Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Of Howards End Is On The Landing

Book Review: Susan Hill, Howard's End is on the Landing (Profile Books, 2009), £12.99.

I read Susan Hill's recently published book Howards End is on the Landing during my enforced stay in bed with 'flu last week (on which subject, btw: I am feeling much better today, so hopefully this time my recovery will be permanent!). Its beautifully decorated dust jacket helped in my fond attempts to pretend that my deathly pallor and hideous purple eye-bags might somehow make me into one of those Pale and Interesting Young Women swooning into their pillows, like the lady in James Whistler's Maud Reading In Bed:

Actually, 'read' is perhaps not exactly the right term. I started reading Hill's book at the beginning, but ended up dipping in and out, alighting on chapters whose titles sounded most alluring, and leaving others until these had run out, and reading other books inbetween*. In itself, I suppose this butterfly approach suggests something of my tepid response to Hill's book. I must say that I don't think this style of reading particularly harmed the book, the structure of which actually lends itself to being read as and how one sees fit. As Verity of The B-Files mentioned in her interesting review, the chapters are extremely short and do not necessarily flow on from one another in any thematic or other way, lacking any overarching structure.

Thanks to the book's sub-title, 'A year of reading from home', and from what I knew of the book's premise before reading it (Hill decided to read only books already in her home collection, aside from review copies and academic works, for a year), I was expecting a kind of reading diary, probably arranged chronologically, and discussing the highs and lows of Hill's experiment, her frustrations at not being able to purchase new books, and her delight at (re)discovering old ones. Thus I expected a book with a fairly strong narrative drive, albeit with plenty of more general bibliophilic digressions along the way: it is perhaps for this reason that I found the lack of coherency slightly irritating. The book is much less about Hill's 'year of reading from home' and more about the way in which particular books evoke particular memories, leading her into dreamy reminiscences, often about famous writers she had encountered or been friends with throughout her life. It is this type of thing which makes the genre label 'memoir' on the back of the dust jacket so apt. Although I enjoyed reading some of Hill's stories, and some of her more general musings upon books were interesting (I am of her mind in disliking the idea of e-readers, for example; although I had to disagree with her rant against bookplates, loving them so much myself! I found it ironic indeed that I should have put my own bookplate in the front of this book before reading it...), I was disappointed not to have more about this particular year in Hill's reading life. I felt at the end like I had little understanding of whether or not this had been a worthwhile thing for Hill to do, and had scant sense of what the year had actually been like for her - so much time was taken up with past stories of varying degrees of interest.

Although some dissenting voices have been cropping up (most notably Claire at Paperback Reader in her thoughtful review), it is generally completely positive responses of Hill's book which have been flooding in, with bloggers joyful at a book whose author is obviously a bibliophile herself. Personally, I would recommend this book, but with reservations, and although Hill displays some lovely turns of phrase, I cannot say that this has inspired me to read any of her novels (which I had not done before reading this, although I did enjoy the thrilling stage version of The Woman in Black a few years ago!). In an odd way, I found the book to have a somewhat reserved and listless tone about it, even when Hill was at her most enthusiastic, although this is simply a matter of personal taste, for, as I have said, in many ways the book is extremely well written. All in all, a bit of a curate's egg!

* On one of my breaks from Hill's book, I picked up my as yet unread copy of The Affair of the Thirty-Nine Cufflinks by James Anderson, the third in the Burford family mystery series. I had very much enjoyed the first two, the deliciously titled The Affair of the Blood-Stained Egg Cosy and The Affair of the Mutilated Mink, and it was a delight to return to the Earl and Countess and their lively daughter Gerry for another riot of murder and mayhem. Anderson's books are great fun, affectionately recreating the atmosphere of the Golden Age detective stories, but with tongue often firmly in cheek. I really felt like some proper comfort reading last week, and this did the trick admirably! I love the covers of the reissues of Anderson's books, and recently bought a card featuring the same picture as that which adorns the cover of the first title, which is now decorating my mantelpiece:

I have just now begun the second of the book haul which arrived alongside HEiotL the other day: Iain Pears' latest novel Stone's Fall. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am a huge fan of Pears' great book An Instance of the Fingerpost, and I have high hopes of this new one, which looks to be equally intricately structured and plotted. I am only four chapters in, and am already hooked! Hopefully my next review will be a little less luke-warm than my response to Susan Hill...

Another bookish quotation from Sir W to round things off today. This one comes from his 1601 essay 'Of Trappes for Fame', and delightfully describes Sir W himself making a happy discovery sitting amongst the volumes in his own library:

'I happened very lately amongst my bookes to meete with Diogenes Laertius, where I was much delighted, euen more then euer I was with any booke, for I do beholde their words and writings with nothing so good a stomack as I do their liues, and to know what they did. I found hardly a page, but I wished my memory, to gather some griftes in them, not a line but so full of precious liquor, as the words were too shorte wasted for the matter. He is in great estimation with me, and shal be one of my neerest companions'.


Paperback Reader said...

I'm glad that you are feeling better, Sophie! Yet another thoughtful review of HEiotL. I liked that you recommend it with reservations; I found the premise of it to be very misleading. I think you took the correct approach with a butterfly one.

verity said...

That was a thoughtful review Sophie, and thanks for linking to mine. I like the idea of a butterfly approach and think like Claire that perhaps that was how it needed to be read. I'm glad you're feeling better anyway!

Donna said...

So glad you're feeling more human Sophie! The title of the Hill book always makes me want to smirk childishly. Did you ever see "Educating Rita"? Great film, very funny, and it's hard to keep a straight face about Howard's End after seeing it. Susan Hill has written some excellent books in the memoir category. I especially liked Family and The Magic Apple Tree. Also her Serrailler mystery series is lots of fun. Didn't buy this one though and now will try from the library first. The James Anderson series does have the most lovely covers!

Merenia said...

Hi Sophie,

I enjoyed your review of HEiotL. I quite often employ a 'butterfly' approach when it comes to non-fiction. Sometimes circling around a subject and also going to the bits that interest you most is not a bad thing. Lack of time also forces me to it too in light of my 2 tiny children.

I get the feeling that this book was a bit of an indulgence - on the part of the publisher who knew anything under the sun by Susan Hill would sell well, and also on the part of Susan Hill, who by virtue of her fame could at this point in her career, write anything she liked (radical opinions and all) around any topic and know it would be read. ( I must say I was shocked to the VERY CORE about the non-liking of Jane Austen! ) But, as a New Zealander am relieved at least that works from that nation have not been eliminated from her reading list.