What’s so funny?

This summer has been a particularly strong one for funny movies.  The Hangover, Bruno, The Proposal (yeah, I saw it – so what?).  And hopefully Judd Apatow’s latest, Funny People, will be just as good as Knocked Up and The 40-Year Old Virgin

So I’ve walked out of the theater with a huge grin on my face and my cheeks sore from smiling multiple times this summer.  I’ve been thinking, though, that in the same span, how many times have I closed a book feeling the same way?  For some reason, coming up with a list of funny books is harder than coming up with a list of funny movies. 

Maybe it’s because movies can do things books can’t: watching someone slip on a banana peel is a lot funnier than reading “He slipped on a banana peel.”  And let’s face it, a comedic actor like Will Ferrell brings a lot to the table that a simple line of dialogue in a book just can’t.  But there are tons of funny books out there!  I thought it’d be fun to classify some of my favorites to get the list going.  (For the purposes of this post, I’m going to keep it limited to fiction.)  Here’s what I came up with:

The Laugh Out Loud:  This is the book that makes you squeal, howl, and guffaw with laughter.  For me, it’s THEN WE CAME TO THE END by Joshua Ferris.  This is one of my favorite books of the last few years.  It’s an office comedy – similar to The Office or Office Space – but it’s narrated by the collective employees (the first line is “We were fractious and overpaid.”).  The best part comes in the middle when Ferris deftly steers the novel from simple farce to something deeper.

The So-Funny-It’s-Good-For-You:  A CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole – a classic!  Amazon describes it as “a tragicomic tale” but I think it’s intelligent, comedic fiction at its finest.  I could have read about Ignatius J. Reilly for another few hundred pages.  It won the Pulitzer, too.  So it’s funny AND important.

The Low-Brow: Philip Roth’s PORTNOY’S COMPLAINT has so many funny things going on at once: the overbearing mother; the shiksa girlfriend; the illicit acts with frozen meat; and, despite itself, the great one-liner at the end.

The Crime Comedy:  Don Winslow is one of the most criminally unknown authors writing today.  His novel, THE DAWN PATROL, is about a surf bum/private eye who is getting ready for the perfect wave when he’s hired to find a missing girl.  It’s worth reading for the names alone: Boone Daniels is the PI and his surfing buddies are Dave the Love God, Hang Twelve, Johnny Banzai, Sunny Day, and High Tide.  It’s not really a laugh-out loud kind of book, but I definitely read the whole thing with a smile on my face.

The Adventure Comedy:  THE HOTHOUSE FLOWER AND THE NINE PLANTS OF DESIRE by Margot Berwin is a debut novel about a disaffected single woman who gets wrapped up in the exotic world of rare plants.  Think Carrie Bradshaw meets Indiana Jones.  It’s goofy and sometimes silly, but it’s a total hoot and perfect for the beach.

 In the end, it’s probably not fair to compare the visceral experience of watching a movie to the intellectual experience of reading a book.  For all of those books above, I find myself saying, “This book is funny and…”  Poignant, clever, gross, sad, silly, etc.  In other words: a movie can be just four dudes with a hangover; a book has to be a lot more. 

(I’m sure I missed many many funny novels so please comment and let me know!)

*ZACHARY WAGMAN has been an editor at Vintage Books since 2006. Before that, he was an assistant at Knopf. Before that, he went to NYU and before that he grew up in New Jersey.*

B-Side Books by Sloane Crosley

I have a thing for the underrated books of famous authors.  

Sure, there is literary street cred in having a fondness for the obscure. It’s like proudly declaring your favorite color is puce or casually mentioning that “Dirty Work” is your favorite Rolling Stones album.  Oh, come on.  It like lifesmacks of quirk-coveting, especially when perfectly brilliant and life-changing output is readily available from the same source. But I sincerely gravitate towards the less-touted tomes of famous authors. Lorrie Moore’s Like Life, Jonathan Lethem’s You Don’t Love Me Yet, Murakami’s non-fiction and Didion’s fiction. Perhaps because they still feel personal, like unworn secret passages into the talent of these authors. 

For me, there are two in particular which come up in conversation time and again. Everyone’s familiar with John Updike’s Rabbit novels, but I have a soft spot Brazil.  Beyond sympathetic affection, I think it’s very underrated and am always pleased to run into those few people that agree. Even in The New York Times appraisal of Updike’s career after his death, Brazil was referred to the book as:

“….brimming over with undigested research and bad dialogue, stood as an embarrassing effort to translate the Tristan and Iseult legend to South America.”

Too Brief a TreatYes, but how do you really think about it? Okay, I get that it’s uneven and oversexed. But it’s also a fascinating attempt by the King of American Letters to tackle both a new setting and a retelling of a classic in a single book.  And it shows an entirely different side of the Updike we know and love, so different from the charm of his short fiction or the scarring baby-killings of his longer work. 

I get the same feeling reading Brazil as I do reading The Journals of John Cheever or Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote.  While these books don’t rate compared to the amazing experience of reading an actual Cheever story or In Cold Blood, they do say: Here is what you’re missing. Here is what makes your heroes human. By default they make the experience of reading an author’s most popular and famous work even richer.

The other book that fits neatly into this category is Bret Easton Ellis’s GlamoramaGlamorama.  I know, I know.  The namedropping.  The 90’s. The violence that can seem to come out of nowhere in sharp contrast to American Psycho’s somewhere.  I love it all.  Especially the aspect considered to be the book’s Achillesheel: the endless celebrity references that Ellis must have known would have a fast-approaching expiration date. But he went for it anyway and with good reason (even if the fashion models of Glamorama have turned more stomachs over the years than the body count in American Psycho).  The more Naomi Cambells and RuPauls mentioned, the more the book actually undates itself, releasing it’s characters from being pinned to the decade and becoming a strangely beautiful satire on how we’re not actually obsessed with celebrities as a people but celebrity as a state of being.   It’s a trick not to be missed.

At the time of my Glamorama reading, the only other Ellis book I had read rules of attractionwas The Rules of Attraction.  I had no idea the two books were connected.  And compared to most series fiction, the ties are subtle (that is to say we don’t publish “I is for Informers” or “E is for Excessive Psychotropic Drug Use”).  So when characters from The Rules of Attraction started appearing in Glamorama (including Alison Poole, who first appeared in Jay McInerney’s Model Behavior) it was a newfound high for me.  I may have even uttered the dumfounded response of “Oh my God, I know her!” in public. Of course, that’s the point.  And the exact same reaction is available if you read the least “popular” title from any favorite or famous author.  You know them.  Only now you know them even better.

*Sloane Crosley is the Associate Director of Publicity at Vintage/Anchor Books. For the past 7 years, she has had the privilege of working with many of the authors she mentions. In her office she keeps several underappreciated items from different authors, including but not limited to: a jar of pirate hair, two rubber snakes, soap, a signed photograph of Ed Norton and some hotel liquor bottles. Sloane is also the author of the New York Times bestseller  I Was Told There’d Be Cake. Her new book, Show Me On The Doll, is due out from Riverhead in 2010.*

Crime Candy: How I Came to My Senses and Fell in Love with Ruth Rendell (Give-Away below)

I used to think Ruth Rendell wrote crime novels I wouldn’t be interested in. Why? Well, I was twenty-two and a bookseller at a famed indie, the Odyssey Bookshop, and read only “good” fiction. Naturally this meant I could quickly sort any book into one of two categories—cream or crap—just by looking at the jacket. Ruth Rendell was three times my age, primly dressed in her author photos, and living in England. What could she be writing about other than afternoon tea gone dreadfully wrong or stodgy people killing each other with grub poisoning in some damp garden? Surely cunning kitties were involved. Yawn.


Fast forward seventeen years to my kitchen this afternoon. One of my best friends is, long story, manny to my three rascally children. The kids call him Uncle Mommy but his real name is John. He’s tall, bald, wears huge 80’s glasses and plaid Bermudas year-round. In Massachusetts. He loves crime fiction, cats, coffee, and my kids. In short, John is absolutely ideal. So back to the kitchen. I’m getting a refill on green tea because I’ve sworn off coffee for the millionth time and John is pouring…more coffee. And doing an erratic little hop-skip dance that I immediately recognize as the “Marion Dance.” “Can’t get Marion out of your head, can you?” I ask. “Nope,” says John, “She’s just the most excellent character ever. The way she has to skip, dance, or dart instead of simply walking anywhere. And her ferret-y little face and list of rich old people she wants to poison with morphine. Her awful apartment. The way she gets everything in the end. The Water’s Lovely – it’s so good it kills me.”

 WatersLovelyAnd I agree. Even though I read this novel oh, about a hundred books ago, the unforgettable characters and plot are still with me. The story of two young sisters—one a hot Marc-Jacobs-clad socialite, the other a retiring hospice worker with a soul-crushing secret—and the people they know (the hideously awesome Marion being just one plum in this superb pie) is a brilliant, unflinchingly modern psychological thriller. By none other than the supposedly-buttoned-up-and-boring Ruth Rendell, who is now one of my favorite crime novelists. John’s too, though he never had a period of nonsense where he didn’t rush to read anything new by her like I once did. Rendell is primarily celebrated for her Inspector Wexford series, the first of which was published in 1964. Unassailably terrific as the Wexfords are, her one-offs, like The Water’s Lovely, are the novels that I like best. Try The Rottweiler or Thirteen Steps Down.  Rottweiler

As many of you reading this will know, Rendell also writes as Barbara Vine. Ms. Vine’s latest, The Birthday Present, is just as stunningly good if not better than expected (that’s saying a lot) and features a fascinating here-and-now incarnation of Mr. Darcy that you’ll alternately crush on and revile. The Barbara Vine before that, The Minotaur, is top-shelf too. If you loved The Little Stranger, by Sarah Waters (and who didn’t?), you’ll love The Minotaur. If we had time, John and I would happily set up the Middle-of-Nowhere in New England Chapter of the Ruth Rendell Fan Club. You might be wondering how I came to my senses where Rendell is concerned. Vintage Crime / Black Lizard deserves credit for that.

Soon after I began working at Vintage Books, Vintage Crime / Black Lizard acquired the rights to publish Rendell’s backlist. That got my interest. Because Vintage Crime / Black Lizard most decidedly does not publish annoying and cloying tea cozies. Might I have been…mistaken…about Ruth Rendell? We know the answer to that. And if Ms. Rendell sees this and wants to make a silly, wrong-headed young sprite of a bookseller the victim of a most satisfying crime in her next novel, I won’t blame her.

black lizard no backgroundOh – one other great thing about John? He still works part-time at the Odyssey and brings me galleys of crime novels from other publishers that I otherwise wouldn’t see until pub date in a bookstore. If you don’t know who Sophie Hannah is, then you need to get your hands on Little Face. Within 24-48 hours you’ll be counting the days until October, when her next novel, The Wrong Mother, will be released. And I’ll still be wishing, as I often do, that we published her. But we can’t have every last brilliant crime writer at Vintage. That wouldn’t be fair, now would it? Must repeat to self.

GIVE-AWAY: First ten people to comment will receive a free copy of The Water’s Lovely. Please be sure to send in all of your contact information to vintageblogger@gmail.com so we can get copies to you.

Jen Marshall is a crime fiction fan and publicist at Vintage and Anchor Books. Her blog posts are called CrimeCandy because having access to a room full of Vintage Crime / Black Lizard titles is truly like being a kid in a candy store. An amazing perk that never, ever loses its shine

Thought Book Clubs Were a Thing of the Past? Think Again.

Twitter’s new venture The Twitter Book Club is breathing life into book clubs with their new book club project on www.TheBookStudio.com (this is cohosted by Bethanne Patrick, managing editor and host of the The Book Studio, and Kassia Krozser of www.BookSquare.com.). The club meets from 9 PM to 10 PM Eastern time on the second or third Monday of the month.

Our very own Alan Lightman is up for the win with EINSTEIN’S DREAM’S as a potential August Pick.  If you so desire, please take a moment and vote for EINSTEIN’S DREAM’S: ttp://www.thebookstudio.com/twitterbookclub. Cause, well, that would be awesome.


Paperback Design: The Early Years

Paperbacks have been around for half a century at least, but in terms of innovative design they were considered the frumpy cousins of the long playing record sleeve. When record covers shrank to CD size, the book cover suddenly found itself in the spotlight. With all the fascination with contemporary book cover design, one can look back at the earlier covers with a fresh eye and see that the innovation was there all along. The designers actually had a lot more freedom then; no quotes, author of lines, prize winning stickers and the back cover was comprised of a single paragraph of copy with nary a barcode in sight.

The current interest in old book covers has been having repercussions in the art world also. Several artists have been paying homage by making direct copies of covers in oil and gouache. Richard Baker, a still life artist who shows at Tibor de Nagy in New York, has been making paintings of paperback books which resonated with him in his formative years. He has tracked down the editions that he read at the time and quite a few of them are classic old Vintage, Anchor and Schocken books. One could call them pop art. I call them beautiful. 
 Megan Wilson is the Associate Art Director at Vintage and Anchor Books.




The Language of Palin

Although The Sun and Anchor is not a political organ, I couldn’t help but notice that Sarah Palin resigned her governship this weekend. Although I will refrain from commenting, one way or another, on the political animal that was that northern pitbull, from a verbal standpoint I’m glad she is gone. For the year she has spent in the national consciousness, Governor Palin has been the Johnny Appleseed of useless speech, tossing extra words and phrases wherever she felt the landscape needed them.

Last October Slate’s Kitty Burns Florey attempted to make some sense of the Governor’s unique prose style. Applying the diagramming techniques taught to unwilling fifth graders across the country, she found that the Vice-Presidential nominee’s thoughts sit uneasily on paper. After all, what is a grammarian supposed to do with a gem like this:

I know that John McCain will do that and I, as his vice president, families we are blessed with that vote of the American people and are elected to serve and are sworn in on January 20, that will be our top priority is to defend the American people.

When in doubt, insert a buzzword. If not “families,” then “not politics as usual,” or simply the word “now.” Pundits mistook her ebullient nonsense for charisma, and her willingness to speak gibberish was supposedly, as it was in our last president, part of her appeal to regular Americans. H.L. Mencken loved American speech because it was rough, direct and clear, and I love the American people for rejecting her and proving that the GOP was wrong to assume that ordinary people need to be spoken to like ill-behaved children. It’s politicians, not ordinary people, who hide behind a screen of unneeded words, and it is a good thing for political speech that Sarah Palin is a politician no longer.

That said, I can’t wait to see her on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here.

And as an aside, check out Anderson Cooper trying to parse the words of Palin’s spokesperson Meg Stapleton, on the day of the resignation. Apparently nonsense is popular in the Alaskan GOP.

–W.M. Akers

* W.M. Akers is a contributing editor for The Sun & Anchor *

Booksellers and Publishers: A Truly Delicious Partnership

My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'Homme; Anchor Books 2007The relationship between the publisher and the bookseller: fraught, right? Emotionally harrowing? Cantankerous and adversarial? They don’t understand us and we don’t understand them? Maybe not. After all, there has to be a culture of respect between the two sides to keep our respective businesses in business. Working out of the Vintage/Anchor marketing department, I have the fantastic job of keeping our relationship with booksellers more awesome and less face-punchy. Sometimes it’s as straightforward as keeping your ear to the ground and listening to bookseller feedback–and sometimes it’s about developing an unusual promotion that makes both sides want to high-five.

To wit: the smashing team at Knopf Doubleday has just unveiled a ridiculously excellent bookseller contest over at Bookseller Center. See, in a couple of months, Julie & Julia will hit movie theaters—a summer blockbuster for foodies, penned by Vintage author Nora Ephron, that tells the story of Julia Child’s years in France crossed with the story of a blogger trying to live out her Julia Child dreams. The movie stars Amy Adams as blogger Julie Powell, and the incomparable Meryl Streep as the incomparable Julia Child. I know! It already sounds amazing! And we’re extra-thrilled because the movie is partially based on an Anchor Book, My Life in France, by Julia Child, and it features Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published by Knopf.

The contest we’ve cooked up asks booksellers to create a window or in-store display that ties into the movie and features My Life in France, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia. Folks are also welcome to extend the promotion using whatever other resources are at their disposal–and with so many booksellers blogging and tweeting, we expect some smart and unusual techniques. The more they spread the word, the bigger the “Julia moment” gets. And we could all use a Julia moment.

But what does the winner get? Am I burying the lede? Probably. The prize is awesome, and I wish I was eligible to win it myself: the bookseller with the most fantastic, most far-reaching, most brilliant campaign will win a weekend for two in New York City that includes dinner with Nora Ephron. Maybe even a French dinner. Who knows.

Mastering the Art of French CookingI talked to Anne-Lise Spitzer, our Knopf marketing compatriot, who explained how win-win this situation really is. When you have three great books and an excellent movie, you can’t lose! She’s even seen the movie–lucky!–and she told me, “we are pretty confident (and thrilled) that this is going to be the summer of Julia Child. So we wanted booksellers to have some fun with it and pay creative tribute to Julia in their stores.” But what’s the best part? Don’t bury the lede! She added, “They will be rewarded with great sales–even if they don’t win the contest!”

And that’s the stuff right there, isn’t it? Although publishers and booksellers may occasionally bicker like family at Thanksgiving, the fact is that we have a common goal: many books, sold. We succeed with quality titles, they succeed with quality stores. I think everyone can agree that that’s something over which we can all break bread. (And pour wine.)

Meghan DeansMeghan Deans is a marketing assistant at Vintage and Anchor Books, where her steady hand and keen eye serves her well in corralling galley mailings and roping sales reports. She likes books very much, particularly she likes to read them. In middle school she was a member of Ski Club. Apparently she is also now on Tweeter: @meghanreads