So, Cornelia Otis Skinner is the actual best (and a GIVEAWAY, y’all)

In the early days of discovering authors for myself, it seemed like every one I stumbled upon turned into a lifelong favourite. I still have massive devotion to A.A. Milne, E.M. Delafield, Richmal Crompton, Stephen Leacock, The L-Shaped Room (because, let’s be fair, it’s that book; not Lynne Reid Banks in general) etc. There were so few duds. And these sorts of epiphanies come so infrequently now that I’ve started wondering: is it just the glitter of the new? Or even the opportunity to blitz through an author’s work, when there aren’t teetering tbr piles (real and imaginary) of pressing reads?

Well, thank you Cornelia Otis Skinner, for coming along and proving me wrong. Consider me devoted.

Cornelia Otis Skinner Nuts in May

 

I read Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, which she wrote with Emily Kimbrough, after Danielle lent it to me. I absolutely loved it, and kept an eye out for the authors ever since – but they are tough to come across in the UK. I did manage to read Popcorn by Cornelia Otis Skinner, which I wholeheartedly adored – and brought five of her books back with me from the US. That included a duplicate of Nuts in May – which I’m going to write about today, and offer as a giveaway to people in the UK, who will also have a tough job tracking her down. (Btw, in the US, they’re available cheaply online, so… have at!)

Skinner is a humorous essayist who reminded me a lot of Delafield and Diary of a Provincial Lady – which, if you know me well, you’ll realise can hardly be bettered as a compliment. Essentially, her books are masterpieces of self-deprecation. If that’s your cup of tea – and I live for it – you’ll find Nuts in May hilarious. Skinner (or her essay persona, at least) takes us through various aspects of her life, and activities she has attempted, and gives extremely amusing portrayals of how horribly everything goes wrong. Small stakes, of course: the worst that happens (and it repeatedly happens) is embarrassment or awkwardness. Take, for example, this (longish) excerpt from the chapter most redolent of the Provincial Lady, ‘Ordeal for Sons’, wherein Skinner visits her son at boarding school. (Incidentally, subscribers to the New Yorker can apparently read the whole article in its original glory. And I daresay that’s true for other Skinner essays.)

I set forth with my child who, the moment we get to territory totally unfamiliar to me, again disappeared. I wandered on aimlessly, passing stray professors and groups of boys who looked at me as if they wondered if my attendant knew I was loose. Some of the mink-coat mothers also passed and we bestowed on one another that sickly smile which can be taken for recognition or pure imbecility. After a time, my offspring hove in sight armed with skates and a stick and told me to follow him. Hockey was being played on a pond some hundred yards beyond us and the people I had passed were all heading for the barrier, which seemed to be the vantage place for watching the game. Once arrived at the pond, however, my son started leading me off in an oblique direction. When I shyly asked the reason, he said he didn’t want me near the barrier… that I might get in the way, or fall down, or otherwise make myself conspicuous. His method of making me inconspicuous was to station me off on a remote and windy promontory. A strange, solitary figure, silhouetted against the snow, I felt like the picture of Napoleon overlooking Moscow. I could hardly see what was going on, much less make out which of the distant swirling figures was my child, which, perhaps, was just as well as it saved me the anguish of seeing him make a goal on his own side which counted some sort of colossal penalty and made him a pariah for the remainder of the game. On my forthcoming visit I am told the sport will be boat racing and I suppose by way of making me inconspicuous, I shall be placed behind a tree.

Oh, Cornelia. You and me are going to be best buds, I can tell. I mean, sure, I wish you had learnt more about paragraph lengths (this lady loves a long para) but I shan’t fault-find too much, as you’re so darn hilarious.

While her family shows up in quite a few sections (notably when her son believes he has discovered dinosaur bones, and they lug their find to the New York Museum of Natural History), Cornelia Otis Skinner’s name loomed largest as an actress, apparently. It’s a rich vein for anecdotes and amusing stories: she writes wittily about being demanded to appear in unpaid productions, the anguish of opening nights (for one’s friends and family), and the sort of person who comes backstage after a play. More unexpectedly, she writes a section about meeting the Pope. The only section that didn’t win me over was a spoof of John Steinbeck.

I’m at the risk of typing the whole thing out, so I shall just reiterate that she has that rare touch – to make stories entirely about herself and her situation (which is unashamedly middle-class) somehow hilariously identifiable, and light without being disposable. She is frivolous, but great frivolity takes enormous talent.

So, that giveaway part. As I say, I’m afraid it’s UK only – because Skinner’s work is tricky to find over here, and I feel like we Brits deserve a chance to get to know her. To be in with a chance of winning, just let me know your favourite American writer in the comment section, and I’ll do the draw on Saturday 6 June. I’m hoping to nab some suggestions along the way.

 

31 thoughts on “So, Cornelia Otis Skinner is the actual best (and a GIVEAWAY, y’all)

  • June 1, 2015 at 5:40 pm
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    Sylvia Plath would probably come high on my list – along with Fitzgerald. I read less American authors than I used to (I had a big obsessions with the Beats in my youth) but please enter me for the draw as Cornelia sounds like a wonderful read! :)

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:00 am
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      One of my favourite singers, Kathryn Williams, is releasing an album inspired by The Bell Jar – I have to confess that I didn’t think much of the novel, but I’ll definitely get the album. And consider yourself entered in the draw!

  • June 1, 2015 at 5:41 pm
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    Tracy Chevalier, hands down.

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:00 am
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      And there was me not even knowing she was American!

  • June 1, 2015 at 8:56 pm
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    I live in the US so I can’t be in the drawing, however I must tell you my favorite quote from her work. Her father, Otis Skinner, was a famous actor in his day. On her first trip to London with him, looking out into the London afternoon twilight, he said “Just think! All over London now, housewives are making the toast for tomorrow’s breakfast!” Yes, we Americans still like our toast hot (those of us who still eat the evil carbs, that is! I laughed like a drain!

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:01 am
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      Ha! Yes, that is glorious. We also love toast hot, but it gets cold so quickly… HOW do Americans keep it hot for longer?

  • June 1, 2015 at 10:59 pm
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    Oh, if you COULD find some Emily Kimbrough—! I own and have read all her delightful books, all of them memoirs, most of them travel. She is subtly hilarious, like Barbara Pym. Her writing reminds me of a prim school matron whose slip is showing. I just LOVE her! Please try to find her sequel to Our Hearts were Young and Gay—We Followed Our Hearts to Hollywood. You will not be sorry to have made the effort, believe me!

    • June 1, 2015 at 11:21 pm
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      Oo, luckily I DO actually have that one on my shelves! I worried, after reading COS, that EK had just lucked out by having a fantastically funny writing partner – what a delight that BOTH of them were so funny!

  • June 2, 2015 at 2:04 am
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    If you allow authors of fantasy novels (I was going to put “fantasy authors”, but realised that could be misinterpreted!), Tamora Pierce, closely followed by Robin McKinley. Otherwise, Dorothy Canfield Fisher and Susan Glaspell.

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:02 am
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      I will allow them! Although I have not heard of those two. The other two I do, of course, know – great Persephone authors!

  • June 2, 2015 at 3:04 am
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    I read this post with a half-finished draft of Our Hearts were Young and Gay where I also compared the writing to E.M. Delafield. I love the excerpt that you included from Skinner’s essay – she was on fire with that self-deprecation!

    And I can’t enter the drawing, but my favorite American authors may be Daniel Woodrell and Lee Smith.

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:03 am
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      I look forward to your post, Christy! Isn’t that excerpt great fun?
      I do not know those authors – I will have to investigate.

  • June 2, 2015 at 3:40 am
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    Well, not eligible either, but that doesn’t stop me (and anyway, I have now won an unconscionable number of books from the Jungle Red Writers blog just by commenting) but my favourite American writer, no question, is Barbara Kingsolver.

    Yes, I’ve loved Our Hearts Were Young and Gay since I was about 10 and Through Charley’s Door, Emily Kimbrough’s memoirs of working at Marshall Fields in Chicago in the 1920s. Wonderful stuff.
    Also have Popcorn (bought at Hay on Wye,) but I’m not all that keen on it. Sorry.

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:04 am
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      How funny, I also bought Popcorn in Hay on Wye – they must have had a surfeit. But, oh Susan, how could you not love it? Horses for courses, I suppose.

  • June 2, 2015 at 8:41 am
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    Ooh looks fab u lous! Please enter me into the draw. My favourite American author … hm … so difficult. I’m going to say Larry McMurtry for his people, his landscapes, his families, his humour, his faded glamour, his almost unbearable sadness with comedy stuck right in the middle of it. Or Anne Tyler, of course.

    And you can fall in love with an author at any age – look at my Trollope obsession, which started when I was 42!

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:04 am
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      You’re in! I haven’t heard of Larry McMurty – I am learning so much from this post :)

      • June 5, 2015 at 6:17 pm
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        Oh, he’s excellent, he wrote “The Last Picture Show” (trigger warning: small town coming of age story). I don’t like his cowboy ones but his Texas family stories are wonderful. And he owns a massive bookshop!

  • June 2, 2015 at 9:18 am
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    I think I would love her too. That quote makes her writing sound right up my street. My favourite American writer? – can’t possibly stick to one. Susan Glaspell, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton would probably be my top three.

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:05 am
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      That quote is definitely representative of what you’ll find in the book!

      I didn’t love the Willa Cather book I read (nor did I hate it), but I know I should try more. And, indeed, have lots.

  • June 2, 2015 at 9:23 am
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    She sounds wonderful – I love self deprecating humour. The extract reminds me of my daughters’ efforts to ensure I remained inconspicuous at school events. I wasn’t allowed to sing at carol concerts and productions, because everyone would know they were the offspring of a woman so out of a tune it can’t be called singing! But I had to mime the words so I didn’t look conspicuous…

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:06 am
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      How funny! My darling Dad is also not blessed by a tuneful voice, as he would be the first to admit – but there is no escape when he is the vicar and leading the sung responses in Evensong! A vicar’s son has to learn to deal with parental embarrassment very early in life ;)

  • June 2, 2015 at 12:55 pm
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    Shirley Jackson!

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:07 am
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      A very, very excellent choice! She’d definitely be high up my list – and potentially at the top of it.

  • June 2, 2015 at 11:01 pm
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    I can’t enter the draw either but my favourite American authors are Edith Wharton & Willa Cather. I’ve also just discovered Edna St Vincent Millay.

    • June 3, 2015 at 12:11 am
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      Another vote for Willa Cather! And I was listening to a podcast about Edith Wharton only this morning, and thinking I should read more of her than the only one I have read (Ethan Frome). Sorry about not including Australia in this giveaway – you guys also need to get your hands on COS, but I’m afraid the postage costs terrify me. (And this copy is definitely too worn for your liking anyway!)

  • June 3, 2015 at 9:17 am
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    Are poets allowed? I’m torn between voting for Elizabeth Bishop and for Willa Cather!

  • June 5, 2015 at 8:44 pm
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    Cornelia sounds wonderful, Simon. Thank you for introducing us all to her work and please include me in tomorrow’s draw…and oh yes, my favourite American author is Joyce Carol Oates.

  • June 5, 2015 at 9:36 pm
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    I’m not eligible for the contest (which is good because I think I’m about to miss the deadline!), but I must put in a word recommending The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton to all the Persephone Books lovers out there. Ethan Frome, that bane of school reading lists, is not representative of Wharton’s full glory! (Besides, I’m curious to know what British readers make of The House of Mirth.)

    Favorite American writer? Impossible to choose! (Salinger? Toni Morrison? Laura Ingalls Wilder? Hemingway?) But if you like Cornelia Otis Skinner, be sure to give Betty Macdonald (The Egg and I) a whirl.

  • June 13, 2015 at 5:12 am
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    Cornelia Otis Skinner is a wonderful author, I agree, and I think she wrote a humorous book about traveling in Italy or France, which I would like to find and read.

  • June 14, 2015 at 5:00 pm
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    I found my way here through Book Snob, and yes! Cornelia Otis Skinner’s Our Hearts were Young and Gay – laugh out loud hilarious! I so loved it, my favorite part being when they found themselves in a brothel for the night (without realizing where they were). The scrapes they got into! And the way they tell it. Have you read My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell? Another laugh-out-louder.

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