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On the Melendy Family

September 19, 2020 Leave a comment

Elizabeth Enright’s four books about the Melendy family are among my favourites of all time.

They’re kids books, written in the ’40s and ’50s, about the idyllic experiences of four kids (Mona, Rush, Randy, and Oliver) who live in New York City (in the first book, The Saturdays (TS)) and then move out to the country (in the second book, The Four-Story Mistake (4SM)), and about how their family changes over time (third and fourth books, Then There Were Five (TW5) and Spiderweb for Two: A Melendy Maze (S42)).

I recently conceived the idea of drawing a map of the area where the Melendys live in books 2-4. I just want to. Partly to see if I can; partly because as far as I can tell nobody else has done it. So I looked over the books and I don’t think it’s possible to do in a completely consistent way. There are some details that Enright provides that are… not *explicitly* contradictory, but close enough as to be unworkable as such. (Obviously, Enright’s priority was to tell good stories, not to enable my fanwankery.) But we’ll see what we can do. (I’ll try to avoid spoilers.)

Some context: the Melendys live in a big house called the Four-Story Mistake. It’s out in the countryside, near the towns of Carthage, Braxton, and Eldred, somewhere in New York State. There are real-life towns in New York named Carthage and Eldred, but they aren’t anywhere near each other, and real-life Carthage is too far away from New York City to make all this train travel they’re doing so casual. So I’m guessing this Carthage has nothing to do with that Carthage.

(I might want to do a smaller-scale map of the Four-Story Mistake grounds, and also a floor plan of the house itself. But for now let’s stick with the wider area.)

More details of these towns: Braxton is the biggest one, the most modern, impersonal and noisy. Mostly, for our purposes, it’s where the train station is. It’s close enough to bike to to see a movie. Carthage is the closest to the Four-Story Mistake; it’s a friendly kind of village. We know the most about it; it’s got two butchers and a jeweler and the school and the bank and a traffic cop and a bus. We never see Eldred; we only hear it being mentioned. Probably the smallest of the three.

One of the problems I run into when mapping this stuff is the issue of crossings. The Melendy kids are always wandering around in the woods. Fine. But there are roads in this part of the country, and Enright doesn’t describe the kids crossing these roads. Does that mean they didn’t, or does it mean she just didn’t mention it? Similarly: one of the most important features of the Four-Story Mistake property is the brook that runs through it. There are times where the kids go places and it’s not mentioned how, or whether, they cross the brook. Maybe they don’t! But if they don’t, then that has implications for where everything is in relation to the brook.

Okay, let’s get into it: the first we see of the Four-Story Mistake is when the family moves in. They arrive at the Braxton train station and take a cab to the new house. Father says the house is “miles away […] in a valley.” The road there is described as being straight, with no turns described. It is mentioned, later on, that the nearest village is three miles away. (4SM c1)

Next chapter: Rush explores and finds the brook. The important thing here is that none of the kids suspected the existence of the brook before this. (City kids. See a valley and don’t deduce a river.) Which means that they didn’t cross it on the way in; it’s on the other side of the house. Later, Father and Randy look out of the four windows of the cupola atop the house, and we get a description of the views in all four directions. It’s quite helpful, but it also causes us a problem, as we’ll see:

north: “the only long [view]”… faraway up the “shallow and wide” valley, trees, fences, the brook, and, eventually, a village, which Father says is “Carthage, three miles away”

south: “all you can see is spruce branches and the weather vane on the stable roof”

east: “all you can see is the brook and the woods on the hill”

west: “all you can see is the road winding back over another hill, through more woods”, “the road you traveled yesterday”

(4SM c2)

Okay, there’s some excellent stuff in here. First and most important: Carthage is three miles north and therefore is also the closest village. That’s tremendously helpful, and is repeated later in the book. No matter what other problems we run into, we will always be able to rely on the Four-Story Mistake being three miles south of Carthage. (Note also it says “up” the valley.)

Also, it’s confirmed that the brook is on the east side of the house. Which… it’s not the way I pictured it, but it’s unambiguous. And, finally, the road they traveled on yesterday is on the west. Sounds like it leads away to the west, doesn’t it? Not that it’s to their west, and parallel to the horizon, but rather leading west to the horizon? I’m going to suggest that what they see is the dirt road that they turned off onto from the main road, which is really more like what we’d think of as a driveway, however long, and that the main road isn’t visible from the cupola. Because it doesn’t really make sense the other way. (Enright does use the word “driveway” in the series, but is more likely to refer to such thoroughfares as “roads”.) This works, actually, because the description of the family driving in in the first chapter has them cresting a wooded hill before descending to the house. So, that’s fine: the hill blocks the view of the main road.

It does suggest to us that the road from Braxton is a north-south road, parallel to the brook. So is Braxton to the north or the south? Well, if it’s to the north, it must be pretty close to Carthage… but they didn’t see Carthage on the drive from Braxton. Let’s say, provisionally, that it’s to the south.

(I came into this exercise with no clear idea where Braxton is.)

A couple of chapters later, the Melendys get bikes, and Randy, Rush, and Mona take an experimental ride to Carthage. It’s described as a straight highway on which they swerve to the right at one point, and that puts them on Carthage’s main street, where Randy crashes her bike into the back of a parked bus. (Detail: Mr Wheelwright, the Carthage traffic cop, and his wife live in a house on that main street.) So that’s all right: Braxton could still be north on that highway and they could have missed Carthage on the drive in because you have to take that turnoff to see it. And I have the idea that it works better to have Braxton up that way.

(While we’re on the subject… how is Carthage big enough to have a traffic cop and a bus? It’s a village in rural New York in the early 1940s. My explanation: traffic cops are the 1940s equivalents of stoplights, and the bus is a like a Greyhound or something, not a local bus.)

A few chapters later, the Melendy kids put on a show, and some of their friends take a cab up from New York City to see it. One of the results of the show is that Mona auditions for, and eventually gets, a part in a radio drama in New York City, for which she’ll have to travel down there twice every week. This is one of the reasons why I don’t think the Carthage in the books is the real-life Carthage: the real-life Carthage is up by Syracuse and is about, like, five hours away by train. You’re not going to make that trip every few days for a radio show, and you’re not going to take a cab over all that distance to see some kids put on a play. The fictional Carthage must be closer to New York City. (4SM c7, 9)

Later on, the three eldest Melendys go for a skate on the brook. I was paying close attention to the prepositions here. Well, let me quote the passages: “‘What do you say we go exploring down the brook […]?'” “‘Why, you know perfectly well we’ll just end up in Carthage,'” “‘The other way, then,'” “They had to walk down the banks at the side of the frozen cascade, and then they took to the brook again.” It’s ambiguous, but it does seem like Carthage is upstream from the Four-Story Mistake. Anyway, the only thing they find downstream is a nice old couple called the Peppers, whose house is not so inaccessible that Father can’t come and drive the kids home from there. (4SM c9)

The only other detail from 4SM that we can pick out is that there’s a farmer named Peterson who lives “up the valley”, which seems to mean toward Carthage.

In the second chapter of TW5, Randy and Rush go on a scrap drive. They hook up the horse to the carriage and travel down the road in search of metal for the troops. They make three stops, and meet new friends at each one: the Addisons, Mr. Titus, and Mark Herron (and his mean cousin Oren).

The first question is, what road is this that they’re on and where does it go? Well, Mark and the Addison kids don’t go to school in Carthage; they go to the District School near Eldred. Okay, so, clearly they’re not on the road north to Carthage; maybe they’re going south on the same road. Or maybe there’s a turnoff or something. It’s not clear. (We do get more information on this later.)

But this stretch of road does open up quite a bit of the world to us. Mark knows lots of interesting spots in the woods where they can go and have adventures. Mr. Titus has lots of fishing holes where he and Oliver can go. Now, most of these places are just… places that are around there somewhere… that can populate a map, but that we don’t have explicit directions to. But there are some that have a bit of that kind of detail.

Originally I thought that this road they’re on led to Eldred. It would make some kind of sense. But I’m not sure it’s quite right. It might work, and it’s simple, but we also need to make room for all this wilderness; I wonder if it makes more sense to have Eldred further south, accessible by some side roads or something. I also thought of putting it south of the Four-Story Mistake on the highway. Near the Peppers! But this makes the whole question about where Mark and the Addisons go to school a little difficult, as it’s tough to figure out how that’s closer than Carthage. As for the scrap-drive road, I’ll spoil the surprise: there’s a chapter in S42 that establishes clearly that it leads west from the highway that goes north to Carthage. Good: let’s call it the Addisons’ road.

In fact, let’s skip to that chapter in Spiderweb for Two now. In it, Oliver is following a mysterious poem that leads him to a hidden secret. The poem tells him to head west from the Four-Story Mistake and describes the landmarks he’ll see on the way. The poem assumes he’s going to slog through some wilderness and come out on a road which (unknown to him) will take him past the Addisons’. Oliver gets off course a bit, though, and veers south and gets lost, and meets a kindly old lady, Miss Bishop, who puts him on the road and tells him how to get back home.

It’s a very problematic chapter for us. Some details:

– Oliver walks due west from the house and, as far as the description of his day is concerned, doesn’t encounter a road until he leaves Miss Bishop’s place

– Miss Bishop’s directions for how Oliver should get home are that he should walk east(ish) on the road in front of her house, and when that road meets another road, he should turn right and it’ll take him right there

– Oliver is surprised when he sees the Addisons’ mailbox (which must be the same one that Rush and Randy saw), because he’s used to coming to the Addisons’ by their back way, which is shorter to get to

– Miss Bishop lives in a place called Corn Hollow. Not sure what that is; if it’s a little hamlet or the name of Miss Bishop’s house. Let’s assume it’s her house; it’s not referred to any other time and we don’t see anything else around there. But it’s close enough to Carthage and Eldred that she refers to both of them to orient Oliver

Okay. So the first problem is, how does Oliver manage to get over to Miss Bishop’s without crossing a road? Because the Four-Story Mistake, as best we can tell, is between a road and a brook, both running north-south; it’s east of the road and west of the brook. You can’t go west from the place without crossing the road.

Unless! What if the road comes south from Carthage, passes the entrance to the Four-Story Mistake property, and then abruptly swings around to the northwest? Miss Bishop’s directions to Oliver still work. It means we have to come up with some kind of elaborate side roads to allow Father to drive to the Peppers’ to pick up Randy, Rush, and Mona, but it would work. (We might have to fudge things around to make it make sense that Mark and the Addison kids go to the school near Eldred instead of the one in Carthage, but that’s doable.)

Or we could just have the road go north-south like is sensible, and assume that Enright didn’t bother to describe Oliver crossing it. Or it didn’t occur to her that the road would be there.

The second problem is, if Miss Bishop lives on the Addisons’ road, why didn’t Randy and Rush stop there when they were collecting scrap? Explanation one: they just didn’t, that’s all, mostly because Enright hadn’t thought her up yet. Explanation two: Miss Bishop lives on a different fork of the Addisons’ road, such that Randy and Rush could get on the road without going past her house.

The third problem is that Oliver and Mr. Titus are great friends, and Oliver hangs out with Mr. Titus all the time. They’re always wandering all over the countryside fishing. And Mr. Titus lives on the Addisons’ road. So how come Oliver could be so unfamiliar with Miss Bishop’s part of the Addisons’ road?

That one we actually do have a partial solution for. Let’s say that the back lane that Oliver’s used to using to go to the Addisons’ place goes past them to Mr. Titus’s place too. That makes sense, doesn’t it? And we can also say that Mr. Titus’s favourite fishing spots are all further west, or, anyway, not near Corn Hollow (which has no nearby brook, as Oliver takes note of as he’s wandering around lost).

So let’s take stock of the roads we’re dealing with in the area. We’ve got the highway south from Carthage, which runs past the Four-Story Mistake and then either continues south or swings northwest after that. Then we also have

– the Addisons’ road, which runs west from that, and which has the Addisons’ and Mr. Titus’s front entrances on it (and, also, Meeker’s farm). Note that the Addisons’ front entrance must be basically due west from the Four-Story Mistake, but the Addisons’ road can’t start at that latitude; it must start north of there, or Oliver would have run into it too soon

– the back lane to the Addisons’, which probably also has an entrance to Mr. Titus’s property on it, and is easily accessible from the highway

– a fork off of the Addisons’ road, which has Miss Bishop’s house on it, and which intersects the highway somewhere north of the Four-Story Mistake

That’s a lot of roads to all come together at about the same place in the middle of the countryside, and I basically don’t believe it. There’s no occasion to have so many roads, and I prefer the simpler explanations for how it all works.

There’s another suggestive passage in TW5 where Rush and Randy go to Meeker’s farm to help with a fire. As they’re traveling, they are passed by the Eldred fire engine. This sounds helpful, as, if the fire engine has to come up behind them, it means that Eldred must be south of the Four-Story Mistake on the same road as Carthage and Braxton. But when it happens, Rush and Randy are on the lane into the farm, so it doesn’t really say anything about where Eldred is.

The last geographical description of consequence comes in the final chapter of S42. The directions Randy and Oliver get are to “follow Highway 22, proceed, and take the next turn right, beyond the cows of Herman Heidt. Travel a mile and you will see a Northern name and a tall tree.” They do so, starting in Carthage. It’s clear that they’re familiar with the roads involved: both Highway 22 and their turnoff to the right. For one thing, Randy refers to “the sight of Herman Heidt’s repulsive cows,” and since when does Randy think cows are gross? Must be some history here.

We haven’t heard of Highway 22 before. It’s not really satisfactory for it to be the road south to the Four-Story Mistake; for one thing, they know that road too well. I’d much rather have it be the road from Carthage to Braxton. (Which actually is the same road. But this is how country roads work: they change names as they go from place to place.) It’s one that the Melendys take a lot, but not all the time, and the modernity of Braxton goes along well with the modernity of the house that Randy and Oliver find there.

So, that’s simple; from Carthage, go out to the highway, go north, and take the first right. A mile east, and you’re at the house in the clue, Villa Borealis.

Most of what’s left is various spots in the wilderness that Mark or Mr. Titus introduce the kids to, and they can pretty much be fit in anywhere. Mr. Titus tells a story about a place called Abbot’s Slough, for instance, which is near the house where he lived when he was a child, and is also in this area somewhere; is it the same house he lives in now? We don’t know for sure, but it sure could be, and I think we might as well assume it. Other of his locales: Baggot’s Pasture, Squaw Dam, Powder Hill.

Mark knows the woods for miles around his place, and takes the Melendys to a place where blackberries grow, an old graveyard back of his farm near a burned-down church that was struck by lightning, a hill where arrowheads can be found, a quarry where one can swim, a cave that’s not too far from Steinkraus’ farm and the house of Mr. Cutmold the auctioneer, and a backwoods still frequented by several villains of the region.

So that’s all the information, and we can start putting the map together now. This is what I came up with; it may not be exactly right, but I think any map based on these books has to end up looking something like this:

Just Read: 419 (Will Ferguson)

May 31, 2012 Leave a comment

I just finished reading 419, Will Ferguson’s new novel. It’s about Nigerian e-mail scams and related topics, and I recommend it. Ferguson became one of my favourite writers because of his books on Canadian history and culture, but he’s also done a couple of travel books which I liked. I suppose there was some chance of his becoming the Canadian Bill Bryson, which wouldn’t be too bad of a thing to be, but he’s taken a left turn by switching to fiction. His first novel, Happiness^TM, won all kinds of awards although I really didn’t care for it. Second up was Spanish Fly, which I thought was tremendous, and now 419.

One interesting but frustrating thing about Ferguson’s books is how eager his publishers seem to be to retitle them:

Hokkaido Highway Blues was retitled Hitching Rides with Buddha
Generica was retitled Happiness^TM
Spanish Fly was retitled Hustle

Anyway, at the start of 419, this one character dies. Now, I don’t want to do the work for you here, but I believe that Ferguson was being very very careful and clever when he chose the name for this character. It’s a name that has appeared in fiction before, and in a context that contrasts very neatly with the themes of 419. I’m sure he did it on purpose. You go read 419–you’ll like it, it’s good–and then look up what other character had the same name as the dead guy, and think about that. It’s pretty neat. I like it when writers do stuff like that.

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Talk Amongst Yourselves

May 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Tyrion Lannister and Miles Vorkosigan: compare and contrast. Discuss.

Read: Agent to the Stars; Old Man’s War

May 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Recently I started reading John Scalzi’s blog, and eventually worked my way all the way back through the archives. That inspired me to try his actual books, which I’ve also been enjoying. Just last week I polished off Agent to the Stars and Old Man’s War, two of his earlier works.

They’re very different books in many ways, but they share some virtues: they’re extremely readable, they’re entertaining, they have admirably direct plots, and they both have something for you to think about (specifically, they’re both concerned with the nature and preservation of human identity, among other things). They’re in the highest tradition of genre fiction. And Scalzi makes it look easy.

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Read: Riddle of the Ring

May 10, 2011 Leave a comment

One of the books I enjoyed reading when I was really young was Karin Anckarsvard’s The Mysterious Schoolmaster. Anckarsvard was a Swedish author, and the book was about two kids, Michael and Cecilia, who come upon a mystery in their little Swedish town, and get to the bottom of it by being plucky. There were sequels, but I could never get them all in the right order.

Fast forward to about a year ago. I determined to track down all these books and read them in order and see if I liked them as much now as I did then. There were four of them: The Mysterious Schoolmaster, The Robber Ghost, Madcap Mystery, and Riddle of the Ring. I was able to order the first three from a used-books website, but not the last one. That was okay; I’d get the last one some other time. But then I read some kind of suggestion someplace that Riddle of the Ring wasn’t a Michael-and-Cecilia mystery. So when I finally did order it earlier this year, I was curious about just what the deal was.

Turns out that the deal is that RotR does take place in the Michael-and-Cecilia-verse, but the main characters are Tommie, another girl in the same town, and Henrik, Cecilia’s younger brother. Since Madcap Mystery, Michael and Cecilia have grown up and gotten married. Michael has joined the navy, and is therefore hardly ever home, and Cecilia has had a baby, and they’re very happy.

Nothing against the story of RotR, which was perfectly serviceable. And nothing against Tommie and Henrik, who were engaging enough characters. But what I wanted was more of Michael and Cecilia. In particular, if they were going to fall in love and get married and stuff, I wanted to read about it. Even worse, I think it sucks that Cecilia goes from solving mysteries to being cooped up in an apartment with a baby and acting like she likes it.

Oh well.

I imagine Cecilia’s not as good in a fight as Lisbeth Salander. But she’s better company and just as reliable.

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28/4/2011 Superhero of the Day: Doctor Camelot

April 28, 2011 Leave a comment

Read: Silverwing, Sunwing, Firewing

April 22, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s a fantasy series by Canadian author Kenneth Oppel. It’s about bats. It would probably not be completely out of line to say that this series is to bats as Watership Down is to rabbits. Except that Watership Down is an all-time classic, and this series is generally decent.

Maybe my problem was that I had a hard time identifying with the bat characters, because after all bats are pretty unlike humans in a lot of ways. But then at the same time Oppel tries to write them as close to human as he reasonably can, and that also takes me out of the story, because I just don’t buy it that they’re like that. It’s tricky. He’s achieved a legitimately good adventure story, which I have to give extra points to because of how unconventional it is… but I had a hard time getting it down anyway.

Oppel has written other stuff I’ve liked better, like his steampunkish adventure series about young aviator Matt Cruse and young scientist/heiress Kate de Vries (consisting of Airborn, Skybreaker, and Starclimber); recommended. And then he did some books for much younger readers, including Peg and the Yeti, which I got a kick out of when I read it to the kids. So Oppel is okay by me, but the bat trilogy isn’t my favourite. There’s a prequel, Darkwing, that I think I will not hunt down; enough is enough.

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Read: The Ghost of Dibble Hollow

April 18, 2011 2 comments

Patience is important. That’s what I really want to say. Patience is important.

See, there’s this book, The Ghost of Dibble Hollow (by May Nickerson Wallace, whom I know exactly nothing about). It’s a kids’ adventure book from 1965, about a boy who spends the summer in the country, in a house that’s long abandoned but has been in his family for a long time. He meets the ghost of his great-uncle, who died as a boy way back when. Not a great book, but enjoyable and readable. I had a copy when I was young but I don’t know what happened to it.

I decided a few years ago to try to track down another copy, partly because I liked the book and partly to use for inspiration for this one project I’ve had on the back burner for a while. And it turned out to be really hard to find. When I checked on abebooks.com and alibris.com, all I could find were copies for like $50, $80 bucks. Which, forget that.

So I bided my time and kept my eyes open. And earlier this month I was at a used book sale where I plucked a copy of The Ghost of Dibble Hollow off one of the kids’ tables for a buck.

Math: $50 cost + patience = $1 cost.

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17/4/2011 Ded & Sac Update

April 17, 2011 2 comments

I haven’t posted recently on my writing progress. I’m still wrestling with Chapter 7, which has turned out to be a monster. But that’s good, because if I get enough accomplished in Chapter 7, it means that after Chapter 8 I can jump forward in time a little bit, and if I don’t start jumping forward in time, this book is going to be a couple thousand pages long, and I bet that’s not the best way of doing it.

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Funniest Novels of All Time

April 16, 2011 18 comments

Every now and then I type “funniest novel” or “funniest writer” or something into a search engine to see if I can find any ideas for what to read next. And I’m always shocked at how much stuff comes up that isn’t funny at all. Or, often, there’ll be some things that are sorta funny, but not primarily funny. Like Neal Stephenson. Stephenson’s great, and he does clearly have a sense of humour, and he uses it in his writing, but he’s not writing comedies. So if (say) Snow Crash is on your list of the funniest books you’ve ever read, well… you haven’t read that many funny books.

So here are mine, anyway (fiction only, roughly in order), in case someone else out there is doing the same kind of thing that I did. Hope the list helps; if nothing else I can promise that these books are supposed to be funny. (I’m more interested in bringing attention to things I like than in arguing that my list is actually definitive.) I’ll group the entries by author so that it’s not just a list of Wodehouse novels.

(There are some frequently cited books that I don’t have on here. I’ve seen lists that rank Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim highly, for instance. I read Lucky Jim about ten years ago and I remember liking it okay but I don’t think I got any good yoks from it. And then there’s John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, which I couldn’t stand.)

19. Greg Costikyan: Another Day, Another Dungeon. First book in a planned fantasy trilogy that makes fun of Dungeons-and-Dragons-style adventuring. Lots of nice touches in it. Costikyan wrote the second book; it was okay. There probably won’t be a third.

18. Chris Moore: My favourite part of Chris Moore’s collected works is the scene in Island of the Sequined Love Nun where Tucker is pleading with the FBI guy. Sometimes I take the book down off the shelf just to read that one page.

17. W.E. Bowman: The Ascent of Rum Doodle. Parody of, what shall we call it, expedition writing.

16. Connie Willis: More of a science fiction writer than a comedy writer, but her To Say Nothing of the Dog is clearly meant to be funny from start to finish, and Bellwether is kind of similar.

15. Larry Doyle: I Love You, Beth Cooper. One of those last-night-of-high-school stories, but the key thing here is that Doyle doesn’t seem to have any limit on how outrageous he’s going to let things get.

14. Douglas Adams: Sure, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is famous and funny, and I like it too, and the first three sequels, but it was Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency that really impressed me; fits together like a Swiss watch. The sequel doesn’t work quite as well but is still worth a look.

13. Lisa Lutz: The Spellman Files and its sequels. Tales of a quasifunctional family of compulsive private detectives. Great stuff. Only problem with these is that the comedy/mystery ratio skews so heavily to the comedy side.

12. Terry Pratchett: Pratchett is a fantasy writer who uses humour a lot. It doesn’t always work, but a) he’s a good fantasy writer, and b) he keeps the jokes coming, so they don’t all have to be winners for the books to be a success. Mostly I’m talking about the Discworld series, but he’s got other worthwhile books too.

11. Sherwood Kiraly: California Rush. Kiraly’s written four novels and seems to have stopped there, which is a shame. They’re all good, but his first one is his funniest. It’s a baseball novel about (this is my take) just what it would take to make a stadium full of fans go completely berserk.

10. Roy Blount, Jr.: First Hubby. Blount is one of my favourite writers. He’s written all kinds of humour stuff, but this is his only attempt at fiction. One of the things I like about it is that he sets up this one joke, a pun, so far ahead of time that you’d never know that that was what he was doing, and the pun is a good one but obviously not worth all the effort. I admire that.

9. O. Henry: He did write one novel, which I couldn’t get into; he’s most famous for his short stories, which are, as they say on Primer, handstakingly hilaripus. I don’t mean they were funny back when he wrote them and we can still smile politely at them now; I mean they’re still really funny.

8. Stella Gibbons: Cold Comfort Farm. This one works better if you’re familiar with the books it’s making fun of, D.H. Lawrence and stuff like that. I’m not very familiar with them, but I used my imagination and got by okay, so you shouldn’t have a problem either. Plus, Flora is one of the great characters of all time; never gives an inch of ground to anybody.

7. Anita Loos: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (and, if you want, its sequel, But Gentlemen Marry Brunettes). A classic.

6. Saki: It took me forever to start reading Saki. I don’t know why. You’d think somebody would have recommended him to me. Anyway, he’s about like P.G. Wodehouse (see below) in a lot of ways, but with more of a mean streak.

5. Joe Keenan: Blue Heaven, Putting on the Ritz, and Lucky Star. Modern farces, I guess you’d call them. A top songwriting team gets mixed up in all kinds of confusion, intrigue, and deception; hilarity really does ensue.

4. Jean Shepherd: In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash; A Fistful of Fig Newtons, for a start. You know the movie The Christmas Story? Based on Jean Shepherd’s books, which I guess aren’t completely fictional, but they can’t be all true, either. Despite Shepherd’s affection for the past, this is not nostalgia; it’s got too much of an edge on it for that.

3. Donald E. Westlake: Westlake is most famous for his “comic crime” novels, which are basically caper novels. In particular he had a series of books about ill-starred criminal mastermind John Dortmunder, who is basically about halfway between Professor Moriarty and Eeyore. Those are very good, and so is his other stuff (some of it funny and some more serious), but my favourite is his story Dancing Aztecs, about the frantic hunt for a valuable statue in 1970s New York.

(3b. Jay Cronley: Quick Change. Could totally be a Dortmunder novel.)

2. Dennis Hensley: He’s written two novels, Adventures in the (213) and Screening Party (which isn’t exactly a novel, although the aspects of it that are novel-like are what makes it so likable). Adventures in the (213), about wacky Hollywood hijinks, was pretty good. Screening Party, about a group of friends who get together to snark on movies, had me laughing so hard I couldn’t breathe more than once. Which basically never happens.

1. P.G. Wodehouse: I hope it’s not controversial to name Wodehouse as the funniest writer in the history of the English language. Not everything he wrote was great, but well over half of it was; some titles to look for are Right Ho, Jeeves, The Small Bachelor, Leave it to Psmith, and Barmy in Wonderland. There are lots, though.

I guarantee as soon as I post this I’ll think of three more books I should have included.

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