A Week in Books: The serious side of the funny stocking-filler business

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The Independent Culture

We've already had a book of Crap Towns (twice, in fact) and a book of Crap Jobs. The high-minded BBC has even ripped off The Idler magazine's original wheeze with its book of Crap Cars. One question now arises for the connoisseur of festive dreck. When is some post-adolescent wag going to compile the long-overdue Book of Crap Books?

It would have to be a massive tome. Every pre-Christmas season witnesses an avalanche of throwaway toilet titles aimed at last-gasp present purchasers seeking a dose of proxy wit. Sadly, the Nordic forests die in vain for worthless and mirthless ephemera. The charms of most comic Christmas books melt like snowballs in the sun.

Yet still they come, as thick and fast as ever. The naffest gents hairdressers' ads of the Seventies! A thousand wacky South Korean consumer products! And so, heartbreakingly, on. The funny stocking-filler business is no laughing matter. Somehow, amid the chicken inseminators and ferry-cabin cleaners, Dan Kieran's book of Crap Jobs (£9.99 from Bantam and, intermittently, really quite amusing) fails to specify the grim duties of the Christmas "Humour" Compiler.

I offer two current exceptions to this all-but-iron rule. Each book aims for topical satire, and reaches its targets. Each has Tony B and George W in its sights. But (here's the crucial rub) each keeps a cool head on its literary shoulders and avoids the megaphonic ranting that passes for fun in too many post-Michael Moore polemics.

It would be easy enough to write off Rohan Candappa's The Curious Incident of the WMD in Iraq (Profile, £5.99) as a bog-standard Christmas cash-in. The author has plenty of previous, with one-joke parodies such as The Little Book of Stress. This spoof goes after much bigger game and, by and large, bags it. Candappa's notion is to lay the voice of the obsessive, tunnel-visioned 15-year-old Christopher Boone from Mark Haddon's mega-selling novel over the thoughts and career of a well-known prime minister. Tony tells us all about his life, from Fettes, the Ugly Rumours and "Saving the Labour Party by having an Inner Core", up to the day when he and his pal George started to "do War" on the mean "Mr Hussein".

The conceit is brilliantly effective. Oblivious Christopher's sincere, serious but deeply skewed view of the world morphs neatly into the Blair mindset. Far from writing a sketch that "can be read in 45 minutes" (as the cover, with suitable dodginess, claims), Candappa spins out the gag for 180 pages. He feeds in - possibly - a little more information than we need. Some readers may feel the stunt outstays its welcome. Never mind: the wholesale takeover of Haddon's style - with its lists, diagrams and footnotes - means that you can dip and flip at will as Tony plods "in Good Faith" towards his fateful rendezvous with "Mr Scarlett, in the Den, with the Dossier".

Much of the gobsmacked merriment in Rory Bremner, John Bird and John Fortune's You are Here: a Dossier (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £16.99) arrives by the same sardonic route. Fans of the trio's Channel 4 show will know that its sharpest satire stems not from caricature or hyperbole but the deadpan recital of government statements.

So it is here, in a guide to New Labour Britain that's mildly funny when it goes in for burlesque but screamingly so when it simply delivers the evidence. In this not-so-little book of Crap Politics, the official version sounds, as Bremner notes, "beyond parody". As when - in a taped row - chief whip Hilary Armstrong bullies backbench rebel Paul Marsden: "War is not a matter of conscience. Abortion and embryo research are matters of conscience, but not wars." Beat that for a second-term soundbite, Mr Karl Rove.

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