24 in 48 – readathon

I’m starting a few hours late, but am now ready to participate in the 24 in 48 readathon. I’ve got a huge stack of books ready, though I’m not prepared in the snack department, so I will have to find an audio book to keep my company whilst grocery shopping later. I’m hoping to get through a few books this weekend, and I’ll be starting with The Star Diaries by Stanislaw Lem (which I’ve been reading for a while) and Women Talking by Miriam Toews. I’ll update my reading progress here throughout the weekend.


Hour 1: I’ve been reading Miriam Toews’ Women Talking, which is about a group of women living in a remote Mennonite Colony in Bolivia. Nearly all the women in the colony, with the youngest only three years old, have at different times been drugged and raped during the night by men in their colony. Now they are being asked to forgive the men, so that both they and the men can enter into heaven when they die. In the book we witness a meeting between some of the women, where they discuss what to do. Should they forgive the men and go on like nothing happened, leaving themselves vulnerable to further attacks? Should they fight for their right to stay in the colony without forgiving the men? Should the leave and start over somewhere else? The discussions are, so far, reasonably calm and rational, but the pain of these women do seep through the pages. The choice they are being forced to make is so horribly unjust that it’s hard not to scream at the book whilst reading it. If they don’t forgive the men they won’t get eternal life (according to their faith), if they don’t forgive the men they will lose the only life they know, their families, their homes.

Hour 2 and 3: Still reading Women Talking. The situation they are in seems so surreal. Deciding between starting over completely in a world they don’t know or understand, or staying with their people, the ones who failed to protect them or take them seriously when they told what had happened. I like the male narrator. In some ways he is as naive as the women, but he has lived outside the colony for years and has a much broader understanding of the world than they do. He puts the story in a wider context, both for the women and the reader, whilst still being a part of the colony, brought up with the same beliefs. He is not a modern man who is outraged at the injustice of the situation, he is constrained by his upbringing and yet sympathetic to the suffering the women have gone through.

Hour 4: Switched to The Star Diaries, where Ijon Tichy became overseer of a large project to travel in time and do up the solar system. Naturally every insane project failed, every project leader was banished to different time periods in human history, mostly becoming great artists and thinkers whilst trying to figure out how to get out of that time period or to entertain themselves while they were there. I absolutely adore this book. The absurd, slightly dry humour, the mirror reflecting human history through the lense of aliens from other galaxies or humans from the future, the lovable main character who seems far too normal to be going on such adventures. It all works perfectly. Douglas Adams must have read this and been inspired.

Hour 5: I am still enjoying the company of Ijon Tichy, though I’ve had a few breaks from reading. Will likely finish The Star Diaries within the next hour, and then continue on with Women Talking or start something new.

Hour 6: There is no hope of making it to hour 12 before going to sleep tonight, but I’m happy with my reading progress nonetheless. Finished The Star Diaries with stories of combatant potatoes in space, a year long search for a pocket knife amongst two million similar planets and the log of Ijon Tichy’s father’s insane journey in space nearing the speed of light. Will try to write a proper review of this brilliant book at some point. But now it’s time for a new book, or for the continuation of Women Talking.

Hour 7: Continued with Women Talking last night, before I stopped reading to watch Into the Wild. It’s morning now, and I’m ploughing on with Miriam Toews, hoping to finish it within the next hour.

Hour 8: Finished Women Talking. I liked the ending even though we didn’t get to know what happens to them after they reach a conclusion to their discussion. The book was about them finding their voices and daring to make choices for themselves, regardless of what the choice ended up being. I will likely continue with Brief Answers to Big Questions by Stephen Hawking. I need a bit of non fiction this weekend.

Hour 9 and 10: Spent two hours reading about whether or not there’s a god (there’s not), how it all began (likely from nothing) and if there’s alien life in the universe besides us (yup). Hawking does an excellent job at explaining complex topics to people without a physics background, and making it extremely interesting in the process. He tells us what science knows and also what he himself thinks about different topics where we haven’t yet got solid answers.

Hour 11 and 12: I’ve been on a binge of reaction videos on Youtube for quite a while, but I have managed to read most of Brief Answers to Big Questions. Have learned that we likely cannot predict the future because of the Uncertainty Principle, that whilst it was thought that we cannot know that is inside a black hole, it may be that the information is stored in the event horizon and we can know after all, and that time travel may be possible, but it is unlikely (or at least unlikely to be possible at this period in time). The book is brilliant, and the questions incredibly exciting, but getting my head around it all is almost impossible. Still, trying is a lot of fun! And with that, the readathon is over. I only managed 12 out of 48 hours, but I have finished two books and nearly finished a third. Definitely happy with that.

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Anne Youngson – Meet Me at the Museum

imageTina Hopgood writes a letter to an archeologist, Peter Glob, who in the 60s dedicated a book to her and to her other classmates. The book was about the excavation of an extremely well preserved Iron Age man who was sacrificed in a bog in Denmark, The Tollund Man. Tina, not entirely happy with her life as it is, decides to revisit that past and ask Professor Glob a few questions about the Tollund man in her letter, after a lifetime of thinking she will visit the museum in Denmark where he is exhibited, but never finding the right time. Problem is, the man she is writing to has been dead for quite a few years, but the man currently occupying his position at Silkeborg Museum, Anders Larsen, gets the letter and decides to reply. Their correspondence takes off from there.

It is so long since the sacrifice was made, I was so young at the time, it took so many years for me to realize I had made it, that I can no longer say what, exactly, it was that I sacrificed; what it was that would have given me the satisfaction Edward feels every day. Perhaps it was the trip to Denmark—that could have been enough. But the blank space in my life feels too great to be overwritten by so slight an act.

I am beyond happy that I chose to listen to the audio version of this book. Most novels consists of more than monologue/dialogue, but in this book there is nothing but letters, ie long monologues going back and forth between two characters. Because of this, the readers, in a way, become their characters. At least for me as a listener they did. It felt like listening in on two strangers’ private conversation, thought without feeling like an intruder. The readers’ voices fit so perfectly with their characters’ personalities that it wasn’t hard to believe what they were reading. The woman voicing Tina was an older, sweet, thoughtful English woman, and the man voicing Anders was a Danish man with a slightly stiffer way of speaking, but not devoid of feeling. Scandinavians tend to be a bit reserved and seem colder and less friendly (at first glance at least), so I found the man reading Anders’ letters to be very believable and liked listening to it. Though it was stiffer and had a clear accent, it fitted with how I pictured the character to be.

We get to know them through the thoughts they share on life and through the stories they tell each other about themselves and their families. They share a sadness and an optimism that I found compelling, and the friendship they develop made me smile many times whilst listening to the story. I think I might have liked this a bit less if I had read the book, mainly because listening felt so intimate and made the characters and the story come to life for me, they felt somewhat like friends I kept coming back to whilst walking my dogs, making dinner, doing chores and taking the bus to work. They made all those experiences much more enjoyable. Just reading a paperback on the couch might not have made the same impression. I did like the musings on the Tollund man and what kind of a life he could have led, as well as the insight into different types of loneliness and betrayal the novel deals with. And the shifting perspectives from East Anglia to Silkeborg and Copenhagen was interesting. As a fellow Scandinavian I can relate to a lot of what Anders tells Tina about being Danish, whilst as an anglophile everything British seems familiar and homely to me somehow. It felt sad to leave them when the last letter was read.

Hilary McKay – The Skylark’s War

I discovered the shortlists for the Costa Book Awards about a week ago, in others words, way too late to read much from it before they announce the winners. To my surprise I noticed that I have already read two of the four nominees for the Costa Novel Award, and I own one of the two I haven’t read. I have also, quite coincidentally, recently bought one of the nominees for the Costa First Novel Award, and I found two more as audiobooks. The first audiobook I chose to listen to was The Skylark’s War, and I loved it from the start.

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We follow Clarry, a young woman born at the start of the 20th century, from her birth until she is an adult. Her mother dies a few days after giving birth to her, and she is told that she is the reason for her mother’s death. Her father is not very fatherly and tries to convince his parents to take care of both Clarry and her older brother Peter. They refuse, saying that they are old and that it is quite enough for them to be bringing up Rupert, Clarry and Peter’s cousin, but they let the children visit them in Cornwall every summer. At home they are neglected, and as a girl, nothing much is expected of Clarry other than not being a nuisance. Since he is a boy, Peter gets to go to good schools and is expected to get good grades and work hard to one day be able to support a family. Unlike his father, he recognizes Clarry’s intellect, and makes her do his homework with him, making sure she is able to learn and grow, hoping for more for her than to just find a husband who can provide for her. They both live for the summers in Cornwall, when they can do as they please in a lovely environment, and get to spend time with their cousin. Except for Peter, Rupert is the only one who pays any attention to Clarry, so she comes to view Cornwall as a wonderful place where she is loved. As they get older, the reader knows World War I is looming, we know the idyllic summers won’t last, even though the characters don’t.

In a way this seems like a simple story about growing up, the characters discovering who they are and how they want their lives to be. And it is that. But because of the time period it’s set in it is also a harrowing tale of war and how it affects everyone in different ways. Although the start is very sad and there is darkness in the family because of the mother’s death and the father’s detachment, the story seems both charming and in a way innocent, and since it is a children’s novel, it can’t be too graphic or direct. But in classic children’s books charm and sadness often goes hand in hand. When reading this book I was reminded of the atmosphere and the theme of abandonment and loneliness in The Secret Garden and The Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and the curiosity and the will to be something more than what’s expected in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis. I even saw a bit of Dickens in this book, with it’s quirky characters and atmospheric descriptions of the lives they were leading.

Clarry has to live with the fact that she robbed her father and brother of her mother. She has to struggle to be seen in a society that normally only cares about what boys and men want. We see her frustrations and we follow her failures and her victories. The author balances this by also giving us the story of Peter and Rupert, two boys who have to struggle to live up to the expectations people have of them, who aren’t really allowed to choose their own paths, and who has to fight hard if they are to control their own lives. Peter is so against the plans made for him at one point that he purposefully hurts himself in order to avoid having to do as he’s told. And it doesn’t even change things for very long. Rupert wants to do his patriotic duty and go to war, but his family is dead set against it. They won’t allow it, but of course, they have limited ways of stopping him. Certain scenes from the war are described in a more gruesome way than I expected in a children’s novel, but it is effective and I think necessary to give a small understanding of what the soldiers went though. Even more important, though, is the descriptions of what the war does to both the ones who fight in it, and the ones standing on the sidelines waiting either for their loved ones to come home, or for a telegram. McKay captures beautifully how it affects different people in different ways, and how damaging it can be for the survivors who have to live with the memories of the dead, of the hunger and pain and strain of being in the trenches.

This was a gorgeous book from start to finish, one I think I would have treasured when I was younger, and that I still treasure as an adult. One I certainly will read again at some point. I listened to the audio version and the reader was also a part of enhancing the reading experience for me, as she was very engaging.

 

Graham Greene – The Quiet American

Full disclosure: I should probably have watched a Vietnam documentary before reading this book, but I liked it a lot nonetheless. Most of all for it’s characters, though also for it’s exotic, beautiful yet grimy setting. First, the characters:

Fowler: Wise sage, impartial reporter, disconnected, tired but content. British.
Pyle: Naive, idealistic, full of youthful vigor, romantic, holds principals above all. American.
Phuong: Realist, detached, seemingly unflappable, strong, yet to be protected. Vietnamese.

It’s an odd love triangle between characters who share little in common and are none of them typical heroes or heroines. We meet them at a time when the Vietminh are fighting for independence from the French, but the world doesn’t care much yet. The Vietnam War hasn’t started, and Korea’s where the action is. Even so, Fowler is a middle aged British man reporting on the ongoings in and around Hanoi, whilst enjoying the company of an 18 year old girl who has become his companion and lover. In comes the young, plucky American who dances with her once and decides he needs to marry her. He pictures himself honorable, and indestructible and braves danger to find Fowler and to tell him of his intentions toward Fowler’s girl, so as to make it a fair fight and ease his own conscience. He expects Fowler to accept her choice, whatever it may be, and holds to the old cliche ‘if you love someone, let them go…’. Fowler’s version of love is far less romantic, and though a lot more egotistical, ultimately far easier to sympathize with. He seems a lot more genuine and real, whilst something about Pyle doesn’t seem quite right. But maybe that’s just my preference for Brits over Americans.

I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.

The clash of these two men – over a woman who only wants to marry a westerner and has little notion of a romantic love – is strangely compelling and often quite funny. It is contrasted with the seriousness of the situation both in the country itself and with the fact that the reader knows from the start that Pyle is killed. What we don’t know is why and by whom, though the author of course alludes to the fact that Fowler could have been involved because of jealousy. But we also realise that Pyle’s job might not be what he says it is, and that that might have something to do with why he is killed. So there is both mystery and suspense, as well as odd characters and funny moments. The author does reveal all in due time and everything is tied up neatly. I thought the ending was brilliant. So human and somehow wrong, yet very satisfying for the reader.

That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.

There is probably a lot in this book I haven’t noticed or understood because of my lack of knowledge about the period and about Vietnam. I read in a review that the characters act very much like their countries did in their attitude towards the Vietnam War, but I have no idea what, for example, the British attitude toward the Vietnam War was, and therefore obviously did not think about this myself as I was reading the book. What Greene has done, however, is to provide me with both a fascinating tale of (untraditional) love, glimpses into a country and culture I know little about, and he’s given me a thirst to know more than I do. Luckily for me there aren’t a lack of documentaries about the Vietnam War, and the preceeding period, to choose from.

Stefan Zweig – Confusion

I’ve been a fan of Zweig ever since I read Chess in 2011. When I’m in the mood for something thrilling and unputdownable his novels and novellas are always a good pick. Lately I’ve been reading from The Man Booker longlist, and rather disappointingly there have been a lot of “good but not great” books on the list – meaning I haven’t read that many books I can fully immerse myself in and forget about the world around me in August. Missing that kind of a book experience I chose to read Confusion in the hopes of it being as good as Chess, Amok and Burning Secret. I wasn’t disappointed.

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Confusion follows an old professor thinking back on his life as a student. Someone has recently written his biography and he keeps thinking that even though the book has captured the main events of his life it doesn’t really explain who he is or why he is who he is. Something is missing from it, or rather, someone. In his early student days in Berlin he didn’t care much for his studies and spent most of his time drinking and chasing women, but after a visit from his father, who surprisingly manages to convince him that he is wasting his life – without giving him a lecture or yelling at him – he decides to move to a smaller town and enroll in a prestigious university there. He encounters a lecturer that is so passionate and has such an incredibly distinctive and lively way of teaching that he can’t help but start to love his studies and to love this man as well. The Professor becomes his mentor, guiding him in his field of study, which is English, and he becomes the teacher’s pet, rather annoyingly for all the other students. It makes him a social leper in this small town and he becomes isolated from everyone except the professor and his wife.

And now, too, I understood the volcanic, fanatically exuberant nature of his discourse in his circle of students – after being dammed up for days his urge to communicate would break out, all the ideas he carried silently within him rushed forth, with the uncontrollable force known to horsemen when a mount is fresh from the stable, breaking out of the confines of silence into this headlong race of words.

It’s only a 150 page book and the plot doesn’t seem very original, but the way Zweig writes is incredibly detailed and intense and, like many of his other novellas, it reads almost like a thriller. I was very in the moment when reading this, whilst at the same time just aching to know what happens next. It becomes apparent for the reader that the Professor’s love for his student is not quite the same as the students love for the Professor, but the student remains ignorant of what is so apparent to the reader and also to the Professor’s wife. This exploration of homosexuality in a small German town at the beginning of the last century is very claustrophobic and sad. The Professor is forced to constantly battle his feelings and his urges to stay in control, otherwise he might lose everything he values. It makes for a confined and difficult life, and Zweig portrays this beautifully through the relationship between the Professor and his student.

His words, like an evangelist’s, bestowed grace and were binding on me too; I was always on the qui vive, attentive and intent upon greedily snapping up every chance remark he happened to drop. I seized on every word, every gesture, and when I came home I bent my mind entirely to the passionate recapitulation and memorizing of what I had heard; my impatient ardour felt that he alone was my guide, and all the other students merely enemies whom my aspiring will urged itself daily to outstrip and outperform.

Javier Cercas – The Impostor

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I wasn’t in a concentration camp. I was held in captivity and the Nazis did impose penalties on me. But that does not exonerate me from being an impostor.

The title of Cercas’ book refers to Enric Marco, a Spanish man who was discovered in 2005 to have falsified a past as a prisoner in Flössenburg, one of the Nazi concentration camps during World War II. In reality, Marco had volunteered to work in Germany during the war, and though he was imprisoned in Kiel for six months whilst working there, he was never in a concentration camp. He left Germany and went back to Spain in 1943. In The Impostor, Cercas gives himself the task of trying to find out more about what really happened to Marco and why he lied. The result is an educational and philosophical book that is also incredibly engaging.

In the chapters about Marco, Cercas digs deep into Marco’s past to give the reader an insight into who Marco is, starting at the very beginning of his life, trying to show how Marco was shaped by his family and by the environment around him. Marco grew up during the Franco regime in Spain and, according to himself, he was part of the revolutionary movement that fought Franco. He lists big events that he supposedly was present at, and he names a number of important opponents of Franco who used to be close friends of Marco. The problem is that the more the author digs into Marco’s past in Spain, the more claims he finds to be either wholly or partially made up. It is clearly not only events about the war Marco has lied about, he has been lying about his life since he was a young man. He discovered relatively early that he was a charismatic person whom people were attracted to and whom they were easily impressed with, and he used that fact to his advantage. In reality, Marco seems like quite a cowardly man who has always tried to remain on the side of whoever is in power – he never fought against the Franco regime in any way for example – but he wants to be seen as a hero, a revolutionary or an important man. The lies were probably both the result of a desire to stay on the good side of the revolutionaries after the fall of the Franco regime, but also as a way of getting attention for being heroic.

Do you know how many journalists, how many students came to see me in 2001 or 2002 or 2003 or 2004 or 2005 believing they had found their own Miralles, their veteran of every just war, their forgotten hero? What was I supposed to do? Tell them to fuck off? Tell them that there are no such things as heros? Of course not: I gave them what they had come looking for, the same thing you had given them in your novel.

Cercas tries to put the earliest of Marco’s lies into a larger context by explaining that this behavior was not unique to Marco in Spain after Franco. Most Spaniards claimed at the time to have been opponents of the regime, and no one questioned these lies. There was no settlement with the past, everyone just wanted to forget about what had happened and move on in silence. The easiest way to manage this was to pretend that everyone had always hated the regime and that most of the Spanish population was thrilled with the new state of affairs. So Cercas does try to explain why Marco might have lied about his past after the regime fell, and he does justify these lies to a certain degree. But, as we know, these were not the only lies Marco would tell.

This is the reality: at least during the years of transition between dictatorship and democracy, Spain as a country was as narcissistic as Marco; it is also true, therefore, that democracy in Spain was built on a lie, whether an enormous collective lie or a long series of individual lies. Could it have been built any other way? Can democracy be built on truth? Could the whole country honestly have recognised itself for what it was, in the horror, the shame, the cowardice and the mediocrity of its past, and forged ahead regardless?

Javier Cercas also writes himself into the book. He recounts his own meetings with Marco and he spends a lot of time debating whether or not it’s a good thing to tell Marco’s story. Will writing about him give Marco attention he desperately craves? Or will he surely kill Marco by exposing every one of his lies, leaving him with nothing? The author neither wants to do Marco a favor nor destroy him, but he is curious about what drives a man to lie to such a degree about his own past. He wants to understand Marco, and he tries to do this by comparing him to novelists like himself. By lying, Marco is telling stories. He is both engaging and convincing. He himself feels he is contributing positively to society by seeking positions of authority where he can do good work. It does not matter to him that he gets these positions using false premises. Through his lies he presents himself as something other than what he is. Cercas compares him with a novelist, since they relate to lies in the same way that Marco does, purposefully trying to fool an audience, though the difference is that the reader knows he is being fooled, the people Marco fooled did not know.

Vargas Llosa is right: Marco is a genius because he succeeds at everything, in real life and for many years in what great novelists only partly achieve in their novels, and even then only for as long as it takes to read them; that is to say, he deceives thousands and thousands of people, making them believe that he was someone that he was not, that something that did not truly exist actually existed and that what is actually a lie is in fact the truth. But Marco’s genius, of course, is only partial. Unlike great novelists, who in exchange for a factual lie deliver a profound, disturbing, elusive, irreplaceable moral and universal truth, Marco delivers only a sickly, insincere, mawkishly sentimental story that from the historical or moral point of view is pure kitsch, pure lies…

The brilliance of this book is that it is interesting on all levels. The reader gets a glimpse of Spanish history both before, during and after World War II. We witness a kind of detective story where the author is struggling to find the truth that lurks behind all of Marco’s lies. Both through interviews with Marco and with others, as well as through a deep dive into archives in Germany and Spain, the author finally gets a picture of who Marco really is. Whilst uncovering the truth about this man, Cercas tries to the extent that he can to avoid judging Marco. He asks himself many questions about the impact of Marcos lies, and also about his own role in Marco’s story, and whether what he does by writing this book is positive or negative. And who it might be positive or negative for. Marco? The people he has fooled? The actual survivors of the German concentration camps? He acquires different views on Marco from people who used to know him, from people he has worked with and from his family. The book is partly a history book, one part detective novel, and also one part moral philosophy. All the different aspects of the book are well connected and we get a lot of differing viewpoints on the main questions of the book: why did Marco feel the need to tell these lies? Has he hurt someone by lying or is it harmless, possibly positive – lies he has told? Why are the reactions to such lies when they are exposed almost stronger than the reactions to violence and other cruelties that we hear about in society daily?

Look, I can understand that the people who were fooled by him are angry, after all he took them for a ride; I can even understand that most people are a little angry with him, because he fooled everyone. What I don’t understand is why they attack him so relentlessly when this country is full of bastards who have been responsible for murders, who have robbed and done all sorts of disgusting things, and nobody seems to go after them: in fact, people kiss their arses.

I still don’t understand why this book was nominated for The International Man Booker Prize. Although the author calls the book a novel without lies, it is a non-fiction book, and therefore not a candidate for a prize awarded to novels. But I’m not complaining, because I probably wouldn’t have discovered this book if not for its position on the International Booker longlist. That would have been a shame, because this is one of the most fascinating and engaging books I have read in a long time.