Khaled Khalifa – Death is Hard Work

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The main character in Khaled Khalifa’s book, Bobol, is tasked with carrying out his dead father’s last wish of being buried in the village he used to call home, Anabiya. Under normal circumstances this amounts to a two hour drive, but this is war torn Syria where a short journey can take days, and where you’ll be lucky to get past the numerous check points, avoid bombs and bullets, find roads that aren’t closed and make it to the village before the body completely decomposes.

The first thing that struck me whilst reading this book is how incredibly normal death is in this country. We do know this from the news, of course, but there’s knowing and then there’s knowing. In Bobol’s Syria you don’t get sympathy when your somewhat elderly relative dies of natural causes. That’s considered lucky, not sad. Everyone has lost someone, usually under horrible circumstances and far too soon. And to be buried properly and have a funeral is a luxury. I’m not sure if mourning the dead becomes a full-time job or something there’s just no time for anymore when this is reality.

A silent funeral is a funeral stripped of all its awe, Bolbol thought. Rites and rituals meant nothing now. For the first time, everyone was truly equal in death. The poor and the rich, officers and infantry in the regime’s army, armed squadron commanders, regular soldiers, random passersby, and those who would remain forever anonymous: all were buried with the same pitiful processions. Death wasn’t even a source of distress anymore: it had become an escape much envied by the living.

Bobol’s brother and sister comes with him on his journey to Anabiya. His family hasn’t been together for years, and they are very uncomfortable with being locked in a car together for days. You might think that the death of a parent would bring the family together, but in this case the divide is just too large. They are very different as individuals and they were also treated very differently by their father. We learn a lot about their relationships with him during the course of the book, and we also get glimpses of their fathers life, parts of which his children knew little about.

Khalifa manages to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere in the car, the worsening state of the body with accompanying smells, the tension at every checkpoint, the fear, the hopelessness and exhaustion of the siblings in such a believable way. The most disturbing aspect of the story is how normal the author makes certain situations seem; bombings, seeing dead bodies in the street, have guns repeatedly pointed at you just because you want to go from A to B. It’s strange and horrific what humans are capable of getting used to. The writing is direct and full of gritty descriptions, but also contemplative and quiet at times. I found this book absolutely stunning. I can’t know how realistic it actually is, but to me it seems completely realistic. I felt like I was there in the car with the characters, experiencing their exasperation and their fears. It gave me a terrifying insight into how it might be to live in the midst of a civil war that’s been going on for far too long.

Dewey’s readathon

It’s time for yet another readathon and this time it’s the classic Dewey’s 24 hours readathon. We’re starting in a little over an hour, and I’m just about to decide on which books I’ll try to get through. It will likely be a mix of long listed books for The International Man Booker Prize and eligible books for The Man Booker Prize, with a graphic novel and possible some non-fiction thrown in. Despite the fact that it snowed last week-end we’ve had up to 19-20 degrees for the past two days, but sadly today is colder, so I don’t know if I’ll get to read in the sun. Regardless, I have two dogs to walk, so I will be listening to an audio book whilst taking a walk later in the day. Can’t wait to get started!

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Hour 1: I’m reading a book that’s long listed for The International Man Booker Prize, The Shape of the Ruins by Juan Gabriel Vasquez. The style of the book reminds me of last years long listed novel (without fiction), The Impostor, in that it deals with real life events that the author is trying to figure out. This one looks at two assassinations in Colombia – as well as a few outside Colombia – and at the men who become obsessed with conspiracies surrounding the murders. Was there really only one murderer? What was the objective? What actually happened, and why are we made to believe that something else happened? The book is fascinating on several levels. I’m learning quite a bit about Colombian history, as well as about how conspiracy theorists think, and about how people, both conspiracy theorists and others – can become obsessed with an event or a topic. I’m really enjoying this so far. But for the next hour I think I’ll take a break from Colombian assassinations and take a detour into Ireland with When All is Said by Anne Griffin.

Hour 2 and 3: I thought I wanted variation, but I couldn’t get into When All is Said, so I went back to The Shape of the Ruins. The author is resisting still, but he seems to be getting more and more sucked into the conspiracy world. In his defense it is mostly out of curiosity than actual belief, and the story he is weaving is a compelling outsider narrative. I’m going to have to google Gaitán at some point, to get a real world view on his life and assassination. I am curious to know how much of this book is fiction, because it does read as non-fiction so far. I’ve also been grocery shopping and have made a pizza whilst listening to the audio version of Trinity by Louisa Hall. It gives the reader glimpses of the life of Robert Oppenheimer, through characters who have interacted with him in different ways. So far I’ve heard from a man who’s job it was to tail him to make sure he didn’t reveal any state secrets in 1945. I’m interested to see what comes next, though unsure of what I think of the book so far. Still not quite sure what the author’s aim is.

Hour 4 and 5: I’ve been a bit tired for the past two hours, but have managed to listen to 1 hour and 50 minutes of my audio book and to read almost half of The Shape of the Ruins. I’m still not completely sold on Trinity, but I feel I’m so far in that I’m going to have to continue. The Shape of the Ruins is brilliant, but I think I need a break with something short since I’m nowhere near finishing anything yet.

Hour 6 and 7: Have read book 1 of a graphic novel called The Stuff of Legend. The drawings are gorgeous. A boy is taken from his bedroom. His toys and his dog decide to find him and bring him back, so they venture into The Dark, where the toys become real. The imagery is a mix between nostalgic, cute, cosy drawings and really dark, twisted, creepy characters and scenes. We get a bit of backstory. It’s 1944 and the boy’s father is in Europe fighting in the war. He has been given the duty of looking out for his younger brother and his mother, but instead he is taken by the boogeyman and it’s his toys that go to war for him. The piggy bank’s loyalty is tested, the trusted colonel is doomed, the little puppy has no special powers and annoys some of the other toys. All is not well, but they do show incredible camaraderie on occasion. I absolutely love this, but I’m very sad that the story ends abruptly, because I want to know what happens next. I need to get the second and third book ASAP!

Hour 8 and 9: Continued with The Shape of the Ruins. It’s a slow read, but I’m really enjoying it. Though my concentration at this point had begun to waver, so I also spent some of this time watching Taskmaster.

Hour 10-18: Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Hour 19 and 20: Still reading The Shape of the Ruins. It seems much more like a novel to me now than it did in the beginning. For the past two chapters we’ve been getting information on the assassination of General Rafael Uribe Uribe in 1914, but we’re getting it from the point of view of the conspiracy theorists, which is interesting because it makes it seem as if they are the sane ones. It portrays the case as they see it. Problem with this from a readers perspective is that we (well, most of us probably) have no information about the assassination other than what we are provided in the book, so we have no way of knowing if the information is accurate, skewed or false. Conspiracies do happen, so we can’t reject it outright when we are presented with information which seems to lead in that direction. I’m very curious to find out more and to see if the case is as obvious as it seems at this moment (I’m guessing not). I might try and find out more on my own as well. I love these kinds of reads, where nothing is clearcut and the reader might be fooled again and again.

Hour 21 and 22: Anzola can give no real evidence for his hypothesis that the two men charged with the murder of Uribe didn’t act alone. He cannot show there was a cover up, nor that powerful men was behind the assassination. His standard of evidence is low and he has decided on the facts and is trying to procure the evidence for those facts. Carballo believes blindly in him, though, and I’m still not sure how this will be tied to the assassination of Gaitán in 1948. I think I might actually finish this book before the end of the readathon, though, which I didn’t think I’d manage.

Hour 23 and 24: Just finished The Shape of the Ruins. The ending was great. The author tied the two assassinations together in a simple but believable way, and made Carballo seem a lot more human than he previously had seemed. It’s amazing what we might be willing to believe to make sense of something senseless, to find meaning in horrible events and circumstances. I’m definitely hoping to find this on the Man Booker International Prize short list. And with that, I am done with this years readathon. But I might still read more today…

 

Vikram Paralkar – Night Theatre

This was one intense and claustrophobic book, but I loved every second of it.

We meet a doctor in a rural town in India. He is used to far better conditions than the ones he is currently working under, his clinic lacking most modern medical equipment and sometimes necessary drugs. He does what he can for the villagers, but not without some degree of resentment. This isn’t the place he wants to be, nor feels he should be. After sunset one night a family shows up at his clinic, asking him to operate on them. They seem perfectly healthy, but their clothes are hiding fatal wounds. The three members of the small family, four if the unborn baby is included, died after being violently stabbed. In the afterlife, an angel gives them a choice of returning to the land of the living, but he can’t heal their wounds, he can only keep them alive for one night in an artificial way. A surgeon will have to fix the damage to their bodies before sunrise if they are to remain alive. Suddenly, the doctor is in a position of having to raise the dead instead of healing the living.

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Although we are presented with a plot that includes the afterlife, angels and supernatural occurrences, this isn’t a particularly religious novel. It is more philosophical. This situation naturally brings with it a lot of questions and fears. The superstitious girl working for the doctor wonders if God will punish them for going against him, for playing God with these people’s lives. The doctor struggles with the expectation that he’ll be able to save the family and with the potentially life changing and devastating consequences for him and the others involved if he fails to save them. They see him as a brilliant doctor and a great man, unselfish, devoted to saving lives no matter the cost. He knows he is neither, though he would, by any normal standard, be considered a good doctor and a good man. Nothing in this book is simple and straightforward, nothing is black and white. Should he save them? Can he save them? Can he live with the consequences of his own limitations?

The reason I found the book claustrophobic is that everything that happens takes place in the clinic, during one night. In addition to operating on each member of the family, the doctor has to avoid anyone finding out about what’s happening, which proves difficult, as both an annoying village drunkard and a corrupt clinic official pays a visit during the night, leaving the family and the girl helping him to hide. The family themselves are told that if they survive they can never leave the borders of the village, and the doctor is lacking so much in order to help them survive, not to mention cope with pain as they come alive after sunrise, that the village seems like a place cut off from the world at large, too small to be chosen for this task. And with every hour that passes, the doctor’s lack of sleep becomes more and more unbearable..

The descriptions of wounds and of the operations are detailed and realistic, making the novel very gritty. The themes of murder, corruption, the feeling of hopelessness makes it even more so. Though slow paced, the story is incredibly gripping, both because of the tension when unwanted visitors show up, the level of difficulty of the operations and the wonder at what the world is like if a dead family can come back to life. I have to agree with everyone who has written that the story feels very realistic, despite the unrealistic premise of the book. I listened to the audio version and the reader did a great job. He was very engaging, he gave different characters different voices and you could feel the exasperation and the exhaustion through his voice. I got completely lost in this story and just loved everything about it.

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.

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.