Why the Dutch are Different: A Journey into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands – Ben Coates

Summary from Goodreads:

The first book to offer an in depth look at hidden Holland and the fascinating people that live there, Why the Dutch are Different is an entertaining book about a country unlike any other. The Netherlands are a tiny nation that punch above their weight on the world stage, where prostitutes are entitled to sick pay and prisons are closing due to lack of demand. After a chance encounter, Ben Coates left behind life in London to move to the Netherlands, where he learned the language, worked for Dutch company and married a Dutch wife. He takes readers into the heart of his adopted country, going beyond the usual tourist attractions and cliches to explore what it is that makes the Dutch the Dutch, Holland not the Netherlands and the colour orange so important. A travelogue, a history and a personal account of a changing country – Ben Coates tells the tale of an Englishman who went Dutch and liked it.

Before I begin this review, I just wanted to say sorry for having been so inactive on here over the past two months. A lot of big changes have been happening in my life, and my blog has sadly been very neglected as of late. I’m trying to work through my ridiculous backlog at the moment, so expect lots of reviews over the next couple of weeks!

I read Ben Coates’ Why the Dutch are Different about two months ago (I told you my backlog is really out of hand) and really enjoyed it. I’m thinking about continuing my studies in the Netherlands and went through a period of obsessive reading about all things Dutch. If you, like me, are at all interested in learning about why the Dutch are so obsessed with the colour orange or how the Netherlands came to be so flat, I would definitely recommend reading this book.

While it is not particularly profound, it does provide a funny and informative introduction to Dutch history, politics, and geography. I particularly enjoyed the personal anecdotes that were thrown in and I learnt some really fascinating facts and details. In particular, the chapters on politics and immigration were really interesting and well-researched and I loved learning more about the formation of the Dutch landscape.

Fun fact: did you know that pretty much every cliché about the Netherlands is in some way linked to the country’s relationship with water? From the windmills that were used to pump fields dry, to the flatness of the land that was left behind, to the bicycles that travelled easily across this smooth terrain, everything comes back to the country’s ongoing battle against the tides. Bricks paved roads built on dangerously soft ground; tulips thrived in the silty reclaimed soil; cows grew fat on rich moist grass; glasses of milk and beer were safe to drink when clean water was in short supply; people grew tall from drinking all the milk; and thick wooden clogs kept farmers’ feet dry when trudging through boggy fields. Fascinating stuff.

All in all, this is an entertaining and relaxing read. It is unlikely to revolutionise your world, but you might learn a few fun facts about a really fascinating country that is rapidly changing. Recommended.

Have you read Why the Dutch are Different? What did you think of it? Have you ever been the Netherlands? And do you have any recommendations for good books about the Netherlands/set in the Netherlands/written by a Dutch writer? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

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When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Summary from Goodreads:

At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated. When Breath Becomes Air, which features a foreword by Dr. Abraham Verghese and an epilogue by Kalanithi’s wife, Lucy, chronicles Kalanithi’s transformation from a naïve medical student “possessed,” as he wrote, “by the question of what, given that all organisms die, makes a virtuous and meaningful life” into a young neurosurgeon at Stanford, guiding patients toward a deeper understanding of death and illness, and finally into a patient and a new father to a baby girl, confronting his own mortality.

Oh my goodness, THIS BOOK!! I made the horrible, horrible mistake of finishing this book right before starting a shift at work, where I spent the next eight hours in a sort of daze, wandering around the bookshop like a zombie and struggling to process my feelings. I couldn’t bawl my eyes out (although I really wanted to). I couldn’t escape and just be alone with my thoughts. I couldn’t just go upstairs and eat away the sadness that this book made me feel. It was only later, when I came back to my apartment after work, that I fully digested what I had read.

When Breath Becomes Air is one of the most beautifully-written, honest, heartbreaking, and affecting memoirs I have ever read. I knew it was going to be an emotional investment before I even started it (come on, it’s a book written by someone who knows they are going to die soon) and it did indeed break my heart to read, but it is also incredibly life-affirming. Kalanithi’s prose is gorgeous (oh yeah, he also had an MA in English Literature btw) – it’s poetic without being pretentious, simple without being too simplistic, and there is not a trace of self-pity to be found anywhere.

I do not think you should read this book because the story of an incredibly gifted man who had his life taken away at such a young age might give you the motivation to live your life more fully. Read this book because that talented, inspiring man has some very important things to say that need to be listened to. Read this book with the knowledge that you might not always be able to understand everything someone goes through, but you can set aside the time to listen to their story and hopefully give them the dignity and respect they deserve as a human being, in life or in death.

Have you read When Breath Becomes Air? What did you think? I would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

In Other Words – Jhumpa Lahiri

“Those who don’t belong to any specific place can’t, in fact, return anywhere. The concepts of exile and return imply a point of origin, a homeland. Without a homeland and without a true mothertongue, I wander the world, even at my desk. In the end I realise that it wasn’t a true exile: far from it. I am exiled even from the definition of exile.” 

– Jhumpa Lahiri/Ann Goldstein, In Other Words

As someone with three passports but no true homeland, three languages yet no true mothertongue, and a very fragmented cultural identity, these words from Jhumpa Lahiri’s beautiful and intimate non-fiction debut resonate strongly with me and I often find myself thinking about them.

Born in London to Bengali immigrants and raised in the USA, Lahiri spent most of her childhood trying to reconcile her parents’ Bengali heritage and language with the pervasive influence of American culture and the English language. At the age of twenty-five, while working on a PhD in Renaissance Studies, Lahiri decided to learn a language that had captivated her for many years – Italian. For close to twenty years, she attended private lessons in New York, did her grammar exercises dutifully, and caught brief snippets of conversation on the subway and on her few trips to Italy, yet true mastery of the language eluded her. Finally, seeking full immersion, she moved to Rome with her family for a “trial by fire, a sort of baptism” into a new language and world.

In Rome, Lahiri began to read, and then to write solely in Italian. This book is a polished and edited version of what Lahiri wrote in her journals – a raw and intimate account of learning to express oneself in another language and the journey of a writer seeking a new voice. Presented in a dual-language format, it is a book about exile, linguistic and otherwise, written with honesty, clarity and most importantly, a powerful awareness of its own imperfection. Interestingly and quite controversially in fact, Lahiri did not attempt to translate her own writing from Italian into English, stating that she needed to sever all ties to the English language in order to fully immerse herself in the Italian language. Rather, she hired the magnificent Ann Goldstein (who I cannot praise highly enough for her translations of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels) to do this for her. Unfortunately, as I cannot read Italian, this meant that I was, in a sense, exiled linguistically from Lahiri’s words. Ironically fitting, I think (although I really wish that I could read Italian).

As someone who has spent a great deal of time learning languages, I could identify with the frustration and excitement of learning to express oneself in another language that Lahiri describes. Her writing is clumsy and repetitive at times, but Lahiri is so painfully aware of this that you can forgive her for it. I for one believe that writing in a second or third language makes one feel incredibly vulnerable and exposed, and I applaud Lahiri for her courage in publishing this book. I greatly enjoyed it and would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in language, particularly the relationship between identity and language.

Have you read this book? Or any of Jhumpa Lahiri’s other books? What did you think? I would love to hear from you. 🙂 

~Anna

Around The World in 26 Books!

Earlier this week, while talking to Tristen over at musingsfromablogabroad, I came to the realisation that the list of countries that I have read books from is shockingly short. I have read a lot of European, American, and Australian literature and, well, not that much else. It’s terrible, I know! Anyway, I’ve decided to remedy this by setting myself a challenge: I am going to try to read one book from a different country for each letter of the alphabet (i.e. A for Argentina, B for Belarus, etc).

As you can probably imagine, it gets a little tricky with letters like Q, Y and X, which is why I need your help. I thought I would post my very tentative reading list and if you have any recommendations, please let me know. I am finding it especially difficult to find Qatari, Omani and Yemeni literature that has been translated into English. Anyway, here it is!

A – Argentina, Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges

B – Belarus, Chernobyl Power by Svetlana Alexievich

C – Cuba, Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

D – Denmark, Out Of Africa by Karen Blixen

E – Egypt, Arabian Days and Nights by Naguib Mahfouz

F – Finland, Under the North Star by Väinö Linna

GGreece, Zorba the Greek by Nikos Kazantzakis

H – Hungary, Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb

I – Iran, The Blind Owl by Sadegh Hedayat

J – Jordan, Snow in Amman: An Anthology of Short Stories from Jordan by Ibtihal Mahmood

K – Korea (South), The Vegetarian by Han Kang

L – Libya, The Return by Hisham Matar

M – Moldova, The Good Life Elsewhere by Vladimir Lorchenkov

N – Nigeria, We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

O – Oman, Earth Weeps, Saturn Laughs by Abdulaziz al-Farsi

P – Philippines, Noli Me Tangere by José Rizal

Q – Qatar, The Holy Sail by Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud or The Girl Who Fell to Earth by Sophia al-Maria (not sure if this one counts because she grew up in the US, Qatar and Egypt)

R – Romania, any book by Herta Müller

S – Singapore, Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe

T – Thailand, Sightseeing by Rattawut Sapcharoeasop

U – Uruguay, The Ship of Fools by Cristina Peri Rossi

V – Vietnam, The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

W – Wales, Gillian Clarke: Collected Poems by Gillian Clarke

X – Mexico, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros

Y – Yemen, A Land Without Jasmine by Wajdi al-Ahdal

Z – Zimbabwe, We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo

Have you read any of these books? Do you have any recommendations? I would greatly appreciate your help and if any of you want to join this reading challenge, please let me know. 🙂 

~Anna

EDIT: I forgot to mention that Tristen and I will be attempting this challenge together. Well, I didn’t exactly forget – I’m just technologically challenged and couldn’t figure out how to add the link to her blog. Anyway, I figured out how to do it and you can find her blog here. I strongly recommend checking it out as her reviews are very good and she has read pretty much every book on the planet. Oh, and she is much better at posting regularly than I am.

Fight Like A Girl – Clementine Ford

Summary from Goodreads:

Online sensation, fearless feminist heroine and scourge of trolls and misogynists everywhere, Clementine Ford is a beacon of hope and inspiration to thousands of Australian women and girls. Her incendiary debut Fight Like A Girl is an essential manifesto for feminists new, old and soon-to-be, and exposes just how unequal the world continues to be for women. Crucially, it is a call to arms for all women to rediscover the fury that has been suppressed by a society that still considers feminism a threat.

I picked this book up a few months ago, read the first chapter, and then put it down again. I guess I just wasn’t really in the mood for it and it did feel a bit like reading ‘Feminism 101’. NOTE: THAT SHOULD NOT DISCOURAGE YOU FROM READING IT. A few months later, I saw it in the ‘hot picks’ section at my local library and picked it up again and I AM SO GLAD I DID.

Ford’s writing is punchy, sarcastic and incredibly accessible without dumbing down the big theoretical issues too much. In many ways this book is perfect for teenagers (I was going to write teenage girls but it’s essential that boys read this kind of stuff too) and I wish that it had been around when I was younger. If you are well-versed in feminist theory, you are unlikely to learn anything new here, but Ford’s arguments are well-summarised and she adds a personal touch to many of them by sharing her personal experiences. Importantly, Ford acknowledges that she is an able-bodied, middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender white woman and that unpacking privilege is an incredibly difficult but important task. Reading this book reminded me that Ford’s particular brand of feminism is not one that all women identify with and many of the ideas I take for granted are in fact quite controversial.

My key criticism of this book is that it was a bit repetitive at times. In fact, it was written like a very long Facebook rant and I would have appreciated a little more structure. This humour-driven, rant-like style works well for short, snappy pieces online or in the newspaper, but in a longer form, it can be exhausting to read. Criticisms aside, I think it is incredibly important that people read and discuss this book and I am so happy to see that it is selling so well here in Australia. Also, on a side note, Clementine is a lovely woman who often comes into the bookstore where I work and you should support her by reading and discussing her book!

Have you read Fight Like A Girl? What did you think? Would love to hear your thoughts (even and especially those that differ from mine). 

~Anna

My Top 5 Post-Election Recommendations

I don’t think that I’m alone in saying that the results of the recent US election have left me feeling pretty down. But more than anything, they have left me wanting answers. How could this have happened? Why did it happen? What can we do about it? Almost every day customers come into the bookstore and ask me to recommend something that will lift them out of their post-election depression, which has inspired me to put together this list of my top five post-election recommendations.

1. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis – J.D. Vance

Written by a former Marine and Yale Law School Graduate, Hillbilly Elegy is a poignant account of growing up in a poor Appalachian town, that offers a broader, probing look at the struggles of America’s white working class. Part memoir, part historical and social analysis, this book is a fascinating study of class, culture, and the American dream (or rather, the loss of the American dream for many). While this book does not explain – at least not directly – why Trump won the election, it certainly is a touching and troubling meditation on the lives and experiences of those who made up his largest voter base.

2. Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities – Rebecca Solnit

Although it was published in 2004, this book could not be more relevant at the moment. In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit makes a radical case for hope as a commitment to act in a world whose future remains uncertain and unknowable. Drawing on her decades of activism and her extensive research into political, social, and environmental history, Solnit reflects on the often-neglected victories of activism and argues that the positive consequences of our actions are not always immediately seen, directly knowable, or even measurable. As usual, Solnit’s writing is beautiful, but more than that, she hits home with her hope-filled message for anyone who feels overwhelmed, discouraged, and desperate about the current state of political affairs.

3. The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead 

While most of the books on this list are non-fiction, the power of a novel should not be underestimated. This book deals with America’s disturbing racial history and reimagines the path that slaves took to escape the Deep South as an actual railroad that runs beneath the earth. To be honest, I haven’t read this one personally, but quite a few of my coworkers attest to its brilliance. Oh, and it won the 2016 National Book Award, so there’s that.

4. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America – Nancy Isenberg

This book is a fascinating history of the class system in America, extending from colonial times to the present, and challenges all comforting myths about equality. It’s well-written, thoroughly-researched and very relevant today. Would definitely recommend reading it in conjunction with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. 

5. Year of Wonders – Geraldine Brooks 

Sometimes I think that the best cure for post-election depression is a little bit of perspective, which brings me to my final recommendation. Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders is set in 17th century England in a small, isolated village gripped by the plague (how’s that for perspective?) and tells the story of a brave young woman struggling to survive and to prevent the disintegration of her community. While it sounds pretty depressing, this book is actually incredibly uplifting and weirdly relevant to the US election.

Anyway, that’s it from me. Which post-election reads do you recommend?

~Anna

The Opposite of Loneliness – Marina Keegan

“We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life”. 

A few weeks ago, I was speaking to one of my friends about how strange it feels to be graduating soon and in response, she recommended that I read this book. And so I did. And I thought that while flawed, it wonderfully captured the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of my generation.

Marina Keegan graduated from Yale in May 2012 and it seemed that she had a bright future planned out. She had a play that was to be produced at the New York International Fringe Festival and a job waiting for her at the New Yorker. However, five days after her graduation, she died tragically in a car accident. Shortly after her death, her final essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ went viral, receiving more than 1.4 million hits.

The Opposite of Loneliness is a post-humous assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories and explores the universal struggle we all face as we work out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.

What I liked about this collection is that Marina doesn’t try too hard to sound older. Rather, she embraces her youth and the result is wonderful – it’s raw, fresh, and authentic. I think that young writers often feel a great deal of pressure to appear older, more sophisticated, more literary. You can tell that Marina grappled with this pressure, but her voice is still distinctly original.

Of course, her writing is not perfect. I felt that she tried a little too hard to be profound at times (some of the lines were very dramatic and felt a little forced) and all the endings were sad. There’s nothing wrong with sad endings, but when every single ending in a collection of stories and essays is sad, it gets a little depressing. I also thought that some of her short stories were a little contrived, although I did enjoy most of her non-fiction, especially her opening essay.

Overall, I enjoyed this book and am sad that I will not get to see Marina develop as a writer. That said however, I think that we all have a tendency to idealise the dead. Last week, when Leonard Cohen passed away, we sold more copies of his CDs in one week than we had in the entire year of 2015. Does this mean that the quality of his music improved overnight? No. It means that people view him differently now that his is dead – their image of him has been softened somewhat around the edges. While Marina was certainly a promising writer, it is important to remember that this collection, in its current form, probably wouldn’t have existed were she still alive.

You can read Marina’s essay ‘The Opposite of Loneliness’ here.

~Anna