Monday, August 8, 2011

Howard's End is on the Landing

Howards End Is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from HomeI love the title of Susan Hill's memoir of reading: Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home.  Like the author, I arrange my books in a less-than-obvious way sometimes.  Being able to find them might be only by luck of memory: Homer and Herodotus filling the "now" shelf in the study (smack between the books published by friends, family, and self on the shelf above and knitting patterns on the shelf below), Dickinson in the piano room, Austen and the Brontes in the living room, Yeats and Keats having a party with Anne of Green Gables and Little House on the Prairie on the basement shelves, Shakespeare in my son's room, and Orion magazine (with its great review of The Bird Sisters) in the bathroom.  Maurice and Aeschylus on my bedside table.

Hill's book is a collection of very short, very loosely interconnected stories.  I had high hopes given the evocative title and the charming cover--but honestly, I did not love this book.  The essays were light and generally fairly enjoyable, but they did not come across as especially thoughtful or insightful.   I might have enjoyed the book more if I had read a chapter here and there in odd moments instead of in one big gulp.  If you're planning to read it, keep it stashed in your car so you can read a few pages while waiting for someone, or next to your bed for a little insomnia relief.

Some of the essays seem more like name dropping than like critical or appreciative reading.  I don't mean that Hill tells us much about the authors she mentions.  That might be interesting and even useful.  But just telling us that she met someone?  Not so much.  For example, Hill tells us that she met Iris Murdoch but "can only remember the Iris I knew, not closely, not well, but with honour and respect and with singular affection."  No real details to flesh out who that Iris was.  (One of the better essays is on Anthony Trollope--and I can't remember whether or not Hill mentions that she never had the pleasure of meeting him...)

Other essays seem to have a lot of potential--and just as they seem to really get going, they end abruptly.  And sometimes Hill just names books on her shelves without really mentioning actually reading them, much less what she thought of them.  Honestly, many of these essays feel like rushed blog posts put up on busy days.

There are a few gems.  I find Hill's chapter about Virginia Woolf far more thoughtful--about Woolf and about Hill herself.  Her discussion of Roald Dahl also has a flash of insight when she analyzes why Dahl's books are beloved by children and hated by so many adults.  Finally, Hill's discussion of reading carefully ("Slow, Slow, Slow-Slow, Slow") raisea interesting questions for me that I hope to address in a future post.

I also like this paragraph:
Books help to form us.  If you cut me open, will you find volume after volume, page after page, the contents of every one I have ever read, somehow transmuted and transformed into me? ...So just as my genes and the soul within me make me uniquely me, so I am the unique sum of the books I have read.  I am my literary DNA.
I've never read any fiction by Susan Hill before.  Have any of you?  I'd love to hear how this book compares to her other writing.


  1. I completely agree with your reaction; I found this book v frustrating and too name-droppy but with brief moments of brilliance. And I typed out that same quote you shared! :D

    I've read 2 of her novel(la)s, both neovictorian ghost stories. The Woman in Black was good, but a bit light and I didn't think it lived up to quite all of the hype I see in the blogosphere. The Man in the Picture was disappointing for me; it was actually my first experience w her and it put me off trying her again for quite awhile. (I read both of those before reading this one, so my poor impression of her didn't play in to how I reacted to them!) I'm mildly curious about her mystery/crime books, but they aren't a very high priority on my wishlist.

  2. You and I had a similar experience, although I think I was far more annoyed by it. There is a small camp of us out there who didn't love this one like the majority of the blogging world. Author Hill even took exception to the bad review that Claire (of Paperback Reader)gave the book, going so far as to leaving pretty snarky comments on Claire's blog. It made me not want to pursue Hill's work any further.

  3. Oops, I went back and re-read the comments on Claire's post (Oct 09) and it wasn't Hill who got snarky, it was another commenter. Apologies for my previous misstatment.

  4. I have not read this yet-it might as you said be good light short time read-I like Dahl a lot and would enjoy learning why others do not-I just completed Howards End so I would want to read her thoughts on it-I totally loved it though I admit I am more in the A Passage to India crowd-both are mentioned in by Clifton Fadiman-he gives lists A Passage to India but says Howards End was the masterwork of the author

  5. Not only the title but the cover appeals to me. Sorry to hear that in this case the book should not be judged by its cover.

  6. I have to confess to having enjoyed it. Possibly, we approached it from different perspectives. I didn't really expect a lot of depth or insight from it but treated it more as a fun little glimpse into her world.

    I agree that the name dropping was a bit irritating though.

  7. I've heard similar criticisms of this book for its name-dropping and its (to me RIDICULOUS) assertion that the author just "doesn't get" fiction from other countries than her own (and possibly the US, I don't remember). Thanks for reinforcing for me that I can leave Hill off my wish-list!

  8. I was delighted to read your description of your own bookshelf arrangement. My own are largely organized chronologically--not by when they were written, but when I bought or read them. I have lately tried to introduce a little thematic order, keeping multiple volumes by the same author in the same room at least! I haven't read Susan Hill, but I liked very much the quote you selected from this book about "literary DNA."

  9. I have to disagree, I loved this book and was inspired by it in all sorts of ways, but yes, you would enjoy it more read as little short bursts rather than as one book, because she is talking about different aspects of reading in each chapter. I have read some of her short stories and also 'Woman in Black' which I really loved, so so spooky, and I do not normally got for ghost stories.
    thanks for sharing


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