11 May 2017

Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill

'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.'

I remember the day this book arrived in the mail and can't believe it was 2009.  Not long after I found a group of people in this blogsphere who had years of experience with authors such as Elizabeth Bowen, Muriel Spark, Penelope Lively, Marghanita Laski, and Dorothy Whipple.  These were the authors hiding in plain sight.  While looking for something to read set in the English countryside there is any number of classics, at the other end of the spectrum, plenty of chic lit.  Once introduced to this Aladdin's cave of literature I ordered title upon title and bought more bookcases.  Now the books sit and wait.

Susan Hill imposed a challenge upon herself to read from her shelves for a year.  As she meanders through her home, browsing titles and pulling out books for a closer look, she recounts the memories associated with her acquisitions.  Being a well-known author, the people Hill comes into contact with take Howards End is on the Landing to a level higher than just a snoop around her shelves.  While on a sleeper train from London to Manchester in 1961....

'But this time is was only Manchester after all, in the company of Katherine Whitehorn, Elizabeth David and Elizabeth Jane Howard, grand-seeming ladies all, and terribly grown-up beside a student in a Marks & Spencer V-necked sweater.  Elizabeth Jane was very kind about my book, and then I talked about student-cooking-on-gas-ring, with Katherine, who had written a book about just that, and Elizabeth David, who had not.'

Like Susan Hill, I rarely read books featuring Australia or Canada, and laughed when just yesterday a customer at the library expressed the same view.  The fact that we were standing in a Canadian library meant we assumed the body language of people sharing a sordid secret, but...you like what you like.  At one point though, I took exception to Hill's broad statement about short stories...'Nobody reads them but people go on buying them'.  I love short stories and stock plenty on my shelves.  Hill mentions that she reads certain stories over and over again from her many volumes so perhaps she meant to imply they're not a popular item.  In any case, she had me reaching for the smelling salts.

Howards End is on the Landing is a book you will want to read with a notebook and pen nearby to jot down interesting titles.  Although, the author would simply underline anything she found interesting but this is something I would never do.  Marking a book, folding down a page, or leaving the book open while face down are activities that separate readers into opposite camps...I digress.   Hill considers The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen to be her masterpiece (which I've read) and The Last September as a favourite (which I haven't).  This also brings to mind one of the intricacies of stocking books - the act of saving books you desperately want to read, but don't, because you can't bear the thought of having an undiscovered piece of writing by an author.  Although, thinking back to a 'find' from Harper Lee's estate, as well as Stella Gibbons' Pure Juliet, perhaps I shouldn't be so precious.

Another behaviour we book lovers seem to have in common is the shelf of books that seemed like a good idea at the time, but don't get much attention after a week.  

'Small hardbacked books bought in the run-up to Christmas or Valentines's or Mother's Day are non-books.  They are about Everything Being Rubbish or how to microwave a budgerigar or where to go before you die, or why Slough is the armpit of the universe, they are little anthologies of love poems or things read at funerals or cartoons about politicians.'

This made me laugh and think of the books I bought on the art of tea, when what I probably wanted at the time was a nice hot cuppa.  There's also a small chapter called Things that Fall out of Books, as a case in point, hiding in my book was a ticket stub from a local theatre for See How They Run.  A reminder of a lovely day out on September 30, 2012.  I know my books will one day end up in someone else's home so I'm passing on the small thrill that comes from a bit of ephemera from the past.  Ticket stubs are tucked into random books on my shelves, read or not, and sometimes the person finding a surprise is me.

If you own a copy of Howards End is on the Landing consider taking it along with you while on holiday this summer.  It's a book lover's delight, particularly if you're a fan of twentieth-century literature.


1 May 2017

Christopher and Columbus by Elizabeth von Arnim

During a thorough weeding exercise a couple of years ago, one of the few green spine Virago Modern Classics the library owned was chosen to be pulled.  It's such a shame when a book is discarded due to lack of circulation when the binding is still tight.  This was not the case with Christopher and Columbus.  I can barely make out the title along the spine for white lines running end to end as the book has been wrenched during readings.  And the pages are yellow, but still more than good enough for another read, or two.

Twins, Anna-Rose (older by twenty minutes) and Anna-Felicitas are seventeen and sailing across the ocean on the St. Luke to America without the benefit of an escort.  Orphaned, and then relinquished by relatives in England, they're on their way to New York and yet another family.  The Great War is underway so the journey is a treacherous one with German submarines lurking beneath the water.  The girls sit wide-eyed, with blankets pulled up to their chins, as they watch the ships population move within their respective class sections.

Having led a sheltered life, the girls are unsure about everything, but emanate a sense of joie de vivre that is utterly irresistible.  Another passenger on the ship, Mr Twist, takes it upon himself to act as a guardian of sorts to the girls.  The two extremely naive sisters have won the lottery when it comes to serendipitous friendships.  Mr Twist has made a fortune from his design of a non-dribble teapot and is the best of men.  His fortune has also enabled Mr Twist's mother and sister to move up through the classes...

'His mother passed from her straitened circumstances to what she still would only call a modest competence, but what in England would have been regarded as wallowing in money.  She left off being middle-class, and was received into the lower upper-class, the upper part of this upper-class being reserved for great names like Astor, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt.  With these Mrs Twist could not compete.  She would no doubt some day, for Edward was only thirty and there were still coffee-pots....'

I laughed out loud several times while making my way through this book.  The only drawback is that after awhile, at five hundred pages long, it all gets to be a bit too syrupy.  Mr Twist goes to all sorts of lengths for the sake of the girls and it becomes obvious they'll never be happy to part ways.  Published in 1919, this sort of situation garners all sorts of gossip amongst guests in the hotels the trio visit along the way.  It's apparent to the reader, long before the characters, what the eventual outcome must be. 

Christopher and Columbus is a fitting title for a story about adventurous sisters, and it's thoroughly charming.  Perfect as a summer read or when you're in the mood for something light.

Two Sisters by Pierre-August Renoir
1889