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.
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.