Archive for the ‘Susan Hill’ Category

“Daffodils” by Arthur Baker-Clark

The sun is out here this afternoon and everyone is wandering around, staring with confusion at blue skies, shadows, and other consequences of sunlight that have become foreign to us over the last few months of near-constant rain.  Most importantly, it feels, if only for a few hours, like spring is really coming and that the snow drops aren’t just here to lure us into a false sense of optimism.  Here’s hoping.

I’ve spent an entertaining weekend acting as moral support for my mother, who, at age 63, has decided she wants to sew again after abstaining for more than thirty years.  My grandmother was extraordinarily talented and my mother once upon a time was very good herself – they may have been poor when they immigrated to Canada but they were extraordinarily well-dressed.  My mother’s powder blue jumpsuit circa 1970 is still remembered fondly by every boy/man who ever saw her in it.  However, a busy corporate career, two time-consuming children, and a healthy disposable income had my mom cheerfully turning away from her sewing machine for the last several decades.  Now semi-retired and looking for hobbies, she’s decided this is the way to go.  I remember absolutely nothing about sewing so am in no way useful but I am a cheerful and positive presence (I am told) and am enjoying the entire process immensely.

What I am expert at is reading.  I’ve been reading steadily and am entertaining myself right now by flipping back and forth between The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh and The Blue Zones of Happiness by Dan Buettner.  The Blue Zones book looks at happiness research from around the world and identifies habits, attitudes, and structures from these places that people around the world can imitate to improve their own happiness.  Evelyn Waugh could have used some of these.  In his thirties he appears to have been merely rude and intent on making several enemies per year.  As he aged, he became exceeding ornery and determined to make enemies of everyone he met.  His much more charming correspondent, however, remains sunny and optimistic even when going through her own personal struggles.  And Mitford got to live in dynamic Paris rather than dreary England so that surely helped (echoing an important lesson of Buettner’s book: it’s hard to be happy in depressing surroundings, especially when all the people you see are also miserable).

These are probably the two most interesting books I’ve read all month.  Here’s a taste of a few other things I’ve been reading that weren’t quite worthy of getting their own dedicated posts:

Yeoman’s Hospital by Helen Ashton (1944) – this story of a day in the life of a country hospital was a bit too slow moving and detailed for me.  I like the idea and the doctor characters were nicely done but the story dragged terribly every time the focus shifted to the nursing staff.  While there is no obvious war-related storyline, it’s interesting to see how social changes wrought by the war are integrated into the story.  For example, when the senior doctors are considering filling positions they remark on how the most capable young doctors available are generally women since the best men are enlisted.  This is certainly reflected in their hospital staff: one of the central characters is a very accomplished female doctor whose skills are never in doubt.  She does have a needlessly overwrought romantic life, though, which makes for one of the tiring plotlines in an already tired novel.  Definitely not Ashton’s best and easily skippable.

The Magic Apple Tree by Susan Hill (1982) – I found a book where Hill isn’t immensely annoying in every second paragraph!  This chronicle of a year of country life is beautifully observed and elegantly written.  It isn’t quite up to the standard of books like A Country Life by Roy Strong or Adrian Bell’s trilogy (starting with Corduroy) but it was a very pleasant read.  She is particularly good in writing about winter and autumn (her favourite season) and conjuring up cosy indoor scenes and spartan outdoor ones.

Miss Billy by Eleanor H. Porter (1911) – this sounded charming: the story of an eighteen-year old girl who, when her last surviving relative dies, seeks out her father’s closest friend (William) after whom she (Billy) was named.  William generously invites her to come make her home with him and his two younger brothers only realising her gender when he goes to meet her at the train station.  Cute, yes?  In execution, it’s awfully bad.  Billy is annoying from her first appearance, not a single character is fleshed out enough to ever become interesting, and the plot is both flimsy and absurd.  Billy is paired up with each of the brothers at one point or another and it’s all very unconvincing.  The main point in the book’s favour is how short it is and I finished it with relief.  What is truly horrifying is that there are two sequels!

There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather by Linda Åkeson McGurk (2017) – McGurk, Swedish by birth, was living and raising her children in Indiana with her American husband when her father became ill.  Wanting to be closer to him while he went through treatment, she moved to Sweden for six months with her two daughters while her husband remained in America.  Having been frustrated by how difficult it was to get her girls in America to enjoy the outdoorsy lifestyle she grew up with (concerned neighbours often stopped their cars to offer her a life when they saw her – well dressed for the elements – out walking in rain, snow or cold weather) she is excited to see how they will react to life in Sweden, where active lifestyles are the norm and schools prioritize outdoor playtime.

The verdict?  The secret to Swedish parenting is to make your children go outside in all weather and to teach them from childhood to enjoy nature as part of their daily life.  I grew up and live in a very outdoorsy place so there was lots familiar from the Swedish approach but the institutional issues McGurk saw in the US education system (particularly reduced time for outdoor play during recess and lunchtimes) are definitely things we’re seeing – with concern – here in Canada as well.  Overall, very entertaining and sensible.

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The best thing about celebrating on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day is that you gain a whole evening in which to enjoy your Christmas gifts. And for me, that meant curling up with the much-anticipated Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill and reading late into the night (other benefit of celebrating on the 24th: no need to wake early on the 25th).

This is Hill’s second volume of bookish musings following the wonderful Howards End is on the Landing and one I’d been looking forward to for a long, long, long time (learn more about the confusing evolution of this book in Simon’s excellent review). Did it live up to my expectations? Unfortunately, not quite but I am still very happy to have read it.

I adore Hill’s enthusiasm for all things book-related. She is a passionate reader and has opinions about everything going on in the literary community. This can make her a divisive figure as her views are strong, bluntly stated, and seemingly unassailable. She is in fact deeply obnoxious when these moods strike her. But in between she writes intoxicatingly about the books she loves and, rather randomly but beautifully, about the natural world around her. And these are the sections that I love and make everything worthwhile:

Reading is magic. Books are magic. It starts when we are shown picture books and realise there is another world beyond the everyday one we know. Once we can read ourselves, we live inside the magic. The only problem is that we have to emerge at the end of a book, and we don’t want to leave and return to that dull domestic world we know. The only solution to that problem, of course, is that there is always the next book, and the next…

The greatest joy of Howards End is on the Landing for me was the excellent book recommendations it contained. My TBR list grew immeasurably. This book felt much lighter in terms of the number of books it referenced and I didn’t find any of them (excluding the ones I’ve already read) particularly intriguing.

What Hill does seem to focus on more this time are her own life stories (in case you didn’t think there were enough of those in the first book). This, if you are a reader who finds her intolerable, is not a good sign. I was vaguely neutral towards her before I started reading but the more time she spent talking about herself, the more insufferable I found her. She spends far too much time being defensive about literary prizes (except when complaining that there are too many now), and has a strange egotistical rant about how few novels about WWI had been written when she (a woman! And not yet thirty!) wrote Strange Meeting in 1971 and apparently set the entire trend ablaze. She does graciously acknowledge that a little book called All Quiet on the Western Front was also being read at the time. Now, I’d never heard of Strange Meeting before but apparently it won her the Somerset Maugham Award: £500 to be spent on travel. Her description of how she used it was perhaps my favourite passage in the entire book:

Instead of going to Ulan Bator or across the Atlas mountains by yak, I took the night train to Venice and spent six weeks there on the money, staying in a tiny but pleasant and clean hotel and living on their breakfasts and then cheap fruit from the market and tiny pizzas. The orchestras in St. Mark’s Square were outrivaling each other with the theme from Love Story and, as I could never afford a coffee at Florian’s, I just walked about hearing them down every side alley. It was an extraordinary time and I wrote about Venice a great deal afterwards. And thanked Maugham from the heart, every day.

Doesn’t that sound wonderful?

Hill has certainly lived an interesting life and has lots of strong and fascinating (if frequently infuriating) opinions. I felt like her best anecdotes and favourite books may have been used up in the first book but this is still an interesting and enjoyable read – if you can stomach her pretension and narcissism.

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Oh, the excruciating pain of making this list!  I am very pleased with the end result but how cruel to have spent the last few days playing off my favourite books against one another to get down to the ten you see here (and ten it must be for when I attempted to make a list of fifteen things got wildly out of hand).  What I did realise quickly was what an excellent reading year I’ve had, full of wonderful, memorable books.  May 2012 bring more of the same!

10. The Unlikely Disciple (2009) – Kevin Roose
The best books are the ones that get you so excited that you cannot stop talking about them, so that soon all your friends and family know exactly what you’re reading.  That is what happened while I was reading The Unlikely Disciple.  Roose, then an undergraduate at Brown, went ‘undercover’ for a semester at an evangelical Christian university.  His insightful, respectful, and very detailed chronicle of his time there left me highly entertained and incredibly engaged, pondering some of the issues he touched on (the influence of religious groups in politics, evangelical Christianity’s attitudes towards women, and journalistic ethics, to name a few) for weeks after I had finished reading.

9. Skylark (1924) – Dezső Kosztolányi
Set in 1899 in a small town in Austria-Hungary, this is the story of Skylark’s mother and father and the joyous week they spend enjoying themselves while their spinster daughter is away visiting family.  Mother and Father’s excitement at their outings to the restaurant and the theatre (and, in Father’s case, a meeting of the local drinking club) is humourously and heartwarmingly told but it is the return of the pathetic, pitiable Skylark (and Father’s outburst in anticipation of her return) that truly makes this a brilliant novel.  A wonderful and sympathetic view of the burden faced by parents with beloved but unmarriageable daughters. 

8. An Appetite for Life (1977) – Charles Ritchie
Ritchie, though he was a prominent diplomat, is now best remembered for his skill as a diarist and rightly so.  This, the earliest published volume of his diaries, covers the years 1924-1927, as Ritchie was finishing off his studies in Halifax and then experiencing the delightful distractions on offer at Oxford during his first year there.  Ritchie is marvellously candid and his daily ponderings – here, unsurprisingly given his youth, focused on women, sex, and school – manage to be both amusing and touching.

7. Christopher and Columbus (1919) – Elizabeth von Arnim
I took the longest time to decide which von Arnim novel was going to make the list but this beat out The Pastor’s Wife by the sheer force of its charm.  A light, fanciful escape from reality, Christopher and Columbus tells the story of two orphaned teenage German-English twins and their exploits once shipped off to neutral America by their uncle during WWI.  While sailing, Anna-Rose and Anna-Felicitas befriend the delightful, doting Mr Twist, an American millionaire who made his fortune by designing a no-drip tea pot.  The adventures of this trio make for enchanting reading, with von Arnim’s witty narrator saving it from descending into anything too saccharine.

6. Earth and High Heaven (1944) – Gwethalyn Graham
Without question, this was the biggest reading surprise of the year.  My first reaction upon finishing was that it was the most Persephone-like non-Persephone book I’ve ever read.  Set in Montreal in 1942, the novel revolves around the challenges faced by Erica Drake, an editor at a newspaper, and Marc Reiser, a lawyer, when they meet and fall in love.  Anti-Semitism and family relationships are at the heart of this novel but it is also full of comments on the war, whether it be French-speaking Canada’s reluctance to be involved or the deadening effect of the destruction of the London Blitz, experienced first-hand by Erica’s sister.  It is an absolutely amazing novel that deserves a much wider audience.

5. Hostages to Fortune (1933) – Elizabeth Cambridge
My love for this quiet novel has come on slowly.  I enjoyed it when I read it, yes, but with each passing month I find myself loving it more.  I remain particularly impressed with Cambridge’s portrait of Catherine and William’s marriage and how it evolves, through separation during the war, the arrivals of babies, and the numbingly chaotic years spent scrambling to raise ( and afford to raise) their three children.

4. The American Senator (1877) – Anthony Trollope
My first encounter with Trollope was an unqualified success.  Since then, I’ve read The Warden and Barchester Towers and enjoyed both but neither came close to equaling my delight with The American Senator.  Was it Mr Elias Gotobed’s comically offensive but generally true statements that charmed me so?  The love story of the gentle, deserving Mary Masters?  Or was it the magnificent anti-heroine, Arabella Trefoil, whose single-minded pursuit of a husband  is awesome to behold?  The combination of these stories makes for an eventful, always fascinating, deeply satisfying novel that quite rightly convinced me that Trollope was an author after my own heart.

3. Wives and Daughters (1866) – Elizabeth Gaskell
I feel a bit of a cheat to place a reread so high on my list but…This book is absolutely perfect and fully earned its spot.  I don’t think I will ever tire of Molly Gibson, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, Squire Hamley or, that most magnificent creation, Mrs. Hyacinth Kirkpatrick Gibson.

2. Howards End is on the Landing (2009) – Susan Hill
In any other year, this book would have probably garnered top spot.  Hill’s memoir of a lifetime spent in the company of books and other authors delighted me from the first page to the last.  Everything about this book was perfect for me.  There was enough of the familiar in Hill’s reading to comfort me (because one of the delights of reading about books is coming across opinions on books you know well) and enough of the new to excite me and make me eager to track down those unknown titles.  Even before I had finished reading my library edition, I rushed out to buy a copy of my very own.

1. Summer Half (1937) – Angela Thirkell
Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.

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I adored Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill.  I started it with trepidation, knowing what strong reactions other bloggers had had to reading it, both positive and negative, but within a page or two I was in love with it.  For those unfamiliar with it, it is the story of Susan Hill’s year spent rediscovering the books in her home (begun when she set out to find a copy of Howards End and instead stumbled upon countless books she had forgotten about) and her memories and ponderings on a lifetime spent reading and writing and moving in literary circles.     

Writing about books and reading can be tricky.  There are a million things that can sour you against the author of such books, the chief being their taste in reading material.  I knew going into this that Hill was not a fan of Canadian (or Australian) lit but, honestly, I really could not care less.  My national pride is not offended by her preferences, which she has every right to hold and express, and I appreciate her frankness, which is representative of the openness of the entire book.  Agreement is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.  We don’t agree about Austen either but, again, the world is not so black and white that it is divided into Good People aka Austen Fans and Bad People aka Not Austen Fans.  And I do appreciate that she has attempted to understand Austen’s appeal and is able to express her disinterest in such a pleasant, articulate way: 

Perhaps the nineteenth century, whose style of dress and architecture, design and manners, I find cold and distancing, is to blame for my inability to appreciate Austen, whose cool, ironic style is somehow all of a piece with that formality and porcelain veneer.  Yes, there is wit, there are acute asides, there is a sharpness of observation and judgement, but I never feel empathy with, or closeness to, an Austen character.  That may be because their author, their creator, discourages intimacy.  She is herself politely distant, keeps me at arm’s length, is too private and reserved.  I cannot get to know her and if I cannot do that, how can I like her or be interested in what she has to tell me about her characters and their situations?  It is all too patterned, too much like one of those boring formal dances they performed, all too stylized.  I want someone to break out of the elegant little drawing room circle and go mad.  Lydia Bennet almost does it.  (p. 96-97)

Hill is chatty and intimate in her writing style, each page filled with her simple, clear prose and her overwhelming affection for her subject.  I knew nothing of Hill before reading this and had never read any of her books (having the impression that they are dark, ghoulish tales, the kind that bore me no end) so getting to know her in these pages was a delight.  The result is a book that I could hardly bear to let go of when it came time to take a break from reading, the kind of book where after finishing a particularly wonderful chapter or resonant paragraph you hug it to yourself, trying to physically hold on to the last of that giddy feeling provoked by good writing.  I had a library copy, which was particularly wrenching as I knew I would have to return it once I had finished with it.  I, of course, went out and bought my own copy immediately after finishing (even before I’d returned the library copy). 

I love the name dropping, the encounters with other writers and publishers.  Other readers were put off by this but I adore it.  I love that spark of recognition I feel when a familiar name appears on the page.  Look!  What are they doing here?  Worlds and lives I once might have thought completely separate combine in the most wonderful way.  Such appearances enlighten, enrich, and delight, serving to provide us readers with much richer portraits of all the individuals involved rather than flattering Hill’s vanity. 

The tone Hill sets right from the opening pages is romantic and slightly dreamy, whisking the reader away into a world dominated by books and the bookishly-inclined, a paradise of sorts.  She is not afraid to indulge in flights of fancy, conjuring up irresistible images that are both glamourous and cozy all at once:

Sleeper trains are the most romantic form of travel in the world, far more so that cruise ships once the epitome of romantic travel.  I have taken sleepers across Europe and there is nothing, nothing in the world so exciting as waking in the night, drawing up the blind and finding oneself in the small hours at some remote mountain village station, where a couple of porters are smoking and watching the milk churns being loaded.  ‘Domodossola’ says the sign.  And the station is lit by a strange, dim light.  It is a Graham Greene scene, or one out of an early Orson Welles movie, with someone sinister in a mac and trilby standing in the shadows, watching, waiting.  Three hours later, wake again, and the blind snaps up to show Lake Montreux outside your window and children get on to the train for a few stops to school conveying bags of books – and skis. (p. 58-59)

But this book is also the pulpit from which she can preach to the masses about all the quirks and flaws other readers indulge in, outlining what, in her opinion, the proper way is to do things.  Occasionally, I even agree with her.  I cannot, I absolutely cannot concede that scribbling in the margins in the best way to appreciate a book but, even when I’m not in agreement with Hill, I love to hear how she makes her point.  In urging readers to take their time with great novels, she is passionate and idealistic, if not fully persuading me then at least inspiring me to reconsider my current reading habits:

Everything I am reading during this year has so much to yield but only if I give it my full attention and respect it by reading slowly.  Fast reading of a great novel will get us the plot.  It will get us names, a shadowy idea of characters, a sketch of settings.  It will not get us subtleties, small differentiations, depth of emotion and observation, multilayered human experience, the appreciation of simile and metaphor, any sense of context, any comparison with other novels, other writers.  Fast reading will not get us cadence and complexities of style and language.  It will not get us anything that enters not just the conscious mind but the unconscious.  It will not allow the book to burrow down into our memory and become part of ourselves, the accumulation of knowledge and wisdom and vicarious experience which helps to form us as complete human beings.  It will not develop our awareness or add to the sum of our knowledge and intelligence.  Read parts of a newspaper quickly or an encyclopedia entry, or a fast-food thriller, but do not insult yourself or a book which has been created with its author’s painstakingly acquired skill and effort, by seeing how fast you can dispose of it.  (p. 171-172)

And if I hadn’t already been in love with this book, this passage near the end would have won me over completely, echoing my own thoughts exactly:

Since our children’s books were first bought, fiction for young readers has become more and more issue-led.  Divorce, step-parents, drugs, alcohol, early sex, knife crime, foster care child abuse, unemployment, gang warfare, AIDS, terminal illness…you name it, there is a novel for children about it.  But all children are anxious, adult life contains much that is ugly and unhappy, unpleasant or down-right bad.  Why introduce them to that too early, through books, which can be such a force for enjoyment, imaginative enrichment, fun, excitement, adventure, magic?  Realism comes home soon enough and many children have too much anguish to cope with in their everyday lives as it is.  Their books can be one corner of life that remains untainted by the troubles brought upon their heads by unthinking, unloving adults.  I am glad mine remained ignorant of much that is polluted, cruel, ugly, hurtful, wrong as long as possible (which is not, after all, very long, in the scheme of things) and that their books were wholesome, enriching, enlivening, enjoyable, loveable and, for the most part, were about worlds in which they could happily, innocently escape.  (p. 196-197)

The real, intoxicating pleasure of this book is how many other books it leads you too.  I had never heard of many of these books before.  I know nothing more about most of them or their authors that what Hill has shared.  And that’s wonderful, magical even.  There is so much promise with a list of unknowns, so much potential to entertain and excite.  Here’s the list I scribbled down while reading, including some titles that were already on my TBR list but which I’m now even more excited about, but mostly books that are completely new to me:

Chatwin, Bruce – Utz, In Patagonia, On the Black Hill
Tomalin, Claire – biographies of Katherine Mansfield, Thomas Hardy
Howard, Elizabeth Jane – Something in Disguise, After Julius, The Sea Change
Fitzgerald, Penelope – The Blue Flower
Clark, Alan – diaries
Kilvert, Francis (Rev) – diaries
Strong,Roy– diaries
Woolf, Virginia– A Writer’s Diary
Gray, Simon – The Smoking Diaries
The Journal of Sir Walter Scott
Ertz, Susan – Madame Claire
Simpson, Helen – Four Bare Legs in a Bed
The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s
Bell, Quentin – Biography of Virginia Woolf
Briggs, Julia – Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life
Lehmann, John – Virginia Woolf and her World
Bell, Vanessa – Sketches in Pen and Ink: A Bloomsbury Notebook
Sebald, W.G. – The Rings of Saturn
Mayor, F.M. – The Rector’s Daughter
Heaney, Seamus and Ted Hughes (editors) – The Rattle Bag
Cecil, David – Library Looking Glass: A Personal Anthology
Hare, David – Racing Demon, Skylight, Amy’s View
Wesker, Arnold – plays
1662 Book of Common Prayer (Everyman’s Library Edition)
Crewe, Quentin – Letters from India
Peto, Nick – Peto’s Progress
Dickens, Charles – Our Mutual Friend
Jansson, Tove – The Finn Family Moomintroll
Mayne, Michael – A Year Lost and Found, Learning to Dance, This Sunrise of Wonder
Fermor, Patrick Leigh – A Time to Keep Silence

Howards End is on the Landing is a marvelous, wonderful book, the best ‘book about books’ that I have yet read.  There is so much here to revel in, to delve deeper into and to ponder, that I’m already looking forward to future rereadings. 


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