The Lost Art of Letter Writing: Menna van Praag

★★★

Recent travelling has got in the way of blogging again. I’m not complaining, mind you: this trip involved Rome, Naples and a mind-boggling amount of fabulous art. Perhaps I’ll post about it when my brain has calmed down slightly. Otherwise, life has been extremely busy (in a good way), and so tonight I picked up a novel for the first time in a month – shame on me! I was looking for something undemanding and The Lost Art of Letter Writing seemed a perfect choice for an autumn evening with the nights drawing in. It turned out to be a bit too self-consciously quaint for my taste, but it’s as cosy and feel-good as a page of motivational quotes. It centres on our heroine, Clara, who runs a very special stationer’s shop in Cambridge. Here, customers are invited to write the one heartfelt letter they’ve always meant to send, and Clara gets satisfaction from helping them tie up their loose ends. When she discovers some of her own, in the form of a bundle of old family papers, her curiosity propels her into a serendipitous adventure.

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A Light of Her Own: Carrie Callaghan

★★½

In 1633, a young woman came before the Guild of St Luke in Haarlem, asking to be admitted as a master painter. She was Judith Leyster, a painter of domestic scenes and merry companies, and her acceptance into the Guild made her the first woman to be given such an honour. Carrie Callaghan uses the limited documentary evidence for Leyster’s life and career as the basis for this novel, which follows the ambitious young artist from her days as an apprentice in her master’s attic to her struggles to establish herself in an unwelcoming, male-dominated field. Joining other books set in the Dutch Golden Age, such as Girl with a Pearl EarringTulip FeverThe Miniaturist and Midnight Blue, it offers a glimpse of Dutch art in its most celebrated period – although I felt that this novel (unlike Leyster herself) didn’t live up to its own ambitions.

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In the Shadow of the Ark: Anne Provoost

★★★

When I saw this novel tucked away in a local charity shop, I pounced immediately. How could I resist a story about the Ark so soon after ferreting deep into the history of its legend? Originally published in Dutch in 2001 (the author is Flemish), it has been translated into English by John Nieuwenhuizen and takes us into a strange and foreign world of fishermen and nomads, boat-builders and prophets. And, at the heart of the tale, is the rumour of a great boat being built in the middle of a desert by a crazy old man, and the young woman who travels with her family to answer the call for workers.

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The Black Lake: Hella Haasse

★★★½

Originally published in Haasse’s native Dutch as Oeroeg in 1948, this novel has classic status in the Netherlands but seems to be comparatively unknown among English-speaking readers. Without knowing any of that, I bought it three years ago in a translation by Ina Rilke and have only just got round to reading it, discovering a short but poignant novel that explores the consequences of Dutch colonialism in what is now Indonesia. Haasse herself was born in Batavia (now Jakarta) and so her tale has a ring of authenticity about it, as it follows the friendship of two boys: one the son of a wealthy Dutch plantation owner in Java; the other, the son of the estate’s Indonesian manager.

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Tench: Inge Schilperoord

★★★★

How do you become the person you want to be? This is the challenge that faces thirty-year-old Jonathan when he is released from prison, acquitted on the basis of insufficient evidence. He returns to his elderly mother and their isolated house on the edge of the dunes, one of only two houses left standing in the midst of demolition. Soon the council will rehouse them on a new estate, but Jonathan isn’t looking forward to it. Change upsets him. And so he tries to settle back into his old life: long walks on the dunes with the dog; watching TV with his mother; fishing in the ponds. He wants to be good. But, as summer thickens over their dead-end town and the mercury rises, Jonathan finds his calm unsettled by the bright, creative, clever little girl next door. Sometimes instinct can undermine even the best laid plans.

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The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen: Hendrik Groen

★★★★

Hendrik Groen is 83¼ and lives in a care home in North Amsterdam, but he’s determined not to go gently into that good night. In January 2013 he decides to keep a diary as a way to fight back against the stultifying existence imposed upon him by the director and staff of the home. He firmly believes there’s more to life than having one’s ‘own’ chair in the communal living room; that conversation should be about more than aches and pains; and that the older generation deserves to be given its moment in the limelight. With wit, warmth and poignancy, Groen charts a remarkable year in which he makes new friends, embarks on political intrigue, begins ripping up the road in his new mobility scooter, develops a tendresse for an elegant new arrival and, most importantly, founds the revolutionary Old But Not Dead Club.

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Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting

Vermeer: The Astronomer

Inspiration and Rivalry

(Musée du Louvre, Paris, 22 February-22 May 2017)

Vermeer is one of the few artists whose mere name can prompt a stampede. Nowadays he’s seen as a kind of lone genius, but this show restores him to the context of his age, showing him exchanging ideas and themes with his peers. It has proven to be one of the most popular exhibitions in the Louvre’s history, forcing the museum to introduce timed entry and forcing visitors to book in advance. Tickets cover both this and the Valentin de Boulogne exhibition and, though my heart lies with Valentin, I found myself captivated by these jewel-like pictures of the Dutch Golden Age.

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Midnight Blue: Simone van der Vlugt

★★★

Recently widowed, Catrin Barentsdochter is a free woman again at the age of 25 and vows that 1654 will finally be her year of change. She’s tired of working the land and amusing herself by painting decorative furniture in her spare time. She wants nothing more than to escape the claustrophobic parochialism of her little village, De Rijp, and make a new life for herself in the nearby town of Alkmaar. However, when an unexpected meeting leads to an offer of work in distant Amsterdam, Catrin realises that the scope of her world might be wider than she ever dreamed.

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The Evenings: Gerard Reve

★★

The Evenings caught my eye because it was described as the great postwar Dutch classic, following a young man on his meanderings through the night-time streets of Amsterdam. As some of you may remember, I spent some time working out of Amsterdam a couple of years ago, and grew rather fond of the city’s laid-back spirit, so I thought I’d give the book a go. The result – and I beg my Dutch friends to forgive me – is bemusement. It turns out that one man’s classic is another man’s bafflement, and perhaps the translation is to blame, for I found little to enjoy in this unremittingly bleak tale of youthful stagnation.

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The Miniaturist: Jessie Burton

★★★★

I’m one of those awkward people who likes to be different and usually steers away from books on the bestseller tables. In several cases I’ve got round to reading such novels months or years later when, generally speaking, they definitely live up to their hype. Jessie Burton’s entrancing tale of secrets and commerce in 17th-century Amsterdam is a case in point. Crafted with as much care as the doll’s house that takes centre stage in the plot, the novel is a tantalising thriller which conjures up all the textures and colours of the Dutch Golden Age.

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