Nonfiction reviewlets: Deborah Cohen and Susan Hill
Because most of the reading I’ve been doing lately is nonfiction and thus not terribly controversial, here my short thoughts on two I read recently, both the good and the bad.
Household Gods by Deborah Cohen is a fascinating look at the historic relationship between “the British and their possessions.” In other words, Cohen explores why Britons, more than any other nationality, are so bonded to their homes and the bric-a-brac they put in their homes. And, because Cohen is brilliant, she goes about this both chronologically and thematically, starting with the morality and religiosity of objects in the early nineteenth century and going through to the antiques craze of the Edwardian era. Along the way, she also stops to talk about the rise of the department store, interior design as a profession, and the Aesthetic Movement, let by Mr. Oscar Wilde.
It’s a remarkably well-plotted book, filled to the brim with pertinent examples and interesting factoids along with Cohen’s very persuasive arguments on the importance of Home to the British. Additionally, the text is perfectly matched with a series of well-chosen illustrations, ranging from early photographs to watercolors to period advertisements. I would highly recommend this book to anyone looking for an interesting read about a little-studied corner of history and equally to someone looking for something pretty to flip through on a Sunday afternoon. You’ll learn a few things, too!
Howard’s End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home by Susan Hill looked so promising in the window of Daunt Books that I impulse-bought it many months ago. It’s a book about books–arguably my favorite genre–and it advocates reading all those books you own by have never got around to reading, a perennial goal of mine. Thus, I thought I would love it. But I’ve been slogging through it since last fall and am increasingly un-wowed by it.
A few particular complaints: The chapters are so short that they come across as ephemeral and pointless. Hill makes no real points in any of them, she just shares literary celebrity stories and discusses all the famous authors she’s come in contact with and how awful or lovely they were. At first, it was interesting to hear her take on, say, Iris Murdoch, but the pattern definitely flags as the book progresses and her prose fails to rise above this level to say something meaningful about the books she reads or her experience choosing and reading them.
Also disappointing: the rambling way in which the book is organized. It’s “a year of reading from home.” Surely there is a more coherent way to talk about this experience than just wandering through books and days. Perhaps organized by calendar month or by book title or even location in her house. I suppose this format is supposed to evoke her prowling the house in search of her next read, but it just comes across as slapdash and wishy-washy.
In short, yet another book about books has fallen short of my Anne Fadiman gold standard! And, one final tip to authors of books about books: dissing Jane Austen for no apparent reason aside from your own pomposity will not gain you any likability points from readers.
Has anyone else read some good (or bad) nonfiction lately? Next up for me is James Stevens Curl’s The Egyptian Revival: Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West. Share yours below!