Holocaust Deniers on the Library Shelf

As I was walking out of the library, I saw two matching eye-catching books in the history section – Hitler’s War – authored by a David Irving.

I googled the name, yep, it was the same guy. Holocaust denier.

I dropped down to the librarian and asked if there is a policy on displaying books by holocaust deniers. The librarian seemed flustered. The chief librarian wasn’t around. What was the problem with the book?

He’s a holocaust denier.

So he’s some kind of Nazi?

Well, a disreputable historian, a Nazi sympathiser. You see, maybe the book is there for reasons of free speech. Maybe it’s there, not as a book on WWII, but a primary source for somebody studying holocaust deniers. Maybe it’s there because nobody remembered they put it there. It was the 1977 edition, maybe it hasn’t moved since.

The librarian was reduced to silence.

I’m not trying to make your job harder, or to complain. I’m just interested in knowing what the policy is.

She took my name and my membership number. She didn’t take my contact details and didn’t write down the name David Irving.

Maybe she thought I was being pedantic, it was one book in a library full of books about history, pets, geography, politics, pottery and pony-grooming. There were other ancient books in the history section about British colonial history, written by men who clearly believed that colonialism was a good thing. Was David Irving so out of place?

A month previously Professor Anthea Butler gave a speech in Trinity about Historical Myths and the Problems of Social Media. Professor Butler pointed out that in the clamour for attention between reputable historians and racist mythmakers, the racist mythmakers are winning on social media, where noise is more important than reputation and substance. While professional historians leave their work inaccessible behind paywalls and make little effort to promote it, mythmakers pollute the Twittersphere with myths, which metastasize rapidly across the internet.

Maybe printed books in the dusty section of the library are the least of our problems.

Lucius – Matthew Lieberman

luciusMordecai “Tree” Weissman is a reliable narrator. He has the quietly authoritative and credible voice of a storyteller. He has integrity, in two senses of the word. He seems like a truthful and trustworthy person, who has no sinister or ulterior motives; he also relates a story that is integrated, solid, complete. This story needs Tree, because Benno – the man who relates the story of Lucius to Mordecai – seems like an utterly unreliable narrator. Benno is a spoiled old white southerner who claims to have held Lucius in slavery for most of the 20th Century. He may be a braggart, or mendacious, or mentally ill. The fact that we never get to meet Lucius creates a greater sense of skepticism about Benno’s tale. It all seems incredible. Yet throughout the story, unlikely events are presented beside unlikely events that we know to be true, making the reader wonder whether or not it might all be true. A simple example: Benno and Lucius have to run away from a violent racist gang. Which 80-year-old can run that fast? Yet the meeting that they disturbed – a Klan meeting in the 21st Century, attended by relatively-educated people – that is the detail that seems shockingly incredble. And yet, we know that it is true. Many of the unlikely and bizarre events of the book are juxtaposed with happenings that are incredible, but that are true. It’s a thought-provoking and unsettling book, related by masterful storyteller.

Mrs by Caitlin Macy

mrscaitlinmacyI liked this book a lot. The lives of the people in this book are nothing like mine, but the author draws you into their world, shows you what’s important to them (money, status, belonging, love, power, children, children with attainments, money and of course, money) and then tells you a tale. We all live in village and so do these New York sophisticates, the hedge fund manager living cheek-by-jowl with the federal prosecutor and the no-nonsense principal of the most desirable kindergarten. The most golden of the golden couples – Jed Skinker and Philippa Lye – are the characters who gain my sympathy most. For all of Jed’s compounded privilege and Philippa’s self-destructiveness, they have character, when the chips are down, they know how to behave. The other characters seem so vulnerable and insecure in their uber-lives, lives which might seem rock-solid to people who live outside that sub-sub-sub-culture of New York. Pick up a copy and read it!

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

American Pastoral is the story of a decent man who built a wonderful life, where everything is great until his teenage daughter goes off the rails in the late 1960s and blows up the local post office.

It’s the story of Seymour ‘The Swede’ Levov, a Jewish-American high school sports star who married Miss New Jersey before bringing his his family’s glove manufacturing business to new heights of success.

Levov is a decent, liberal-minded and fair employer, who tries to be loyal to the people and city of Newark, even as high costs and social unrest make it almost impossible to thrive in the city.

The most powerful part of the novel takes place after his teenage daughter becomes a fugitive. The Swede plays events over in his head, trying to figure out where and when and how he might have gone wrong. Eventually, in his over-wrought state, he starts seeing Marian apparitions of Angela Davis in his kitchen, apparitions to whom he prays for divine intercession.

His dilemma was very real for a generation of post-WWII American parents, FDR democrats who were confused and horrified by the Vietnam War, racial violence, the collapse of inner cities and the scandal of Watergate. These historical events are referred to tangentially; it is the turmoil of The Swede and the Levov family that stays front and centre.

The question is constantly posed – what could he have done differently? Which lifestyle choices, personal choices, educational choices, religious choices and commercial choices could have made a difference? Each iteration of his tortuous rumination develops the plot a little further, while teasing out the way that the American dream can, in an instant, be transformed into an American nightmare.

The Secret History of the Kelly Gang

The True History of the Kelly Gang is a fictional account of the life and career of Ned Kelly, an Irish-Australian bushranger who came to embody the spirit of Australian egalitarianism and resistance to tyranny.

The author Peter Carey – who recently spoke in Dublin about his latest book, A Long Way from Home – based Kelly’s voice on the Jerilderie Letter, which was written by Kelly in 1879 as a defence of his actions as a bushranger; as a manifesto against British rule in Australia; and against corruption among the government and elite of the colony of Victoria.

Kelly’s first-hand account evokes a time when ordinary people wrote and spoke in a more florid and lyrical terms that they do today. The vernacular poetry of Kelly’s language is a delight; I have decided to start calling all of my friends “adjectival mongrels” as a form of tribute.

What surprised me about Carey’s depiction of the time was the extent to which magistrates, privileged squatters, police and bushrangers mingled, as though there was an acceptable level of criminality to match an acceptable level of corruption. Perhaps it was a more rural time and place and you had to try to get along with everybody.

The book – which won the Booker Prize in 2001 – is often assumed to be extensively non-fiction, while Carey states that it is mostly fiction. It is a tribute to his creative ability as a writer that he can depict unknowable domestic scenes – such as Kelly’s close relationship to his mother – in a way that seems to come straight from Kelly’s mouth.

We’ve Haven’t Tried Anarchism for a While, Have We?

twocheersforanarchismJames C Scott, the author of Two Cheers for Anarchism, is a political scientist who has spent his career studying nominally powerless people who resist the power of the state. These people – citizens and employees in industrialised economies; farmers and peasants in pre-industrial economies; and protesters and socially marginal people in every society – mostly do this by simply avoiding the attentions of the state.

Scott is not an anarchist as such, yet he examines the ideas of anarchism and sees how they – rather than being threatening to social order – actually conform more closely to the nature of the human animal in its natural habitat. Anarchism provides natural tools and weapons which allow people to fight back against corporate and government power that is becoming restrictive and pervasive.

He explores these ideas in the context of the environment and food production; education; architecture and urban planning; and politics.

One of his most powerful points is that left to their own devices, people will engage in voluntary co-operation, without any requirement for hierarchical control. He supports his ideas with illustrations, such as the trend towards removing traffic lights, which – counter intuitively – slow down traffic and increase the likelihood of accidents.



Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go

never let me goI’d read a couple of Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels, but the news that he had won the Nobel Prize was sufficient motivation to dig out Never Let Me Go. Like the other Ishiguro books I’d read – The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans –  it was narrated by a protagonist who is trying to make sense of an imperfectly remembered past.

Kathy, the narrator, comes across as a person whose life experience peaked during her time at a  boarding school called Hailsham. She comes across as decent and pleasant, yet dull and obsessive.

As the story progresses you learn with a growing sense of horror that this is not an ordinary boarding school and that the children in school are being groomed for a hopeless and inhumane future. Even though they are aware of their future fates, they seem curiously resigned to it. Because of this, the adventures of Kathy, Ruth and Tommy seem less a coming-of-age story for slightly-privileged middle-Englanders and more of a war novel. They are like Bäumer, Katczinsky and Kropp in All Quiet on the Western Front, persistently and determinedly trying to live small, decent and comfortable lives in a context of catastrophe.



Lincoln in the Bardo

lincolnbardo.jpgIt took me a while to realise that Lincoln in the Bardo had been written by George Saunders. I had previously read his story story My Flamboyant Grandson, a moving story about a grandfather’s dedication to his grandson’s happiness, even as it ran counter to his own sense of normality. As well as being a moving story of familial love, it was also comically absurd, set in a modern dystopia, where computers only show you the things that you like and where people trade their freedoms for free stuff on the internet.

My Flamboyant Grandson struck me as the kind of story that Kurt Vonnegut would write, because of the characters’ stoic yet comic acceptance of the indignities and absurdities of war and technology. However, Saunders transcends Vonnegut, because the characters in his stories possess a wisdom that seems beyond the capacity of many of Vonnegut’s characters.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a ghost story, set in the graveyard where Abraham Lincoln has just buried his ten-year-old son Willie, who died of typhus. The protagonists in the story are all, well, dead. Over the course of the novel, the ghosts explain why they have remained behind on earth and the arrival of Willie Lincoln is a catalyst for the resolution of many of their long-suspended stories.

The characters speak in the florid and formal manner of Nineteenth Century people, in a style that – given that it’s a fundamentally bleak ghost story – reminds me of Edgar Allen Poe. Saunders cannot resist making it funny and the antics of the ghosts keep the story moving in a bumptious manner.

Saunders once remarked in an interview that he had little success in his writing career until he gave up being serious and embraced the gallows humour of his youth. While the narrative never loses sight of the pain of bereavement, humour works as an effective coping mechanism, in a story where the brightest possible outcome is a resolute acceptance of death.