With Reading List, The A.V. Club asks one of our favorite pop-culture creators to describe a list of reading materials that are tied together by a singular theme.
The reader: Mary Roach has carved out a vastly entertaining niche for herself as a chronicler of “curious” science, even though—as she told The A.V. Club in 2010—she’s “sort of a science goober.” In other words, she doesn’t come at her unconventional topics as an expert, but as someone with an open mind, a journalist’s eye for detail, and a historian’s gift for research. She also brings a comedian’s wit to her work, though some of the humor springs from the truly bizarre things she’s writing about.
Her past books include Stiff, a look at scientific experiments on cadavers; Bonk, on sex-based studies; Spook, on the science of the afterlife; and Packing For Mars, about space (“I never want to go through this again,” she said of that book’s tradition-breaking multiword, multisyllabic title.). Her latest, Grunt, deals in military science—“not the killing, but the keeping alive.” Grunt looks at how scientists are working to protect riders in armored cars, treat combat-related hearing loss, and ease the issues of war-zone dehydration and diarrhea, alongside mini-histories of the development of stink bombs and shark repellant. As always, Roach mines tremendous comic mileage from her being out of her depth amid experts, or with her deadpan descriptions of how answering logical questions required some truly bananas experiments (testing how different animals respond to different bodily fluids, menstruating women, “perhaps marveling at the strangeness of life on Earth,” were seated in front of a fan that blew their scent toward a caged polar bear). Ahead of Grunt’s release, Roach chatted with The A.V. Club about five other humorous books, ranging from ones that are close to her own style to sparse literary novels.
The A.V. Club: Before we start, was there any particular style or type of humor that led you to pick these five?
Mary Roach: I thought it’d be nice to have a combination of reported writing, straight humor, fiction, non-fiction, memoir. I wanted to look at the different approaches to humor in different genres.
AVC: You’ve said in the past that you don’t view yourself as a science writer, but do you consider yourself a “humor writer” more than a journalist?
MR: I don’t know! I guess I don’t want to consider myself a humor writer because that sets the bar high in terms of laughs per page, and often the material I’m writing about isn’t that funny. When humor works in something I like to include it—it’s fun for me and fun for the reader—but no, I don’t consider myself a humor writer, per se. I’ll say that I consider myself a non-fiction writer who is sometimes funny, so I do associate myself with humor in that way, just in case your readers aren’t familiar with my work and are wondering why the hell someone who isn’t a humor writer picked humor books.
MR: Like most of Bill Bryson’s books, there’s a lot of information in here, really fascinating information, so much so that even if it wasn’t funny, it’d be a really interesting non-fiction book. Of course, it’s really hilarious on top of being informative. Basically, it involves Bryson wandering around Australia, giving information about the culture and wildlife. I actually bought this book in an airport while I was on the way to Australia to report a story—what could be better than a 15-hour flight with a Bill Bryson book?—and it’s just so funny and interesting. I’ll give you an example that’s kind of tasteless: At one point he’s talking about an Australian prime minister who disappeared one day while he was at the beach, I don’t know how. Then later in the book, Bryson makes a passing reference to it as “the swim that needs no towel,” or something like that. That’s probably a terrible example, but I feel like you could open the book to any page and you’d find something funny. He gets into these situations with people he runs into, these hilarious conversations. It’s a really beautiful combination of excellent, in-depth reporting and hilarious narrative. And it’s seamlessly woven together, which is something he does in every book. He’s really an inspiration to me, because I try to weave information and reporting with humor and entertainment, but nobody does it better than him.
AVC: This is actually one of my favorite books. I was mildly shocked to find another person who remembers it, let alone loves it.
MR: Good, good!
AVC: It’s another travelogue of sorts, but compared with your previous selection, Barry doesn’t go in nearly as much depth. It seems like he’s more interested in his reaction to Japan, rather than providing a more scholarly take on on the country, even a comical scholarly take.
MR: Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. The book is like one big Dave Barry column that happens to be set in Japan. He’s out in the world doing stuff, so there is information. He makes phone calls, he does report, but his main goal is to crack you up.
The example I want to give you of the humor in the book is when Barry is discussing how, culturally, no one in Japan feels comfortable saying “No.” Instead, you have to over time figure out what people actually mean but are too polite to come right out and say. In the book, Barry prints this little chart that jokingly compares what the Japanese say to what they actually mean. They say, “I see,” and then the actual meaning in American is, “No.” “A-ha!” Actual meaning: No. And then he has a bit with a guy from the foreign press center, who asks whether Barry is going to be in Japan for just three weeks. “Yes.” “I see. And you’re going to write a book?” “Yes.” “I see. And you expect to get enough material in three weeks to write a book?” “Yes.” “I see…”
I read this book when I was depressed about something, and it’s therapy to read a Dave Barry book. This one in particular, perhaps because I’ve been to Japan a couple times, so some of the bits really resonate. Also, it isn’t insulting to the Japanese; Barry’s humor is very self-deprecating, he presents himself as the big, clueless American. It’s a travelogue, in a sense, but goofier. He just cracks me up.
AVC: Compared with his columns or his other books, he has the space to go in-depth, to explore Japan from a bunch of angles, rather than making an easy joke. One chapter, about Hiroshima, contains no jokes and is bookended with dark pages that act as a visual moment of silence, if you will.
MR: Right. When you’re writing a weekly column you don’t have the time or space to stretch out. I much prefer a book-length treatment. If you’re in Japan for 250 pages, then you come away with a sense of a voyage.
AVC: Do you have a preference when it comes to his approach versus Bryson’s? Do you wish Barry had done more in-depth reporting?
MR: I don’t think one or the other is better. He does come up with a few insights from his time there, but mostly he reports on what comes at him. Had he spent a week in an archive researching the history of something, I’m not sure that would serve the book or the reader. A writer writes to his or her strengths. Bryson works better with some real solid research and digging, and this is Dave Barry at his best. They’re not too far apart, but Bryson does more homework, and that suits his style. That goes for myself, too. I’m looking for material that suits my style and the kind of writing I’m strongest at.
Yes Please, Amy Poehler
AVC: Earlier you talked about wanting different genres of humor. In which genre do you put this? It isn’t exactly a memoir, but there’s some of that, and also stuff that is more like comedy sketches.
MR: I chose this one because I’ve chosen a lot of things that came out a while ago, so I wanted something more contemporary, and also I wanted a woman author. I had not read this book when I chose it, but I had read a piece in The New Yorker by Amy Poehler and thought the writing was beautiful. I know you see a lot of comedian memoirs these days, and some are well written and some are not, but they’re very different discipline. Just because you’re funny on stage doesn’t mean you’ll be funny on the page.
I think this is something of a genre unto itself, and it’s actually more of a wise book than a funny book. There’s a section where she talks about apologies following a sketch on Saturday Night Live that offended some people, and she gets into pride and shame, a bunch of important issues. It’s a very honest, well-written, and quirky book. And it is funny, she’s a very funny person, but I don’t think she was really going for laughs per page. I haven’t quite finished it, but I’d put it into the somewhat contemporary genre of mixing stuff up, throwing a lot of different things inside one cover without worry about continuity or whether things will match. It is very freeform. I’m enjoying it.
AVC: Poehler is more of an improv comic than a stand-up, so being free-form may be appropriate. Can you talk a little more about what might make someone funny in real life but not necessarily on the page?
MR: Well, stand-up is all about delivery and tone and voice and gesture and timing. As a reader, you provide the timing and the voice in your head. If you were to transcribe a comedian’s routine onto the page with all those things stripped out, it won’t necessarily be entertaining, at least not in the same way. It’s a different type of humor.
For Poehler, I’d say she does something entirely different on the page than she does as a performer. She completely changed herself as a writer, and she did a good job. She’s a good, clear, honest writer. And she’s funny sometimes, and sometimes she’s not, which is very different than what she does as a performer.
MR: There’s a quote about Charles Portis that I like, from Roy Blount Jr., who is also hilarious. Basically, Blount said that Portis could have been Cormac McCarthy if he had wanted to, but instead he wanted to be funny. Portis is an amazingly beautiful and lyrical literary novelist. True Grit the book will put John Wayne out of your head; it has really beautiful, amazing writing and incredible characters.
Norwood is something of a road trip book, with a guy who gets into all these situations and conversations, who meets all these characters. Charles Portis is just a master of comic dialogue. He wondrously, vividly portrays characters who are different from himself and very different from each other. He has the gift for creating these personalities and then having them converse with each other. This book made me laugh out loud, which I never do. Dave Barry does that to me, but I never really laugh like that when I’m reading a novel. What makes this even more amazing is that this seriously is like a Cormac McCarthy book. It’s very sparse, it isn’t dense or show-offy. It’s just beautiful literary writing that is hilarious. I can’t think of a writer who does that better.
AVC: If the humor comes more out of the characters than specific jokes, is this is the kind of book where some people may not classify it as humor?
MR: There are no explicit jokes, but the nature of the circumstances that his characters fall into are very comic. There’s a moment when his character knocks on a door, looking for an old buddy he’s collecting money from, and someone else is there instead. The two guys, strangers, have a conversation that is very funny, but the beauty of it comes from the situation and Portis’ gift for dialogue. There’s no setup or punchline. It’s hard to imagine someone not seeing humor in it, but isn’t the kind of thing where there’s a setup and then a kicker is delivered.
MR: Like Norwood, this is another novel where the plot becomes more and more absurd, building up to a crazy climax. Haddon is British, and he has a real flair for conversation and descriptions. Kind of unlike Portis, he writes sentences that are actually funny in and of themselves; he doesn’t leave the humor up to the characters. It is a deft manipulation of character and plot, similar to P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves books. I could easily have included one of those in this category, and like those, A Spot Of Bother builds an increasingly ridiculous and complicated plot where the characters are pulled together and brought into contact, with the result being humor. The plot is built to deliver humor.
A Spot Of Bother, much moreso than Norwood, also has heart to it. It is a very emotionally honest and kind of touching book. You can imagine it being filmed with Patricia Clarkson and that guy Tom Wilkinson—I have a whole dream cast in my head. There’s a lot of pathos and emotion in it, and it’s also really well-crafted. It isn’t just making you laugh, it’s also very touching.
I think that’s what makes a humor writer accomplished; they’re doing something more at the same time that they’re making you laugh. They’re either giving you information, like Bryson or Barry, or like Haddon, they have characters with real emotional honesty and truth to them. The books we’ve talked about are a quick read, and they make you laugh, but there’s a lot going on in them that makes you think afterwards. These authors make it look easy, but it’s not, I can assure you.