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 Half.com.

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 Amazon.com.

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 Amazon.com.

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 Amazon.com.

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 Amazon.com.

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 Amazon.com.

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 Amazon.com.

Night walk
Photo by marie-II used under a Creative Commons license.

Willem Fredrik Hermans, The Darkroom of Damocles (Overlook, 2008).
A thriller about the occupation of the Netherlands during World War II, and more. Too short to serve in the army, Henri Osewoudt runs a tobacco shop in V, but after the country is occupied, he finds himself aiding the resistance under the direction of Dorbeck, an army officer who could be his twin. When the war is over, though, Osewoudt struggles to establish his bona fides.  The action moves all over Holland, from The Hague to Amsterdam to Lunteren to Breda, but much of it centers on Voorschoten and Leiden. The book forces you to turn the pages, but don’t turn them too fast — there is more going on here. This edition is Ina Rilke’s recent translation.

William Rycroft gives this introduction to Hermans. The Foundation for the Production and Translation of Dutch Literature offers this. Wikipedia’s page on him is here. The Complete Review describes it as a dark novel of a hapless soul trying to do right but in over his head. Stuart McGurk (The Financial Times) says it’s both an existential romp and a witty parable. Neel Mukherjee (The Telegraph) says it’s an edgy, uneasy novel about the human condition, effortlessly disguised as a thriller. Scott Esposito says it’s a riveting detective story and more. John Baker says the narrative is both a metaphysical mystery and a straight-forward wartime thriller. John Self appreciated the existential elements more than the plot of the thriller. Ben McNally says it’s action packed and psychologically irresistible. James Smith says Hermans leaves the reader in a crepuscular world of half-truths. Lizzy Siddal calls it increasingly Kafkaesque. Peter Guttridge (The Guardian) calls it brilliant. It made the longlist for the Best Translated Book of 2008 (more here).

Buy it at Amazon.com.

Herengracht at dawn
Photo of Amsterdam by Marcel Germain used under a Creative Commons license.

Harry Mulisch, The Assault (Pantheon, 1986).
A novel about World War II and its long aftermath in Holland.  In the winter of 1945, with liberation anticipated but not arrived, a collaborator, a policeman, is killed near the house of twelve-year-old Anton Steenwijk in Haarlem.  He leaves his hometown for Amsterdam but the consequences of the incident return to Anton again and again, as subsequent events cast new light on that night.  A short novel, with its own mysteries to be resolved, originally published in 1982, and told in five episodes.  The quality of the translation has been criticized — I wouldn’t know, but I enjoyed what I read.

Mulisch’s site is here. Here are pages about him at Wikipedia and The Complete Review. Mulisch turned 80 not long ago, and Josh Lacey (The Guardian) wished him a happy birthday. Ben Naparstek (The Age) also marked the day. The Complete Review calls it a strong, well-written novel about war, guilt and fate. Danny Yee says it’s an intense and powerful work, hard to put down. R.S. sees parallels to W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. The Bad Bohemian calls it a fine, thought-provoking read. Janice L. Willms sees a marvelous study of the caprices of memory. Nina Sankovitch says it’s a powerful novel. James says it’s one of the best novels he’s read. Nette Menke recommends it for insight into Dutch culture. Samantha recommends it as Netherlands reading. Nikki posts some favorite passages. According to elln, it is haunting and fascinating. And the World’s Smallest Book Group gave it four thumbs up. In an overview of modern Dutch literature, Margot Dijkgraaf calls it a perfectly structured, gripping narrative. Back in the day, Janet Maslin (The New York Times) reviewed the 1986 movie.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

For Van der Heijden ring ALL THREE of the RED bells
Photo by .m for matthijs used under a Creative Commons license.

Sean Condon, My ‘Dam Life (Lonely Planet, 2003).
A decade ago, Australian writer and funnyman Condon and his wife moved to Amsterdam, where she had a job editing a magazine.  It folded almost immediately, but the two of them stayed on, scrabbling for housing and work, and eventually this book.  Though Condon can be cloyingly self-absorbed, his book gives an outsider’s perspective on Amsterdam unlike that which most tourists will get.

Condon’s site is not uninteresting. Hans J.W. Werner calls it a treat, a travel book that’s not a travel book. Shriram Krishnamurthi calls it a moody, introspective book, sometimes horrifying but almost always compelling. Lonneke van Holland was ticked off a day later. Pip Farquharson says it’s realistic, witty and humourous. Don Heller calls it hilarious. Ian Sanders was amused. Alasdair Kay did this profile/interview. Jay Lee ought a copy from Condon in Amsterdam.

Buy it at Amazon.com.

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