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 final instalment of my reading diary, covering the final four days, along with general reflections on the project, and a full list of everything I’ve read.
25 September. Day 57 – Reading Christopher Hitchens’ cancer memoir, Mortality, I am reminded of a good friend, Jos Kingston, who was diagnosed with an inoperable tumour in 2004, and died in 2007. Reading his words, I was struck that it could have been Jos talking:
To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not? … People don’t have cancer: They are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. … Whatever view one takes of the outcome being affected by morale, it seems certain that the realm of illusion must be escaped before anything else.
I recall Jos saying that she wasn’t fighting cancer, she was negotiating with it. That if she adapted her lifestyle to conserve energy, reduce stress and maximise general health, it might allow her for as long as possible to enjoy the things she’d always enjoyed – walks in the countryside near her home, music, books. That worked for her, for much longer than the medics might have anticipated.
I think also, of course, of another dear friend, Tim Richardson, who didn’t manage to confound the initial predictions of ‘how long’, despite chemo. He too wrote about his experiences, and he started the charity, Inspiration for Life, which I chair, and which raises funds for cancer research and treatment.
Mortality is a brief book – too brief, which has all sorts of layers of meaning in this context. But I need not have worried about it being gloomy fare. It starts with a diagnosis of terminal cancer, and explores what follows from that in a clear-sighted, unsentimental and unsparing manner. The thread running through it is what he calls ‘an arduous awareness’ and it’s tough to read but somehow uplifting.
In total contrast, I’m now reading Harlan Coben’s Home. This is a late entry in a fairly long-running series, and I’ve read nothing previously by him (though I did see a French film a few years back which it turns out was based on one of his novels, Tell No One). He’s one of the super best-seller thriller writers to whom I might not normally be drawn (though see my earlier caveats about not being snooty about so-called genre fiction, which at its best is a long way from merely generic) – but it was a Kindle freebie so worth a punt at that price. It’s a nice blend between a hard-boiled Chandleresque style, often quite funny even when being pretty brutal, and a more nuanced focus on emotion, trauma, grief and love. The women are utterly beautiful, the men fit and handsome, and most of them are unimaginably rich, but it’s not without subtlety, nonetheless, and Coben certainly insists that you keep turning the pages, not just to find out the twists and turns of the plot but because he’s made you care about the characters. I’d happily read more of his.
Also finished Per Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses. It’s set in eastern Norway, and focuses on the events of the summer of 1948. Beautifully constructed, beautifully written. As the Independent‘s review said, ‘unawareness and awareness, ignorance and knowledge, innocence and experience chase each other’, both for the protagonist, and for the reader.
Next: Stevie Davies’ Awakening, and Noo Saro-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland.
I’ve read several of Davies’ novels in the past, most recently Into Suez, and always enjoy her writing. Looking for Transwonderland is a memoir from the daughter of murdered activist Ken Saro-Wiwa of her return to Nigeria after a decade.
26 September. Day 58 – Stevie Davies is always a fascinating writer, and this is set in a fascinating period:
Wiltshire 1860: One year after Darwin’s explosive publication of The Origin of Species, sisters Anna and Beatrice Pentecost awaken to a world shattered by science, radicalism and the stirrings of feminist rebellion; a world of charismatic religious movements, Spiritualist séances, bitter loss and medical trauma.
It’s very moving, but also acerbically funny in its portrayal of the excesses of evangelical zeal:
Even dear Mrs Spurgeon confesses that she keeps a close eye on Mr Spurgeon whenever he seems apocalyptically inclined.
Spurgeon (and dear Mrs S) are not the only real historical figures who feature here, but the focus of the novel is on the two sisters, and on ‘sisterly love, jealousy and betrayal’.
27 September. Day 59 – finished Noo Saro-Wiwa’s memoir of her return to Nigeria. She visits places that I saw as a child in the north of the country (Jos, Kano, Yankari Game Reserve) as well as parts of the country I never knew (Lagos, Port Harcourt, Abuja). Her father is a powerful (and unsentimentally portrayed) presence throughout, both at the personal level and in terms of the politics that led to his murder. Nonetheless the book is full of humour, and ultimately of a deep affection for the country, with all its chaos, corruption and division – its ‘jagga jagga’, as they say there.
Treated myself to Jan Carson’s Postcard Stories. It is, as the title says, a series of micro stories, each sent in postcard form to a friend, from various Belfast locations. There were originally 362 postcards, and 52 have been selected for the publication. They are funny, poignant, surreal, sometimes all at once. I do like the idea of teeny tiny stories, almost more than most ‘proper’ short stories which I find sometimes fall disappointingly between two stools. Cath Staincliffe, whose long-form fiction I’ve been enjoying for years now, publishes some flash fiction on her website, along with poems. And then there’s MicroSFF on Twitter.
And on to Giorgio Bassani’s Italian classic, The Garden of the Finzi Continis. Published in 1962, its setting is Ferrara, Italy in 1939, as racial laws begin to affect the lives of two Jewish families. There’s something of Sebald here.
This is the most oblique of Holocaust books. These Jews are affluent, educated, assured, assimilated. They are part of the fabric of Ferrara life and have been for centuries. And yet you know. That’s the saddest thing of all: right from the beginning, you know because the narrator knows. You know they will all be blown away “light as leaves, as bits of paper”; while they don’t. And at the end you, like him, will be bereft.
I’ve been meaning to read this since a fellow student spoke very powerfully about it at a postgraduate colloquium earlier this year, and I’m so very glad I have done.
Off to New York now, in 1943, but there’s no hint of the shadows that linger around the garden of the Finzi-Continis. This is Breakfast at Tiffany’s, another 20th-century American classic that I’ve somehow missed out on reading until now. I’ve not seen the film, either, so although my image of Holly Golightly is inevitably influenced by that of Audrey Hepburn, I’m not conscious of other differences between book and film. I was intrigued to read, however, that Capote himself favoured Monroe rather than Hepburn in the role.
28 September. Day 60! Yes, by midnight tonight I will have finished reading my 60 books. No sweat, no pressure.
Just finished Jennifer Johnston‘s The Captains and the Kings. This was Johnston’s debut – in which the ‘turbulent history of 20th-century Ireland’ is background to a story of loneliness and isolation, of youth and age. It’s beautifully written, somehow out of time so that the past – the First World War in which Charles Prendergast fought, and the brother who died at Gallipoli, his shadowy wife, his distant parents – has a firmer reality than the present, such that I wondered when it was set. There’s a reference to ’55 years ago’ though, so the narrative is contemporaneous with the book’s creation. It’s a very simple story, in a way, and one where tragedy seems inevitable, but no less powerful for that. I am certain I read something by Johnston years ago, but cannot remember which – perhaps Shadows on the Skin, or The Old Jest?
On to my final book. Laura Lippman is one of my favourite crime writers, both for her stand-alone novels, and for the wonderful Tess Monaghan series about a Baltimore PI. This is her most recent novel, Wilde Lake.
And it’s excellent. Although the plot is complex and twisty-turny, what drives the novel, as always with Lippman, is character. Families, secrets, memory and the tricks it plays.
The present is swollen with self-regard for itself, but soon enough the present becomes the past. This present, this day, this very moment we inhabit – it will all be held accountable for the things it didn’t know, didn’t understand.
The things we don’t know, the things we don’t understand.
A great way to finish this challenge.
And that’s it! I guess I could take some time off from reading for a while now, but hey, that’s never going to happen.
From the moment when I could read for myself I’ve read hungrily, ravenously. I’ve read like it’s about to be made illegal, like I might suddenly lose the facility and words return to the mystifying symbols they were when I was 3 years old.
I read fast, like a hungry person eats. If I didn’t read fast, I could never have read 60 books in 60 days, of course. Do I sometimes miss things, details and subtleties, because I’m racing through – yes. And sometimes I wish I could slow down not just so that I can better savour the book I’m reading, but because I don’t want to run out. When I was young, I frequently ran out of ‘my’ books – Puffins for the most part, wonderful classics of children’s literature – and headed for my parents’ bookshelves where I encountered adult classics (such as Great Expectations, Jane Eyre, Morte d’Arthur) and read and understood what I could, re-reading as I got older and could reach a fuller and richer appreciation. As an adult, packing for holidays pre-Kindle, I would fill a case with books, realise there’s no room for shoes or toiletries, discard some books and then squeeze them in somehow, because I can’t bear the thought of ending up stuck in a holiday cottage in the rain with nothing to read. A serious case of abibliophobia.
Even as a child I read critically. I read Enid Blyton, because her books were ubiquitous, but because I was also reading Leon Garfield, Rosemary Sutcliff, C S Lewis, and so many other truly fine writers, I was aware of what she lacked that they had, and I read her in the way that one might read a trashy novel on holiday because it’s the only thing to hand.
But I’ve never rejected something purely because of its genre or a schlocky cover (the latter did put me off Stephen King for a while, but I gave him a try and was instantly and permanently converted). That would have ruled out so many of the books and writers that I have loved. I have, though, chucked many a book aside, straight into the charity bag, if its prose clunks, its dialogue is rigid with cliché or its characters are flat and tedious stereotypes. But everything in this list, in all its rich variety, was rewarding to read.
So this last 60 days has been a blast. It’s been a source of pressure, particularly when I’ve had unexpected periods when reading has been impossible, and I’ve panicked about falling behind. It’s been a discipline – in the interstices of the day when I might otherwise faff about on social media or the like, instead, I’ve been reaching for a book, and I hope to keep that up, albeit in a less extreme form. But most of all it’s been a delight, and writing about the books after I’ve read them has been a pleasure too – it was something I wanted to do to ensure this wasn’t an arbitrary exercise, reducing the books to a number, or even just to a list, and also to force me to pause each time I finished a book, think about it, gather my thoughts and write them down before picking up the next one.
Anyway, here’s the list:
- Kate Atkinson – Case Histories (2004)
- Margaret Atwood – The Handmaid’s Tale (1985)
- Julian Barnes – Levels of Life (2013)
- Giorgio Bassani – The Garden of the Finzi Continis (1962)
- Alan Bennett – Untold Stories (2005)
- Sam Bourne – To Kill the President (2017)
- Frank Cottrell Boyce – The Unforgotten Coat (2011)
- David Boyle – Dunkirk: A Miracle of Deliverance (2017)
- T C Boyle – Talk Talk (2006)
- Andrea Camilleri – August Heat (2009)
- Truman Capote – Breakfast at Tiffanys (1958)
- John le Carré – The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from my Life (2016)
- Jan Carson – Postcard Stories (2017)
- Jane Casey – The Last Girl (2012)
- Ken Clarke – Kind of Blue: A Political Memoir (2016)
- Harlan Coben – Home (2016)
- Stevie Davies – Awakening (2013)
- Roddy Doyle – Two Pints (2012)
- Helen Dunmore – The Betrayal (2010)
- Helen Fitzgerald – The Cry (2013)
- Aminatta Forna – The Devil that Danced on the Water: A Daughter’s Quest (2003)
- Jo Furniss – All the Little Children (2017)
- Patrick Gale – The Whole Day Through (2009)
- Valentina Giambanco – The Gift of Darkness (2013)
- Lesley Glaister – The Squeeze (2017)
- David Grann – Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (2017)
- Jarlath Gregory – The Organised Criminal (2015)
- Mohsin Hamid – The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2007)
- Jane Harper – The Dry (2017)
- A S A Harrison – The Silent Wife (2013)
- Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms (1929)
- Christopher Hitchens – Mortality (2012)
- Andrew Michael Hurley – The Loney (2014)
- Shirley Jackson – We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)
- Jennifer Johnston – The Captains and the Kings (1972)
- Andrea Levy – Uriah’s War (2014)
- Laura Lippman – Wilde Lake (2016)
- Peter Lovesey – The Last Detective (1991)
- Ben Macintyre – Agent Zigzag: The True Wartime Story of Eddie Chapman (2007)
- Hilary Mantel – The Giant, O’Brien (1998)
- Daphne du Maurier – Julius (1933)
- Livi Michael – Succession (2015)
- Caitlin Moran – Moranifesto (2016)
- Sarah Moss – Cold Earth (2009)
- Fay Musselwhite – Contraflow (2016)
- Flannery O’Connor – Wise Blood (1952)
- Nii Ayikwei Parkes – Tail of the Blue Bird (2009)
- Michelle Paver – Thin Air (2016)
- Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses (2005)
- Caryl Phillips – The Final Passage (1995)
- Philip Roth – The Plot against America (2004)
- Donal Ryan – The Thing about December (2013)
- Noo Saro-wiwa – Looking for Transwonderland: Travels in Nigeria (2012)
- Elif Shafak – Three Daughters of Eve (2016)
- Graeme Simsion – The Rosie Project (2014)
- Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001)
- Tom Rob Smith – The Farm (2014)
- M L Stedman – The Light between Oceans (2012)
- Rose Tremain – The Gustav Sonata (2016)
- H G Wells – The Island of Dr Moreau (1896)
I didn’t plan what I would read. I started by raiding my Kindle and the ‘to read’ pile by my bed, and adding books that friends recommended or lent. The selection was mainly based on being not too long, not too hard, and not read before – so it’s pleasing to see the variety in the list above.
- Exactly 50% of the writers are women.
- 80% of the books are fiction, of the remainder one is poetry, the others are history or memoir.
- 58% of the writers are new to me. And what’s best about that is that I will want to follow up most of those, to read all of their stuff.
- The earliest book on the list is the H G Wells, from 1896. Slightly to my surprise, over a third are from 2016-2017 and over half from 2010 onwards. I guess this fits with the bias towards new-to-me writers.
- Just over half of the writers are from the UK, 9 from the US, 4 each from Australia and from the Republic of Ireland, 2 each from Italy and from Canada, 3 from West Africa, one each from Pakistan, Norway, Turkey.
Stories can make you fly, and over the last 60 days I’ve flown to Pembroke castle in the 15th century, rural Ireland in the 1780s, Wiltshire in the 1860s, Oklahoma in the 1920s, Kanchenjunga in 1935, Ferrara in 1939, New York in 1943, Norway and Switzerland in wartime and the immediate postwar period, Leningrad in 1952, the Caribbean in 1958, Romania in 1989. I’ve flown to an archaeological dig in Greenland, to the Ghanaian hinterland, to Sierra Leone and Nigeria, Oslo and Seattle and Chicago and New Jersey and Sicily. And into more speculative areas too, dystopian near futures and a mysterious island in the Pacific… That’s what reading can do for you.
Thanks to everyone who’s supported me in this, who’s lent or suggested books, liked/retweeted my blog posts and updates. I hope that some of you will now have some books to add to your ‘must read’ list – I’d love to know if so, especially if you read and enjoy something you might not otherwise have thought of.
And thank you most of all to Alan, Ali, Aminatta, Andrea C and Andrea L, Andrew, Ben, Caitlin, Caryl, Christopher, Daphne, David B and David G, Donal, Elif, Ernest, Fay, Flannery, Frank, Giorgio, Graeme, Harlan, Helen D and Helen F, Herbert, Hilary, Jan, Jane C and Jane H, Jarlath, Jennifer, Jo, John, Julian, Kate, Ken, Laura, Lesley, Livi, Margaret, Margot, Michelle, Mohsin, Nii, Noo, Patrick, Per, Peter, Philip, Roddy, Rose, Sam, Sarah, Shirley, Stevie, Susan, Thomas, Tom, Truman, and Valentina
With a book, you are the landscape, the sets, the snow, the hero, the kiss – you are the mathematical calculation that plots the trajectory of the blazing, crashing Zeppelin. You – pale, punchable reader – are terraforming whole worlds in your head, which will remain with you till the day you die. These books are as much a part of you as your guts and your bone. (Caitlin Moran, ‘Reading is Fierce’, from Moranifesto)
The world of literature … offered me, besides the pleasures of form, the sustentation of empathy (the first step of what Keats called negative capability) and I ran for it. I relaxed in it. I stood willingly and gladly in the characters of everything — other people, trees, clouds. And this is what I learned: that the world’s otherness is antidote to confusion, that standing within this otherness — the beauty and the mystery of the world, out in the fields or deep inside books — can re-dignify the worst-stung heart. (Mary Oliver)
The object we call a book is not the real book, but its potential, like a musical score or seed. It exists fully only in the act of being read; and its real home is inside the head of the reader, where the symphony resounds, the seed germinates. A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another. (Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby)
So, ten years time, 70 books in 70 days? Challenge (provisionally) accepted!