January 2010

Leiden, The Netherlands
Photo of Leiden by ironmanixs used under a Creative Commons license.

Simon Schama, The Embarrassment Of Riches (Knopf, 1987).
A tour de force, a cultural history of the Netherlands during the 17th century, the height of Dutch riches and power.  While a reader will pick up something of the time’s diplomatic and military history, Schama touches on those events mostly as context for a rich and sweeping parade of examples of how the Dutch saw themselves and their world.  Out of such disparate strands as whale strandings and  a midwife’s diary, and better known episodes and artifacts like tulip speculation and portraiture, Schama keeps drawing compelling insights.  It is not a light book, though it is stuffed with illustrations.

Here is Wikipedia’s page on Schama. Here is his bio at Columbia University. Google Books lets you take a look. Harold Beaver (The New York Times) calls it an erudite and engrossing study that offers a fascinating panorama. For what it’s worth, historians J.C.H. Blom and E. Lamberts call it provocative but superficial, in A History of Low Countries 483 (Berghahn Books, 1999). It’s on National Geographic’s list of Amsterdam resources. Here is a 1995 profile of Schama in New York. Schama wrote the book in Lexington, Mass.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Barcelona Graffiti
Photo of Barcelona by Aeioux used under a Creative Commons license.

Javier Calvo, Wonderful World (Harper, 2009).
A novel set in Barcelona involving antique dealing, criminal gangs, nightclubs, medieval Irish paintings, Russian emigres, a precocious and disturbed teenaged girl at an Italian school, and the release of an eponymous Stephen King novel. The novel is full of unpleasant people treating each other poorly, with few exceptions, and those not put off by such things are likelier to enjoy it.

Here is Calvo’s Wikipedia entry. This is his blog. The publisher lets you take a look. Edward Nawotka (Dallas Morning News) calls it a peculiar amalgam of crime caper, literary homage and Eurotrash sideshow. Janelle Martin likens Calvo to David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. Ryan Williams says Calvo is a satirist who sides with the villains. Sarah Weinman calls it a magical ride. Lianne Habinek was weirded out and disappointed. Shaman Drum says think of it as a midnight movie in book form. Matt McGregor thinks genre play gets the better of Calvo. Barbara Fister calls it a mashup of crime fiction, caper, dystopia, and family drama. D Reading Room took on the book. Listen to Calvo and the translator, Mara Faye Lethem, on the Ed Segundo show. Shaun Manning interviewed Lethem.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Verviers front window
Photo of Verviers by MrTopf used under a Creative Commons license.

Luc Sante, The Factory of Facts (Pantheon, 1998).
Born in Verviers, Belgium, in 1954, Sante emigrated with his parents to New Jersey as a child and grew up between the two worlds, unmoored from Belgium and adrift in America.  To understand and retrieve his heritage, Sante wrote this memoir of sorts, often more a book about where Sante came from than about his own experiences.  Verviers is a hard-luck industrial town in the Walloon south of Belgium, and generations of his ancestors have lived there within a few miles.  Sante has escaped Verviers’ gravitational pull like none of his forebears, but this book is the result of something pulling him back.  On a personal note, the notion for this blog came to me one night two years ago as I was fretting over an impending trip to Belgium and realizing that I didn’t have a book.  Now I’ve found a Belgium book.

Wikipedia tells you a little about SanteThis excerpt, the first chapter, will not tell you what the book is like. This passage is perhaps more representative. Here is a list of pieces he has written for the New York Review of Books, some of which are available to non-subscribers. More about Sante and his home here. W.S. Di Piero (The New York Times) calls it a forensics of remembrance, an investigation of selfhood as it is articulated in and by history. Geoff Dyer (The Independent) read a compelling narrative compiled from the shavings of memory, with lapses into accretion and survey. Charles Taylor (Salon) tuned out during long sections on Belgian history and culture (I quite liked them). Steven G. Kellman (USA Today (Society for the Advancement of Education)) calls it a lush, exotic plant that garnishes the varnished wooden shelves that house most other memoirs. Richard Bernstein (The New York Times) says Sante strives to sustain a literary and psychological intensity that the material itself doesn’t quite allow. It didn’t make Ronnie Cordova want to go to Belgium. Sante writes about FrenchThe Believer interviewed Sante in 2004. So did Peter Doyle, for Scan. Brian Berger interviewed him in 2008. So did Suzanne Menghraj, for Guernica. Watch Sante talk about cigarettes in 2007. Listen to Sante discuss Belgium’s split personality on this BBC programHere is Pinakothek, Sante’s blog about pictures. Sante posted these pictures, discussed in the book (I think) and complementing it well. I won’t try to explain this.

Buy it now at Amazon.com.