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.

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.

The Blogger Chronicles, Part 3: Critic Michael Dirda and Novelists D. J. Taylor & Sherry Jones Speak Out on Blogs

Roman woman writingThis is the third in a series of “featurettes” about blogging.  Today, meet Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic at the Washington Post; D. J. Taylor, an award-winning biographer, novelist, and critic; and Sherry Jones, an award-winning author of historical novels.

In a scene in D. E. Stevenson’s light, humorous novel, The Two Mrs. Abbots (1943), Janetta Walters, a romantic novelist, meets an air force pilot who dislikes her books.

She was aware that the English-speaking world contained people who did not care for her work, but never before had she met one of these people in the flesh–not so far as she knew.  Reviewers were sometimes unkind, but reviewers were different…

Novelists, reviewers, and bloggers often have confusing encounters.  Everybody is a click away by email (two or three clicks if you go through PR people), and bloggers can happily chat with famous writers, or, in this case, interview them.

Because so many of the bloggers I recently interviewed like to read classics and older books, I approached Michael Dirda, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning critic at The Washington Post and author of Readings, Bound to Please, and Classics for Pleasure. Not only is he an outstanding writer, but he sometimes reviews classics, reissued editions of out-of-print novels, reference books, poetry, science fiction, and other less well-known books. * (see note)

He kindly agreed to an email interview on the subject of critics and bloggers.

Although he does not read blogs regularly, he enjoys “specialized sites about everything from the classic ghost story (All-Hallows) to the Golden Age Mystery (The Passing Tramp) to the course of popular fiction over the past 100 or so years (the restricted discussion group called fictionmags).”

He is happy with the quality of some blogs, not so happy with others.

He writes:

“China’s Cultural Revolution proclaimed: “Let a thousand flowers blossom”–and, while I’m no Maoist, I do think the proliferation of reader comment and discussion online is to be welcome. Besides, it’s inevitable, even if there are losses. My own caveats are pretty familiar by now.  People gravitate to specialized blogs or tailor their data consumption–to use the lingo–to a narrow band of material. Common knowledge–the stuff that everyone knew about because it came to you in the daily paper or from big-name magazines and book reviews–is being eroded. We can now learn an incredible amount about quite specialized areas of interest: Unfortunately, more and more people  know everything about the strategy of League of Legends yet are unable to name the Secretary of State. And not care.”

He cautions readers about believing everything they read online, since few sites have fact checkers and copy editors.  He can identify bloggers who know their stuff, but thinks “the flashy and the crowd-pleasing sites are often the ones that receive all the hits and make the big numbers.”

He says that when critics and journalists talk about bloggers, it is “mainly to lament their own loss of power and influence.” There is no equivalent of the supportive community of bloggers or online book groups among critics.  They spend a lot of time alone.

He writes, “To read a book well or appreciate a work of art requires a focused act of attention. You need quiet and minimal interruption, both of which are hard to achieve if you’re constantly updating your Facebook page. Addictive twittering is even worse. Personally, I prefer to talk with my friends, truly face to face, over dinner and a glass of Guinness.”

D. J. Taylor is a critic, biographer, and Man Booker Prize-nominated author of the novel, Derby Day.  His brilliant new novel, The Windsor Faction, was one of my favorite books of 2013 (I wrote about it here) and I very much enjoyed his non-fiction book, Bright Young People: The Lost Generation of London’s Jazz Age (I wrote about it here; It can also be used as a reference book about such Bright Young People as Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, and  Cecil Beaton).

Like all writers, he has had good and bad experiences online.  He said by e-mail:

Blogs are like every other form of reader response in the publishing process, from newspaper reviews to Amazon critiques – helpful and instructive if well done (and by this I don’t merely mean favourable to the author), a waste of time if not. My instinctive feeling is that the Americans are better at this than the Brits. I have been very impressed in recent years by specialist non-fiction sites which have been useful for promoting my own stuff –  a blog called Cocktails with Elvira was particularly helpful with my Bright Young People book. With The Windsor Faction blogs such as The Common Reader and your own site have offered a welcome counterblast to various on-line reviewers who will insist that an alternative history novel set in World War II has to be full of stampeding Nazis and derring do.

Sherry Jones, a former journalist and the author of two historical novels, Four Sisters All Queens and The Jewel of Medina, has had good and bad experiences, too.  (I wrote  here about Four Sisters All Queens, a well-researched, fascinating novel about the four daughters of savvy Beatrice of Savoy in Provence.)  She said in an email interview:

“How readers find out about new books is a mystery to me. As an historical fiction author, I’m very grateful to the bloggers who’ve taken the time to read and review the novels I’ve written, but I’m also aware that their impact on my readership is very limited. Most bloggers have only a few hundred followers at most — a drop in the proverbial bucket. Some, alas, can barely spell. And yet they offer us exposure, both on their blogs and on the social media where they promote their posts…”

She appreciates reviews online, but says they can be helpful or harmful.

“My only concern about blog reviewers is that, too often, they write authoritatively as literary critics despite having no schooling or even basic knowledge of the art of criticism. In the online world, anyone can post whatever they desire about a book and be taken seriously, even if the person writing is no “serious” critic or even educated in literature and literary history (a must for context, if for nothing else).”

She belongs to two book groups, and says word of mouth or the review of a trusted blogger are often the best ways to learn about good books.  When her new book, THE SHARP HOOK OF LOVE, is released in October, she will be “writing to as many bloggers as I can find, soliciting reviews and interviews, and offering to write guest posts….  Bloggers, unlike critics, tend to be unpretentious, and quite approachable.”

She thanks bloggers for writing.  “Believe me when I say that we’re all infinitely grateful for what you and other book bloggers do. Please don’t stop!”

Thank you, Michael, David, and Sherry for agreeing to be interviewed!

* Note:  In recent years, Dirda has written about a reissue of Frank Baker’s 1936 novel The Birds (a kind of predecessor to Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds), Persian poetry, an annotated version of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, a fantasy novel by Gavriel Guy Kay, an appreciation of Ray Bradbury on the occasion of his death, and a reissue of H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr. Polly.

How to Get Warm & Reading D. J. Taylor’s Bright Young People

It's not exactly Currier & Ives here.

It’s not exactly Currier & Ives here.

“It’s cold,” he said.

He had been outside at 6 a.m. How cold could it be at 1 p.m.?  The internet said 20.  I wore my warmest coat.  I wore a scarf, gloves, a hat, my hood, and my old Timberlake boots. You can’t get much warmer than that.  And I still couldn’t get warm.

My coat probably weighs 10 pounds, my boots five.  With every step I felt as though I were wearing ankle weights.

Surely I would warm up if I kept going.

Stopped at the Little Free Library.  There was a copy of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies.  I already have it on my e-reader.  There was my copy of D. H. Lawrence’s The Rainbow.  Nobody wants to read that.  There is a copy of Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower.  Should I want to read that?  I know I will never read that.

My face was so cold.  It felt dry and stretched.  It’s wrecked anyway.  Bicycling long distances in the sun ruins your skin.

But, you know, who cares?  Some of the bicyclists are too drunk to notice:  they stop at all the pubs on the trail.

Keep moving, keep  moving.  I felt worse and worse.  There was nobody outside.  It was just too cold.   I saw one person with a big dog.  I hopped into the street so there would be plenty of room for the dog.  Sometimes big dogs on narrow sidewalks make me nervous.

Then I got home and coughed pathetically.  Went to bed with two boxes of Kleenex.  Can’t face Cold-eze or cold medicine yet.  Am drinking coffee instead of tea (probably a bad idea).

Bright Young People d.J. taylorAND HERE’S WHAT TO READ WHEN YOU’RE SICK.  I am reading D. J. Taylor’s Bright Young People:  The Lost Generation of the Jazz Age, a brilliant nonfiction book about the London socialites of the ’20s, among them Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, Michael Arlen, etc. Since I usually read fiction, I am most familiar with them as characters in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies or Michael Arlen’s collection of stories, These Charming People.

Taylor is a versatile, entertaining biographer, critic, and novelist, and makes this nonfiction book as interesting as a novel.   A few months ago I read his novel The Windsor Faction (wrote about it here and it makes my “Best of 2013” list on the sidebar)  and interviewed him (here).

I’ll  leave you with a quote from Bright Young People.

Some Bright Young People became successful writers, journalists or artists, while others plumbed the depths of drink, drugs and disappointment.  They were much written about and much misrepresented.  At an early stage their behavior acquired a generational focus, to the point where they were assumed to reflect the attitudes of thousands of people who barely knew they existed.  In the end, as the social historian Alan Jenkins noted, the words “Bright Young People” became a label for all the young in Britain who did anything unusual at all.  Given that many of the Bright Young People were artists, albeit sometimes in very minor and inconsequential ways, their spoor can be tracked across vast acreages of British cultural life.  Their style–brisk, affected, outwardly impersonal, inwardly often deeply vulnerable–influenced a host of descendants who knew noting of their ancestry, and their echoes can be found in the pages of books written long after the movement’s original members were gone.