Dutch Treats - If you are planning a trip to Holland to see the tulips this spring I have a few suggestions of books to read that will put you in the mood.
If you are planning a trip to Holland to see the tulips this spring I have a few suggestions of books to read that will put you in the mood.
One of the best is The Girl with the Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier. The story takes place in the 1660’s in Delft, and is told through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old girl working in the home of the painter Johannes Vermeer. The author supposes that her character becomes the model for the artist’s portrait of Girl with a Pearl Earring that you can see in the Mauritshuis in The Hague. This novel captures the world in which the Dutch Masters lived, and is one I often recommend to teenage readers, as the character of the girl at the centre of the story is experiencing many of the emotional transitions that teenagers of any time experience. It is a fascinating glimpse into another time and place, and a pleasure to read.
Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach is set a few years earlier and takes place in Amsterdam. The city was struck by a craze for tulips, and trading in futures for tulip bulbs – many a fortune was made and many more lost. The story begins in the home of a wealthy man, who is having a portrait painted of himself and his young wife. The painter and the young wife are drawn to each other and concoct an implausible plot in an attempt to achieve a life together. I found myself sometimes rolling my eyes at the language and the plot – but in the end it is a book worth reading if only for the historical perspective and the chance to travel the streets of Amsterdam through fiction.
The Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland is an equally pedestrian novel that is still worth a read (will take less than the plane trip). It gives us a very real sense of an historical timeline as the author, through a series of characters, follows a painting – possibly a Vermeer – back through the years to the time in which it was painted.
The Coffee Trader by David Liss is another work of historical fiction, beginning in 1659 as fortunes are being won and lost in the commodities exchange. Futures again. We have the Portuguese Jewish community and a man who is desperate to make money – a new commodity – coffee – might just do it.
If you are a mystery reader, or not, the series of Grijpstra & De Gier Mystery novels by Janwillem van de Wetering will place you firmly in the city of Amsterdam. Read one and you will read two – or three – and more. These unpretentious characters and the subtle humour and insight of this author charms the reader. Adjutant Grijpstra struggles with an unhappy marriage, the Comissarius is plagued with sore legs, Sergeant de Gier goes home to his cat, and the young Carduzo is easily seduced – all such a great cast of characters that the plot hardly matters. As we travel the back streets and canals, and the squares of Amsterdam we gain a real sense of the city and its people.
A book I wish I had re-read before going to Amsterdam is Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, expanded after her father’s death to include the complete diary as it was written during Anne’s long years of hiding in an Amsterdam attic during the Second World War. The house is now a museum and a must-see on any itinerary for a visit to Amsterdam – know that it has longer queues for entrance than any other museum or gallery in the city. So, be patient, it is worth waiting to visit this very moving and comprehensive exhibit of war time Amsterdam and the story of the life of Anne Frank.
Finally, and the best of all, is The Twin by Gerbrand Bakker. This book won the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. It is set in our own time, just outside of Amsterdam – and easy day trip by local bus – in the farmland of Monnickendam, Marken and Volendam. The landscape is flat, riddled with canals, sheep and cows graze outside these villages where dikes hold back the sea. Life seems bleak to Helmer as he cares for the farm and his dying father. The story is slowly, gently revealed – a mesmerizing and beautiful story of a man who finds he has a second chance at life.