Light but Literate

  1. Pride and Prejudice
    by Jane Austen

    Elizabeth Bennett overcomes her prejudice and Mr. Darcy overcomes his pride.  The most engaging Austen novel and the most feisty Austen heroine. Opening paragraph:  It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. Quotes from critics: “The greatest artist that has ever written” (George Eliot); “Miss Austen understood the smallness of life to perfection. She was a great artist, equal in her small sphere to Shakespeare.” 

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  2. Babes in Boyland
    by Gina Barreca

    “A Personal History of Co-education in the Ivy League” is a funny look at college life at a time when hostility to women was rife. Typical paragraph: If I’d managed to get married [before college], I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.  I would not have worried about being the only person at Dartmouth whose name ended in a vowel. . . . I could have skipped torturing myself for having lousy skin in a world composed of

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  3. Dave Barry books
    by Dave Barry

    Over 30 laugh-out-loud hilarious non-fiction books and collected columns, most of which start with the name “Dave Barry”—such as Dave Barry’s Guide to Life, Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys, Dave Barry’s Money Secrets, Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits, and Dave Barry Talks Back. Typical opening paragraph:  The way I picture it, adulthood is a big, sleek jungle snake, swimming just around the bend in the River of Life.  It swallows you subtly, an inch at a time, so you barely

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  4. The Uncommon Reader
    by Alan Bennett

    A short novella about the charming consequences of Queen Elizabeth II’s newfound obsession with reading. Opening paragraph: At Windsor it was the evening of the state banquet and as the president of France took his place beside Her Majesty, the royal family formed up behind and the procession slowly moved off and through into the Waterloo Chamber. Quotes from critics: “Briskly original and subversively funny” (Publishers Weekly); “Alan Bennett is one of the greatest comic writers alive

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  5. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
    by Alan Bradley

    Eleven-year-old Lavia de Luce, a precocious aspiring chemist, solves the murders in this series set in an English village in the early 1950’s. Typical paragraph:  [Upon finding a dead man in the cucumber patch] “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t.  Quite the contrary.  This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my life.” Quotes from critics:  “Devilishly clever, wickedly amusing . . . delightful, original book” (author Carolyn

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  6. Travel Memoirs
    by Bill Bryson

    Any of his travel memoirs (e.g., Neither Here Nor There, The Lost Continent, Notes from a Small Island, Notes from a Sunburned Country, A Walk in the Woods) Opening paragraph: (from Notes from a Sunburned Country):  Flying into Australia, I realized with a sigh that I had forgotten again who their prime minister is.  I am forever doing this with the Australian prime minister—committing the name to memory, forgetting it (usually more or less instantly), then feeling terribly guilty.  My thinking

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  7. Thank You for Smoking
    by Christopher Buckley

    Wicked satire about tobacco lobbyist in contemporary Washington DC. (Warning:  dark humor and sex) Opening paragraph:  Nick Naylor had been called many things since becoming chief spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies. But until now no one had actually compared him to Satan.” They might as well have, though. “Gucci Goebbels,” “yuppie Mephistopheles,” and “death merchant” are just a few endearments Naylor has earned himself as the tobacco lobby’s premier spin doctor. The hero of Thank You for Smoking

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  8. Beginner’s Greek
    by James Collins

    Sweet contemporary treatment of romance and fate. Full of improbable coincidences, but Delightful nonetheless. Opening lines: When Peter Russell boarded an airplane, he always wondered whether he would sit next to a beautiful young woman during the flight, and, if so, whether he and she would fall in love. This time was no different, except for his conviction that —this time—it really would happen. Of course, he always believed more than ever that this time it really would happen.

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  9. Happy All the Time
    by Laurie Colwin

    This delightful comedy of manners and morals is about romantic friendship, romantic marriage, and romantic love—about four people who are good-hearted and sane, lucky and gifted, and who find one another. Opening lines:  Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy were third cousins.  No one remembered which Morris had married which Cardworthy, and no one cared except at large family gatherings when this topic was introduced and subjected the benign opinions of all. Quotes from critics:  “Colwin writes with such sunny skill

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  10. Heartburn
    by Nora Ephron

    How Rachel deals with the break up of her marriage, with the help of humor, group therapy, and cooking. Opening paragraph:  The first day I did not think it was funny.  I didn’t think it was funny the third day either, but I managed to make a little joke about it.  “The most unfair thing about this is that I can’t even date.”  Well, you had to be there, as they say, because when I put it down on paper

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  11. The Stephanie Plum series
    by Janet Evanovich

    Any of the 20+ funny novels in the series, all with a number in the title, about bounty-hunter Stephanie Plum and the loveable characters who surround her. Typical opening paragraph (from To the Nines):  My name is Stephanie Plum and I was born and raised in the Chambersburg section of Trenton, where the top male activities are scarfing pastry and pork rinds and growing love handles.  The pastry and pork rinds scarfing I’ve seen first hand.  The love handles growing

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  12. Skios
    by Michael Frayn

    Hilarious farce of mistaken identities, embarrassing situations, amazing coincidences and mislaid clothing, building to a frenetic denouement set on a Greek island. Opening paragraphs:  I just want to say a I thank-you to our distinguished guest,” said Nikki Hook, “for making this evening such a fascinating and wonderful occasion, and one that I’m sure none of us here will ever forget…” She stopped and read the sentence aloud again to herself, then deleted “fascinating and wonderful” and inserted “unique and

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  13. Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness
    by Alexandra Fuller

    A charming memoir about her memorable mother and the ending of the Colonial era in Africa. Opening paragraph:  Our Mum—or Nicola Fuller of Central Africa, as she has on occasion preferred to introduce herself—has wanted to be a writer in the family as long as either of us can remember, not only because she loves books and has always therefore wanted to appear in them (the way she likes large, expensive hats, and likes to appear in them) but also

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  14. Cranford
    by Elizabeth Gaskell

    A delightful community of unmarried women in a provincial English village. Opening lines:  In the first place, Cranford is in possession of the Amazons; all the holders of houses, above a certain rent, are women . . . .  For keeping the trim gardens full of choice flowers without a weed to speck them; for frightening away little boys who look wistfully at the said flowers through the railings; for rushing out at the geese that occasionally venture into the

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  15. Cold Comfort Farm
    by Stella Gibbons

    An optimistic and self-confident young woman sets about “tidying up” a grim, fate-bound family farm.  Parodies the style of Thomas Hardy. Opening line:  The education bestowed on Flora Poste by her parents had been expensive, athletic and prolonged; and when they died within a few weeks of one another during the annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish Plague which occurred in her twentieth year, she was discovered to possess every art and grace save that of earning her own

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  16. Eat, Pray, Love
    by Elizabeth Gilbert

    A heartfelt memoir about a young woman’s year-long search for meaning: pleasure in Italy, spirituality in India, and romance in Bali.    Opening paragraph:  I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Quotes from critics:  “A wonderful book, brilliant and personal, rich in spiritual insight.” (author Anne Lamott); “Gilbert’s exuberance and her self-deprecating humor enliven the proceedings” (The New Yorker); “An engaging, intelligent, and highly entertaining memoir (Time); “Gilbert’s writing is chatty and deep, confident and self-deprecating . . . engaging and

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  17. The Grand Sophy
    by Georgette Heyer

    Lady Ombersley’s niece sweeps into town and sets everything right for her aunt’s family. Opening line:  The butler, recognizing her ladyship’s only surviving brother at a glance, as he afterward informed less percipient subordinates, favoured Sir Horace with a low bow, and took it upon himself to say that my lady, although not at home to less nearly-connected persons, would be happy to see him. Quotes from critics:  “Stylish, witty, and bang up to the mark!” (Punch);
 “Georgette Heyer is

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  18. Skinny Dip
    by Carl Hiaasen

    Will Joey Perrone survive being tossed overboard by her bribe-taking biologist husband and get revenge on/ his thwart his scam to pollute the Everglades?  (Warning: dark humor, language, and satire) Opening paragraphs:  At the stroke of eleven on a cool April night, a woman named Joey Perrone went overboard from a luxury deck of the cruise line M.V. Sun Duchess.  Plunging toward the dark Atlantic, Joey was too dumbfounded to panic. I married an asshole, she thought, knifing headfirst into

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  19. Le Divorce
    by Diane Johnson

    A film-school dropout travels to Paris to aid her stepsister, who is going through a divorce.  Cross-cultural collisions ensue.   Opening paragraph:  I think of life as being like film because of what I learned at the film school at USC.  Film, with its fitful changefulness, its arbitrary notions of coherence, contrasting with the static solemnity of painting, might also be a more appropriate medium for rendering what seems to be happening, and emblematic too perhaps of our natures, Roxy’s

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  20. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
    by Jonas Jonasson

    A 100-year-old man escapes his nursing home and embarks on an hilarious journey interspersed with hilarious flashbacks to adventures of his lifetime. Opening paragraph:  You might think he could have made up his mind earlier, and been man enough to inform his surroundings of his decision.  But Allan Karlsson had never been given to pondering things too long.  Quotes from critics:  “A silly and wonderful novel. . . will keep readers amused almost non-stop.” (Kirkus Review, starred); “A laugh-out-loud debut . .

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  21. The Family Man
    by Elinor Lipman

    When Henry Archer agrees to assist the adored step-daughter he hasn’t seen in years jump-start her career, he finds himself dealing with the intrusion of his ex-wife into his well-ordered life.  Opening paragraph:  Henry Archer did not attend his ex-wife’s husband’s funeral, but he did send a note of condolence.  The former Denise Archer wrote back immediately and urgently:  Would he believe, after twenty-four reasonably happy years, that life as she knew it had been snatched out from under her? 

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  22. Small World
    by David Lodge

    “Campus novel” about academics on the international circuit of academic conferences.  (Warning:  language and sex) Opening paragraph:  “April is the cruelest month,” Persse McGarrigle quoted silently to himself, gazing through the grimy windowpanes at the unseasonable snow crusting the lawns and flowerbeds of the Rummidge campus.  He had recently completed a Master’s dissertation on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, but the opening words of The Waste Land might, with equal probability, been passing through the head of any one of

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  23. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
    by Anita Loos

    The travel adventures of Lorelie, a not-so-dumb blonde.  Much of the charm of this book comes from the voice of the narrator: “he is quite an inveteran bargain hunter,” “intreeged,” “Versigh.” Opening lines:  March 16th A gentleman friend and I were dining at the Ritz last evening and he said that if I took a pencil and paper and put down all of my thoughts it would make a book.  This almost made me smile because what it would really

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  24. Reduced Shakespeare
    by Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor

    Hilarious articles about the Bard and funny synopses off all his plays. Sample quotes: If you’re in a really, really big hurry, here’s a very short plot synopsis of all the History plays.  They’re all pretty much the same.  Here it is: An English king (usually named Henry, sometimes Richard, and once John) is fighting the French.  At the same time, someone at home is trying to take over the throne from the reigning king. All is not well that

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  25. The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series
    by Alexander McCall Smith

    The admirable Mma Precious Ramotswe, together with her trusty assistant Grace Makutsi, solves cases in Botswana with grace, wisdom, charm, and humor.  You should read the books in order, keeping in mind that the first in the series has the weakest plot. Opening paragraphs: From The Full Cupboard of Life (#5 in the series): Precious Ramotswe was sitting at her desk at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Gaborone.  From where she sat she could gaze out of the

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  26. Spy Mom
    by Beth McMullen

    Silly mysteries about Sally Sin, a former high-powered spy, now stay-at-home mom, who gets called back into action and has to fulfill both roles at once. Typical paragraph:  My name is Lucy Parks Hamilton and in addition to being paranoid, unshowered, emotionally detached, and a liar, I am also a stay-at-home mom.  Ten years ago, I would have met the idea that I would be going on playdates and walking around with streaks of snot on my shoulder with absolute

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  27. Love in a Cold Climate
    by Nancy Mitford

    Polly Hampton, the greatest beauty and the greatest heiress of the London season, harbors a secret love in a lost world of English upper-class elegance and endearing eccentricity. Opening lines:  I am obliged to begin this story with a brief account of the Hampton family, because it is necessary to emhasise the fact once and for all that the Hamptons were very grand as well as very rich.  A short session with Burke or with Debrett would be quite enough to

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  28. Us
    by David Nicholls

    A laugh-out-loud, sometimes sad, story of a mild-mannered scientist, his artistic wife, and rebellious adolescent son – and a 25-year-old marriage in trouble.  Early paragraphs:       “Everything’s fine,” I said. “Probably just some air in the water pipes.”      “What are you talking about?” said Connie, sitting up now.       “It’s fine. No sign of burglars.”       “I didn’t say anything about burglars. I said I think our marriage has run its course. Douglas, I think I want to

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  29. Crampton Hodnet
    by Barbara Pym

    Story of Miss Doggett and her companion Miss Morrow. Will Miss Morrow marry Mr. Latimer?  Will Francis Cleveland have an affair with Barbara Bird? Opening lines: It was a wet Sunday afternoon in North Oxford at the beginning of October.  The laurel bushes which bordered the path leading to Leamington Lodge, Banbury Road, were dripping with rain.  A few sodden chrysanthemums, dahlias and zinnias drooped in the flower-beds on the lawn.  The house had been built in the sixties of

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  30. Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex
    by Mary Roach

    An hilarious review of the various scientific studies of human sexuality. Opening paragraph:  A man sits in a room, manipulating his kneecaps.  It is 1983, on the campus of the University of California, Los Angeles.  The man, a study subject, has been told to do this for four minutes, stop, and then resumed for a minute more.  Then he can put his pants back on, collect his payment, and go home with an entertaining story to tell at suppertime.  The

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  31. The Lord Peter Wimsey series
    by Dorothy Sayers

    Any of the 14 books in the series about an aristocratic amateur sleuth who solves mysteries in England between the world wars.  Opening paragraph (from Gaudy Nights):  Harriet Van sat at her writing-table and stared out into Mecklenburg Square.  The late tulips made a brave show in the Square garden, and a quartet of early tennis-players were energetically calling the score of a rather erratic and unpracticed game.  But Harriet saw neither the tulips non tennis-players.  A letter lay open

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  32. Me Talk Pretty Some Day
    by David Sedaris

    A collection of humorous autobiographical essays, including “Giant Dreams, Midget Abilities,” “A Shiner Like a Diamond,” and “I’ll Eat What He’s Wearing.”  Typical quotes: Here was a person for whom the word pen had two syllables. My fingernails had grown a good three inches by the time he struck his final note. [The dog] developed the sort of breath that could remove paint. My jacket . . . was offered as a loan by the maitre d’, who apparently thought

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  33. Where’d You Go Bernadette
    by Maria Semple

    Laugh-out-loud, hilarious story of a dysfunctional but loving family in Seattle— recounted by weaving together emails, invoices, school memos, etc. Opening paragraph:  Galen Street School is a place where compassion, academics, and global connectitude join together to create civic-minded citizens of a sustainable and diverse planet. Quotes from critics:  “Sheer bliss.  A riotous comedy of bad manners . . . divinely funny” (New York Times); “Semple’s epistolary novel satirizes Seattle, Microsoft, helicopter parents, the elite, and the overeducated—while revealing the truth

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  34. Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
    by Helen Simonson

    Honorable, decorous, and endearing, retired Major Pettigrew lives in a small English town, pursuing happiness in the face of culture and tradition. Opening lines:  Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brother’s wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking.  On the damp bricks of the path stood Mrs. Ali from the village shop.  She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow.  A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Major’s

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  35. The Rosie Project
    by Graeme Simsion

    An endearing romance between a pleasant but socially-challenged man narrator and his polar opposite. Opening paragraph:  I may have found a solution to the Wife Problem.  As with so man scientific breakthroughs, the answer was obvious in retrospect.  But had it not been for a series of unscheduled events, it is unlikely I would have discovered it. Quotes from critics:  “Charming, funny and heartwarming, a gem of a book” (author Marian Keyes); “An upbeat, quirky, impertinent gem of a read”

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  36. History of the World in 6 Glasses
    by Tom Standage

    A captivating exploration of the significant role that six beverages have played in the world’s history—such as beer in Mesopotamia and Egypt, coffee in the Age of Reason, tea in the English Empire, and Coke in today’s America. Opening paragraph:  Thirst is deadlier than hunger.  Deprived of food, you might survive for a few weeks, but deprived of liquid refreshment, you would be lucky to last more than a few days.  Only breathing matters more.  Tens of thousands of years

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  37. Bubbles Yablonsky series
    by Sarah Strohmeyer

    Curvaceous, seemingly ditsy hairdresser successfully investigates murders.  Opening paragraphs:  For most of my adult life, people in this town have passed me over as just another dumb blonde fascinated by sex, soap -operas and gossip. My name, Bubbles Yablonsky, doesn’t help matters any. Nor does the fact that my profession is hairdressing, my body resembles a Barbie doll’s and my fashion weaknesses are hot pants and tube tops. Okay. So, I might not appear to be the brightest bulb in the vanity, but

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  38. In a Summer Season
    by Elizabeth Taylor

    Kate Heron, a wealthy, charming woman marries an attractive man ten years her junior.   Opening paragraph: “After all, I am not a young girl to be intimidated by her,” Kate decided, as she waited outside her mother-in-law’s house.  When she had reached the stage of thinking that if there were any intimidating to be done she might even do it herself, one of Edwina’s foreign girls opened the door. . . .Facing her, as she turned the stairs, was

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  39. The Barsetshire series
    by Angela Thirkell

    A 29-book series chronicling family and social life in the 1930’s through the 1960’s.  Try High Risings or Wild Strawberries first. Opening lines from Wild Strawberries:  The Vicar of St Mary’s, Rushwater, looked anxiously through the vestry window which commanded a view of the little gate in the churchyard wall.  Through this gate the Leslie family had come to church with varying degrees of unpunctuality ever since the vicar had been at Rushwater, nor did it seem probable that they

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  40. Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin
    by Calvin Trillin

    A lighthearted collection from his memoirs, satires, and novels. Typical quotes: My long-term investment strategy has been criticized as being entirely too dependent on Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes. Math was never my best subject.  I was never able to convince my math teachers that many of my answers were meant ironically. [Since his mother managed for thirty years to feed her family nothing but leftovers], “We have a team of anthropologists in there now looking for the original meal.” The

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  41. This Is Where I Leave You
    by Jonathan Tropper

    A seriously dysfunctional family is forced to spend seven days together. Opening paragraphs: “Dad’s dead,” Wendy says offhandedly, like it’s happened before, like it happens every day.  It can be grating, this act of hers, to be utterly unfazed at all times, even in the face of tragedy.  “He died two hours ago.” “How’s Mom doing?” “She’s Mom, you know?  She wanted to know how much to tip the coroner.” Quotes by critics:  “compulsively readable, laugh-out-loud funny novel . .

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  42. The Enchanted April
    by Elizabeth Von Arnim

    Four dissatisfied English women come alive in an Italian villa. Opening paragraphs:  It began in a Women’s Club in London on a February afternoon—an uncomfortable club, and a miserable afternoon—when Mrs. Wilkins, who had come down from Hampstead to shop and had lunched at her club, took up The Times from the table in the smoking room, and running her listless eye down the Agony Column saw this: To Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.  Small mediaeval Italian castle on

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  43. Vile Bodies
    by Evelyn Waugh

    The on-again, off-again romance between Adam Fenwick-Symes and Nina Blount set in the midst of the Bright Young Things, the decadent London youth society between the two world wars.  (Warning: extremely black humor, but makes me laugh out loud) Opening paragraph:  It was clearly going to be a bad crossing. Quotes from critics:  “One of the century’s great masters of English prose.” (Time); “generally considered as one of the leading English prose writers of the 20th century” (Wikipedia); “ “Waugh’s comic

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  44. The Geography of Bliss
    by Eric Weiner

    “One Grump’s Search for the Happiest Places in the World” combines travel, psychology, science, and humor to investigate where the most contented people in the world live. Opening paragraph:  It is a fact of human nature that we derive pleasure from watching others engage in pleasurable acts.  This explains the popularity of two enterprises:  pornography and cafés.  Americans excel at the former, but Europeans do a better job at the latter.  I once heard of a café in Tel Aviv

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  45. The Code of the Woosters
    by P.G. Wodehouse

    Wealthy and scatterbrained Bertie Wooster recounts improbable and unfortunate situations from which the ingenious valet Jeeves inevitably extricates him.  Set in an idyllic Edwardian England and featuring pre-war slang.  I would recommend just about any book with “Jeeves” in the title. Typical quotes:  He was a tubby little chap who looked as if he had been poured into his clothes and forgotten to say “when.” I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled. “What

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  46. The Position
    by Meg Wolitzer

    Family complications arise when the children discover their parents have written a best-selling sex manual. Opening paragraph:  The book was placed on a high self in the den, as though it were the only copy in the world and if the children didn’t find it they would be forever unaware of the sexual lives of their parents, forever ignorant of the press of hot skin, the overlapping voices, the stir and scrape of the brass headboard as it lightly battered

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