Novellas in November, short non-fiction and non-novellas: #NovNov, a brief recap

Quick reviews of all the short-form books I read in 2021 for Novellas in November. 9 finished and 6 half-read, ranging from obscure biographies, lots in Dutch, a ‘lost’ German novella, a wonderful children’s book set on the Dutch coast and a Dutch author who was a castaway for a week. November isn’t over yet for me!

In the age of climate change deniers, Covid deniers and conspiracy theorists, I have decided not to believe the rumour that it is the last day of November. I am now an end-of-November denier. Tomorrow, on 31 November, I will continue to finish the half-read novella-length books I started and continue to post blogposts about them. Ever the optimist! After all, the naming and of numbering of months is just a conspiracy theory to make people feel that time is slipping away from them. If I’ve counted correctly, I read 9 novella-length books this November and half-read another 6.

#NovNov My novels in November 2021; not pictured, The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz (ebook)

Read in full

The Theft (1989) – Saul Bellow. Clara Velde and Ithiel Regler (or Teddy, as she calls him) were once engaged. They are still best friends, years later, but they meet to discuss the world and relationships. The emerald ring he gave her is still her most prized possession, until it is stolen, recovered, then stolen again. This felt like a collection of notes for a longer novel and the second half went nowhere. I suspect most people will end their review with the words, “I should have thrown this book out of the window”, just like the picture on the front cover.

O, How the Wheel Becomes It (1993) – Anthony Powell. This is a fantastic satire of the publishing industry. Geoffrey Shadbold, an author with modernist literary pretensions, earns his living as a literary critic. He also has a sideline as a contestant on panel shows and his wife is also a successful author. When he is asked to assess a diary written by a contemporary of his who died during the war, he initially relishes the idea of deciphering it and realises that the author, Winterwade, had been a gifted diarist. Much to his annoyance, he discovers that Winterwade had managed to sleep with a woman he had been pursuing himself. To add insult to injury, he had taken her to Paris to a hotel recommended to him by Shadbold. In a fit of pique, he tells the literary agent that the diary is unsuitable for publication, banking on the fact that the handwritten diary is virtually illegible. Unfortunately for him, he is about to be interviewed on television by a sadistic chat show host who loves to spring surprises on his interviewees in the shape of people from their pasts. Shadbold’s life is about to turn into a farce. It is delicious! I really must find more by Anthony Powell.

Winterbloei [Winter flowering] (2019) – Jan Wolkers. I have always actively avoided Jan Wolkers’ work because his most famous novel and the film made of it, Turks fruit (Turkish Fruit), is one of those overly-sexed Dutch novels I love to hate. This collection of writings is quite different and I’m sold! The excerpts are from various books and letters, all with the theme of nature, by one of the Netherlands’ most prominent authors. They were issued as an introduction to his work in 2019 for a Dutch reading campaign, Nederland Leest, when the book was given out free by libraries; I read it in the run up to this year’s edition, when De wandelaar [The Walker] by Adriaan van Dis was given away.

I thoroughly enjoyed Wolkers’ letters to his adult son describing what was going on in his garden. The most rewarding, however, was the central section, his diary of a single week in 1971 when he was dropped off alone at the deserted island Rottumerplaat, little more than a glorified sandbank off the Dutch coast. His only contact with the world was a brief daily call with a radio show to talk about his day. He thoroughly embraced the experience, enjoying swimming, eating shellfish, shrimps and sea lettuce and walking around naked where no one could see him. He also rescued and hand fed an oyster catcher (a bird) with a broken leg and rescued an abandoned seal pup. This was all in contrast with the previous week’s castaway, the author Godfried Bomans, who was renowned for writing fables featuring animals, but was a real townie who couldn’t wait to get back to his city life.

Erik of het klein insectenboek (1949) – Godfried Bomans. Coincidentally the next book I had picked to read, before I discovered the island castaway connection, was by the aforementioned Bomans. Again, it was a Nederland Leest reissue of his novella-length fable of a young boy who shrinks and is pulled into the world of the insects, snails, spiders and the like. This isn’t really designed as an instructional tale about small creatures, but the creatures all have distinct personalities and philosophies depending on their characteristics. Erik has a bad habit of putting his foot in it and insulting his hosts, for instance complaining a snail is too slow and making admiring comments about an insect which is considered inferior by his hosts. Although I enjoyed this book, it hasn’t inspired me to read any more of his work. It was also highly reminiscent of another Dutch classic I read recently, Frederik van Eeden’s De kleine Johannes (The Quest) (1887) and I wondered if it was a tribute or an attempt to emulate Alice in Wonderland and the like.

Wat bedoel je dat je de man bent (= Dagboek van een vrouwelijke arts) (Memoirs of a Woman Doctor) (1960) – Nawal al Saadawi. This is an Egyptian woman’s account of her life, based on al-Saadawi’s own life, concentrating on her childhood and personal journey to independence. As a child, she was free to play outside like her brother, but with puberty came unwanted attention from men. She withdrew into her room and her studies, shutting herself off from her mother’s limited expectations. Once she was a doctor, she took the initiative to find herself a husband who would allow her independence. After a failed marriage, she moved to the country to reset her life, but feels guilty because she is paid by people who can little afford her medicines. She feels emotionally aloof until she meets a man who shows her how to reconnect with her emotions. Al-Saadawi gave up her medical career to become an author and political activist on behalf of women. None of this is included in this early memoir, though it comments extensively on the role of women in Egyptian society, In her introduction she mentions that because her writing was constantly edited in Egypt, it felt like an amputation, so she used a publisher in Lebanon. Verdict: interesting as an insight into traditional expectations of women, but I suspect her later books were better written.

The Wheel on the School (1954) – Meindert de Jong. This was a real palate-cleanser after the heavy topics in Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. This is an absolutely delightful story about the children from a tiny Dutch village school who decide to attract storks to their village rooftops. However, they discover its not as easy as you would think to find a spare wagon wheel, nor to transport it once you’ve found it. Along the way they meet and make friends with villagers who they had always feared or ignored, strengthening their community. They have some pretty hair-raising adventures on the way. I remember listening enthralled to this on BBC school radio when I was about ten and have never forgotten the title and the storks in the roofs, but I hadn’t remembered any of the rest. Now I wonder if they just broadcast an excerpt. I also discovered that it hadn’t been translated from Dutch as I expected, but was written by a Dutch man who emigrated to the USA at the age of eight and based it on his childhood memories. I suspect he may have still thought in Dutch after all those years because Dutch phrases shone through in his English. The book was translated into Dutch in the 1950s, but is virtually unknown here. I am so glad I got the chance to read it; a kind American BookCrosser sent it to me when she mentioned it in a forum post. I think I will keep this forever in my personal collection.

East Wind, West Wind (1930) – Pearl S. Buck. Brought up to be a subservient Chinese wife, with bound feet and deep knowledge of traditional manners, subtle flavours and how to please her husband by her meekness, Kwei-lan has been betrothed since childhood to a man who studied in America to become a doctor and believes in Western ways. When they marry, he takes her to live in a Western-style house. She finds Western manners, food and dress barbaric. Her ailing mother is relying on her to produce a male heir so she can honour the ancestors. When this doesn’t happen, she tells her daughter that she will have to compromise. Only when she asks her husband to explain scientific principles to her do they finally form a bond. But there are more upsets in store for her traditional family with her absent father, several concubines and a brother who also goes to America. I really enjoyed this story, especially the explanations about a traditional world that seems very similar to that of traditional geishas in Japan. For fans of Geisha, The Snow Fan and The Last Emperor.

The Little Man from Archangel (Le petit homme d’Arkhangelsk, translated from French by Nigel Ryan) (1956) – Georges Simenon. This is my first ever Simenon and I thoroughly enjoyed it, though it wasn’t a detective novel as I’d expected. Jonas Milk is an unassuming secondhand bookseller, the son of Russian émigrés who used to run the nearby fishmongers on the market square where he lives and works. He has lived there all his life, except when he went to school elsewhere. He has always felt completely accepted, though he is aware that they always refer to him as Monsieur Jonas instead of just using his first name like everyone else. His only worry is his much younger wife, Gina. She didn’t come home last night. It’s not the first time, so he’s not too worried; she’ll come back and he won’t ask any questions. But people keep asking where she is, including her parents who also live on the square and her brother, who had always been against the marriage. Jonas makes the mistake of telling a little white lie to save face. He says Gina has gone to visit a friend in Bourges, but gradually people realise it’s a lie, and suspicion falls on him. All of a sudden, they make him feel a real outsider and start to accuse and ostracise him. Where is Gina? Did he really kill her? How can he prove he didn’t? Why did he tell so many lies and half-truths? Verdict: excellent. I’m now keen to read more by Georges Simenon.

De reiziger (Der Reisende/The Passenger) (1939) – Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated from German to Dutch by Izaak Hilhorst and Irene Dirkes. This novella was a firsthand account that bore witness to the overt arrest and internment of Jews in Germany during and immediately following Kristallnacht. It was ‘lost’ for many years, reissued in German, then translated to Dutch in 2018. I hoped to read and review it before the English-speaking world caught up in 2021, but I delayed too long and forgot it was on my Kobo app. The combination of #GermanLitMonth and #NovNov finally reminded me. It was worth it. The non-practising Jew Silbermann is married to a gentile, he served in the German army in the First World War with Becker, who is now his business partner. To all intents and purposes, he considers himself German. He has the infinite advantage that he doesn’t look Jewish, but Hitler’s anti-Semitic forces are gaining ground. He is cautious and trying to convince his son in Paris of the urgency of obtaining a visa. Soon it comes to a head with an ominous knock on the door. Leaving a business associate and his wife to answer, Silbermann leaves by the back door and so begins a life of flight, in constant fear of capture, moving from one place to another, crisscross through Germany. So far only men have been arrested, so his sister is safe for now. To complicate the issue, he cannot contact his wife so is wracked by indecision; she’s not Jewish, surely she’s safe? And so the situation spirals, as he realises that even his closest friends feel unable to help, that his presence comprises the safety of others. He blames them for their treachery, but later realises that even he is not prepared to sacrifice himself to help someone else who is more obviously Jewish. Knowing what we know, in retrospect, this was a timely warning, written when the writing was in the wall for the Jews, but Hitler hadn’t yet fully implemented his evil plan. Chillingly prescient.

Still reading

One of the disadvantages of reading novella-length books that I personally come up against is that, if I am struggling with one because I’m tired or just want to read for five minutes before bedtime, I have the bad habit of picking up something new. Then I get hooked and want to continue with the new book. I find this especially tempting if I’m reading a book with clear sections or discrete stories. And so it is that I find myself at the beginning of my extended November reading several half-read novellas or collections.

Cannery Row (1945) – John Steinbeck. This was a last-minute attempt to fit in at least one classic novella this month that anyone else might have heard of and tick off another book on the 1001 book list. I don’t know what I expected, but this isn’t it. It almost perfectly fits the dictionary definition of picaresque (according to that venerable old reference tool, Wikipedia. The only rule it breaks is that it is not about a single renegade, it seems to be made up of a loosely connected series of anecdotes about a down-at-heel community on the coast at Monterey before WWII. Somehow it vaguely reminds me of my sons’ Grand Theft Auto game in terms of scenery and seediness. As I haven’t finished yet, I don’t know if the book extends into the war period; I could Google to find out, but I shan’t because, as it’s so enjoyable, I will have finished it in no time. I have already read Of Mice and Men and was equally impressed. One thing that strikes me is that they both include young men with learning difficulties. Is this a recurring theme for Steinbeck, and if so, is there some personal reason he did this?

Under the Eye of the Clock (1987) – Christopher Nolan. The author was born profoundly handicapped by cerebral palsy, having little control over his body and unable to speak. Fortunately for him, his parents gave him unconditional love, included him in all they did, talked to him and his father told unlimited stories and recited poetry to him from an early age. They realised that he was intelligent and could understand what he wanted by a system of empathy, close observation and nods from the boy. He was sent to a special school where he learnt to read and write, then they managed to find a secondary school which was equally open-minded and inclusive. His mother initially helped him to write, supporting his head while he typed, letter by painstaking letter. When he was 14, he won a literary award from was then called the British Spastics Society, his case was publicised and IT specialists started working with him to find ways for him to communicate using a computer. This book is his autobiography, but he renames himself and his parents. In the book, he calls himself Joseph, perhaps in reference to a moment of supreme happiness when he took part in his school’s performance of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. In parts the language in this book is extraordinary, with unusual word uses and imagined words, with passages that jump from the page with originality. In other parts the language is more pedestrian. Whether this is a result of different parts being written when he was younger, of joining more poetic parts together with narrative prose, or whether his mother edited or even wrote the rest to make it into a coherent book and speed the process up, I wouldn’t like to speculate. What is certain is that Christopher Nolan’s life was both extraordinary and extraordinarily difficult and the less fanciful passages are a necessary respite from the sheer flights of fancy of the rest. Verdict: Due to the concentration required to read parts of this book, it took far longer than anticipated, but I shall certainly make the effort to read the rest to find out what happened to him up to the age of 22 when this was published.

Rebel voor het leger [Rebel for the army] (1985) – Eva den Hartog. Memoirs of a Dutch Salvation Army officer who spent her life working abroad, particularly during the decolonisation of the Belgian Congo, but later in Bangladesh, briefly in Vietnam during the withdrawal of American troops and even in the USA. She started work as a nurse, but was such an excellent organiser that she was soon in charge of setting up and running aid camps for refugees in various places, running medical centres and training local staff. She seemed to have the knack of persuasion which she put to good use when negotiating with government and other officials. Her own charisma also came in handy when she was interviewed on television and radio programmes about her work; her campaigns raised vast amounts of money. This is a fascinating account, though I suspect she was quite a taskmaster and didn’t suffer fools gladly. In fact, that was one of the things that brought her into conflict with the officers above her in the hierarchical organisation she worked for. A fascinating life.

Chuapi punchapi tutayaca: verhalen over Indianen [… stories about Indians] (1984), translated from Spanish and Portuguese into Dutch by Hermien Gaikhorst, Emmy Kwant, Mariolein Sabarte-Belacortu, Mieke Westra. This is one of those books that has been making me feel guilty ever since I got it because it’s only short stories so why can’t I wrestle my way through it? The ‘Indians’ in question live in South and Central America: Mexico, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru. They almost all come from the Latin-American indigenismo movement. Many bemoan the fate of the native peoples after colonisation, but some stories actively celebrate indigenous culture. Nevertheless, I find them hard going. Never fear, I shall persevere!

Twee weken in Holland (Quinze jours en Hollande [A fortnight in Holland] (1892), translated from French to Dutch by Frank de Zwager) (1985). The majority of this short book contains a report of a trip the French Symbolist poet took to the Netherlands in 1892, written as if it were a letter to a friend. He was there at the invitation of a prominent group of young artists, there to give a series of lectures in The Hague and Leiden. Only one I have definitely heard of: Jan Toorop, and that only because he has a street named after him in Nijmegen. I have discovered he also lived there for a time, designed some stained glass in a church I have passed hundreds of times and was of Indonesian descent, born in Java. Much of his later work incorporated his heritage and ushered in the Dutch style of Art Nouveau that was humorously referred to as slaoliestijl (salad oil style) because of Toorop’s famous poster for a Delft salad oil. It was also interesting to realise that Verlaine’s host, the artist Zilcken, was married to a Javan lady and that, at least in their artistic circles, this was accepted. Some of the authors he met were part of the Tachtiger Movement (the Eightiers) whose writing was too radical for the mainstream literary magazine De gids (The Guide). One of the men Verlaine met was the poet and critic Willem Kloos who, together with Frederik van Eeden, set up a rival literary magazine with the ironic name De nieuwe gids (The new Guide). Van Eeden you may recall, wrote De kleine Johannes (The Quest), which I mentioned earlier. For me, the main interest in reading this is the snippets of information about Dutch society at the end of the 19th century and connecting dots between Dutch artists and authors, realising that they moved in such a small circle in a social whirl of concerts, dinner parties and soirées. Somehow I think I will never really learn who was who, but the information is interesting as long as I can remember it.

Finding a Voice (1978) – Amrit Wilson. Essays by Asian immigrants in the UK in the 1970s. A new edition of this appeared in 2018 with a new chapter about what the book meant to South Asian women in Britain and comparing their lives to the women in the original interviews, but this is a slightly revised edition from the 1980s, which is presumably when I bought it from a secondhand bookshop. Although this is fascinating, there is a lot of information included and I’m taking notes, so progress is slow. Once again, this is a book I intend to return to, read and digest, sooner rather than later.

My year in non-fiction for #NonFicNov 2021

Taking a look at the non-fiction books I have read since November 2020, picking my favourites and the ones I hope to read for this month’s #NonFicNov and #NovNov. Plus the Brand New Books I have lined up for next year.

One of the reading/blogging challenges set for this month is Nonfiction in November or #NonFicNov. I have had an excellent year of non-fiction this year and will be taking the opportunity to fit in a few more during the #NovNov Novellas in November challenge. Due to various distractions, I’m afraid I’m posting late in response to the first prompt:

Week 1: (November 1-5) – Your Year in Nonfiction with Rennie at What’s Nonfiction: Take a look back at your year of nonfiction and reflect on the following questions – What was your favourite nonfiction read of the year? Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year? What nonfiction book have you recommended the most? What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?  

What have I read since last November?

This year I’ve being making a concerted effort to read books that have been stuck on my shelf for years. They were not necessarily picked because they were the ones I wanted to read most but because they’ve been waiting the longest, making me feel vaguely guilty. This has thrown up some real surprises, most of them good ones.

You may ask why I want to read books that aren’t calling to me or why I even have them. Some of these older books are ones that I bought/acquired at some point in the dim and distant past. Some arrived in 5 boxes of books from the now defunct expat club. Many are books I picked up at BookCrossing meetings, so somebody else will be delighted when I finally write a BookCrossing review (a.k.a. journal entry), at which point they will hear back from their long-lost book. These are the ones I feel somewhat guilty about hanging on to for years, but I feel more or less the same about books I registered myself. After all, I ought to have read and passed them on by now, otherwise why register them? I’ve listed all this year’s non-fiction reads at the end.

My favourite non-fiction this year

In recent years, one of my favourite non-fiction reads was The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, but this year’s unexpected favourites have been:

The Orchid Thief (1998) by Susan Orlean

This was intended to be a simple interview with a man who had stolen rare orchids from a nature reserve in Florida. However, Susan Orlean met so many fascinating people during her investigation that it turned into a whole book. You can read my blogpost about it here. She became somewhat obsessed herself with orchids and collecting stories about the eccentric people in the plant growing and collecting world, many who live in this untamed area of Florida. This whole book spoke to my ADD, fact collecting, trivia-loving generalist brain. As I often translate texts about horticulture and am a keen gardener, it also fitted perfectly into my own interests. To a lesser extent, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren did this too, but I enjoyed The Orchid Thief more, probably because Orlean herself was so enthusiastic, whereas Jahren often complained about the difficulties of ‘being a scientist while female’ which didn’t ring entirely true with me as she somehow managed to start up her own lab after qualifying, not something most postgrads can expect to do, surely.

An Unreasonable Man by Henrie Mayne

I have passed over this book so many times because I thought it was going to be an uninspired slog of a novel like The Diary of a Nobody or Willem Elschott’s Kaas (Cheese), both supposedly humorous books about boring men with boring lives. To be honest, I only kept it because I like the cover. Instead, An Unreasonable Man is true: the portrait of a man who, whilst he was an eccentric pedant with strange habits and a difficult marriage, lived a fascinating life. The book was written by the daughter who was closest to him, I suspect as a response to her mother’s feminist book which painted their marriage as a trap and a disappointment. The reason I thought it was fiction was that she changed most of the names. This gave me the opportunity for many happy hours of scrabbling round the internet trying to find references to the family.

Arthur Mayne’s adult life spanned the Indian Civil Service at the end of the 19th and start of the 20th century, retiring to Europe but diverted to Canada due to the outbreak of the First World War. His wife nagged him to do something useful so he became a Red Cross ambulance driver in Italy and was seconded to Switzerland where he used his organisational talents for sending care packages to POWs, replacing mould-prone bread with a rusk that could be rehydrated and baked briefly. He then went to Berlin where he set up an incredibly efficient system for tracing POWs and refugees – I assume the basis of the Red Cross system still in use today. His repatriation system was so effective that all British POWs were back home within ten days of the end of hostilities and other countries asked him to do the same for them. This is all interleaved with personal anecdotes and tales of the family’s travels and hostilities between Arthur and his wife, who had been one of the few women to go to university and had expected more of life, and the oddness and eccentricities of a man who was almost certainly autistic. All told with much affection by the daughter who shared her mother’s exasperation, but who could see her father’s strengths, particularly as he summoned her to help his work in Switzerland. He wasn’t just an unreasonable man, he was misunderstood and made very little effort to fit in. Read my full review here.

The nonfiction I’m really drawn to

Given I already have such a ginormous TBR, I try not to buy too many new books myself, nor even second-hand ones. If I do buy something new, it’s because I really want to read it. And that’s the disadvantage of reading my oldest books first, because these shiny new books are still sitting there looking pretty without being read. I think I shall have to instigate a Brand New Books amnesty and read one a month next year. The topics that really interest me are travel, particularly to remote places, mountains and peoples. If that is mixed in with history and/or nature, then all the better. I also love a good biography or memoir that illuminates social history, not necessarily by someone famous.

Non-fiction read from November 2020 to October 2021

The Girl Who Smiled Beads (2018) – Clemantine Wamariya 5* As a small child, Wamariya and her sister became refugees from genocide in Rwanda, travelling through 7 countries before being granted asylum in the USA.

Annie John (1985) – Jamaica Kincaid 2* Memories of a childhood in Antigua. Read in Dutch.

Een zachte dood (Une mort très douce) (1964) – Simone de Beauvoir 2* Memories of the hospitalisation and demise of de Beauvoir’s mother. Read in Dutch.

Het sexleven van kannibalen (The Sex Life of Cannibals) (2003) – Maarten J. Troost 3* A young American who aspired to be an author went to live in the tiny Pacific island of Kiribati with his girlfriend who was working as an aid worker. Spoiler: the title is misleading! Reviewed in Dutch.

The Lost Heart of Asia (1994) – Colin Thubron 4* Respected travel writer Thubron travelled at leisure through the Central Asian states in 1991 to 1992, soon after they had gained independence from the Soviet Union. Fascinating.

Out of Africa (1937) – Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen 4* The fascinating account of life on a remote farm in Africa. Not as romantic as the film made it out to be. Not yet reviewed.

An Unreasonable Man (1976) – Henrie Mayne 5* Everyone thought Arthur Mayne was odd, yet the life of an administrator could be fascinating if you were born as a man in the right era and could work for the Indian Civil Service, the Red Cross in the First World War and travel the world.

The Drunken Forest (1956) – Gerald Durrell 4* A humorous account of an expedition to South America that did not go at all to plan. From the Johnny Morris school of naturalists.

In een sluier gevangen (Not Without My Daughter) (1987) – Betty Mahmoody 3* When American Mahmoody’s husband took her to his native Iran to meet family, his personality changed and she was virtually imprisoned and her daughter taken away by family. This is the story of how she tried to fit in and finally escaped. Better than I had expected! Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed.

How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division (2020) – Elif Shafak 3* A mishmash of thoughts about the dangers of becoming so identified with a single belief or identity tat we no longer listen to other points of view. “Perhaps in an era when everything is in constant flux, in order to be more sane, we need a blend of conscious optimism and creative pessimism.” I read this too quickly to take in properly, but most enjoyed the parts about language and having multiple identities. I suspect I will prefer her fiction. I hope so; I seem to have recently acquired three via the library and second-hand bookshops.

The Insect Man (1949) – Eleanor Doorly 4* A children’s biography of scientist Jean Henri Fabre who made great advances in the study of insects using simple equipment and the power of observation and experimentation. Not yet reviewed.

Lab Girl (2016) – Hope Jahren 4* Trees, science and scientists.

The Olive Farm (2001) – Carol Drinkwater 3* Stories about renovating a dilapidated farmhouse and olive grove in the south of France. Not the best of its sort that I’ve read, but I will read the sequels because I have them on the shelf. Not yet reviewed.

Sarajevo Days, Sarajevo Nights (1996) – Elma Softic 3* Eye witness diary entries about life in Sarajevo during the Bosnian conflict. Read in Dutch. Not yet reviewed. It was fascinating, but I lost interest when it got to letters Softic wrote.

Freshwater (2018) – Akwaeke Emezi 4* A fictionalised version of Emezi’s own life as someone who feels different and ‘othered’ in Nigeria and strongly identifies with the traditional concept of the mischievous ogbanje spirits that tempt the person they inhabit to die and return to the realm of spirits. Themes of sexual identity, gender dysmorphism, suicide, self-destructive behaviour. Now I want to read more by this author. Not yet reviewed.

De orchideeëndief (The Orchid Thief) (1998) – Susan Orlean 4* Full of fascinating facts about the flora and fauna of Florida and other things that don’t start with an F.

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas (1976) – Maya Angelou 4* The third of her autobiographical novels.

The Salt Path (2018) – Raynor Winn. After losing their home and discovering that Winn’s husband Moth has a degenerative disease, the couple take a small tent and walk the South West Coast Path, wild camping and often going hungry. The walking is a huge struggle yet strangely healing. Only half-read so far because I want to save the rest for later.

Non-fiction I hope to read in November

As it’s also #NovNov (Novels in November) time, I’ve picked short non-fiction, all under 200 pages:


Under the Eye of the Clock (1988) – Christopher Nolan. A profoundly handicapped boy writes about his life.

Conundrum (1974) – Jan Morris. A famous travel writer transitions to become the woman that she has always felt herself to be.

Rebel voor het leger [Rebel for the army] (1985) – Eva den Hartog. Memoirs of a Dutch Salvation Army officer who spent her life working abroad, particularly during the decolonisation of the Belgian Congo, but later in Asia and the USA.


Winterbloei [Winter flowering] (2019) – Jan Wolkers. Excerpts from various books and letters, all around the theme of nature, by one of the Netherlands’ most prominent authors.

History, society, immigration 

Doe maar gewoon: 99 tips voor het omgaan met Nederlanders (Just act normal: 99 tips for dealing with the Dutch] (1994) – Hans Kaldenbach. Handy for expats/immigrants, providing they can speak Dutch.

What If Solving the Climate Crisis is Simple? (2020) – Tom Bowman. Something tells me it’s not that easy… One of my Brand New Books.

Finding a Voice (1978) – Amrit Wilson. Essays by Asian immigrants in the UK in the 1970s. A new edition of this appeared in 2018 with a new chapter about what the book meant to South Asian women in Britain and comparing their lives to the women in the original interviews.

52 Times Britain Was a Bellend – James Felton. An irreverent horrible history of the things that should make Britons feel ashamed.

Brand new non-fiction to look forward to

As well as the short non-fiction above, I also have some chunkier non-fiction on my TBR with themes of nature, climate and colonialism. Sadly I probably won’t get to these amazing books on my TBR this year, but I’m looking forward to reading all of them. These are the Brand New Books I need to give myself permission to read, as well as continuing to read from my backlist:

Wilding (2018) – Isabella Tree. All about rewilding a farm.

Utopia for Realists (2017) – Rutger Bregman. Changing how we run the world to make life better. The original Dutch title was Gratis geld voor iedereen: Free money for all!

Invisible Women (2019) – Caroline Criado Perez. The subtitle says it all: exposing data bias in a world designed for men.

Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain (2021) – Sathnam Sanghera

Black and British: A Forgotten History (2016) – David Olusoga. The historical connections between Britain and Africa.

Salt on Your Tongue (2019) – Charlotte Runcie. Stories of women and the sea.

The Old Ways (2012) – Robert Macfarlane. Meditations on walking ancient footpaths.

Light Rains Sometimes Fall (2021) – Lev Parikian. A diary of British nature observations mapped on to Japan’s traditional microseasons, each lasting six days. 

Vesper Flights (2020) – Helen MacDonald. Essays about birds.

Whatever happens, I will always have some non-fiction waiting for me, much as I love fiction. There are just so many interesting facts to learn and history and life stories to read about. I don’t only read non-fiction in November, but the challenge is a good way of taking stock of what I’ve read throughout the year, seeing if themes are emerging and savouring the books I still have to read. If nothing else, this blogpost will be a good place to look back at in a year’s time and see how many of those Brand New Books I have actually read.

Have you read any of the same books I have, or the ones I have yet to read? Are there any you would recommend I bump up my list?

Dublin 4 (1982) by Maeve Binchy for Novellas in November #NovNov

In the expectation of a taster of the Maeve Binchy magic in novella form, I was surprised to find four unlinked stories, all set in Dublin.

When I started reading this book, I had no idea it contained a quartet of unrelated short stories. I would have known if I had read the first part of the back cover text, but as it started with ‘From the bestselling author of’, I skipped that bit. In fact, I was well into the second story before I realised it was never going to have any connection with the first. The only connection is that they are all set in Dublin.


The main protagonists in all four of the stories are starting afresh in one way or another. The demon drink or drunkenness is also mentioned in every story, with the final one being about a recovering alcoholic. Another odd link between two of the stories is that there are characters who use their master bedroom for another purpose, either an office or an artist’s studio. I wonder if that was Maeve Binchy’s own dream. She definitely made use of her own experience as she moved to a Dublin bedsit in 1971.

Dinner in Donnybrook

A woman who has been wronged and retreated into depression finally takes control and uses her intelligence to get what she wants, rediscovering her enjoyment of life in the process, much to the confusion of all around, who are used to the dowdy, passive, middle-aged version.

Carmel is uncharacteristically arranging a dinner party on October 8th, the day of the opening of Ruth O’Donnell’s exhibition and has invited Ruth. The problem is, Ruth has been having an affair with Carmel’s husband Dermot, though they are having a two-week trial separation. The affair seems to be general knowledge, but nobody wants to tell Carmel. Everyone is tiptoeing around her because she has had some unspecified mental health issues: depression or a nervous breakdown.

Dermot “laughed wryly to himself. It was most people’s idea of a married man’s dream: an unquestioning wife and an unquestioning mistress. But it was a bad dream, he could write a book on what a bad dream it was. You were happy in neither place, you were guilty in both places. The very fact that nobody was making any move made it all the more insoluble. If Carmel had threatened and pleaded, perhaps, if Ruth had issued ultimatums, perhaps. Perhaps it might have been better. But nothing ever happened. Until now. Until Ruth had been invited to dinner.”

Dermot thinks he is keeping both women happy, but really he’s manipulating both of them. Ruth, on the other hand, feels guilty that she is cheating, that she is not showing solidarity as a woman.

Not only does nobody else know for sure if Carmel knows, but we don’t either for a long time. Carmel is the only one who doesn’t seem worried about what’s going to happen. She has everything planned out, everything under control, as we soon find out when she talks to her old friend Joe, who has returned from London to help her carry out her plan. The fact that he is gay plays a pivotal role in the backstory of how Carmel resolves the problem of her husband’s mistress.

This story is classic Binchy, with conversations that feel real, sharing with the reader the inner thoughts and doubts of all the characters. Sadly, she left the story open-ended, without describing what happened after the dinner party so carefully arranged, but in retrospect, that was the right decision as I suspect it would have been a perfectly civilised affair, thanks to Carmel’s cunning plan.

Flat in Ringsend

Jo, a girl just at moved to Dublin from ‘up country’ finds herself a flat with two other girls, but is upset to find they will not provide the friendship and social life she enjoyed at home. She regrets moving out of the hostel run by nuns where she first stayed; then she could go to the cinema with the other girls or play card games or talk. Now she sits alone in her room or feels out of place when she bumps into the other two girls in the shared kitchen. Binchy has a good feel for the loneliness and sense of dislocation when you first move and know nobody, especially in a big city. Jo, however, is a true innocent abroad and is too timid for her own good. Working at the post office, she imagines she will get to know the customers, but
“She had never expected the miles and miles of streets where nobody knew anyone, the endless bus journeys, the having to get up two hours before she was meant to be at work in case she got lost or the bus was cancelled.”

It reminds me of how I felt the first Saturday at university when everyone else had gone out to the Freshers’ disco and I was left alone. I soon decided that, much as discos ‘weren’t my thing’, I would join them. I was wrong about the disco; I loved it and… that was the night I met my husband! Jo also realises that she has to be proactive, so goes to a pub where a well-known band, the Great Gaels – fictional, I assume – is playing. But then two men start buying her drinks and she is too naive to deal with the situation. This could turn very, very bad…

Decision in Belfield

The story begins with Pat, a university student who has fallen pregnant and is feeling desperate in an Ireland where having a child out of wedlock is a scandal and abortion is illegal. “She had been reading the Problem Pages for years. One or two of them always said things about having done grievous wrong in the eyes of God and now the only thing to do was to Make Restitution. Most of them said that your parents would be very understanding. […] Not in Pat’s home. There would be no support, no understanding. […] She knew that Mum and Dad would not be a bundle of support and two big rocks of strength. Because they hadn’t been any of that five years ago when her elder sister Cathy had been pregnant. There was no reason why their attitude should have changed as time went by.”

The majority of the story is about what happened after Cathy went off to England after breaking with the family. Pat, still a young teenager at the time, desperately tried to find out what had actually happened; had she had an abortion or given the baby up for adoption? Her parents were bitter, she couldn’t ask her eldest sister who was a nun in Australia and the father of the child seemed oblivious. Gradually she found out more and, by talking to her parents, discovered their side of the story, which was more nuanced than we are at first led to believe.“People were really behaving more and more peculiarly, Pat decided. The older they got the vaguer they became. […] once people got any way settled they seemed to lose touch with reality and built themselves a comfortable little world like a Wendy House entirely of their own creation.”

Now, Pat is pregnant herself and it’s time for her to take control. There’s a tiny twist in the tail about how she got pregnant and the slightest doubt about what she’s going to do about it, but the point of the story is more about families assuming things about each other and not talking about their feelings.

Murmurs in Montrose

Gerry, a notorious drunk, formerly a successful advertising photographer, is about to leave the nursing home where he has spent the last six weeks ‘taking the cure’. His wife and children are apprehensive, as is the parish priest, who has always supported the family when he came home drunk. Only his mother thinks the drinking was due to stress; she is the only one who doesn’t understand that he needs to stay away from alcohol. We’re privy to everyone’s feelings about his return. It’s a huge strain on everybody. Can his wife Emma support them all until he manages to find some commissions? Will he stay dry? How will they all adjust?

This was the least successful of the four stories, although it does reveal the stresses and strains put on a family in this situation and the feeling of stepping on egg shells. We’re left in limbo, knowing it will probably go spectacularly wrong. It’s all rather unsettling and feels an odd way to leave a book. It’s almost as if it’s a challenge to write your own ending. I dare say Binchy covered the same ground in one of her novels, but the ones I have read, I read so long ago that I can’t be sure. In any case, it has reminded me how well she wrote, so I may return to one of her doorstopper novels in the future.

An excellent start to Novellas in November, even though it was really Not a Novellas in November!

Run by Rebecca at Bookish Beck
and Cathy at 746 Books

Singin’ and Swingin’ and Gettin’ Merry Like Christmas – Maya Angelou (read for the 1976 Club): thoughts

The third of Maya Angelou’s autobiographies covers her extraordinary life between 1949 and 1959. Saleswoman, wife, mother, singer, dancer, language learner. It’s fascinating and depressing to see just how relevant many of her opinions about race and prejudice still are today.

Reading this book is like reading a summary of all the Black Lives Matter articles I’ve read in recent years about systematic racism, cultural appropriation and Black experience. This is the third installment of Angelou’s novelisation of her life. I have read the first part, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I missed the second, Gather Together in My Name. This is not a problem because Angelou summarised the major points near the beginning of this book and, as she seems to have acted impulsively throughout her life, her actions were so extraordinary that I will certainly try to go back to book two.

The more I read Maya Angelou, the more I recognise set phrases and images which are still used today. I’m not sure if she originated them, whether she picked them up from reading, or from conversation. Some of them may belong to a later racial consciousness; after all, she wrote this book 20 years after the events she described. It’s notable, however, that the majority of people she socialised with in this period were white or the mainly apolitical singers in an opera company.

She went on to explain that much of her pride in her race came from her grandmother who had belonged to a Black American secret women’s society. We also know that her mother frequently cautioned her about the dangers of white people; there is a general background wisdom and folklore about interracial relationships.

Maya Angelou’s political consciousness was probably also encouraged by one of the schools she attended which was blacklisted due to ‘un-American activities’; this was the California Labor School, funded by trade unions, which was listed as a communist organisation.

Life with white people

Maya Angelou was mystified when the white proprietor of a record shop, Louise Cox, asked her name, trusted her to pay back later, then offered her a job. Was the woman lonely? “As far as I knew, white women were never lonely, except in books. White men adored them, Black men desired them and Black women worked for them.”

Even after she took the job, she was on her guard, expecting her boss to show some sign of internalised prejudice. “I waited for one smirk, one roll of her eyes to the besieged heavens and I would have my evidence that she thought her whiteness was a superior quality which she and God had contrived for their own convenience.”

This is an aspect of systematic racism I hadn’t really thought of before, or not until this week, when I read an interview with the ex-footballer John Barnes, who has a book about to be published called The Uncomfortable Truth About Racism. I’m not much interested in footballers, but if his book is half as well-articulated as the interview, then it sounds illuminating. Barnes explains that even white people he likes have shown their innate racial bias. “They’ve said ‘I don’t see you as black’ or ‘I see you as normal’ as if that is a compliment. They can’t say: ‘I see you as a black person’ because in their minds, subconsciously, that equates to them seeing me as inferior. Why can’t they see me as black and normal? Why can’t they see me as the same as them or, maybe in some cases, even superior?”

Angelou comments on Black Creoles from Louisiana who could ‘pass for white’. It’s a concept I only learned about when Brit Bennett’s book The Vanishing Half came out in 2020. I have read neither that, nor the classic Passing by Nella Larsen, published exactly a century earlier; did Bennett realise she was celebrating the centenary when she was writing?

Stealin’ the music

Angelou then goes on to report how white musicians came to listen to Black jazz jam sessions, but the musicians sometimes barred them because “The white boys come, smoke up all the pot, steal the chord changes, then go back to their good paying jobs and keep us Black musicians out of the union.” Again, this is something I only became aware of when my music-loving son told me how many of the songs that were played on the radio when I was growing up had been written and recorded first by Black musicians, without acknowledging the original, sometimes not even on the sleeve notes or label. Of course, the white cover artists got all the fame and riches. If only I had read Singin’ and Swingin’ first, I could have told him myself. While I was trying to find a good link to illustrate this, I found this article about the sidelining of early female Black singers’ work, which is fascinating, but not what I was looking for. An article about whitewashing black rock is more relevant.

Sadly, this is not a dying phenomenon, either, as this list showcases more recent plagiarisms. Black backing singers are also frequently uncredited, though I suspect this is the case for backing singers and session musicians of all races.

Married to Tosh, a Greek-American ex-naval man, Maya became domesticated and revelled in it.“Our home life was an Eden of constant spring, but Tosh was certain the serpent lay coiled just beyond our gate. […] After a year, I saw the first evidence of a reptilian presence in my garden. Tosh told Clyde that there was no God.” To please Tosh, Angelou gave up her faith, but it triggered memories of her grandmother’s tales of having to worship in secret when she was a slave. She repeated this experience by going to different churches in secret, pretending to go to her friend’s house, just like a teenager sneaking out. All the signs of a controlling relationship were there: Tosh told her to give up her job (though this was commonplace in those days), restricting contacts to a chosen few he approved of. At least he spent time with Maya’s son, wanting to be the perfect fifties father.

Hair and appearance

It had never occurred to me in the past that Black hair equates in many people’s minds to ‘problem hair’. Maya was startled to find her son considering straight hair as not just the norm, but better; he wondered when his hair would become grown up as de straight, like Tosh’s. Later in the book, hair again became an issue. Angelou mentioned that the women in the opera company she worked for went to have their hair chemically straightened instead of their usual routine of heating heavy iron combs “heated over cans of sterno”, a sort of petroleum jelly called ‘canned heat’. The issues with Black hair are a major theme in books about Black women, but I first read about it in a book about a fictional white character ironing her hair straight; I suspect it was Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna or something of that ilk. Reading Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americana for my book club was eyeopening. It provoked a discussion about hair with a Black friend who was subjected to lots of annoying white folks’ questions, willingly I sincerely hope; I’ve since learnt acting as a spokesperson for an entire race or nation is not appreciated by many people.

Identity politics were different in 1976

If Angelou were writing today, she would probably have written certain things differently. The obvious one is the use of the word Negro, but she also uses comments about appearance that would be frowned upon now. For instance, she often compares black skin to various food or drinks, describing one woman as “the colour of freshly made coffee” and her Greek husband as having “the slow, sloe eyes of Mediterranean people”.

The oddness of equality

“These whites were treating me as an equal, as if I could do whatever they could do. They did not consider that race, height, or gender or lack of education might have crippled me and that I should be regarded as someone invalided. The old habits of withdrawing into righteous indignation or lashing out furiously against insults were not applicable in this circumstance. Oh, the holiness of always being the injured party. The historically oppressed can find not only sanctity but safety in the state of victimisation. When access to a better life has been denied often enough, and successfully enough, one can use the rejection as an excuse to cease all efforts. After all, one reckons, “they“ don’t want me, “they” accept their own mediocrity and refuse my best, “they” don’t deserve me.”

When Angelou joined the tour of Porgy and Bess, the opera company first toured to Canada. She commented that Canada was the ultimate destination for the Underground Railroad, the secret route for slaves escaping the repression in the South; hence when Canaan is mentioned in Negro spirituals, it was a coded way of saying Canada. This gave the country a kind of mythical status in Black culture, but perhaps more telling was “the fact that their faces did not tighten when they saw me.” It just goes to show how insidious racism is in the USA.

Maya Angelou always took every opportunity she could and she seemed extraordinarily self-confident, sometimes overconfident, perhaps as a front for her insecurity. While she was in Paris for a season as a dancer and singer with Porgy and Bess, she moonlighted as a singer every night at the Mars Club. “The audience liked me because I was good enough, and I was different – not African, but nearly; not American, but nearly. And I liked myself because, simply, I was lucky.”

In Yugoslavia, “I stood in the dusty store and considered my people, our history and Mr Paul Robeson. Somehow, the music fashioned by men and women out of anguish they could describe only in dirges was to be a passport for me and their other descendants and into far and strange lands and long unsure futures.”

Egypt: Africa at last

On the boat on the way to Egypt, after terrible weather, Angelou met actors from a British film company, on their way to make a film. She talked to actors James Robertson Justice and Geoffrey Keen. There was also a young French actress on board, a certain Brigitte Bardot. The film was Doctor at Sea and it was Bardot’s first English-speaking film role. I have just discovered that Dirk Bogarde was also in the film and that, before the first Doctor in the House film, the producers had difficulty persuading Rank executives that he had sex appeal and could play light comedy as he had played character roles until then.

The members of the opera company were all excited to be visiting Africa, the continent of their ancestors. They were also interested to note the variety of skin tones in the street. When they arrived in Alexandria, they were taken aback to realise that the best jobs in the hotel were all held by white people. The servants in the lounge were Black. “We looked at them and each other. If we wore the same clothing no one would be able to say we were not members of the same family, yet we couldn’t hold a conversation. (Europeans and white Americans are not surprised to see their look-alikes speaking foreign languages; but except for meeting a few African students in Europe, we had never seen a large group of Black people whose culture, language and life styles were different from our own.”

A little later on she wrote, when she was been courted by a white man, “I needed to think great thoughts about myself and Africa and slavery and Islam, I didn’t want a white man at my side – in fact, I didn’t want anyone distracting me.” This was obviously a time when Black consciousness was directed with Hope towards pan-Africanism; I’m not sure why Islam was considered more authentic than Christianity. “Beggars still hounded our footsteps and the audiences which shouted Bravos at our performances were largely European, but I felt I was at last in Africa – in a continent at the moment reeling yet rising, released from the weight of colonialism, which had ridden its back for generations.”

Nevertheless, in Egypt, the Black men in subservient positions at an Arabic house make all the Afro-Americans feel profoundly uncomfortable.

The overriding characteristic that Maya Angelou conveyed in this book is her sense of her own worth and independence. She stood up for her rights, refused to tell lies (though she later learned to withhold the full truth when necessary) and refused to be used. When a foreign man professed undying love for her, she realised that he wanted to marry her for a green card but “what made marriage impossible was the fact I would have been embarrassed even if I loved the man, which I didn’t. No amount of kindness or fidelity on his part would erase the idea that I had bought a mate with a licence that gave me little personal gratification: American citizenship.”

Maya Angelou seems to have been constantly pushing against the boundaries of what her friends and family considered wise in her own private exploration of the world. It’s what made her who she was and what makes her so wonderful to read about.

Oosterschelde windkracht 10 (1976) – Jan Terlouw: discussion for the 1976 Club

In 1953 a catastrophic storm surge flooded the Dutch coast, killing hundreds, washing away people, livestock and whole buildings. Jan Terlouw tells the story of one family, but brings it up to date as it was in 1976 when there was a heated debate about whether or not to complete sea defences, damaging an irreplaceable habitat. The generations disagree. Full of adventure, protest groups, PR stunts and a few humorous subplots to lift the mood, this is a Dutch YA classic.

“They like saying we’re too young for something, thinks Valeer. We don’t have the experience. Maybe it’s them that are too old with their point of view permanently fixed to an old experience. Experiences are like an anchor. You feel as if you have anchored the ship of your life safely to them and forget that it also means that you are stuck there.” 1

Jan Terlouw is a well-respected and popular Dutch author of historical fiction for teenagers/young adults, in recent years co-authoring with his daughter, Sanne Terlouw. His most well-known books are Oorlogswinter (1972) (Winter in Wartime) and Koning van Katoren (1971) (How to Become King), both of which have been filmed. Somehow I had missed the fact that he had also been a distinguished politician, a professor of Urbanisation and literature, all after working for several years as a researcher in nuclear physics. Quite the Renaissance man.

Oosterschelde windkracht 10 [Oosterschelde Wind Force 10] is a brilliant way of explaining a slice of Dutch history to youngsters who weren’t born when it was set, or foreigners like me who don’t know the full history of the whys and wherefores of the Dutch sea defences, the Delta Works. Like another of the books I read during the 1976 Club, Wild Thorns by Sahar Khalifa, this makes great use of dialogue to present differing viewpoints in a natural way by allowing the fictionalised characters to debate the issues. Terlouw also introduced some interesting subplots to liven up proceedings so it didn’t degenerate into a simple summing up of political points.

Given this is the sort of history every Dutch citizen should know about, it’s a shame that Terlouw didn’t make clear how much of this was factual and how much was poetic licence. Many of the incidents he described during the protests really did happen, including the collision between the small boat and the police launch. In fact, as a leader in the D66 at the time, Terlouw was personally involved in the debate and the protests and was probably present during the flotilla of small boats. However, the storyline about the bomb in the Ministry archive and the petty official who was tricked into giving a television interview which was used against him? As far as I can tell, all of that was completely fictional, as were the more fanciful incidents involving a policeman who tried to arrest people for swimming naked. Terlouw’s afterword notes only that he didn’t base his characters on particular people, though I suspect certain names weren’t changed that much. There is an update at the end of the book to explain what happened later due to further insights about the role of the estuary. The design of the dam was also radically changed to a technological marvel that has been claimed as the 8th modern wonder of the world, a surge barrier rather than a dam. The book was originally published in 1976, before the Delta Works were complete.

This would be a wonderful book to discuss in class as it has all sorts of subplots and raises a variety of issues, amongst others about the environment, trusting the media, the damage gossip and rumour can cause, loyalty to family and colleagues.

Warning: This is more of an in-depth discussion than a brief review, as much to trigger my memory of the book later as it is to encourage anyone else to read the book. If you want to read the book yourself, you might want to do that first.

Book review and detailed discussion

The Oosterschelde (Eastern Scheldt) is a major sea inlet on the Dutch coast in the southerly province of Zeeland in an area where several large islands were separated by various inlets. After massive flooding from the sea in 1953, with devastating loss of life, it was decided to build vast sea walls to cut off several of the inlets from the sea, creating giant brackish freshwater lakes. In 1976, several of these dams had been built, connecting the islands together. However, there were growing protests about the environmental impact as the new lakes changed in character, reducing biodiversity and fundamentally changing the conditions for flora and fauna. Younger environmentalists and local sea fishermen and mussel growers banded together to protest and tried to turn back the plans.


However, the book begins by introducing us to the family who will feature throughout. In 1953, Anne is a young woman who escapes to her sailing boat after one of her arguments with her pious father. She is obviously headstrong and impulsive and fed up with the restrictions on the religious-minded island. Her father, Strijen, “believed in authority. Anne believed in individual freedom. These two viewpoints rarely agree if the representatives of those viewpoints belong to different generations.” 2 (My translation from Dutch)

I had expected to be launched almost immediately into the story of the 1953 disaster, but I was surprised by an adventure story instead. Out of the increasingly stormy sea Anne fishes a locked wooden case, capsizing her boat in the process. To right it, she pulls it into the remote shore, hangs her wet clothes on the rigging and swims naked to keep warm and pass the time while she waits for them to dry. Unfortunately for her, an overzealous young policeman happens to be passing along the dike on his bicycle and decides he should make up a report. This is really an excuse to find out her address as he’s attracted to the daring girl who answers back instead of being embarrassed or contrite. Later this meeting will come back to haunt her.

Anne can’t wait to find out what is in the box she has found. Henk, her staid fiancé, helps her to open it and the method he uses is described in detail. Bizarrely, I had just read this when I saw precisely the same method used on television in The Repair Shop: “With great patience he tried out the keys, felt inside with a wire, filed away tiny edges from the key that seemed the most promising.” 3 (My translation from the Dutch). Inside the case they find papers that belong to someone who is obsessed with the sea and the dikes, a certain Brooshoofd, including details of previous floods caused by storm surges: the Saint Elizabeth’s Flood of 1421 in which 10,000 people drowned, the All Saints’ Flood of 1570 and several other less famous floods, including serious flooding on the island of Goeree-Overflakkee in 1682. Brooshoofd has calculated that, in the right circumstances, with a major storm surge from the north-northwest coinciding with a spring tide, that the dikes protecting the islands in South Holland and Zeeland would be inadequate.

Anne and Henk are fascinated, she because she is a sailor and Henk because he is training to be a civil engineer who will probably spend his working life working on just this sort of problem. They decide to return the wooden case in person; perhaps they will be able to talk to the man and find out more. However, when they track down his house, he has obviously not been home for quite some time. It seems he has disappeared without a trace. Later, this turns into a murder investigation and the young policeman remembers the incident with Anne on the shoreline and puts two and two together to make five. As he is a very junior policeman in a rural area, the detective from Rotterdam is initially not much interested in his theories. He grumbles, “People from the city always imagine that they’re better than people from the country. Like a pedigree. But in reality, city dwellers are to villagers as cows are to red deer stags.” 4 (My translation)


As this story is set on a relatively small island in a sea inlet, Terlouw reminds us how restrictive that is. “Anne had been home less than hour and she already felt as if she wanted to run away, away from that suffocating atmosphere, away from that island, away from every island, because an island has such clear borders. […] The people on the island never changed. They were quick to label change as ungodly or stupid. It seems as if the closer people live to the sea, the less prone to change they are, more conservative, thought Anne. Does that come from resistance to the changing nature of the sea or is it fear of the water – the deadly sea? Or does the sea never actually change because it always comes, always goes, rising, falling, the eternal heartbeat.” 5 (My translation)

The flood

As expected, the next part of the book deals with what happens to the family and people they know during the terrible flooding of 1953. It was due to exactly that combination of circumstances that Brooshoofd had predicted: incredibly high water topped the sea defences, then caused catastrophic breaches in the dikes. Farms and houses were destroyed, people and livestock washed away. In the freezing cold of February, even those who clung to trees and roofs were liable to be unable to hold on until they were rescued, many hours or days later. The fact that anyone survived at all is frankly a miracle. This is all told with the minimum of drama and at a distance: flat facts. The drama comes from the events themselves rather than from any dialogue. The facts speak for themselves. The people seem oddly accepting of the unfolding drama.


Now we switch to the second part of the book, set in the present day of 1976. The family has moved away from the island where they had lived during the disaster. Strijen has retired as a farmer. After graduation, Henk has been working for Rijkswaterstaat, the Dutch Ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management, involved in the flood protection. It is described as a closed sort of organisation with employees who are fiercely loyal to each other. Henk and Anne have two sons, Piet who is also studying to follow in his father’s footsteps and Valeer, who is a practical sort and left school early to work in mussel farming.

After the events of 1953, the Netherlands was willing to do anything to protect the country from the sea and invested heavily in the so-called Delta Works. Huge dams have already been built connecting the northerly islands, cutting off the sea inlets from the sea, turning them into huge brackish freshwater lakes, including the Grevelingen where Anne used to sail. Now the final dam, cutting off the Oosterschelde is about to be built. Both Piet and Valeer are part of a protest group that is planning demonstrations against the new dam. Strijen and Henk were both victims of the 1953 flood and can’t wait for the Delta Works to be finished and for the Oosterschelde to be closed off. Both sons view their father’s employer as the enemy who only wants to destroy nature, by building more and more roads and by completing the Delta Works. Of course, the opposing viewpoints create a great deal of friction around the dinner table. Valeer is impulsive and tends to upset his grandfather by saying things without thinking. Anne often has to try to distract them and pacify their hot tempers. She is not sure how she feels about the proposed dam, so goes out to sail on the Grevelingen she knew and loved when it was a sea inlet. She notices a few differences, but nothing she finds too disturbing, though she does concede that the vegetation has changed and she no longer has to worry about the tides.

The debate

The family agrees to listen properly to each other’s arguments. First Henk will have his say, then the boys. This is a really clever way to lay out all the facts, as if it was a simple debate between family members. Henk illustrates his points by taking them on a drive to visit the area where the old farm was. They go to the nearby village, Oude Tonge, where Henk tells them how 302 people died, either immediately swept away when the dike broke and whole houses were washed away or later, when houses collapsed due to the water streaming past. In some cases, families watched as one by one, they slipped into the water as the February cold seeped into their bones and they lost their grip on roofs or trees. For a family that does not usually share their feelings, Henk ups the emotional ante by taking them to visit an old man who survived. He tells them how they had to go out to discover the victims, drowned in their own houses or in the fields, finding the last of them six weeks later when the polder was finally dry and the bodies virtually unrecognisable. He describes the weeks of funerals that followed, with some buried in mass graves and all in coffins supplied by the Red Cross. Henk takes them to see the place where the body of a family member had been found, swept away. After this emotional onslaught, he takes them to see the mighty bulk of the completed Brouwersdam, large enough to protect the land beyond against sea, built to withstand a once in a 4,000-year event. I wonder what the odds are now, given the rising in sea level due to global warming. The norms are reviewed every twelve years, last time in 2017. Delta Programme 2022, page 36. According to Henk, if the Oosterschelde is not completely dammed, the risk that other dikes break will increase rather than reduce.

Subplots galore

If this book is anything to go by, then Jan Terlouw is a master of subplots. In the first part of the book, in 1953, the rumour mill gets to work and Anne comes under suspicion of murder. In the second half of the book, there is a subplot linked to the question of the Oosterschelde because a small bomb goes off in the shed containing the archive at the Ministry where Henk works, just after he has left for lunch with the librarian. Fortunately, nobody is hurt. This brings the protest group under suspicion of planting a bomb and they have to postpone the publicity stunt they have been planning. Then one of Henk’s colleagues, Lievenbach, visits Henk at home and makes a rude comment when he hears that Valeer is a member of the protest group. When Valeer speaks to Lievenbach about that day, it suddenly jogs Valeer’s memory and he recalls cycling past and seeing the man leaving the library shortly before the explosion.

Just as we think we are about to hear the other side of the story, when Piet and Valeer have their right of reply, Terlouw inserts another subplot. This time a young maritime pilot on the coastal route is assigned to pilot a ship to Antwerp. However, left on the bridge alone, with the ship on automatic pilot, he nips into the toilet on the bridge and is unable to open the door again. The ship is heading towards a grounding and he desperately needs to escape to avoid disaster. I completely missed the point of this, but I later realised that it was so that somebody could make a comment about nobody being able to break down the door to Toos’s heart… The pilot makes it back in time for the rendezvous with the protest group. They are going to play a clever trick on Lievenbach, pay him back for giving their group a bad name and make him eat his words. After all, they have evidence that could incriminate him.

Now it’s finally time to hear the evidence for keeping the Oosterschelde open. One of the points I hadn’t expected was that if the current dikes were sufficient for a once in hundred-year event, then in the previous 20 years, there was a 20% risk of it happening again. The claims that the dams would protect people from a 4,000-year event were spurious, since the chances of the dams themselves lasting that long were virtually zero. The politicians and engineers are so fixated on building impressive sea defences that they haven’t improved and repaired the existing dikes. What’s more, the risks of loss of life due to sea dikes crumbling has been exaggerated as this this actually happens at low tide, with time to repair them before high tide. Piet points out that if there had been an adequate emergency warning and evacuation plan in 1953, many lives could have been saved; usually only breaches in river dikes cause sudden flooding. Yet somehow there is no talk of closing off the entrance to the economically important Westerschelde because that would restrict access to the busy ports of Rotterdam and Antwerp; if it was absolutely necessary to do so, the engineers would be able to find an alternative solution; why not for the Oosterschelde?

As Henk had previously pointed out, work has already started, construction firms havealready heavily invested in equipment and expertise and the powers that be want to maximise this. It is politically expedient to be able to claim the government is investing in safety, whereas the actual loss of life in 1953 was low in comparison to the numbers of people who die or have life-changing injuries each year from car accidents. Points I had expected were related to the destruction of nature and the mussel beds in the Oosterschelde itself if the inlet is a closed off with a dam. Without the tides, polluted water from the rivers would build up in the manmade lake and fish stocks would be destroyed. Again, Valeer notes that with a lack of protein to feed the growing world population, it was irresponsible to remove a food source; shallow coastal waters, inlets and estuaries are the most productive parts of the sea, often acting as nursery beds and are already under threat from industrialisation and urban expansion.

Now it’s Anne’s turn to decide which side has won the argument. She lets herself off the hook by saying she has to consider her decision, but the following day, when a governmental commission is set up, the Klaasesz Commission, she says she will abide by their decision.

A sneaky trick

We now return to the protest group. Their method of playing a trick on Lievenbach is brilliant, though thoroughly unethical. It will certainly appeal to younger readers and would make for a great class discussion about not believing everything you see in the media and how your own words can be used against you by clever editing. As the book comes to its conclusion, Terlouw also describes small boats (kotters) taking part in a demonstration at sea when journalists, government ministers and the Queen’s Commissioner for Zeeland come to visit the site. He describes a peaceful and cheerful flotilla of boats hung with protest banners. All goes well until there is a minor collision between one of the small boats and the police launch. This is later taken to court and though the protesting boat is found guilty, no punishment is given, a cause for celebration in the home port of Yerseke.

What turns the tide, so to speak, and brings things to a head in terms of decision-making is the fact that there is another storm surge in late 1973, only 20cm lower than the 1953 disaster. Being as this is based on historical events, Terlouw concludes the book with a few facts about what happened next. The Klaasesz Commission decided to replace the complete dam with a dam consisting of prefabricated hollow concrete casings (caissons) with moveable gates, retaining the tides, but restricting the water flow and lowering high tide levels further inside the estuary (a storm surge caisson dam – stormstuwcaissondam). This would be complemented by closable dams to further divide the area further inside the inlet to prevent saltwater reaching the new freshwater lakes. It might cost an extra 100 guilders per Dutch taxpayer and take a few more years to complete than the original plan, but it was a good compromise.

In between the politics of the issue, we have another couple of more light-hearted scenes. Anne finally manages to get her revenge on the policeman who blackened her name twenty years earlier. A wedding is celebrated. And we finish with Anne and her younger son Valeer, the two who most appreciate the sea, walking arm in arm beside the Oosterschelde.

“’Maybe you, your generation, has relearned how to feel wonder,’ she said then. ‘We are the children of the century of technology. And technology has done its utmost to remove the wonder from our lives. Technology understands everything, controls everything, changes everything.’

‘Yes,’ says Valeer, ‘that’s how our society is organised, that’s how it’s taught to us. Humankind, with all its technical and scientific knowledge, is going to go ahead and teach nature a lesson.’” 6 (My translation)

The final sentence seems completely unnecessary as it mentions that Anne’s father died that very day. It adds nothing to the story whatsoever; a strange thing to do.

Further reading

For anyone who can speak Dutch who is interested in the real story behind Terlouw’s tale, I have gathered a few references. Even if you can’t read it, there are some good images in there, too.

Firstly, you can download some excellent official information about the Delta Works Project as a whole, from the Dutch government.

Andere tijden article.

Protests against the closure of the Oosterschelde.

Johan van Veen may have been the inspiration behind Brooshoofd.

A long read from 1984 about the building of the Oosterschelde storm surge barrier.

A man who originally opposed the damming started working at the Oosterschelde barrier’s information centre and that changed his mind. He tells the tale of when he used to go and stand on the dike on stormy lights and could see how many people’s upstairs and attic windows were lit; they all used to go upstairs as a precaution. Nowadays, this no longer happens because people feel protected by the storm surge barrier. Article about 35 years of the Oosterschelde surge barrier.

Translation of an odd saying

At one of the altercations with his sons, Henk exclaims, “You keep on accusing us of being experts who can’t see beyond our own interests, but what do you think you’re doing, then? Over-excited troublemakers who think you know about something when you haven’t a clue.” (My very loose translation) In fact, the standard version of the saying Henk uses is ‘hij heeft de klok horen luiden, maar weet niet waar de klepel hangt.’ The literal translation of that is ‘he heard the bell ringing without knowing where to find the clapper.’ It means something similar to ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ and is used when somebody has heard something about a subject and talks about it as if they are an expert or give advice on something they know little about. I can’t say I’ve ever heard anybody use it in a real conversation, but it jumped out at me because, 30 years ago, my driving instructor kept trying to get me to memorise a humorous distorted version, ‘hij heeft de melk horen klotsen, maar weet niet waar de tepel hangt’ which means ‘he heard the milk splashing, without knowing where to find the teat’. I assume my driving instructor thought it would be amusing (or perhaps titillating for him) to teach someone whose Dutch was still fairly rudimentary to produce a sentence that used the word ‘teat’, or in human terms, ‘nipple’. Come to think of it, he also enjoyed telling me that there was no law in the Netherlands that forbids you from walking around naked. The policeman in this book would not agree.

Random facts and comments

  • The English Channel is called ‘het Nauw van Calais’ in Dutch, the Straits of Calais, so it mentally belongs to the Continent. That makes it rather odd that the French themselves call it ‘la Chaîne Anglaise’, the English Channel.
  • Small farmers in the reclaimed polder land on the islands were granted their land under the Agriculture Act (Landbouwwet).
  • The start of the mussel-selling season is determined by the Mussel Advisory Commission.
  • Information about mussels.
  • Saying: ‘Je bent een uilskuiken’, literally ‘You’re an owl chick’ meaning you are a fool.

Footnotes with original Dutch text

  1. “Ze zeggen zo graag dat we ergens te jong voor zijn, denkt Valeer. We hebben geen ervaring. Misschien zijn ze zelf te oud, met hun standpunt onwrikbaar vastgenageld aan een ervaring. Ervaringen zijn als een anker. Je hebt het gevoel dat je levensschip er veilig aan verankerd ligt en je vergeet dat je daardoor ook niet meer weg kunt komen.” (pp.137-138)
  2. “Strijen geloofde in gezag. Anne geloofde in individuele vrijheid. Deze twee standpunten vinden elkaar zelden als de vertegenwoordigers van die standpunten van verschillende generaties zijn.” (p.39)
  3. “Met groot geduld probeerde hij sleutels, tastte met een ijzerdraadje, vijlde kleine randjes af van de sleutel die het meestbelovend scheen.”
  4. “Mensen uit de grote stad verbeelden zich altijd dat ze van een hogere orde zijn dan plattelanders. Een soort stamboek. Terwijl in werkelijkheid natuurlijk stedelingen zich verhouden tegen dorpelingen als koeien tot edelherten.” (p.34)
  5. “Anne was nog geen uur in huis of ze had al het gevoel te willen ontvluchten, weg uit die verstikkende sfeer, weg van dat eiland weg van ieder eiland, omdat een eiland zulke duidelijke grenzen heeft. […] De mensen op het eiland veranderden niet, veranderingen werden al gauw goddeloos of lichtzinnig genoemd. Het lijkt wel of mensen naarmate ze dichter bij de zee wonen onveranderlijker, conservatiever zijn, dacht Anne. Komt dat uit verzet tegen de veranderlijke aard van de zee, of is het angst voor het water – dodelijke zee? Of is de zee niet veranderlijk, omdat het altijd weer komt, altijd weer gaat, omhoog, omlaag, de hartslag van de eeuwigheid?” (p.61)
  6. “’Misschien hebben jullie, heeft jullie generatie, weer geleerd om je te verwonderen,’ zegt ze dan. ‘Wij zijn kinderen van de technische eeuw. En de techniek heeft zijn uiterste best gedaan om ons de verwondering af te leren. De techniek begrijpt alle dingen, beheerst alle dingen, verandert alle dingen.’

‘Ja,’ zegt Valeer, ‘zo is onze samenleving ingericht, zo wordt het ons geleerd. De mens, met zijn technische en wetenschappelijke kennis, zal de natuur wel even de wet voorschijven.’ (p.182)

1976 Club: An Unreasonable Man – Henrie Mayne

An obscure biography of a marriage, posing as a novel. Spanning the end of the 19th century to the start of WWII, it tells of Arthur Mayne, an awkward man who worked tirelessly in the Indian Civil Service, for the Red Cross in the First World War, then travelled extensively with his wife Isabel who had hoped for a different life. Fascinating.

Arthur Mayne: a family portrait

Sadly, this fascinating book has sunk into obscurity since it was published in 1976; there were no reviews of this book on Goodreads or Library Thing when I looked. In fact, the only reason I haven’t given this book away is that I loved the cover so much. What I hadn’t realised was that it is not a novel about a boring man, as the back cover blurb suggests, but a cloaked biography written by Arthur Mayne’s daughter, Henrie Mayne, the pseudonym of Margaret Lucy Mayne, married name Peters, who is known as Lucy in the book. Her mother Isabelle was in reality Emily Bonnycastle Mayne (also named Aimee). The mundane Pooter-like life I had expected to read about was far from the truth. The man portrayed in this book may be unreasonable, but he also led a fascinating life as an administrator in India, briefly as a WWI ambulance driver, but was then sent off in charge of organising Red Cross parcels and POW repatriation in Switzerland.

Sadly for his family, his wife Isabelle would have been better suited to a life of socialising, so tensions were often high. However, she had delayed her marriage to him so she could go to university and had expected a more intellectually fulfilling life. After they left India, she was able to express this side of herself and gave public lectures. As her father was undoubtedly misunderstood within the family, especially as he tended to withdraw rather than complain like his wife, An Unreasonable Man is their daughter’s attempt to redress the balance and write more positively about the father she loved and was exasperated by. I have quoted fairly extensively because this book is almost impossible to find for anyone who wants to know what it’s about.

Cover of An Unreasonable Man by Henrie Mayne, a biography of her father. A man sits playing patience at a card table, smoking his pipe, wrapped up in blankets with many medicine bottles on a side table. In the background, two Indian servants in turbans.

A man of promise

Arthur Mayne was a serious but awkward young man who had difficulty making friends. He tended to be a bit of a hanger-on. “Arthur’s final examinations were a triumph. A Wrangler and then third in the Indian Civil Service, at that time the highest competitive examination- in the world.

A number of careers were now open, but he had set his heart on India. His father had never spoken of India, though his thoughts often turned bitterly to the world, from which he had severed himself, of frontier fights, dusty cantonments*, balls in hill stations, pig-sticking. … Arthur’s thoughts were inspired by the Victorian dream of Empire, of benevolent despotism over backward peoples, years of solitary toil in bad climates, with glittering prizes at the end for those who stayed the course.” *Permanent military station

When he moved to India, he lived at first in a shared household with several other unmarried men, a so-called ‘chummery’; needless to say, he was friendly with his housemates but did not make any good friends. He went to work at the provincial Finance Department HQ, then moved to Bombay, which decamped to summer quarters in Simla (now Shimla). The detailed description of his daily duties is fascinating.

After four years in India, with months of famine followed by epidemics of cholera and smallpox and after he had suffered from dysentery and malaria, Arthur was given leave to visit England. Milan Kundera’s point in Ignorance about the people back home not being interested in what you have experienced abroad is borne out here; only Arthur’s youngest brother Bertie is interested.

A remote hill station – Pachmarhi

Arthur’s next posting was as an administrator in a truly remote area. Here, the author tells us interesting snippets of information about local culture, which her father must have told her about as a child, for instance, “If you praise a child, a jealous God might overhear and decide to make away with him. The best thing is to say, ‘That’s a puny little wretch: he won’t last long,’ and leave it at that. Then everyone feels safe. […] Or they might by think you wanted the baby for yourself. You see, generally speaking, if you admire anything, they present you with it straight away.” This sounds remarkably similar to the baboutie (?) system in Kiribati, where people only have to ask for something for them to be given it without question, setting up a system of mutual support and sharing. Though I do wonder if this is a misinterpretation of how things work in India when there is a power imbalance.

By this time, due to sheer persistence and absolute adoration, Arthur had won the hand of a beautiful young woman, Isabelle, the sister of one of his university friends, Archie. She was excited to start her life in the colonies of which she had heard so much, but was dismayed to discover just how remote their posting was. What Arthur hadn’t expected was that his wife was totally unprepared for the physical side of marriage and, being a considerate man, he agreed to delay this until she felt ready. Bored in their remote house, when she got the opportunity to escape, she enjoyed herself. “At the hill station Isabelle had a whale of a time: picnics, dances, riding, tennis, golf, concerts at which she sang with great acclaim. Besides, she was the heroine of a famine. There were times when she genuinely agonised over Arthur working in his stricken district, but they grew fewer. The life of a pretty young grass widow in a gay resort full of unattached gentlemen didn’t allow much time for fretting.”

A family man

Here I need to add a disclaimer: I read this book several months ago, so I am not completely sure of the order of events here. After returning to England on an early furlough due to Arthur’s repeated illnesses, life was too expensive for them, not least because Bertie had to go to Egypt for treatment for tuberculosis, paid for by Arthur. Isabelle’s mother was reluctant to give them a loan. Her daughter was obviously not happy in her marriage. To live more cheaply, they decided to go on a train and cycling trip through Germany and Switzerland. Isabelle’s mother visited them at St Moritz and accused Arthur of not consummating the marriage and providing her with grandchildren. He told her to mind her own business, but after a word with her daughter, Isabelle finally decided it was her duty to the Empire to have children. When they returned to India, to a less remote hill station, Arthur refused to socialise, but agreed to write to apologise to Isabelle’s mother. Sadly, her mother did not live to read the letter or meet her grandchildren.

When Isabelle was pregnant with their second child, they visited Archie in France. Isabelle disapproved of the Corsican woman he was in love with, but Arthur refused to interfere, though soon wrote to tell Archie their feelings. It was not long before they heard that the couple had nevertheless decided to get married. Around the same time, they took Arthur’s sister back to India with them, with a view to finding her an eligible bachelor. However, she seemed to avoid going to social events and seemed ungrateful; she was badly affected by the heat, she said. The household servant Amma soon reported that she had found out what the problem was; she was in fact pregnant. Isabelle shipped her off to England post-haste, where she married the man who had caused the trouble in the first place; fortunately they went on to become a reasonably happy couple.

Meanwhile, back in India, Isabelle had found something to occupy her. “Only in child-bearing could she find relief from boredom. She had given up trying to write articles, to interest herself in the women of the country, to study something of the history, customs and sects of the east. She had adopted the Anglo-Indian woman’s outlook of blasé indifference to those tiresome natives.” As the children got older, Arthur decided to teach them to read. “As babies he had found them frankly rather repellent, but for stuffing the young inquiring mind with miscellaneous information, he had a kind of genius. His sustained patience in arousing a desire to learn, revealed a hitherto unsuspected talent in him that was to play a large part in his children’s lives.”

A hypochondriac with imagination

After taking the eldest two children to boarding school in England, Arthur took to his bed whenever there was anything he wanted to avoid.

“What had once seemed to provide a miraculous escape from the unhappy Isabelle of reality to the living and adorable creature that existed in his dreams was now an escape from Isabelle altogether. […] Unable to specify his chronic illness, he invented one to his satisfaction. He settled for a rare tropical microbe with a Latin name, invisible except through a powerful microscope, that featured in an obscure medical dictionary and which he referred to as his worm.” He claimed he was paid low by ‘fatigue poisons’ exuded by this imaginary worm.

When Arthur reached pensionable age at the start of WWII, they decided to return to England, but had to go via Japan and North America, ending up in Victoria BC in Canada because women and children were not allowed to cross the Atlantic. Arthur took to knitting and playing patience. Isabelle nagged him to do something more manly for the war effort so he travelled to England and signed up with the Red Cross to become an ambulance driver in Italy, telling them he was used to driving on poor roads in India. He was stationed in an area surrounded by mountains and the Carso (Karst plateau), known as the worst battleground in Europe, close to the current border with Slovenia. This was the Isonzo or Soča Front. I have had a book about the Soča Front on my shelves for several years and had no idea where it was! Part of A Farewell to Arms is also set in the same area. Time to reread that, perhaps.

Red Cross hero

Arthur was then unexpectedly appointed as British Commissioner to the Red Cross in Berne, leading Aid to Prisoners of War, packing up parcels of food and clothing. They also ran the office tracing missing POWs. Most of the food they sent in the food parcels was bread due to weight restrictions, but due to inferior wartime flour and the time it took to deliver, the bread was often inedible by the time it got there. Arthur used the skills he developed during the famine in India to organise the delivery of rusks instead.

“The French had evolved a rusk, only three inches long, two inches wide and an inch thick. It was hard but friable. If a small hole were made in the top, a little water poured in and the rusk baked for a few minutes, it swelled into something very like bread. Arthur placed the contract with the factory at Calais, called on reserve supplies of flour from Canada and urged the Swiss bakers to evolve an improved rusk. The Swiss rusks were smaller and harder – little rocks that had the supreme virtue of lasting more or less indefinitely and transforming themselves into excellent bread.” Fascinating!

In 1916 it was decided to transfer the most badly injured POWs from German camps to Swiss health resorts such as Mürren and Château d’Oex, where Arthur organised recreation and training centres for tailoring, carpentry, shoe repair, bookbinding, shorthand and art courses. Arthur’s office kept a register of prisoners, keeping in contact with their families, organising family and friends to visit and attending repatriation boards for the very sick. He was also responsible for tracing missing persons. His attention to minute detail was perfect for this job.

This work is described in some detail here, mentioning Arthur Mayne by name, as well as the fact that he probably had Aspergers. 

“Mr. Arthur Mayne who had been director at the Berne bureau from October 1917 to June 1918, moved to Copenhagen. He was a retired Indian civil servant. He was by many accounts a strange character, with an irascible temper, not easy to work with but an exceptionally good administrator. Had he lived today he would probably be diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome. It is probably thanks to him that the changes in Berne in June 1918 succeeded so well.” The Copenhagen Bureau, Gerard Wilkins, 30 June 2016.

Lucy a.k.a. Henrie Mayne joins her father

Arthur asked his daughter Lucy to join him. She declined as it was her last year at school, but showing typical stubbornness he withdrew her from school and brought her over anyway. She later agreed it was the right thing to do. He was staying at the Hotel Schweizerhof, where he met all sorts of dignitaries, including the Dutch Minister, ‘Mynheer Jonk van Beg und Donk’. As he consistently mispronounced foreign names, I assume this was more likely to be Dr B. de Jong van Beek en Donk, referred to in this letter from the US ambassador to France in 1918: Peace activist, Director of the Ministry of Justice, member of the Association for a Durable Peace. At the end of the war, Mayne was sent to Berlin to organise repatriation of POWs. According to his daughter, he was the first British official to fly in to Tempelhof airport. He arrived on 18 November, a week after the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918.

A misunderstood man

This is where this sort of factual book is dangerous for me as I start to google more information. Apparently there was interference from the British War Office and a committee in Spa (Belgium) that were drawing up plans for repatriation, but Lord Kilmarnock spoke up to tell them the Red Cross was already working on it with the so-called Danish Scheme. This is mentioned in a dissertation on The Danish Scheme: The Repatriation of British Prisoners of War Through Denmark at the End of the First World War.  Mayne was the sole representative of the British Red Cross in Berlin, but characteristically caused an incident by telling POWs that they were now free to vote as they wished once they got home. According to German press reports, he worded it in such a way that he endorsed the Labour leader, Ramsey MacDonald. As a consequence he nearly lost his job, but Lord Kilmarnock intervened to say that the removal of Mayne would wreck the work of moving the POWs from the camps to the ports, and that the Soldiers’ and Workmen’s councils who were currently assisting might object to his being removed on political grounds. He added that Dix considered his retention essential.

Footnote 41 in the dissertation says the following: “TNA FO 383/384 contains many items relating to this incident, including Mayne’s own explanation. He was reported as having proclaimed himself to be a Fabian Socialist at a large meeting organised by Schlesinger, delegate of the Soldier’s and Workmen’s councils for the POW department, to which over 800 British POWs had been invited from the nearby camps. The Germans wanted the POWs to understand that Germany was now very different, and that those in power now were not responsible for their suffering and the treatment they had endured. An account of this meeting and Mayne’s part in it can be found in P. Brown, Germany in Dissolution (London: Andrew Melrose Ltd., 1920). Brown was a British journalist who had been interned in Ruhleben. Instead of accompanying his fellow POWs back to the UK he went to Berlin to take up his work again.”

This all has remarkable parallels with the British response to Covid. After initial incompetence, the rollout of vaccinations was initially surprisingly efficient in the UK. Just as the rest of Europe watched the speed of the vaccination programme in the UK with surprise, the Danish Scheme for repatriation was incredible efficient and successful. Except for those POWs who found their own way home after POW camp commandants released them immediately after the ceasefire was declared, all British POWs were repatriated by 5 December, i.e. in under one month. The German government then requested them to evacuate other nationalities, hence the disgraced Arthur continued to do the same for French, Romanians, Italians and Russians in turn.

I know virtually nothing about the First World War, so I learned a little here. For instance, I had no idea that there was fighting in Italy, I didn’t realise that the Austro-Hungarian Empire still existed, I didn’t know anything about the role of the Russians. I had wondered how the Russian Revolution fitted in with the First World War, but never given it much thought. Idiotic, when you think about it, that our school set us poetry by First World War Poets to study (use of hyperbole, alliteration, onomatopoeia), but didn’t tell us anything at all about the background. What I’ve picked up over the years has all been based around trench warfare in the Somme.

Retirement. Isabelle has her day

After his wartime work was completed, Arthur returned to Britain and, after much fruitless house hunting, bought a house in Jersey. He claimed to be at death’s door, yet became a keen gardener. Isabelle, apart from running the house, embarked on a career as a public speaker, lecturing at Women’s Institutes about ‘The position of women in India’, ‘Samuel Pepys’, ‘City churches’ and ‘Wartime Canada’. She also became an enthusiastic member of various committees, including the League of Nations Union, holidays for Welsh miners, etc., all this taking her out of the house. Arthur spent much of the winter in bed, though helped the children with their homework or read aloud to them when Isabelle was away.

Isabelle was an insomniac. If she had had a bad night, she would take it out on the family, not by being grumpy, but by lecturing them, often on the virtues of Soviet Russia: “She was infatuated with all things Russian – their abolition of religion, their experiment with free love, their state-run nurseries, farms, cooperative enterprises, broad backs, ready smiles, square jaws and fine teeth – their absolute superiority, in fact.” She later changed her mind after Edmund paid for her to take a trip there. “At Sebastopol. she basically took a snapshot of the harbour (including distant fortifications), from the deck of the ship which had brought the Party from Odessa, and found herself gaoled without delay. When released, she returned to find that her soap had been stolen.” That was the last straw and she lost her love of the country.

Family life in Jersey

“The youngest son [Richard/Dickie] had a somewhat startling originality of mind, which gave rise to a display of eccentricity wholly inexcusable in the young, in Isabelle’s opinion. In a brief period of teetotalism, he had to have a special trifle prepared without sherry, even a special salad without vinegar. Like many other extremist, [sic] he tended to veer from pole to pole.” He was also a notorious practical joker who tended to the extreme: “There were scandalous happenings from time to time – stink-bombs in the headmasters study; nocturnal breaking-in to neighbouring houses for the apparently innocent purpose of rearranging the drawing-room furniture; and the unaccountable trail of a pair of black footsteps across the newly-painted ceiling of an hotel lounge.”

Isabelle was a crusader without a cause; she would have made an excellent suffragette, but of course, she was out in India so missed the opportunity. In Canada, she had briefly become obsessed with theosophy and spiritualism. Arthur completely rejected religion, spiritualism, saying that if she managed to contact him after his death, it must be an imposter as he refused to haunt her. In his view, religion is “pure wishful thinking. We just don’t like to think of ourselves as insignificant.… The idea of personal survival, of a personal God engaged and supervising the welfare of each one of us, is highly ludicrous.… Mind over matter… M’yes. What I’d really like to see is a shipload of Christian Scientists in a rough sea… Don’t misunderstand me, though, when I speak of the insignificance of individuals. I believe that man, while insignificant from the point of view of the Cosmos, should be given a chance of leading a happy and useful life. That is why I’m interested in social experiments. Morality changes. Theories of conduct are constantly discredited. But what will make for the greatest happiness for the greatest number is an ideal worth pursuing. The response to favourable circumstances must be greater than the response to unfavourable ones. You might say that’s my religion.”

Arthur also became a translator: a German POW’s experiences, a couple of Spanish novels, Tharaud brothers’ historical romances. Lucy collaborated with her father on the translation of The Naked Truth and Eleven Other Stories by Luigi Pirandello. Then she went back to work and he lost interest. He was an all or nothing kind of obsessive (rather like John Laroche in Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief). He had developed a love of P.G. Wodehouse, then was exhilarated by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

Then, out of the blue, the estranged Archie decided to visit. He had turned into a bald, deaf and shrunken old man. Sadly, he had only come back to commit suicide by poisoning himself on the beach, as explained in the Bonnycastle family genealogy site. He claimed his family was better off without him. There is also a cryptic note about diamonds having gone missing that had been given to his sister (Isabelle/Emily/Aimee) for safekeeping. This contradicts the story in An Unreasonable Man, where Henrie Mayne says he left a note saying he had left his money to Arthur and Isabelle.

Soon all the children had left home and most of them were living abroad. Arthur took to his bed, claiming he had a rare form of TB. Lucy shook him out of it and arranged for the house to be sold. The parents moved to a residential hotel in Bayswater, where Arthur could walk in the park. Isabelle stayed with him for appearance’s sake, but complained whenever one of the children visited.

“The thought that an unsatisfactory husband was better than none (there were widows in the hotel who actually envied her), the need for a scapegoat on which to vent her spleen, the force of habit and the realisation now that it was too late for her to strike out on her own – all made for a continuance of their life together. The deadlock was complete. Sooner or later, one or the other would crack. The dénouement came as a surprise to all.”

A travelling life

Arthur proposed travelling to warmer climes, buying a car and taking to the road.

“Arthur now revealed a hitherto unexpected side of his nature. He turned out to be that rare animal – the born traveller: one who genuinely preferred travelling to remaining in one place. He had always been drawn towards the unfamiliar and had never much minded discomfort. Now at last he could indulge his excessive curiosity, his love in collecting promiscuous information, his insatiable interest in the bizarre. He had the bird’s-eye view of the countries through which he ranged. All was a perpetual sort of diversion. […] He was no culture vulture, but a bird of passage, here today and gone tomorrow, travelling for travelling’s sake.

    He was enchanted, too, with the casual social contacts provided along the way. A few sentences exchanged with a fellow wayfarer, a few stumbling words (dictionary in hand) with a native did not tax his powers in the way that sustained intercourse did. He need make no effort to get to know the object of his curiosity. What he would have discovered at close range he never knew, for they were no sooner known than lost. They remained a mysterious and diverting memory. He did not want to know more. Isabel had no chance to protest at his reluctance for close acquaintance, for they must be moving on again, lest he take to his bed.”

They visited Italy, Yugoslavia, Romania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland, Germany, the Low Countries, France, Spain, Portugal. 

Adventures in Europe

In addition to the normal traveller’s tales, they had some adventures. Once they were picnicking in the French Alps when they caught sight of someone skulking behind a rock. It turned out to be an eighteen-year-old German-speaking conscript from South Tyrol (then part of Italy) who had deserted when he was posted to Abyssinia. He had escaped to France over the Alps, leaving his gun and a suicide note beside the River Po. In fact, he ‘did a Reggie Perrin’. Arthur put on his organising hat, bought him clothes and enquired what would happen to Italian deserters. As there was strong anti-Italian feeling in France due to Mussolini, they gave him a passe-partout allowing him to travel through France, though no work permit due to the lack of jobs. He was unwelcome in Luxembourg, so they drove him to Germany where he was given work as a farm labourer. He continued to live there happily and sent Christmas cards until the outbreak of the Second World War. Leaving him there, Arthur and Isabelle then travelled to his remote mountain village to tell his parents in secret that he was alive and well.

On another occasion Arthur met an anti-Nazi who wanted to move to Canada to live with his son, but wasn’t allowed to take his money with him. Arthur found the solution: the man handed the money to him when he boarded the ship in Hamburg, and Arthur smuggled money out of the docks in his shoes, with diamonds concealed in his wallet, then presumably sent them on from a safe place. Hitler was already demanding people address him with ‘Heil Hitler’.

Travelling the world

With the places left to go in Europe becoming fewer and fewer, they headed for Scandinavia, then Africa. That was a bit much for them, so they decided to visit Edmund, who was now living in San Francisco. Again, the distances were too great for Isabelle, but Arthur adored the people, the innovation, the food. He decided to take up cookery, intrigued by the new food names. This gave them an opportunity to settle for a while.

Given Arthur didn’t really make close friends, I was intrigued to read that they stopped in Pasadena to visit the author and politician Upton Sinclair, with whom Arthur had corresponded for several years. Why? About what? Sadly, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know, but Sinclair was a socialist and his novels were about industrialisation in the United States from the point of view of the owners and the workers (including King Coal), so I suspect that was their common point of interest.

They rented a house where Arthur could indulge his newfound love of cooking. Now Isabelle had even less to do at home and her social life was curtailed as she failed to make friends. Her insomnia was also atrocious and eventually she tried to commit suicide. After she recovered, they started travelling again, visiting Salt Lake City. “Polygamy practised righteously and with Divine sanction. Wonderful, that! D’you know that fellow Brigham Young, the apostle of the prophet Smith, died leaving 17 wives and 147 children. Not bad. They were a brave lot,’ he added ambiguously.”

They also visited Niagara Falls. Reading the description, it felt peculiar until I realised that they were viewing it from the US side whereas the Niagara in my head is seen from the Canadian side. Isabelle claimed one of her forefathers went over the falls in a barrel; Arthur maddeningly corrects her; it was her second cousin once removed. I wondered if this was Matthew Webb, who died in an attempt to swim the Whirlpool Rapids below the falls. I’d never heard that before, though I knew he was the first man to swim the English Channel. Fascinating fact: approximately 5,000 bodies were found at the foot of the falls between 1850 and 2011.

At home with Lucy: WWII

The description of Lucy’s home in the country reminds me of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, a half-ruined castle in Suffolk. It’s one of my half-read books; I’ll have to shoehorn it into my reading ‘plan’ somehow. Lucy’s house “was the gatehouse of an early fourteenth-century castle which had figured heroically in the Civil War, after which the greater part had been blown up on Cromwell’s orders. The gatehouse was left intact. It was approached by a fixed bridge over the moat. The gatehouse itself was a perfect miniature castle, the top floor being one wholly magnificent room approached by spiral stone staircases.” It was also freezing cold.

A full house. In addition to the family, there were a succession of nannies, two Austrian refugees, who supposedly replaced the cook and house parlour maid, but did nothing but eat, an Italian gardener (who also turned out to be a trained chef, rather fortuitously) and evacuees who came from a convent school for dockers’ daughters (of all things). The Austrians were eventually removed by the Home Office. They had to remain within a 5-mile radius unless they had a special permit with a recent photo, but there was no photographer within a 5-mile radius: stalemate.

Reading about the progression of war from England and Arthur and Lucy’s reactions is fascinating. The Phoney War, Arthur’s admiration for Churchill, the evacuation of Dunkirk, the fear of invasion, the Home Guard in the village, armed only with farmer White’s rook gun, the church bell silenced, signposts removed and locals unwilling to give directions or deliberately sending people in the wrong direction, just in case they were spies. The British scuttled the entire French fleet all over the world (Oran, Alexandria, Dakar) so their vessels couldn’t be used by enemy forces. This is the same period I read about in Leslie Thomas’ The Dearest and the Best (20 Books of Summer – still to review) and it’s fascinating to see the parallels.

Isabelle, meanwhile, was in London. She had insisted on taking first aid training and during the Blitz worked at a casualty station and worked as a nurse on ambulances taking air-raid victims to hospitals in the countryside. Just when they thought that things were looking hopeful and Lucy was considering moving back to London so that her daughter Frances could start school, the Germans started sending over doodlebugs. Isabelle was paralysed by sheer terror.

One of the wartime events mentioned was that Germany invaded Russia along its whole border from Finland to the Black Sea, without warning or ultimatum, at 3.30 in the morning. “Hitler issued a proclamation accusing them of aggression… Jewish-Bolshevist conspiracy… the usual stuff”, says Arthur.

I’m not sure if the book petered out here. More likely is that I didn’t take any more notes and went off to read what I could find on the internet. It has to be said I found this book absolutely fascinating, covering a period I know little about and illuminating life in a certain class of people in the first half of the 20th century, marrying both domestic and work life. As the author (Lucy in the book) had worked so closely with her father, she was lucky to have gained insight into both aspects of her father’s life. In fact, it is her mother, ‘Isabelle’, who emerges as equally if not more unreasonable than her husband.

Further reading

I suspect it would be possible to find far more about this family. In fact, a biography of ‘Isabelle’ has been published, Prepared for the Twentieth Century: The Life of Emily Bonnycastle Mayne (Aimee) 1872-1958 by Michael Armstrong Crouch , which is also available as a Google Book at great expense or can be downloaded. It describes her as an educated woman, restricted by her milieu and expectations of women during her lifetime.

General information about the Mayne family and about Arthur Mayne and Emily Bonnycastle Mayne can be found on the Bonnycastle geneaology site, showing the true names of their children: Margaret Lucy Mayne, Edward Bonnycastle Mayne, Helen Mary Mayne, Archibald Collier Mayne and Isabel Aimee Mayne.

Wild Thorns (1976 Club) – Sahar Kalifa, trans. in Dutch (De cactus) by Johan de Bakker, Richard de Leeuwen

In Wild Thorns, Sahar Kalifa wrote an engaging novel about some of the dilemmas facing the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. She gives us insight into the effects of the occupation on rich and poor, acceptance and resistance. I read this in Dutch, so I also have some comments and queries about the translation; if translators fail to translate sayings, readers miss some of the nuance

I have had this book on my shelf (in Dutch: De cactus) for several years and kept passing it over because I expected it to be too boringly political, written by a Palestinian man. For starters, the author is a woman, as I finally discovered when I went to mark it as ‘currently reading’ on Goodreads. And secondly, the political conversations are so well woven into the story and the conversations that it is not in the least painful to read them. Given that the main characters in the story are all men, it’s even more surprising that the author is a woman. Women have a very small role to play, but are constantly there in the background as wives and mothers, in the men’s thoughts and conversations. When they are worried about something and ask their friends for advice, they may well claim it’s their wives who are worried, not themselves. Men also swear by their wives in a turn of phrase that sometimes means exactly the same as ‘I’ll eat my hat if…’; they say ‘I’ll send my wife away if…’, but it’s also used as a kind of coaxing: ‘I’ll send my wife away if you don’t stay for a cup of coffee.’ And, of course, they miss their wives when they are in prison, for their cooking and their home remedies and their bodies.

Responsibility is a major theme: to your country, your family, your friends. That’s often in the form of people saying it’s not their responsibility that the country is in the situation it is, that they have no choice but to work for Israel or that a son has to go to work instead of finishing their schooling. I wonder if the same word is used in Arabic for both aspects of responsibility. In English, I would probably use ‘it’s not my fault’ rather than ‘it’s not my responsibility/I’m not responsible for something’.

The story

Usama al-Karmi, the son of an upper class family, is attempting to return to his own country, Palestine, after five years abroad. The process at the border is degrading because everyone has to strip naked and wait, holding a number in a hall before further interrogation. Women are subjected to internal searches. The guards are corrupt, brutal, racist and provocative and travellers have to repeatedly answer the same questions. 

Usama’s answers reveal what he has been doing for the past few years. He was working as an insurance company translator in one of the rich oil-producing countries, but was expelled through no fault of his own for political reasons, along with many other Palestinians. He visited Algeria and spent several months in Syria, where his uncle lives (under interrogation he first says he was there for two months, then six) and he met up with his mother because his father had recently died. When he was deported with 160 Palestinians, they were flown to Lisbon (why?), then he flew to Beirut (Lebanon) then Damascus (Syria) for three months where he started to prepare for his ‘magister exam’. He’s now returning from Amman in Jordan. The thing that strikes me is that migration between the Arabic countries is so easy, yet Usama is interrogated when he wants to return to his own country because of the Israeli occupation. Everyone has to pay import taxes for presents they are taking to their families.

Of course, I don’t expect this treatment when I go to England to see my family, nor when I return to our home in the Netherlands, but a watered-down version of this is causing a great deal of anger and distress in my community of British friends since Brexit and new EU import rules. Several have been incorrectly charged import duty and handling charges for gifts received from the UK, then had to fight with bureaucrats to get some compensation. British travel rules due to Covid have also prevented people from visiting family and, now that travel is possible for family reunification, it is currently ridiculously expensive due to the cost of compulsory Covid tests (£60 per person for the second-day test). The only people I know who have been to the UK in the past year and a half went after one of their parents died; too late. In any case, all this gives me a new perspective on these issues at the border, making it less abstract than it would once have been for me as a (now former) EU citizen.

To make things worse, Usama has had to wait two years before he could return to his country because his mother had to apply for family reunification status for him as if he were a refugee. He has longed for his return to the land of milk and honey as if it were his wedding night.

“He felt as though the West Bank had become as narrow as a bottleneck and that his spirit, that had been floating in the joint heavens of yearning and longing, had now fallen down from the highest heaven. In spite of the feverish, passionate fantasies that had kept him company throughout those dry, barren years. In spite of his dreams that had transported him to the bridge every night and across to the other bank and to the artistry of the heavens, spreading across the ravines and river valleys.”1 (my translation from the Dutch)

The people seem to be well fed and clothed, but under the surface and in the backstreets, the country is deteriorating. This is partly to do with a natural progression because now nobody wants to work as a servant or in a servile position; unschooled people can earn more working in Israeli factories, those with a little more education can work in offices.

At a family level, Um Usama (his mother) says that the economy is booming and trusts to God to find a solution to the problem of the occupation, much to his annoyance. Her brother, the head of the family has kidney disease, but holds court for foreign journalists. His cousin Nuwar is studying to be a teacher and is struggling to keep up with cleaning the large old family residence, but more importantly, worrying about her brother Adil. He is supposed to be taking care of the family land, but Nuwar wonders if he is up to something else. Usama promises to find out how Adil is spending his time.

We then follow Adil who, without telling his family, is working as a mechanic in Israel. This allows us to hear how the working class workmen feel. In the lorry to Tel Aviv they talk about their former Palestinian bosses who took them for granted. After the war, they cut wages because there was a plentiful labour supply. Yet we already know that the fields and orchards have been abandoned because people are paid more in Israel for shorter hours and without the indignity of being looked down upon by the ruling class. To add insult to injury, one of the workmen says his former boss told him he was a traitor for working in Israel. He had his own way of replying with an insult, helped by a surfeit of lentils.

Usama goes looking for Adil at the family’s farm, but finds the fields abandoned. The only person left is an old man, his friend’s father, who has aged considerably and no longer remembers him. The entire landscape shows signs of war and destruction.

“When the men had hidden in the plantation […], ‘they’ burnt them down. Now it was our turn. But the trees burned up from lack of water. The workers ran away and the soil died. I stayed here alone to allow the wound in the soil and the wound in my soul to heal.” 2 (my translation)

Superstitions and beliefs

Abu Sabir is severely injured at work. The Jewish supervisors refuse to provide him with first aid because the workers are not insured. He will now be unable to work. For some reason that was not entirely clear to me, the fact that his right hand is injured is repeatedly emphasised. I wonder if there is some cultural significance to this that I didn’t understand. As Adil drives the injured man home, fully expecting him to die from blood loss, Abu Sabir begs to be told the story of Abu Zayd al-Hilali, but education has made Adil forget the stories that of his childhood.

“If Um Badawi asks after me, tell her turn to God for advice and tell her to burn a piece of alum to expel the evil eye that has fallen upon your father. And if she has time, tell her to go to the Samaritans to ask them to make an amulet for him.” 3 (my translation)

“You disappear into the bottomless whirlpool of events. The days wash over you with trivialities like seaweed. Soft. Slimy. With a taste that makes you feel like throwing up. Turn the dial of the radio, hand, and wrap me in fables, tales of heroes and prophets. An entire people is drowning.” 4 (my translation)

Like a fairytale, the author often repeats the same elements, reminding us of what has already happened and how different people are living.

Adil is secretly working in Israel to try to support his family. When Usama warns him that the resistance is planning to attack the busses that take the cross-border workers, Adil reminds him that it’s all very well him ending up in prison as a terrorist and killing the workers, but it’s their families who will suffer. This is later shown to be true; this is a society based on ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’

“‘Who will feed the children and protect the women’s nakedness? And if the women are widowed, who will there be to marry them? And if they do get married, their husbands will throw their children out on the street. Then the boys will roam through the city, smoking cigarettes.’   ‘They smoke anyway, even if they do have a father. What’s the point of fathers, then? They bring up the younger generation badly and deform the heroic deeds of the resistance.’” 5 (my translation)

Adil and Usama grew up together and believed that the way to free Palestine was to become rich; the West only understands the language of money. Adil still believes it, but Usama has come to believe that the only solution is to incite revolution by the Palestinians themselves, who are being lulled into complacency by Israeli money and the improved standard of living.

“It’s not the economy that makes history. Material things are not the instigator, the driving force and the goal. What about principles and ideals? And ethics and values? And truth and justice? They had often disagreed with each other, but there was a common denominator that united them. The individual’s value only derives from the masses. That means that they agreed on one essential matter. The only difference was that they both believed they were on the side of the masses.” 6 (my translation)

When Adil takes Usama to meet Abu Sabir, the worker Zuhdi tells him how he had worked abroad in factories and been treated as an equal. He is considering emigration. Only in his own country is he looked down on by rich Palestinians who accused him of being a traitor for working for the Israelis, but rich people will never starve and what is more, they didn’t think it was betraying their country in the past, when they were setting up deals with the Israelis. Usama hears similar discussions when he goes to the workers’ cafe, hoping to bring Adil round to his way of thinking; Adil would make a good ally who could persuade many others to join the resistance. 

Tensions increase

The argument between the two men is very well written, with Adil accusing Usama of having missed the difficult times when people suffered from hunger, even landowners. But then the Palestinian freedom fighters attack and are repelled by the Israelis. We see something that seems incredibly familiar from the news in various hotspots around the world: the rebels attack, a ‘stay at home’ order is issued, the Jewish ‘defence force’ invades the streets with armoured vehicles and they are taunted by the children. The women have sent them outside because they are too rowdy, cooped up in the cramped quarters. The women barter supplies through the open windows because the market has been suspended.

The teenagers, who we earlier met putting the world to rights at the local general store, are now represented by Basil, chanting in favour of revolution, ‘We are the men of Abu Amaar’; this is Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. In 1976, Arafat was seen as a terrorist leader by many in the west. Later he became more conciliatory, was praised for his powers of negotiation and was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. When this novel was published, he was in Lebanon, after he and his troops had been ejected from Jordan. In fact, I am beginning to suspect that Usama’s travels mirror those of Arafat and that he may have been supporting him in some way. Presumably Palestinians at the time would have been acutely aware of those places; no wonder the border guards were so suspicious. Ironically, the things that Usama saw the Israeli’s do to people at the border are exactly the things that Palestinian forces were accused of doing when they set up roadblocks in Jordan.

As the Israeli forces take over the streets, Basil (Adil and Nawar’s younger brother) is in the same section of the prison as a teacher called Salih. The men spend all their time together in one room. In the morning there is time for education; for some it’s learning to read, for others they work on higher levels. In the afternoon they work and are paid in cheap cigarettes. In the evening, they talk. Salih tells them they should think of how to run their country once they are free. There are no farmers, craftsmen or small businessmen any more; all the men have become workers in Israel and there is no industry in Palestine. Oil money disappears into European banks and nothing changes at home.

After causing a fight at work and injuring an Israeli foreman, Adil’s friend Zuhdi is in another prison section in a completely different environment. Here the men are harder and start by ignoring him and treating him as a spy. Retribution for spying is something they take into their own hands and are merciless. It’s a hard life with tough justice, led by another Adil who follows the principles of socialism, dividing any food that families bring on visiting day equally between everyone. And they all share their stories. For one touching moment, everyone at the prison, including the guards, is united in a single moment of common humanity, but that moment is fleeting.

Arabic sayings and translation queries

When I was trying to find out a better way of phrasing the saying about sending your wife away, I came upon this excellent resource giving translations of Egyptian sayings and their meanings, but many are undoubtedly used throughout the Arabic world. In this list I found several phrases that were used in De cactus, translated literally. As I don’t read Arabic and have no access to the full English translation, I have no way of checking, but it seems as if the translator may have missed the significance of the sentence. Of course, it could have been intended as humour by the author, by personifying the literal meaning of a phrase. For instance, 

قليل البخت يلاقي العظم في الكرشة. (‘aliil il-baxt yilaa’i l-3aDm fil-kirša.) 
The unlucky person finds bones in his tripe dinner. (You can’t escape bad luck.) See also the variation قليل البخت يتكعبل في السديري (‘aliil il-baxt yitka3bil fis-sideiri), “The unlucky person trips over [his own] waistcoat/vest.” In Wild Thorns, Usama meets an old man at the neglected al-Karmi farm who is repeatedly described as tripping over his long coat. It seemed odd that the description was repeated, but if it was meant as a comment on his bad luck, then it makes more sense. I also seem to remember a comment about a tripe stew, but that was in a discussion of food, so may have been an actual reference to food.

اليد في الميّة مش زي اليد في النار. (il-iid fil-mayya miš zayy il-iid fin-naar.) 
The hand in water isn’t like the hand in fire. (Easier said than done; used to criticize someone removed from the situation at hand who is telling those involved how to deal with it.) This phrase was used by someone in prison, translated literally, and didn’t make sense to me when I read it; unfortunately I now can’t find it to see what the context was.

Another saying that I suspect is referenced several times is:

اللى مكتوب عالجبين لازم تشوفه العين. (illi maktuub 3al-gibiin laazim tšuufu l-3ein.) 
What is written on the brow will inevitably be seen by the eye. (One will inevitably meet one’s destiny.) 

I am sure I read about something being written on somebody’s forehead, when it was clearly referring to destiny. Without knowing the original, it felt odd. It also makes me wonder if the repeated references to shortsightedness and the eye are not being used metaphorically in the original but translated word for word into Dutch. Would someone reading the book in Arabic have grasped far more of the imagery than people reading in other languages?

Another phrase I know for certain was used was ‘you can’t clap with only one hand’. In this case, it makes sense as it is, but even more so if you understand the hidden meaning:

يد واحدة ماتسقفش. (iid waHda matsa”afš.) 
One hand doesn’t clap. (Cooperation from all sides is necessary to accomplish anything.) 

Further reading

Very interesting thesis on imprisonment in Palestine as described in Wild Thorns, focussing on the effect it has in Basil and Salih and on Zohra. This is compared to black experiences in the USA. 

Study about suicide in Palestinian society. A clear line is drawn between suicide, which society and religion consider a shameful individual act, and martyrdom, an admirable sacrifice for the good of society, e.g. by what we call a ‘suicide bomber’. 

Original Dutch texts translated in the text

  1. “Hij had het gevoel dat de Westoever zo smal als een nauwe fles was geworden en dat zijn geest, die steeds had rondgezweefd in de hemelen van hunkering en verlangen, nu uit de hoogste hemel naar beneden was gevallen. Ondanks de koortsige, hartstochtelijke fantasieën, die hem al die dorre, schrale jaren hadden vergezeld. Ondanks zijn dromen, die hem iedere nacht hadden meegevoerd naar de brug, en naar de andere oever, en naar de hemelse schilderijen, uitgespreid over de ravijnen en rivierdalen.” (p.21)
  2. “Toen de mannen zich hadden verstopt in de plantage […], hebben ‘ze’ die platgebrand. Nu was het onze beurt. Maar de bomen brandden weg van dorst. De arbeiders vluchtten weg en de grond stierf. Ik bleef alleen achter om de wond van de grond en de wond van mijn ziel te laten helen.” (p.48)
  3. “Als Oemm Badawi naar me vraagt, zeg haar dan dat ze God om raad vraagt en laat haar een stuk aluin branden om het boze oog dat je vader getroffen heeft, uit te drijven. En als ze tijd heeft, laat haar dan naar de Samaritanen gaan om een amulet voor hem te laten schrijven.” (pp..52-53)
  4. “Je verdwijnt in de peilloos diepe kolk van de gebeurtenissen. De dagen overspoelen je met trivialiteiten als zeewier. Week. Slijmerig. Met een smaak waarvan je moet kotsen. Draai maar, hand, aan de zenderknop van de radio en hul me in fabels, heldenverhalen en persoonsverering. Een heel volk verdrinkt.” (p.58)
  5. “‘Wie moet de kinderen te eten geven en de naaktheid van de vrouwen beschermen? En als de vrouwen weduwe worden, wie zal er dan met ze trouwen? En als ze wel trouwen, zullen hun echtgenoten de kinderen de straat opgooien. Dan zwerven de jongens door de stad en roken sigaretten.’ ‘Ze roken toch, ook al hebben ze een vader. Waar dienen vaders dan nog voor? Ze geven de nieuwe generatie een slechte opvoeding en misvormen de heldendaden van het verzet.’” (p.61)
  6. “De geschiedenis wordt niet gemaakt door de economie. Materiële zaken vormen niet de instigator, de stuwende kracht en het doel. En de principes en idealen dan? En de ethiek en waarden? En recht en rechtvaardigheid? Ze hadden vaak van mening verschild. Maar er bleef een gemeenschappelijke noemer die ze verenigde. Het individu ontleent zijn waarde aan slechts aan de massa. Dat betekende dat ze het eens waren over een essentieel punt. Het enige verschil was dat ze allebei geloofden aan de kant van de massa te staan.” (p.78)

1976 club part 2: reliable authors let me down

1976 in the UK was notable for a heatwave, drought and hosepipe bans. Many prolific authors of the era did not have a book out in 1976. Did all the authors and publishers have heat exhaustion?

As I termed it during the 1936 Club, I went ‘blundering around the bookshelves’ on a scavenger hunt for books I thought would fit for the 1976 Club, as well as on my Goodreads shelves. I looked up any authors that I considered to be likely suspects for a 1976 book. It was astonishing how often an author I was sure would have published something in 1976, just hadn’t, but did have a book out the year before and/or after. Typical Murphy’s Law.

Wishlist books

First, a few books that did actually appear in 1976, but I don’t happen to own.

In the Heart of the Country – J.M. Coetzee (1001 book list). An experimental novel with numbered paragraphs. Set on a farm in the isolated Karoo in South Africa, Magda slowly goes mad. Earlier this year I read Coetzee’s novella Disgrace (1999) and was impressed. Not a cheery read, but I would definitely read more of his books.

Lady Oracle – Margaret Atwood. A parody of gothic romances and fairy tales, according to Wikipedia. I’ll read anything by Margaret Atwood, but I would have to order this from interlibrary loan, so maybe another time.

Kiss of the Spider Woman – Manuel Puig (1001 book list). This sounds fascinating. Set in an Argentinian prison cell, two men talk. One is a political prisoner, one imprisoned as a sexual deviant; Molina is what would now be called trans and spends the time telling the stories of films. I have just discovered I can order this from my library, but again, not this month.

Ruth Rendell. Both A Demon in my View (psychological thriller) and The Fallen Curtain (creepy short stories) were published in ‘76. Both are on my wishlist, but probably only marked as such because of the publication date, thinking ahead to this challenge.

Lynne Reid BanksThe Farthest-Away Mountain. A teenage girl decides to go forth and meets many challenges along the way when she decides to travel to a distant mountain. Goodreads reviewers seem to love it, even when returning to it as adults, but I won’t go out of my way to find this. The L-Shaped Room was my introduction to ‘problem-based’ teenage fiction and was really my gateway drug into adult themes. I wish I had known back then that there were sequls. I have also read An End to Running, about a man who tries to escape his problems by moving to a kibbutz, which was fascinating.

Likely suspects who failed to publish in 1976

As I mentioned above, there are many authors who seem to have taken a year off in 1976. Of course, they were undoubtedly writing, but it does make you wonder what the publishers were up to that year. Did most of the 1976 books get relegated to the remainder bin in the sky or not make it past the slush pile on the editor’s desk? I have read some of these authors’ other books; the links are to my reviews of those on Goodreads.

The feminists

Maeve BinchyMy First Book (1976). This appears to be a collection of journalism, before Ms Binchy was a force to be reckoned with. Light a Penny Candle didn’t come out until 1982, as did Dublin 4, which happens to be on my TBR shelf later on this month for my numbers/maths theme.

Marilyn French. The neglected women’s lib classic The Women’s Room didn’t appear until a year later, but in 1976, Marilyn French debuted with The Book as World: James Joyce’s Ulysses. As I couldn’t get past the first page of Ulysses, I don’t need a literary companion to it, so this definitely doesn’t appeal.

The travellers, real and fictional

Bruce Chatwin’s first travel book, In Patagonia came out in 1977. Fascinating. I just wish I had read it in English instead of Dutch.

Paul Theroux’s first travel book The Great Railway Bazaar came out in 1975 (on my TBR shelf) followed by the novel The Family Arsenal in 1976; unlikable characters in London. I won’t go looking for that one.

James Clavell. Shogun came out in 1975, another epic I haven’t read. I had been going to pass on all Clavell’s shelf-hogging novels, but when I read King Rat, I changed my mind, so they’re still there. I could fit three or four times as many normal volume volumes in the same space.

James Michener. I’m currently reading a second volume of his factual reports and fictional stories set in the South Pacific and Oceania, Return to Paradise (1951) and intend to finally finish reading Centennial (1974) this month, too. Chesapeake (1978) was the first of his books I ever read. I expect he was doing research in 1976; I could probably read about what he was up to in his autobiography, which I also own and have read. What a man!

Crime, spies, thrillers and horror

Alistair Maclean, though still a bestseller, was past his prime.

John le Carré was between books. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was published in 1975 and An Honourable Schoolboy in 1977.

P.D. James was also between books: The Black Tower (1975, TBR) and Death of an Expert Witness (1977), both in the Adam Dalgliesh series.

Stephen King. Even one of the most ridiculously prolific writers on the planet couldn’t manage a book in 1976. He did, however, write a short story called The Weeds. It was included in the 1982 film Creepshow as The Lonesome Death of Jordy Verrill, starring the author himself. Apparently it’s inspired by an H.P. Lovecraft story, The Colour Out of Space, which was Lovecraft’s favourite of his own short stories.

Children’s and YA

Richard Adams. With Watership Down (1972), Shardik (1974) and The Plague Dogs (1977), Richard Adams was one of the few authors whose books I bought when I was still at school. I own them all, as well as The Girl in the Swing (1980). The only one Adams had published in 1976 was a rhyming picture book along the lines of The Owl and the Pussycat with beautiful illustrations by Nicola Bayley, The Tyger Voyage. I’d read it if I had it, but alas.

A selection of events in 1976

I’m not sure that any of the books I have picked to read were particularly affected by the spirit of the age, with the notable exception of The Fall and Rise of Reggie Perrin which could have been steeped in the proverbial parsnip wine. The conflict about sea defences described in Oosterschelde windkracht 10 was also front page news in the Netherlands in 1976, but what else did the chattering classes have to talk about?

The first flight of Concorde took place in January 1976. My landlady during my year out was secretary to the British chairman of Concorde, highly pregnant and determined not to go on maternity leave until after the launch. She made it! The USA vetoed a UN resolution calling for independence for Palestine, making The Cactus/Wild Thorns very timely. Later in the year, Palestinian terrorists hijacked a plane, landing at Entebbe airport in Uganda. Israeli troops later rescued the hostages. Morocco and Algeria were at war, something I know nothing about. Cuba ratified its new constitution and the first female president in the world, Isabel Perón of Argentina, was deposed. Pol Pot came to power in Cambodia. The IRA was exceptionally active, with 12 bombs in London; this was the reason we were not allowed to visit London on school trips for years. After three children were killed by a car whose driver had been shot by soldiers in Belfast, women took to the street with prams to protest. Their spokeswomen, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Price in 1976 for setting up the Community of Peace People, campaigning for an end to sectarian violence. The UK and Iceland ended their wrangling over fishing rights, dubbed the Cod War.

The first commercial supercomputer, the Cray-1, was launched. Later that year, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak founded Apple. Filming of Star Wars began; was it really so long ago? In real life, the Viking 1 probe landed on Mars. Back on Earth, the first Body Shop opened in Brighton and the first Muppet Show aired in the UK. It was both a Winter Olympic and Summer Olympic year, the one where Nadia Comaneci scored perfect tens as the world watched entranced. For Formula 1 it was a terrible year, with Niki Lauda sustaining terrible burns. The first known outbreak of Ebola!

The Booker Prize was won in 1976 by David Storey for Saville, a book of which I have not heard. What is more, I haven’t read any of the other nominees from that year, though I have at least heard of some of the authors. The other nominees were André Brink’s An Instant in the Wind, R.C. Hutchinson’s Rising, Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife, Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives and William Trevor’s The Children of Dynmouth. No women, I note, but the following two years there were more women than men; I think it was just coincidence that particular year.

I’m going to leave it there. Off to do some reading of the books I did find!

1976 Club part 1: options on my shelves

Time to find some books published in 1976 to read and review for the 1976 Club. I am disappointed at what I initially find, but nothing a trip to the children’s section of the library can’t fix.

When I heard that the next year-based challenge was going to be the 1976 Club, I felt sure that I would have some interesting books on my bookshelves. Alas! Yes, I do have a few, but I don’t really feel inspired by any of them. Even more frustrating about the choice of 1976 is the fact that there are several authors who published books either in 1975 or 1977 but had a year off (or an off year) in 1976. Perhaps they were all too overheated to write. I do remember 1976 being exceptionally hot summer in the UK; it was always the one referred back to if there was a heatwave. It was also the year the seafront was absolutely covered in ladybirds. Horrible! Almost as bad as the time the place was covered with greenfly, but that was another year. I was 13 with a permanent brace and ugly oversized glasses with thick brown frames. I was starting to read books from the adult section at the library as the sum total of the young adult section was two partly filled shelves of books that didn’t appeal.

Book covers for the 1976 Club
Books published in 1976, from my shelves and the library

Disappointing books on my shelves

The books on my shelves from the 1970s are mostly books my husband and I bought because we had watched the television show or knew the name from a film. That makes my 1976 options a disappointment for three reasons:

  1. I’ve already read most of them.
  2. They are books I don’t want to reread and I’m only keeping them because my husband believes he will read them one day.
  3. They are the book of the show and I’ve seen the show often enough that I’m not sure the book will add anything

They also fall into three categories, with some overlap:

  1. British humour
  2. Biographies/autobiographies/historical
  3. Children/young adult
  4. Poetry

British humour

The 1970s were a time when sexist, racist and homophobic humour was so rampant that it hardly raised an eyebrow. Perhaps the worst of these was It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum, but many of the gags make me cringe on many programmes of the era. Characters who complained about sexism or racism were seen as humourless and figures of fun. Some of the most iconic British comedy series ever were on our television sets in 1976: The Two Ronnies, Dad’s Army, Last of the Summer Wine, Are You Being Served, George and Mildred. The first series of Fawlty Towers had been aired the year before, too. I have the book of one of those unmissable series:

The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin – David Nobbs. We recently rewatched a couple of episodes and it is amazing how slow-paced it is. It’s a bit of a cheat here because it was first issued in 1975 as The Death of Reginald Perrin, but renamed and reissued in 1976 to go with the television series starring Leonard Rossiter. It really is imbued with the essence of the ‘70s: little woman at home, feminist daughter, wine-making son-in-law, brown decor, the fashions and so on. I think this is a must-read. Cost: 75p!

Wilt – Tom Sharpe. When we were students, my husband bought the entire series of this author’s books with their jam-packed cartoonish covers, very similar to Terry Pratchett’s paperback covers. The illustrator was Paul Sample, though he isn’t credited in my edition of Wilt. He does a magnificent job of incorporating all the scandalous slapstick and smutty details. I do remember thinking when I read it that it was very funny, but also incredibly cringeworthy and utterly vulgar; sometimes you can’t remove an image from your brain. Astrofella has a series of excellent reviews of Tom Sharpe’s books on his website that are worth reading if you are interested, including one on Wilt. If I do return to one of his novels, it’s more likely to be one of the ones set in a university like Porterhouse Blue (1974) or in South Africa like Riotous Assembly (1971); Sharpe was deported from South Africa after his criticisms of the apartheid regime. Nevertheless, I shan’t be rereading this. Cost: £2.50 in 1978

The Alteration – Kingsley Amis. I’m not sure this counts as comedy, but I have a feeling Kingsley Amis thought of himself as a great wit. All I remember about this is that it involves a boy who is destined to become a castrato to preserve his beautiful singing voice. I do know it was a book I really enjoyed. If I have time, I’ll reread it because it’s very short.

Last Seen Wearing (Inspector Morse 2) – Colin Dexter. Except for the odd wry smile, this is definitely not comedy; it is a murder mystery. I have a soft spot for the irascible Morse as played by John Thaw in the TV series. We rewatched some episodes recently, but this book certainly stands a reasonable chance of being read. Cost: £4.50 in 1978 (daylight robbery!).

Biographies, autobiographies, historical

Singin’and Swingin’ and Getting’ Merry Like Christmas – Maya Angelou. This is part 3 of Maya Angelou’s autobiography. I have only read part 1, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, but I see no reason why I shouldn’t read this now, except lack of time. Cost: £3.95 in 1985.

Vets Might Fly – James Herriot. Somewhere in my overflow book storage is undoubtedly a copy of these stories by James ‘Alf’ Wight, who fictionalised his real-life work as a vet in the wonderful books that were adapted into the television series All Creatures Great and Small. I rashly replaced them on my main shelves with an omnibus edition of the first few books and I can’t locate the originals at the moment.

An Unreasonable Man – Henrie Mayne. This is a biography of the author’s father, a man with great organisational talent and little personal empathy for his family who served as an administrator in the Indian Civil Service and helped organise relief efforts for the Red Cross at the end of WWII. I only realised this was a 1976 book when I saw it listed as a suggestion for the 1976 Club on the excellent Neglected Books Page. I read it in February as one of my oldest books, giving it a final chance. It was unexpectedly excellent. I hope to post a review later in the week.

De cactus (Al-Subar) – Sahar Khalifa, translated from Arabic into Dutch by Johan de Bakker and Richard van Leeuwen. Available in English as Wild Thorns, translated by Trevor Le Gassick and Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. A novel about a Palestinian who returns from abroad intending to fight against the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, only to discover that most people have resigned themselves to the inevitable and are carrying on with their lives and the new circumstances. I will definitely try to read and review this one.

Children’s / young adult

It is currently Children’s Book Week (Kinderboekenweek) in the Netherlands (from 6 – 17 October; actually a week and a half). That makes it even more appropriate that I should read a couple of classic Dutch teenage / young adult novels, both of which are historical. I have borrowed both from the library.

Oosterschelde Windkracht 10 [Oosterschelde wind force 10] – Jan Terlouw. The author’s main job was as a scientist and politician, but he published many historical novels for teenagers/young adults, including Oorlogswinter (Winter in Wartime) and this is no exception. This book introduces a farming family on an island in Zeeland, telling us what happened to them during the catastrophic flooding of 1953. We then jump forward to the 1970s when the people who went through the tragedy want a protective sea wall that would cut off the Oosterschelde sea channel from the sea. They face opposition from the younger generation who believe the environmental impact will be disastrous.

Geef me de ruimte [Give me space] – Thea Beckman. I loved Thea Beckman’s Kruistocht in Spijkerbroek (Crusade in Jeans, 1973), which was filmed in 2006. I have borrowed this one from the library and am a little dismayed to discover it is 300 pages long, first of a trilogy about the Hundred Years’ War between England and France; the second part is equally long.

Die rotschool met die fijne klas [That rotten school with that lovely class] – Jacques Vriens. This was the first book by one of the most prolific and well-loved Dutch children’s authors, Jacques Vriens. Many of his books are set in schools and he used to be a primary school teacher, so he brings real-life experience to his stories, which are usually funny. Some of his work has been made into films and he also sometimes tours with a theatre show. My daughter and I went to one of these several years ago and it was wonderful. At the book signing afterwards, he really took time to say a few words to everyone and made me a fan for life; he’s the Michael Rosen of the Dutch book industry, in appearance as well as manner. I could have borrowed this from the library, but didn’t, but I did take photos of the cover and frontispiece showing the characters in the book.

The Peppermint Pig – Nina Bawden. The runt of a litter of pigs becomes the family pet. Childhood nostalgia, though I’m not sure I’ve ever read this before. N.B. I’ve since realised this was actually published in 1975. Whoops!

Kaft van kinderboek Die rotschool met die fijne klas, van Jacques Vriens
Die Rotschool met die Fijne Klas – Jacques Vriens
Black and white drawings of people inside cover
Sketches of the characters


De wijn is drinkbaar dank zij het glas [The wine is drinkable thanks to the glass] – Harry Mulisch. This is a short anthology of poetry by one of the Netherlands’ most respected post-war fiction authors, known for The Discovery of Heaven (De ontdekking van de hemel, 1992). The extraordinary cover is a section of a mural, Namiddag van een faun (L’après-midi d’un faune) in the Dutch Literature Museum by the avant-garde Dutch artist and poet Lucebert.

So much for the books I have been able to acquire. Í wonder how many I will manage to read and review and if anyone else will pick the same books. I’ll write some more about my search for books published in 1976 in part 2. and

Book hauls (plural): adding to the TBR

Book confession here: I may have bought some books. It’s not that I needed more, you understand, but… Wishlist books, books from all 4 corners of the world, recommended authors, used and new. See what I brought home with me.

When I ask myself the question, ‘Do I need more books?’, the honest answer is ‘no’. But on a pleasantly sunny September afternoon when I don’t have any work lined up, no inclination to work in the garden or house and a need for some exercise, after 18 months of being unable to go to a bookshop, do you really blame me for cycling 10 km to visit a secondhand bookshop I know to have a good stock of books in English? Surely not. My husband would undoubtedly not approve of my destination, but I just couldn’t stop myself. Or rather, I didn’t. After all, it was the day after my birthday and nobody had given me any books; they try not to act as my enablers. Who needs enablers?

Books4Life book haul

Pile of books bought from a secondhand bookshop
Books from Books4Life Nijmegen

In actual fact, the damage was limited. Partly by the fact that I only had time for the English section, which is pretty large for a charity bookshop in a small Dutch city that is not particularly known for its literary pretensions. I am very happy with what I found, especially as the sum total would probably have bought me less than two new imported English paperbacks or cost about the same as a new book in Dutch, paperback or hardback. Books are expensive here! The secondhand bookshop Books4Life is a joy and a temptation.

Book haul number 1

Unsheltered (2018) – Barbara Kingsolver. I was impressed by Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible and devoured her Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. This is about the parallels between the hard times when a family’s dilapidated house was built in the 1870s and the hard times 150 years later. Looking briefly at friend reviews on Goodreads, it seems to divide opinion. Interesting!

A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) – Anne Tyler. I nearly missed this in the bookshop because it was on the opposite wall to the majority of the English books. I’m not used to so many riches. There were other Anne Tylers there, too. I must look when next I return, though I should read this first because it is years since I read one of her books. I was delighted to find this, though, because now I can take part in Liz’s Anne Tyler challenge without having to resort to a Dutch translation. I don’t know if her language is part of the enjoyment, but now I can find out for sure. I may return Azijnmeisje (Vinegar Girl) to the library unread.

The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958) – Laurence van der Post. I have a strong memory of listening to a BBC radio programme at school about the Bushmen of the Kalahari. It was fascinating and I have been interested in their lifestyle ever since. Laurence van der Post is also one of those legendary writer-explorers whose work I have never sampled, so I pounced on this when I saw it on a box on the floor.

Conundrum (1974) – Jan Morris. Another legendary travel writer, but this book is about how the author transitioned from a man into a woman; into the body she had always felt she belonged in.

A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor. Another classic travel narrative, this tells of the 18-year-old author’s walking trip from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1933. This is the first stage, as far as Hungary. I already have a copy of the second stage in Dutch; that wasn’t published until 1986, for some reason.

Heroes & Villains (1969) – Angela Carter. There’s a certain mystique about Angela Carter that I’ve picked up from other bloggers. I have read the marvellous and surrealistic Nights at the Circus. This one is dystopian and described as ‘erotic, exotic and bizarre’, including snake worshippers which may well remind me of the Nigerian books I’ve been reading recently.

Good Morning, Midnight (1939) – Jean Rhys. This is on the 1001 Books list, by an author I can count for the Caribbean and it’s short, so home it came with me. Apparently it’s about a woman drinking, smoking and being depressed in Paris; sounds riveting! I was disappointed by Wide Sargasso Sea, but that was partly because I had heard so much about it. It was one of those books which I occasionally think about and suspect I should have read twice.

Still Life With Bread Crumbs (2014) – Anna Quindlen. One of those authors I have heard about, but I couldn’t tell you why. I found the title intriguing, the cover is pretty and an author beginning with a Q is useful for one of my A-Z challenges, so I bought it. If you type ‘Still Life’ into Goodreads, you’d be surprised how many books there are with titles starting ‘Still Life With’: woodpecker, crows, tornado, strings, oysters and lemon… The bread crumb book is about an older woman, a photographer, who finds love in an unexpected place.

A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010) – Jennifer Egan. Another 1001 Book List book and I read a lot of buzz about her 2017 book Manhattan Beach, so I was happy to find this book.

Bookshop book haul

Barely a week had passed and I needed a new destination for some exercise, so I combined a cycle ride with the arduous task of buying my next book club book, The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. I could have bought it online, but another group member had reported seeing a pile of them in the Nijmegen bookshop, Dekker van de Vegt, so off I trotted cycled. A few years ago, this shop was taken over by a chain which then went bust. It looked like it was going to close down, but it was saved by crowdfunding and by merging with the local branch of the Dutch secondhand and remainder bookshop, De Slegte. Luckily for me, they have a pretty good selection of English books, both new and used, though their secondhand books are rather overpriced in comparison with the charity shops.

Of course I didn’t leave the shop unscathed. Actually, I didn’t even make it into the shop unscathed! Before I even got there, I discovered a book stall nearby and, to my delight, in a box of crime books in English, I found several books by Ngaio Marsh. A friend of mine volunteers at the Ngaio Marsh museum in Christchurch, New Zealand and has shared a few photos on Facebook. I’ve never read any of Marsh’s books, so I chose A Surfeit of Lampreys. I couldn’t resist the blurb: as the policeman holds the suspect’s arm, the girl reaches into the woman’s pocket to find out what she’s holding and feels that she has two hands in her pocket… Creepy.

Book haul number 2

The Long Song (2010)- Andrea Levy. I’ve been hoping to come across this book about slavery in Jamaica ever since it was published. I was impressed by Levy’s Small Island, about a couple from the Caribbean who arrive in a cold and unwelcoming post-war Britain. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2010.

A View of the Empire at Sunset (2018) – Caryl Phillips. I read enthusiastic recommendations of Caryl Phillips’ books on the Guardian’s substitute book group on Goodreads round about the time when everyone was looking for books by Black authors following the murder of George Floyd. I had never heard of Phillips before that, so I snapped this up. Bonus: I’ve just discovered it is set in Dominica and the main character is Jean Rhys! To be read in tandem with Good Morning, Midnight, methinks. I think that must be book haul serendipity.

The Shadow King (2019) – Maaza Mengiste. A friend co-hosts a podcast, The Bookcast Club. The Shadow King was one of the books that appealed after listening to the 2020 Booker shortlist episode, discussing the books with You Tuber Kieran from KD Books. So much so, I splashed out and bought this brand new. It’s set in Ethiopia in 1935 and features women who went to war.

The Housekeeper and the Professor (2003) – Yoko Ogawa; trans. from Japanese by Stephen Snyder. A short novel of mathematics and the genuine affection that develops between a housekeeper, her son and the professor who has no short-term memory due to a car accident in 1975. His memory only lasts 80 minutes. Bought ready for my book club.

The Feast of the Goat (2001) – Mario Vargas Llosa. My book club is responsible for this one, too. A couple of years ago we read Vargas Llosa’s Death in the Andes, set in the author’s native Peru and I’ve been hoping to find more. This one is set in the Dominican Republic, examining the effects of violence and power.

Waterland (1983) – Graham Swift. Not only is this on the 1001 list, but I loved Graham Swift’s Last Orders. That was definitely influenced by the fact it was about a trip to Margate, my home town, so I’m hoping I’ll enjoy Waterland just as much; it’s about the fens, somewhere I have never been.

Inside Out & Back Again (2011) – Thanhha Lai. Told in the form of poems, a young girl writes about having to leave Saigon as the Vietnam War progresses and escaping as a refugee to the USA. I picked this up from a ‘minibieb’/Little Free Library outside somebody’s house. Books for free; not to be sneezed at!

Library sale – book haul number 3

Finally, two books from the library sale. I nearly got locked in the library overnight because the library assistant didn’t notice me standing looking at the book sale table. Much as I love the library, I would not have appreciated the lack of tea and food.

De bastaard van Istanbul (2006) – Elif Shafak; translated from English (The Bastard of Istanbul) to Dutch by Manon Smits. Having finally borrowed Shafak’s The Flea Palace from the library, wouldn’t you know it, I discovered this on the sale table. It’s about an Armenian-American woman who goes back to Turkey where she meets a community of women and discovers family secrets.

Andere levens [Other Lives] (2010) – Iman Humaydan; translated from Arabic to Dutch by Djûke Poppinga. The front cover says “in a few hundred pages, a novel that tells you about the whole world”. This is about a Lebanese refugee returning to her country after 15 years in Australia.

All in all, not a bad couple of weeks for my book-acquiring habit. Books by authors from all over the world, some from my wishlist, some by authors I wanted to read and some a complete surprise. I want to read them all, now, but that way madness lies. I shall tuck them away on my shelves where they will have to wait patiently to be picked. Have you read any of them? Any I should pick up immediately and read without delay?