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Category Archive for 'Netherlands'

Winner of innumerable prizes in both Ireland, where he grew up and went to college, and Scotland, to which he moved permanently with his family during the Irish Troubles in 1975, Bernard MacLaverty has always had a special place in my heart. His writing is unpretentious, realistic, and often filled with ironic humor, even when he is dealing with the complexities of relationships and the honest feelings of his sometimes quirky characters. This novel, his first in sixteen years, is worth waiting for – a novel about an older, retired couple, Gerry and Stella, married for decades, who have pursued their own goals separately, while living together, and have now reached a point at which they must consider whether they are still truly in love. Wanting a brief vacation away from Scotland, to which they, like the author and family have moved permanently from Northern Ireland, they have decided to spend a few days in Amsterdam – or rather, the wife, Stella, has suggested the location because there is a special place there that she wishes to see. Her genuinely caring husband Gerry is amenable to whatever she wants, but he has been living recently in an alcoholic haze, and his primary concern has been hiding the physical evidence of his consumption from her. MacLaverty, combining both subtlety and sometimes outrageous honesty, reveals the inner hearts and minds of both of these characters at a variety of times in their long relationship, from courtship through early marriage, beginning careers, heartbreaks, and on up to the present. The future of their marriage is at stake on this “break.”

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Hendrik Groen, age 83 ¼, a resident of an assisted living facility in the Netherlands, decides on New Year’s Day, 2013, that he still doesn’t like old people. “Their walker shuffle, their unreasonable impatience, their endless complaints, their tea and cookies, their bellyaching.” He regards himself, however, as “civil, ingratiating, courteous, polite and helpful. Not because I really am all those things, but because I don’t have the balls to act differently.” In order to keep himself from spiraling into depression in the home, he has decided to give the world “an uncensored expose: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam.” An international bestseller when it was published in Europe last year, Groen’s diary is written by an anonymous author (newly revealed, see Note at end), and it concerns itself with some of the same issues as were raised in the best-selling December 2012 book, Mother, When Will You Finally Die?” by Martina Rosenberg, a memoir published in Germany. Despite the real information and the statistics which make this book both a fascinating and important study of old age in a different country, the book’s primary purpose is to depict real life in this one care home, and the choice of recording it in a daily diary provides the reader with a plethora of insights and its many humorous episodes.

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The Dinner is one of those rare books in which saying anything at all can change a potential new reader’s perspective about this book and its plot. It’s a suspense novel, a study of families, an examination of the deepest hopes and dreams and despair of several members of the same family, a drama concerned with each person’s responsibilities to a wider society. Ultimately, it becomes a psychological thriller with an ending which the reader must supply for him/herself, based on his/her own background and beliefs about what is right vs. what is expedient and what one believes about personal responsibility. It is exciting at the same time that it can be depressing, and hard-hitting at the same time that it often feels contrived. I suspect that everyone who reads this book, however, will have something to share with others who have read it, and it may be the best Book Club book of the year, capable of inspiring intense discussion on many levels, but not necessarily uniform agreement about the conclusion and what it means. Ultimately, the novel becomes a thriller, and though there are some unusual images and some sensitive writing, I, at least, was unable to get past the obvious presence of an author who made me feel as if he were trying to trick me. I don’t mind being tricked by mystery writers – in fact, the best ones do it successfully all the time, and I enjoy it – but the trickery in this one seemed clumsier than in other recent novels, and it kept me from identifying with the characters and their predicament, essential to great mystery writing. Great for Book Clubs.

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David Mitchell’s past work, full of literary excitement, has been almost universally lauded for its originality and experimentation, and two of his novels, number9dream (2001), and Cloud Atlas (2004) have been shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Ghostwritten (1999) won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and in 2007, Mitchell was named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World. This novel will come as a surprise to many of his long-time fans. Here, Mitchell writes a historical novel—a HUGE historical novel—set in Nagasaki at the turn of the 19th century, when the Dutch East India Company was Nagasaki’s only trading partner. In an unusual change, Mitchell writes in the 3rd person here, taking an omniscient point of view which allows him to unfurl fascinating tales and re-imagine historical events in dense prose packed full of energy and local color.

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Devastated by the surrender of his country just five days after the Nazi invasion, twenty-three-year-old Erik Hazelhoff, decides to resist. A university student in Leyden, Hazelhoff, joined by friends, makes several attempts to get to England so they can fight the Germans, before finally succeeding. Connecting with Francois van ‘t Sant, Private Secretary to Queen Wilhelmina, who is in exile in England, Hazelhoff and three friends agree to help start “Contact Holland,” an Underground communications network between Holland and England. Ferrying spies across the North Sea into Holland proves more difficult than they have imagined, and with winter weather, high seas, and no communications network in place in Holland, their good intentions do not produce the desired results. In this autobiographical account, Erik Hazelhoff conveys in dramatic detail the many attempts to establish Underground connections through Scheveningen, and in equally dramatic detail the political scheming between Dutch bureaucrats living in London, who simply want to continue the government’s legal existence, and Van ‘t Sant and the Queen, who want real results. (To see the full review, click on the title at the top of this excerpt.)

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