Monday, October 23, 2006

A Spot of Bother

by Mark Haddon

Anna Karenina begins with the immortal line: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Even so, not every book about an unhappy family is unique. At some point, I burned out on Oprah books. I realized that, although the details differed, they were at heart all the same: looking at someone else's pain as a way of avoiding one's own — or validating one's own — or reassuring oneself of the non-pain of one's life. (My fault, really, for expecting something other than emotional voyeurism from a talk-show host; Oprah seems rather dignified, but she's just Springer without the hair pulling and chair throwing.)

When it comes to domestic drama, I've always liked to recommend All Families Are Psychotic, which is actually a very funny book — because, after all, what's funnier than someone else's misery? A Spot of Bother is somewhat in the same vein, made even funnier by being British. All the character's lives are quietly imploding, and I sympathized, but I also laughed out loud about 20 times, including once on an otherwise very quiet bus.

These sort of books aren't for everyone, of course. I think it helps if you're familiar with the use of humor as a defense mechanism and/or if you survived your own unhappy family. (In my family, it's not a holiday until someone cries.)

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