Thursday, October 13, 2011

Funny Stuff: Two Books I Don't Have Much to Say About

I've recently read two miscellaneous books of funny essays -- one by a single writer, and one by many -- and don't have a whole lot to say about either of them. But if I slam them together at high speed in the CERN of the blogosphere, perhaps -- just perhaps -- I can get them to combine into a blog post.

First up is Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, a career retrospective of one of my favorite writers, focusing on his funny material. [1] The title, of course, is a reference to the famous retrospective Just Enough Liebling, collecting the work of a somewhat different writer also associated with The New Yorker. [2]

Quite Enough mostly collects the best of Trillin's regular columns -- published slightly more often than monthly for a few decades starting in the mid-70s, for The Nation and Time and syndication -- which have previously been seen in his books Uncivil Liberties, With All Disrespect, If You Cant Say Something Nice, Enough's Enough, and Too Soon to Tell. There's also some of his "deadline poetry" -- decent doggerel, though not as lasting or as funny as his prose work -- for The Nation over the past two decades (also collected, though I won't give you a sheaf of links this time). And then there's also a few snippets from his occasional novels, with the preponderance coming from Tepper Isn't Going Out (the greatest novel that ever will be written about parking in Manhattan).

As you might guess from the Nation connection, Trillin tends to the lefty side, but he doesn't get specifically political all that often -- and much of his best funny work is about his family. (So don't avoid this book unless you're really allergic to New York liberals.) Trillin is from the midwest originally -- Kansas City, Missouri -- and he's got the mid-country diffident shrug down better than anyone else; his humor comes from a populism rather than an elitism, a sense that we can all make things better if we just pull up our socks and do it. All of the pieces here are short, and organized into semi-coherent thematic groupings -- not too obviously, just enough to make them clump nicely and play off each other -- and it's a joy to read through.

Calvin Trillin is one of our national treasures: I insist on this, and will hear no argument otherwise. And I now have an excuse to track down all of his books again, and re-read them as if for the first time.

The McSweeney's Joke Book of Book Jokes is credited to "the Editors of McSweeney's," as if they couldn't help extending the title humor a little farther than they should. (Of course, all of McSweeney's emanations are credited that way -- it's a major affectation, but I suppose it's at least a consistent affectation.) It has an introduction by John Hodgman, which contains the indisputably true lines
We all know that books are funny. First, they are made of paste and cloth, which is funny, as is the fact that people still buy and read them.
The book itself contains a few dozen literary parodies, pastiches, and japes, all presumably taken from the McSweeney's website, though there's no notice of prior publication. (When I am proclaimed King of All Books, as I inevitably will be, my very first decree will be to require full and detailed notices.) There are no biographies of the authors, but then again, I found most of the names completely unfamiliar. There's also no table of contents -- this is a book almost entirely devoid of any apparatus for helping the reader, I have to say.

Otherwise, it's the kind of thing you'd be happy to find on the toilet-tank of your well-read friend; some of the pieces here are more successful than others, but I didn't think any of them were complete failures, and they were all at least vaguely funny. Oh, and the book itself is a joke -- if you ever see it in person, check out the binding.

[1] Here's where I put the obligatory "I used to have a long shelf of Trillin books, lovingly assembled over the past two decades, before the damn flood inundated them all" notice. No matter how much you hate hearing me repeat that, folks, it's nothing compare to how I feel having to say it again.

[2] I had a copy of that, too, though I hadn't managed to read it before the water got to it.

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