There’s a book I’ve handsold countless times over all 20 years of my bookselling life. It’s one of my favorite all-time books, not only for its gorgeous writing, but its sparkling comedic brilliance. It’s a book ostensibly for adults, but I’ve recommended it to precocious 10-year-olds and many, many teens. It’s a book that never fails to make fans; its readers come back to buy it for their friends. And it’s a perfect book to hand to a friend recovering from surgery or illness, because reading it is like reading sunshine.
The book is the hilarious memoir of an English family making a go (and often a hash) of it on the island of Corfu in the 1930s. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell (brother of Lawrence Durrell, who in this memoir is a sulky young adult aspiring writer who takes himself too seriously and has not yet written the Alexandria Quartet). Gerald Durrell grew up to be a pioneer of the kinds of zoo meant to rehabilitate injured and endangered animals and reintroduce them to the wild. In this memoir, young Gerry is a 10-year-old budding naturalist, obsessed with the treasure trove of animals, birds, and insects on the island. His teenage siblings are a quirky, independent, accident-prone lot; it’s a crazy, funny family led by a good-natured, exasperated mum. Durrell’s account of their many misadventures —as well-intentioned as they are disastrous— is a delight to read.
Now that PBS’s Masterpiece has created a fantastic miniseries out of the book, I hope legions of new readers will discover it, along with Birds, Beasts, and Relatives (the sequel), and Fauna and Family (the third in the Corfu trilogy).
This seems like a perfect time for Penguin to resurrect another charming, very funny book Durrell wrote, Rosy Is My Relative, about a hapless young man’s attempts to sneak an elephant through the yards and gardens of English neighborhoods. I haven’t read this in years, but it made me laugh out loud, and, checked for some of the cultural faux pas of the time period, might have a new life right now.
Usually, I’m a total curmudgeon about books turned into movies and TV shows, but the English really do it well. Even if you haven’t read the book, the series is wonderful to watch, and I hope will lead you to the written original, which is beautifully written.
P.S. On a minor and neurotic note, I’m also happy that I can pronounce Durrell the right way (DURR-el) without the anxiety of being incorrectly corrected. For years I’ve struggled with this; a colleague back in my NYC days knew the family, and told me the correct pronunciation, but every American I know pronounces the name, Dur-RELL. Now this can happily become a thing of the past, the way my pronunciation of A Man Called Ove changed radically (to OO-vuh) upon listening to the audiobook.
Omigosh, I LOVE this PBS miniseries and I will definitely read the books, now that I know about them. In this day where all the headlining books are so dark, it is a breath of fresh air to read and watch something light and sweet and entertaining. It feels so good to laugh! Why aren’t we coming out with books that entertain in this kind of positive way?
Beverly, here’s another bright read: If you don’t already know I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (she of 101 Dalmatians fame, but this is a totally different kind of book), you will love it! It’s a little Jane Austen-ish, very funny and sprightly and wonderful.
I love these books so much, I re-read them regularly. All three in the “Corfu” series still can make me laugh ’til I cry.
I was so excited to see PBS was going to be presenting the mini-series; but I’m not enjoying it so far. The books are really hilarious, but the mini-series is–so far, at least–tremendously unfunny. While he was never much of a “humorous” character in the books, Lawrence is down-right unlikeable in the series, appendix or not!
I was surprised to hear the correct pronunciation of the Durrell’s last name in the first episode of the series. For at least 30 years, I have been calling them the Dur-RELL’s. (And I pronounced Ove as one syllable, long “O”, for the entire time I read the book.) Embarrassing!!!!!