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Category Archive for 'Netherlands'

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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So daring and exotic are Erik Hazelhoff’s adventures and so strange are some of the coincidences, that if this were fiction, a reader might be excused for finding it “unrealistic.” Yet this is the story of a real Dutch citizen who has believed all his life in challenging fate, forging ahead, doing what he had to do, and not looking back. Unwilling to accept “impossibilities,” he has constantly challenged the status quo, often in wildly heroic actions. Seemingly fearless, he learned from his earliest childhood in Dutch Java that Fear dwelt in a Black Cave, but “you must defy him, and a pebble in your mouth will protect you.” Hazelhoff has spent his entire life with a pebble in his mouth, boldly marching past Black Caves which have swallowed lesser men.

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