Monthly Archives: January 2012

JANE’S BOEKENTIPS

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd

First of all, let me state that I loved Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex. And I wanted to love his newest novel, The Marriage Plot, the same way. But that did not happen. I will also tell you that the reviews for this book are through the roof, this is a book that critics love.

It is the story of a triangle of characters: Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell. They are college seniors at Brown University in the early 1980’s. Madeleine, an English literature major, is drawn to Leonard who is not only brilliant but also manic depressive. Mitchell is in love with Madeleine, but she does not feel the same way. Mitchell, stumbles into studying religion and after graduation, he ends up in Calcutta working with the poor. Madeleine and Leonard live together and eventually get married, and Leonard’s illness is a big cloud over their lives.

Each of the characters are seeking some kind of fulfillment or maybe just some basic answers about their lives. Each person is very unique and yet they are all somehow connected in their confusion about their future, professionally and personally. My problem with this novel is that I wished it had a more interesting glue to hold it all together.

Eugenides does many things so well. I loved the development of the characters, especially when we went back to their earlier lives. But somehow, as a reader, I did not care about this story as much as I should have. There were many references to books and authors that got in the way of the story and characters. All I know is that the desire to love this book was bigger than the reality. I liked it, but did not loooooove it.

As soon as I finished the book, I picked up A Bitter Truth by Charles Todd. This is the third in the Bess Crawford mystery series. Mystery series are such comfort to me, as you are familiar with the characters and the background, and you can just sit back and be entertained. And that is exactly what happened.

Bess Crawford is a battlefield nurse during World War I and she travels back and forth from France to England. There seems to be a mystery whenever she has a leave from her duties. In this book, Bess stumbles upon a mystery and gets involved with a family and their secrets and a few murders as well.

Bess is the daughter of an Army officer and grew up in India. She is an interesting character and is pretty direct and strong. This was another good mystery and yet I wish the big reveal at the end had been better introduced. But it was still smart, entertaining and a page turner.

Charles Todd is a mother and son writing team from the United States and I hope they keep this series going for a long time.

Recommended reading:  Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides and A Duty To The Dead And An impartial Witness by Charles Todd

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A WALK IN THE CLOUDS

She is on the top floor. She is the most famous face in the palace. She is pretty simple, really. A young woman who they call the Dutch Mona Lisa. I am talking about the Girl with the Pearl Earring. This painting by Johannes Vermeer is at home in the Mauritshuis Museum in The Hague. The museum used to be a palace and it is a very fitting place to have art on display.

I recently visited the museum and what I saw has stayed with me. This museum is full of paintings from the Dutch Golden Age (17th century) and what is surprising about this collection is the variety. There are portraits, landscapes, animals, still life, maritime images and just a few religious works. The two most famous painters are Rembrandt and Vermeer. It is a cliché to say that you cannot appreciate art unless you see it in person, but I can promise you that it is the truth. To stand and look at the Girl with the Pearl Earring and to see how the light falls across her scarf and face…well it really does make you pause. I found out that this painting was purchased for the equivalant of one euro in 1881 and eventually donated to the museum in 1902. And the girl will be traveling soon, the painting will be in Japan and the United States in 2012.

But for me, I loved the landscapes the most. I am very drawn to farm life, and there were many Dutch farms to look at. Also, there were many ice skating scenes that made you really feel the cold. Farmhouses, skaters and clouds. I have been fascinated by the Dutch skies since I got here. I cannot really explain to you how unique the clouds and skies are, but they are truly amazing. There are colors and shapes that I have not seen before in the sky. To see these skies in a variety of paintings was a treat because I really do know that the painted skies are not fiction. These skies really do exist. Painters and photographers have been drawn to the skies of the Netherlands and now I know why.

One of my favorite paintings in the museum was Vermeer’s View of Delft. I wanted to share this with you, so you could get a sense of its beauty. We stood there a long time looking at this.

The other unexpected treat on this day was seeing that the museum was next door to Parliament. One side of Parliament is a courtyard which we walked around and the other side is a pond. The Hague was really beautiful on this sunny, cold Sunday and so very quiet. There were blocks and blocks of embassies and hardly any flags were flying, as it was not a work day. But it was a great mini tour, to visit a world famous museum and the seat of government, in just a few steps.

And on this day, the sky was beautiful. Just beautiful.

This is Parliament. The small tower to the left is the Prime Minister’s office. And to the left of that tower is the museum. The pond is the Hofvijver (now you know why I am struggling to learn this language!). When it is super cold this pond freezes and you can ice skate. Skating by the powers that be.

Recommended reading:  The girl with the pearl earring by Tracy Chevalier, of course.

RANDOM HARVEST

A few years ago I was asked why I had stopped writing plays and my quick answer was “I had nothing to say.” And I believed that when I had something to say, I would write again. So when I moved to the Netherlands, I decided to start this blog because I finally thought I had something to share.

I created this blog for two reasons: to be able to express myself as I faced this major change in my life and it was a great way for me to communicate with my friends in the United States. The blog started on March 18, 2011 and the first post was titled UP. It was about how tall the Dutch are.

In the last few days, this blog has reached a milestone with over 10,000 hits. This is the 61st post. No one is more surprised than me. I really thought that I would run out of things to say, but that is not the case. As I live my life here, I see and hear things that amaze me, confuse me and impress me. There is this need to share what I experience. Whether that is a trip to Ikea, not getting a second cup of free coffee or learning new things about the second World War.

The blog has a life of its own. When I have gone somewhere unusual or I am talking about something, someone here will say “you can put that in your blog!” Or I will be out and about and think “how in the world can I write about this?” And usually I find a way.

Who are the readers? I know that they are personal friends in America, they are new friends who live in the Netherlands, they are members of my Dutch family, and then there are strangers or friends I have not met yet. The top three countries are the Netherlands, United States, and Belgium.

What is interesting is to see how people find this blog while googling a subject. They were not looking for this blog or me, but they had a specific question in mind. The most popular search has been about the red light district in Utrecht. I am not sure if they are looking for directions, but I have written two posts about the houseboats and they are quite popular.

I decided to name each post after a film. I did that because I am a big movie fan and I thought it would be fun for me to find the perfect title for a post based on a film. And I was right, it has been fun. I also decided to add book reviews to the blog and those are more popular than I thought they would be. I get many emails about them, and it is a great way to have online discussions about a book. I don’t think I could continue with this blog if I could not write about books.

I am coming up on my one year anniversary of living here and I think I will not stop writing. I am surprised that there are still things to write about, but the great thing about blogs is that they are not planned. You first have to have a life and then share your life with others. I cannot predict what I will write about next, as life has to happen first. But my heart and mind are wide open to the possibilities.

To all of you that have been on this journey with me, I say thank you. I have heard from so many people and I love to hear your reactions to the Dutch way of life. I am learning new things here all the time and I hope that never changes. And as long as I have something to say, I will keep sharing stories with you. Who knows? Maybe there will be a third post about the houseboats.

Recommended viewing: I have chosen one of my all-time favorites in honor of this milestone. RANDOM HARVEST stars Greer Garson and Ronald Colman and it is very British and in black and white. This tells you how beautiful Greer Garson is—you will actually believe you can see her red hair. This is an oldie but goodie. A film to watch on a rainy or snowy Sunday afternoon. Enjoy!

A DANGEROUS METHOD

It was recently announced that in the past three years, 51 people have drowned in the canals of Amsterdam.

One  person drowned because of a crime. The other deaths were accidents. Of the other fifty people, it is believed that most of them were men who were drunk and relieving themselves in the canals. Apparently, they were standing at the edge and fell in.

There have been requests to have more ladders and life rings attached to the docks or landings of the canals.

While I have sympathy for all of the families involved, it is hard for me to have sympathy for men who think that because they can, that they have the right to urinate in  busy waterways. There are plenty of public toilets in Amsterdam. The city offers many opportunities to urinate for free: check out the photographs for proof of these toilets that are just for men or for very limber women.

 

I have driven by men who are standing by their parked cars, on a highway, relieving themselves. This summer I saw a man relieve himself about 50 feet from our car. This was at a rest stop that had a gas station and restaurant. He couldn’t be bothered to go inside, I guess. Why is this behavior acceptable? It seems that people don’t think it is too bad because the man is still dressed and standing up.

I have a theory that maybe men are jealous of dogs. Dogs have the freedom go wherever they want to. In this country, there are poop parks for dogs called Hondentoilet (I wrote about this in a post called Dog Day Afternoon). All throughout the country, there are grassy areas intended for dogs to do their business. Maybe men want to have the same rights. If there is not one outdoor space for them, then they will have to go in other places, like the woods, a highway, a parking lot or even near a canal. If dogs can have a space, then why not men too? Imagine that it is 2am and you are leaving a bar in Amsterdam. The good news is that you are not driving or riding your bike, as you are pretty drunk. But you have the urge to relieve yourself and you are so happy to see the Mannentoilet (male toilet), a square of grass just for men. Why bother with the bathroom in the bar or a portable toilet on the sidewalk, when you can have some fresh air and a view?

I am making fun of this situation, obviously. It is sad that people lost their lives, but it did not have to happen. If you are going to drink, be responsible for yourself. Please keep your pants zipped until you are home or in front of an urinal. And if you are feeling wobbly and not sure of yourself, don’t go near the canal. The canals are full of honest women trying to earn a living on those houseboats and no more excitement is needed.

Recommended reading: SORTA LIKE A ROCK STAR by Matthew Quick. This tells the story of a homeless teenager who knew where to go for relief! This beautiful book was written for teens but it absolutely can be enjoyed (and has) by adults. I love books that make me laugh and cry and this book delivers on both counts.

ALMOST FAMOUS

Yes, there is popcorn at Dutch movie theatres. In fact, the snack bar looks almost like the ones in  American theatres. One big difference is that they sell drop here—black licorice. Drop in many shapes and sizes. But the main thing that Dutch and American theatres have in common is the cost of snacks. Here, you can make a down payment on a houseboat OR you can get a bucket of popcorn.

And now a few words about Dutch films. There is a film industry here and it seems to be doing pretty well. The Netherlands hosts at least three big film festivals and there are many smaller ones that garner a lot of attention. The Dutch have long been known for their documentaries, and yet they have been making more feature films that have attracted large audiences.

In this past year, 15 Dutch films went gold—which means that they each sold over 100,000 tickets. 5 films went platinum which means they sold over 400,000 tickets. And 2 films were diamonds—they each sold more than one million tickets. Now those numbers may not be huge by American standards, but for a country with almost 17 million residents, that is not too shabby. Thirty million tickets were sold last year, the highest since 1978.

The Netherlands has also been proud of having some films win Academy Awards:

2 Oscars for documentary short subject

2 Oscars for animated short subject

3 Oscars for foreign language (The Assault, Antonia’s Line, and Character)

There are a few films that I can recommend that are currently on dvd and available in the United States, England and I have no idea where else. I really enjoyed all of these films. The first two are World War II stories and the third takes place in 1953.

The Black Book  2006

Winter in Wartime  2008

The Storm  2009

The entry for the upcoming Academy Awards for foreign language film is Sonny Boy and I don’t know when that will be out on dvd. This is an excellent film and a great choice to represent The Netherlands.

I also want to share my good fortune in having access to the BBC and their wonderful programming. Many of the television films are shown in America on PBS and I am hopeful that all of these will be shown or have been shown in America. It also means that they will be on dvd.

Great Expectations: expect greatness and you will not be disappointed

Endeavour: it is 1965 and a young policeman is just beginning his career. His name is Morse… before he became Inspector Morse.

Young James Herriot: this is a three hour drama that I hope becomes a regular series. We see Herriot at the start of his education as a vet in Scotland and it is very well done.

Downton Abbey: what can I say about this terrific series? Season two is simply wonderful. The good news is that they just showed a special two hour episode on Christmas night. So for those of you watching season two in America, just know there is an extra episode coming. And they will start filming season three in February.

State of Play: a six hour series set in modern London with politics, journalism and murder…don’t ever think that the British can only do historical drama. This brilliant series has more twists and turns than the streets of Amsterdam. This series was made in 2003 and is on dvd.  This is a winner.

Titanic: from Julian Fellowes (creator of Downton Abbey) and the question is will a Crawley relative show up on this ship? I have not seen this because it will be shown around the world in April and that means we will all be watching it together.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood: this is just airing this week in England and I have not seen it, but it should be coming to you soon.

Just Henry: this was a novel by Michelle Magorian (Good night Mr. Tom) and is a good family drama set in post WWII.

There you have it, a mix of Dutch and British films that I have really enjoyed and I hope that you will too. Pop the popcorn, get a bag of drop (ugh!) put your feet up and enjoy!

Recommended reading:  OKAY FOR NOW by Gary D. Schmidt. So many books for young adults are made into films, but this is a book that does not have vampires and is not science fiction. It is a follow up to the wonderful THE WEDNESDAY WARS and both books will be enjoyed by adults. Schmidt is a terrific writer and I really encourage you to read these two books. A friend sent me a copy of OKAY FOR NOW as it is not available here, but if you are lucky enough to find these books, grab them and read them.

MISSING

Recently a Dutch TV station took a survey of Dutch people living in other countries. They were asked what they missed the most about not living in the Netherlands. I admit that I was pretty shocked by the results. Here are the top ten answers:

  1. Herring
  2. Kroketten-these are like croquettes, size of an eggroll
  3. Cheese
  4. Hema-this is a high end discount store
  5. Family and friends
  6. Cycling
  7. Dutch bread, cakes and biscuits
  8. Coziness of being with friends and family
  9. Sinterklaas
  10. Things to put on bread

Does anything disturb you about this list? There are people in this world that miss herring, fried tubular mystery roll (that really is delicious), cheese and a store (like a dinky Target) more than they miss family members or friends. Even if you hate your family, you must have friends you like and miss a little. You miss herring more than your best friend? Or cheese is more important than your sister?

I know Dutch people who would have answered this differently, so this is not to say that all Dutch people value a slippery, slimy fish more than their own mother and father. Maybe these results show how sentimental people become about the things they took for granted, like Dutch food. Or a Dutch bicycle.

If I could wiggle my nose and perform magic, I would have all my friends here with me. But that is a ridiculous scenario and it would be awfully complicated on so many levels. But I would want my friends more than Jif peanut butter. More than Bisquick and Ban deodorant. If any of my friends are reading this, this just shows you how much I love you. I love my friends more than herring…there, I have said it.

During this past holiday season I was getting sentimental. I had a tissue box near me whenever I watched TV. I heard Christmas music and I am time traveling to my sister and I sitting on the floor by the tree in our new pajamas, waiting for the signal to open the gifts. She and I would argue about who was going to open the  presents first…and now I wish I could have that argument again.

Being away from your familiar, at this time, is very hard. I am not going to sugar coat it, as I would be lying to say it is no big deal. It is. But I am now creating new rituals and that is not a bad thing. That does not mean that friendships have ended or that memories have faded away. But living in a new country gives me a chance to expand my view of the world and my life, and having said that, I can promise you that herring is not on the menu.

As I am writing this, our children are playing with a whoopee cushion that they got from Santa. I am typing to a concert of sounds that makes them hysterical with laughter.  This is my life now and it is a good thing.

NOISES OFF

Dispatches from a non-war zone in the Netherlands

December 31, 2011

I overslept on New Year’s Eve morning. It was a little before 9am and the room was very dark. Coming out of my stupor, I thought I was in a war somewhere. With all the historical novels I read, I thought that maybe this was what London sounded like in the 1940’s. And I then I really woke up and realized that I was in the peaceful land of the Netherlands and this was the big fireworks day.

The law allows people to set off their fireworks from 10am to 2am, and some of the neighbors decided to start early. I am not exaggerating when I say that it sounds like bombs or bullets are flying through the overcast skies. I am typing this at 2pm and I believe I have developed a nervous twitch. The show has not ended for one second. When you comment on the noise to the Dutch, they say “what noise?” This American is having a little trouble dealing with this soundtrack, and the big show has not even started. Today there will be 65 million euros worth of fireworks in the Dutch skies.

On the previous evening, I went to my first pick up the works trip. The stuff was ordered online and all we had to do was pick it up. There are 1500 licensed locations in this country, and we went to the one closest to our house. It is a big garden store and nursery and one building has been dedicated to the sale of fireworks. When you walk in there is a table of free pastries—oliebollen. Then you see the walls of pure eye candy. The walls have fireworks behind cages and they are in these sexy boxes of all shapes and sizes. People were staring at the goodies as they traveled around the walls. If only museums could get this kind of attention to their art work!

There was a counter for those who were just picking up their ordered items—that was us, thank you very much. And there were about a hundred people waiting to place their order. They would look at the fireworks on display, make notes and then go to the counter with their order. There were at least 8 men serving customers. Each time they filled an order, they had to go into the back room where all the items were safely and legally stored. When our order was ready we picked up our boxes and bags with a grunt and sigh—fireworks are not lightweight.

 

January 1, 2012

Last night was a night to remember. In the late afternoon we had a fireworks party with our children and cousins. For two hours, we set off a variety of fireworks. They were very loud, colorful and smoky. I never had any appreciation of the amount of smoke fireworks create. You should have seen the smiles on the children’s faces—this was their happiest time of the year. I actually lit one of the fireworks—my first time.

After we got home, the fireworks in the neighborhood continued. And then everything changed at midnight. The skies became bright with colors and it felt like the whole world was celebrating in our town. We went outside to the front of the house to set off 6 rockets called “Hot Shots”(aptly named). I literally could turn all around while looking at the sky and see fireworks, we were surrounded. The sky looked like the house of Willy Wonka, the closet of Lady Gaga and the Crayola factory had all exploded at the same time. It was jaw dropping. Our rockets joined the party and then we went back inside. The show lasted almost an hour. Remember that these were just regular people doing their own thing, and I cannot even imagine how much money they spent. But I am grateful they did what they did. They gave me a wondrous evening.

Finally, I can attest to the assumption about the Dutch being very clean people. Today, families were out sweeping their sidewalks and streets. The city will eventually sweep the streets, but most residents took care of their own mess. The Dutch know how to have a good time, a loud time, an even colorful time, but they also clean up. A good night for all!