What I’m Reading Now: D. J. Taylor’s Kept, Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home, & William Gibson’s Zero History


On AOL in the ’90s, before the blog was invented, we posted our thoughts on book boards. AOL hosted dozens of book groups at a site called Book Central.   One year many of us attended The Southern Festival of Books in Nashville, and it was delightful to meet online friends.  Although there were frequent “break-ups” on AOL–a reader’s trashing Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake or Sebastian Faulks’s Birdsong could start a riot or a splinter group–I stayed in touch until AOL canceled Book Central and most of us changed internet servers.

The ’90s for me was the best time online, before the breakdown of groups into bloggers and Facebook users, and before the extensive distribution of review copies that occasionally compromise online integrity.

(Yes, I am part of this culture, too.  I have seen it, I have done it, and of course I love my blog.)

One thing I especially loved about the AOL groups was our “What I’m Reading Now” posts.

I usually wait to post about books after I’ve finished.  But why?

It’s time to revive the “What I’m Reading Now” feature.

Here goes:

kept-victorian-mystery-d-j-taylor-132x200D. J. Taylor’s Kept.  This is a prequel to his novel Derby Day, the 2011 novel which was nominated for the Man Booker Prize (I wrote about it here).  If you are mad about allusions to Victorian novels, as I am, you may like this even more than Derby Day. The vividly-drawn  character,  Isabel Ireland, is a Bronteish mad woman, based on Thackeray’s wife; Trollope’s Josiah Crawley and Mrs. Oliphant’s Miss Marjoribanks and her father the doctor make appearacnces;  and Taylor introduces us to Mr. Pardew, a fascinating con man, and Captain McTurk, a clever policeman, whom we meet again  in Derby Day.

I am amazed by the wealth of historical and descriptive detail, and his encyclopedic knowledge of literature.

He also includes historical characters, like Dr. John Connolly, who “advocated radical reform of the treatment of lunatics and a system of patient care…. ” (See Taylor’s endnotes.)

I am savoring the language.  I will write more about this novel later.

Letters_Home_ plathSylvia Plath’s Letters Home.  Inspired by Nancy at Silver Threads, who reviewed Janet Malcolm’s The Silent Woman:  Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, I got out my copy of Sylvia Plath’s letters.  She is mainly ecstatic during her first year at Smith in 1950. Even then, however, she has to be careful not to be overstimulated, and she has joked about suicide twice in the first 50 page. She writes to her mother, “By the way, do you suck those buffered penicillins or swallow with water?…  I don’t want to kill myself by taking them the wrong way!”

She is impressed by her teachers, and especially loves Miss Mensel, a charming woman who keeps in touch with all the scholarship students.  Sylvia writes, “I had to keep myself from getting tears in my eyes as I told her how happy I was….   I was afraid I would be stiff and nervous at first, but my enthusiasm washed that all away, and I just flooded over and told her how happy I was.”

Oh, Sylvia!

Zero-History-cover gibsonWilliam Gibson’s Zero History is a science fiction thriller, partly about fashion.  Hollis Henry, a former rock star, and Milgrim, a former drug addict, are hired to find out who makes “Hounds,” a beautifully-sewn line of denim jackets and jeans that turn up periodically at select fashion trade shows.  Their boss, Hubertus Bigend, is always looking for information, and wants a contract to design military wear in the U.S.

So fast, so fun, so clever!

And more later…

When I finish these, you’ll hear more.

4 thoughts on “What I’m Reading Now: D. J. Taylor’s Kept, Sylvia Plath’s Letters Home, & William Gibson’s Zero History

  1. A very interesting post.

    I wasn’t with AOL but my employers gave me a Compuserve account which was similar – but almost impossible to use on slow dial-up connections.

    D J Taylor is a great writer – I read his latest, The Windsor Faction, last year and have read earlier ones too but not “Kept”.


  2. I like the idea of knowing what people are currently reading – and that’s a nice-sounding bunch! It’s years since I read Letters Home, but I remember being incredibly moved. I recall a one-woman dramatisation of Letters Home on British TV in the early 1980s but alas it’s not been seen since…. 😦


  3. Tom, I remember hearing about Compuserve. AOL dial-up was also slow and I was continually being booted off in the midst of whatever I was doing. Yes, Taylor is one of the most brilliant contemporary writers I’ve read in a long time. Sometimes brilliance is for the good in writing, sometimes it’s for the bad bad, but in his case it’s all good.

    Karen, how wonderful that Letters Home was dramatized! I’d love to see it: have never heard of it. These letters do tell a story. I love her poetry, but really pity her as I read these. What happened to her? Beautiful and charming, being told to shut up in English class, not taking that too much to heart, but looking wrecked 10 years later in pictures.

    Ellen,you would love Kept. It’s not just Thackeray: he knows all the Victorians. The endnotes are excellent,and of course much of it you catch on your own. I was thinking of you as I read this yesterday, especially when he introduced the Oliphant characters. You would love this.


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