Book Review: Smoke and Mirrors are on the Landing

Howards End is on the Landing
Susan Hill

There are many in the book blogosphere who have loved this book. And there are many who thought they would love this book and then were kind of disappointed by it. Although there were moments of unalloyed joy as I read HEIOTL, I think I fall into the disappointed camp of book bloggers. Although, disappointed is probably too strong a word. It is a book about reading and books and cozy chairs and lists. What isn’t to love?

For those that may be reading about this book for the first time, Hill decides to limit her reading for a year to books that she already owns.

Much has been written by bloggers about Hill’s take on bookplates (she is against them) and book blogs (she is sort of against them). While I agree somewhat with Hill’s assessment that bookplates are largely unnecessary I don’t agree that they are for “posers”. Many who love to read, including Hill, not only love the content of books, but also love them as objects. Aesthetically pleasing fetishes that we not only love to read, but we also love to arrange, re-arrange, look at, hold, feel, and smell. Why is it surprising then that lovers of this particular kind of printed beauty might fall in love with an aesthetically pleasing bookplate?

Hill’s thoughts on the Internet (and by extension book bloggers):

The start of the journey also coincided with my decision to curtail my use of the internet, which can have an insidious, corrosive effect. Too much internet usage fragments the brain and dissipates concentration so that after a while, one’s ability to spend long, focused hours immersed in single subject becomes blunted. Information comes pre-digested in small pieces, one grazes on endless ready-meals and snacks of the mind, and the result if malnutrition.

The internet can also 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…

And since book-related gossip and chatter on the Internet is pernicious and is full of fragmented, small pieces of pre-digested ready-meals, Hill decides to publish 236 pages of fragmented, small pieces of pre-digested book-related gossip and chatter. Give them what they want, make your money, but somehow act like you are above it all. (Reminds me a bit of Jonathan Franzen’s bullshit moment in the Oprah book club. You are decidedly crass, and pedestrian, but I will take your money anyway, if only to teach you all a lesson.)

Some of the more enjoyable aspects of the book for me were all of the tales of encounters with famous authors. Even as a writer herself, I feel like Hill may have had more than her fair share of encounters with great writers of the recent past. Hill comes of literary age in a period and milieu where some of “the greats” were still alive and kicking. Imagine EM Forster dropping a book on your foot!

And then of course there are moments in HEIOTL when Hill writes about some of one’s favorites. Having recently read, and having absolutely loved, On the Black Hill, I was gratified to see Hill give Bruce Chatwin’s amazing work its due. But then there are other sections where she talks about authors unread by me or even unknown to me. Which could be a great thing, opening up new worlds to me, but Hill’s descriptions did little to incite my interest in the authors. There may be one or two I may now feel compelled to hunt down but none jump out at me. (For inspiring introductions to books and authors you never knew you wanted to read, I say check out Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust.)

Perhaps most disappointing to me was that I felt like there was a little bait and switch going on. Hill writes about going on a “year-long voyage through her books”. Yet there was very little to suggest that Hill actually did what she said she was going to do. Or, if she did, she has so distilled her year of reading from home into little snippets of literary musings, that the reader gets no sense of the actual journey. Much of what she writes has the smell of her life of reading and writing, and doesn’t describe a journey, at least not a new journey, at all. HEIOTL gives no sense of time passing, no moments of “it is only January 15th and I am already finding it hard to avoid that new book by X in the shop window” or “as Autumn arrives I am drawn to that copy of X that I stumbled across back in July” or something like that.

It is certainly Hill’s prerogative to favor a more abstracted look at her year-long journey rather than describe the journey itself. But she seems a little scattered and unwilling to commit to one approach over the other. Here and there Hill describes certain books or types of books being in certain rooms of the house. I actually appreciate this part of the narrative, it does suggest a journey and it is detail I find interesting. But as an organizing motif she doesn’t really follow through enough for it to really work. She confuses the issue in the final chapter when she writes about finally making it to the top of the house. “I am taking out far too many books. I need at least another year of reading from home.” Is she suggesting that the climb to the top of the house has been stretched out over a year and now she has reached the last room and won’t have time for all the books she is pulling off the shelves? And are we really to believe that her reading over the year was directed by a systematic and seemingly linear tour through the rooms of her house?

Perhaps Hill, wanting to write a collection of literary musings, decided she needed a clever hook or some kind of framework in order to sell the collection. I have no problem with that, but don’t lure me in with a plot device that I find fascinating only to ignore it once you start waxing rhapsodic about your tastes and experiences. Many of the chapters don’t even attempt to follow any premise other than “I want to talk about this author so I will”. In some parts of the book there is some sense of the chronological aspects of the year-long journey, but the mentions are few and don’t really provide the structure suggested in, or interest created by, the opening chapter. The main body of the book is a sometimes fascinating compilation of book-related thoughts and experiences Hill supposedly had during the year broken down thematically. But where is the journey I was promised?

And did anyone else get the feeling that she did a lot more re-reading than she did discovering new things hiding in her enormous collection of books? I have a vague memory of her opening up a few long ignored volumes. But I never really felt like she had any moments of real discovery. I am not the closest reader in the world so I wouldn’t be surprised if I missed something, but where were the “aha” moments? Her journey of discovery reads more like a description of her daily commute down a well-trodden, and entirely familiar, path.

The more I write about HEIOTL the more I want to read the book she promised, not the book she wrote.

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Smoke and Mirrors are on the Landing

  1. Anna van Gelderen October 25, 2009 / 1:37 pm

    Excellent review: well-argued and informative. I was not sure if I would like to read this book. I love the title, with its poetic rhythm and its assonance, but from your review it seems my doubts about its contents are justified. I have 600 books in my tbr-pile. I had better not add this one to it, I think ;-)


  2. Amanda October 25, 2009 / 1:44 pm

    Speaking of TBRs, I just wrote down a crap-ton of titles from your reading list over there <<<<. Awesomeness!


  3. Paperback Reader October 25, 2009 / 2:10 pm

    HEAR, HEAR! I can feel your frustration in so many of your sentences, Thomas, and completely empathise. Our reviews say the same things in different ways. Much of what you mention I had neglected to and the more I remember the book, the more cheated I feel by it.
    You did not miss those “aha” moments for there were none.


  4. Thomas October 25, 2009 / 2:10 pm

    Anna: I just counted my TBR pile last night.It *only* has 150 books in it. I think with your 600 you had better skip Howards End is on the Landing. And if you haven't already, read the real Howards End. That is worth reading.

    Amanda: You might want to let me know which titles you are considering, because I sure didn't necessarily like all those that I have listed. I have only recently started doing reviews.


  5. Thomas October 25, 2009 / 2:15 pm

    Paperback Reader: Like I said I loved all the the back and forth on your blog in the comments section. Just think if we were all in the same room at some book club.

    I must admit I am guilty of being a book snob and in my own hyperbolic way will dismiss entire genres…but her comment about Canadian lit did make me a little crazy. Atwood, Davies, Laurence, Shields, Findley all blend together in her mind. Yet she thinks the slight nuance of Anita Brookner (whom I LOVE) is not worthy of people saying that she is too samey samey.


  6. Rachel October 25, 2009 / 3:26 pm

    Oh Thomas I can just feel your frustration! GREAT review, and I am now totally disappointed because I was expecting the book she promises by her subtitle and blurb, but apparently doesn't deliver, just like you said. I am looking forward to reading it though, as I am intrigued to see whether I will like it regardless, or, as I suspect, will hate it and be just as annoyed as you!


  7. claire October 25, 2009 / 3:53 pm

    Excellent review Thomas. I had been meaning to read this and was very excited until I read Claire's post. After that, I was seesawing. Now having read your review, I can clearly see this may not be for me. Really excellent points about the supposed journey that never was.

    I was also put off about the author's dismissing Australian and Canadian lit! She's probably not that well read, having only read certain types of Canadian lit. Has she read Life of Pi? How is it possible to blur Richard Parker the tiger with other Canadian lit characters? Lol!

    Also off-putting was her low opinion of book bloggers and then seemingly putting out a book that are like blog posts. I still might read her, but will just borrow from the library.

    Thanks for the enlightenment.

    P.S. I adore Nancy Pearl's Book Lust books. Hope she writes more!


  8. Mrs. B, October 25, 2009 / 7:20 pm

    Hi Thomas,
    Thanks for commenting on my blog. I've actually visited your blog a lot but this is my first time leaving a comment.
    I was about to buy this book but after Claire's (Paperback Reader)review, I've decided to wait for the cheaper paperback edition. Your review just reinforces my decision. In fact, maybe I'll even wait for a secondhand copy…


  9. Thomas October 25, 2009 / 10:41 pm

    Rachel: I would still read it, even if I had read my review. I just would have had more appropriate expectations.

    Claire: Her attitude about bloggers is just intellectually sloppy. And Nancy Pearl is a pearl. No doubt about it.

    Mrs B: So glad you chimed in. Now that you introduced yourself I hope you comment regularly. I need folks to keep me on my toes.


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