Notebooks vs. Leatherette Diaries & E-books vs. Real Books

One of these notebooks will go to London.

One of these notebooks will go to London.

I am planning my trip to London.

Two carry-on bags.

And a notebook.

I have a laid-back approach to vacations. I pretend I’m in a cottage, whether I’m in the country or a city.  I get up late, go to the breakfast buffet or a cafe, drink a dozen cups of coffee, hold the map upside down for a while, scrawl notes on when to turn left and right, and then go out.  I do not have a strict schedule.  I might feel like a tour; I might feel like shopping.  Then I go to a coffeeshop and that’s it for the day.

I do have one event planned.  I bought a ticket to see Sebastian Barry at the Oxford Literary Festival. If I feel up to going (if the sun is shining…if I feel like taking the train), it will be exactly like “The Amazing Race”: I must take a train, then find my way around Oxford (by walking, bus, or a taxi; I’ll have to Google it), then take notes if I’m not too frazzled, and afterwards take a “tour-ette” (possibly guided) of Oxford. Do the students and dons still wear robes? No?  I’d love them to look like Dorothy Sayers or Evelyn Waugh, but  possibly they look more like Hugh Laurie or Rebecca Mead, author of the book I’m reading, My Life in Middlemarch.

Fortunately the train service is excellent between London and Oxford.

There are other writers I’d like to hear at the festival, but they’re all there on different days, so I regret I’ll have to pass:  Still, if you want to, you can hear Ian McEwan, author of Atonement and Man Booker Prize winner; Peter Stothard, author of Alexandria:  The Last Nights of Cleopatra, interviewing a writer I’ve never heard of; Orhan Pamuk, the Nobel winner, whose novel Snow I really loved;, and Eleanor Catton, author of The Luminaries and winner of the Man Booker Prize.

I have a long list of things to do in London.

Too many things.

But what notebook should I take?

I love to write about my vacations.

See the blue Apica paperback notebook labeled “Ideas for Blog”?  Apparently I had no ideas for blog. I took a few notes when I went to Bess Streeter Aldrich’s house in Elmwood, Nebraska.  (Her piano came on a steamboat and she embroidered her own luncheon cloths.)  But what on earth did I mean by Fish Tank, The Third Man, Mother, Fallen Angels, Old Boy, & Mary & Max?

See the orange leatherette notebook?  I bought it at Target while my husband was browsing in the sports equipment department.  I love the magnetic snap:  Close the notebook and you hear that wonderful noise. But it’s more a diary than a note-taking notebook.

Next up:  A natty Miquelerius spiral, but perhaps too big for my purse.

Last one:  an orange paperback Moleskine.  Smallish, and except for a few notes on Swann’s Way, it’s empty.

Actually it’s between the Moleskine and the Apica.

And now:  e-books vs. real books.

Harlot High and Low BalzacHere we are in 2014.

And I miss books.

I used to order print-on-demand books if my Mrs. Oliphant or George Meredith weren’t available used.

Now I buy e-books, or get them from

I miss real books.

I was looking at my Balzac collection.

“Do we have A Harlot High and Low?”  If I remember correctly, this is better than Zola’s Nana, which I’ve just finished.

“I took notes in it,” my husband said.

He was a notorious note-taker in college–my advisor once told me he was the best student they’d had in 10 years:  they were shocked he didn’t go on for a Ph.D.–and the pages are covered with notes.

I simply can’t read a book with highlightings and scrawlings.

On the occasions when I took notes in class, I wrote in a notebook.

I have to buy another copy, right?  And I want a paperback.   I read everything  for months on my e-reader and then suddenly need a real book.

E-books or books?  Which do you prefer?

Bookish Posts vs. Diaries

Mom, Dad, and me.

Mom, Dad, and me (last century!)

I have written 328 posts in a year and two months.

Why put everything on the internet?

It is the fashion.  We write at Facebook or blogs.

Maybe in 10 years there will be silence.  Fashions change.

I wonder why I don’t write in a journal, but I do not.

I used to be strictly bookish, but I sometimes write diary entries. Some prefer the bookish posts, others prefer the diary.

“Best female writers?” Everybody’s there.  “Horse Races in Literature”?  Fantastic.

The most popular posts recently?    “Viragos Are Sometimes Inconsequential…” and “Library Books.”

I don’t even consider writing “real” articles or reviews.  Whatever I write is easier in a blog.

When critics find fault with blogs, they are thinking about a world of rough drafts.   It can take days, weeks, months to write a good article. Blogs are often more a collection of notes.  Often very good notes.  (I have read some excellent blogs lately.)  Journalists don’t understand bloggers’ socializing in comments and “challenges.”  Comments?  Well, why bother?  The Guardian now posts comments as articles, without, I presume, paying the commenters.

Before I move on to bookish things, I am going to write a post about my mother again.

She died last August.  I loved knowing that she was in the world, playing bridge, watching the soaps, not cooperating at the nursing home. I didn’t visited every day.  When I couldn’t bicycle, I took the bus and then called my husband for a ride home. (The neighborhood wasn’t safe after 5, or more like 3.)  I would plan to visit for one hour, and then stay till 7 p.m.  Since she wouldn’t eat the prepared food at the nursing home, I rushed out and bought hamburgers from McDonald’s; another time she resisted taking a shower for a week, and I had to convince her to go with the aide; and another time she had fallen and been left in the bathroom all night.

And this was one of the better nursing homes.

There is a lot of grief in families as one gets older.  My father wanted to visit her.  She was fascinated by him, but would have been mortified to receive him in old age.  She thought a great deal about how she looked,. She wore a wig.  She worried about the spots on her face.  You know the creams advertised on TV?  They don’t work.   If she and my father had stayed together, she would not have been in a nursing home.  That was the most exasperating thing.

My mother never remarried; my father had his pick.  I tried to straighten things out from time to time.  Utterly ridiculous.

And so another day of wondering about the past.  I really miss her.

Horse Races in Fiction

Kentucky Derby 2013

Kentucky Derby 2013

I love the races.

I always bet on horses with names like “Loopy Dazzle” and “Champagne Cake.”

I couldn’t read the Racing Form if my life depended on it.

But the horses are beautiful and the races are exciting.

Recently I’ve read two novels with horse-race scenes, Zola’s Nana and D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day.

And so I decided to make a list of fiction with horse races.

First, three classics I have reread recently:

Nana by Zola1.  In Nana, Zola’s novel about a courtesan, Nana rises from prostitution to a starring role in an operetta to spoiled mistress of a banker, a count, and others.  No one can resist Nana. She fascinates with her perfect figure–men become obsessed by her when she plays an almost-nude scene in the operetta–and out of the theater she is a genial girl who enjoys socializing with old friends from the slums and her many lovers.  The problem:  avarice.  She squanders several  fortunes.

There is a glorious horse race scene.  The odds are against the horse, Nana, who is named after her.  Here is an excerpt from the George Holden translation:

Then the crowd witnessed a splendid sight.  Price, rising in the stirrups  and brandishing his whip, flogged Nana with an arm of iron.  the dried-up old child, with his long, hard, dead face, seemed to be breathing fire.  And in a furious burst of audacity and triumphant will-power, he poured his heart into the filly, picked her up and carried her forward, drenched in foam, her eyes all bloodshot. The whole field went by with a roar of thunder, taking people’s breath away and sweeping the air with it, while the judge sat waiting coldly, his eye fixed on his sighting mark.

anna-karenina-leo-tolstoy2.  In  Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, there is perhaps the most dramatic horse race ever.  Vronsky, Anna’s lover, rides in a steeplechase race, but his tension beforehand, caused by his family’s objections to Anna, and his visit to Anna immediately before the race, does not bode well.  During the race, his merciless treatment of the horse, Frou-Frou,  is a harbinger of what will happen to Anna.

Here is an excerpt:

Vronsky did not even look at [the last water jump], but hoping to win by a distance, began working the reins with a circular movement, raising and dropping the mare’s head in time with her stride.  He felt she was losing her last reserve of strength, not only her neck and shoulders were wet, but on her withers, her head, and her pointed ears the sweat stood in drops, and she was breathing short and sharp.  But he knew that her reserve of strength was more than enough for the remaining five hundred yard.

3.  In D. H. Lawrence‘s short story, “The Rocking-Horse Winner,”  a boy has an uncanny gift for predicting winners of horse races. He rides his rocking horse for hours to predict the winner of the Derby…  and then…

Next, two contemporary books:

Derby Day Taylor American4.  In Derby Day, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011, D. J. Taylor  describes the double-dealings of horse owners, thieves, a power-hungry woman, and bookmakers before the Epsom Derby. Taylor seems to write effortlessly, and in this elegant novel, set in Victorian England, he deftly weaves history into a breakneck, thrilling narrative. ( I recently wrote about this  here.)

Here is an excerpt:

A riot of colour.  Colour everywhere.  The horses are of every imaginable hue:  black, baby, chestnut, grey, a multitude of shades in between.  The jockeys’ silks–scarlet, magenta, carmine, green-and-white, quartered blues and yellows–rustle in the breeze.  In the distance a sea of faces, sharp and distinct where the people press up against the rail, fading–as the crowd diffuses up the hill–into a remote generality.  Nothing Mr. Frith could ever do can convey the enormity of the scene or its infinite particularity, the sway and eddy of fifty thousand shoulders, the women fainting in the heat and being taken out, the flashes of light as the sun catches on the raised opera glasses in the grandstand, the cacophony of individual shouts–‘Baldino!, ‘Septuagint!’, ‘Pendragon!’.  The band is still playing ‘The British Grenadiers’ on the near side of the paddock, but nobody hears it.

Horse Heaven jane smiley5.  In Pulitzer Prize-winner Jane Smiley’s Horse Heaven, tycoons, trainers, breeders, jockeys, and others behind the scenes in southern California race their horses and have a chance at the Kentucky Derby or the Breeders Cup.  The characters are eccentric and amusing, the details about racing are absorbing, the plot is addictive, and I especially loved the passages from the horses’ points-of-view.

I would have to reread this book to write about it intelligently, but I did love it when it was published.

Here is an excerpt I found online (unfortunately I couldn’t find one from the horses’ point of view).

The first thing Mr. Maybrick did after he poured his coffee was to call his horse-trainer. When the trainer answered with his usual “Hey, there!,” Mr. Maybrick said, “Dick!,” and then Dick said, “Oh. Al.” He always said it just like that, as if he were expecting something good to happen, and Mr. Maybrick had happened instead. Mr. Maybrick ignored this and sipped his coffee while Dick punched up his response. “Can I do something for you, Al?”

“Yeah. You can put that Laurita filly in the allowance race on Thursday.”

Now for pop novels.

The Dark Horse Rumer Godden6.  Rumer Godden’s Dark Horse.  Not a very good book, but entertaining.  (I picked it up for $1 at a sale.)   In the 1930s, a millionaire buys the Dark Invader, a beautiful horse that has failed as a racehorse in England; the horse and his groom are shipped to India to be given a second chance.  The groom, Ted, a jockey whose career was wrecked by alcoholism, reveals how the horse was ruined by a sadistic jockey.  Ted is hired to stay in Calcutta with the horse; the Mother Superior of a nearby convent proves to be very horse-smart; and everybody finds redemption.

7.  My husband suggests  Dick Francis‘s mysteries and Faulkner.  I don’t know which Faulkner, but he says there are a lot of horsey scenes.

Let me know your favorite horse race books!

Walking in the Cold and Walking in a Hail Storm

I needed my horse and sleigh.

I needed my horse and sleigh.

It has been a cold winter, with record lows.

The  temperature was in the double digits, so I got up from under my flannel sheets, three comforters, a blanket, and quilt and took a walk.  The wind was 20 or 30 miles per hour, and no one was walking except me, but I struggled on to the library.  I decided to thaw out before checking out my books, so I went to the comfortable chairs next to the fireplace…and no fire.

It is a fake fireplace, with an electric fire, and I have sweated next to it in summer.  Now it seemed to be broken.

So I sat in the freezing cold next to a window (all the other seats were taken) and read something.  Then a homeless person sat down next to me.  Although the library is a haven for the homeless, and I want them to stay warm, I like to have a chair or two between us.   (N.B. I can diagnose all my friends’ mental problems from years of watching daytime TV with my mother so that they don’t become homeless.  The medicine is Blue Bunny malt cups or cookies from the Hy-Vee.)

Then I lost a mitten.  I trailed all over the library, looking for my mitten.  “Have you seen a mitten?”  I asked the check-out person.  He had not seen a mitten.  Back to the chair, and the homeless person was gone, but no mitten.  Back to the shelves, and there was my mitten.

I couldn’t have ventured into the cold without two mittens. I would have called a taxi, I don’t have a phone (I don’t believe in cell phones except for the elderly and the disabled), there are no more pay phones, I would have had to use a librarian’s phone, and I needed the exercise.

Walking was easier.

Really cold, though.

AND I WALKED IN A HAIL STORM.  Today I was absorbed in my book, D. J. Taylor’s Kept, and not thinking about walking.  Then I took a break to check my email, and discovered the temperature was 47.  I donned my spring coat and went for a walk.

It didn’t feel like 47.  I figured the temperature was gradually dropping.  Then it became windy, and it was cold, but I decided I was fine.  Then suddenly small pellets of hail were landing on me and all around me.  I WAS WALKING IN A HAIL STORM.

What should I do?  Shelter on someone’s porch?

I walked, and it was damned cold.

My face was frozen.

I was very annoyed, because the weather report had said 0% chance of precipitation.

Suddenly there was my husband in a car.  He had come out looking for me.  I was never so glad to get in a car.   (Thank you!)  He dropped me off before he went to the store to get healthy foods beginning with “c”:  cauliflower, kale (whoops, that’s a k!), carrots, Diet Coca-cola… oops, that last isn’t healthy.

Winter:  Who needs it?

Viragos Are Sometimes Inconsequential, Europas Aren’t Always Good, & What Was Dickens Thinking When He Wrote The Old Curiosity Shop?

washing my mouth out with soap won't do any good

…after I read a bad book.

Although I have read some excellent books this month, I have also read my share of second-rate books.  One is so contrived and mawkish I almost refrained from writing about it, the second is the most violent book I have ever read, and Dickens’ early novels were not all classics.

Oh, Viragos, I thought.  Oh, Europas.  Oh, Dickens.  I can read these very good books without screening them for quality.

Not so.

I hoped to enjoy Mary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies, a library book I picked up because it’s a Virago; I recently read and loved her novel Fire from Heaven.   Caryl Ferey’s Mapuche (Europa) says on the cover, Winner Larderneau Prize for Crime Fiction 2012.  And I decided to reread The Old Curiosity Shop to prepare for the Dickens tour I may or may not take on my trip to London.

I must have been brainwashed by the Virago/Europa reputation.  And if I didn’t like The Old Curiosity Shop years ago, is it likely that I’d like it now?

Many of my blogger friends love books published by a single publisher, whether it be Virago, Europa, NYBR, or Dalkey Archive. (I do like many of these publishers’ books, but not all.)   At my old blog, I accidentally alienated several English bloggers by gently mocking Virago Week (or was it Persephone Week?), and you don’t want to get the English riled up.  Fortunately the Europa fans didn’t mind when I gently mocked the Europa Challenge, probably because they’re Americans.  (And I read two outstanding Europa books last year, Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter.)

Well, anyway, let’s take one of these books at a time.

The Friendly Young Ladies RenaultMary Renault’s The Friendly Young Ladies. Though I was dazzled by Fire from Heaven, a novel about Alexander the Great, this is one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

I can only think Virago published this because it’s an early example of gay lit, or queer lit.

Some of the scenes are fascinating, but the writing is maudlin.

Renault does a masterly job of portraying Elsie, a silly teenager who runs away to find her sister Leo, who left under a cloud years ago.  Peter, a doctor she has a crush on, suggests it will help Elsie get over her inhibitions. Peter is a Freudian who likes to flirt with his patients and then dump them.

Elsie thinks Leo may be a prostitute.  Hardly.   Leo, a writer of Westerns who often dresses in mannish clothes, lives on a houseboat with Helen, a beautiful nurse, and yes, she and Helen are lesbians, or are they?  Or aren’t they?  Or are they?  Or aren’t they?

Leo and Helen sleep in the same bed.  But they embrace men at parties.

What the f___, as I like to say.

And then they go home and sleep in the same bed again.

And they both gently make out with Peter (separately) and don’t respond much.

And Leo tries to seduce Peter’s girlfriend, not sexually, but by charming her off the houseboat.  She is furious that Peter has brought a woman to their home when he knows Elsie is in love with him.

And Joe, a writer of literary fiction, is in love with Leo, who practically drowns so she won’t have to have sex with him. Joe invites Leo to go to Arizona with him, and explains he has had other relationships, and she says, “On my side there’s Helen.  I don’t suppose you want to know anything about that, either.”

The houseboat scenes are good and really interesting.  Leo is constantly pumping water, and she and Helen do a lot of boat housework.  Helen really doesn’t like having Elsie around, because she doesn’t help at all and doesn’t have a job; their finances are squeezed.

And Helen is terrified of losing Leo.  She had heterosexual relationships before meeting Leo, so got that out of the way, but Leo apparently has not.

Some of Pamela Frankau’s books, as I recall, also deal with gay life, but are more realistic and better-written. Some of  them have been published by Virago.

Mary Renault in the Afterword seems surprised that Virago wanted to reissue this 1944 book.  She laughs at parts of the book.  She dislikes the word “gay,” makes fun of The Well of Loneliness (I haven’t read that one, but I do have a copy), and said that she wouldn’t be more explicit if she wrote it in the ’80s.

Congregated homosexuals waving banners are really not conducive to a good-natured ‘Vive la difference!’  Certainly they will not bring back the tolerant individualism of Macedon or Athens, where they would have attracted as much amazement as demonstrations of persons willing to drink wine.

Mapuche fereyCaryl Ferey’s Mapuche.   After the coup d’etat in Argentina in 1976, many people disappeared (the Desaparecidos).   Ruben, one of the main characters, was tortured in a prison, and his father and sister died.  He is now an investigator who helps a group called the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo search for the Desaparecidos.  He becomes involved with Jana, a Mapauche (an Indian of the pampas), after her friend, a transvestite named Paula/Miguel, is tortured and killed.  A well-known photographer disappears at the same time, and her connection to Paula is sad and unexpected.

Ruben’s months in the prison as an adolescent are told in violent detail,  but there are historical reasons for that. In the last 50 pages or so, when Jana takes revenge, hunting and tracking and using multiple weapons, even Ruben throws up at the violence.  And I was close to it.

It is a political thriller, but not my kind of thing.  It is badly-written, at least in translation.  If you want it, it’s yours.

Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop.  I love Dickens, but I tried to reread this one a few years ago, and couldn’t get past the wax works.

I’m having the same problem this year.

the-old-curiosity-shop dickensThe writing is vivid, but there’s not much of a plot.  Little Nell takes care of her grandfather, a gambler who loses the Old Curiosity Shop to Quilp, a dwarf who causes havoc wherever he goes.  The grandfather and Nell take off, meet some puppeteers on the road, and then meet Mrs. Jarley, a kind of Madame Tussaud, and Nell becomes a docent for the wax works.  But her grandfather gambles away their money and..

I really love most of Dickens’ books, but this one is not very compelling.  It’s not actually a bad book, but it’s not very good.

Disappointing to read three bad books in one month.

Our Informal List of “Greatest” Living Female Writers

Nadine Gordimer:  on my list of best living writers.

Nadine Gordimer, one of the greatest living writers.

Abebooks’ Reading Copy blog recently posted an odd list of “75 Greatest Living  Female Writers,” who were selected and voted on by its customers and readers.  J. K. Rowling comes in at the top, followed by some remarkable literary writers, some good pop writers, and many much less wonderful writers of all genres.

Perhaps we can come up with our own informal list.  Clare, Karen, and I have already expressed our annoyance with the Abebooks list.

So in no particular order here are my suggestions for Greatest Living Female Writers.  Please leave your suggestions in comments.

Nadine Gordimer

Louise Erdrich

Jayne Anne Phillips

Margaret Drabble

Joyce Carol Oates

Maxine Hong Kingston

Jane Gardam

Marilynne Robinson

Linda Hogan

The 75 Greatest Living Female Authors

I'm adding Margaret Drabble to the list.

I’m adding Margaret Drabble to the list.

At Abebooks’ Reading Copy blog, the 75 greatest living female authors have been selected by a poll.  The top 10, according to Abebooks customers, are  J. K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Harper Lee, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel, and Barbara Kingsolver.

After the first-place Rowling bolt from the blue, the next nine are pretty staid choices, all critically-acclaimed, prize-winning writers of best-selling literary novels and nonfiction.

Go further down the list and you’ll find popular writers Diana Gabaldon, Stephenie Meyer, Anne Rice, and Suzanne Collins sprinkled among divas like Marilynne Robinson and Louise Erdrich.

The list reflects our culture:  pop mixed with literary.

Is that a good thing?

Shouldn’t I be shocked that Rowling is in first place?  I very much liked A Casual Vacancy, but it isn’t great literature.  As for the Harry Potter books, they are not for my age group.

Why aren’t I surprised?

It’s because last fall I read about the “Dave TV” book poll in the UK on best books of the 21st century, and the top book was Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

Online life inures us to ridiculousness.

Who decides what is best?

You don’t have to be a literary critic, but you do want your listmaker to be able to distinguish between Harry Potter and Wolf Hall.

For instance, even though Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is one of my favorite coming-of-age novels,  I’ve always known that George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, is more brilliant and innovative.  Today the edges between such books are blurred as academics search for fresh scholarly topics among pop fiction.  At first it’s fun:  you think, finally they’re acknowledging how good Dodie Smith is.  And then you realize that it’s something else altogether.

At least Abebooks customers can differentiate between books and TV.  One of my scholarly friends attended a conference on Buffy the Vampire Slayer.   Fascinating, but what on earth could it mean?

I’ve gone through periods of denial about my womanhood.

I’ve had eerie epiphanies lately where I see myself as a Very Competent Person rather than as a Woman.

I wish I agreed with A. S. Byatt that women don’t need their own literary prize.

It does seem necessary to me:  otherwise, the pop women writers rush off with all the laurels.

Doris Lessing’s Martha Quest was my role model, but if I hadn’t loved Clara Middleton, the heroine of  George Meredith’s The Egoist, would I have studied classics? (Well, yes, I’m being silly here.)

Anyway, good books by men, good books by women, I read them all.

I am very happy that the Orange Prize/Bailey Women’s Prize honors women, because we need something besides these polls to keep women’s literature in front of our eyes.

And I’m adding Margaret Drabble’s name to the Abebooks list.  I’m sure  you’ll all agree that she belongs there.

Library Books & London

She would need flannel pajamas more covers if she lived here.

She would need flannel pajamas & more covers if she lived here.

It is 3 degrees.

I should go to the gym.

Instead, I am sitting in bed under 30 pounds or so of flannel sheets, blankets, comforters, quilts, and two cats.  When I get up to make a cup of tea, it is strenuous to get out from under the covers.  It equals, say, 5 minutes on the elliptical.

In weather like this, I love reading in bed.  Not any old thing. Library books.

Meaning books I like to read but will never buy.

I thought about walking to the library in several layers of modish coats, a muffler, ski mask,  and mittens, but I emailed my husband instead.

“Will you pick up mysteries by Robert Barnard for me?  Thanx!”  (I didn’t really write “thanx.”  I am making fun of the culture.)

My husband has a car and often stops by the library.  He picks up dozens of books for me.

When I go through a “library book” phase, I binge on good pop books. The thing about library books is that they’re “lite.”

Sometimes I want Golden Age mysteries. Sometimes I want out-of-print science fiction books by Pamela Sargent.

I have read and enjoyed Robert Barnard’s mysteries over the years, but I can’t remember which I’ve read.  I’m pretty sure I’ve read all the ones with “death” in the title.   Death of a Mystery Writer, Death of a Literary Widow, etc.

I convey this to him via email.

Hours later, he comes home with a stack.  “I got all the newest ones.  He’s written about 100.”

And here I am in bed, delighted with Barnard’s engrossing novel, A Murder in Mayfair, which my husband picked out because I am going to London, and Mayfair is in London… and that’s all we know about Mayfair and London.  Certainly I take note when the narrator goes to a Chinese restaurant near King’s Cross station, and the neighborhood is full of prostitutes.  He hopes it will change when the new British Library opens.  (Did it?)  “Don’t eat Chinese alone at King’s Cross,” I mentally note.   My guidebook already described the area as dicey.  But it’s not in Mayfair, is it?

It is going to be a bookish holiday. I don’t want to see the Changing of the Guards, the Tower of London, or Westminster Abbey.  I am much more interested in books, bookstores, and literary tours, and gasped when I realized that if only I had booked my vacation earlier I could have heard A. S. Byatt on March 1 at the LSE Space for Thought Literary Festival.

What a pity I won’t be there!

But there are doubtless other literary events, and I have booked one ticket for a reading, which  I may or may not go to, depending on whether I feel like getting on the train, and I very well may not.  (I may be doing my laundry that day and reading a book by the author instead.)  There  is something so charmingly boring about a good literary event.  Growing up in Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature,  prepared me for all manner of literary boredom.

And now excuse me, but having written 568 very silly words, I must go finish my library book.

And please tell me about your favorite library binge books and your favorite literary festivals.

D. J. Taylor’s Derby Day

Derby Day Taylor AmericanI recently finished D. J. Taylor’s historical novel, Derby Day, which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2011.

Set in Victorian England, this brilliant novel details the double dealings and crimes revolving around a horse favored for the Epsom Derby.

It is not a horse book; it is about the human beings involved with the horse, Tiberius.

Taylor deftly weaves history into a breakneck, thrilling narrative about an unsuitable marriage, theft, discounted bills, forgeries, bets, a surprisingly detailed jewel heist, and the horse race.  The moments of comedy are almost equal to the moments of suspense, and there are many allusions to Dickens’ Bleak House, Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, and other Victorian novels.

Taylor’s graceful style and irresistible, if crooked, characters make this intricately-plotted novel unique.

Among the more respectable characters is Rebecca Gresham (whom Taylor compares to Becky Sharp), an impassive woman whose aspirations differ from those of her dull social circle, and who is determined to marry George Happerton, a man of mysterious origins. The charming Happerton has some money, whether from speculation or the racetrack.  Rebecca’s father, Mr. Gresham, a well-to-do lawyer, is suspicious of him.

Taylor writes long, elegant paragraphs.  Here is an excerpt from a paragraph in which he describes the relationship of Rebecca and her father.

Mr. Gresham and his daughter fell into that category of people whose want of sympathy is made yet more flagrant by their inability to disguise it. They were not at ease with each other, and the civilities of the breakfast table only fuelled their displeasure. And so Mr. Gresham read what The Times had to say about Mr. Gladstone’s disposition of his Cabinet, and Miss Gresham spread marmalade on a fragment of toast and snapped at it crossly as if she thought it might get away from her, and neither of them, in the matter of temperamental unbending would give an inch.

There are many surprises in this novel.  After Happerton and Rebecca marry, he admits he does not understand her, and is almost shocked when she volunteers to help him acquire Tiberius.  “There was something in her tone that suggested she might be his ally, that she was not averse to her father’s money being spent–the idea of its being lent was a polite fiction–on a horse.”

And there are other memorable characters:  Captain Raff, a comical, if sleazy, friend runs errands for Mr. Happerton:  the two buy up the discounted bills (of debts) of Mr. Davenant, owner of Tiberius, to get the horse (and his house).  Mr. Davenant broods in Lincolnshire, while his daughter, Evie, an albino girl with what we would now call an “intellectual disability,” contributes to the gloomy atmosphere.  Her new governess, Miss Ellington, tells her imaginative stories, but eventually has to give up trying to teach Evie to read.  Mr. Pardew, a burglar and safe-cracker, is one of Taylor’s most vivid characters, and, oddly, I am rooting for him throughout the book, even though he is not the guy you’d want to live next door to.  And then there is Captain McTurk, a brilliant policeman, perhaps a little like Mr. Bucket in Bleak House.

I am not always keen on historical novels, but I also very much enjoyed Taylor’s The Windsor Faction, a counter-factual history in which Edward VIII does not abdicate because Wallis Simpson dies.  Taylor is an exceptionally skillful writer, and I see why Derby Day was a contender for the Booker.

It makes you want to bet on a horse.  I like the races:  Golden Soul, “my” horse, came in second at the Kentucky Derby last year.

Taylor is also a critic and biographer, and won the Whitbread Biography Award for his biography of George Orwell.

Writing in the Age of Writers’ Conferences

"Reading Girl," by Matisse

“Reading Girl,” by Matisse

I have revised my writing and improved it, and I have revised it and gone to hell.

Years ago an instructor at a writer’s conference advised us not to show our work to our family.  Family members, he pointed out, have already seen you naked.  Join a writers’ group.

The instructor was wrong on one count:  my husband very much liked the short story I’d submitted:  it was partly autobiographical, set in a poor urban neighborhood, and there was a scene where a family walked its pet goat down the street.  He recognized that scene.

When the instructor trashed the story in a private conference, I asked why I had been admitted to the workshop.  I did not realize then that writers’ conferences are a big business.  They are a place where one can learn to write, but more than one had been shocked by the instructor’s bluntness. He took us too seriously, and one can only hope at the next conference he loosened up.

He taught us to imitate his style.  No adverbs were allowed, sentences had to be short and simple, and  every story had to be quirky: my story “Suzanne’s” was set in an erotic bookshop, about a woman discontented (no!) with her life; there were drug dealers in another story; and in another a character had an affair with his sister-in-law.

Though the instructor was very good at spotting who would be published–a mystery writer, and a woman who wrote “issue” novels– he did not encourage anybody who wrote what I wanted to read.  Somehow the writers I though very good were never heard of again.

I did not write much fiction after the conference because I had no idea who my new characters were.  Quirky?  They were quirky, but in retrospect I would  have been better off writing for my own enjoyment about characters like myself.  I wasn’t writing for publication, and  I was shocked that my fellow students  already wanted to know how to get published. Most of us needed to work on our writing.

And now, all these years later, I have thrown out almost everything I wrote.

Here are a few lines of an autobiographical novel in verse I started writing some years back, about my friend L, who died at age 48 of complications from diabetes, and me.

Performance art
happened frequently
in our town
[when we were young].
Tree pods
nicked the lawn where we sat drinking coffee.
We caught one and said,
“What is this?”
We were supposed to be in math.
I hadn’t done homework since 1969.
We gathered pods and took them to the secretary’s office.
She smoked and shuffled papers.
She talked on the phone.  She looked at us.
“We need to xerox these,” we said.
“A project.”
She absently waved us behind the gate.
She didn’t care.
She knew us well.
We were always in there for this or that.
We skipped class.
We stole the pink pad of passes from the office.
We were permanently excused from classes.
The college counselor called us into her office constantly.

We glued the xerox
onto someone’s locker.

We couldn’t stop laughing.

We liked the boy
whose locker we had adorned
with phallic art.


See you tomorrow with another blog.