Tag Archives: Stella Gibbons

Miscellaneous Memoranda

I really liked Erin Bow’s suggestion of a SNOT award for books (“given to STORIES NOT to be read ON TRANSIT, the SNOT shall honor and mark books that will make you ugly-cry while on a crowded cross-town bus”). A SNOT sticker would have warned me, for example, against reading Feeling Sorry for Celia on the train to work one morning and thereby saved me a fair amount of embarrassment (because I have not yet learned how to weep in a neat and dignified manner).

The Guardian recently ran a series of articles on Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, including an amusing one about her incisive parodies of D. H. Lawrence and Mary Webb. There’s also a thoughtful discussion in the comments section of this article about the anti-Semitism in the book (which is definitely there, although I don’t think it’s quite as bad as many other English novels of the time).

As I’ve been talking about Jane Gardam’s novels lately, here’s an interesting profile of her.

And here’s yet another article about how mid-list authors are doomed, which I liked because it actually defined the term:

“A ‘mid-list’ author can be described as any author who does well but not spectacularly for a publisher: someone who might be consistently well-reviewed, will even be shortlisted for major prizes, but will not, or has not yet taken off to become a household name.”

So, I guess I might have moved from Emerging Writer to Mid-List Author, although I suspect I’d have an easier time getting my next book published if I was a Debut Author. After all, if publishers know from sad experience that your books do not sell in large (or even moderate) quantities, they are not going to fall over themselves to publish your next work, whereas if you’re completely unknown, there’s always a hope you’ll turn out to be the next J. K. Rowling. Okay, this is getting depressing. I need a squid to cheer me up.

Today’s squid is from that bastion of scientific accuracy, Popular Science Monthly, circa 1878.

The giant squid, 'Popular Science Monthly, Vol 14,  1878-1879'

Books To Make You Laugh

A lot of Australians are currently feeling very depressed after one of the longest, most vacuous, federal election campaigns in recent memory1. What we need now are some books to make us laugh2. Here are five books that have made me laugh out loud (or at least produced embarrassing muffled snorting noises, if I happened to be reading them on public transport).

1. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell, featuring the eccentric Durrell family and the ridiculous situations they find themselves in, often caused by their various dogs, birds, snakes, scorpions and other animal companions. For example, here’s Roger the dog’s reaction to Mother’s elaborate new bathing-costume:

“He seemed to be under the impression that the bathing-costume was some sort of sea monster that had enveloped Mother and was now about to carry her out to sea. Barking wildly, he flung himself to the rescue, grabbed one of the frills dangling so plentifully round the edge of the costume and tugged with all his strength in order to pull Mother back to safety. Mother, who had just remarked that she found the water a little cold, suddenly found herself being pulled backwards. With a squeak of dismay she lost her footing and sat down heavily in two feet of water, while Roger tugged so hard that a large section of the frill gave way. Elated by the fact that the enemy appeared to be disintegrating, Roger, growling encouragement to Mother, set to work to remove the rest of the offending monster from her person . . . “

2. Saffy’s Angel by Hilary McKay, which I have previously gushed about here. The scene in which the siblings drive to Wales is especially funny.

3. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris, and specifically, the story entitled Jesus Shaves, in which Mr Sedaris attends French classes in Paris, and his fellow students attempt to explain Easter, in their extremely limited French, to a Moroccan student:

“The Poles led the charge to the best of their ability. ‘It is,’ said one, ‘a party for the little boy of God who call his self Jesus and . . . oh, shit.’ She faltered and her fellow countryman came to her aid.

‘He call his self Jesus and then he be die one day on two . . . morsels of . . . lumber.’

The rest of the class jumped in, offering bits of information that would have given the pope an aneurysm.

‘He die one day and then he go above of my head to live with your father.’

‘He weared of himself the long hair and after he die, the first day he come back here for to say hello to the peoples.’

‘He nice, the Jesus.’ “

Unable to translate complicated phrases such as “to give of yourself your only begotten son”, they end up talking about chocolate, which is delivered, of course, by “the rabbit of Easter”. Or rather, as it turns out, the bell of Rome.

There’s also a very funny story about young David’s battles with his speech therapist (although, as a trained speech pathologist, I have to emphasise that we’re not like that at all now).

4. King Dork by Frank Portman, which I don’t have in my possession, so I can’t provide any quotes, but I remember becoming helpless with laughter over the effort the teenage boys put into their band names and album concepts. Favourite band name: We Have Eaten All The Cake. (Unfortunately they don’t put as much effort into writing songs or rehearsing, so their first big gig is a disaster. I should also point out that parts of this novel, especially the conclusion, are not funny at all, although it’s also completely plausible that the narrator and his friend would be as unconcerned about these particular issues as they are.)

5. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, which I have written about here, is so full of hilarity that it’s impossible to choose just one scene. The cows, named Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless? Adam clettering the dishes with his twig? The Starkadders pushing each other down the well? The Quivering Brethren’s hymn-singing being conducted by the poker-wielding Brother Ambleforth? Seth lounging in doorways, with his shirt unbuttoned? Mr Mybug’s ludicrous theories about how all the Brontës’ novels were actually written by Branwell? Or those “finer passages”, helpfully marked by the author with one, two or three stars?

Of course, humour is completely subjective and dependent on context, so it’s possible you won’t find these books as amusing as I did. Please feel free to add your own funny book recommendations in the comments. We need all the laughter we can get around here.

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  1. I couldn’t even bear to listen to the vote counting on the radio, so I spent Saturday night watching Series Two of The Thick of It. For those not familiar with this BBC production, it’s about a stupid, bigoted and hypocritical MP named Abbot, who’s inexplicably promoted far beyond his levels of competence into the Cabinet. Each episode involves his spin doctors running around, desperately trying to cover up his blunders.
  2. so we don’t cry.

First Lines

The Atlantic recently asked some writers about their favourite first lines in literature. As Joe Fassler reports, “The opening lines they picked range widely in tone and execution – but in each, you can almost feel the reader’s mind beginning to listen, hear the inward swing of some inviting door.” I especially like the opening of Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White:

“Where’s Papa going with that axe?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.

You know right from the start that it’s all going to end in tears, don’t you?

Here are some more of my own favourites. I think it’s good to be told up front exactly what sort of book you’ve picked up:

We think it our duty to warn the public that, in spite of the title of this work and of what the editor says about it in his preface, we cannot guarantee its authenticity as a collection of letters: we have in fact, very good reason to believe it is only a novel.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses, or Letters Collected in One Section of Society and Published for the Edification of Others by Choderlos de Laclos

It’s also nice when an author explains all that we need to know about the protagonist:

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 living.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Although this can sometimes be done just as effectively in half the words:

I planned my death carefully; unlike my life, which meandered along from one thing to another, despite my feeble attempts to control it.

Lady Oracle, probably Margaret Atwood’s funniest book

Or even fewer words:

I am a man you can trust, is how my customers view me.

A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler

And sometimes, an author’s first line not only tells us a lot about the protagonist, but also conveys an essential truth about literature:

Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, “and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversation?”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

'Alice's Adventures in Wonderland', illustrated by John Tenniel

“The chief difficulty Alice found at first was in managing her flamingo . . .”

Bookshelf Neighbours

I loved this article1 by Geraldine Brooks about her method for shelving her books, which even she admitted was “eccentric”:

“I start out conventionally enough, alpha by author. But while I take account of the first letter of the writer’s surname, I have other ambitions for my shelves that transcend the conveniences of mere alphabetical accuracy. It’s impossible for me to place one book alongside another without thinking about the authors, and how they would feel about their spine-side companion.

I arrange my shelves as I would seat guests at a dinner party. Anne Tyler and Anthony Trollope both seem devoted to a diligent scrutiny of manners. So I imagine them, shelved side by side, comparing notes on the mores of their respective eras . . .”

This sent me off to examine my own bookshelves. As organised as I am in many other aspects of my life, I have never attempted to shelve my books alphabetically, or by any other method recognised by librarians. I do tend to arrange books about similar topics in the same general area. For example, here is part of my ‘Indian fiction’ section, containing Rohinton Mistry, Anita Desai, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Rumer Godden (well, her biography) and Meera Syal, with Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie lurking just out of sight:

Bookshelf One

(Mind you, Vikram Seth and the remainder of my Ruth Prawer Jhabvala collection sit on various shelves below this. I have no idea why.) I also have a ‘YA fiction’ section, a ‘dictionaries and other reference books’ section and two shelves of 1930s and World War Two books. I also try to shelve books by the same author together:

Bookshelf Two

Oh, I seem to own a lot of Anne Tyler’s books. I’m not sure how she’d fare if seated next to Nancy Mitford at a dinner party (Nancy was not very fond of Americans), but perhaps Elizabeth Jane Howard, on the other side, could draw Nancy into a discussion about Paris fashions. I’d be more interested in eavesdropping on a dinner conversation between these three women:

Bookshelf Three

Especially if they were talking about writing historical fiction. I also have Germaine Greer sitting next to Gloria Steinem, and Stella Gibbons beside Mary Renault.

But the rationale for the shelving of other books may be less obvious. For example, what do Frances Hodgson Burnett, Curtis Sittenfeld, Gerald Durrell, Andrea Levy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Sedaris and Alison Lurie have in common?

Bookshelf Four

They’ve written books that are the same height, of course!

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  1. Thanks to Bookshelves of Doom for the link.

My Favourite Novels About Britain At War

1. Small Island by Andrea Levy'Small Island' by Andrea Levy

Jamaican airmen stationed in England during the Second World War find that the ‘Mother Country’ is less welcoming than they’d expected.

2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault

A soldier wounded at Dunkirk and recovering in an English hospital falls in love with a conscientious objector working as a hospital wardsman.

3. Marking Time and Confusion from the Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

The Cazalet family’s privileged lives are changed forever when England goes to war.

'Westwood' by Stella Gibbons4. Westwood by Stella Gibbons

Plain, bookish Margaret and her beautiful friend Hilda are drawn into the orbit of a pompous playwright in Blitz-battered London – but who is exploiting whom?

5. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

Four Londoners – all on the outskirts of society because they’ve fallen in love with the wrong people, all terribly damaged by the war – have their interlinking stories gradually revealed in a clever narrative that travels backwards through the 1940s.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

'Cold Comfort Farm' by Stella GibbonsI knew I was going to get along with Miss Flora Poste, the narrator of this novel, from the very first chapter, in which she explains that her “idea of hell is a very large party in a cold room, where everybody has to play hockey properly”. Flora also likes everything about her to be “tidy and pleasant and comfortable”. She is therefore presented with quite a challenge when she goes off to live with her relatives at Cold Comfort Farm, following the (unlamented) deaths of her parents.

The Starkadders have always lived at Cold Comfort Farm, even though the place is apparently cursed. The family is ruled over by mad Aunt Ada Doom, who conveniently “saw something nasty in the woodshed” as a child and so must have her every wish fulfilled, for fear she might go even madder. Her daughter Judith is sunk in gloom; Judith’s husband Amos spends all his time preaching hellfire at the Church of the Quivering Brethren; their inarticulate elder son Reuben tries to keep the farm going and obsesses about how many feathers his chickens have lost; Seth lounges about with his shirt unbuttoned to the waist, seducing the housemaids; and young Elfine writes terrible poetry and communes with Nature. Then there’s their ancient farmhand, Adam Lambsbreath, and his beloved cows (called Graceless, Pointless, Feckless and Aimless); Mrs Beetle the housekeeper and her “jazz quartet” of tiny, illegitimate grandchildren; and a confusion of dirt-encrusted Starkadder cousins, with names like Urk and Micah, who are constantly stealing one another’s wives and pushing each other down the well.

Fortunately, Flora enjoys a challenge and she cheerfully sets about improving the lives of all her relatives, whether they like it or not.

This is one of the funniest novels I have ever read. Stella Gibbons pokes fun at everyone and everything: Serious Literature, romance, evangelists, psychoanalysis, intellectuals, people who worship Nature, fashionable Society, the British aristocracy. As Rachel Cooke writes, “Gibbons was a sworn enemy of the flatulent, the pompous and the excessively sentimental.” The really clever thing, though, is how Gibbons manages to create over-the-top characters who are nevertheless completely recognisable. Mr Mybug, for example, who is convinced Branwell Brontë wrote Wuthering Heights:

“You see, it’s obvious that it’s his book and not Emily’s. No woman could have written that. It’s male stuff . . . There isn’t an intelligent person in Europe today who really believes Emily wrote the Heights.”

He sounds like V. S. Naipaul.

Although Cold Comfort Farm was first published in 1932, it is supposed to be set “in the near future”, sometime after the “Anglo-Nicaraguan wars of ’46”. Mayfair is now part of the slums of London, while Lambeth is a fashionable, expensive part of the city. The British railways have fallen into “idle and repining repair” because so many people travel in their own private aeroplanes, and telephones come equipped with a “television dial”. Some of this is quite prophetic, but it reads oddly in a novel that otherwise seems thoroughly part of the 1930s. (The excellent 1996 film version of the book wisely omitted these modernistic bits.) One extra note: make sure you read the author’s foreword before you read the novel. I didn’t, so I missed out on a running joke about literary criticism.

Stella Gibbons wrote two sequels to this book, Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm and Conference at Cold Comfort Farm, which unfortunately, I haven’t read. After being out of print for years, they have been republished this year by Vintage Classics, along with a dozen other novels from this author. I am particularly interested in reading Westwood, which is set during the Second World War and sounds fascinating.

More favourite 1930s/1940s British novels:

1. The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford

Oh, and don’t forget that my book giveaway is still on, until the 4th of December. Go and check out the excellent book recommendations from readers, and add a recommendation of your own!

Top Ten YA Books

Earlier this year, Adele from Persnickety Snark ran a poll asking readers to nominate their favourite Young Adult (YA) books of all time. The final Top 100 had a lot of predictable titles (Twilight), as well as a few books I’d thought were either adult (Pride and Prejudice) or children’s literature (Harry Potter). There were also some books that made me think, ‘Oh, why didn’t I remember to add that one to my list?’ (for example, Little Women). Anyway, here are the books that I nominated this year as my favourite YA books of all time:

10. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Possibly the funniest book I have ever read. Flora decides to improve the lives of her unfortunate relatives, whether they like it or not.

9. I am David by Anne Holm
A boy escapes from a concentration camp and makes his way across Europe in search of his mother. Devastating, but ultimately, there’s a message of hope.

8. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
They live on a houseboat. Leo writes cowboy books for a living and Helen gets paid to draw gory operations. What’s not to like?

7. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
A fabulous adventure. Pirates, buried treasure, a marooned sailor, a brave teenage lad – and Long John Silver, one of the scariest villains ever, because you never quite know whose side he’s on.

6. The Hole in the Hill by Ruth Park
I nearly chose Playing Beatie Bow instead, but this book is special. A group of smart, resourceful kids get lost in a mysterious cave system in the wilds of New Zealand and discover something amazing.

5. Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder
A history of philosophy for teenagers. No, wait, don’t run away! It’s funny and exciting and very accessible, with a great twist in the middle and two terrific female narrators.

4. The Shape of Three by Lilith Norman
Only Lilith Norman could make ‘twins separated at birth’ into this kind of convincing, emotionally-wrenching drama. She also paints a wonderful portrait of Sydney in the 1970s.

3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
One of the loveliest coming-of-age stories ever (even if I still can’t understand how Cassandra could treat poor Stephen the way she did). And it’s set in a castle.

2. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson
An adopted teenage girl gives up her religion, her family and her whole community after she falls in love with another girl. But it’s not depressing! It’s funny, warm and smart, and a real inspiration for anyone who’s ever felt different.

1. Someday This Pain Will Be Useful To You by Peter Cameron
A teenage boy in Manhattan anxiously contemplates adult life, meanwhile managing to alienate everyone around him. Brilliant, hilarious, touching – the best book about a teenager that I’ve ever read.