Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Classics Club)

Another month, another book read for my Classics Club list. And this one was terrific! Quirky, funny, engaging – a book to sink into and escape the world a little bit. Stella Gibbons’s 1932 novel Cold Comfort Farm is a real treat! I have not seen the film but I hear it is also good and I will try to find it somewhere.

60832888518__2b174e12-0149-4461-b2ab-5083d7eae854Flora Poste’s parents died of the “annual epidemic of the influenza or Spanish plague which occurred in her twentieth year” (yikes!) and they have only left her a hundred pounds a year. She decamps to a friend’s house, a Mrs. Smiling, a wealthy young widow, to figure out what to do next. Mrs. Smiling suggest that she get a job and eventually get a flat of her own. Flora is having none of that. Her plan is to write to one of her long lost relatives and get them to host her indefinitely.

“I think it’s degrading of you, Flora,” cried Mrs. Smiling at breakfast. “Do you truly mean that you won’t ever want to work at anything?” Her friend replied after some thought.

“Well, when I am fifty-three or so I would like to write a novel as good as Persuasion, but with a modern setting, of course. For the next thirty years or so I shall be collecting material for it. If anyone asks me what I work at, I shall say, “Collecting material.” No one can object to that. Besides, so I shall be.”

The most appealing reply comes from her cousin, Judith Starkadder. Appealing is a relative term, of course. She offers her a place at Cold Comfort Farm, in Sussex, along with the strange and intriguing lines, “So you are after your rights at last… my man once did your father a great wrong.” Mrs. Smiling says, “it sounds an appalling place, but in a different way from all the others. I mean it does sound interesting and appalling, while the others just sound appalling.”

So Flora decides to go to Cold Comfort Farm and finds a very quirky, rather dirty and unkempt place full of bizarre and somewhat pathological characters. In addition to Judith, who seems strangely and overly attached to her son, Seth, who is menacingly overly sexual and obsessed with the “talkies,” there is fire-and-brimstone preacher Amos, Judith’s husband. Their other son Reuben is convinced that Flora wants to steal the farm from him. She also encounters Adam, the old hired farmhand who is obsessed with the livestock and calls Flora “Robert Poste’s Child.” The place is absolutely bonkers and yet Flora is not intimidated by anything, really, showing a great sense of humor as she goes about her business of righting all the wrongs at CCF. She also has to avoid the zealous attentions of a Mr. Mybug, a writer whom she had met once at a party in London and who is staying in the nearest town of Howling. The pompous Mybug absurdly thinks that Branwell Bronte actually wrote the books that his sisters did.

“There’s a quality in you…” said Mr. Mybug staring at her and waving his fingers. “Remote somehow, and nymph-like… oddly unawakened. I should like to write a novel about you and call it ‘Virginal.'”

“Do, if it passes the time for you,” said Flora.

Flora has plans for setting things in order at Cold Comfort Farm, but her most formidable adversary is Aunt Ada, who only comes down from her attic room once or twice a year and holds the purse strings and controls the family with her imposing will. We find out that Ada had seen “something nasty in the woodshed” when she was little and that it had scarred her for life.

You told them you were mad. You had been mad since you saw something nasty in the woodshed, years and years and years ago. If any of them went away, to any other part of the country, you would go much madder. Any attempt by any of them to get away from the farm made one of your attacks of madness come on. It was unfortunate in some ways but useful in others… The woodshed incident had twisted something in your child-brain, seventy years ago.

Will Flora’s plans for improving the farm and it’s residents’s lives work? Will she find out why she is owed a debt because of her father? Will we ever find out what Ada saw in the woodshed? This was a hilarious, wickedly smart, very entertaining read. I have no knowledge of the rural melodramas of the 1930s that this novel is supposed to be a “merciless parody” of, as the book jacket says. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment at all. Flora’s plucky determination, as improbable as it might have been, was charming, and I loved seeing her figure out the best ways to work her magic on the sad, lost, hapless residents of the farm. I can see myself reading this again sometime in the future and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t yet read it.

You’ll Grow Out Of It by Jessi Klein

Oh my goodness, this was a fun read.  I had no idea who Jessi Klein even was before I read this, but a bookish friend’s positive review on Goodreads made me add her memoir You’ll Grow Out Of It to my TBR.  (Thanks, Eve!)  I don’t watch Amy Schumer’s show, of which Klein is head writer and executive producer.  But it didn’t matter one bit as I raced through these funny, slightly raunchy essays on growing up, living, and loving as a cishet Jewish woman in America.  I’m the target audience for this book, I think – I’m two years younger than Klein (we’re solidly Gen X) and reading these essays made me feel like I’d found an equally neurotic, self-deprecating, more hilarious kindred spirit.

Let me share some of my favorite passages with you:

On the three style options available to women as they grow older – 1) You were a Supermodel, 2) You are Rich, and 3) You’re an Eccentric:

This is the last option.  And it will be my option.  We see these women all the time. They’re not leaning on beauty, and they’re not leaning on money.  They’re leaning on character.  They wear hot pink tights and high-top sneakers.  They wear big glasses and pillbox hats.  They looked like they might have once worked at Interview even though they didn’t.  Or they look like Betsey Johnson back in the 1980s, but now here in the present and much older.  Thy’re memorable and fun.  They’re kooky old ladies.  When I see them, I feel a little pulse of happiness that maybe I won’t be so sad losing the little dollop of prettiness I was allotted.  That maybe the secret to getting old and feeling okay is just buying an enormous silly hat and making people smile when they look at you because they think you’re having a good time.

But maybe that’s not what the hat is about.  Maybe the real issue is not so much making other people think you’re having a super-fun time creeping toward death; it’s simply being seen.  This is the lament of older women, and ultimately of all old people – that you become invisible.  It is especially hard for women, though, whose entire lives have been spend spinning around the idea that if no one is staring at you, you’ve somehow failed.  Maybe the silly hat is really a Hail Mary to get people to look at you, no matter the reason.

 51bvntfqcnl-_sy344_bo1204203200_On the two types of women, Poodles vs. Wolves:

Wolves need to eat more than poodles do (both larger amounts and more frequently.) Wolves wear lip balm. Wolves can’t deal with thongs. Wolves sweat a lot. Wolves are funny. Wolves show up ten minutes early to everything and are always the first ones there and then have to fake a conversation on their cell phone so they look like they know other human beings on this earth. Wolves usually own two bras total, and neither of them matched their tattered old Gap underwear.  Wolves lose their virginity during their junior year of college at the very earliest.

On natural childbirth vs. getting an epidural:

But how often do people really want women to be or do anything “natural?”

It seems to me the answer is almost never.  In fact, almost everything “natural” about women is considered pretty fucking horrific.  Hairy legs and armpits?  Please shave, you furry beast.  And while you’re at it, don’t forget to remove your pubic hair, that’s also an abomination.  Do you have hips and cellulite?  Please go hide in the very back of your show closet and turn the light off and stay there until someone tells you to come out (no one will tell you to come out.)

It’s interesting that no one cares very much about women doing anything “naturally” until it involves them being in excruciating pain.

No one ever asks a man if he’s having a “natural root canal.”  No one ever asks if a man is having a “natural vasectomy.”


I read some negative Goodreads reviews of this that reference Klein’s obvious privilege, and yes, she does talk often about visiting spas and fancy stores, but that didn’t bother me for some reason.  I mean, I figure someone who’s the head writer of Inside Amy Schumer is going to be buying top end skin care products.  Honestly, if I were a successful, famous comedy writer, I’d be buying $250 jars of La Mer too.  Klein struck me as knowing that all the stuff she gets to do now is slightly crazy but she’s also kind of enjoying it.  I don’t begrudge her that.  I appreciated her honesty and her self-deprecating, relatable humor about her own awkwardness in all things “feminine.”

This was when I learned one of the biggest secrets of being a women, which is that most of the time, we don’t feel like we’re women at all.

If you’re a fan of female comedian memoirists, like Mindy Kaling, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler, you’ll probably enjoy You’ll Grow Out Of It.  It’s a funny, somewhat profane, sometimes poignant essay collection that I’m glad I took a chance on.



The Sellout by Paul Beatty

“I’m high as hell, but not high enough not to know that race is hard to ‘talk about’ because it’s hard to talk about.  The prevalence of child abuse in this country is hard to talk about, too, but you never hear people complaining about it.  They just don’t talk about it.  And when’s the last time you had a calm, measured conversation about the joys of consensual incest?  Sometimes things are simply difficult to discuss, but I actually think the country does a decent job of addressing race, and when folks say, ‘Why can’t we talk about race more honestly?’ What they really mean is ‘Why can’t you niggers be reasonable?’ or ‘Fuck you, white boy.  If I said what I really wanted to say, I’d get fired faster than you’d fire me if race were any easier to talk about.’  And by race we mean ‘niggers,’ because no one of any persuasion seems to have any difficulty talking out-of-pocket shit about Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and America’s newest race, the Celebrity.”


Paul Beatty’s The Sellout won this year’s Tournament of Books, competing against Angela Flournoy’s The Turner House.  Now that I’ve read both of them, I understand why The Sellout won the judgment by a a vote of 12 to 7.  To me it is definitely the more daring, more original, harder-edged novel.  One judge said that there was not one sentence that he wouldn’t have sold his entire glass eye collection to have written.  I get it now – Beatty has written something so scathing and hilarious that I was simultaneously exhausted and exhilarated after having just read the prologue.51gc1HCCV8L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s nearly impossible to explain what this book is “about,” a question I don’t enjoy at any time.  But the story centers on a black man living in the “agrarian ghetto” of Dickens, California, which is situated on the outskirts of Los Angeles.  Our narrator is called BonBon by Marpessa, the lady he has loved off and on his whole life, but we never learn his real first name.  He was raised and home-schooled by a wacky, kind of abusive single father, who was a sociologist and made BonBon the subject of his racially centered experiments.  They had a house in The Farms, a ten square-block section of Dickens mandated by the city’s charter to be “residential agriculture.”  After his father’s death, he grows various fruits and weed, just selling a little of the latter for gas money.  His renowned satsuma mandarin tree, with its magically delicious oranges, looms large in the story line.

Oh yeah, and he takes a slave.  An old man, the last surviving Little Rascal, named Hominy Jenkins.  And after Dickens is erased from the map, and the signs pointing to the town taken down, he starts segregating the buses and schools in an attempt to get his city back on the map.

The novel operates on this larger than life, bitingly absurd level, where just about anything can happen.  But it’s done in such a smart, hilarious, targeted way that you’re cringing in recognition as you laugh.  It’s like Beatty’s shined a flashlight on all of us Americans, pointing out our ridiculous habits and fears, pointing out how completely NOT post-racial we are.  It’s uncomfortable and thought-provoking like the best satire is supposed to be, and it’s one hell of a ride in the meantime.  I am glad I read it and wish I’d read it sooner.  You better believe I’ll be offering this one to my book group when it’s my turn to host.  Definitely profane, not for the faint of heart, The Sellout is a novel that deserves a wide audience.




Loving Day by Mat Johnson

I am a racial optical illusion.  I am as visually duplicitous as the illustration of the young beauty that’s also the illustration of the young hag.  Whoever sees the beauty will always see the beauty, even if the image of the hag can be pointed out to exist in the same etching.  Whoever sees the hag will be equally resolute.  The people who see me as white always will,and will think it’s madness that anyone else could come to any other conclusion, holding to this falsehood regardless of learning my true identity.  The people who see me as black cannot imagine how a sane, intelligent person could be so blind not to understand this, despite my pale-skinned presence.  The only influence I have over this perception, if any, is in the initial encounter.  Here is my chance to be categorized as black, with an asterisk.  The asterisk is my whole body.

Loving Day by Mat Johnson took me by surprise.  IMG_2531I was expecting (and got) insightful examination of race; I was expecting (and got) funny.  What I didn’t anticipate was what a big heart this novel has.  Our hero, Warren Duffy, a newly divorced, biracial comic book author and artist, is a hapless but likeable character to root for.  He’s inherited a crumbling mansion in the middle of the slowly “gentrifying” Germantown neighborhood of Philadelphia after the death of his Irish American father.  He’s emotionally adrift and broke, half-jokingly contemplating burning down the mansion for the insurance money.  Not long into the story he discovers that he’s the father of a seventeen year-old girl, Tal, who has been raised by her Jewish grandfather and believes that she is white.  This is quite a game-changer for both of them, as you can imagine.  Her reaction to the news is a great comedic scene.

“So I’m a black.  That’s just fucking great.  A black.  That’s just what I need right now.”

“You’re not ‘a black.’  You’re black.  It’s a good thing, nowadays.  You can be president.”  I grin for her.  Her smile back is quick and fraudulent.  She’s trying to act composed and mature, and she’s not old enough to know how to pull off the illusion like the rest of us.

“Jesus, I thought you’d be Israeli or something.  I hate rap music,” she says, then looks off.  “You know, I was the best dancer at Kadima, since like third grade.  Guess that’s explained.”

“I can’t dance, sorry.”

“Maybe it skips a generation.  God, school.  He told you to tell me to go back to school, didn’t he?  He told you to tell me to get back in high school, finish up and go to a good college.  That’s why he’s doing this to me, because it’s easy to get into college for blacks.  Don’t they get scholarships or something?  That’s what this is about.”

My daughter is a racist, I think.  I adjust that to, My daughter is mildly racist.  My daughter is casually racist, I settle on.  She’s casually racist.

Funny, banter-y conversations abound in Loving Day, and Warren provides a droll narration throughout.  In trying to figure out how to get his daughter to finish high school and get into a good college, he winds up meeting a community of people who identify themselves as “mixed.”  They run the Mélange Center, a school for composed of trailers and tents squatting in a section of a Philadelphia city park.  Warren ends up teaching art at the school to help pay Tal’s tuition.  They both have to wrestle with their identities – which I think surprises Warren, as he’d previously settled on identifying with his mother’s black heritage.  He has a fight with one of his black best friends, who thinks the “sunflowers” and “Oreos” (self-adopted terms) at Mélange are abandoning the struggle for racial justice by declaring themselves apart from black people.  She thinks Warren is “lost.”  He says, in his mind after he walks away from her,

I don’t feel I’m “lost” in what is, despite my own resistance, a minor identity alteration.  And it is a little thing, saying, “I’m mixed” instead of “I’m black,” yet it’s the difference between the comfort of wearing shoes that fit as opposed to bearing the blisters of shoes just once size too small. I might have said.  It does feel like a relief, and actual relief of pain, just acknowledging – yes I use the word acknowledging – all of who I am, to myself.  I would have said to her.

This is one of those books with great lines and ideas appearing on practically every page.  It was entertaining and quirky – there’s a whole subplot about ghosts – and has a frenetically-paced denouement involving the future of the mansion and the Mélange Center.  The romance between Warren and Sunita, a teacher at the Center, distracted a bit from what was the meat of the story for me, the emerging relationship between Warren and Tal.  Tal is a perfectly written teenage girl, a mix of bravado and vulnerability, idealism and world-weariness.  She and Warren fight and make up like teenagers and parents do, and even though he’s only been a parent a few months, he cares about Tal almost immediately.  There’s a tender heart at the center of this novel, underneath the pithy lines and wry social commentary.  It kept me wanting to turn the pages and kept me connected to the story despite its many wacky threads.  I really enjoyed Loving Day and have to add the rest of Johnson’s work to my TBR.

(Note: I read this book for the #Diversiverse blogging event coordinated by Aarti at Booklust.)