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

O Pioneers! – Willa Cather

Summary from Goodreads:

O Pioneers! (1913) was Willa Cather’s first great novel, and to many it remains her unchallenged masterpiece. No other work of fiction so faithfully conveys both the sharp physical realities and the mythic sweep of the transformation of the American frontier—and the transformation of the people who settled it. Cather’s heroine is Alexandra Bergson, who arrives on the wind-blasted prairie of Hanover, Nebraska, as a girl and grows up to make it a prosperous farm. But this archetypal success story is darkened by loss, and Alexandra’s devotion to the land may come at the cost of love itself.

Where has Willa Cather been all my life? Until fairly recently, I had barely even heard of her, but now I want to read everything she has ever written. In preparation for my road trip across the USA I have been reading a lot of American literature and I picked up O Pioneers! after a dear friend and former colleague recommended it to me. In short, I thought it was beautifully written, both simple and epic, and so perfectly captured the harsh, windswept prairielands of Nebraska.

Reading this book, it was clear to me that Cather knew the land which she describes intimately, and felt a strong connection to it. Her descriptions of the prairielands are so vivid and rich, as are her portrayals of the various peoples (Bohemians, Swedes, Norwegians, French, etc.) who settled there. As enamoured as I was with the richness of these descriptions, I did still feel that the story was a little, I don’t know, undercooked? Some of the characters felt a bit one-dimensional and I didn’t really care for the melodramatic finale. Honestly, I would happily have read 600+ pages about farmers planting crops and fighting the elements, but tragic love triangles? Meh.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that I disliked this book. The aspects of O Pioneers! that I loved, I really loved. This was my first Cather, and it certainly won’t be my last, as I felt a real connection to her writing that left me craving more. I have a good feeling that her other works, such as My Ántonia and Death Comes for the Archbishop, will be more fully formed and even more to my liking. At least I hope so.

Have you read O Pioneers? Or anything else by Willa Cather? What do you think of her writing? Would love to hear from you. Sorry it’s been so long since I last posted. 

~Anna

This Must Be The Place – Maggie O’Farrell

Summary from Goodreads:

Meet Daniel Sullivan, a man with a complicated life. A New Yorker living in the wilds of Ireland, he has children he never sees in California, a father he loathes in Brooklyn and a wife, Claudette, who is a reclusive ex-film star given to shooting at anyone who ventures up their driveway. He is also about to find out something about a woman he lost touch with twenty years ago, and this discovery will send him off-course, far away from wife and home. Will his love for Claudette be enough to bring him back? Maggie O’Farrell’s seventh novel is a dazzling, intimate epic about who we leave behind and who we become as we search for our place in the world.

I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about this book, so hopefully writing this review will help me organise my thoughts. After reading the first two chapters of this book, I was intrigued by the story and decided to commit to finishing it, but I wasn’t totally hooked. By chapter four, I was quite enjoying the reading experience. At around page 200 I was engrossed in the story, but towards the end I found myself losing interest rapidly. Even now I don’t really know where I stand.

First, the good:

  1. Maggie O’Farrell is a quirky and engaging writer with a particular knack for creating complex, believable characters. She manages her large cast of characters effortlessly, moving between points of view, but returning regularly to the central couple, American linguist Daniel Sullivan and retired, reclusive French-English movie star Claudette Wells.
  2. Stylistically, the novel takes some audacious risks, most of which are pulled off very effectively. One section is given over to an illustrated auction catalogue of Claudette memorabilia purloined by a former personal assistant. O’Farrell inserts her own spoilers, telling us for instance that “in several years’ time Daniel will receive the news that his daughter has been killed in an accident”. Chapter headings skip around in an unpredictable fashion: “Lenny, Los Angeles, 1994”, for instance, or “Rosalind, Bolivia, 2015”. Lenny is the subject of the most fleeting cameo, and we do not actually meet Rosalind until page 418. While this might sound quite bizarre and confusing, I actually really enjoyed the chapters written in more experimental formats.
  3. O’Farrell writes with a wry sense of humour and ensures that the intricate and intimate details of dysfunctional families never get lost in the novel’s wide scope.
  4. I learnt a lot of new words reading this book. Note: I recommend reading this with a dictionary nearby.

Now for my criticisms:

  1. I thought the constant jumping between timelines was a bit too chaotic. Now I don’t mind stories that hop between past and present, and I don’t mind stories where each chapter is written from the perspective of a different character (I thought this was done extremely well in Homegoing for example), but this – this was way too disjointed for my taste. There were just too many characters, too many timelines, and too many details to take in.
  2. The novel struggles to maintain its credibility at times.
  3. My biggest problem with this book is that I struggled to engage with the plot and the characters. While I can appreciate O’Farrell’s skill in exploring the nuances of human relationships and her eye for detail, I ultimately just didn’t care enough about the characters to remain interested for 496 pages.

While I do have my criticisms, I nonetheless thought that This Must Be The Place was a quirky, well-written book and I would definitely be interested in reading more of Maggie O’Farrell’s work in the future. Recommended.

Have you read This Must Be The Place? Or any of Maggie O’Farrell’s other novels? Do you have any recommendations? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

The Phantom Tollbooth – Norton Juster

Summary from Goodreads:

For Milo, everything’s a bore. When a tollbooth mysteriously appears in his room, he drives through only because he’s got nothing better to do. But on the other side, things seem different. Milo visits the Island of Conclusions (you get there by jumping), learns about time from a ticking watchdog named Tock, and even embarks on a quest to rescue Rhyme and Reason! Somewhere along the way, Milo realizes something astonishing. Life is far from dull. In fact, it’s exciting beyond his wildest dreams…

Do you ever read a book and just wish that you had discovered it at a particular point in your life? Well, I so wish that I had read this book when I was a little human. I picked this one up because my good friend told me that it is the book that got her into reading (she is probably the most prolific reader I know and you can read all of her musings about books here), and I totally understand why. It’s basically a very punny love letter to the English language and the joys of reading and learning!

If you, like me, think that puns are the highest form of wit, then this is the book for you. In the magical world that Milo enters, we find markets where words are sold and mines full of numbers. We discover that Conclusions is an island that’s easy to jump to but hard to escape, that eating subtraction stew just makes you hungrier, and that to reach the Kingdom of Wisdom you must scale the Mountains of Ignorance. 10/10 for whip-smart wordplay.

A lot of people compare this book to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, which I can understand to an extent. Both books are highly imaginative, full of obsessives, and ought to go over children’s heads, but don’t. However, at least in my opinion, there is one big difference between them. The more you think about Alice in Wonderland, the more morbid and perverse it becomes. The Phantom Tollbooth on the other hand is a book filled with charm and joy that nonetheless carries an important message. It calls on us to rise to the challenge of the world by paying proper attention to its wonder and difficulty. As Princess Reason says, “whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer”.

The Phantom Tollbooth is a classic that will be read many many times and while I didn’t get to read it as a little human, I sure loved it as a slightly bigger one.

DISCLAIMER: “RESULTS ARE NOT GUARANTEED, BUT IF NOT PERFECTLY SATISFIED, YOUR WASTED TIME WILL BE REFUNDED.”

Have you read The Phantom Tollbooth? What did you think of it? Did you love it as much as I did? Would love to hear from you. 

~Anna

Lincoln in the Bardo – George Saunders

Summary from Goodreads:

On February 22, 1862, two days after his death, Willie Lincoln was laid to rest in a marble crypt in a Georgetown cemetery. That very night, shattered by grief, Abraham Lincoln arrives at the cemetery under cover of darkness and visits the crypt, alone, to spend time with his son’s body.

Set over the course of that one night and populated by ghosts of the recently passed and the long dead, Lincoln in the Bardo is a thrilling exploration of death, grief, the powers of good and evil, a novel – in its form and voice – completely unlike anything you have read before. It is also, in the end, an exploration of the deeper meaning and possibilities of life, written as only George Saunders can: with humor, pathos, and grace.

To be honest, I haven’t been desperately waiting for Saunders to finally produce a novel – especially not when presented with such outstanding short story collections such as Tenth of December and Pastoralia – but even if I had been, I would never have expected something as gripping, moving, or as flat-out strange as Lincoln In the Bardo.

The structure of the book is very unusual (I wouldn’t have expected anything less from Saunders), comprising of a series of different sources – some historical accounts of the night, some invented historical accounts of the night, and some accounts from ghosts that Willie becomes acquainted with over the course of the night. At first, this took some getting used to, but soon I was totally absorbed in the story and attached to all of the weird and wonderful characters.

As always, Saunders’ skill is in the punctuating of the fun, fantastical elements of his narrative with the sobering awfulness of reality. While some of the ghostly elements sound absurdly heightened – we meet ghosts covered in eyes, three sprit-bachelors who sweep through the skies trailing hats, and a host of other bizzare characters – what ultimately emerges is a moving portrait of grief over the loss of a child. Word of warning: this book is definitely a tearjerker (especially the ending, oh my god), but don’t let that discourage you from reading it. It is also hilarious and surreal and touching and honest and ugh, I’m running out of adjectives to describe this book. Just read it.

My only criticism of this book (and well, it’s not even really a criticism) is that Saunders is actually too good at what he does. While most authors require 300+ pages to make a character seem real and well-rounded, Saunders needs just ten. Or even less. The whole time I was reading this novel, I couldn’t help but think that it could have been condensed into one story and I would have felt the same way about it.

Overall, I thought this book was an absolute delight. It requires some patience, a willingness to embrace the unusual, and a bit of imagination, but it is oh so worth it. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Lincoln in the Bardo? Or any of George Saunders’ other books? What did you think? I would love to hear your opinions. 🙂 

~Anna

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Summary from Goodreads:

As teenagers in a Lagos secondary school, Ifemelu and Obinze fall in love. Their Nigeria is under military dictatorship, and people are leaving the country if they can. Ifemelu—beautiful, self-assured—departs for America to study. She suffers defeats and triumphs, finds and loses relationships and friendships, all the while feeling the weight of something she never thought of back home: race. Obinze—the quiet, thoughtful son of a professor—had hoped to join her, but post-9/11 America will not let him in, and he plunges into a dangerous, undocumented life in London.

Years later, Obinze is a wealthy man in a newly democratic Nigeria, while Ifemelu has achieved success as a writer of an eye-opening blog about race in America. But when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, and she and Obinze reignite their shared passion—for their homeland and for each other—they will face the toughest decisions of their lives.

Magnificent. As a big Adichie fan, I had pretty high expectations for this novel and thankfully it did not disappoint. Smart, funny, thought-provoking, moving – the list of adjectives I could use to describe this book is endless.

About halfway through the book, there is this scene where Ifemelu is at a posh dinner party in America and one of the guests makes the comment: “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country. If you write about how people are really affected by race, it’ll be too obvious. Black writers who do literary fiction in this country, all three of them, not the ten thousand who write bullshit ghetto books with the bright covers, have two choices: they can do precious or they can do pretentious. When you do neither, nobody knows what to do with you. So if you’re going to write about race, you have to make sure it’s so lyrical and subtle that the reader who doesn’t read between the lines won’t even know it’s about race. You know, a Proustian meditation, all watery and fuzzy, that at the end just leaves you feeling watery and fuzzy”. Well, Americanah is one of those books that is neither precious nor pretentious. And it is very much about race. And it is honest and well-written and wonderful.

Yes, this book is a love story (and a great one at that), but it is also so much more than that. It is about race, social inequality, immigration, self-acceptance, loss of cultural identity, and change. It’s full of memorable characters, hilarious and brutally honest commentary on cultural differences, and very detailed instructions on how to care for naturally kinky hair. At 477 pages, it is quite a chunky volume that does drag a little at times (I guess it is a bit Proustian in some ways), but it is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve read this year. Highly highly recommended.

Have you read Americanah? Or any of Adichie’s other books? Would love to hear your thoughts. 

~Anna

Neverwhere – Neil Gaiman

Summary from Goodreads:

Under the streets of London there’s a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks.

Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: Neverwhere.

Everyone has their opinions on Neil Gaiman, but I personally think he’s great and I really enjoyed reading this book. In particular, I think Gaiman has a real talent for seamlessly blending the mundane and the fantastical. In Neverwhere, Gaiman takes the people that you see every day in large cities, the ones you ignore and turn your heads from – the ones on the side of the road holding out empty cans, the ones muttering to themselves, the ones covered in filth and grime that you pretend not to see – and he creates a whole new world around them that is completely ignored by the inhabitants of London Above.

This world beneath London is terrifying – it’s full of sewage, grime, and monsters (both human and not-so-human). It is a world where old and new converge and time is relative, where there are regal rats and loyal rat-speakers who serve them, where darkness and shadows can come alive, and where thousand-year-old secrets are kept. This world is incredibly imaginative and Gaiman makes it seem just as real as the London that exists above it.

My main criticisms of this book are about the characters, specifically the main character. Richard is honestly the most useless noodle of a character I can think of. He is unbelievably passive and just, well, totally useless! By the end of the book he becomes ever so slightly less useless – maybe a worthless potato as opposed to a noodle. A little more substance, but still more like a foodstuff than an actual human being. Now I don’t need to like the protagonist to like the book, but Richard honestly made me want to throw this book against a wall. The other characters are vastly more interesting, but unfortunately we don’t really get to see any real character development, which is a bit disappointing.

All in all though, I thought this book was good fun! The world-building is fantastic, it’s funny, and it kept me up at night reading. It’s by no means a literary masterpiece, but it might make you think twice about those people who you often pretend don’t exist. Recommended.

Have you read Neverwhere? Or any of Neil Gaiman’s other books? What do you think of him? Would love to hear from you. 🙂

~Anna