- Spurred by Downton Abbey, fabulously wealthy people around the world have decided they must have butlers, and they must have them now. Jeeves must be rolling in his grave—even if he was technically a valet, and a fictional one at that.
- “The 1920s and 1930s in France were a moment when extreme ideological currents swept unstable, marginal, even criminal figures out of their ordinary recesses into positions of remarkable prominence.” Sounds awfully familiar…
- A helpful (or at least mildly diverting) graph shows us how often a given letter occurs at the beginning, middle, or end of a word. Y is nearly always at the end, never the start. Poor Y.
- In the forties, a woman named Frances Glessner Lee revolutionized crime-scene investigation with one simple innovation: dioramas.
- “After months of cleaning and painstaking scientific investigation, art specialists in Britain have apparently concluded a decades-long debate over the authenticity of a self-portrait by Rembrandt, saying on Tuesday that it was genuine.”
- Your next home: a decommissioned Boeing 727.
Because of my school’s academic structure, I pack up my possessions and move every two to three months, ricocheting between school, home, and New York. In fact, I’m leaving the city this weekend. This kind of transience can be refreshing, but it is also disorienting, and it can make life feel fragmented or compartmentalized. If you could recommend reading material that addresses the issue of the transitory lifestyle, it might make the journey a little easier.
Whether you’re looking for seekers (The Razor’s Edge), free spirits (On the Road), ramblers (the Little House books) or the Picaresque (Tristram Shandy) there’s no shortage of literary traveling companions. Keep in mind that unstable, constantly-relocating parents also make for memorable childhoods, so the memoir section is rife with tales of itinerant life!
What is the funniest book ever written?
I don’t feel this is a question one person can answer definitively for all sorts of obvious reasons, although I will say NOT The Ginger Man, since all sorts of people, mostly men, are wont to go into ecstasies about its alleged hilarity. But then, lots of the reputedly uproarious classics have left me cold, so what do I know?
You don’t need me to list the “great comic novels” for you—Tom Jones, Tristram Shandy, Lucky Jim … the list goes on. I feel like the “right” answer to this question is something like Ulysses, but I’d be lying if I said it had me in stitches. (Although Mark Twain genuinely has.) Several in the canon get resounding plaudits from my colleagues here: Catch-22 and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy are considered comedy classics for a reason.
Says Lorin, “The Tetherballs of Bougainvillea made me laugh longest. London Fields made me laugh hardest (Marmaduke: projectile tears of laughter). Home Land made me laugh loudest. Mark Twain’s sketches and the Jeeves books make me laugh most reliably.”
Deirdre adds that Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask should not be ignored.
As for me, I’ve mentioned it before, but After Claude was the last book to actually make me laugh out loud. I love Scoop, and early parts of The Pursuit of Love. (Although I find Waugh and Mitford’s correspondence funnier than either.) E.F. Benson’s “Mapp and Lucia” series has moments of absolute hilarity. Pictures from an Institution should be in there, surely.
Disclaimer: I find certain scenes in Excellent Women genuinely funny, but Lorin said that he didn’t laugh once, so.
Have a question for the editors of The Paris Review? E-mail us.
I recently got out of serious relationship. Since then I have not been able to read, though I usually love sad, sappy love stories. Can you recommend some books that have zero romance or love in them? Some good post-breakup fiction?
Readers of this column know my high opinion of the Jeeves books and Life on the Mississippi. They cheer me up, and are rigorously free of mushy scenes. Sam Lipsyte’s Home Land is a post-breakup book, I mean the hero has been dumped by his wife, but really that’s the least of his problems—and the one time they get back together (for about two and a half minutes) it’s enough to cure you of the whole idea of coupledom for at least the rest of the day.
Also: How do you feel about dogs? It’s not fiction, and it is full of love, but something tells me J. R. Ackerley’s 1965 memoir, My Dog Tulip—about the unlikely romance between a crusty, middle-aged English bachelor and his German shepherd—might make a welcome distraction.
I was talking to another writer-friend recently about the use of commas. I tend to err on the safe side, slipping too many of them, perhaps, around phrases I think are supposed to be identified. But is this precious or old-fashioned or out of style?
In this Paris Review interview with Mary Karr, she claims to have had a comma stutter in The Liars’ Club. Do you think there’s such a thing as a comma stutter, or is it more like a sentence stutter, reflecting hesitation, or something, from the writer? I’d like to smooth out, and I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Comma Stutterer in Manhattan
A good comma stutter never goes out of style. Where would Henry James be without his commas—or that real-life stutterer Charles Lamb? Here is Lamb on his gruff but cowardly friend John Tipp: “With all this there was about him a sort of timidity—(his few enemies used to give it a worse name)—something which, in reverence to the dead, we will place, if you please, a little on this side of the heroic.”
You can, of course, write in comma stutters then simply take out the punctuation. That is what Henry Green liked to do, for example when he describes what it was like to be unpopular at Eton:
These were the days when to be alone was to feel one had escaped for the moment not from any overt bullying but from what appeared to be the threat. There was a strain in trying to keep up with new friendships which probably did not exist. There was the dread of going into a friend’s room to find one was not wanted, to be abandoned by the two leaders now that they were too busy to bother and worst of all the self questioning as to why this should be, the fear it might be a peer or one of the school’s racquet players and of what this meant if true. The best was to get away in those few hours we had on our own, to chance being seen lonely in the effort to forget.
Green teaches the reader to hear his pauses, to anticipate his hesitations, and, thus, to think like a man of his class and sensibility. Such is the magic. When women say of a good dancer that he knows how to lead, this must be what they mean.
Then of course there is Gertrude Stein, who so loved the comma stutter that she would abolish the punctuation altogether. This is the typographical equivalent of burning the village to save it:
A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it and the comma, well at the most a comma is a poor period that lets you stop and take a breath but if you want to take a breath you ought to know yourself that you want to take a breath. It is not like stopping altogether has something to do with going on, but taking a breath well you are always taking a breath and why emphasize one breath rather than another breath. Anyway that is the way I felt about it and I felt that about it very very strongly. And so I almost never used a comma. The longer, the more complicated the sentence the greater the number of the same kinds of words I had following one after another, the more the very more I had of them the more I felt the passionate need of their taking care of themselves by themselves and not helping them, and thereby enfeebling them by putting in a comma.
The point is, if your sentences are guided by your feelings, you can race or hesitate as the spirit moves you. Your reader will understand. Read More
I can’t pretend it’s a light read, but Michael Kimball’s Us is heartbreakingly lovely. It’s a story of death, loss, and loneliness—but the writing’s a pleasure, and sometimes you just need to read something with weight. –Sadie Stein
Accounts of scientific expeditions and sea voyages have long been my preferred summer reading—they seem particularly suited for never-ending afternoons spent lolling by the ocean. I’m using the last warm days to finish The Journey of Anders Sparrman. –Clare Fentress
I first encountered Wodehouse during a childhood August, and slurped up all of Jeeves immediately. What better time to indulge in the unflagging fun than now, when Norton has just released stupendously colorful new editions of the books? –Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn
I didn’t go on vacation this summer, so I’ve been vicariously living through the galley of The Best American Travel Writing 2011. It includes a round-the-world sea voyage with Christopher Buckley and trashy Miami parties with Emily Witt. –Ali Pechman
I’m really eager to get my hands on Faye Dudden’s Fighting Chance—which tells the story of how women’s suffrage fractured the like-minded abolitionist community. Here’s a great piece on the book from the Wilson Quarterly. –S.S.
While browsing The Atlantic’s new video channel, I came across this clip documenting some important bioastronautics research. –Natalie Jacoby
NYRBlog quite bluntly states what I’ve thought more than once in “Here’s What I Hate About Writer’s Houses”: “That art can be understood by examining the chewed pencils of the writer.” –A. P.