March 2010

Uniastate Bears
Photo of Jorwert by wisze used under a Creative Commons license.

Geert Mak, Jorwerd: The Death of the Village in Late Twentieth-Century Europe (Harvill Press, 2001).
Never even 700 people, the Frisian village of Jorwert (Jorwerd in Dutch) had shrunk to less than half that figure by the end of the century, a decline mirrored in small agricultural villages across Europe.  Industrial and more efficient farming have taken the jobs of laborers and milkmaids; sons and daughters move to cities, and those they leave behind grow older.  Mak, a Dutch journalist whose other work I have have really liked, moved to Jorwerd to chronicle these changes and capture what he could of a passing way of life.

Google Books give you this. Wikipedia’s entry on Mak is here, and its entry on Jorwert is here.  The NLPVF calls it a poignant monument. Charles Shere says it belongs on a special shelf in his mental bookcase. John de Falbe says this remarkable book does not pretend to have answers, but it presents questions in their true complexity. Here are some pictures on Flickr, Wiki Commons and Google Image Search.

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Self-Portrait as the Apostle Paul, 1661, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Mariet Westermann, Rembrandt (Phaidon, 2000).
Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in 1606 in Leiden, where he started his career, but in 1631 he moved to Amsterdam, where he lived and worked for the rest of his life.  In 1639, he moved into a fine house on the Jodenbreestraat, now a museum, and after his 1656 bankruptcy he moved to the Jordaan. Westermann has written an excellent survey of Rembrandt’s career for a general reader, with a concise analysis of many individual works, some explanation of what is known about Rembrandt, and a bit of context about 17th-century Amsterdam. The book is wonderfully illustrated.  The chapter on Rembrandt’s engravings and etchings, for which he was better known than for his painting until photographs of the latter became available, feels like too much was compressed into too few pages, but surely it was a challenge to reduce his oeuvre to a work of this size, and for the most part Westermann and Phaidon carry it off.

Here is Westermann’s bio at NYU. She’s off to Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, I can’t any ungated reviews of this book. Is this a problem for general-interest art books?  Here is the website for the Rembrandthuis, and here is the Rijksmuseum’s site.

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Image by *Leanda used under a Creative Commons license.

Geert Mak, Amsterdam (Harvill Press, 2001).
A readable and lively general interest history of Amsterdam, from its origins as a medieval fishing village to recent confrontations between squatters and police. Non-natives may have trouble following some of the place names, but there are useful maps, which complement Mak’s telling of how the city has grown through the centuries.  Mak is perhaps too close to some of the turmoil since the 1960s to depict the trees as a forest, and so the last chapter can be a little to follow, but the rest of his account sets a high bar.  If I could read only one book before a trip to Amsterdam, this would be it.

Mak’s website has all sorts of interesting stuff on it. Here is Wikipedia’s page on Mak. Sarah became infuriated with the English translation (not a reaction I had) and then enjoyed it in Dutch. Andrew R.L. Cayton compares Amsterdam and Paris. National Geographic calls it lively and often surprising.

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Van Gogh Cafe at night
Photo of Arles by Greg_e used under a Creative Commons license.

Martin Gayford, The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence (Little, Brown, 2006).
In early 1888, Vincent Van Gogh moved from Paris to Arles, in southern France, where he hoped to find a new world to paint.  Van Gogh fixed up a yellow house and dreamed of starting a commune of artists, and to that end he implored Paul Gauguin to join him.  In October, Gauguin arrived, and the two artists together enjoyed an incredibly productive collaboration of sorts until December, when they fell out and Gauguin took the train north.  The two never saw each other again: Van Gogh died in mid-1890, and Gauguin wound up in Tahiti. Gayford takes full advantage of rich sources, including Van Gogh’s letters.  The only disappointment is that the many pictures of the paintings of Van Gogh and Gaugin are black and white, a terrible decision by the publisher, especially given the importance of color to both artists.  If you can, read it with a better source of Van Gogh’s art at hand — Judy Sund’s Van Gogh will do the trick nicely.

If you don’t recognize the scene, compare the photo above to this. Google Books lets you take a look at the book. Peter Schjeldahl (The New Yorker) calls it a skillfully ordered collection of informative and entertaining nuggets of intellectual and personal biography. Adam Jusko says the drama of the story makes it worth reading even for those who are only passingly familiar with the work of Van Gogh and Gauguin. Sue Gaisford (The Independent) calls it drily witty, original and profoundly absorbing. Robert Freedman, M.D. (American Journal of Psychiatry) says it is ideal for psychiatrists because Gayford lets Van Gogh and Gauguin speak for themselves. Richard Cork (The Guardian) appreciates the focus on the nine weeks in the two artists were together. Sue Bond says it gives a robust feeling for the way the two of them painted, and the different approaches they took. Jennifer Reese (Entertainment Weekly) gives it an A. Aditi Raychoudhury calls it an intricate, delicate, heart felt, and intensely human account that sheds light on what drove Van Gogh and Gauguin. Michele Heather Pollock applauds masterful storytelling. Deborah Hern says Gayford fashions a dramatic narrative. Peter Conrad (The Observer) calls it a book about colour. Sebastian Smee (The Spectator) says the story of those two months is tragic, pathetic, unfathomable, and so strange it simply has to be real. Clive Wilmer (The New Statesman) says its merit is in Gayford’s judgment of the issues. Michael Prodger (The Telegraph) thinks it’s wonderfully perceptive. Zane Ewton says Gayford turns legenday art figures into people. Gayford wrote this article in Apollo shortly before the book was released. More recently, Gayford took on a more recent theory about Van Gogh’s ear, and found more to say about Van Gogh. And here’s a Van Gogh walking tour of Arles.

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Both sides
Photo of Amsterdam by Photochiel used under a Creative Commons license.

Janwillem van de Wetering, Outsider In Amsterdam (Soho Press, 2003).
Crime fiction set in 1970s and featuring a duo of Amsterdam detectives, Grijpstra and de Gier, the first in a series of such mysteries by van de Wetering.  Piet Verboom is found hanging from a beam in his seventeenth-century house in central Amsterdam, the victim of what some detectives might have taken for a suicide, but Grijpstra and de Gier find a crime to solve. Other readers might find it too languid, but I quite enjoyed it.

Here is Wikipedia’s entry about van de Wetering. Here is a bio from Dunn and Powell Books, and another from the New Netherland Institute. When he died in 2008, the Guardian ran this obituary, and the Ellsworth (Maine) American ran this one. Cathy gave it only a B- but says it serves up a feast in the city and culture of Amsterdam. In a survey of van de Wetering’s career, Avram Davidson says it explores in fictional form philosophical and existential questions. Glenn Harper saw a 1979 Dutch movie adaptation. In 1975, Time said van de Wetering writes with pace, freshness and laconic precision, and that he clearly relishes irony. This novel got Peter Rozovsky turned onto international crime fiction.

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Dark Amsterdam-39
Photo by Enric Martinez used under a Creative Commons license.

Rupert Thomson, The Book Of Revelation (Knopf, 2000).
A novel, set in Amsterdam, about man, a dancer, who is abducted by three women and sexually abused for some weeks before he is released on a suburban lawn.  Over the second half of the novel, he struggles with what was done to him.  A story which could have been exploitative but isn’t, but at the same time I hesitate to recommend it because it can be, as many of the linked reviews say, disturbing. But if it sounds like your cup of tea, maybe it is.

Thomson’s site has a biography and other information about him. Jonathan Miles (Salon) says what seems at first glance an exercise in subverted prurience blossoms into a disturbing fable of abuse. John Grant says it’s a novel which can be taken in terms of its surface as a psychological thriller of sorts, but it’s very much more than that. Amanda Jeremin Harris says it’s about the movement of consciousness. Bridget is undecided about it. J.A. (Barcelona Review) says the plot is perfectly constructed in an unconventional, ultra-modern manner that lures, teases, shocks and dazzles. James Hynes (Boston Review) says the long aftermath of the narrator’s captivity and humiliation is the book’s true subject. Richard Bernstein (The New York Times) warns it may give you nightmares. Sarah Weinman calls it brilliant, disturbing stuff. Armando couldn’t put it down. Eric Arvin found a great line. Bibliolatrist calls it intense, gripping and disturbing. The Bat Segundo Show #138 touched on the book. Here is an excerpt of an on-line chat with Thomson at The Guardian after the book came out. Maud Newton interviewed Thomson.  RJ Dent has the film trailer (scroll down).

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