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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.

Khaled Khalifa – Death is Hard Work


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!



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.


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.