Suggestions for well-written and cheerful books?
April 28, 2010 8:21 AM   Subscribe

Suggestions for books that are both cheerful and well-written?

I was looking for something to read yesterday and I realized that most of the books I own are pretty depressing. I’m looking for suggestions for something well-written as well as pleasant and cheerful to read, and ideally funny but that’s slightly lower on the list of requirements.

If it’s helpful, my favorite book is Brideshead Revisited, I love Agatha Christie and I’m fond of Catch-22 as well. Other stuff I’ve enjoyed (which I would like to re-read but am currently rejecting on the grounds that it will depress me) include For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Age of Innocence.

The only example of what I’m looking for of which I can think is a book called Happy All the Time which is just really pleasant and it puts me in a better mood while I’m reading it. Thank you for any suggestions you can provide!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Writing & Language (65 answers total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't personally read it, but Bel Canto by Ann Patchett seems to be well-loved by several of my friends who seek the same types of books as you.
posted by goateebird at 8:23 AM on April 28, 2010

"Bel Canto" isn't a tragedy, but there are enough bad things that happen in it that I definitely would not call it cheerful. It's a great book, though.

How about P. G. Wodehouse?
posted by grumblebee at 8:27 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

It is quite different than the books you have listed, but Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a delightful engaging book...and much better than the movie.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:28 AM on April 28, 2010

Seconding SLC Mom with Fannie Flag recommendations, but I preferred Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man.
posted by nitsuj at 8:32 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small, if you like animals.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:34 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Pnin by Nabokov. It's his most cheerful work by far.
posted by mmmbacon at 8:34 AM on April 28, 2010

The Ladies Detective Agency series has a sing-songy vibe to it and the books are quite short. If you like mystery type stuff you might like it. May be too much in the poppy light reading vein, but I like the writer's tone of voice and his female lead character. I don't know if you're even looking for non-fiction, but Bill Bryson writes pretty amusing books that you'd like even if you don't care much about the places he's writing about. I'd particularly suggest A Walk in the Woods [about walking the Appalachian trail with often amusing results] and In a Sunburned Country [excerpt]. The stories are not all sunshine and roses, but he has a chipper upbeat tone about them which I find infectious and keeps me in a good mood.
posted by jessamyn at 8:37 AM on April 28, 2010

The Mezzanine and Room Temperature, both by Nicholson Baker.
posted by newmoistness at 8:38 AM on April 28, 2010

Are you open to nonfiction recommendations too? If so, David Sedaris would be perfect.
posted by spinto at 8:44 AM on April 28, 2010

I am going to once again recommend Georgette Heyer.

Her books (and there are many) are well-written, and they are light and easy to read without being fluffy. While they are often sold in the romance section, they have almost nothing in common with the bodice-rippers. They are typically set in the Regency period (some earlier, some a bit toward the end of that period), and are usually engaging social commentary on those times. Some books, like The Unknown Ajax, are part romantic novel and part mystery. She has a number of mystery books, in addition to the more widely known novels such as The Grand Sophy, Frederica, These Old Shades, etc. I have read almost all of them, and with the exception of one or two that I am not hugely into, I've loved them all. The character development is witty, fun, sparkling, and as I said, engaging.
posted by bunnycup at 8:45 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

yes yes! A Walk in the Woods.
posted by Sassyfras at 8:55 AM on April 28, 2010

The Wind in the Willows always cheers me up - it's funny, beautifully written, and life-affirming.
posted by ryanshepard at 8:55 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Three Men In A Boat is a pleasant travelogue (it's also the funniest book ever written (imho))
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 9:01 AM on April 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Definitely Jane Austen - for cheerful and witty you won't do better.

Some of my favorite funny books (especially if you liked the dark humor of Catch-22):
I Claudius by Robert Graves
Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Anything by Oscar Wilde
posted by susanvance at 9:02 AM on April 28, 2010

A Girl Named Zippy was my first thought, if you're open to non-fiction.
posted by something something at 9:04 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Brideshead is to my mind among the least of Waugh. You want funny Waugh, go to Scoop, Black Mischief, Decline and Fall, Put Out More Flags.

As we are in that neighbourhood, try also his buddy, Nancy Mitford, Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.

And you must read the Mapp and Lucia books. (Get the one volume anthology)
posted by IndigoJones at 9:08 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by IndigoJones at 9:10 AM on April 28, 2010

My Antonia by Willa Cather.
posted by jdroth at 9:15 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Clothes They Stood Up In & The Uncommon Reader, both by Alan Bennett.
posted by OmieWise at 9:16 AM on April 28, 2010

I also loved Brideshead and Age of Innocence and am seconding Austen, Heyer, Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome (Three Men in a Boat).
You might also give Terry Pratchett a try. Quite different from the books here, but very light-hearted and well-written satire.
posted by peacheater at 9:17 AM on April 28, 2010

Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals was one of my favorites growing up. He's written many other books, but I enjoyed the focus of this one the most.
posted by peacheater at 9:19 AM on April 28, 2010 [5 favorites]

Seconding peacheater's recommendation of My Family and Other Animals. I read that for the first time as an adult and just found it charming, funny and sweet (without being cloying.)
posted by bunnycup at 9:25 AM on April 28, 2010

One of my all-time favorite cheerful, comforting, funny books: The Unlikely Voyage Of Jack De Crow.
posted by The otter lady at 9:38 AM on April 28, 2010

I Claudius by Robert Graves

Great book. But I can't imagine anyone classifying it as "cheerful."
posted by grumblebee at 9:39 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding P. G. Wodehouse.
posted by dfan at 9:44 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

Stephen Leacock, in that Jerome K. Jerome-Wodehouse vein.
posted by nasreddin at 9:47 AM on April 28, 2010

Zazie in the Metro by Raymond Queneau + most anything by Terry Pratchett (Going Postal or Good Omens.) Possibly, Oblomov by Goncharov.
posted by thegreatfleecircus at 9:49 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Anything by Rumer Godden...
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:50 AM on April 28, 2010

oh, and seconding Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 9:51 AM on April 28, 2010

Anything and everything written by Willard Espy, who to my mind is one of the great writers in the English language. Everything he writes is witty, good-humored, and charmingly self-deprecating. Great fun to read.
posted by Dr. Wu at 10:14 AM on April 28, 2010

You need to follow the excellent advice of everyone who recommended Wodehouse and Jerome K Jerome.
posted by pseudonick at 10:17 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is a great parody of doom-n-gloom rural lit. Lots of fun and there's an excellent movie adaptation as well.
posted by clerestory at 10:20 AM on April 28, 2010

Oh, and n-thing 3 Men in a Boat and Jane Austen. I also like Elizabeth Gaskell, though not all of her work is cheerful.
posted by clerestory at 10:22 AM on April 28, 2010

++ P. G. Wodehouse

You could also look for books by Peter De Vries. Very few are in print, but they are delightful, affectionate satires.
posted by dzot at 10:23 AM on April 28, 2010 [2 favorites]

This is a slightly offbeat suggestion, but To Kill a Mockingbird is my go-to book when I'm in the mood you describe. Despite the serious themes, it handles them lightly because everything is seen from Scout's point of view, and it's surprisingly funny. It just makes me happy to read it, especially as most my other "serious" literature is kind of depressing.
posted by Ms. Informed at 10:28 AM on April 28, 2010

My collection is pretty depressing too, and I come up against this problem every time I have to fly or take the train. The following have all been read and thoroughly enjoyed on trains, so I feel confident recommending them (in the order that I think they fit your request) - but note that at least half of these are not fiction:

Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy, How to Be Good)
David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day, Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim)
Dave Barry (Dave Barry Slept Here, Dave Barry is Not Making This Up)
Stephen Fry (Moab is My Washpot, The Liar)

Also yes yes yes for Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog...) and for Jane Austen. So very good!
posted by mondaygreens at 10:31 AM on April 28, 2010

The Lunatic at Large by J. Storer Clouston. Absolutely delightful and not in the least depressing.
posted by thermogenesis at 10:38 AM on April 28, 2010

David Foster Wallace's non-fiction is actually pretty cheerful. I'm reading Infinity and More right now, and it's great. His famous "this is water" commencement speech is downright uplifting.
posted by Clambone at 10:41 AM on April 28, 2010

Seconding Zazie in the Metro. Such a fabulous little book.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 10:43 AM on April 28, 2010

+++ Wodehouse, +++ Pratchett. But be a bit careful with Peter De Vries--may of them are indeed riotously funny, but one or two aren't. If you can get hold of Robertson Davies' "A Voice from the Attic" (and if I remember correctly) there is a review in there of De Vries' "The Blood of the Lamb", which makes it seem like a real tearjerker (a very good one, but ...). Some of Robertson Davies' own novels might work too, especially the earlier ones (the Salterton trilogy).

Have to be a bit careful with Pratchett too, come to think of it, if you're put off by the idea of Death being a major character.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:49 AM on April 28, 2010

grumblebee -- Yeah, you're totally right, I, Claudius should be scratched from the list. I got caught up in thinking about funny/entertaining books that would appeal to a Catch-22 fan, but there's definitely too much murder and incest to qualify.

In its stead I offer I Dodie Smith's I Capture the Castle, which is pretty much all unicorns and cheer.
posted by susanvance at 10:51 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

This book will save your life: This Book Will Save Your Life by AM Homes.
posted by dobbs at 10:53 AM on April 28, 2010

You might like to look at the answers to the question I posted on well-written comfort reading.
posted by paduasoy at 11:02 AM on April 28, 2010

Iain Banks's The Crow Road is about as close as he comes to fluffy bunnies. There are still a few gruesome deaths in it, but the mere act of my mentioning the book in this list is evidence that the book overall is sort of happyish, innit?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:04 AM on April 28, 2010

Tom Sharpe and +++Terry Pratchett
posted by idb at 11:12 AM on April 28, 2010

I was about to ask this myself, so thanks for conveniently wondering the same thing at the same time!

In any case, I find that silly humor puts me in a cheerful mood- so while the content isn't necessarily Happy All The Time, the writing does it for me. This would include The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as well as The Princess Bride. Oh, and I'm not sure if you're looking for non-fiction, but Mary Roach's Bonk puts me in a great mood.
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:19 AM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

I loved the Cheaper by the Dozen books when I was younger. Old-fashioned, yes, but filled with smart, relatable characters. I reread them over and over; many parts still stick with me.
posted by Madamina at 11:46 AM on April 28, 2010

Oh, and in the same vein -- old-fashioned but fun -- try Swallows and Amazons.
posted by Madamina at 11:50 AM on April 28, 2010

I liked The BFG by Roald Dahl.
posted by andreinla at 12:12 PM on April 28, 2010

For sweetly nostalgic yet hilarious Americana, try Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories: and Other Disasters by Jean Shepherd.
posted by Quietgal at 12:22 PM on April 28, 2010

Louis de Bernieres' latin american trilogy, starting with The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts covers some very depressing subjects but is nevertheless written in a terribly amusing and upbeat fashion. Strong influence by Marquez, if that is any help.
posted by elizardbits at 12:53 PM on April 28, 2010

Generica (later renamed HappinessTM) by Will Ferguson
posted by ovvl at 2:24 PM on April 28, 2010

While we're in the Victorian/Edwardian vein:
Diary of a Nobody
The Ascent of Rum Doodle

If trying Nick Hornby as suggested above, don't do what I did and read How To Be Good, expecting from its title to be uplifted. It's unrelentingly miserable.

Any or all of The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle (but not his The Woman Who Walked Into Doors, also ceaselessly bleak).

Sue Townsend's Adrian Mole diaries - now in many volumes.

Marian Keyes is usually filed under chick lit, but deals with tougher issues than just romantic fluff, including bereavement, addiction and divorce, but still somehow manages to be an easy, funny read.

The Dress Circle and others by Laurie Graham.

For cheerful, pleasant non-fiction, it's hard to beat a Bill Bryson travelogue, and Terry Darlington's Narrow Dog to Carcassonne is quite fun, in a bumbling, stream-of-consciousness kind of way.

Also Clive James's autobiographical Unreliable Memoirs and subsequent volumes are very funny.

Who knew I had so many cheerful books on my shelves?!
posted by penguin pie at 3:24 PM on April 28, 2010

i've just gone through this list wildly favouriting everyone who's recommended P. G. Wodehouse, and just want to add to the clamour. Start with Jeeves and proceed from there. Another suggestion – all of the William stories by Richmal Crompton. Utter joy, all of 'em (well, all of 'em written before c. 1955).
posted by HandfulOfDust at 3:29 PM on April 28, 2010

I love Happy All The Time. I love all of Laurie Colwin's books, actually (if you haven't read the rest of her novels, I suggest you do because they are all just as good, and most have that same quietly happy quality--her two food memoirs are also wonderful).

Other suggestions:

Anything by Elinor Lipman.

Miriam Toews: Summer of My Amazing Luck and A Boy of Good Breeding; her other novels are good too, but much more pensive and melancholy.

Carol Shields: The Republic of Love and Small Ceremonies. Same caveat for her other novels as Miriam Toews.

Cathleen Schine: The Love Letter, Rameau's Niece, The Evolution of Jane.

Anne Tyler: Digging to America and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 3:54 PM on April 28, 2010

I really enjoyed Happy All the Time, too, and I've found a few authors/novels that have a similar feel:

Barbara Pym
Alexander McCall Smith (upthread, someone recommended his mystery series; I've only read the "44 Scotland Street" books, which are must-reads if you like Colwin! Sweet and light and witty)
Joe Keenan
"Our Hearts Were Young and Gay"
"Mama's Bank Account"
and L.M. Montgomery (children's author, yes, but the tone and content gets more mature farther in the series)
posted by bluestocking at 3:59 PM on April 28, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, thanks guys! I likely won't get around to marking best answers for a while because I actually, you know, have to read the books first, but it's great to have so many suggestions!

Some of them are already favorites (The Wind in the Willows is actually one of the books on which I wrote my BA), but hopefully that means the rest are on the right track -- it looks promising. Thank you all so much for your help!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 4:07 PM on April 28, 2010

If you like Agatha Christie, you'll probably enjoy Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes short stories. Consistently up-beat, positive and optimistic. Also very well written. Got me through a couple of years of depression.
posted by feelinggood at 7:26 PM on April 28, 2010

Hmm, I always end up recommending Penelope Fitzgerald. Context-specifically: the best combination of clear-headed understanding of the human condition on the one hand and irrepressible optimism on the other that I have ever come across, which is why I've re-read all her novels several times.
"On the whole I think you should write biographies of those you admire and respect, and novels about human beings who you think are sadly mistaken."
I will also second the Swallows and Amazons books, while acknowledging that people who don't like them really don't like them (their loss). Other authors cited here don't need my vote, though they'd get it.

"I capture the castle" is great, but I'm not quite convinced it fits in here. That ending.

Roddy Doyle definitely does, though.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 7:31 PM on April 28, 2010

Seconding Alan Bennett (especially if you like British). He has another called The Laying On of Hands. Quite comic and short. The Uncommon Reader is a masterpiece.
posted by feelinggood at 7:41 PM on April 28, 2010

The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series really are my feel-good happy books, and I could read them at any time and be just pleased to bits.

However, when life was going through an intensely rough patch last winter, I found that Jan Karon's Mitford series was a safe and happy place I could visit and feel comforted. At any other time in my life, I don't mind being challenged or reading vicarious drama-filled lives, but at that point in time, there was something wholesome and good and okay about Mitford.
posted by redsparkler at 11:00 PM on April 28, 2010 [1 favorite]

Garrison Keillor's short stories/novels, especially Wobegon Boy.

Nthing Nancy Mitford and Jane Austen. Somerset Maugham is also an amusing light read.
posted by procrastinator_general at 3:56 AM on April 29, 2010

Also came in to recommend Nancy Mitford. Especially as you appear to be a bit of an anglophile. And Georgette Heyer is well-written, cheerful, historical romance, if that has any appeal to you.

Recommending against The Number One Ladies Detective Agency series that several have suggested and the rather out of place suggestion of the Harper Lee book. Both authors are shallow moralisers.
posted by Pranksome Quaine at 4:04 PM on April 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

Emma Donoghue's Stir-fry is well-written, has a happy ending and made me laugh.
posted by paduasoy at 10:02 AM on May 1, 2010

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