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review 2017-09-15 03:19
THE DINNER by Herman Koch
The Dinner - Herman Koch,Sam Garrett

Paul and Claire meet his brother, Serge and his wife Babette, for dinner one evening to talk about their children.  Serge is running for Prime Minister and wants to do damage control.  The other three have other ideas.


The story is told in flashbacks of the relationships and events of Paul's life.  I liked Paul but I never warmed to most of the characters.  I have a lot of questions for them. 


This is probably a book I would never have picked up on my own had it not been for my book club.  There is a lot to discuss and think about in this book.  How do people make the choices they do?  Very thought provoking and timely.

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review 2017-06-12 05:11
Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Infidel - Ayaan Hirsi Ali

This is a fascinating memoir from an impressive author. Ayaan Hirsi Ali was born in Somalia; just a generation before, her family were nomadic herders. She spent her early years in Somalia before her father’s political involvement forced the family to flee; she and her siblings spent their teenage years in Kenya, where the author briefly joined the Muslim Brotherhood while her mother longed for the “pure” Islam of Saudi Arabia. Her family was troubled to say the least, though she doesn’t quite seem to blame either of her parents. As the region became even less stable in the early 90s, her father decided to save her by arranging her an unwanted marriage, at age 22, to a Somali man in Canada seeking a traditional Somali wife. But the author managed to escape and claim asylum in Holland, where she worked, educated herself and went to college for political science. Her intellectual awakening distanced her from Islam, and she eventually became a member of Parliament, promoting rights for Muslim women and a greater integration of immigrants into Dutch society. Proving her point, this outspokenness provoked a violent response.

As a piece of literature, this is quite good. The author writes well; it’s a compelling story and written with the sort of physical and emotional detail that promotes a high level of engagement from the reader. At times it’s downright dramatic. Although the author is political, it never reads like a public relations piece; she’s no angel here, and there are no clear villains. She does portray herself as a victim rather often, but this rarely seems related to any political agenda; her mother is sometimes abusive, but the council of elders convened to determine the legitimacy of her leaving her husband respects her decision. There are some tough scenes in this book – the author and her sister undergo female genital mutilation early on, for instance – but life goes on and people can’t simply suffer all the time; my concern that the book would read as a catalogue of atrocity turned out to be unfounded. The author has a strong viewpoint, yes, but people are complicated and this book shows that, rather than attempting to reduce all of life to a political agenda. You could read this as fiction and come away satisfied.

Nevertheless, the author is a political figure, accounting for much of the polarized reaction to this book; I think much of the negativity comes from information outside its pages, and a brief perusal of her Twitter feed explains why. At the time period covered in this book – when the author is a student and a young politician – she’s wrestling with big questions and fighting for reforms that could make life better for Muslim immigrants in Holland: for instance, by ending funding for religious schools, as Muslim schools tend to focus on memorization and obedience rather than real learning. And she’s frustrated by the way Dutch values of toleration can prevent a response to abuse among Muslim immigrants. She calls for reform in Islam, so that people can question its tenets without being subject to violence.

But the threats she receives (not to mention the brutal murder of a filmmaker with whom she makes a short piece questioning Islam’s demands for submission) and the reluctance of non-Muslims to believe how bad things can get seem to push her toward hatred of Islam as a whole. We see a little of that in the book: her efforts to convince the public of social problems among Muslim immigrants sometimes seem more geared toward proving that Islam is a problem than finding practical solutions. Her public statements now seem even more slanted in that direction (though she is working in the U.S. to increase penalties for FGM, for instance). I respect her strength and dedication, and generally agree with her critiques of the Muslim world. But promoting divisiveness is a terrible idea, and I’m concerned that may be the primary effect of her advocacy. This isn’t a criticism of the book, necessarily; if anything, it shows how honestly the author comes by her opinions.

In summary, then: this is an excellent story, well worth reading. It is not, for the most part, a political book, and I don’t judge it Islamophobic, defining Islamophobia as prejudice toward individual Muslims or a crusade against Islam while knowing little about it. It made me think, and that’s a strength in any book.

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review 2016-08-20 22:14
The Light of Amsterdam - David Park

“She wondered if it was ever possible in the world to be anything other than on your own and whether that wasn’t the best way to be.”


This is a not altogether nice look at the inner lives of the three featured characters. There’s Alan, who cheated on his wife and now finds himself having to entertain his sixteen year old son during a weekend in Amsterdam. Karen is a single mother who’s sacrificed a lot to give her daughter everything she wanted only to be faced with what she considers the ultimate betrayal by that daughter. Marion is a middle aged woman with doubts about her husband’s loyalty who decides to take rather drastic (and I might add overly dramatic) action to deal with the situation. Because we see events through their eyes only, are living in their heads, and hearing only their thoughts, we are confronted with the inherent selfishness we’re probably all guilty off but prefer not to acknowledge. On more than one occasion I found myself thinking ‘you’re just not that nice’ only to realise that I might well have reacted in the same way and thought the same thoughts when faced with the situation that character found themselves in.


Reading this at times brutally honest book about the shortcomings all of us have in common made me realise that I do prefer it when stories portray people in a somewhat idolised fashion—the way we ought to behave and think rather than the way we all too often do. Something else that felt very realistic and yet threw me at times were the repetitions in what people thought, sometimes showing up as complete and literal reproductions of sentences that had been used before. While I completely agree that our thoughts often run in circles and are repetitive, it’s not something I can read without thinking ‘you could have phrased that differently this time’.


I’m feeling somewhat ambiguous about this book. On the one hand the issues the three main characters are struggling with aren’t earth-shattering—quite the opposite in fact. I mean the fast majority of teenagers are withdrawn and sulky, regardless of whether or not their parents are still together. Most children will want to meet and get to know the parent who abandoned them before they were born, given half a chance just as most relationships will become less sexually active over time. So part of me was constantly thinking ‘get over it already, neither you nor your situation is anything special’. On the other hand, it was the fact that David Parks managed to convincingly portray how those run of the mill concerns can mess with our heads and our lives that really impressed me. And I think he is spot on when he portrays the loneliness we can feel even while surrounded by thousands of others and spending time with those we’re supposed to be close to and comfortable with.


The fabulous and entirely accurate descriptions of Amsterdam in this book delighted me. The author has either been there or did a fabulous job researching the city because I always knew exactly where in Amsterdam his characters were. Even if I had hated the story (which I didn’t) that sense of being in the city where I was born and grew up was fantastic.


Overall this was a very well written book that managed to captivate me despite the fact that I kept on losing my patience with the characters.

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review 2016-07-25 18:47
Really not a guide
Amsterdam, The Netherlands, Discover The Best Places Where To Go, Eat, Sleep And Enjoy And Get The Best Out Of Amsterdam ! - World City Guides

I got this when it was offered for free on Amazon. If I had spent 2.99, which is the listed price, I would have been upset. The book is very, very general and not detailed very much. While on the plus side, it does mention some lesser known museums, it is baffling in the major museums that it leaves out. It isn't complete in terms of description or much else.

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review 2016-01-01 11:22
Why The Dutch Are Different: A Journey Into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands
Why The Dutch Are Different: A Journey Into the Hidden Heart of the Netherlands - Ben Coates

When my best friend of almost 30 (gasp!) years and I were at university, she met a Dutchman who was spending a year studying abroad.  In the way of such things, she married him and moved to the Netherlands.  It took me about 5 years to get over that curiously American reluctance to travel overseas (so decadent!) to see her (time warp: that first non-stop round-trip ticket on KLM was $250), but once I did I was hooked and she was stuck with my not-infrequent visits until my move to Australia, where the sheer number of hours involved put a damper on my spontaneous visits.


Maybe because it was my first European destination, but I love the Netherlands best and Amsterdam is my favorite city in all the world.  I'm forever quizzing my poor BF and her husband about all things Dutch ("what's the word for this? How do you say that again?) and I constantly gush about most of it: the architecture, the bike lane system, the flowers!!! So when MT saw this at the bookshop, it was a no-brainer.  If you asked him, he'd probably say it was the easiest present decision for me he's ever had to make.


I devoured it and moderately tortured both him and my BF by quoting and exclaiming over particularly fascinating facts (people used to use windmills to send messages!  NL actually invaded England in 1688/89!).  At 297 pages the book is densely packed with information yet very readable.   Coates uses Dutch history - both the good and the bad - to create a context for the liberal and tolerant culture they have today and muses over how and why that liberalism and tolerance is being tested.


Coates has done his research and includes a selected bibliography at the back with further reading and sources.  He covers the gamut of what makes NL different, including the most sensitive topics and he makes frequent mention of how verboten some topics were with the normally open Dutch, making it awkward at best to objectively discuss these issues.  While it was obvious to me that he tried to represent the largest cross-section of Dutch society he could and strived for objectivity, this remains a cross-section.  I'm sure my BF's husband would find a few things he'd disagree with, but largely, I thought it just perfect: well-written, well-edited* and relatively objective; if you find Dutch culture interesting, this would be an excellent overview.


*The only editing errors I ever ran into was a handful of missing words.  Oddly enough, it was actually the same word "to" every time.

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