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. This is the second instalment of my reading diary, with the third to follow on 10 September. I will, of course, endeavour to avoid spoilers.
Rules? To summarise:
- No re-reads unless the original read was at least 40 years ago.
- 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.
- Books can be fiction (all genres, including childrens/YA) and non-fiction (other than reference books and instruction manuals), playscripts, a volume of poetry, or a collection of short stories (in the latter two cases, I must read all the poems or stories).
- I’ve added one further rule, on reflection – no two books by the same author. That will stop me meeting my target by devouring a whole raft of Kate Atkinsons or whatever, which would be fun but not really in the spirit of the challenge. So, sixty books, by sixty writers.
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.
14 August. Day 15 – reading Kate Atkinson is, as always, a delight. My 2016 books blog said:
And my novel of the year is Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. I knew several of her other novels, but this one was just dizzying, overwhelming, enthralling. I read it twice, I had to, and will read it again. Its sequel, A God in Ruins, was a different experience and a troubling one, about which I can say nothing except to urge you to read on because somehow it all comes together in a most remarkable way.
Case Histories is obviously different, it’s crime fiction if one has to pin a genre on it, featuring Jackson Brodie (PI) who was played by Jason Isaacs in a TV version a few years back. Not sure why I’ve never read Atkinson’s detective fiction since I’ve loved her other books and – as must be fairly obvious – I love crime/detective fiction. OK, it wasn’t strictly necessary to illustrate this with the DVD cover but, well, Jason Isaacs.
The Le Carré memoir is fascinating. It’s years since I read any of his books, but I have read a lot of them (and watched the recent adaptation of The Night Manager). Le Carré introduces The Pigeon Tunnel with a caveat:
These are true stories told from memory – to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?
But he says that nothing is consciously falsified – merely disguised where necessary.
His account of his friendship with Yvette Pierpaoli (the inspiration for Tessa in The Constant Gardener) is a highlight – an extraordinary woman who lived and died in the pursuit of a mission to help people who needed it, in particular refugees, in war zones around the world. Coincidentally, le Carré’s (or more accurately Cornwell’s) world overlapped with Alan Bennett’s (anecdotes about Alec Guinness, and Lindsay Anderson, for example). And another coincidence – Cornwell senior was a fairly monstrous (if sometimes pathetic) figure, a crook and a swindler, and monstrous fathers have cropped up a number of times in the books I’ve read so far.
Now reading Jane Casey’s The Last Girl, her third Maeve Kerrigan thriller.
I’ve read the previous two, and Casey’s stand-alone novel, The Missing, all of which I’ve enjoyed very much. I might have slipped up, however, in reading two crime novels concurrently – will try to avoid that in future, so I don’t get my corpses mixed up…
15 August. Day 16 – I think the occasional sense of familiarity I’m getting from Case Histories must be déjà vu rather than déjà lu. There are multiple narrative threads – too early to see if/how they come together – but not all of them evoke that feeling, which is probably because the TV series simplified things and some story-lines and/or characters were excised. As always, I revel in Atkinson’s writing. She can set you up to find a character ridiculous or unlikeable and then suddenly, wham, you’re weeping or cheering for them.
The Last Girl was thoroughly enjoyable. Maeve Kerrigan is a convincing and intriguing protagonist, and there is a host of persuasive characters – colleagues, suspects, victims – with whom she interacts. Her two key relationships – with her partner, Derwent, and her boyfriend, Rob – have layers of ambivalence, insecurity and uncertainty which make them interesting. This wasn’t my favourite Casey – it’s a wee bit talky, and a bit baggy in the middle, perhaps. Nothing that stopped it being a grand read, nor will it deter me from devouring the rest of the Maeve Kerrigan series.
Something a bit different now, Michelle Paver’s Thin Air.
Finished Case Studies. Right to the end, it was funny, and terribly sad and utterly engaging. Did I mention I love Kate Atkinson?
16 August. Day 17 – alongside the Michelle Paver (which is gripping stuff), I’m about to start Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Here I anticipate incredulity and outrage – what do I mean, I’ve never read this? How can I possibly claim any credibility as a feminist and a booklover and a leftie and, well, anything else, if I haven’t read it? Well, I don’t know, I just somehow never got round to it. I did read a couple of hers many years back, The Edible Woman, for sure, and possibly Cat’s Eye. But not this one. I have seen the TV series, which was outstanding, powerful, extraordinary and harrowing. Time I read the book then.
17 August. Day 18 – if I was concerned that having seen the TV adaptation so recently, reading The Handmaid’s Tale would be a let down, I need not have been. The TV series does, I know, depart significantly from the book in plot terms later on (there are already aspects which are interestingly different and I will be fascinated to see how they pan out). But the book can do things that the TV series cannot, even with June/Offred’s narration to help us out, in the description of places and things that go so far beyond the literal and the visual. It’s been said that the best books make the worst screen adaptations, and there are many I’ve seen that would bear that out, although plenty also to disprove it – in this case both the book and the TV adaptation are immense, and horrifyingly pertinent, and will stay in the mind and the heart long after they have been read or watched.
Thin Air is an excellent read – it’s about an ascent, some time between the two world wars, of Kanchenjunga. I don’t know the historical basis for it, and will (by a considerable and commendable effort of will) not Wikipedia it. It’s billed as a ghost story, and so far, so atmospheric.
Finished Thin Air. It’s an old-fashioned sort of ghost story – partly that’s created by the narrator’s voice, he’s very much a man of his time and class, partly because there is always a degree of ambiguity about the haunting, whether it is the product of fear, guilt, altitude sickness – or whether there really is something terribly wrong on Kanchenjunga’s south-west face. There’s a chill in the air, in every sense.
Now reading Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag, the true story of Second World War double agent Eddie Chapman. A fascinating character, Eddie. And the story is told with a dry humour that promises well:
Which is how Eddie Chapman came to be pounding down a Jersey beach, leaving in his wake two plain-clothes policemen, a distraught young woman, and half a sherry trifle.
18 August. Day 19 – The Handmaid’s Tale is astonishing. I am trying not to focus too much on the differences between the book and the TV series, just to take in the book for what it is. What strikes me is the sense of time stretching out for these women, whose lives have been essentially reduced to one function, waiting for the moments when they have to perform, waiting each month to see whether they will be able to fulfil that function, or whether some other, worse, future threatens. The other thing is the sheer physicality of the descriptions. As the Handmaids have been reduced to their biological function their bodies become paramount, the sensations of their (modest and hygienic) clothing on their skin, their memories of desire and of a loved person’s arms around them, or a child in their arms. The other thing of course is that the book is entirely from June/Offred’s point of view – we know only what she knows, whereas the TV series tells the stories of some of the other characters, showing events which June did not witness or learn about. This makes the book even more brutal and gives huge power to her statement about why she is setting down her account, why she is bearing witness, without knowing that that there is anyone to bear witness to:
It hurts me to tell it over, over again. Once was enough: wasn’t once enough for me at the time? But I keep on going with this sad and hungry and sordid, this limping and mutilated story because after all I want you to hear it, as I will hear yours too if I ever get the chance, if I meet you or if you escape, in the future or in Heaven or in prison or underground, some other place. What they have in common is that they’re not here. By telling you anything at all I’m at least believing in you, I believe you’re there, I believe you into being. Because I’m telling you this story I will your existence. I tell, therefore you are.
Just finished The Handmaid. I fear I’ve rushed it, which was always going to be a risk with this exercise, but I will look forward to a re-read at some later point, when I can savour it properly.
Agent Zigzag often seems a less plausible tale than Atwood’s dystopian fantasy. As with so many books I’ve read about espionage and counter-espionage in WWII, what strikes one quite often is that the Allies’ success is due to a mix of brilliance (breaking codes, turning German agents), the incompetence of the Abwehr (sending agents who could barely speak English and/or were utterly unfamiliar with the culture – for example the one who tried to pay for a pint with £10 and 6 shillings, when he’d been charged 10 & 6 ….), and sheer luck.
On now to M L Stedman’s The Light between Oceans. I haven’t seen the film (the trailer looked a bit maudlin for my taste), but the book got some good reviews, and has been recommended by my daughter.
19 August. Day 20 – Finished the extraordinary story of Agent Zigzag. Brilliantly told by Ben Macintyre, who sees his subject clearly and without sentimentality, but with justifiable respect and warmth.
About to start Sarah Moss’s Cold Earth. Billed as an ‘apocalyptic chiller’ – I haven’t yet read anything by Sarah Moss but seem to have several stored up on the Kindle so will be interested to try this one.
20 August. Day 21 – Cold Earth gets off to a thoroughly intriguing start. Set in Greenland on an archaeological dig, Moss juxtaposes the narrator’s voice (Nina, who travels a lot but hates being anywhere she’s not within walking distance of bookshops and good fairtrade coffee, and who worries about everything) and another darker voice from a distant past, along with hints of something bad happening back at home … No idea how this will play out but can’t wait to read on.
21 August. Day 22 – Finished Cold Earth. Interesting how it links in with two of the other books I’ve read as part of this challenge – All the Little Children, and Thin Air. I can’t think of any way of fully explaining what I mean by this, without risking major spoilers, so will limit myself to saying that there are elements of (possible/threatened) apocalypse in common with the first, and of hauntings (possible/imagined) with the second. And they share a prickly unease, a sense of the uncanny, and of growing dread. I mentioned the narrator as being Nina, who gets the first section of the book to herself, but in fact each of the protagonists is given their own voice, so each sets the events, and the other people, in a different light.
Also finished The Light between Oceans. This was emotionally gripping, not so much the story of a moral dilemma, but of a moment when a choice was made – the wrong choice – and events unfolded inexorably such that ‘putting things right’ meant making everything wrong. This could have been a specious exercise in manipulation – it is much better than that, because the characters are beautifully drawn, and the setting too. We are drawn in to the life on the island and the responsibilities of the lighthouse keeper, so that we understand how that terribly wrong choice was made. Yes, it’s melodramatic, at points, and yes it is a weepie. Nothing wrong with that, if it’s well written. It sounds as though the film may tip things over into an excess of heart and tear-duct wringing, though….
22 August. Day 23 – on to a sci-fi classic now, H G Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau. It’s of particular interest since this 1896 novel inspired the brilliant TV series, Orphan Black (whose final series we are currently watching). This edition has an intro by Margaret Atwood which is heralded with spoiler warnings so I will read it after rather than before I read the story.
In parallel with H G, I’m reading a thriller which is very much of the moment. Startlingly so. Sam Bourne’s To Kill the President is not about past conspiracy theories (no grassy knolls here). It’s about what happens when the unthinkable happens, and the man with his finger on the nuclear trigger is a ‘volatile demagogue’, an ‘increasingly crazed would-be tyrant’:
When a war of words with the North Korean regime spirals out of control and the President comes perilously close to launching a nuclear attack, it’s clear someone has to act, or the world will be reduced to ashes.
Obviously any resemblance to real persons or situations is entirely uncoincidental… It was written, presumably, during the election campaign, but must have been finished by or very shortly after the inauguration. It’s right now, in other words. Sam Bourne is the pseudonym of Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, who’s always worth reading anyway, and this thriller really does thrill.
The Island of Dr Moreau is fascinating – it sits in a way with Frankenstein as a study of man taking on the role of god, in the context of Darwinian theory and with elements of social satire. It’s uncomfortable, in its depiction of white men manipulating and dominating the humanoid creatures who are in the main black or brown, and are described as brutes and savages (however, this is not simplistically a reflection of the racial views of the time, but is justified – to a degree – within the narrative in terms of what defines humanity.
Crikey, To Kill the President was a cracking read. If I’d read it before last November, I would have dismissed it as implausible, but now…. Some of what it talks about has certainly happened, some has nearly happened, and some, well, who knows but it seems an awful lot less fanciful than a few months ago. The crucial thing is that the ethos of the current White House comes across so powerfully – the very question that causes us libtard /snowflake/antifa/alt-lefties so much puzzlement, which is how this administration, this President, can lie, and lie, and lie, without its supporters losing faith, feeling betrayed and fooled, how anyone can look at him and his cronies and not feel revulsion and fear at what they may be capable of. I can’t say reading this made me feel better about what’s happening over there and its potential implications for not only the US but the rest of us, but it was exhilarating nonetheless and we have to believe that there are people like the good guys in the book still working for peace and democracy within the institutions of the State, as well as on the streets of Charlottesville and Boston and so forth.
From a (slightly) fictionalised portrayal of a politician without political convictions or a moral compass, to the autobiography of one of the few Tory politicians I can stand (and not only because he’s a Forest supporter), Ken Clarke.
Finished off the day with a few poems from Fay Musselwhite’s debut collection, Contraflow, published by the estimable Longbarrow Press, whose books are always things of beauty and whose customer service is second to none. These poems are all inspired by the Rivelin Valley, which we can see from our dining room windows, and have often walked in over the years.
The tales that rivers tell have tangled with our own for millennia: before, through, and after the industrial age. Humans’ rapid migration to towns, often along the course of these waterways, has left many of us bewildered and ill-equipped in an environment at odds with the natural world we depend on. Rivers, bringing the relief of nature to the centres of cities they grew, confront us with forces bare-faced and ancient, seemingly unmoved by our regard. Malleable in their youth, prone to messing about before finding their groove, many were harnessed for mill-work as they matured, and then, like us, after centuries of valuable industry, were abandoned, left to lick their wounds.
All these tales converge in the Rivelin, which rises from peat moorland north-west of Sheffield, and descends 80 metres as it approaches the city. This fast-flowing river, and the valley it etched out, is the setting for many of the poems in Fay Musselwhite’s first collection. Contraflow harnesses these energies to carve its own rugged course, with its bottlenecks, bends and counter-currents: tales that slant, swell and spill.
23 August. Day 24 – also reading T C Boyle’s Talk Talk, a thriller about identity theft. It’s intense, all the more so because one of the three main protagonists is deaf, and her struggles with both hearing and speaking, in her attempts to find out who has appropriated her identity and to set things right, are compelling. Very hard also not to feel a twinge of paranoia and the need to check and re-check one’s bank statements rather carefully, whilst reading about this sort of crime.
Ken Clarke’s memoir is packed with detail (perhaps a tad too packed) but fascinating to read his insights into the Heath and Thatcher governments, the EU referendum (the 70s one, though I think I know where he stands on the recent one too), and many of the political controversies and upheavals with which I am familiar but not from a Tory POV. (One does gain the distinct impression that most MPs were at least mildly pissed most of the time during the 60s and 70s.) Also fascinating to read of his Nottinghamshire childhood and education (he was a Nottingham High School boy, as was my husband a few years later). Every chapter borrows its title from a jazz number, another reason for my fondness for Ken.
24 August. Day 25 – Talk Talk was excellent. It’s billed as a thriller but there’s no neat resolution, and it’s about – obviously – identity, but even more than that, about communication and the gaps and dislocations on which relationships and one’s sense of who one is can founder. Another writer who’s new to me but who I will read more of anon.
Ken continues to entertain. I’m up to the John Major government now, Black Wednesday looming. Fascinating to read his perspective on Thatcher: as a longstanding ‘wet’, ‘not one of us’, and a passionate European, he was never an uncritical supporter but he portrays her, not so much sympathetically on a personal level, but somewhat positively in some respects on a political one, at least until her hubris and the sycophancy of her inner circle brought her down.
25 August. Day 26 – Just about to start Patrick Gale’s The Whole Day Through. I’ve read several of Gale’s novels, and loved them, so I’m looking forward to this one.
Very little progress today. Mother in law in hospital after a fall at home, all is reasonably ok but a day spent waiting around (for consultants, paperwork etc) without access to reading matter.
26 August. Day 27 – The Patrick Gale is every bit as engaging as I hoped it would be. I was interested to note that amongst his top ten books, along with Proust (yes!), Middlemarch (obv) and Persuasion (my favourite Austen, as it happens), was Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant – there’s something in common I think between Gale and Tyler, who I’ve always loved (I think my favourite Tyler would be Saint Maybe, or Breathing Lessons, but Homesick Restaurant is fab too).
Managed to read a few pages of the Ken Clarke autobiog whilst doing hospital visiting (Mum had nodded off, so I wasn’t really neglecting my duties…).
27 August. Day 28 – Finished The Whole Day Through. Gale’s protagonists are both engaging and infuriating, they want and try to do the right thing, but they’re flawed and awkward and muddled. One of his other novels is called A Perfectly Good Man, which is a brilliant title because the man in question is quite explicitly not perfect, not in the Aristotelian sense that his goodness is complete, could not be better, and has attained its purpose. These perfectly good people could always be better, and their goodness often fails to attain its purpose, thwarted by their own flaws. In a way the title reminds me of the way we say ‘its perfectly OK’ which is an odd phrase, but is used to reassure, where ‘OK’ alone could seem grudging.
Also finished Ken Clarke’s autobiography. Of course I disagree profoundly with him about many things, but he does seem to me to be a man of integrity and sense, and his passionate commitment to Europe gives us substantial common ground. One of the really interesting things to emerge is the way in which, from John Major onwards, PMs and Cabinets were in hock to the media, desperately trying to play the (mainly right-wing) press. Ken was persuaded to hold a meeting with Rebekah Brooks at one point and was quite withering about the notion that he, as a lawyer and one of the most experienced government ministers in that Parliament, should listen to and take seriously policy suggestions from an unelected newspaper editor, whose grasp of ethics was decidedly shaky.
About to start Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. I’ve read several of her novels, and have enjoyed them all.
So, where am I up to now? I completed 13 books this fortnight, and am midway through 2 (Musselwhite and Beevor). Total completed at the end of the fourth week is 25.5 (allowing the Andrea Levy I read in the first tranche as only 0.5 as it was a short story).
I have been somewhat stymied by events, but am pleased to be as close as this to the target. Allons-y!