The Netherlands

Photo by Trey Ratcliff used under a Creative Commons license.

Gerbrand Bakker, The Twin (Vintage Books (London), 2009).
Helmer van Wonderen, the narrator of this novel, is the surviving half of twins, now in his late fifties and living in a farmhouse in north Holland, near the IJsselmeer, with his father, who is slowly dying. Helmer has been a prisoner of events decades earlier, particularly the death of his brother Henk.  Then Henk’s fiancée returns, asking Helmer if her disenchanted teen-age son, also named Henk, can come and live with him.  Both are trapped in unhappiness, but is there the possibility of change?

Here are Wikipedia’s pages on the author and the book, which won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. NPR offers an excerpt. The Complete Review says little happens, and even major events seem almost incidental, but it is an absolutely fascinating read. Catherine Taylor (The Guardian) says loneliness and the beauty of the landscape create an atmosphere of inchoate yearning. Nicola Barr (The Guardian) calls it a novel of lost chances, of lost lives, of sadness and regret. Paul Binding (The Independent) says it’s a novel of great brilliance and subtlety. Susan Salter Reynolds (Los Angeles Times) says Bakker’s writing is so fabulously clear that each sentence leaves a rippling wake. If you can access their archive, Tim Parks reviewed it in The New York Review of Books. The NLPVF says it’s ostensibly a book about the countryside, seen through the eyes of a farmer. Gavin (Page 247) saw themes and characters which were mythic in scope by completely rooted in the reality of daily work and a brilliantly realized sense of place. Anne Posten (The Quarterly Conversation) says it cannot be said to be innovative, yet is unique and surprising for the depth it finds in a quiet tale of pastoral realism. Kevin thinks very few books explore interpersonal relationships as well. Trevor knew he’d return to it. Chad W. Post (Three Percent) found Bakker’s prose mesmerizing, lyrical and understated. Danny Yee appreciates the strong sense of time and place in the seasonal and daily rhythms of a small farm near the IJsselmeer. Lisa Hill calls it deceptively simple. Randy Boyagoda (The Globe and Mail) calls it unapologetically slow-paced, patient in its revelations. Sue Magee was reminded of Coetzee or a more structured Ondaatje. Jeremy Nussbaum compares Bakker to Chekhov. Douglas Messerli describes the plot in detail (n.b. – spoilers). Jeannette Cooperman says it is a book you feel in your bones, and one that blooms where least expected. Emily had fun reading it as a piece of Gothic fiction. Plume of Words calls it a perfectly paced, insightful novel whose rhythms lull you into something like wonder, and says that it makes possible the sense of strangeness, of traveling into a different cultural mindset. Elinor Teele (California Literary Review) says there is something so peculiarly Northern European about it that one has a hard time trying to describe it without quoting half the book. Winstonsdad says the descriptions of the platteland scenery impart isolation and strangeness. William Rycroft says the descriptions of rural life and the Dutch countryside have a poetic beauty without obvious poetic flourishes. 3GoodRats calls it a novel of intense loss and suppressed rage. Carlos Amantea says Bakker has solved the problem of making a dull life interesting. Tommy Wallach (The Arts Fuse) says it renders static solitude dynamic and readable. Keep cool, Wendy. Amos Lassen was deeply touched. Tim enjoyed reading and contemplating. Amy found an unexpected surprise at the end. And Renate, Simone and Jilles, the fiction buyers at the American Book Center stores in Amsterdam and The Hague, explain why they stock it and other Dutch authors in English translation; they call The Twin an ode to the flat and bleak Dutch countryside, with its ditches and its cows and its endless grey skies.  Watch Bakker tell you a little something about the novel. Stephen finds Bakker being interviewed by Eileen Battersby in the Irish Times. Ramona Koval interviewed Bakker for Australian radio.

Buy it at

Photo of the Mauritshuis by Jackie Kever used under a Creative Commons license.

Mariët Westermann, A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585-1718 (Yale University Press, 2005).
A survey of Dutch art from the height of the Netherlands’ power and glory. There are passing nods to architecture, prints and sculpture, but the focus here is Dutch painting. This is an excellent introduction to the period, with a helpful discussion of different genres, themes and other aspects of Dutch painting, and the book is beautifully illustrated. Visitors to the Rijksmuseum and Mauritshuis will see many works discussed by Westermann, and will find that her explanations compare well with the museums’ audio guides.

Here is Westermann’s bio at NYU. She also wrote the book on Rembrandt. Google Books lets you take a look. Beautiful Lofty Things calls it lively and interesting. Ben used it as a source. Mae saw the food. Laura recommends it. I believe it was a New York Times Notable Book, but I can’t find that on the New York Times. After you’ve read it, plan your trip to the Rijksmuseum.

Buy it at

Photo of Amsterdam by MorBCN used under a Creative Commons license.

Manfred Wolf, ed., Amsterdam: A Traveler’s Literary Companion (Whereabouts Press, 2001).
A collection of short pieces, fiction and otherwise, set in Amsterdam and organized by neighborhoods and themes.  Much of this volume appears in English for the first time.  I particularly liked Geert Mak’s account of hanging around Centraal Station at night, and Marion Bloem’s memoir of a Jordaan childhood, but there are no duds here.

Here’s the publisher’s page, and here’s more about Wolf. It’s on National Geographic’s list of recommendations for the city.

Buy it at

Amsterdam Centraal Station
Photo of Amsterdam Centraal Station by lambertwm used under a Creative Commons license.

Cees Nooteboom, Rituals (Louisiana State University Press, 1983).
A novel in three parts, each about a suicide, more or less.  In the first, set in 1963, Inni Wintrop’s wife leaves him, and he decides to commit suicide, though he fails to kill himself.  The second, set in 1953, relates Inni’s encounter with Arnold Taads, and the third, set in 1973, relates Inni’s encounter with Philip Taads, the son of Arnold.  All three men lack purpose; they are detached from the world. All three have their own rituals to fill this emptiness.  Fans of existentialism will find much to like here.

Here are pages about Nooteboom from the author himselfthe NLPVFThe Complete Review and books and writers. David Levine caricatures him. The Complete Review calls it an excellent, thoughtful, touching novel. Traces says it is profound and penetrating while also accessible and interesting. Richard Crary posts two passages.  Andrew Johnson posts one, and adds that Nooteboom’s prose demands to be reread promptly on completion. At Lolo:Lit, L.B. says it is truly adult, in that a reader must have an adult brain, while O.A. questions Inni’s attitudes towards women. Many bloggers have listed it as one of 1001 books to read before you die, but not many have — get cracking, people.

Buy Rituals at

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.

Buy Jorwerd at

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.

Buy it at

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.

Buy Amsterdam at

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.

Buy it at

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).

Buy it at

Zandvoort dune
Photo by maessive used under a Creative Commons license.

Marcel Möring, The Dream Room (William Morrow, 2002).
A concise and graceful novella about a number of things all at once: coming of age, flight, a fragile family.  At the outset, the narrator, David, is an adolescent in the 1960s, but the story moves both backward and forward by decades. Möring, an acclaimed Dutch author, uses a light touch in painting a story that may be largely autobiographical.

Here is Möring’s site.  The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature offers this information about him. Marianne Brace profiled him for The Independent. The Complete Review says that while it isn’t perfect, it is exceptional; it also provides links, including reviews in German, French and Dutch. Justine Jordan (The Guardian) calls it a miracle of compression: everything is significant, yet nothing is laboured. Alfred Hickling (The Guardian) says it’s effortlessly written, charmingly drawn, and as light as the thermals on which early airmen drifted. Carol Jiménez says it is magical how the story emerges rather than evolves. Zulfikar Abbany (The Observer) sees too much missing between the pages.

Buy it at

Next Page »