The lure of the library 2

Catching up on all the library books I’ve borrowed, read, returned or reserved between September 2021 and March 2022. #LoveYourLibrary

My local library was closed from 1 January to 14 February, not, as you might imagine, due to Covid restrictions, but to reinforce the upstairs floor. Unbelievably, in these times of library closures, our local government invested in a brand new library building with an auditorium, as an extension to our local theatre. As I type that, I realise how lucky I am to live in this small town, Wijchen. Even though the library is only 5 or 6 years old, the building regulations have changed and the floor needed reinforcement. And so it was that we were encouraged to take as many books as we wanted so that the librarians didn’t have to temporarily rehouse so many books. I already had quite a pile, but I added a couple extra in December, just to be helpful. So selfless!


Borrowed from the library

Library book covers, laid out on a Persian carpet
Borrowed from the library, March 2022

This is the current selection of library books I intend to read or have read, at the start of the month; things changed. I’m rather disgruntled that there are so many that were already on the pile when I wrote my last Lure of the Library post back in September. On the other hand, that means I have been reading other books from the TBR shelves, many of which will one day leave my house for another reader to enjoy.

Library books read

  • On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous (2019) – Ocean Vong. This was truly exceptional, based on the premise of a young gay Vietnamese American man writing a letter explaining his feelings to his mother who cannot read it, remembering her cruelty and the close nurturing relationship he had with his grandmother. In places it was visceral and there was too much animal cruelty, but I loved the observations about language and immigrant life. The final section brings all his memories together; his mother is illiterate in this life, but he imagines her into being reincarnated into someone with a better life, who will be able to read the letter.
  • De avond is ongemak (The Discomfort of Evening) (2018) – Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, trans. into English from Dutch by Michele Hutchison. N.B. Early in 2022, Marijke Lucas Rijneveld decided to start using the pronouns he and his, instead of they and their. This was a book I hesitated to read because every review I read commented on how visceral it was, but I loved it. The writing was stupendous, the subject matter is horrendous, so it’s not for the fainthearted. It probably needs a trigger warning for everything but racism and homophobia. However, this is made up for in how Rijneveld writes and the way he uses repetition of details to remind the reader of what happened earlier. The way he recreates a child’s thought processes is fabulous. His similes use things that usually only children notice, like the way a juice carton collapses when you drink through a straw, and he writes a lot about the type of self-imposed rules children think up to stop something terrible happening. I’m glad I read this in Dutch because I wasn’t entirely happy with the English translation that I read in the online preview.
  • Piranesi (2020) – Susanna Clarke. This is one of those amazing books where you start off being totally confused with what is happening and gradually piece the truth together. It initially seems that the young wild thing Piranesi exists in a large ruined mansion or museum, so large it has its own climate system, with clouds in the top floor and a flooded ground floor with seas and freshwater lakes, fish and birds. He keeps journals to track his observations of wildlife and the – sometimes peculiar – statues that line the halls. The only other person there is an older man known as the Other, who treats Piranesi as a child. Gradually Piranesi begins to doubt that he is being told the truth, especially when he finds evidence of other people, some reduced to skeletons but some very much alive. Brilliant, with a gorgeous cover and endpapers.
  • Max Havelaar (1860) – Multatuli (Edward Douwes Dekker), translated into modern Dutch by Gijsbert van Es. I have had a copy of this since about 2008, but kept giving up after a few pages because of the antiquated Dutch. It is readable, but not so gripping that I managed to cross that hurdle. I held on to it because it is really a cornerstone of Dutch literature and actually caused such a scandal in the Netherlands that it led to radical change in the colonial administration of Indonesia. In that sense it is fascinating, but even in the translation into modern Dutch, some parts were not exactly scintillating. What did surprise me were the ‘modern’ techniques using letters and lists rather than a straight narrative. Much of the text was supposedly based on a disgraced colonial official’s papers, rewritten and read out as an evening entertainment by a clerk at the coffee merchants in Amsterdam, his boss writing his own disapproving responses in his journal, revealing himself to be a skinflint and representing the status quo. That injected some humour into the proceedings. I’m glad I’ve finally read it.
Books read or started in March 2022
Dystopian, non-fiction and epic

  • Station Eleven (2014) – Emily St. John Mandel. A couple of friends had recently been enthusiastic about this post-pandemic dystopian novel, so when I found out my book club was planning on reading something similar (Severance – see below), I reserved both, but read this first. Twenty years after a flu-like pandemic has wiped out 99% of the world’s population, a group travels the Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare plays and classical music, hunting to survive. There are flashbacks to the start of the pandemic and links between disparate individuals in the new world that only gradually become clear. This is not a pandemic novel as such and it’s not about groups fighting or attacking each other. It focuses on what happened much later and on personal relationships and memories. One of the things linking a couple of the characters is a limited edition artistic graphic novel telling the story of a man stranded on a space station resembling a planet called Station Eleven. I thoroughly enjoyed spotting the connections. Highly recommended.
  • Severance (2018) – Ling Ma. Once again, the world as we know it has been destroyed by the consequences of a pandemic, this time Shen Fever, a mysterious disease that makes people go into a fugue state, repeating the same actions and forgetting to eat and take care of themselves. Once you catch it, you die within four weeks. Ironically, so many people work so hard and have such routine jobs that it may be difficult to identify them. Chinese American Candace works at a publishers producing novelty and themed versions of the Bible, travelling to China to oversee their production at low-wage factories. When the disease starts to affect everyday life, a skeleton staff is left to hold the fort at the office in New York and later she moves in as there is no more public transport. Meanwhile she continues to post to her blog, NY Ghost, about what she sees on her long walks. When almost nobody is left, she goes on the road and joins up with a group driving to a refuge their leader calls the Facility, where he claims they can start again. By the way, don’t be fooled by the Goodreads blurb that this is a “hilarious, deadpan satire”. Yes, it points out the ironies of modern life, social media and brand obsession, but that doesn’t make it funny, except for a couple of occasions. It was interesting, but pales into insignificance compared to Station Eleven. For me it tapered off into inconclusiveness. There is a ‘fan theory’ online (in a Goodreads question thread) that seeks to explain what happens to Candace, but either the author wanted to leave an open ending (perhaps for a sequel) or she should have made it clear to all her readers without further explanation.
  • Vinegar Girl: The Taming of the Shrew Retold (Azijnmeisje) (2016) – Anne Tyler, trans. into Dutch by Marijke Versluys . I borrowed this from library in Dutch, but then found a secondhand copy in English, so I read it in English and compared a little of the translation. The Dutch cover is much prettier than the English copy I bought, but it is available with the same cover in English, too. I hadn’t expected to enjoy this as much as I did, but it was much funnier than I had expected. I had also wondered if I would miss anything because I don’t know the plot of The Taming of the Shrew, but I needn’t have worried. It was a delight from start to finish. I particularly enjoyed the rendering of Pyotr’s (presumably) Russian accent, his delight in American idiom and Kate’s gradual realisation that speaking a foreign language is not as easy as one might imagine to perfect to native speaker level and that under the surface of poor grammar, an immigrant might just be thinking deeper thoughts than you at first suspected.

Currently reading

  • Oer en andere tijden (Primeval and Other Times / Prawiek i inne czasy) (1996) – Olga Tokarczuk, trans. into Dutch from Polish by Karol Lesman . I haven’t read enough of this yet t) o be able to say much. It seems to be a collection of overlapping stories about the inhabitants of a remote Polish village, Primeval in English, Oer in Dutch, through the ages. I’m enjoying it so far but have put it to one side to concentrate on something entirely different (Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

Borrowed, to be read

  • Melmoth (2018) – Sarah Perry. A translator in Prague, a secret from the past and a creepy woman in black, doomed to walk the world forever, tempting others to join her.
  • Het luizenpaleis (The Flea Palace, Bit Palas) – Elif Shafak, trans. into Dutch from Turkish by Margreet Dorleijn, Hanneke van der Heijden. The stories of the inhabitants of a dilapidated apartment block in Istanbul, many of them immigrants.
  • Mijn ex, de dood en ik (Sophia, der Tod und ich) (2015) – Thees Uhlmann, trans. into Dutch from German by Herman Vinckers. I borrowed this because I wanted to read a German novel. I picked up this humorous novel with Death as one of the main characters, apparently written by a German musician and music journalist. The translator’s name also seems familiar in the Netherlands becasue there is a Dutch comedian called Herman Finkers, but it is not he; it was translated by someone who works in the Department of Clinical Psychology at the University of Amsterdam.
  • Een bizarre bibliotheek (Une collection très particulière [A very peculiar library]) (2012) – Bernard Quiriny, trans. from French to Dutch by Wilma Beun. I borrowed this because I was looking for an author beginning with Q for a challenge, but the book itself sounds weird and wonderful: a library full of books with very odd, magical properties.
  • Holzer’s permacultuur (Sepp Holzer’s Permaculture: A Practical Guide to Small-Scale, Integrative Farming and Gardening) (2014) – Sepp Holzer. I’ve been interested in no-dig and permaculture methods of gardening for several years now. It’s time I read the original book of ideas by the inspirational Austrian Sepp Holzer.
  • De wand (The Wall / Die Mauer) (1963) – Marlen Haushofer, trans. into Dutch from German by Ria van Hengel. I’ve seen several reviews of this book recently. Apparently it has been out of print and is now poised for reissue in June 2022. It is the tale of a woman who is mysteriously cut off from the outside world, if indeed that still exists, by an invisible wall. I am intrigued.


Nothing at the moment; I have enough to read!

Returned Unread

  • Geef me de ruimte [Give me space] (1976) – Thea Beckman. I borrowed this for the 1976 Club; I think I posted on it in 1976 Club part 1: options on my shelves. However, when I still hadn’t read it months later, I decided it was time to take it back. What’s more, it’s the first of a trilogy about the Hundred Years War and will undoubtedly still be there whenever I want to read it because it is a classic.

That is the current state of the library borrowings at the end of March 2022. Now I’ve realised I can borrow anything from the whole of the Dutch province of Gelderland, I’m going to try to use my library more often to source books on my wishlist. And my options are opened up even further if I use the National Interlibrary Loan System because paying €5 a book is almost always cheaper than buying the book myself. Long live public libraries (even if I do have to pay about €60 for the privilege of belonging; public libraries are not free in the Netherlands unless you are below the age of 14, sadly. I didn’t realise how wonderful the British system is when I lived there.

Michel the Giant: An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie: from Togo to Greenland

I’ve updated this post to add links to an article and a new translation of this book, out on : February 2022.

Market Garden Reader

You wouldn’t imagine there would be many similarities between life in sub-Saharan Africa and one of the coldest inhabited places on Earth, Greenland. Thanks to An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie from the West-African Togolese Republic, I discovered that there are.

This is based on the life story and journey of a young Togoan man who dreams at an early age of visiting the strange and exotic land of Greenland. After running away from his duties and a string of lucky breaks working hard in the right places, his dream comes true. The book gives a really interesting insight into traditional life in an African country, with snakes, medicine women and polygamy, then into traditional life in Greenland, with hunting, large amounts of whale blubber, alcoholism, permissiveness (traditional or not?) and an unexpected amount of correlation between the two ways of life. Fascinating.

Weird and wonderful book connections


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