Susan Hill: Howard’s End is on the Landing (review)

9781846682667‘I climbed two flights of elm-wood stairs to the top landing in search of a book, and found myself embarked on a year of traveling through the books of a lifetime.’ (location 101-109)

I have a tendency to use books about books to keep my enthusiasm about books and reading at a high level at all times. It’s not that often that I need something to feed my enthusiasm but it’s not often either that I read memoirs about books and reading. According to Goodreads, I’ve only read two – Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch and this one, Susan Hill’s memoir about reading at home for a year. I’ll probably add Alan Bennett’s wonderful The Uncommon Reader to the list though. Still, it’s not like this is a genre I read a lot – and I kind of wonder why. When you are a reader, there’s something nice and cozy about sitting down and reading a book about someone else who loves to read. Or at least there should be. But maybe – or probably if I judge by my large experience of reading two memories and one novel about the love of reading – reading isn’t something you should read about. Or at least not about other people reminiscing about their reading. Which is probably a bit problematic for me, since in a way, that’s what’s book blogging is all about…
Anyway, to hurry on, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing. It’s a nice quiet book about a year spend reading only books already in the house, inspired by her discovering how many unread books she actually owned. And so she goes around in her house, picks up some books, read some in part and other in full, rereads others and basically just reacquaints herself with the books she has collected through her life as well as the memories attached with them.
As a writer, she of course has the advantage of having actually met some of the people she has books by and therefore is able to relate anecdotes about them. One in particular that struck me, was how she remembered meeting Iris Murdoch for the last time and this sad image of a very clever woman lost to Alzheimer’s. Also the image of her arriving home one night and finding both her husband and her two daughters immersed in Harry Potter books was an enjoyable one.
Authors discussed include Enid Blyton, Charles Dickens, Trollope, Elisabeth Bowen, E.M. Forster as well as many others. Virginia Woolf also gets a lot of pages – especially since she has inspired Hill in many ways, both with her writing and her publishing. And this is probably one of the key point of the book – Susan Hill is more of a writer than she is a reader. Not to say she doesn’t read or love to read. She does indeed. But she is a writer and the book is a writer’s guide to and exploration of her home library.
Throughout her year of reading from home, she puts together a list of 40 books that she could survive on, if she had to choose only 40 books to keep. She doesn’t discuss them all or give reasons to why they are on her list, but it’s an interesting exercise. Of all the books you’ve read throughout your life, which 40 would be the keepers that you could live on for the rest of your life? She includes the list at the end of the book and it’s an interesting diverse list – and quite different from what mine would look like.
One thing that did struck me as a bit peculiar was, that she never seemed to be sad that she could only read what she already owned and wasn’t allowed to get any new ones. I love book buying and tend to go a bit crazy when I visit a good book store and have a lot of trouble with not buying books all the time – even though I have enough unread books on my shelves to be easily able to spend a year reading just these. She doesn’t seem to miss book buying in any way. I know I couldn’t go an entire year without buying books – but she never mentions it.
Susan Hill is a very different reader than me. She writes all over in her books – but doesn’t write her name in the beginning of the book. I do the opposite. She keeps her books all over her house, randomly organized. My novels are organized alphabetically by author’s last name and on a big book case in the living rooms. We don’t have stacks of books all over the house like she does. Still, I would love to visit her house. Keeping books that way seems like a treasure trove of reading experiences and it would be fun to spend some time discovering her unexpected treasures. It’s not wonder that she got inspired to just explore this book heaven for a year. For us as readers, it would have been more fun if we could do the same and not just read about it.

‘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.’ (location 73-79)

First lines: It began like this. I went to the shelves on the landing to look for a book I knew was there. It was not. But plenty of others were and among them I noticed at least a dozen I realised that I had never read.

  • Title: Howard’s End is on the Landing
  • Author: Susan Hill
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Year: 2009
  • Pages: 236 pages
  • Source: Own collection – Kindle
  • Stars: 3 stars out of 5

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Book recommendations from Salman Rushdie

I want to start by saying that I love twitter!

Salman Rushdie posted a couple of tweets about how he has presented Anita Desai with the India Abroad Lifetime Achievement Award and that she is a great writer. He even called her The Indian Austen. Naturally, this kindled my interest so I asked him which books he would recommend. He recommended two: Clear Light of Day and In Custody.

Now I’ve just finished reading Rushdie’s novel Shalimar the Clown. How amazing is it then to be able to reach out to this great author and get some recommendations to another writer? How amazing is it that he actually answered?!

I’ve done a tiny bit of research afterwards to learn more about Anita Desai and the books recommended by Rushdie.

Born in 1937, Desai is an Indian novelist who has been shortlisted for the Booker three times. Apparently, she published her first story at the tender age of nine! She is the mother to the Booker winning novelist Kiran Desai (who won the Booker award 2006 for The Inheritance of Loss – she is apparently in a relationship with Orhan Pamuk, the famous Turkish novelist).

Desai writes both novels, children’s literature and short stories. Writing in English, Desai writes about Indian life, gender roles, the importance of families, how women in India rebel against the traditional patriarchal society and it’s norms and values, and the complexities of modern Indian life and culture.

Since Anita Desai published her first book in 1963, Cry, the Peacock, she has written at least 16 books, the last being The Artist of Disappearance (2011).

Clear Light of Day (1980)

Set in India’s Old Delhi, CLEAR LIGHT OF DAY is Anita Desai’s tender, warm, and compassionate novel about family scars, the ability to forgive and forget, and the trials and tribulations of familial love. At the novel’s heart are the moving relationships between the members of the Das family, who have grown apart from each other. Bimla is a dissatisfied but ambitious teacher at a women’s college who lives in her childhood home, where she cares for her mentally challenged brother, Baba. Tara is her younger, unambitious, estranged sister, married and with children of her own. Raja is their popular, brilliant, and successful brother. When Tara returns for a visit with Bimla and Baba, old memories and tensions resurface and blend into a domestic drama that is intensely beautiful and leads to profound self-understanding.

In Custody (1984)

Touching and wonderfully funny, In Custody is woven around the yearnings and calamities of a small town scholar in the north of India. An impoverished college lecturer, Deven, sees a way to escape from the meanness of his daily life when he is asked to interview India’s greatest Urdu poet, Nur – a project that can only end in disaster.

I also got an answer from Susan Hill (I am the King of the Castle and more) who also thinks Anita Desai is a wonderful writer.

So what this means is that I’ve discovered a new author to add to my wish list, an author I hope to get around to reading soon since her books sound very interesting!

Read more:

In conversation: Kiran Desai meets Anita Desai – The Guardian