A book that never fails to raise my endorphin level is a strange little item called English As She Is Spoke, by Jose da Fonseca and Pedro Carolino, which has recently been reissued by McSweeney's. This is an English phrasebook for Portuguese speakers written in 1855, and the joy of it is that one gradually realizes that the authors neither spoke nor even read English. Instead, they plugged English words into the structure of Portuguese and French, and the result is page after page of utterly ridiculous "English." For example, "A rolling stone gathers no moss" comes out as "Stone what roll not heapeth not foam"; a random "idiom" is rendered as "to craunch the marmoset"; and so on.
For 10 years now, this book has made me laugh so hard it almost hurts, and in these times we might all particularly value it for this. I have livened up many dinner parties by passing around my copy, and it never fails to break up my undergraduate classes. English As She Is Spoke has been circulating in various editions for 150 years now, and should be experienced by anyone who loves our language.
John McWhorter is the author of a forthcoming collection of essays called "Authentically Black."
I belong to the number of people -- I'm not sure how big our crowd is anymore -- for whom humor offers the only solace during troubling times. The most comforting book by this measure, a book that takes the edge off my gloomiest nights (but also caps my giddiest days), is Mordecai Richler's Barney's Version. Published four years before Richler's death in 2001, Barney's Version belongs in the very front ranks of Jewish comic novels, a crowded field to begin with. It is the story of the irascible vulgarian Barney Panofsky; his three marriages (which leave that institution in tatters); his phenomenally lowbrow TV company, Totally Unnecessary Productions; and the voluptuous, divided city of Montreal, which Richler has immortalized in previous novels, such as The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz. Best taken with a pile of smoked meat (preferably from the famed Schwartz's deli on Montreal's Boulevard St. Laurent) and a fine single malt, Barney's Version is a rambling social satire, a breathless romp through the second half of the 20th century, and finally the celebration of a complicated and sensual life that is, if not well-lived, then certainly lived to the fullest. Sad in its own inimitable way, it is nonetheless the perfect antidote for the strange new era that is upon us.
Gary Shteyngart is the author of "The Russian Debutante's Handbook."
Ursula K. Le Guin
A book that lifts my spirits in these troubled times would be any book written by Primo Levi: If This Is a Man, Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening, The Periodic Table, along with any of his later ones.
Under a government hysterical with fear, obsessed with war and indifferent to civil rights, it's all too easy to withdraw from action, even from judgment: to look aside, letting evil be done as if it were inevitable; to postpone hope to some heavenly or utopian hereafter. In such times, the witness of a man who experienced absolute, deliberate wrong and survived it without dependence upon supernatural beliefs, who described it in the pure, clear language of a soberly observant mind, showing us what vile weakness we are capable of, and what strength -- the witness, the existence of such a man is truly something to lift the spirit. The passionate integrity of Levi's reasoning, the sweetness of his mind and character, his immense power as a writer, make him invaluable to me now: a quiet voice speaking through the rant and gabble, telling us a story, the true story we need to hear and hear again.
Ursula K. Le Guin's books include "The Left Hand of Darkness" and "Tales from Earthsea."
There are certain books I re-read at regular intervals, like having dinner with old friends, and which invariably raise my spirits. Chief among them are Larry McMurtry's Lonesome Dove, the characters of which are so familiar that they seem like family; Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, which reminds me of my childhood; The Book of Job, because, even in translation, it is perhaps the liveliest piece of prose or poetry in English; Dickens's Great Expectations; R.S. Surtees's Mr. Sponge's Sporting Tour (you have to be a horseman to understand); and, when I need a dose of pure, high-power storytelling, that dark masterpiece, Stephen Hunter's Dirty White Boys.
I keep all these close to hand for moments of depression, boredom, illness or the need to regenerate brain cells. Taken together with a glass of good red wine, they invariably do the trick.
Michael Korda is editor in chief of Simon & Schuster and the author, most recently, of "Country Matters: The Pleasures and Tribulations of Moving From the Big City to an Old Country Farmhouse."
Mary Higgins Clark
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens is my favorite holiday book. Some of us read it annually. To those who have read it only in school, I urge you to give yourself a gift. Find a brief stretch of time in the midst of the rush of the season to begin turning the pages. After you walk the ghostly path with Scrooge, you will be reminded again of the real meaning of the holidays. You will share with him his joy in learning that real happiness begins with making other people happy.
In this troubled world and in the commercial furor of the season, it is good to reflect on the closing lines of this Dickens classic: "He knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"
Mary Higgins Clark is the author of 27 novels and the recently published memoir "Kitchen Privileges."
In times of stress and turmoil, some people turn to works of serious import. Others seek solace in their faith, and still others immerse themselves in their work. I find humor is the best source of relief, and no one takes me to another place better than Woody Allen.
From 1971 through 1980, Allen produced a series of short stories and articles. These were issued separately in three books and are gathered together in one collection entitled The Complete Prose of Woody Allen. Most of the items are magazine articles, and there is even a short play. Stories such as "If the Impressionists Had Been Dentists" and "The Kugelmass Episode" are simply classics.
Each time I pick up this volume, all burdens become lighter. Allen has a unique way of looking at the world, whether he is delivering a string of one-liners or actually trying to make a point. I never tire of re-reading these works and have often recommended them to friends, especially those who do not like his movies. He reminds us of a simpler time, when satire, wit and commentary all meant something.
Leonard Slatkin is the music director of the National Symphony Orchestra
Jonatha Safran Foer
What's so amazing about The Collected Poems of Yehuda Amichai is how the poems simultaneously express romantic love, familial love, love of friends, of strangers, of country, religion and solitude. They are almost impossibly simple. (No one would read one of his poems and think "I don't get it.") And yet they are also "about" the deepest, most complex emotions. I first encountered Amichai's work -- "work" feels like entirely the wrong word -- several years ago, before I was a writer, or much of a reader, for that matter. I was in my late teens -- exuberant, afraid -- and I felt that he was writing my life story. He made me desperate to fall in love. I'm 25 now, and the poems have grown with me. And I'm sure that in 10, 20, 30 years, I'll continue to feel as if Amichai's words were written to help me express that which I can't, or to help me try to live that which I can only express. His "Love Song" reads: "Heavy and tired with a woman in a balcony:/ 'Stay with me.' Roads die like people:/ quietly or suddenly breaking./ Stay with me. I want to be you./ In this burning country/ words have to be shade." All of his poems are love songs. All of them shade. I am grateful.
Jonathan Safran Foer is the author of the novel "Everything Is Iluminated."
Sen. John McCain
William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault is the most uplifting book I've read in many years. Only a writer with Trevor's wisdom, compassion and achingly beautiful prose could use a tragic tale to impart that most valuable of all moral lessons: that no matter how harsh the blows of fate, no matter the calamities that flow from our own errors of judgment and inadvertent mistakes, redemption through acts of love is not only within our reach but is the purpose of our existence. In Trevor's novel, a willful 9-year-old girl causes her separation from her loving parents, and a life of guilt follows for both child and parents. Lucy, with heartbreaking devotion, embraces her responsibility. She does not claim happiness for herself through conventional means of love, marriage and family, but through the faithful pursuit of forgiveness, a pursuit that brings her an inner peace that eludes comfortable, less questing lives. This story begins in the unquiet history of Ireland, but the terrible beauty of Lucy Gault's life is a universal tale that, once read, will never be forgotten.
John McCain is the senior U.S. senator from Arizona and the author of the recently published memoir "Worth the Fighting For."