rink van der Velde.

Mostly writers that lose a lot in translation; so much in fact it's best to read the original books.

Posted by: ijsbrand on November 25, 2003 01:50 PM

In answer to your question, Dave Barry's first novel "Big Trouble" is excellent, with extremely tight plotting and wonderful social satire. If you liked Tom Wolfe's "Bonfire of the Vanities," it resembles a more modest, more coherent Miami version. The movie version is good too, although its box office was wiped out by 9/11. Because the plot revolves around a suitcase nuclear bomb, it's release was postponed on 9/11/2001 when much of the marketing budget had already been expended. It never built any marketing momentum when it was brought out six months later. But it's a quick, fun little movie.

Barry's second novel, whose name I've already forgotten, isn't as good. There's too much plot -- it involves a complex physical farce set on a gambling boat with an inordinate number of characters coming and going and slamming doors. It might work as an Alan Ayckbourne or "Noises Off" style play, but it's too hard to visualize the action in your head just from the written word.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on November 25, 2003 03:56 PM

Here's a dead white Brit female whose books make me very happy: Angela Thirkell. I reread one or two every year as "Thirkell Therapy". Despite her awful snobbery, which is funny, she wrote better than anyone I've ever read about the problems between aging parents & their grown children.

Posted by: Susan on November 25, 2003 04:11 PM

Kazuo Ishiguro: A Pale View of Hills (my favorite – very Kurosawa/Rashomon-like in its multiple perspectives), An Artist of the Floating World, The Remains of the Day (which he wrote to escape his Japanese-ness and coincidentally is my least favorite of his works), The Unconsoled (a masterpiece), and When We Were Orphans. I find his work to be intensely introspective and analytic. heh. What does that say about this reader, eh?

Barry Lewis, in his study of Ishiguro’s works in the Contemporary World Writers series, notes that “…Ishiguro’s home is a halfway house, neither Japanese nor English, somewhere in-between departure and arrival, nostalgia and anticipation. He is, in short, a displaced person, one of the many in the twentieth century of exile and estrangement.”

I tend not to like autobiographies; yet, if one examines Ishiguro’s oeuvre, it is clear that he is constructing (and grappling with) his own incremental life story, which – thus far – is Rashomon-like in its assertion that absolute truth is unknowable.

Yo … must go read People magazine now and clear my head …

Posted by: Maureen on November 25, 2003 04:45 PM

I'm with Pouncer on Connie Willis. "To Say Nothing of the Dog," was wonderful SciFi Time Travel Victorian mystery fun. And "Doomsday Book," another time-travelling mystery involving the middle ages and the plague, was perhaps the most sincerely sad things I've ever read, without a touch of sentimentality or mawkishness.

I'll add the earlier Iain Banks wearing his science fiction hat. Rollicking space opera. He has one spaceship chasing another spaceship inside of a giant spaceship; oh, and also the spaceships are intelligent and have their own culture going on, joking and forming rivalries and solving problems.

Posted by: Nate on November 25, 2003 04:47 PM

I have to add Jasper Fforde's books to the list, beginning with The Eyre Affair.

Posted by: Dente on November 25, 2003 04:54 PM

Donna Andrews - birds series (they all have a bird of some sort in the title, she has another series that is slightly darker) mystery novels with a dead body but the person who died is never very nice so that doesn't prevent joy, and provides plenty of suspects. The heroine/detective is highly practical too, so it's not irritating.

Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

Helen Fielding "Bridget Jones Diary" and sequel.

Plays (just reading them) "The Importance of Being Earnest", "Much Ado About Nothing", "Midsummer's Night Dream".

Margaret Mahey - with the exception of a few books where she goes dark (still extremely good, but not light and happy).

Terry Pratchett of course.

Posted by: Tracy on November 25, 2003 06:20 PM

The funniest novel ever written;"A Confederacy Of Dunces" A Sample:
"For the moment, however, you must know a thing or two about my valve."

Posted by: Josie on November 25, 2003 07:11 PM

Definitely Connie Willis and "The Doomsday Book" as well as Richard Matheson who has had a long and productive career. Let us not forget Ray Bradbury!

Posted by: Sheri on November 25, 2003 08:01 PM

For pure, delicious, unadulterated "dish," Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City reigns supreme. His characters bring a smile to my face every time I read one of his perfectly constructed vignettes.

Posted by: Maureen on November 25, 2003 08:24 PM

"Reid Fleming, World's Toughest Milman" -- Oh man did I ever love those. They're hysterical.

Posted by: Twn on November 25, 2003 08:36 PM

If you like the "Flashman" series and you like audiobooks then you would love the unabridged Flashman audio books read by David Case. Case is fantastic. So good in fact that I feel I am missing something when I read one of the Flashman books instead of listening to it.

Speaking of audio books read by David Case, I also highly recommend his readings of Robert Conquest's "The Great Terror" and "Stalin: Breaker of Nations."

Posted by: grandcosmo on November 25, 2003 10:54 PM

Cranked Up Really High is available through Amazon, though I'm not sure if it's really worth that much effort to get a hold of. It has some interesting insights, but it's kind of hamstrung by Home's insistence on constantly drawing the reader's attention to how clever he is. (I have the same issues with Godel, Escher, Bach: Douglas Hofstadter is clearly an extremely intelligent man, I just wish he'd stop showing off.) The ego displays and insistence that there are no other good books about punk than his wear thin as well.

Posted by: James Russell on November 26, 2003 01:39 AM

Incidentally, I was in a bookshop once where they were selling a novel by Home called Cunt. The spine of the book didn't actually have the title on it, just a little space where you could attach a sticker bearing the title included with the book. Since the bookshop weren't game to do it, I surreptitiously attached the sticker myself in the hope that some casual browser would come across the book and be appalled by it.

Posted by: James Russell on November 26, 2003 01:45 AM

Interesting that three people mentioned Terry Pratchett. His Discworld started as a D&D setting. Well, a planned D&D setting. But he got so involved in telling stories of the people who lived there he changed focus. Matter of fact, Rincewind the Wizard started out as a standard D&D wizard, with a limited number of spells per day. His ambulatory steamer trunk was an artifact. If you know the game you can tell how much the early books owe to D&D.

Later the folks at Steve Jackson Games approached Terry about doing a GURPS (Generic Universal Role-Playing System) book based on the Discworld books. GURPS Discworld proved so popular (and Terry so prolific) that a 'sequel' was subsequently published. For those looking for good guides to the Discworld series I recommend both. Loads of information on the Discworld and the creatures and people who dwell there upon.

And some people say game fiction will never reach general acceptance.:)

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 26, 2003 03:55 AM

Tom Disch and Christoper Moore. Vikram Seth's The Golden Gate but neither his prose novels nor his lyric poetry. Some Roger Zelazny--Lord of Light, I think. MacDonald's Travis McGee books--he may be dead, but I haven't read them all yet.

And of course Westlake.

Posted by: Mike Snider on November 26, 2003 08:20 AM

Several of my favorite comic authors have already been mentioned-- PG Wodehouse, George MacDonald Fraser, Sue Townsend, Helen Fielding-- but I have a few names to add:

David Lodge-- still laughing out loud at the memory of some of the things in Changing Places and Small World

Giovanni Guareschi (I know, I know: 35 years dead)-- I recommend both the Don Camillo books and his other stuff in English translation... I only wish I read Italian

Betty MacDonald (also quite deceased)-- The Egg and I, etc.; another female humorist for the list

Posted by: Karen on November 26, 2003 09:11 AM

Heavens, what a good way to generate a lot of new titles and authors to add to my reading this this posting has turned out to be. I confess I'm feeling ultra-humbled -- you have no idea how few of these writers I've even heard of. Terry Pratchett, Lois whoever Bujold? Sci-fi, right? Ah, how I sometimes wish I could read sci-fi. One of the things I've learned from being a blogger is how many smart adults get a kick out of the genre. I'd always been content to assume that it appealed entirely to people still stuck on feeling 14 years old and sexually frustrated. I eat my words, or my prior assumption, anyway.

I'm wondering about a few of these suggestions (in a mischievous spirit, of course) ... I'm hoping to elicit titles and authors that put a dopey smile on readers' faces. Can Ellory, Vachss, Ishiguro, "The Magus," and Thomas Bernhard really qualify? Hey, maybe they do. There are clearly readers out there who are much deeper souls than I am.

But again: amazed at the range of suggestions, and many thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 26, 2003 11:35 AM

Arturo Perez-Reverte, a sort of Eco-lite. Sheer escapist pleasure. (Cf. 'The Club Dumas', 'The Fencing Master'). His favorite theme is mysteries surrounding ancient documents.

Donna Tartt, 'The Secret History' and 'The Little Friend'. Although TLF didn't do well critically, and TSH has been accused of being overblown and pretentious, I love Tartt's style, southern gothic-ish and dense, lush and sensual with words.

Posted by: Cena on November 26, 2003 12:20 PM

George Macdonald Fraser (who co-wrote at least one of the Bond flicks) also wrote a pirate spoof called "The Pyrates" which I thought was just hilarious and enjoyed even more than the few Flashman books I've read. Check it out.

Posted by: Mark Sarvas on November 26, 2003 01:07 PM

Charles Portis - "Norwood" "Gringos" "The Dog of the South" and "Masters of Atlantis." I haven't read "True Grit." Overlook Press has brought his novels back into print recently.

Posted by: grandcosmo on November 26, 2003 02:01 PM

Terry Pratchett, if you believe what he says about his work, started off mocking the standard fantasy, third-generation of inbreeding from Tolkein cliches, and then got interested in the plots. He does say he did use to DM D&D games, but the reason for the similarity in the early books was that D&D drew from the same sources Pterry did.

I think you should read him, Michael, all sorts of people read and enjoy him who aren't normally into SF (though he's definitely fantasy). Think of it like reading The Iliad.

Posted by: Tracy on November 26, 2003 03:49 PM

I have to say I enjoy some sci fi and I formerly had your impression of the genre til I started reading it. I sniffed at it alot and made remarks about literature for, gasp, math majors. And alot of it IS meant for 14 yo geeks who wish they could cop a feel. Some, however, is much more elegantly written with developed characters and intricate plot lines.

But Pratchett doesnt strike me as true sci fi anyway, mostly because there is very little sci in the fi. And it could be called fantasy, I suppose, since there are witches and dwarfs and magic but it really seems closer to Monty Python than any fantasy. Social satire done in a goofy, giggling, spot on the money way. What he does to the commercial hysteria at Christmas time in a book called "Hogfather" is an absolute hoot.

Posted by: Deb on November 26, 2003 04:52 PM

Sadly, I haven't found too many living writers who have been able to give me pure happiness when read. There was one who died recently, he was an Indian novelist, R.K Narayan. There is also a couple of British writers-the books "Yes Minister and "Yes Prime Minister" by Jonathan Lynn and Antony Jay; the Rumpole books of John Mortimer. Also, the fun seems to have gone out of pure escapist fiction (adventure fiction like the sort people like John Buchan used to write (though his is politically incorrect fiction today.). I have recently discovered Alan Furst. While his books are not funny, they are well written and make for engrossing reading.

I think one of the problems with present day writers is that they take themselves, and life too seriously and in a very pretentious manner at that.

However among dead writers there is
P.G Wodehouse. He's the best humour writer I have read. His gentle humour has given me many moments of sheer happiness. And his language is beautiful too.

Posted by: krishna on November 27, 2003 02:27 AM

Incidentally, has anyone read Nancy Mitford? Or Tom Sharpe?.

Posted by: krishna on November 27, 2003 02:32 AM

Oh, I'd forgotten about the living Brit mystery and crime writers of the "amusing" sort -- Mortimer, Peter Lovesey. and Robert Barnard are all amazing....

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on November 27, 2003 09:55 AM

I'm still waiting for someone to second me on:

"The Tinieblas Trilogy" by R.M. Koster comprising "The Prince" "The Dissertation" and "Mandragon".

I think these fit Michael's criteria: smile inducing story lines and characters, worldy knowingness, wit, superb style; prose good enough to bring on dumb happiness and aesthetic bliss.

The themes can be dark edged, though, since they fictionalize contemporary (and historical)Central America.

Thanks to all for the enticing suggestions.

Posted by: Doug Anderson on November 28, 2003 12:10 AM

Michael, as others have noted, Terry Pratchett's Discworld series is fantasy. Comic Fantasy at that. He's a satirist and loves to turn fantasy convention on its head. For example, one of his recurring characters just might be the "True King" of the city of Ank Morpork, but he much prefers to be a city guard.

Then you have Death, who speaks in ALL CAPS, and who once got a job as a fry cook.

He has fun with genre conventions, politics, tourists, new age, the occult, crusty old ladies (you don't want to mess with Granny Weatherwax), and most anything that comes under his consideration.

For more 'straight forward' (but still not Tolkein) fantasy I recommend "Perdido Street Station" (Can't recall the author, dang it).

Then you have Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere". Lost souls, secret lives, hidden lands, all coexisting with the world we know. An eldritch tale in the truest sense.

Finally, David Drake's "Lord of the Isles". It's the first in a series, but it stands on it's own. Friends from a back-water village (literally back-water in a sense) wind up involved in "important things". Ilsa the weaver is one character to keep your eye on.

I may have more recommendations later.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on November 28, 2003 12:51 AM

A few writers who aren't consistently great yet have produced books to make the reader happy:

Nora Ephron's Heartburn is absolutely terrific. Random essays of hers are also a joy to read, and I confess to loving When Harry Met Sally, a lite if enjoyable film from her screenplay (let's not discuss her own films, please...)

Speaking of filmmakers who can write, John Waters is a brilliant writer. His collection of essays titled Crackpot is smart, funny, surprising, and ridiculously fun to read.

Curious to see touts for Dave Barry's mysteries but nothing about his colleague Carl Hiasson, whose mysteries I prefer, if by the fifth or sixth they get a bit jumbled together. As for Barry's columns, yeah, he's consistently just plain funny.

Finally, if we can sneak in a dead guy, not all that dead, I love reading and re-reading J.R. Ackerly. My Dog Tulip is just great, a sly, hilarious, painstakingly true memoir in which the protagonist has no qualms about revealing his grainy self. And Ackerly's other books are marvelous.

Posted by: Tom on November 28, 2003 03:26 PM

"Perdido Street Station" (Can't recall the author, dang it)

China Miéville.

Posted by: James Russell on November 30, 2003 07:13 AM

It's a litle late in the thread, but I'll put in a word for Jerome K. Jerome's _Three Men in a Boat_. He's dead, but I gather that's no disqualification--the book is about three nitwits (and their energetic fox terrier's) boating trip on the Thames. If you've got any fondness for humor about trying to do things as the things strike back, check out this book.

Also, there've been a lot recommendations for books that have considerable grimness--frex, the Lord of the Rings. In the same spirit, I'll recommend Bujold's _Curse of Chalion_. There's quite a bit of death and misery, but the mystical vision is amazing. (It's fantasy, though with an invented religion rather than magic.)

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on December 1, 2003 05:19 PM

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