The Persephone Eleven

At some point in the past eight months or so I became aware of a publishing house called Persephone Books. Although I don’t remember exactly when it happened, and I certainly don’t remember what bookish terms I punched into The Google, but I do believe that Simon T at Stuck in a Book was my gateway into the world of Persephone. From his blog I clicked my way through a whole new world of links to book blogs. It is not like I hadn’t seen book blogs before, but this particular corner of the Interwebs was chock full of people who had reading tastes remarkably similar to my own. And so many of them were raving about Persephone Books.

Right off the bat I recognized the aesthetic allure of this small publishing house and almost as quickly was drawn to their list of mainly neglected works by authors who are (to a large degree, but not entirely) female and British. Although very curious to see the goods for myself, it wasn’t until I requested and received the Persephone catalog that my interest really began to pick up. I found myself pouring over the beautiful catalog in the same way my partner pours over seed and plant catalogs during the winter months.

As I am prone to do, I went into organization mode, got out a black Sharpie and began to mark up the catalog. For those shocked that I would deface my catalog, I knew I could always get another copy if I needed to. And besides, prioritizing my interests in the books was key to figuring out which to order first. After reading a description of each book I put between one and five dots next to the title. I judged each book individually. In this first round I made no attempt to choose one title over another. Once I had gone through and rated all 82 of them (there are now 86 available) I compiled a list of all of the titles that garnered five dots (indicating a high degree of interest). It came out to about ten books. Since we had a fair amount of travel coming up I forced myself to hold off ordering them until we finished so they wouldn’t arrive when we were out of town. This was probably back in July, and it meant I had to wait until about October 13th before I could place my order. By the time I did get around to filling out the online order form my priority list had shifted somewhat, and grown somewhat. Persephone gives a little price break for every three you order so I had to make the total a multiple of three. Which of course forced the number up to 12 rather than down to 9.

Unfortunately one of them is still missing in action (hence the Persephone Eleven) but here are the twelve I ordered (with the descriptions from the Persephone Biannually):
And for those of you who haven’t seen one in person, they are softcover books with matching dust jackets and beautiful endpapers. The bookmarks that come with each book if you order directly through Persephone match the endpapers. You can look at my collection of bookmarks below to get a better idea of what I am talking about.

No.2, Mariana by Monica Dickens
First published in 1940, this funny, romantic first novel describes a young girl’s life in the 1930s.

No.29, The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A wonderfully entertaining 1901 novel about the melodrama after a governess marries a Marquis.

No.32, The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme
A 1965 mixture of biography and social history which very entertainingly describes Thomas and Jane Carlyle’s life in Chelsea.

No.35, Greenery Street by Denis Mackail
A delightful, very funny 1925 novel about a young couple’s first year of married life in a (real) street in Chelsea.

No.37, The Runaway by Elizabeth Anna Hart
Victorian novel for children and grown-ups, illustrated by Gwen Raverat.

No.38, Cheerful Weather for the Wedding by Julia Strachey
A funny and quirky 1932 novella by a niece of Lytton Strachey, praised by Virginia Woolf.

No.40, The Priory by Dorothy Whipple
A much-loved 1939 novel about a family, upstairs and downstairs, living in a large country house.

No.49, Bricks and Mortar by Helen Ashton (the missing 12th volume)
An excellent 1932 novel by a very popular pre- and post-war writer, chronicling the life, and marriage, of a hard-working, kindly London architect over thirty-five years.

No.61, A London Child of the 1870s by Molly Hughes
A classic memoir, written in 1934, about an ordinary, suburban Victorian family in Islington, a great favourite with all ages.

No.71, The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
A 1907 page-turner about Rosalie Vanderpoel, an American heiress who marries an English aristocrat, whose beautiful and enterprising sister Bettina sets out to rescue her.

No.72, House-Bound by Winifred Peck
This 1942 novel describes an Edinburgh woman deciding, radically, to run her house without help and do her own cooking; the war is in the background and foreground.

No.81, Miss Buncle’s Book by DE Stevenson
A middle-aged woman writes a novel, as ‘John Smith’, about the village she lives in. A delightful and funny 1934 book by an author whose work sold in millions.

I haven’t read any of them yet. I am not sure where to start. I think I will probably read No.32 first as part of the November Novella Challenge. But who knows.

I am participating in the Persephone Secret Santa over at Book Psmith.

You might also be interested in checking out the Persephone Post which is a great place for a little visual inspiration.

Book Review: Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her

Dame Iris Murdoch, 1919-99
Tom Philips, 1984-6
National Portrait Gallery, London

Iris Murdoch: As I Knew Her
A.N. Wilson

I’ve only read one other book by A.N. Wilson (his history of London) and didn’t really know much about him. What little I know now I picked up by reading his personal reflection of Iris Murdoch. Early on I took a dislike for Wilson. I am not sure what it was, but there was something about his attitude that annoyed me enough that I had bit of an anti-Wilson chip on my shoulder for the rest of the book.

Partly I was a little confused by the blurb on the front flap of the book: “Fifteen years ago, Iris Murdoch asked A.N. Wilson to be her biographer.” Ooh, sounds portentous. “This book is a tribute to the novelist he knew for thirty years.” Hmm, does that mean he turned her down, or is this book supposed to be that biography? After reading the whole book I still can’t answer that question.

The second thing that kind of rubbed me the wrong way is that Wilson seems to be, or has been, miffed at the two books Murdoch’s husband John Bayley wrote about her descent into dementia. It made me feel like a bit of chump for having been moved by Bayley’s account about the real life struggle of Alzheimer’s disease portrayed in both his books and in the film “Iris”. Wilson seems annoyed either because the film depicted the filth in which the aging couple lived or because it didn’t explain why they lived that way. But after reading the whole book I still can’t answer that question either.

By the end of the book I do understand some of the reasons Wilson is upset that Murdoch became a figurehead for Alzheimer’s awareness. She probably would not want to have been remembered that way. And perhaps it is a little unfeeling toward Murdoch’s legacy that a chair was endowed at Oxford in her name, but not for philosophy or literature but for Alzheimer’s. I am somewhat sympathetic to this point of view. But on the other hand I feel like no one has control over their own legacy and there was perhaps an opportunity for good to come out of her terrible situation. And frankly, I think that a caregiver to someone with Alzheimer’s has as much right to the story as the afflicted. Wilson seemed upset by the frankness with which Bayley tells the story. That it somehow took away Murdoch’s dignity. But I don’t buy that at all. I think Bayley’s books, although at times unflinching in their portrayal of the situation, were never gratuitous or inappropriate in their detail.

In this way Wilson gives the impression early on that Murdoch deserves better. One begins to think that his intent is to buff away all of Bayley’s smudges on Murdoch’s image. Yet there is much in Wilson’s book that does the opposite. He spends a lot of time talking about his mentor Bayley and a fair amount talking about himself. And what he says about Murdoch doesn’t add up to a particularly flattering portrayal. But he seems of two minds. He proclaims her genius now and then and talks about what a wonderful person she was, yet the overwhelming feeling I developed about Murdoch is that I don’t really like her much. And maybe I don’t like her books as much as I thought I did. Maybe the real issue is that Wilson is annoyed with Bayley showing Murdoch in an unflattering light because Bayley essentially beat Wilson, the “official” biographer, to the punch? Or maybe because Bayley sold a lot of books, yet I found Wilson’s for $1 on a “please take these books” cart parked outside the bookstore. You know, the kind of sale cart where the shopkeeper doesn’t even care what impact the weather might be having on the merchandise.

I didn’t hate the book but I also didn’t find it all that interesting. There is some insight into Murdoch’s reading likes and dislikes.

The Lord of the Rings she read and reread, enjoying detailed conversations about it with its author, or with Christopher Tolkien, the author’s son. She loved the Hornblower stories and the Patrick O’Brian sea stories, though she deplored the love interest and felt that Stephen Lefanu’s infatuation with Diana Villiers was soppy stuff which spoilt the excitement of the adventures. At mentions of the works of Olivia Manning, Elizabeth Taylor or Jean Rhys, let alone Penelope Lively or Margaret Drabble, she would merely smile or shake her head. She spoke, always, with love and respect of Elizabeth Bowen, her mentor, and A.S. Byatt, her disciple and interpreter, but she spoke of them as ‘beloved beings’. Bowen herself dissected the novels of contemporaries, read them closely, remembered what she admired about them. IM never spoke in this way about the work of female contemporaries.

I am not sure how enlightening this is about Murdoch’s tastes in fiction. It seems to speak more about what Wilson may not have known despite his 30-year friendship with Murdoch. He also tells us that Bayley loved Barbara Pym and read and re-read her frequently, but he didn’t seem to have much interest in, or praise for, Murdoch’s books.

I finished the book rather bored and unimpressed with Wilson. Unfortunately, I also finished it liking both Murdoch and Bayley less than I did when I started. If that was Wilson’s intent, then job well done. Thankfully it won’t keep me from reading the rest of Murdoch’s novels.

Cool Covers of the Week AND Book Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

After the cool covers, my review of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Shirley Jackson

Always late to jump on the bandwagon, this one has been reviewed a lot in the blogosphere…

During the past month or so, I kept seeing these great Penguin covers on blogs across the Interwebs. I believe Penguin (in the UK at least) is using this general design for a range of modern editions, but the ones I kept seeing were for Shirley Jackson titles. Unfortunately, the copy of We Have Always Lived in the Castle that I stumbled across at a charity shop was an ugly American edition (as opposed to an ugly-American edition). For some reason Penguin thinks that we Americans can’t handle good graphic design. (Of course they may be right, but that is the subject of another post.) Despite its lame cover art (see below), I bought the book anyway. I figured I needed to discover myself what all the Shirley Jackson hubbub was about.

The only thing I knew about this book before I read it, was that it was a bit macabre, something good for Halloween. So I picked it up this weekend to see if I would get scared. At a slim 214 pages, WHALITC does manage to build quite a bit of suspense. I am glad I didn’t read the plot teaser on the back of the book. It wouldn’t have spoiled the book by any means, but not knowing the premise made the narrative all the more suspenseful in the opening chapters. The book opens with Mary Katherine (aka Merricat) Blackwood running errands in the small village near her family’s estate. But it is soon clear that, for Merricat, running errands is more like running a gauntlet. She goes about her business rather skittishly, hoping no one will notice her, plotting her route to have as little contact as possible with the townsfolk. Frankly, it reminded me a bit of when I was in junior high and would plan my day, in and out of school, so as not to come within shouting distance of anyone just waiting to call me a fag. And like my junior high days, Merricat is only partially successful in avoiding the teasing and vituperations cast her direction.

As the story unfolds we learn that Merricat lives an isolated life with her sister Constance and their invalid Uncle Julian. We also learn that Merricat is highly superstitious, burying objects all over their property and silently incanting “magic” words in the hopes of keeping them all safe. It isn’t long before we find out why the Blackwood’s are so isolated from society. Even though the back of the book would tell you, I am not going to. You will have to read it. Even once their secret is out to the reader there is much that is mysterious and just plain weird. The climax is brought about by the appearance of a long lost cousin whose presence threatens to upset the order of things for Merricat and presumably the others. Some things aren’t as they seem, but you wouldn’t be alone if you guessed ahead of time what secret still remained hidden.

At its essence WHALITC is a family drama with quirky characters, lots of dark secrets and denial, and an angry mob thrown in for good measure.

Ugly cover:

Lucky Me

Frances over at Nonsuch Book had a really fantastic giveaway and I won!  I am getting a four volume collection of Paris Review interviews with notable authors. I will excerpt Frances’ description of this great prize:

For over fifty years, the Paris Review has published conversations with the most gifted writers of the day. Not just any conversations either. Conversations that eschew the obligations of publicity or marketing, and embrace the issues of the craft in the most direct and transparent fashion. Once you start reading these detailed interviews, it is difficult to put them aside. They are about both reading and writing, and offer such an exquisite banquet of rich detail, you will find yourself comparing all other author interviews you read with these. As publisher Picador describes them, the Paris Review interviews are “the gold standard of the literary Q&A.”

 Thanks Frances!

Book Review: Manservant and Maidservant by Ivy Compton-Burnet

Manservant and Maidservant
Ivy Compton-Burnett

Until Simon over at Stuck In A Book had the idea to do an Ivy Compton-Burnett read along I didn’t really know anything about ICB. I had a vague notion that her books were a little quirky and her writing style an acquired taste. But those impressions suggest that I knew more about her than I did. There was even a moment before I got myself into all this when I wondered if ICB was a male with one of those once antiquated unisex names like Evelyn or Leslie. Although I have met my share of male Leslies here in the US, I think you would be hard pressed to find a male Evelyn. Then again, it is just as unusual in Britain. Maybe Evelyn Waugh was the only male Evelyn, ever. But suffice it to say, Ivy was a woman.

I think Simon first brought up the idea in late September but I didn’t get onboard until the middle of October. I wasn’t even entirely sure what a read along was. In the end my curiosity about ICB and the worry that I might be left out of something interesting got the best of me and I ordered my copy of M and M.

I am never a fan of having to write a plot summary, in fact in some ways I don’t like plot summaries full stop. I don’t want to know too much ahead of time. So I am going to let the jacket blurb give you the general idea:

[Manservant and Maidservant] focuses on the household of Horace Lamb, sadist, skinflint, and tyrant, a man whose children fear and hate him and whose wife is planning to elope. But it is when Horace undergoes an altogether unforeseeable change of heart that the real difficulties begin. Is the repentant master a victim along with his sometime slaves? What compensation, or consolation, can there be for the wrongs that have been done?

Horace could be the archetypal villainous parent, the wicked stepmother, if he wasn’t so humorous. The comparison that pops into my head is Basil Fawlty, John Cleese’s brilliant television character, who is a miserable human being, but so funny at the same time. Horace tries his best to make his children’s lives miserable but his interactions with these precocious little ones makes it clear that although he may have control over their daily comfort, he has no control over their hearts and minds.

Lamb’s household staff also play a role in M and M. Much like the fabulous 1970s television series Upstairs Downstairs, there are three parallel storylines in play. The upstairs storyline, the downstairs storyline, and the storyline that comes into being when those two worlds intersect. The relationship between Mrs Selden the cook and her kitchen maid Miriam reminded me a lot of the relationship between Mrs Bridges and Ruby on Upstairs Downstairs. Generally abusive but bordering on affectionate. The butler Bullivant, however, is no Hudson. He seems like he would be more at home in the servant’s hall in Gosford Park than 165 Eaton Place on Upstairs Downstairs.

Manservant and Maidservant is one of those books that I enjoyed, and I understood why I enjoyed it, but would be hard pressed to explain what it all meant. There are some sub-plotlines that seem to have no poinnt and I must admit I don’t fully understand everything that happened in M and M. I think I would need a discussion with others to tease out what it was all about, so I can’t wait to see what the others who participated in the read along have to say. Overall, I really enjoyed reading this book. The brilliance of the book, I think, is in the humorous writing. Horace receives a letter from his cousin Mortimer:

You told me not to write to you, but I am never so malicious as to take people at their word. It is almost like telling them that they have made their bed and must lie on it.

It is nice of you to miss me so much, when I wronged you under your own roof. But it was not my fault that I had no roof of my own, and had to do things under yours.

ICB is definitely a writer whose work I want to explore further. I am glad that I ordered her other favorite book A House on its Head when I ordered Manservant and Maidservant.

Liberating Myself From Self-Imposed Goals with 1,358 Pages of Tolstoy

Like many of you, I read a lot of books. I hadn’t intended reaching this particular milestone, but having already read 88 books this year, and with two months left to go, it looks like I am on target to complete at least 100 books in 2009.

In 1994, when I first started keeping track of the books I finished reading, my reading habits were quite a bit different than they are now. I was 25 years old, had roommates my age, an active social life, and I was studying for the GRE to get into graduate school. During that entire year I managed to read a whopping five books. Since the list is so short, I will share it with you:

Wilderness Tips – Margaret Atwood 3/19/94
The Culture We Deserve – Jacques Barzun 5/1/94
The Enigma of Arrival – VS Naipaul 7/10/94
The Machine in the Garden – Leo Marx 12/5/94
The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald 12/11/94

Kind of an interesting and odd list, don’t you think? Two of the five are non-fiction, which I don’t read much of these days. The Barzun I have no recollection of whatsoever, the Marx is a classic text in the field of American Studies, which is what I was headed off to study in grad school. Of the remaining three, at least one is a bona fide classic (Fitzgerald), one is often considered an important novel, perhaps even a baby classic (Naipual) and one is by one of the greatest authors alive (Atwood).

From late 1995 to early 1997 the number of books I read went up considerably thanks to grad school. Most were non-fiction but there was also a fair amount of great American literature thrown in as part of my degree. Works by Hawthorne, Melville, Twain, Crane, Howells, Dreiser, and others were read and dissected in class.

Having to do all that reading for grad school did three things: it reminded me that I loved to read, it conditioned my brain to read older, and in many cases more challenging fiction, and the required reading lists left me chomping at the bit, wanting desperately to create my own reading list. When I finished my degree I couldn’t wait to get to the public library. I wandered the shelves four hours and discovered for the first time in my life some of the truly great authors: Willa Cather, Leo Tolstoy, Vladimir Nabokov, Sinclair Lewis, Edith Wharton, and James Baldwin among others.

From then on, and through another Master’s degree, my reading habits kept up pace. In 2004 I heard a radio feature on a woman who had written a book about reading a book a week. I remember thinking that I easily read more than 52 books in a year. So I consulted my books read list (which by then was also in spreadsheet format) and discovered to my surprise that the most books I had read in a year was about 39. So I made it my mission to complete at least 52 books in 2004. Every year since then I have pushed myself to do more than the previous year. Even though it hasn’t always worked out that way, 2008 was kind of slow for me, it has been an encouragement to help me keep striving to read more.

And now this year it looks like I am going to break 100. I must admit that keeping an eye on the number of books that I read has had an impact on whether or not I tackle some bigger books. I still manage to dig into a chunky Trollope now and then. And this year I even managed the Wilkie Collins doorstop also known as The Woman in White. However, I feel like reaching the 100 book mark really frees me up to tackle a really, really big book.

So I am going to embark on War and Peace. All 1,358 pages of War and Peace. I am not sure if I am going to wait until I finish my 100 for the year. I am kind of itching to start now. And I am not sure, with my other reading, if I will finish it in 2009. And frankly, at this point I don’t even care if I actually make it to 100 books this year (big step for an OCD-head like myself to let that go). I just love the fact that nearing that unintended goal, I feel kind of liberated take on the mother of all chunksters.

Besides with a cover like this who could say no?

Do your reading goals, whether they be driven by book or page quotas, online challenges, book clubs, school, or any other sort of real or perceived pressure keep you from reading what you really want to?

I can fit 150 books in my nightstand, now I just need to read them

I have been on a bit of a book buying binge lately and the to-be-read pile has grown ever larger. I keep my TBR pile in my overly large nightstand (which is actually a Florence Knoll credenza), but the recent acquisitions have started to overwhelm the capacious interior of that fine piece of furniture.

Here you see the nightstand in its natural state: uncluttered, sleek, hiding all of its secrets behind its ebonized doors.

Once the doors are open, however, you see a different story. Organized chaos. (Yes, my chaos must be organized or I can’t sleep at night.) In some cases I have three rows of books lovingly crammed in.
There are a few advantages to having books double and triple stacked in a cabinet. Yes, many of them are hidden from view. And after a while I forget what is in there. But that is also the beauty. Re-organizing the stacks offers endless hours of entertainment for someone like me who likes to look at, hold, and smell books just for the fun of it. Plus each time I pull them all out I get excited about things I forgot I had and get to reassess what I should read next, even though I almost never follow my own future reading plans. (I have a hard time being told what to do, even when I am the one telling me to do something.) Besides, this way, when I finish a book, I get to open the doors and root around for the next thing read.
This past weekend, in an attempt to fit as many books in as possible I took everything out and stacked it up. This way I could see what I had, what might be read next, and come up with a plan to fit my new additions into the cabinet.  It turned out I had just shy of 150 books that I needed to get inside.
I could stare at the stacks for hours. Go ahead click on the photo, see if you can make out any of the titles.  In the picture below I give you a little better chance to see some of them, including some of the newer stuff, which includes 6 of the 12 Persephones that are on their way to me…
…and all but two of Penguin’s English Journeys series. Since taking the photo below I recieved another one from The Book Depository (free shipping anywhere in the world). But alas, the volume with A Shropsire Lad is out of stock. I am blaming Cornflower’s book club on depleting the supply.

Cool Cover of the Week (Supersize Edition)

Here is the cool cover of the week. Unlike Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing (see review below), Guy Browning’s Maps of My Life actually delivers what it says it will. It is an amusing little memoir organized around maps, real and imagined, that tell the story of his life. One of the more amusing things is the fact that Browning refers to his brother as the Fatted Calf. It also has fun maps inside as well as other illustrations. Since I read it some time ago, I won’t review it here, but the Independent has.

Claire at Kiss a Cloud figured out my little book cover quiz, that the cover art below is also used on the endpages of Persephone No. 32, The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme. After months of staring at the image in the Persephone catalog and then finally getting the book, I was so so surprised to see the same image, albeit a little worse for the wear on a book I found while digging through a bin at a charity bookshop. For those of you interested in content the book looks at the marriages of John Ruskin and Effie Gray, Charles Dickens and Catherine Hogarth, John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor, George Eliot and George Henry Lewes, and of course Thomas and Jane Welsh Carlyle. I am not sure whether to read it before or after the Persephone.

As for the image, Mrs Carlyle is hiding on the sun-damaged spine of the book which is not shown here. The image is by Robert Tait.

Persephone Fans, This one is for you…

First, if you haven’t seen this post, you need to apply your Persephone knowledge to solve the mystery.

Second, have any of you noticed, or heard about a big old typo on the spine of Persephone No. 72? The spine on both the book and the dust jacket incorrectly says: “House-Bound of Winifred Peck” instead of “House-Bound by Winifred Peck”. Someone had a tipple before signing off on those proofs?

I am delirious at the arrival of my first Persephones but I have only gotten 6 of 12 so far. I am waiting for the others to arrive before I blog about my haul.

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.