We got back on Monday from a packed week in Ghent and Amsterdam. Despite the chilly, showery weather and a slightly disappointing Airbnb experience in Ghent, it was a great trip overall. Our charming little B&B apartment in Broek in Waterland, a 20-minute bus ride from Amsterdam, more than made up for the somewhat lackluster accommodation in Belgium and was a perfect base for exploring the area. With our three-day, all-inclusive regional travel passes we were free to hop on as many trams and buses as we wanted.
On Saturday we crammed in lots of Amsterdam’s main attractions: the Rijksmuseum, the Begijnhof cloisters, the Botanical Gardens and the Anne Frank House, interspersed with window shopping, a rainy picnic lunch and an Indonesian takeaway dinner eaten by a canal. I also got to visit a more off-the-beaten-track attraction I’d spotted in our guide book: De Poezenboot or “The Cat Boat,” a home for strays moored on the Singel canal. Alas, the resident kitties were not as friendly as many we met on the rest of the trip, but it was still fun.
Canals. Photo by Chris Foster
Still Life with Books, Jan Lievens
The Begijnhof. Photo by Chris Foster
Outdoor alley on Cat Boat
Cat Boat: Friends or foes?
Cat Boat: King of the castle.
Asleep in Marken. Photo by Chris Foster
Lucky kitty trusted with glass, Edam
Earless kitty in Broek in Waterland
The highlight of our Amsterdam stay was the Van Gogh Museum on Sunday morning. It was crowded – everything was; though Ghent was very quiet, Amsterdam doesn’t seem to be into its off season yet, if it even has one – but we took our time and saw every single painting, many of which I’d never come across in reproductions. The galleries are organized in chronological order, so you get to trace Van Gogh’s style and state of mind over the years. Superb.
At this point we were just about overwhelmed by the big city atmosphere, so we spent much of the next day and a half in the outlying Dutch towns of Marken and Edam. Flat fields and dykes, cows, cobbled streets and bicycles everywhere – it’s what you’d expect of Holland’s countryside, apart from a surprising dearth of windmills.
Broek in Waterland
This Ghent University library – I’m presuming it held Special Collections/rare books:
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov: A comic novel about a Russian professor on an American college campus. While there are indeed shades of Lucky Jim – I certainly laughed out loud at Timofey Pnin’s verbal gaffes and slapstick falls – there’s more going on here. In this episodic narrative spanning 1950–4, Pnin is a figure of fun but also of pathos: from having all his teeth out and entertaining the son his ex-wife had by another man to failing to find and keep a home of his own, he deserves the phrase Nabokov originally thought to use as a title, “My Poor Pnin”.
Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker: Bosker gave herself a year and a half to learn everything about wine in hopes of passing the Court of Master Sommeliers exam. Along the way she worked in various New York City restaurants, joined blind tasting clubs and attended an olfactory conference. The challenge included educating her palate, absorbing tons of trivia about growers and production methods, and learning accepted standards for sommelier service. The resulting book is a delightful blend of science, memoir and encounters with people who are deadly serious about wine.
You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann: And I thought my Airbnb experience was a nightmare? This is a horror novella about a writing retreat gone bad. The narrator is a screenplay writer who’s overdue delivering the sequel to Besties. As he argues with his partner, tries to take care of his daughter and produces fragments of the screenplay, the haunted house in the mountains starts to close in on him. I’ve loved Kehlmann’s work before (especially F), but he couldn’t convince me of the narrator’s state of mind or the peril. I actually found the book unintentionally humorous.
The Detour by Gerbrand Bakker: A Dutch translator and Emily Dickinson scholar has fled a mistake in her personal life and settled in rural Wales at the foot of Snowdon. “She had left everything behind, everything except the poems. They would have to see her through. She forgot to eat.” On her farmstead is a dwindling flock of geese and, later on, a young man surveying for a new footpath. Amidst her quiet, secret-filled days we also learn of her husband’s attempts to find her back in Amsterdam. Bakker’s writing is subtle and lovely, yet the story never quite took off for me.
Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach: If you liked Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Miniaturist, you may also enjoy this atmospheric, art-inspired novel set in the 1630s. (Originally from 1999, it’s recently been adapted into a film.) Sophia, married off to an old merchant, falls in love with Jan van Loos, the painter who comes to do their portrait. If Sophia and Jan are ever to be together, they’ll have to scrape together enough money to plot an elaborate escape. I thought this was rather soap opera-ish most of the way through, though I was satisfied with how things turned out in the end.
Plus other books I had on the go (lots of short works and literature in translation):
Dangling Man by Saul Bellow
Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The Unseen by Roy Jacobsen
The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Other Stories by Etgar Keret
Notes on a Banana: A Memoir of Food, Love and Manic Depression by David Leite
The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Honeydew: Stories by Edith Pearlman
A Girl Walks into a Book: What the Brontës Taught Me about Life, Love, and Women’s Work by Miranda Pennington
What have you been reading recently?
Do you find that books read ‘on location’ never quite live up to your expectations?
A thin month for library books overall, although I did read two very good ones. The Aldo Leopold book is a nature classic I’m pleased we could find via the library of the university where my husband works. In the second week of September I’m going along with him to Ghent, Belgium, where he’ll be presenting a research paper at a landscape ecology conference. Though we’ve been before, it’s a lovely town I’ll enjoy wandering – in between keeping up a normal virtual workload. After that we head on to Amsterdam for a long weekend; it’ll be my first time there and I’m excited to take in all the sights.
Sparky!by Jenny Offill [a picture book illustrated by Chris Appelhans]
A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold
Grief Works: Stories of Life, Death and Surviving by Julia Samuel
CHECKED OUT, TO BE SKIMMED
2 guide books to Belgium
2 guide books to Amsterdam
White Tears by Hari Kunzru – I read the first 145 pages, skimmed another 70 or so, then gave up. The vibe is Jonathan Franzen meets Zadie Smith circa The Autograph Man; the theme is cultural appropriation, especially of a blues song by a forgotten master. (I had the song from The Wire in my head the whole time.) My interest started to wane after what happens to Carter happens, and by the time the parallel road trips kicked in I was lost. So to what extent this was realist or magic realist or absurdist or whatever I couldn’t tell you. I liked the writing enough that I would try something else by Kunzru if I thought I’d connect to the subject matter more.
Hidden Nature: A Voyage of Discovery by Alys Fowler
Bee Quest: In Search of Rare Bees by Dave Goulson
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
A Horse Walks into a Bar by David Grossman
Gerontius by James Hamilton-Paterson
Human Acts by Han Kang
White Tears by Hari Kunzru
Signs for Lost Children by Sarah Moss
Island Home: A Landscape Memoir by Tim Winton
As to America: I hope you would agree I have been very restrained in only requesting three books to borrow from my parents’ local public library. The Coates and Shapiro are extremely short memoirs I should have no trouble getting through, and the Strayed, a collection of advice columns, is the kind of book that I can dip in and out of. My Kindle and my personal library will more than make up for any further shortfall in reading material.
I used to be a library fiend. At one point we belonged to about six different library systems thanks to our jobs at universities and our frequent back-and-forths to a couple of towns where we used to live. Back when reservations were still free through Reading Borough Libraries I would regularly have 20 or more new books on request at any one time, and every trip to the library required backpacks, tote bags and my husband’s help to get everything to the car.
Now that holds cost 50 pence each, however, I’ve cut back to basically zero. Most of what I used to read via libraries has now been replaced by e-books downloaded from NetGalley and Edelweiss. This is rather a shame, as I still love the feeling of stocking up with piles of physical books. I’ll still make an exception and pay 40 pence to reserve a book through our (more strictly local) Wokingham Borough Libraries when it’s something I’m hugely keen to read, like the new Jonathan Franzen novel or a book I need to review and can’t find online.
Nowadays I mostly peruse my local library for poetry collections and new nonfiction, though I can occasionally be tempted by recent fiction I haven’t gotten my hands on by other means.
(Thanks to Shannon at River City Reading for the great idea and the template! Check out her blog for other link-ups.)
DK Eyewitness Guides to Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland; Rough Guides to Scandinavia and the Czech Republic; Lonely Planet Guides to Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and “Europe on a Shoestring” [we’re contemplating a big trip around Europe by train next spring; the next few months will be for dreaming and planning]
When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone, Philip Gould
Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill
Weathering, Lucy Wood [for BookBrowse review]
Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field, John Lewis-Stempel
As Far as I Know, Roger McGough
Two Cures for Love: Selected Poems 1979–2006, Wendy Cope