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From Malcolm Burgess, publisher of Oxygen Books’ city-pick series, featuring some of the best writing on favourite cities, comes a new series for Spotted by Locals on the best city books written by local writers. He starts with Amsterdam …
Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City, Geert Mak
Translated by Philipp Blom
The world-famous travel writer Geert Mak’s Amsterdam is an absolute must for anyone seriously interested in the place. Like many great cities, Amsterdam constitutes ‘a small nation made a larger one’, but is unlike so many others, says Mak, in being relatively ‘unmonumental’.
‘Amsterdam is not proud, indeed, it is even unproud in a proud sort of way. The wealthiest Amsterdammers have clung stubbornly to the sobriety of their seventeenth-century forefathers, with the result that the cityscape has emerged untouched by the grandeur of absolutism, and uncut by the broad avenues which might have been driven through the city in the nineteenth century.’
Joe Speedboat, Tommy Wieringa
Translated by Sam Garrett
In Tommy Wieringa’s coming of age novel, a young Joe tries something in Amsterdam a little stronger than he’s used to.
‘He took a deep breath, looked around and decided to stay in Amsterdam for a while and see how things worked out. … Joe took the train. He experienced giddying happiness – no one knew where he was, life could go any which way, there were as many possibilities as combinations on a fruit machine and every direction he chose was the right one, because it was time for the machine to pay out. P.J wasn’t home. Joe waited in Coffeeshop Baylon, sitting by the window where he might see her come by. Meanwhile he had plenty of time to feast his eyes on the economics of soft drugs.’
On the Water, H. M. van den Brink
Translated by Paul Vincent
One of the best novels on Amsterdam’s rivers and canals is On the Water, telling the story of two young rowers moving through the golden summer of pre-war Amsterdam, and into the Nazi occupation.
‘I took in everything: the freight barges on their way into the centre of town or on the contrary returning after delivering their cargo to the markets, the life on the houseboats, the flags on the larger ships, the washing hanging out to dry somewhere on board, a fisherman bent over his rod and in the distance the jumble of house fronts, masts and towers, the silhouette of the city.’
In Lucia’s Eyes, Arthur Japin
Translated by David Colmer
Set in the eighteenth century, Arthur Japin’s elegant novel reminds us that it isn’t just physical beauty that can make us love this city.
‘I had set my heart on Amsterdam. The city’s name as one of the first that Monsieur de Pompignac had taught me. I saw it many times in the books he gave me to read, the most important of which had all been printed in Holland, the place, he told me, where both Descartes and Spinoza had found refuge … I only had to think of that city to see before me a paradise where, amid all the flowers of the world, the liberated human spirit and all the branches of science blossomed.’
About Love, Doeschka Meijsing
(published in Dutch as Over de liefde)
In this wonderful Amsterdam novel, the narrator manages to escape an event she is far from enjoying by taking an unplanned swim in a canal …
‘The water of the Prinsengracht wasn’t too cold: the sun had beaten down on it all summer long. It should stink, but I smelled nothing. I wasn’t afraid of rats – they would be more afraid of me. I used the breast stroke to swim in between the two boats until I seemed to be in open water. It was too late at night for tourists on the water; the surface was as smooth as glass and reflected the moon. It was quiet and calm in the middle of the canal. I had the place to myself.’
The Philosopher Without Eyes, Cees Nooteboom
(published in Dutch as De filosof zonder ogen: Europese reizen)
From the greatest living Dutch novelist comes a collection of lyrical and meditative essays on the modern city.
‘The city is a book to be read; the walker is the reader …. The words consist of gables, excavations, names, dates, images. One house is called the Pelican, and would speak to us of distant voyages. Another is called the Spitsbergen and commemorates a particular wintering. A street is called Bokkinghargen, and without smelling anything you can recognise the odour of smoked fish.’
‘Harlequin on Dam Square’, Thomas Olde Heuvelt
(from the novel published in Dutch as Harten Sara)
The fashion for ‘human statues’ as a form of street entertainment is taken up by one of the most innovative and interesting young Dutch writers.
‘Today I’m a harlequin … I go to Dam Square and stand in front of the National Monument. I’m sure that the city’s aroma is lost on all these people, but I smell it, as always, because it’s mine. I’m capable of identifying every single aspect: last night’s rain, the vapours of the canals, the coffee and ventilated warmth at the entrance to the Bijenkorf department store and the salty, fishy smell because the fishmonger’s wife is cleaning oysters.’
May the Sun Shine Tomorrow, Abdelkader Benali
(Published in Dutch as Laat het morgen mooi weer zijn)
In this extract from May the Sun Shine Tomorrow, this Dutch Moroccan writer creates the unforgettable healer Malik Ben based in the centre of Amsterdam.
‘Malik’s office was in the heart of Amsterdam, in the basement of a nineteenth-century town house a stone’s throw from Leidseplein. Callers were obliged to ring a bell that jangled loudly. Even before they stepped inside, Malik could tell what was on their minds by the expression on their faces.’
H2Olland, Maarten Ascher
(published in Dutch under same title)
Maarten Ascher’s ingeniously titled book celebrates the history of Amsterdam and its waters.
‘Amsterdam, with its horseshoe-shaped, quadruple ring of concentric canals, is the most distinctive of all Dutch cities where you can live in close proximity to the water … In the early years, if I wanted to remember the order of the four main canals (from the outside in), I would often refer to the mnemonic Pier Koopt Hoge Schoenen (‘Piet buys high shoes’), the first letters of which correspond to the initials of the four canals. You soon learn that each of these sections of can forms something of a small neighbourhood and you discover landmarks: a church, a side canal, a shopping street, a distinctive corner building.’
City Eyes, Martin Bril
(published in Dutch as Stadsogen)
From a well-known Dutch writer comes a richly atmospheric celebration of the extraordinariness of the ordinary in the city’s streets
‘The Rozengracht lay there like only the Rozengracht can. It was the end of the afternoon. To the west the sun was setting in the bend the De Clercqstraat takes to the right, the sky was as pink as candyfloss … The man looked at his watch. A full tram 18 rattled past and stopped at the corner by the Marnixstraat. People got in and out. A few crossed over and walked towards the man. Two young women who passed him were discussing the fate of a mutual acquaintance. She’d just given birth.’
Excerpts from all the books featured here are available in Oxygen Books’ city-pick Amsterdam (£8.99) Other titles in the series include Berlin, Paris, London, Venice and Dublin with New York out this autumn. www.oxygenbooks.co.uk