Design a site like this with
Get started

Dewey’s readathon April 2020

94980974_553984962180481_8532252661523677184_nIt’s readathon time once more, and I have cheated a bit and started reading five hours early. My goal for this readathon is to read for at least 12 hours, and spend as much time as possible reading outside. Luckily it’s a gorgeous day, and I’ve gathered a reading pile much too high as always. I’ve quite forgotten to buy snacks, but Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince on audio can keep me company as I walk to the store later. I also have two furry friends to cheer me on!


Hour 1 and 2: I’ve started reading an old favorite, which is always a bit scary. The book is Visitation by German author Jenny Erpenbeck, and though it’s a short read it needs to be read thoroughly in order to see all the beautiful details in the novel. It’s been nine years since I read it last, and so far it seems my tasted haven’t changed that much since then. Visitation is about a house situated in East Germany at the Brandenburg lake and we follow its history from the 19th century on. We get glimpses of the daily lives of its inhabitants, seemly serene and normal lives interrupted by politics, invasion and more ordinary struggles. Ownership of the house changes hands with irregular intervals, but the one constant is the gardener, surveying all, toiling away, but never speaking, just observing history in this place. It seems I don’t have to worry about losing this favorite by re-reading it, because it is just as powerful and gorgeous as I remember it.

Hour 3 and 4: Not yet finished with Visitation, but taking a break with something a bit less demanding. I decided to re-watch M*A*S*H for the umpteenth time a short while ago and also realized I have a book about North-Korea that I’ve been meaning to read for the last two years, without actually getting to it. It’s a book by Norwegian author, Morten Traavik, who was a cultural attaché in North-Korea for seven years. The title of the book is Forræderens Guide til Nord-Korea which translated means The Traitor’s Guide to North-Korea. Clearly he is not a cultural attaché there anymore. He gives us an insight into the closed regime, but is also candid as to what they don’t show foreigners – meaning that he is aware of the fact that what they show him is what they want to show off, though he does get a view of the country outside Pyongyang at least. Previous chapters have included a guide to both food (dog meat as an aphrodisiac – yikes!) and sex (almost exclusively self-help if you’re a tourist) in North-Korea, but now we’re on to the backstory with a short history of the country from Juche 1 (1912) until the 90s.

Hour 5 and 6: Erpenbeck contrasts ordinary life, gardening, swimming, washing, with the horrors of The Second World War, and she does it in a matter-of-fact tone from one paragraph to the next and from one page to the next. From summers traveling and idyllic summers spent by the Brandenburg lake you get the sale of the house in order to secure finances for passage out of Germany, and then to this:

Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Lodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, all the frozen bank accounts dissolved and their household goods auctioned off.

It’s such a chilling paragraph because it’s brutally honest and straightforward, and contrasted with the quiet and ordinary life of the couple and their family before the war. Possession of the house is now in the hands of a German architect, without (much) Jewish ancestry, and his wife. They manage to cling on to the house after the war, by making friends with the Soviets, but that doesn’t last long. What this novel shows is both how fleeting our existence in the world is, whilst not at any point suggesting that our lives are any less important or meaningful because of it. This novel isn’t easy to read, especially the chapter from a child hiding in the dark, completely abandoned, awaiting her fate. So I have started something hopefully lighter and more fun, The Explorer by Katherine Rundell. It does start with a plane crash, though, but as it’s written for kids or young adults (not sure which) and meant to be an adventure, I’m guessing it should fit in the fun read category.

Hour 7, 8 and 9: Have read about 70 pages of The Explorer, which is an adventure story about four kids stuck in the Amazon after a plane crash. Not sure how the story is going to progress, but so far we follow the kids as they try to find food, shelter and water, and try to figure out how to avoid snakes and piranhas. I’m guessing they will leave their campsite and try to head for a city at some point, and so far it’s an easy and engaging read. I’m also through part of the Soviet occupation in Visitation, which is a savage and slightly repulsive affair, written just as powerfully as the parts from the war. I just made dinner whilst listening to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and Harry’s just discovered the potions book previously belonging to Snape (spoiler – though at this point doesn’t everyone know?) and won himself a bottle of Felix Felicis. I’ve now got to the part where we finally learn more about Voldemort’s past, but I think I’ll save it for a bit later when I start to get tired. First I might try to actually finish a book (Visitation) and maybe continue with my North-Korea book as well as The Explorers. Happy reading everyone!

Hour 10 and 11: Finished Visitation. I assume I was wrong about the novel starting in the 19th century, because the gardener seems to have been the same person throughout the book. I thought he was a constant figure – a role – that  there were different men who assumed the role, possibly through inheritance. Now I think he was just one man, which means the novel must have started during the 1920s og 1930s. There are numerous references to earlier chapters and characters throughout the novel, and it’s not always easy to understand the chronology or remember who’s connected to who. Could well be read several times, always learning something new I would think. An excellent read, this novel about a house, and the lucky and/or unlucky people who got to call it home for a brief period.

Hour 12, 13 and 14: Have learned quite a bit about North-Korea these past hours, but now I’m too tired to tell you about it. Will update after some sleep.

Hour 15: I’m back in the game after seven hours under the duvet. I’ve spent the first reading hour this morning finishing my North-Korea book. I think the most surprising part of it were the descriptions of North-Korean society in the 70s, which seemed quite relaxed and not at all as fear-based as I assumed. I’m guessing that might not have been the case for the population as a whole, this is just one window into a small part of North-Korea. But a stable economy (well, based on foreign investments on false premises, so stable might be pushing it..) and good services to the country’s inhabitants, together with indoctrination and little to no knowledge about the wider world, might be a good mix for avoiding civil unrest. Nation wide famine and the death of the great leader was, on the other hand, not a great combination for securing a happy populace. Though it did fit with the narrative given, where the death of the leader would lead to a catastrophe of biblical proportions. I’ve also learned a bit about the differences between the three Kims, just as rumors of the death of the third Kim is circulating in the media. If true, it will be interesting to see which changes a new leader might bring about, but if this book is to be trusted than the leadership is a collective behind the Kims, which might mean less room for change even with a new leader.

Hour 16 and 17: Forgot to log the rest of the readathon, but I did get distracted by other tasks after hour 17. I spent the last few hours reading The Explorer, though I didn’t finish it.

This was as much fun as it always is, and I hope it’s given me a boost to read more in the coming weeks.

Hamid Ismailov – Devils’ Dance

You’ll spend the new year wherever you spent New Year’s day, as the Russian proverb goes.

An Uzbek writer is thrown in jail by the Soviet secret police in Tashkent in 1938. We follow both his experiences being interrogated and being in a prison cell with a number of other prominent and less prominent prisoners. There’s also a story within the story, as we read about his attempt to reconstruct the novel he was writing before his jailing, which is about an 18th century Uzbek woman turned queen against her will.

It feels a bit unfair only giving this novel three stars on Goodreads, because it really started to grow on me during the second half of the book, and I have gotten a lot out of reading it. The reason for the three stars is that I struggled in the beginning and wasn’t always sure this was a book I wanted to keep reading. At some point in the story this changed and I became completely invested in both storylines. My star rating is more about me as a reader than the actual quality of the novel (which is probably always true – though I do try to bring some objectivity into it – but I can see it more clearly with this one).


For someone with little knowledge of the author’s country of origin this was a brilliant novel for learning. Both storylines – the jailed author who is a victim of Stalin’s Great Terror and the heroine Oyxon who is a victim of Islamic tyranny in the 1800s – is based on historical events. We get to know Uzbek writers and poets, Emirs and their wives and in both timelines we’re introduced to actual or potential British spies. Even though this is just a snippet in the country’s history, it is a thorough and engaging snippet, which only made me want to read more from Uzbekistan, both novels and non-fiction.

I’m not sure which storyline is more terrifying – and they do become somewhat parallel – but we get glimpses of good moments in the characters’ lives on occasion. From the little I learned about Uzbekistan during my political science studies, I believe that it is still an authoritarian – though I think not totalitarian – state, so progress towards a free society with significant political and civil rights for it’s citizens has been slow, if not non-existent. The author, Hamid Ismailov, can likely relate to his characters’ struggles, as he fled the country in 1992 because of his “unacceptable democratic tendencies”. I wanted to write my masters thesis on Kyrgyzstan, but ended up writing about Ukraine instead. After reading The Devil’s Dance my urge to learn more about the so-called stan-countries has definitely returned.

Madeline Miller – Circe

“You are wise,” he said.

“If it is so,” I said, “it is only because I have been fool enough for a hundred lifetimes.”

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and nymph Perse. Because she is neither particularly beautiful, nor born with apparent godlike abilities, she is largely ignored by her family. She therefore seeks the company of humans, and falls in love with a fisherman. Since he is a regular person with a limited life span, and she a goddess with eternal life, she tries to persuade her grandmother, Tethys, to turn him into a god. Tethys will not be persuaded, so Circe finds a way to make him a God. The fisherman takes a liking to his new status as a god and he quickly understands that he doesn’t have to limit himself to a quiet life with Circe, and chooses another woman. To get revenge, Circe transforms this woman into a cruel monster, and when it comes to light that she is the culprit behind this transformation, her family realizes that she has the power of witchcraft. Such powers are unusual among the gods and they fear such abilities. For that reason, they punish Circe by banishing her to a deserted island where she is to live alone all her long life. After a while, though, she begins to get visitors.

But gods are born of ichor and nectar, their excellences already bursting from their fingertips. So they find their fame by proving what they can mar: destroying cities, starting wars, breeding plagues and monsters. All that smoke and savor rising so delicately from our altars. It leaves only ash behind.

We follow Circe from her upbringing and through the next 1000 years. On the island she finds friendship and love, but she also experiences abuse and becomes vengeful. She only gets permission to leave her island once to help her sister in labour, but otherwise she does not leave the island for a thousand years. She is a central figure in many stories from Greek mythology and through her we are introduced to gods and titans, to the minotaur, to Odyssevs and to a number of other creatures. It almost seems like Miller has sewn together a number of stories from Greek mythology and made them into a novel, and if that was her plan it has been executed brilliantly. It does not feel like she’s struggling to combine something that doesn’t naturally belong together. The story has a clear plot following Circe and tracking her evolution: a woman who becomes an outcast because she’s different, who isn’t pretty and talented, who’s ridiculed and mistreated, but who fights back, finds her place in the world and won’t let herself be broken. Despite the well-known backdrop, the story seems original.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

I am especially impressed with the character development in the book. Circe was a weak child seeking validation from everyone around her, without getting it. Being rejected by her first crush leads to a childish and vengeful reaction that shows she is not a particularly stable and strong woman at this point. She harbors the belief that at least her brother cares for her, but she gradually learns that her family cares for nothing but themselves. Therefore she develops a thick skin, doesn’t let anyone in, and even goes so far as to make a sport out of literally transforming men trying to exploit her into pigs. Eventually she meets people who seek out her company without an agenda who doesn’t mistreat her, which slowly teaches her to trust and get better at judging actions rather than pre-judging people. At the end of the book, she has become a good example of what a strong, confident woman can be. But it did take her a thousand years to get there. Although her elongated life span and her witchcraft doesn’t scream realism, I think the character development seems very realistic, and I like how the author always makes me understand why she is the way she is, even though I don’t always like her for it. Miller shows all sides of her, including those that are far from flattering.

So many years I had spent as a child sifting his bright features for his thoughts, trying to glimpse among them one that bore my name. But he was a harp with only one string, and the note it played was himself.

“You have always been the worst of my children,” he said. “Be sure to not dishonor me.”

“I have a better idea. I will do as I please, and when you count your children, leave me out.”

I read this novel during a particularly pleasant summer and I have to say that lounging in the sun and reading about Greek Mythology is a good mix. I’ll definitely be reading The Song of Achilles when we finally get a glimpse of summer again. Unfortunately, that might take a few years…

Albert Camus – The Plague

Might be time to re-read this one, seems eerily apt (though thankfully this isn’t the plague). As far as I can remember, the city goes through five phases:

1) Confusion. Why is this happening? How will it affect us?
2) Irritation. Why do we have to change our lives because of this? Can it just end so that we can get back to business as usual?
3) Fear and understanding. It’s not just an inconvenience, we might actually get sick or know someone who gets sick and maybe even someone who dies. The economy might collapse.
4a) Some find unknown inner strength. Life has changed, but we are adaptable and can find new meaning in the chaos.
4b) Some lose all hope. Life has changed and will never be the same. Will this ever end?
5) Unexpected hope. The number of infected and dead are receding. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Though some will just glimpse the light before it’s their end.

The narrator is trying to give an objective portrayal of the events, which gives a chilling effect. The distanced storytelling and lack of an intimate knowledge of the citizens’ inner thoughts makes the reader feel somewhat isolated, just like the characters are. You are trapped in the city with the characters, but still alone with your thoughts and reactions to what’s happening.

A large part of the citizens of Norway, as well as citizens in other countries, have in a sense just been quarantined. Those with no symptoms or reasons to believe they are infected can still go to the store and go for a walk, but most work from home and many have no job to go to for a while. We are advised against socializing, and many normal functions in society have shut down. Borders are closing. We are likely going to feel quite isolated for a while, so let’s hope phase 5 is not too far off. In the meantime we will have a new normal, but luckily it will not be quite like the hell in this book.

A proper review will appear once I’ve re-read the novel.

Valeria Luiselli – Lost Children Archive

A family of four sets out on a road trip from New York to Arizona, father and mother each trying to find material for a personal project along the way. One want to go to Arizona to study the Apaches who were forced to give up their land, one to the borders to study migrants trying to make it to America. It’s the last trip for a family about to separate, and whilst the parents are worrying about finding meaning in their own lives through their projects, the children are trying to find a plan to stick together when their parent split up.


I thought this novel was beautifully written. It had a timeless, melancholy feel to it. Yet it turned out to be a frustrating read, because the story just didn’t work for me. First of all I didn’t expect to be reading about a disintegrating marriage, and I still don’t get why it was disintegrating. Secondly, the children don’t seem like children, the father we barely notice even though he’s there for the entire journey, and the people they met along the way don’t seem like real people. All the characters seem like tools to promote some kind of message, though it’s still a bit unclear to me what that message is supposed to be. I want believable characters and character development in my fiction, and this book just didn’t have that, at least not for me.

In addition, the themes aren’t explored in depth, it all seems a bit random, chaotic and vague. Native Americans forced to give up their land, immigrants choosing to flee their homes in search of a better life, that is what I though this book would be about. And it is, on occasion. Immigration is the main focus, whilst Native Americans are mentioned every now and again, though I don’t think the author draws a clear line between them, or offers some insight that makes each topic seem important to the story.

In other words, loved the writing, but couldn’t quite get on board with the story. Believable characters and character development is key for me to love a novel. You’d think an archivist would love a novel about documentation, but apparently that’s not always the case. Luiselli did write short elegies for the lost children within this novel, though, and they were stunning. If this had been a novella containing only the elegies I might have loved this, but the novel as a whole was not for me.

Damien Barr – You Will Be Safe Here


It’s strange to read about a character who is of the same generation as me (though slightly younger), has the same references from childhood when it comes to books, movies and music, has similar dreams and aspirations, and yet exists in a completely different world from my own. Willem’s mother and step-father won’t accept him as he is and his mother lets his step-father dictate how her son should be treated, with some devastating consequences. Bullying people who, for whatever reason, are different is not a problem exclusive to South Africa, but I hope this kind of brutal force used to change people into what society thinks they should be, is a rarity.

Willem’s story doesn’t only highlight prejudice and bullying, but it also touches upon South African history and culture, which I know embarrassingly little about. We are introduced to English savagery during The Second Boer War, when they took everything from those opposing them, slaughtered their animals, burned their farms, left them with nothing and rounded them up in concentration camps. Sadly, the brutality of this first part of the novel is mirrored in the third (on a smaller scale), and it shows us how we seem to be unable to learn from our history, and how a wrong action can impact us and grow hatred that lingers on and on for generations.

The way these storylines came together was impressive and the last part left even more of a gut punch than I expected. In the novel, the author manages to portray the awful treatment of individual characters whilst at the same time creating a larger narrative about South African society today and how it is shaped not only by its history, but also by how its history is portrayed and the consequences of that. This book is likely to stay with me for some time, and it definitely made me want to learn more about South Africa’s past and present.