Saturday, February 05, 2011

Snowbound and Susan Hill's Howards End Is on the Landing

The snowstorm moved up from the South.

It would blanket much of the rest of the country before it was done. Newscasters were frenzied.  Stay home unless you have to go out. 

I arrived the night before the storm in the town where my relative is in the hospital. I came because I was the only one unfazed by snow.  Walkers can walk, you know.  If you're a non-driver, you're used to bundling up and walking in bad weather.    

The afternoon of the storm I prepared by buying a knapsack.  I needed to keep my hands free so I could balance in the snow.  I walked home that night through heavy snow and slanting ice.  

The next day 15 inches of snow covered the ground and I couldn't open the door of the house. The snow came up to the picture window. It was Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Town on the Prairie.  I found a broom and pushed the door open.  Then I had to find a shovel. It was perched in the snow in the front yard.

The buses were canceled, the university was canceled, the library was closed and the co-op where I had hoped to purchase vegetables closed, but I went out.
Once I got off the side streets, it was easier.  There was little traffic.  I turned onto a main street and walked in the street, leaning into walls of snow on the curb when SUVs or slipping drivers came by.  I was relieved to find walks shoveled on a main drag, but inexplicably the snowplows had stopped digging out at the fire station. 

So then I had to detour and scramble over snowbanks downtown until I found a shoveled sidewalk.  Then I came to a main-ish thoroughfare where a big wall of snow stood in the middle of the street.  I fell down in the snow.

I brushed myself off and went to the hospital. Nobody took the relative's vital signs and I only saw a nurse when the relative called to be taken to the bathroom.  Perhaps they were understaffed--or was that just the kitchen?  The dietitian told me she had made the oatmeal herself that morning.  My relative is lower-maintenance two weeks after surgery (I'm making excuses for the nurses).  There are some good nurses, but, honestly, most days they spend seven minutes with her per shift at best.  Vital signs, taking her to the bathroom (when she called them).  That's why it's necessary for one of us to be with her.  Thank God doctors are observant when they do come in. 

Remember Big Nurse?  She lives.  I met her yesterday.  It was quite a disconcerting experience to be told that my relative, who has improved immensely, was no longer mentally competent.  I think the relative has a brain since she was able to beat me at cards and even cheat (yes, she changes the rules sometimes:  it's immoral, but what can you do?).   I let her win one game, but the other she won. 

At the hospital I began to read Susan Hill's Howards End Is on the Landing.  I wasn't aware that it was available in the U.S., but picked up a copy when I bought my knapsack. This collection of short essays is addictive.  This is now a favorite book about books. Actually Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping vs. the Dirt, and Shakespeare Wrote for Money are the best essays on books I've ever read, but Hill ranks with, say, Anne Fadiman.

Howards End Is on the Landing was inspired by Hill's looking for one book on her shelves and discovering many unread books and others she wanted to reread.  She decided to spend a year reading only books from her home library and not buying any new books.
"I wanted to repossess my books, to explore what I had accumulated over a lifetime of reading, and to map this house of many volumes.  There are enough here to divert, instruct, entertain, amaze, amuse, edify, improve, enrich me for far longer than a year and every one of them deserves to be taken down and dusted off, opened and read.  A book which is left on a shelf is dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object, packed with potential to burst into a new life.  Wandering through the house that day looking for one elusive book, my eyes were reopened to how much of that life we stored here, neglected or ignored."

These short essays explore the creativity of Virginia Woolf, Dickens, George Eliot, Iris Murdoch, Elizabeth Bowen, diaries, travel writing, short stories, children's' books, forgotten writers, her dislike of Jane Austen, and more.

Hill has impeccable taste. Her passion for Virginia Woolf, and her pleasure in Quentin Bell's biography and A Writer's Diary, edited by Leonard Woolf, reminded me of my own enthusiasm for Woolf at 20. I should reread her. It's odd that I've neglected her.  I've been afraid it was only a youth thing.  Some of the books I loved have not held up.

Hill declares Iris Murdoch is a neglected writer.  She is probably right.  I enjoyed The Sea, the Sea and many of her other books in the '80s, but it is a case of having read almost all her novels and then forgotten about her.  Are her books classics?

Elizabeth Bowen.  I love her work and keep reading her.

And then there were many I'd never heard of. The book has an English slant.  Usually books about books seem universal, but Hill writes about several books that never made it in the U.S..  Arthur Geary.  David Storey.  The only one I've heard of in this chapter on forgotten writers is Alan Silitoe.  I loved The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner.

My only complaints about this wonderful book are:  1. there is no Table of Contents nor index;  2.  I relish Hills's criticism, but the anecdotes about the writers she has met are fulsome and detract from the book. There is too much name-dropping.  Many love celebrity gossip, but Hill's stories of great writers do not belong in this very short book.  More on books, please.  But I enjoyed reading about her friends Pamela Hansford Johnson and C. P. Snow, because they are among my favorite writers, and I don't think they're read much now. 

And perhaps Hill inspired all that blogger talk of not buying books?  I learned about this book from English bloggers, many of whom have in the past year resisted buying new books.  Is buying books an internet craze?  I know I buy more than I used to do.  Do we buy too much because we hear so much about books now?  I've added one or two books to my TBR list today.

Expect a Susan Hill novel-reading binge next.


Vintage Reading said...

Fabulous snowy pictures. Never read any Hill but I liked the extract you posted. I think its the fact that she doesn't love Austen that makes me think I won't like her work which is not logical but then, our reading choices aren't always logical!

Frisbee said...

I've never read Hill, either, but I have some novels from the library now. Several people online love her; I'm just not a big fan of horror and mysteries.

Anonymous said...

I love Susan Hill. I've taught her
Woman in Black a number of times now. For masterpieces: In the Springtime of the Year, Strange meeting, A Bird of Night. I thought her Various Haunts of Men rose above the usual crime mystery novel. A Change for the Better is about an old woman finally escaping her daughter to a an people's home. It's a change for the better.

I'll look out for this Howard's End ...


Frisbee said...

I really enjoyed Howards End on the Landing.