March/April 2011

Stuff I’ve Been Reading

A monthly column

by Nick Hornby

BOOKS BOUGHT:

  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—Rebecca Skloot
  • The Last Englishman: The Double Life of Arthur Ransome—Roland Chambers

BOOKS READ:

  • Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime—John Heileman and Mark Halperin
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks—Rebecca Skloot

In April 2010, I was a tragic victim of the volcanic ash cloud that grounded all flights into, out of, and across Europe for a few days. I am sure that other people have hard-luck stories too: weddings, births, and funerals were missed, job opportunities went begging, feckless husbands given one last chance got home to find their underwear strewn across the street, and so on. Mine, however, was perhaps more poignant than any of them: my family, stranded in Tenerife, was unable to celebrate my fifty-third birthday with me. Can you imagine? Of all the birthdays to miss, it had to be the one I was looking forward to the most. All my life I had wondered what it would be like to turn fifty-three, to open presents suitable for a fifty-three-year-old—something from the excellent Bald Guyz range of beauty products, for example, or a Bruce Springsteen box set—while an adoring family looked on. Well, my adoring family was stranded on an island in the Mediterranean, in a hotel that apparently laid on a chocolate fountain for breakfast. When they eventually made it home, my birthday was clearly an event to be celebrated when it came around again in 2011, rather than retrospectively. I have therefore decided, perhaps understandably, that this April I will be turning fifty-three again. It’s not a vanity thing; it’s simply that I’m owed a birthday.

Back in 2010, I had to make do with the cards I’d been dealt, and the cards were these: a small group of friends bought me champagne, which we drank in my garden on a beautiful spring evening, at a time when I would usually be embarking on some terrible, strength-sapping, pointless fight about, say, shampoo and/or bedtime; the same friends then took me to a favorite local restaurant and gave me presents. You can see why I might feel bitter even to this day.

Three of the presents my friends had bought me were book-shaped, and miraculously, given the lack of deferred gratification in my book-buying life, I wanted to read them all, and didn’t own any of them. I got a lovely first edition of Mordecai Richler’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a copy of Game Change: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin, and the Race of a Lifetime by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, and Marc Norman’s history of screenwriting, What Happens Next. Is it too late and too hurtful to say that my fifty-third birthday was perhaps the best ever?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please purchase a copy of the magazine from The McSweeney’s Store.

Nick Hornby lives in North London.

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