Well, someone forced me to do it. In so far as they challenged me to do it. Or rather, they told me that someone else who’d just arrived at their sixtieth birthday had taken this challenge on. Same difference really. Anyway, I have one default response to a challenge – as long as it involves a literary or cultural feat rather than anything physical:
So, 60 books in 60 days.
Starting on 31 July, finishing on 28 September. I originally thought I’d just do one mammoth post at the end of the challenge, but judging by the length of this first entry, it seems more sensible (and kinder to my reader(s)) to post every 14 days.
Rules? Well, I’m making these up, obviously, since there is as far as I am aware no national or international case law relating to such things. But I think I have to exclude any re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago. For practical purposes I’m favouring short (obviously), relatively straightforward in narrative terms (nothing too Proustian) and in English as my reading speed in French is far too slow for this exercise. Series: e.g. a trilogy will count as 3 books if it has been published as 3 separate books even if it has later appeared in a one-volume edition. I’m including fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), and there’s no reason I can think of to exclude playscripts, or a volume of poetry, as long as I read all of the poems and don’t just dip in, or a collection of short stories. That raises a question though. I have on my Kindle some books that are described as short stories – are they too short to count? How short is too short? The list will include all brows, high to low, but everything I read will, I hope, have real merit and will bring real pleasure, over and above the satisfaction of achieving the challenge.
31 July. Day 1 – already underway: Anthony Beevor’s The Battle for Spain, and David Boyle’s Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance. Started today, Peter Lovesey’s The Last Detective.
1 August. Day 2 – finished The Last Detective. That was my first Lovesey, I don’t think it will be my last, not groundbreaking but thoroughly entertaining. Started and finished today, Jo Furniss – All the Little Children, a bow drawn at a venture, a freebie from Amazon Prime, which turned out to be a cracking thriller (her debut – will watch out for her next book). Meantime continuing with Beevor. Fascinating, but so dense with names and facts and places and dates that it’s not going to be a quick read.
2 August. Day 3 – finished the Dunkirk book. This was background reading for the brilliant Christopher Nolan film, which gives the audience an immersive experience of survival on the beaches, at sea and in the air, but quite deliberately no context in terms of the strategy or the politics of it all.
Quite a change of pace, style, genre – everything really – for my next read, Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Unforgotten Coat. A lovely, quirky, funny and sad children’s/YA book, with mysterious Polaroid illustrations that aren’t at all what they first appear to be. I’m familiar with some of FCB’s work, of course – Brookie, 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, 24 Hour Party People, Who (what variety is displayed there!) but hadn’t come across this one. A delight.
Started on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Years ago I read The Haunting of Hill House, which Stephen King regards as one of the most important horror novels of the 20th century, and this one is apparently reckoned to be her masterpiece.
3 August. Day 4 – finished We Have Always Lived in the Castle. That was brilliant! Gothic and charming and deeply disquieting at the same time. Must read more Shirley Jackson.
Next up is The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid.
4 August. Day 5 – just finished The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Fascinating, ambiguous, with a compelling narrative voice. I’ve been faffing about since finishing that one, trying to find the next thing to go for, and opening one after another without being convinced. Finally decided on Helen Fitzgerald’s The Cry.
Wow, that was powerful. A psychological thriller, where the tension and the anguish build up and up, where you want to scream at the protagonists not to make the mistakes they seem to be inevitably about to make, but where you (at least I) could identify intensely with the female protagonists. I felt almost physically that hot, awful sense of panicky stress that comes with trying to manage a screaming baby on public transport. Not going to say any more for fear of spoilers.
5 August. Day 6 – having been recommended to read something by Andrea Levy, I found Uriah’s War already on my Kindle. It’s described as a short story though – hmmm. I might have to work out a rule of thumb and count something as a fraction of a book. This was written for the WWI commemorations, inspired by Levy’s discovery that her grandfather fought at the Somme.
This was indeed a short story. A good one, albeit not unfamiliar territory if one has read or watched anything about the role of colonial troops in either World War. I thought in particular of Rachid Bouchareb’s Les Indigenes (Days of Glory) which tells the story of a group of North African soldiers in the latter days of WWII.
On to Alan Bennett’s Untold Stories, a collection of personal memoirs. The first part is a delightful, funny, and often very moving account of his Mam and Dad and the wider family. His is such a distinctive voice that one can hear it as one reads, and his famed ear for dialogue brings the various family members to vivid life.
6-7 August. Day 7-8 – Oh no, I’m falling behind! 7.5 books (counting the Levy as .5) at the close of Day 8. Will have to up my game…
8 August. Day 9 – Still reading the Alan Bennett. It must be a big book! One of the perils of the Kindle, of course, is not being able to weigh the book in your hand, flick through the pages, and judge how long it might take to read. I’m loving it, anyway. Still also reading The Battle for Spain but I think I must put that to one side if I’m to have any chance of meeting this ridiculous challenge.
9 August. Day 10 – I found at my mother-in-law’s house the other day a Daphne du Maurier novel that I’d never heard of, let alone read. I thought I’d read the lot, obsessively and repeatedly, as a teenager. This one, Julius, had escaped my notice completely. I’ve liberated it from Mum’s bookshelves and just started it this morning.
10 August. Day 11 – finally, that’s Alan Bennett sorted. I seemed to be making such slow progress, despite enjoying it enormously, but the reason became clear when all of a sudden I’d finished the book, with about 25% still to go, the remainder being illustrations (delightful) and index etc. I thoroughly approve of indexes (indices? or is that something different?) and would ideally like every book to have one, along with a thorough bibliography, but it’s another way in which the Kindle is inferior to the ‘real’ book, in that it’s very clunky to actually make use of such things when you can’t (easily) flick back and forth to check things. Anyway, the first memoir, focusing on his parents and aunties, was the best bit of the collection but there was a lot more to enjoy, even if ‘enjoy’ seems somewhat the wrong word in relation to his account of being beaten up in Italy, or of treatment for cancer. And the word ‘splother’, to describe a lot of fuss and to-do-ment, is now firmly a part of my vocab, thanks to Alan’s Dad.
Beginning to get properly into the du Maurier. I begin also to see one possible reason why this is so much less well known than her other works, which I will probably comment further upon when I’ve finished the book.
Donal Ryan’s The Thing about December was a grand read. The writing is beautiful and there’s humour and tragedy and ambiguity in Johnsey’s view of the world, lonely and naive, trying to work out how to be a man, how to be a good person, how to connect with the world and the people in it, who may be genuine or duplicitous or a mixture of the two.
11 August. Day 12 – Valentina Giambanco’s first Alice Madison thriller, The Gift of Darkness.
12 August. Day 13 – continuing with Julius – a decidedly uncomfortable read, whilst sharing with du Maurier’s better known work a compelling narrative style. More anon.
The Giambanco is a cracking police procedural and I shall be adding her to my list of favourite current crime writers. Her protagonist is Alice Madison, who herself now joins my list of favourite current fictional female cops and PIs (Laura Lipmann’s Tess Monaghan, Sarah Hilary’s Marnie Rome, Cath Staincliffe’s Sal Kilkenny, Jane Casey’s Maeve Kerrigan, and Susie Steiner’s Manon Bradshaw). Alice has a quality of stillness and steeliness that I love, and there are passages of vivid and economical writing that made me think of Chandler (without being pastichy).
13 August. Day 14 – finished Julius. It’s the portrait of a monster, a man who has to own and control and would rather destroy something than let it get away from him. Someone who has power but doesn’t understand love, friendship and affection. Someone who likes to cause pain but doesn’t understand it. What makes the book so problematic though is not that Julius is a monster – du Maurier has created other monsters, male and female, and her work is never mere bosom-heaving romance but dark, brooding, ambiguous and even nightmarish. The problem is that Julius is a Jew. This isn’t mere incidental detail, his Jewishness is referred to on page after page after page. In so far as he is capable of feeling any real connection with others, it is with other Jews, and at least at moments in the synagogue. Thus Julie Myerson in her introduction to this edition argues that his monstrosity and his Jewishness are not linked, that ‘if Julius has a benign side, a sensitive side, there’s no doubt that it’s the Jewish side’. That is so, but I can’t quite buy her statement that du Maurier ‘always avoids the easy racist cliche’. Julius becomes immensely wealthy – through hard work but also through manipulation and exploitation of others. He’s not, at the beginning, ostentatious in his wealth and remains careful with his fortune, always in control, always pulling the strings. Nina Auerbach in her study of du Maurier’s work (Daphne du Maurier: Haunted Heiress, Pennsylvania UP, 2000), describes him as ‘unsavory (and unpleasantly stereotyped)’, as radiating ‘hunger and hate’. Julius was written in 1931 (published in ’33), and it’s not uncommon in reading work from this era to find language about and treatment of Jewish characters that grates horribly (not only Jewish, of course, but other racial groups). Du Maurier evidently came under some pressure later in her career to revise the book and tone down or take out some of the references to Julius’s Jewishness. Ultimately, however, nothing in the book feeds into the most dangerous narrative, gathering strength and toxicity even as she was writing, of the Jewish race as loyal only to each other, as subverting and undermining the nations that they inhabit, as preying on the gentile community. Though Julius feels some tug of humanity in relation to his Jewishness it is not enough – his ‘own’ people find him as strange and troubling as everyone else, as impossible to comprehend. So it is possible to read it as the portrait of an individual, shaped by a brutal early life, driven and consumed and consuming. Possible, but not easy, and not comfortable.
Also finished The Gift of Darkness, and have already got hold of the second in the Alice Madison series. Will save that for later though, and start on Kate Atkinson’s Case Histories, and Jarlath Gregory’s The Organised Criminal.
The Organised Criminal is darkly (very darkly) funny, as well as kind of bleak, but with glimmers of hope in friendship – family is a lot more problematic in this exploration of morality, complicity and masculinity.
On to John le Carré’s ‘memoir’, or stories from his life, The Pigeon Tunnel.
That’s my first fortnight. I’ve read 12.5 books in 14 days (if the Andrea Levy counts as 0.5) so technically I’m slightly behind. However, I’ve also read a significant chunk of the Anthony Beevor, and made a start on the John le Carré, so it’s not a bad start. Onwards!