7 Lighthearted Books to Buoy Your Spirits
From The Moving Toyshop to Cosmicomics, a selection of fanciful, frolicsome, and memorable volumes.
As I have written elsewhere, I believe that no matter their pedigree, inveterate readers read the way they eat — for pleasure as well as nourishment, indulgence as much as education, and sometimes for transcendence, too. Hot dogs one day, haute cuisine the next. And as I’ve learned through my experience as both reader and bookseller, the hardest reading appetite to satisfy may be the desire for a book that will lift the spirits, not with the direct address that makes many inspirational volumes too earnest to do the trick, but with a lightness of heart that beats through every turn of plot or phrase. Here are seven such transporting narratives.
If you can imagine a plot that has imbibed too much champagne, you’ll have some idea of the giddy pleasures of this classic 1946 mystery by Edmund Crispin (1921–1978), in which Oxford don Gervase Fen and poet Richard Cadogan unravel a murderous scheme so convoluted your head will be spinning even if you’re drinking tea.
The plot is so tangled — and, frankly, so implausible — we can dispense with a description, and get straight to the heart of this book’s pleasure: the eccentricities of Fen, professor of English language and literature and Fellow of St. Christopher’s, a fictional college that Crispin locates in the vicinity of Oxford’s very real St. John’s (which the author attended with the poet Philip Larkin, to whom The Moving Toyshop is dedicated). Fen’s immense erudition is a droll instrument with which he deliriously probes the circumstances at hand, strewing arcane references and obscure (but exact) quotations all about him. Even his pub games are high-spirited in their high-mindedness (take the contest called Detestable Characters in Fiction, in the chapter titled “The Episode of the Indignant Janeite,” by which Fen and Cadogan manage to offend a nearby devotee of Pride and Prejudice).
Fast, funny, and whimsically winning, The Moving Toyshop is a comic fantasia disguised as a donnish detective story. We follow Fen and Cadogan through scenes of madcap invention (the scene in which they pursue a witness through an orchestra and choir rehearsal is priceless) until the mystery of the disappearing toyshop is unraveled and we are rather drunk with a peculiar joy. There are ten more Crispin volumes to supply the hair of the dog.
Jim Paul writes quirky, compelling narratives that exude a rare happiness — there’s no other word for the feeling one gets from the colorful weave of learning, luck, insight, and invention that distinguishes his singular literary costume. His first book, Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon, is a funny, captivating tale of how the author and a friend are roped — by their own whimsy — into building a medieval siege weapon to fling rocks into the Pacific Ocean. His second, What’s Called Love: A Real Romance, is a comic account of the agonies, ecstasies, and other mood swings of new love; it illustrates the arduous path of ardor, even when it’s traveling through the most romantic settings (in this case, France). The whole hilarious tale reads like a gloss on the Rodgers and Hart song “I Wish I Were in Love Again” — The sleepless nights, the daily fights, the quick toboggan when you reach the heights — and it’s just as lilting.
Good as Catapult and What’s Called Love are, however, it’s Paul’s third book, Medieval in LA, that’s his true marvel. It begins with an in-flight spill of tomato juice on both white cotton pants and an open copy of a book about the rise of the modern mind in the West. From there it proceeds, via an offhand chronicle of a weekend sojourn among friends in Los Angeles, to chart a deft, delightful course through thickets of thinking on chance and fate, science and sensibility, faith and philosophy, randomness and the making of meaning. Despite the incessant lessons of modernity, Paul discovers, we still live in a medieval world, at least inside our heads.
We have all this information about the actual world, centuries of it since the scientific idea had taken hold, yet we still live mostly in the old realm, at the center of our own universe, finding our significance, manifesting our intentions.
In other words, outside the plane of our lives, “frigid, howling death” whooshes by, while inside the cabin we inhabit “the steady, adequately lighted reality we [have] constructed to enable our plans, a purely human place, not the actual world.”
After he touches down in Los Angeles, Paul’s hours unfold in brunches, shopping excursions, and other forms of genial socializing, while the flight of intellectual fancy inspired by the spilled tomato juice stops to pick up ideas and passengers — including William of Ockham and David Hume, John Cage and the Beverly Hillbillies — that illuminate his passage through time, space, and a day at the beach. Filled with dancing thoughts, provocative juxtapositions, and breathtaking leaps from everyday verities to eternal quandaries, Medieval in LA is light on its metaphorical feet, and a joy to ponder. It keeps you laughing, too.
From the first sentence — “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink” — Dodie Smith (1896–1990) weaves a spell over her readers as she relates, in the voice of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, the adventures of a remarkable family that lives, in impoverished eccentricity, in the ruins of a six-hundred-year-old castle (complete with moat) in England’s Suffolk. In addition to Cassandra, there’s Rose, her older sister, whose romantic intrigues much occupy our narrator; a younger brother; their stepmother, a sprite-like former artist’s model; and the paterfamilias, James Mortmain, a once successful and lionized experimental writer whose creativity has been blocked for years. (“You can’t trammel the creative mind,” Cassandra tells her brother at one point, as they scheme to inspire their maddeningly unproductive dad. “Why not?” says Thomas. “His creative mind’s been untrammelled for years without doing a hand’s-turn. Let’s see what trammelling does for it.”) There’s also a handsome retainer smitten with Cassandra, and two young and eligible American men whose arrival sets the plot spinning. And spin it does, with intoxicating energy.
Yet it is the voice of the narrator, so unusual, alive, and imaginative, that makes the book so captivating. Cassandra’s struggle to put her experience into words — to capture her feelings in sentences that reflect their depth, their strength, and their resourcefulness — is exhilarating to share. As Noel Perrin has put it, “I Capture the Castle is a hard book to classify. It is much too funny to be merely a teen romance, or merely any kind of romance. It’s much too seriously romantic to be a spoof, a burlesque, or the kind of book they call ‘rollicking.’ In fact, it’s much too individual and too well written to be labeled at all.” Let’s just call it wonderful, then, and a book not to be missed.
One always likes to see favorite authors yoked together to tout a third, but Robert Benchley and Michel de Montaigne? A surprising juxtaposition, to say the least, but one made with confidence by publisher David R. Godine in the jacket-note heralding the publication of this single-volume compendium of L. Rust Hills’s “Fussy Man” trilogy: How to Do Things Right, How to Retire at 41, and How to Be Good.
Since I was nearly halfway through the book of short, swell, hilarious little essays before I read that publisher copy, and had come up with the same strange marriage of minds myself in the notes I was taking toward my own description, there must be something to it. Come to think of it, it’s rather obvious: Hills (1924–2008) begins in Benchley territory — “How to Eat an Ice-Cream Cone,” “How to Refold a Road Map,” “How to Daydream” — and progresses, by the second and third parts of his sequence, to the fertile lands of self-examination, where his ruminations are quite often fueled by the vast pastures of Montaigne’s writing. What’s remarkable, though, is that Hills manages to be as funny as Benchley and almost as thoughtful as Montaigne, all the while conveying the impression that he’s making it up as he goes along, jotting it on the backs of envelopes. This is a rich, wonderfully entertaining, even enlightening book. Put it on the bedside table, and you’ll laugh and learn through the midnight hour — or just stick it under your pillow and hope it will work its magic by osmosis.
A Bullet in the Ballet
Written by Caryl Brahms (1901–1982) and S. J. Simon (1904–1948), this wildly choreographed comic mystery — the first in a series of four centering on the fortunes of impresario Vladimir Stroganoff and his rambunctious ballet troupe — delivers its laughs in high style. As readers will soon gather, Stroganoff and his dancers are remarkable largely for their off-stage antics and their unbridled eccentricities. Lovers of ballet will find the work of Brahms and Simon doubly delightful; the former was a dance critic in the London press, the latter a journalist who was also a master bridge player (which taught him, evidently, exactly when to hold and when to play his jokes).
Yet there is more than enough wit, hilarity, and abandon to bring great pleasure to any reader, even a confirmed balletophobe. The plot begins to unfold when Stroganoff’s lead dancer, Anton Palook, is shot through the head during a performance of Petrouchka. Two unflappable Scotland Yard detectives are flapped indeed by the fact that everyone who knew Palook — ballerinas, stage mothers, the conductor, the company’s financial backers, a wide web of lovers — seems to have a credible motive. Still, the show must go on. After all, ticket sales soar on the scandal, especially when the detectives’ best suspect reprises Palook’s performance in Petrouchka, including taking a bullet himself.
While A Bullet in the Ballet is a murder mystery replete with corpses, suspects, interrogations, and revelations, suspense plays second fiddle to the decidedly screwball melody. This reader would have it no other way.
A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
This very funny book by Eric Newby (1919–2006) is an irresistible example of a characteristically English genre: You might call it the “Wacky but Intrepid School of Travel Writing.” Books belonging to this happy group feature improbable travelers who embark, usually with little or no planning, on arduous journeys through remote and perilous regions. Newby’s jolly narrative begins in a London fitting room, where he is at work as a not-very-successful salesman for a women’s fashion designer.
Nurturing a secret longing to explore “unknown territory” (and escape the Fashion Industry in general and the Spring Collection in particular), he fires off a telegram to a friend at the British embassy in Rio de Janeiro. One thing quickly leads to another, and soon Newby and his pal find themselves — after four days of “climbing lessons,” if that’s what you can call ambling over gentle slopes in Wales — in a remote and perilous region indeed: the Hindu Kush of northeastern Afghanistan. There, the fearsome peaks of the Nuristan range dare them to ascend. The narrative fares better than the travelers, building a steady comic momentum that is all the more entertaining for its detailed tabulation of their mishaps and mistakes. (The “short walk” of the title, by the way, on which they are invited by an Afghan elder, turns out to be seven hours long.)
As Evelyn Waugh pointed out in his introduction to the first American edition, A Short Walk “exemplifies the essential traditional (some, not I, will say deplorable) amateurism of the English . . . [their] wandering about the world for their amusement, suspect everywhere as government agents, to the great embarrassment of their officials.” Fortunately, when it’s the cheerful Newby inspiring the embarrassment, the armchair traveler is led on a very enjoyable chase.
The best for last: Cosmicomics, by Italo Calvino (1923–1985), a series of linked tales in which an ancient and playful consciousness named Qfwfq remembers the evolution of the universe, is a book that invokes the deepest themes with an ebullience of mind that is transporting. In the first of the stories, “The Distance of the Moon,” Qfwfq recalls an epoch when the moon was very close to earth:
How well I know! — old Qfwfq cried — the rest of you can’t remember, but I can. We had her on top of us all the time, that enormous Moon: when she was full — nights as bright as day, but with a butter-colored light — it looked as if she were going to crush us. . . .
Orbit? Oh, elliptical, of course: for a while it would huddle against us and then it would take flight for a while. The tides, when the Moon swung closer, rose so high nobody could hold them back. There were nights when the Moon was full and very, very low, and the tide was so high that the Moon missed a ducking in the sea by a hair’s breadth; well, let’s say a few yards, anyway. Climb up on the Moon? Of course we did. All you had to do was row out to it in a boat and, when you were underneath, prop a ladder against her and scramble up.
This beguiling collection of stories conforms to no familiar genre; it’s a combination of science and mythology that floats on its own in the space of literary categorization. Each story takes place out of time, or, more exactly, before time exists. With an enchanting lightness of touch, Calvino takes heavy scientific matters — the big bang, the transition from aquatic to land life, how color came to the world — and animates them for our reflection, much like the ancients mythologized the winds, the sea, and other forces of nature to put them within our imaginative grasp. His invention will put a spring in your psyche.