Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons


COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons first came to my attention in the form of the 1996 film staring Kate Beckinsale as heroine Flora Poste. Somehow, despite my love for all things English literature, I had not heard of the novel previously, nor did I manage to get my hands on a copy prior to actually going to see the film, which I found light and amusing and a very enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours. Since I’m firmly of the opinion that books beat out their film adaptations in the vast majority of cases, this was a strong recommendation for adding the novel to my to-read list, where it has unfortunately lingered for the best part of two decades. No apologies; I think I’ve established how far behind I am with my reading.

I finally picked up the book shortly after I finished reading MEN WE REAPED, because I was craving something very different and much less emotional, and COLD COMFORT FARM certainly met those qualifications. Gibbons tells the story of Flora Poste, who, upon being orphaned at nineteen, discovers her family was not nearly as well off as was supposed and that she needs to find a means of supporting herself beyond her measly one-hundred pounds annual income. Instead of taking up a profession — not uncommon for a woman in her circumstances in the early 1930s — she writes to all her distant family members to request they take her in, and so settles upon Cold Comfort Farm in Sussex. The book traces her trip to the farm, her encounters with a range of odd relatives and farm hands, and her determined approach to setting all and sundry onto what she firmly believes to be the proper courses for their lives.

Gibbons herself shared a similar background to Flora Poste. She had two younger brothers for whom she became responsible when her parents died, and she worked as a journalist in London from the late 1920s on as well as maintaining a secondary writing career as a novelist. Her own father had a temper and a drinking problem, and no doubt his colorful behavior and that of some of her other family members informed the characterizations of several male characters in Gibbons’s work. COLD COMFORT FARM offers an obvious parody of the novels of Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and others who focused on nature and rural life, and which had long been popular, but it also speaks to determination and the ways in which an intelligent, educated woman might turn a situation to her advantage, something Gibbons knew full well. For all her bossiness and opinionated stances, Flora Poste accomplishes things; she turns Cold Comfort Farm on its ear, sending its residents scrambling in new directions, and they are all the better for her meddling.

There’s a great deal to like about COLD COMFORT FARM, which is filled with humorous dialogue and blatant innuendo, as well as a brilliant collection of charter names that extends from the humans to the farm animals — a bull named Big Business, and cows answering to Graceless, Feckless, Aimless, and Pointless, to name a few. Among the ridiculous, there are some moments of true insight regarding human behavior as Flora manipulates the people around her by playing to their truest needs and desires, often ignoring behavior she considers unnecessary or unreasonable. But there are a few ongoing questions that are never quite answered. Flora may get her resolution, but as a reader I felt more left out than amused.

Based on my experience with the film, I fully expected to love COLD COMFORT FARM, but the reality fell slightly short; I enjoyed it for its wit and cleverness and am happy to have finally read it, but it will not be joining the list of my most beloved reading experiences.

Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward


Jesmyn Ward grew up in rural Mississippi on the gulf coast. Even before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the region suffered from a sagging economy and enormous poverty. Factories were pulling out, heading south of the border, limiting blue collar workers to jobs pumping gas, parking cars, or serving up fast food. But it was the area Ward’s family knew, the place they all returned, even those who left to pursue opportunities elsewhere, and it serves as the setting for her memoir, MEN WE REAPED.

Over the course of four years, Ward lost five young men she was close to, including her brother, and the story of those deaths alternates with her account of growing up poor and black in the South. This structure allows her to convey the realities of the culture, where poverty feels inescapable, where jobs don’t pay enough to support a family and dealing drugs becomes the only option, and where a sense of fatalism colors daily life. At the same time, Ward shares the feeling of family and community that comes from living generation after generation in one place, where everyone knows each other’s story and history and understands the circumstances behind their decisions.

I wanted to read a book that would help me better understand what it means to be black in the United States. I am a white woman from an upper-middle-class background with a college education and a white-collar career, and while I don’t consider myself racist, I know that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the weight of decades of social and cultural conditioning. It is one thing to learn the history of oppression, to watch the news and see how far we still have to go to reach true racial equality in practice, and another thing to be able to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes and understand what it feels like to be caught in that reality. Ward’s memoir provides the next-best thing — an honest, thoughtful look at her own experiences and the understanding she has gained through her own reflection.

One of the most painful realities of Ward’s account is how few opportunities there are for her and her siblings and their friends growing up to improve their prospects. Anyone claiming America is still the land of opportunity needs to take a closer look at the American South. Over and over, Ward talks about the sparsity of jobs, the inability of the men in her life to find real work with any chance for advancement. It is a recurring theme, even for those with a better education. Ward ends up attending a private school, paid for by one of the families for whom her mother cleans house, and gets a scholarship to Stanford University, but even she, returning with two degrees under her belt, cannot find a job in Southern Mississippi, and is forced to move to New York. Ward worked hard once the opportunity presented itself, but it was pure chance that allowed her to receive her education.

The men in Ward’s life are not so fortunate. They are caught up in a web of history and poverty and their inability to escape their circumstances, even while their pride pushes them to somehow rise above and find an answer to their problems. As a child, Ward recalls “the tight line of my mother’s mouth when my father was absent and couldn’t be accounted for … [T]rouble for the black men of my family meant police. It was easier and harder to be male; men were given more freedom but threatened with less freedom.”

Not everyone can relocate in search of fresh opportunities, and even when they do, there is a sense of disconnection. Ward’s parents start their life together in California, but eventually move their family back to Mississippi. Ward in turn finds work in New York, but misses the familiarity of the place where she grew up and the people she loves. She can support herself in New York and build a career, but she cannot recreate the sense of belonging she has back home in Mississippi, and ultimately she returns to the South to teach at a university in Alabama.

Stark as this story is, with the unrelieved poverty and the senseless death, there is also that ray of hope generated by Ward herself. She stands for the friends and family she has lost, bears witness to their memory, and at the same time forces her readers to truly see the cycle of poverty and racism that continues to plague the South and the nation as a whole. MEN WE REAPED is a haunting and important work, and essential reading at this latest crossroads in American race relations.

Paper vs. Pixels


Let me begin by saying that I’m not here to convert anyone to my personal reading preferences. I think everyone should read what and how they want, whether they like paper books or e-readers or enormous stone tablets. I will gladly climb on my soap box to expound on the joys and importance of reading in general (though I suspect if I did so here I’d be preaching to the choir), but I have no vested interest in convincing someone to “do it my way.”

That said, I really do feel like I read faster and retain more when I’m reading a physical book than I do when I read on my iPad. I appreciate the convenience of e-books — the instant download, the ease of transport, the ability to avoid deciding just what books to take on vacation — but I don’t think they hold my attention in quite the same way, and I know I end up slowing my reading pace to make sure I absorb the material.

Although I’ve never ceased to buy and read paper books, I was a pretty early adopter of e-books. Thanks to my boss, I had a first generation Kindle, and used that for a great deal of work-related reading. Since then I’ve owned a first generation Fire, which I disliked overall, and now I use an iPad, which I find preferable to the Fire, mostly because I use it far more for non-reading tasks than actual reading, but over and over I’ve found myself defaulting to paper books. Not out of habit, not because I wanted to read a title I already owned, but because the experience feels more rewarding somehow.

I’ve always been a book buyer. My mother tried to train me early on to use the library, and I did and still do, but owning a book always gives me an added thrill. I love having an assortment of unread material on hand, and I particularly appreciate being able to glance at my shelves and see right away what I have. E-readers require me to scroll through a list, or pages of thumb-nail-sized covers, and I often find myself forgetting I own something and buying it again when I can’t visualize it sitting in my bookcase.

I’m also a fan of the look of books. Cover art, typesetting, tone of the paper. I like the feel of a book in my hands, the visceral pleasure of turning the pages and seeing them gradually shift from right hand to left as I progress through the story. I enjoy pretty books, collect hardcover copies of my favorites, and have been known on occasion to repurchase something I own because a new edition has a gorgeous cover I can’t resist. Reading for me is an aesthetic experience in addition to a mental process.

There’s also a certain convenience to paper books that I don’t feel e-books can match for all their other handy features. When I want to flip back and reexamine something in a paper book, it’s a simple matter of turning back until I spot what I’m looking for, be it text or a chart or a map or whatever. I keep a finger tucked into the page I’m currently reading to hold my spot and can move easily back and forth as many times as I wish. E-books make this sort of reflection a little more difficult. It’s one of the reasons why I prefer reading nonfiction in particular in a paper format.

Does that mean I plan to stop reading e-books? Of course not. I own a number of e-books I’ve still not read, and in keeping with my effort to stop buying books for a while, I have an Oyster subscription and a library app to give me access to newer titles without braving the temptation of the bookstore. But paper books remain my preferred reading format, and I’m willing to bet my favorite e-reads of 2015 will get added to my wish list of titles to add to my bookshelves. Because while I might be willing to read a book electronically, that’s not how I plan to reread it.

Happy New Year!


Welcome to 2015! I’m so excited to kick off this brand new year, and to delve into the piles and piles of books I plan to read in the next twelve months. Today I spent a couple of hours deciding which challenges I want to participate in, and finally settled on three: The Goodreads Challenge, for which I’m aiming to read 52 books this year; the 2015 TBR Pile Challenge, which involves reading twelve books (with two alternates) that have been sitting on my TBR list for more than a year; and the Classics Club, which is a more long-term challenge that involves reading a minimum of fifty classic books in the next five years. I’ve created pages, linked above, for the latter two challenges, and the Goodreads Challenge widget now lives in the sidebar.

I’ll admit I had a difficult time narrowing down my challenge choices, because the internet is overflowing with clever readers and many of them have created brilliant challenges that were very tempting. But while I want to stretch myself, I also don’t plan to make myself anxious over my goals for the year. The idea is to read more for myself, to get to some of the long-ignored books piled around the apartment, and to have fun. These three challenges allow for overlap, and will definitely push me to read more than I have the past few years, but still allow for busy periods at work and so on. They also leave room for me to focus on my ongoing goal of reading more diversely — books by authors of color, books by non-American/European authors, and books in translation.

Could I push myself to read more? Probably. But it’s years since I actively wrote about the books I read with any regularity, and I want to allow time to do justice to my reading experiences. If I find myself exceeding my own expectations, it will simply make for a lovely surprise come the end of the year.

On that note, I am off spend my evening with — what else? — a book. Wishing you all a wondrous, magical year, and a wealth of reading material to keep you entertained.

New Year, New Blog

New years bring new challenges, new outlooks, and the ever-popular resolutions. For the past few years I’ve been conscious of doing less pleasure reading than I’d like, allowing myself to get bogged down with reading for work and then using my personal time to do anything other than stare at more words. So in 2015, I vow to read more for myself, more for leisure. I want to fall in love with books all over again, to experience the joy of tripping over a new author purely by accident, of revisiting old favorites, and reading into the wee hours because I can’t stand the thought of stopping. It’s a wonderful thing to take something you love and turn it into your livelihood, but the danger is that some days work can strip the fun out of what was once just a hobby, so I’d like to recapture the feelings that made me want to work with books in the first place. I also want to read more deeply, and to take the time to really consider what I’ve read where it feels appropriate, which brings me to the motivation behind starting this blog.

I know full well that the internet groans with the weight of all the book blogs already out there, but I didn’t want to combine my personal literary musings with my professional writing as a literary agent. I want a space that has nothing to do with work, where I can feel comfortable discussing my impressions of any type of book, regardless of genre, and where I can engage with other readers and hear their thoughts.

My personal reading tastes tend to bounce all over the place, and so I expect this blog will do so as well. It will serve as ground zero for my various reading goals for the year, from reading more in general to reading more diversely. I’m also planning to tackle a few of the reading challenges I’ve discovered online in the last few weeks, with a particular eye toward actually reading the books I own rather than simply buying more and more.

Which brings me to the name of this blog: Books to the Rafters. This very much describes the state of my apartment these days — books stacking up everywhere, the bookcases overflowing — with an embarrassing number of said books still unread. My iPad also holds a ridiculous number of untouched volumes, and while they’re less of a danger to life and limb — e-books tend not to topple over in an earthquake — they are that much easier to forget, given they lie invisible until I start scrolling through all the titles in my virtual library.

It’s tempting to try and institute a complete book-buying moratorium, but I realize it’s an unrealistic expectation. I am, however, going to attempt to curb my impulse buying, and limit purchases strictly to a few titles I’m anticipating, mostly because they are the next in a series I’ve committed to reading. There are plenty of things for me to read already stacked up around my home, titles to suit every mood and purpose, things I’m genuinely looking forward to exploring.

The layout here will definitely be a work-in-progress for the next few weeks while I play around and search out some good images and decide what I want to include. But first up is some planning for the year ahead, including posts for the reading challenges I intend to join. Book blogging is just one small component of my resolutions for 2015, but I have to say it’s one of the ones that has me most excited. Here’s to a wonderful new year!

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