The best books to make you laugh in a troubled world

Michael Raleigh Author Of The Blue Moon Circus
By Michael Raleigh

Who am I?

I am a writer living in Chicago, with an interest in both literary novels and mysteries (I write both). I am particularly drawn to books with embattled protagonists who keep on grinding through life, and I like to see some humor in even the most serious books (There’s humor in Moby-Dick and in The Maltese Falcon). I’ve also always enjoyed books in which a group of smart older characters gets the band together one last time – like LeCarre’s Smiley’s People. My book, The Blue Moon Circus, is such a story.

I wrote...

The Blue Moon Circus

By Michael Raleigh,

Book cover of The Blue Moon Circus

What is my book about?

My book is called The Blue Moon Circus. It is set in the summer of 1926 and relates the adventures, both harrowing and comic, of a hard-luck circus owner named Lewis Tully and the old friends who make up his cast and crew. Lewis’s circus is a small affair, one of the first of the truck circuses that toured the country soon after the First World War. The Blue Moon Circus is no ordinary circus. What it lacks in size it more than makes up for with odd acts and unusual animals. And there are adventures, oh, yes, adventures – a rivalry with two much larger and better-equipped circuses, hooligans in small towns, fistfights and escaped elephants, torrential rain and fire.

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The books I picked & why

This Is Happiness

By Niall Williams,

Book cover of This Is Happiness

Why this book?

Because it made me laugh out loud, for starters. Early in the pandemic, when I needed something to put a little color into my outlook, I encountered Niall Williams’s novel about the happenings in an Irish village in 1958. It is a coming-of-age novel, concerning one Noe Crowe, who comes to live with his grandparents at a time when their tiny and quite backward village is about to get electricity for the first time. The characters, including Noe’s grandparents and their mysterious boarder, Christy, as well as the other people of the town, are drawn beautifully, and young Noe’s misadventures with the three formidable Ford sisters (Yes, he is romantically inclined toward all three) are hilarious, as are so many other elements of this lovely book, not the least of which is Williams’s luminous writing. And now, it is one of my favorites.

This Is Happiness

By Niall Williams,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked This Is Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Shortlisted for Best Novel in the Irish Book Awards Longlisted for the 2020 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction From the acclaimed author of Man Booker-longlisted History of the Rain 'Lyrical, tender and sumptuously perceptive' Sunday Times 'A love letter to the sleepy, unhurried and delightfully odd Ireland that is all but gone' Irish Independent After dropping out of the seminary, seventeen-year-old Noel Crowe finds himself back in Faha, a small Irish parish where nothing ever changes, including the ever-falling rain. But one morning the rain stops and news reaches the parish - the electricity is finally arriving. With it…


By Andrew Sean Greer,

Book cover of Less

Why this book?

First, because a novel should surprise us, and Less surprised me greatly. When I started reading this picaresque tale of a middle-aged gay man wandering as far as humanly possible to escape the sadness and embarrassment of his young lover marrying someone else, I knew only that it had won a Pulitzer and that there was some controversy over that. Having read Andrew Sean Greer’s funny and wildly imaginative novel, I believe I understand the problem: books that win a major literary prize are expected to be grim and “major.” They are hardly ever funny. I’m not sure how that jaundiced view of the literary arts came to be, but there it is. 

Less is a comic adventure novel – correction, a misadventure novel, for Arthur Less is well-meaning but naïve, an innocent in the workings of the world, and I kept wondering if his hapless blundering through his travels would land him in jail or an asylum. No chance, for the gods of humor are watching over Arthur Less, who improbably survives his lonely but frequently hilarious travels to come out in one piece. A book to make you cheer for the main character, and while you’re at it, for the author as well.  


By Andrew Sean Greer,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Less as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'You will sob little tears of joy' Nell Zink

'I recommend it with my whole heart' Ann Patchett

'This book is basically perfect' Dolly Alderton

'Charming, languid and incredibly funny, I absolutely adored Arthur' Jenny Colgan

'Marvellously, endearingly, unexpectedly funny' Gary Shteyngart

'I adore this book' Armistead Maupin

'Bedazzling, bewitching and be-wonderful' New York Times Book Review

'A fast and rocketing read . . . a wonderful, wonderful book!' Karen Joy Fowler

'Hilarious, and wise, and abundantly funny' Adam Haslett


Arthur Less is…

The Thursday Murder Club

By Richard Osman,

Book cover of The Thursday Murder Club

Why this book?

How to describe the first book in The Thursday Murder Club series without sounding as if I’ve lost my grip? Well, one should learn something from a good book, and what we learn from any of the books in Richard Osman’s clever mystery series has to do with senior citizens. What Osman suggests to us is that we underestimate the elderly at our own peril, for the four main characters in these books are seniors – and smart, very funny, and at least one of them is dangerous – the residue of her previous employment as a British secret agent.

It is best to start with the first book, The Thursday Murder Club, where we meet a small group of residents of a quiet retirement community who get together every Thursday to discuss and solve a mystery. Their names are Joyce (more or less the chronicler of this saga of the septuagenarians), Elizabeth, the former MI5 operative, Ron, a former union leader, and Ibrahim, a not-quite-retired psychologist. The plot in these books is beside the point, for our feisty protagonists do solve a murder and attract new members to their small crew. Osman invites us to enjoy a book in which the lead characters are witty, clever, brave, and – yes – old. Old but far from finished.

The Thursday Murder Club

By Richard Osman,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked The Thursday Murder Club as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A New York Times bestseller | Soon to be a major motion picture from Steven Spielberg at Amblin Entertainment

"Witty, endearing and greatly entertaining." -Wall Street Journal

"Don't trust anyone, including the four septuagenarian sleuths in Osman's own laugh-out-loud whodunit." -Parade

Four septuagenarians with a few tricks up their sleeves
A female cop with her first big case
A brutal murder
Welcome to...

In a peaceful retirement village, four unlikely friends meet weekly in the Jigsaw Room to discuss unsolved crimes; together they call themselves the Thursday Murder Club.

When a local developer is found dead…

Book cover of The Heart's Invisible Furies

Why this book?

Because it is, for lack of a better word, inspiring. I was inspired as a reader, and as a writer. Author Boyne has given us a book rich in character and event, a beautifully written account of the long life of a man constantly searching to learn who he is. Cyril Avery, the protagonist, is an orphan given up by his teenage mother in a small Irish town, later adopted but never quite certain of his true identity or the identity of his mother. The novel is also a portrait of Ireland over the second half of the twentieth century, warts and all. Though this is not a comic novel like my other choices, there is great wit in Boyne’s novel, and several comic scenes that really made me laugh (a scene in which the adolescent Cyril attempts to explain in confession his sexual fantasies to an aged and possibly senile priest is worth the price of the book). But throughout it all, we empathize with Cyril and root for him to find his place in the vast, complicated world he is born into.

The Heart's Invisible Furies

By John Boyne,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked The Heart's Invisible Furies as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Compelling and satisfying... At times, incredibly funny, at others, heartrending' Sarah Winman, author of When God Was a Rabbit

Forced to flee the scandal brewing in her hometown, Catherine Goggin finds herself pregnant and alone, in search of a new life at just sixteen. She knows she has no choice but to believe that the nun she entrusts her child to will find him a better life.

Cyril Avery is not a real Avery, or so his parents are constantly reminding him. Adopted as a baby, he's never quite felt at home with the family that treats him more as…

Book cover of Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

Why this book?

Because I always learn something from Mary Roach’s books, and because they are relentlessly funny. 

This time out, with her usual investigative vigor, Mary delves into the Space Program and gives us a detailed look at what happens before, during, and after a space mission. We learn about training, experimentation, the rigors, and dangers of space travel, and the astronauts themselves, who, it turns out, aren’t always the stern-looking, no-nonsense types we’ve come to imagine. Apparently a sense of humor, even of the bizarre, is an uncited requirement for becoming an astronaut. You will learn things in this book that you probably never thought about (Ever wonder what might go wrong in a trip to the toilet at zero gravity?). And we find that some of the astronauts are legitimate practical jokers (on one voyage a skull keeps appearing in various places). And why not? Don’t they get bored?

Yes, they do, but you probably won’t be bored by Mary Roach.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void

By Mary Roach,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Packing for Mars as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Space is a world devoid of the things we need to live and thrive: air, gravity, hot showers, fresh produce, privacy, beer. Space exploration is in some ways an exploration of what it means to be human. How much can a person give up? How much weirdness can they take? What happens to you when you can't walk for a year? have sex? smell flowers? What happens if you vomit in your helmet during a space walk? Is it possible for the human body to survive a bailout at 17,000 miles per hour? To answer these questions, space agencies set…

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