The best serious books that will also seriously make you laugh

The Books I Picked & Why

All the Pretty Horses

By Cormac McCarthy

Book cover of All the Pretty Horses

Why this book?

All the Pretty Horses was my introduction to Cormac McCarthy. In case you don’t know, the man does not use quotation marks in his dialogue, and I confess, at first I found this so annoying that it actually made me mad. I thought it was pretentious. “I’m Cormac McCarthy, rules of punctuation are beneath me.” But by twenty pages in, I decided the man could be as pretentious as he wanted to be. He backed it up with an amazing, beautifully written story. The book is nostalgic, romantic, and sometimes bleak to the point of being haunting, but there were also places in the book that struck me as so funny, I remember them vividly years later. McCarthy includes a quick side-trip of the characters checking into the wrong hotel room that had me rolling on the floor; it was written with such restraint that the understatement itself became another laugh.  

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Bel Canto

By Ann Patchett

Book cover of Bel Canto

Why this book?

I was assigned Bel Canto when I “went back” to college at 40 years old (I barely “went” to college the first time) and it was my first Ann Patchett book. I was nervous and felt grossly out of place among my younger classmates, but this book reminded me of why I wanted to be there in the first place – to become a better writer. To maybe even become as good a writer as Ann Patchett (hey, a girl can dream). The story takes place in an embassy in an unnamed South American country, where guerillas attempt to assassinate the President, who was scheduled to attend a fancy event. Things go sideways when it turns out the President is not, in fact, in attendance (minor spoiler: he stayed home to watch a special episode of his favorite nighttime soap opera. Apparently this was the Who Shot JR episode of that show). 

Frustrated and suspicious, the guerillas take the entire embassy hostage. This is the moment, early in the book, when I fell in love with Bel Canto and Ann Patchett: “Now the people were clearly divided into two groups: those who were standing and those who were lying down. Instructions were given, those lying down were to remain quiet and still, those standing up should check those lying down for weapons and for secretly being the president.”

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Anxious People

By Fredrik Backman

Book cover of Anxious People

Why this book?

If you think of the serious/funny ratio as being on an inverse continuum (which is a thing I did not make up, but about which I'm unsure I’m correct) then a couple of towns over from All the Pretty Horses would be Anxious People by Frederik Backman. Backman is becoming one of my very favorite authors, because he has a way of creating these intensely insufferable characters, and then making you like them. You get the entire emotional gamut when you read a Backman book – love, nostalgia, heartbreak, regret, fear – it's all on the table. These are quirky characters in serious situations, and sometimes even when they’re being awful, they’re hilarious. Both tears and laughter are plentiful in this one, so I am just going to say “Crapping Rabbit” and leave it at that. 

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The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows

Book cover of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

Why this book?

Confession one: I saw this book around for months before I read it, and I thought the title was the worst thing I’d ever seen. No way was I going to read a book with that title. Then it was a selection in my book club, so...anyway, I fell in love. It’s charming, terrifying, heartbreaking, and a bit romantic. And so, so funny. Ironic that I would include it in this list, since the protagonist literally starts the book writing about how she’s tired of trying to make people laugh to cope with World War II, and yearns to write something more meaningful. She finds lots more meaningful to write about, and a wealth of new friends besides. The book is full of poignant stories of resistance, fortitude, and the laugh-and-cry at the same time kind of humor, like a 4-year-old war orphan whose favorite game is called Dead Bride. 

Confession two: this book could have had no other title. I see that now.

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David Copperfield

By Charles Dickens

Book cover of David Copperfield

Why this book?

I almost feel silly recommending this book because it feels very “Guys! Guess what? This classic is actually good!” I read David Copperfield when I was younger, but when the yummy Richard Armitage narrated it for Audible, I listened to it and realized that much of the humor had completely gone over my head, my first time through. I listened often while I was driving and I remember thinking I'd better pull over – I was laughing so hard I was about to run my car up a light pole. When I was younger, all the heartbreaking parts of Copperfield’s story stuck with me (and those parts are heartbreaking, make no mistake. Freaking Murdstones!) but the humor sparkled for me this time through. Mr. Micawber and the dramatic presentation of his IOU. Mr. Dick and his confusion: “But I don’t want to swing a dead cat – I never have.” The scene where a horrified Copperfield obsessively checks that the slimy Uriah Heep is, in fact, as horrible as he seems is the one that had me almost crashing my car.

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