Christmas Special: Humour books reviewed

Is it just me or is everything Schott?
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The Independent Culture

I've been reviewing the annual seasonal outpouring of "humour" books in these pages for 12 years now. Most people in this country get less than that for murder, so it's hardly surprising if I should be getting slightly jaundiced and more than a little tetchy when another boxful of Yuletide funnies arrives, filled as ever with deeply cynical, humourless cut'n'paste jobs knocked out by the work experience boy or girl in a publisher's art department, under the beady eye of an accountant with a knout.

That said, I've also been waging a weary and hitherto unrewarding annual campaign against this Yuletide emission of dross, trying through measured argument to dissuade those nice publishing houses from killing yet more trees merely further to burden us with books coat-tailing on crap TV programmes which in any case will never be read. And what do you know? It finally seems to be working. I've received absolutely no books at all which attempt a cheap transubstantiation by cramming your favourite TV comedy show between hard or soft covers. In fact, the only book which pokes even the tip of a toe into this area is a reissue of Joyce Grenfell's 1977 George, Don't Do That (Hodder £12.99), being the late Miss Grenfell's collected monologues, many of which were first broadcast on radio. And that doesn't really count as these are very funny, and Grenfell was one of the finest humorous writers and performers of the 20th century.

Still, Simon Hoggart at least has done us a favour with The Hamster That Loved Puccini (Atlantic £9.99), which is another selection of those appalling round-robin letters we all receive from hopelessly unselfconscious but fatally egotistical acquaintances at this special time of the year, and in consequence wonderfully, horribly funny. Meanwhile, The Idler Book of Crap Holidays (Bantam £9.99) isn't quite as much revolting fun as last year's Book of Crap Jobs. The same goes for Bitch (Bantam £9.99), a follow-up to last year's Pussy, which was a rather brilliant satire on lifestyle magazines for felines. This one - same publisher, same price, same joke, but this time about dogs - doesn't quite match up. Nor is Andy Riley's Great Lies to Tell Small Kids (Hodder £7.99), a patch on his sublime Bunny Suicides. Nor, sadly, does the great Craig Brown's 1966 and All That (Hodder £10) really work, but then again Sellar and Yeatman's 1066 and All That can neither be bettered nor, I suspect, repeated, even at the hands of a master of pastiche such as Brown. Incidentally, the 75th anniversary edition of 1066 and All That is illustrated by Steven Appleby, for reasons I can't quite understand, as his cartoons run along side, rather than replacing, John Reynolds' classic illustrations without really adding much.Better Living Through Air Guitar (Portrait £12.99) has some wonderful, and typically Applebevian, weird, whimsical drawings, but not enough of them. With the greatest respect, they should have dumped the writer, George Mole, and given Appleby his head.

If you detect a certain world-weariness in my tone, rest assured that I'm not alone. Joy to the world is clearly not the dominant sentiment among humour writers this year, but rather a kind of wry yet furious disgust. Nick Webb's The Dictionary of Bullshit (Robson £9.99), Steve Lowe & Alan McArthur's Is It Just Me Or Is Everything Shit?: The Encyclopedia of Modern Life (Time Warner £9.99), Graham Edmonds's Bullshit Bingo (Southbank £6.99) and Simon Carr's The Gripes of Wrath (Portrait £9.99) all rage against the idiocies of the Modern World and specifically the way it's "managed", which in several cases must have made for interesting editorial meetings among these authors' various publishers. I highly recommend all four books, just to get you into the right kind of psychotic rancorous mood you'll need to survive until Twelfth Night. A Shit History of Nearly Everything by A Parody (ho ho) (Michael O'Mara £9.99) sounds like it should be equally cloacally empowering, but isn't. It's not even a parody, but just another sub-Schott bit of band-wagon jumping.

Which isn't to say that the ubiquitous Schott hasn't led by example up some rewarding byways. Adam Jacot de Boinod's The Meaning of Tingo (Penguin £10) is a collection/dictionary/glossary (that it's indefinable is one of its many strengths) of words from around the world which have bizarrely exact meanings. To quote one would mean having to quote them all, so you'll just have to believe me that this is a magnificently Reithian read, both educational and entertaining, and very funny as well, even though I couldn't find what "Jacot de Boinod" actually means.

The Meaning of Tingo has an encomium on the jacket ("Jacot"?) from Stephen Fry, which leads us neatly to Tish & Pish: How to be of a speakingness like Stephen Fry (Summersdale £7.99) by Stewart Ferris, which has a small print get-out clause on the back cover saying the book has nothing to do with Fry, hasn't been endorsed by him, and it should not be construed that any of the phrases included therein has ever been used by him. In the extraordinary unlikelihood that a single copy of this weirdly pointless book ever sells, I can foresee a juicy little "Passing Off" action coming to a High Court near you. Still, just about, in the realm of linguistics, there's Stephen Caires' The Joys of Engrish (Penguin £10), a collection of photographs of Japanese and Chinese slogans, logos, shop names and so on rendered in English presumably to give them some exotic allure out East. You shouldn't really laugh at this kind of thing: it's patronising, culturally imperialist and probably racist; unfortunately, it's also very funny.

I'm usually immune to, as well as being almost completely ignorant of, all forms of sport, so I was tempted to pass by Summoned by Balls (John Murray £9.99) by Christopher Matthew, as it's about golf. To be more precise, I've long held fast to the principle that if you can make foxhunting illegal, then why not golf too? However, Matthew has proved time and again what an old pro he is at the almost lost art of writing humorous verse, so it would be churlish not to recommend this book if golf floats your boat. By the same token, normally I'd abjure Why Did Arsène Wenger Cross the Road? (Bantam £9.99), as it's a football joke book, and if we're going to ban golf, then why not football? However, the jokes are so good that even if you hate football (like me) you should be able to adapt something like the following to suit any circumstance: Why does it take two Everton fans to eat a hedgehog? One to do the eating, the other to watch out for traffic.

Chris Riddell's The Da Vinci Cod (Walker Books £5.99) is a delightful little book of excruciatingly bad literary puns, drawn with Riddell's familiar flair for beautifully wrought detail, and no home should really be without the great Ronald Searle's Searle's Cats in a new and revised edition (Souvenir Press £9.99). And that leads us effortlessly onto my top recommendation, which is Sam Leith's Dead Pets (Canongate £9.99) which, apart from being very funny, is also terribly moving in its exploration of our relationships with companion animals and how we cope when our dumb chums move onto the Happier Hunting Ground. It's also (as a nice change) very well written - see if you notice the repeated allusions to Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 - and, particularly useful at this time of year, has a lengthy section on stuffing. A word of warning, though: don't sneak this out of your loved one's stocking on Christmas Eve while you contemplate the gory and hollow interior of your turkey. It's not that kind of stuffing.

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