Monday, September 01, 2008

Book Review: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"

Book thief and forger Lee Israel's 'memoir' Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Simon & Schuster, 2008) is little more than a snarky, blame-everyone-else justification for her serious crimes (which included stealing original letters from various libraries, making and selling forgeries to autograph dealers, and replacing original letters with forgeries so that she could sell the originals).

Israel, the author of several celebrity biographies before she turned crook, tells us that she decided to start stealing and forging letters when she realized she might be able to make a buck from it. During the first major phase of criminal activity, from April 1990 through the following summer, she admits to creating more than four hundred fake letters and "enhancing" other stolen letters by adding forged postscripts. Once her creations began attracting negative attention from suspicious dealers, Israel found a co-conspirator and got him to fence original documents she nabbed. The FBI, aided by several New York autograph dealers, finally caught up with Israel; she took a plea deal and received a wrist-slapping punishment of house arrest and probation (which she basically admits to flouting).

The book itself amounts to less than a hundred pages of text, the remainder of the 125 pages being taken up with facsimiles of Israel's forgeries, which she is clearly very proud of (she says it was a "terrific compliment" that a couple of her forgeries were included in a collection of Noël Coward letters published in 2007). The title notwithstanding, there is no sense whatsoever that Israel actually wants to be forgiven: she certainly doesn't express any remorse about her forgeries, which she calls "larky and fun and totally cool." She claims to feel a twinge of guilt for her thefts from libraries, but says "My guilt ... is mitigated somewhat by the gathering in of the epistolary diaspora" (translated from her excessively verbose style, this means she "helped" the FBI find the original documents and make sure they were returned).

Frankly, Israel's behavior is nothing but disgusting and despicable. She's a liar, a thief, and a forger, and she seems to be little short of gleeful about it. So, as I said when I first mentioned this book, no, I won't forgive. Nor should librarians or dealers forget, because I have no doubt that, given the chance, Israel would not pause for even a instant before engaging in such behavior again.

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