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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.


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.