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 third instalment of my reading diary, with the fourth to follow on 24 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.
28 August. Day 29 – just started these two:
Rose Tremain is an author I’ve loved previously (I have read The Way I Found Her, Restoration and The Road Home, all of which are excellent). I’m not far into The Gustav Sonata but it is utterly compelling and beguiling, subtle and beautifully written.
I haven’t previously read anything by Tom Rob Smith, though we did watch and enjoy London Spy. So far, so intriguing.
29 August. Day 30 – I’m halfway through! And more or less on target.
Finished The Gustav Sonata, which is wonderful. I can’t say too much – except to urge everyone to read it – but this quote, which comes towards the end, gives nothing away of the plot:
We have to become the people we always should have been.
The novel shows us, subtly and movingly, all the ways in which we fail to be the people we should be, fail or are prevented, by our own flaws or by circumstances or by other people. And gives us along the way some hope.
The Farm is compelling stuff. The question the reader is asked from the first page onwards, is who to believe. Now, for me, this is complicated because we are hearing the voice of a woman whose husband has tried to have her committed, a woman with a disturbing story to tell and who people seem to be trying to silence. I’m programmed to believe her, given the tragic history of women who have been silenced, or who people have attempted to silence, using claims that they are ‘mad’, gaslighting techniques. But maybe it’s not that straightforward – if one transposed elements of that narrative to a male voice I would be much more likely to read it as evidence of paranoid delusion.
Started Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life, in which he ‘discusses ballooning, photography, love and grief; about putting two things and two people together, and about tearing them apart.’
30 August. Day 31 – I must admit that I went for the Barnes because it was the shortest book within arms’ reach. I’d read his A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, which I enjoyed rather than loved, and so I wasn’t eager for this one in the way that I have been to read something new by an author that I’d really fallen for already. But I’m so glad I read this, and I will read it again, and again, I think. It’s about the death of Barnes’ wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, and it’s beautiful and quietly devastating.
The Farm was excellent. A story about stories, and about secrets. Read it and be repeatedly wrongfooted, as one narrative is undermined and another established, until in turn that too is shown to be unreliable…
Just started David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon, a historical investigation into the systematic murder of Osage Native Americans in Oklahoma. Kate Atkinson called it ‘a fiercely entertaining mystery story and a wrenching exploration of evil’.
31 August. Day 32 – just started reading Caitlin Moran’s Moranifesto – ideal to read at night when I’m getting tired and concentration dips. V v v funny as always, whilst being clear-sighted and righteous.
More laughs are promised in The Rosie Project. Now, the words ‘romantic’ and ‘heartwarming’ are usually guaranteed turn-offs for me but the reviews make this one sound worth pursuing, and so many of my other reads have been dark and/or sad.
1 September. Day 33 – Enjoying The Rosie Project. The protagonist has a touch of the Sheldon Coopers, it must be said. It’s odd that, having spent so many years working with physicists and mathematicians, I have met so few full-on Sheldons in real life. Most of those I have worked with have had bags of humour, self awareness and social skills, not to mention creativity (a remarkable number of musicians, artists, writers). Nonetheless, Don (the protagonist and narrator) is engaging and the interactions with the decidedly unsuitable Rosie are delightfully funny.
Meantime, Killers of the Flower Moon is as compelling as the best detective novel, and indeed one might be inclined to think the plot a bit overwrought were it not a true story. And a shocking one, even when one is fairly knowledgeable about US history.
2 September. Day 34 – Caitlin Moran in full-on righteous indignation mode is magnificent. And still extremely funny. Just been reading her pieces on media treatment of benefits claimants, in the context of Benefits Street, and of the Mick Philpott case. It might seem incongruous that these pieces originally appeared in The Times, but actually that is absolutely right since her point is that she – as someone who grew up in a family that relied on benefits to get by – is an anomaly in the circles in which she now moves, and in the media to which she now has access, and that most media coverage treats benefits claimants as ‘other’ , whether it is vilifying or pitying them.
3 September. Day 35 – Finished The Rosie Project. It was delightful – very funny, and touching. Most of its reviewers were entirely won over but the Daily Telegraph demurred:
For those unaware of Asperger’s syndrome and its foibles, The Rosie Project could serve as a gentle and funny introduction. Those who already understand the condition may object to the moral that mental difference can and must be erased.
Thing is, I don’t think that was the moral. The moral, surely, was that both parties in a relationship need to accept the other for who they are, quirks and all. And this was supported by a couple of reviews from knowledgeable sources. Cees Kan, a Dutch psychiatrist specialising in ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders in adulthood, said that:
The great value of this book is its positive message about the possibility of experiencing romantic love despite of autism. Of course it is a challenge to overcome the autistic difficulties, which requires a willingness to think out of the box about how it is still possible to intimately relate to one another. However, I am convinced that it can be done, as I have met many couples that have shown me that they had managed to do so. Patients and their partners often tell me that in treatments too much emphasis is being put on the negative aspects of autism spectrum disorders, while they actually feel more supported and helped by messages which provide them with a positive perspective on their potential possibilities.
And Benison O’Reilly, the co-author of The Australian Autism Handbook, concurred. She acknowledges several points in the narrative where she was concerned that the reality of Aspergers would be sanitised or erased, but believes that Simsion avoids these pitfalls.
I loved it. And for my money, Rosie was at least as annoying as Don.
Have found a Hilary Mantel that I never got round to reading. No idea why, since I’ve never read a Mantel that I haven’t enjoyed. Anyway, The Giant, O’Brien is up next.
4 September. Day 36 – Can’t think why I left an unread Mantel to gather dust on my shelf. Only just started it but am already captured.
As I was, entirely, by David Grann’s extraordinary account of the Reign of Terror visited upon the Osage people in the 1920s by those who wanted access to their oil wealth. Shocking, and moving.
Just started an Australian crime thriller, Jane Harper’s debut novel, The Dry.
5 September. Day 37 – The Dry was a terrific read. The parched landscape, the oppressive heat, the constant awareness of danger from the natural world, and from the inhabitants of the small town, tested almost to destruction by the drought, all are vividly evoked. The initial explanation of the crime recalls Dylan’s ‘Ballad of Hollis Brown’ but that’s only the first attempt to unravel what happened, and Harper gives her readers lots of twists and turns, memories recovered, clues uncovered, and a heart-in-mouth finale.
A change of location now, from the Australian outback to Sierra Leone for Aminatta Forna’s The Devil that Danced on the Water. It’s a memoir of her West African childhood, and of the murder of her dissident father.
6 September. Day 38 – Finished The Giant, O’Brien. It’s a fictionalised account of historical characters from the late 18th century: the eponymous giant (a poet, a teller of tales, who towers over his contemporaries but spends his life crammed into spaces too small to hold him) and surgeon John Hunter (an experimental scientist who finds his profession and its legal and ethical constraints too small to hold him too), and how their paths converge. John Mullan described this as ‘something more like a fable than a conventional historical novel. The Age of Reason is a time of monsters.’ Mantel’s use of language is extraordinary – from lyrical to brutal in a sentence’s length.
About to start on a permitted re-read (see The Rules, above). Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which I think I read in sixth-form.
7 September. Day 39 – I was sure I’d read A Farewell to Arms, albeit several decades ago. Yet it rings no bells (oblique reference to another Hemingway, which I’m even more sure I’ve read). Anyway, I am reading it as if for the first time, coming to it afresh. It’s a powerful depiction of the futility and brutality of war, told in a spare prose and with an immediacy and directness that does not manipulatively demand an emotional response from the reader but is all the more devastating for that. I admit to a degree of prejudice about Hemingway because I’ve read so much about him being a bit of a dick, but that obviously doesn’t preclude him being a splendid writer!
Meantime am captivated by Aminatta Forna’s memoir. It triggers so many of my own memories of a West African childhood whilst telling a compelling story of corruption and state oppression.
8 September. Day 40 – I’ve always felt slightly awkward about ‘claiming’ Ghana as part of my heritage. But it feels as if it is part of me, that childhood spent in Kumasi, and I hope that in using my Ashanti day name, Abena, as part of my Facebook name, I am honouring rather than appropriating that early encounter with a rich culture and history, and a beautiful land and people. It’s the little details that are the most powerful in my memory. Aromas, colours, sounds. The rain hammering on the corrugated iron roof, the red dust of the laterite roads, the ant lions creating their whirlwinds in the sand, the sound of highlife music wafting over from the student residences near our home.
Forna’s memoir keeps bringing these details back to me. It’s a lot more than that, of course, but I get emotionally derailed by these madeleine moments. None more so than Aminatta’s encounter with a fawn, rescued when its mother was killed, which her father brings home. It was beautiful, and it died. As was ours, and as did ours, a Duiker.
9 September. Day 41 – The personal connections with The Devil that Danced on the Water extend to the political context too. We arrived in Ghana early on in Nkrumah’s presidency, and left around the time that his growing paranoia and authoritarianism led to opposition and his overthrow. Our new home was in Northern Nigeria, where coups and counter-coups led to pogroms and ultimately civil war. Like Forna, we were too young to understand what it all meant, and have pieced together the history of those turbulent times, seeing our childhood fragments of memory differently in that wider context, understanding things that were baffling at the time. Of course, I’m not suggesting a true equivalence of experience. We, as expats in that time and place, were not ourselves at risk. Forna’s father and his political allies were targets, and he and thus the children too were in real danger.
10 September. Day 42 – Having a(nother) rubbish night’s sleep had the benefit of giving me a bit more reading time this morning, so I finished the Hemingway. The ending broke me a bit, even though I knew what was coming. And this bit:
I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain. We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them, on proclamations that were slapped up by bill posters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it. There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything.
Weeks 5-6 I’ve only completed 8 books this fortnight. I’m still partway through The Battle for Spain, Contraflow, Moranifesto, and The Devil that Dances on the Water. I am thus falling behind on the project – largely due to the necessity of spending significant portions of each day travelling and/or hospital visiting, time when I cannot read. Things may get easier from now on, and if all else fails I will forego sleep altogether for the last few days and just read, read, read. I’ve accepted this challenge and I will succeed.
My next bulletin will be on 24 September, covering days 43-56.