Nonfiction reviewlets: Deborah Cohen and Susan Hill

April 6, 2011 at 12:00 am 8 comments

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!

–Corey

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Entry filed under: Non-fiction. Tags: , , , .

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Eva  |  April 6, 2011 at 2:50 am

    Household sounds interesting! Although I’m not sure Brits are more attached to their possessions than Americans. ;)

    I’m in the middle of Howards End is on the Landing now, and while I think I like it more than you, overall it’s feeling a bit ‘meh.’

    Reply
    • 2. Corey  |  April 6, 2011 at 4:24 am

      A fair point! Perhaps Americans imbue their possessions with more status meaning while the British possessions are more about personal connection and identity projection?

      And, indeed, ‘meh’ sums up my feelings about Howards End is on the Landing. I’ll have to keep an eye out for your full review of Susan Hill’s book! :) I was poking around other book blogs and everyone else seemed to enjoy it a lot more than I did, so perhaps it’s just me.

      Reply
      • 3. Eva  |  April 8, 2011 at 8:57 am

        I had a whole reply written out, and when I just came to visit see if you’d replied, I see it’s not here! Could it have gotten caught in your spam filter? If not, I shall try to re-write it.

        Reply
        • 4. Corey  |  April 8, 2011 at 9:21 am

          Alas, no; it doesn’t seem to be anywhere! WordPress fail. I hope you can recreate the comment!

  • 5. Britney  |  April 6, 2011 at 10:07 am

    Let’s see…I just finished Veganist by Kathy Freston and Run! by Dean Karnazes, and I’ve started Farm Sanctuary by Gene Bauer. The first and last I picked up because I’m interested in factory farming, animal welfare, (and health) and am transitioning to a vegan diet.

    The middle one I picked up because Dean is so inspiring – and when you are contemplating skipping a run on a rainy day like yesterday, reading about someone who has run 100+ miles in 100+ degree weather on multiple occasions makes a few miles in the rain not seem quite so bad. :)

    Your reaction to the Susan Hill book reminds me of a book I read awhile ago – I think it was called So Little Books, So Little Time. It’s a book about reading, but I don’t recommend it. More recently I read An Alphabetical Life by Wendy Werris, which had some name-dropping but it was pretty interesting to read about books from the perspective of one of the people who convinces bookstores to stock them.

    Reply
    • 6. Corey  |  April 7, 2011 at 12:17 am

      Your reading is quite thematic! Impressive. What made you decide to go vegan, may I ask?

      And I will definitely skip So Little Book, So Little Time. I think I’ve actually seen it around before, but I’m glad I refrained judging by your comments.

      Reply
      • 7. Britney  |  April 7, 2011 at 4:37 am

        Well, I usually tell people I read too much, but it’s because I’ve read a lot of books about factory farming and it’s not something I want any of my dollars to go to (and yes, there are small organic farmers who treat their animals humanely but honestly they form a very small percentage of the meat that’s available to purchase in this country). I’ve also read a lot about the health benefits of a plant-based diet with no animal protein and it sounds amazing.

        I’m very into thematic reading. I think half the books I’ve read so far this year have been about running. :)

        Reply
        • 8. Corey  |  April 7, 2011 at 8:19 am

          I’m really only thematic when I’m writing an essay or reading for class. I’m more of a “read random things and try to spot connections between them anyway” kind of reader. :)

          And, as the only vegan I know, I must tell you that I just discovered a pretty good vegan brownie/fudgy goodness recipe! Just let me know if you’d like a copy.

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