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!

https://bookishbeck/LoveYourLibrary

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.

Reserved

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.

Forged in Fury & The Final Reckoning: Jewish revenge for the Holocaust

Was there a secret Jewish organisation taking revenge on unpunished Nazi war crimes? Conspiracy theory or fact? The story inspired Jonathan Freedman’s The Final Reckoning and Michael Elkins’ Forged in Fury and more.

Conspiracy theories, investigative journalism or an overactive imagination?

Forged in Fury by Michael Elkins. Is this fact or fiction? The truth or just a conspiracy theory? If a group of Jews had taken revenge on Nazis after WWII, we would have heard about it, surely, not least neo-Nazis, who would have a field day with it. The book is virtually unknown, even though it was written by a BBC journalist, Michael Elkins, coincidentally the first man to report on Israeli forces destroying Arab air forces at the start of the Six- Day War. CBS queried his report because they couldn’t believe it was true and he resigned once he got back to the US. It was true, but it does cast a slight shadow regarding his credibility.
This book tells the story of a group of Jewish men who were disillusioned by the large numbers of Germans and others who had actively been involved in Hitler’s Final Solution, but who had received little more than a slap on the wrist after the war. They decided to take matters into their own hands and to track down and execute people complicit in the Holocaust, forming an organisation that operated long after the war, known variously as Dam Yisrael Noter (‘the blood of Israel avenges’ or DIN (judgement), Nakam (meaning vengeance), Nokmim, Jewish Revenge or the Jewish Avengers.
The details of their plots to poison the water supply in major German cities came to nothing, fortunately. One of the men responsible for collecting the poison from Israel, Abba Kovner, was arrested, foiling the original plot. He later became one of the greatest poets of modern Israel, but was involved with Soviet partisans during the war and was an activist thereafter. The plot was scaled back and the group may have poisoned several hundred men awaiting trial in Stalag 13 in 1946.

Authors inspired by Jewish revenge stories

Of course, it could all just be a good yarn. Apparently John le Carré mentioned this book and the organisation in A Pigeon Tunnel (2016), a book of stories from his life; another reliable witness, one would think. Well-respected journalist Jonathan Freedman also based a book on the story under the pseudonym of Sam Bourne, The Final Reckoning (2008). Another account called The Avengers (1969) was also published by journalist and Knesset member Michael Bar-Zohar. The question is, are all these accounts true, or just the inspiration for a good yarn?

Conspiracy theory or fact?

I haven’t read Forged in Fury, but based on the few reviews available, it sounds like it starts like a thriller, then sinks into a mire of details and statistics, making it a hard read. So perhaps the subsequent authors were inspired by Forged in Fury, just like Dan Brown was inspired by The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail to write The Da Vinci Code. In fact, the excess of detail in Michael Elkin’s book makes it sound like a typical conspiracy theory backstory. There’s a fine line between investigative journalism and taking a few details and blowing them up into a full scale scandal, whether it’s true or not. You only have to look at Pizzagate and many quashed cases of libel to know that. Not every investigative journalist uncovers a truth like the Watergate Scandal (revealed in All the President’s Men)  and not every journalist is Bob Woodward. Who, incidentally, has just released a new exposé, Fear (2018) which we are predisposed to consider trustworthy because he was right about Nixon.
In the case of Forged in Fury, I am more inclined to view the claims with a pinch of salt because it was published so long after the fact, in 1971. Surely more would have been written about it if it was true? I am assuming Jonathan Freedman was indulging the urge to write fiction in his version, writing as Sam Bourne, a name imbued with conspiracy if there ever was one (thinking of Robert Ludlum’s Bourne Conspiracy video game).
In any case, I haven’t read any of the books about this subject and am inclined to read Freedman’s version if I do, but I’ll keep Forged in Fury because it’s a hard-to-find book, just in case I feel the need to find out more. I have to admit, I do like a good conspiracy theory.
Read more:
Background article by Jonathan Freedland: Revenge, The Guardian

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