Sunday, 11 October 2009

Now where was it....

29. Howards End is on the Landing - Susan Hill

I've teased you long enough, and now I am going to write ab
out Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. I'm not sure of the exact publication date, but apparently it's already being shipped by some, er, depositories of books. So will be hitting shelves soon, if it's not there already. As you can see, it's gone straight into my list of 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About - though I suspect *everyone* will have heard about it before long. It's just too good not to put into the list.

To set the tone: this is my favourite book of the year so far. It's everything bookish and literary that you could possibly ask for - basically, if you sigh happily when glancing at the cover (which Hill herself thinks is the best one she's ever been given) then this is the book for you.

The premise is that Susan Hill will spend a year reading only books she has on her shelves. Not just unread books, but revisiting those from the past - much-read favourites alongside ones she's always meant to read. As she beautifully writes: 'a book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.'

And so the year begins. Hill avoids spending much time on the internet - explaining the sudden disappearance of her blog - since it can 'have a pernicious influence on reading because it is full of book-related gossip and chatter on which it is fatally easy to waste time that should be spent actually paying close, careful attention to the books themselves.' I find this chatter wonderful, of course (for what is Stuck-in-a-Book but book-related chatter?) and a great resource for finding more books - but I think Hill's decision is a dream a lot of us have. Wouldn't it be lovely to retreat into our bookshelves, finally tackling those tbr piles, having everything spontaneous and undecided?

In truth, most of Howards End is on the Landing is speculative, wondering which books might be read, and remembering her experiences with them, rather than reappraisals of the re-reads and newly reads. Is this an autobiography through reading? In a way, perhaps. But it is much more embracing than that - personal anecdotes, yes (her meeting with Iris Murdoch is quietly heart-breaking), but also chapte
rs on how books can be shelved, whether or not to write in them, what constitutes a funny book... It's a bit like a very well-edited, and selective, blog. And I mean that as a compliment. Individual authors treated to their own chapter include Virginia Woolf, Roald Dahl, Ian Fleming, WG Sebald, Penelope Fitzgerald, Anthony Trollope... a huge range, for Susan Hill is no book snob. How cheering to hear her say:

Adults may say what they like - parents, teachers and other know-alls. Enid Blyton excited us, took us into worlds of mystery, magic, adventure and fun. Yes, her prose is bland, yes, the vocabulary is not particularly stretching. But Blyton had the secret, the knack.
There are sections on diaries, e-readers (not a fan), detective fiction, and how she doesn't like Jane Austen (intake of breath, but she keeps trying to see what's what with Jane, and at least she's honest...) Oh, and lots more.

Towards the end, Hill tries to decide upon the 40 books she'd read for the rest of her life, if she could have no others. I shan't spoil her list, for the book builds up to it, but it's a great idea for a gradual, contemplative exercise.

Above all - and I am aware that I haven't done justice to Howards End is on the Landing, for it is impossible to put across her tone - Susan Hill has written something delightfully, wisely, enchantingly bookish. I feel I have been around her old farmhouse, with its rooms full of bookcases - I feel her surprise when she happens upon an unexpected old friend on her uncategorised shelves. Mostly, I have fallen even more deeply in love with my own books - with those which have lingered for years unread; with my own personal library as a whole.

She picks and chooses, yet is also somehow comprehensive. She writes subjectively, but - whether or not I agree with her - it feels like the last word has been spoken; the whole spectrum of opinion addressed. And Hill can be sweeping ('Girls read more than boys, always have, always will. That's a known fact.') and naive ('if [some listed Elizabethan plays] were any good we would have heard of them') but that doesn't seem to matter a jot. Perhaps it is her sheer love of books that make her the everywoman - or at least everyreader -
even whilst having a determined set of views.

There are some books which are read reluctantly; others so addictive that they are read walking down the street. Then there are those - and this is a rare, wonderful category - that are laid aside often, because the thought of finishing them, of having no more to read, is awful. Howards End is on the Landing is in this category - what higher praise can I offer? This might only truly delight those of us who have hundreds of unread books, lists everywhere of books we intend to read. For us (and if you've read this far, that includes you) this is a treasure, from the pen of a like-minded friend, to which we will often, happily, joyfully, return.

24 comments:

  1. Oh Simon, what a lovely review. I want to read it even more now. My copy shipped from Amazon on Friday, so I'm hopeful of having it in time for the train ride to Cheltenham on Tuesday (going to see Diana Athill, Emma Smith and Juliet Nicolson at the Lit Fest).

    Carol N

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  2. Hmm, I'm not convinced despite your eulogy. I am absolutely convinced, with the same lack of objectivity that Hill evokes here, that it is not the last word!

    Glad to hear that you enjoyed it; it is only fair to say that I speak from ignorance here.

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  3. Simon, can you give me (us) some examples from the "rare, wonderful category - that are laid aside often, because the thought of finishing them, of having no more to read, is awful." I have never, ever felt that way about a book. I suspect that I have probably not read as many as you have, so possibly they are rare indeed thus an example would be very illuminating.

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  4. After checking my order status, a certain depository has dispatched this book...I hope that means it will be on its way soon. Your review has me convinced that I will be setting aside my other reads for this one.

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  5. Hi Dark Puss - there are only two other books of which I can think which have fallen into that category - Miss Hargreaves and the Mitford sister letters. The former just because I love the novel so very much, the latter because it felt like I was part of a world/family that I'd have to leave when I finished reading the book.

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  6. My copy arrived yesterday, I am looking at it now, what a wonderful cover, it just glows. With enormous restraint I am finishing my current read.
    I love Susan Hill's varied books of memoirs. I vividly remember reading The Magic Apple Tree and being totally inspired in the cooking and gardening realms. I anticipate being equally inspired in the reading realm too.
    Lovely review Simon.
    Carole

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  7. What an utterly charming review of one of the books that I am MOST excited about this year, I have a feeling it will be hitting most of the Book Bloggings top reads of 2009 without a doubt, I already know I will be buying it for several book lovers I know. Cannot wait to get my hands on it!

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  8. This book sounds wonderful! I'll definitely be looking out for it. I'm really curious to know what her favourite books are.

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  9. A book has been dispatched to me as well. Now if only the holiday were not holding up its delivery!

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  10. I enjoyed it very much too - and had a similar response to yours. It was just like a compilation from a very good blog.

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  11. Very vry envious that you got a review copy - I love the premise of the book and the fact that you said it was one of your favourites this year makes me desperate for my copy, which like Carols was dispatched on Friday. But probably won't arrive til christmas.

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  12. I have it and am looking forward to a real treat!

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  13. My copy arrived this weekend and I can't wait to read it - especially as she's doing an evening event in Abingdon on Friday Nov 20 at Mostly Books.

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  14. Why oh why can't books be released at the same time in the US and UK?! I might have to put this on my Christmas list and mention a certain book depository alongside it. ;)

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  15. Just received an email saying my copy was on its way, hooray! I'm looking forward to a long winter of reading from my shelves.

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  16. My copy is also on its way... and I am most excited.

    There has been much talk about this already amongst the blogosphere (and would I have come across it otherwise?) and the hype is exciting me but the erroneous apostrophes are not (I believe you predicted that in a previous post!)

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  17. My copy arrived this morning so will come back and read your review when I've read it. The cover is soooo beautiful, I just want to keep stroking it.

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  18. Can't wait to hear what you all think when the book arrives - but I'm sure you'll love it, if you love books as much as I do.

    Annabel - thanks for mentioning her visit to Abingdon, I've emailed to book my place... hopefully it hasn't sold out yet. And I'll see you at the quiz on the 3rd!

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  19. After swearing no more new books I caved almost instantly for this one (technically a presant, but I still feel a bit guilty) enjoying it very much already and would agree it reads more like a blog than anything else. Can see a few people getting this at christmas, will also note that I wouldn't have been so interested in it in the first place if you and others hadn't made such posotive comments.

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  20. I am itching for my copy to arrive..amazon dispatched it last week apparently but it's not here yet! Your review is not helping my impatience to read this!!!

    I NEVER buy new books at full price because I am tight but as soon as I read your review and dovegreyreader's review a while back I knew I had to have this immediately. Sounds like it will be totally worth it!

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  21. Well clearly I'm going to have to read this book! It sounds wonderful.

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  22. Yes, I agree with you. Enid Blyton was a very charismatic writer. Yes, it is true her language may not have been that much sophisticated to a native (first language) speaker of English, but for us that acquired English as a secong language acquisition, Enid Blyton's language was bliss. without her, some of us wouldn't be where we are, including writing books in English. Thus, as a tribute to Enid Blyton, i have written a book in her honor titled, The Famous Five:A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com).
    Stephen Isabirye

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  23. I wish I could say I liked this book. I so wanted to love it, being crazy for books myself. I found her range quite narrow and, yes, snobby. She dismisses all Canadian and Australian literature, past and present, in one vague sentence, with no more apology or explanation than, "(I know, I know.)" Except for a scant few Russian and European authors, her book was filled with white British and American authors. I'm a big fan of many of her favorites, but come on, hasn't she read more widely than that?

    Also, the name-dropping bored me and caused severe eye-rolling. It often felt like she was choosing favorite books based not on the books' merits, but on whether she had some personal connection to the author that she could mention. And some were so tenuous as to be silly. She didn't know Virginia Woolf, but she did know one of Woolf's sales reps. She didn't know E. M. Forster, but he once dropped a book on her foot in the library and apologized. She didn't know T. S. Eliot, but he once gave her an owlish smile as they both waited for someone to answer the door at a party. And failing even the briefest acquaintance, there are at least two authors of whom she could only say that she always *meant* to meet them. Sure, there were interesting parts where she talked about authors she really did know well and I enjoyed those, but all the rest of the name-dropping told me nothing about the authors, their books, or why she liked them.

    Finally, as you point out, she makes sweeping generalizations. I laughed out loud when I read that people who put bookplates in their books are posers! There's nothing I like more than to buy an old book and find a bookplate in it. I don't put them in my books any more, but I did when I was young. I did it because I loved those books more than anything. They were my link to a sane world. Far from being posers, I think people often do it because their books feel like a part of them. Right or wrong, I certainly don't think that people who bother to buy and affix bookplates are posing to anyone. It's a private process and one that people who don't love books wouldn't take the time to do. It's funny that she's okay with writing interlinear and margin comments, but not with inscribing a book or writing your name in it. To me, those are just as much a postcard to the future as writing "Indeed!" next to a favorite assertion. In the end, though her generalizations didn't bother me as much as the other two aspects. For the last third of the book, I was just scanning for titles and skimming all the anecdotes.

    I'm glad others enjoyed it and there were certainly many good books mentioned. But actually, I find your list more interesting, catholic in its own way, and surprising.

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  24. I wish I could say I liked this book. I so wanted to love it, being crazy for books myself. I found her range quite narrow and, yes, snobby. She dismisses all Canadian and Australian literature, past and present, in one vague sentence, with no more apology or explanation than, "(I know, I know.)" Except for a scant few Russian and European authors, her book was filled with white British and American authors. I'm a big fan of many of her favorites, but come on, hasn't she read more widely than that?

    Also, the name-dropping bored me and caused severe eye-rolling. It often felt like she was choosing favorite books based not on the books' merits, but on whether she had some personal connection to the author that she could mention. And some were so tenuous as to be silly. She didn't know Virginia Woolf, but she did know one of Woolf's sales reps. She didn't know E. M. Forster, but he once dropped a book on her foot in the library and apologized. She didn't know T. S. Eliot, but he once gave her an owlish smile as they both waited for someone to answer the door at a party. And failing even the briefest acquaintance, there are at least two authors of whom she could only say that she always *meant* to meet them. Sure, there were interesting parts where she talked about authors she really did know well and I enjoyed those, but all the rest of the name-dropping told me nothing about the authors, their books, or why she liked them.

    Finally, as you point out, she makes sweeping generalizations. I laughed out loud when I read that people who put bookplates in their books are posers! There's nothing I like more than to buy an old book and find a bookplate in it. I don't put them in my books any more, but I did when I was young. I did it because I loved those books more than anything. They were my link to a sane world. Far from being posers, I think people often do it because their books feel like a part of them. Right or wrong, I certainly don't think that people who bother to buy and affix bookplates are posing to anyone. It's a private process and one that people who don't love books wouldn't take the time to do. It's funny that she's okay with writing interlinear and margin comments, but not with inscribing a book or writing your name in it. To me, those are just as much a postcard to the future as writing "Indeed!" next to a favorite assertion. In the end, though her generalizations didn't bother me as much as the other two aspects. For the last third of the book, I was just scanning for titles and skimming all the anecdotes.

    I'm glad others enjoyed it and there were certainly many good books mentioned. But actually, I find your list more interesting, catholic in its own way, and surprising.

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