Cheering Yourself Up by Reading About The Misfortune of Others.
A man laughing. Galawebdesign / Wikimedia Commons
When life is getting you down, sometimes it helps to see someone else having a worse time of it than you are. I don't mean someone experiencing genuine misery like crushing poverty or disease. Those things are deserving of real sympathy, and where possible concrete help. What I have in mind is someone who has, say, accidentally farted while in the lift with their boss on their first day at a new job, or gone to put on their glasses and jabbed their thumb into their own eye. These kind of things can be embarrassing, even mortifying, but it's okay to laugh at them. And laugh at them you do, because you're just so glad that it wasn't you. You could get your fix of other people's embarrassing moments from Youtube but personally I prefer to enjoy them in book form. The following books are great sources of other people's embarrassment and suffering, both fictional and real. Go ahead and laugh at their pain. You know you want to.
Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington (2006)
This novel is based on Guardian columnist Mil Millington's cult website of the same name. Mil's site is, quite literally, him listing all the things he and his German girlfriend Margret have argued about. Constantly complaining about his partner in a public forum like this might come across as bitter and nasty were it not for the fact that Mil often makes himself the butt of his own jokes. It works because Mil and Margret seem equally unreasonable and silly. Reading it will probably make you feel that your significant other, if you have one, is amazingly low maintenance by comparison.
The novel is a fictionalised version of Mil's life. It is the story of an English librarian, by the name of Pel Dalton and his tumultuous relationship with his German girlfriend Ursula. Pel and Ursula disagree on practically everything; where to live, the correct way to swear, the size of Ursula's bum and whether on not Pel is "a monkey child." Despite their bickering, or maybe even because of it, the two have managed to stay together long enough to have two equally independently minded children. Pel struggles with bewildering bureaucracy at work, nitpicking at home and his own nagging sense of inadequacy but somehow eventually manages to come out on top as a decent partner, father and human being. Pel's misadventures always make me smile. The hair raising car chase Ursula drags him into to win back a stolen broom is a particular highlight.
Are You Dave Gorman? by Dave Gorman (2002)
Acting on a drunken bet with his friend Danny Wallace, comedian Dave Gorman sets out to prove that there are "loads" of other people in the world named Dave Gorman. He and Danny agree that "loads", for the sake of argument, is 52 (the number of cards in a pack), and the two of them set out on a journey that carries them 24,000 miles to find other people people by that name and take their photograph. It is a rambling, often difficult, frequently silly journey which almost costs Danny his girlfriend and both of them their sanity. While it sounds fanciful this book is actually non-fiction. Danny and Dave really did all this crazy stuff and lived to tell the tale.
In this fascinating experiment, Danny Wallace (the same Danny from Are You Dave Gorman) takes the advice of a random stranger on a bus (always a great idea!) and decides to see what will happen if for an entire year he says "yes" to absolutely anything anyone suggests to him. As he hopes, this leads him to do loads of things he would never ordinarily have done, not all of them good. The book has been made into a film starring Jim Carrey, which I haven't seen but which I doubt can capture Danny's endearing dorkiness. Both this and Are You Dave Gorman made me glad I wasn't Hanna, Danny's girlfriend. Although his antics are cute they must be hard to live with on a daily basis. He is constantly getting himself into awkward situations and lacking the ability to talk his way out he just sort of sucks it up and moves on.
Tokyo Suckerpunch is a fun spoof on the action/mystery genre. It's the story of Billy Chaka, a sports reporter for an American Asian teen magazine. Charged with reporting on the Under 19 Handicapped Martial Arts Championship, Billy finds himself embroiled in a bizarre mystery involving the Yakuza, Japanese sex hotels and a religious cult. Chaka's job might sound exciting and fun but he gets beaten up a lot and nothing in life is ever simple for him. If you like this one, look out for the sequels, Hokkaido Popsicle (2002), Dreaming Pachinko (2003) and Kinki Lullaby (2004).
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller (1961)
This classic satirical novel is reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's Doctor Strangelove and the M*A*S*H movie. Catch 22 is the story of Captain John Yossarian, a US Air Force B-52 Bombadier during World War II. It chronicles the struggles of Yossarian and his squardon mates' attempts to get out of the war alive and go home.
I used to read my copy sitting in the breakroom at a job I didn't want to be doing and think, "well, at least nobody shoots at me." I also came to be glad that nobody forced me to march pointlessly in lines or deal with such epic levels of bureaucratic insanity. Heller's commentary on war and human nature is timeless, universal and very blackly funny.