My Reading List Goes Dutch

In three weeks I will be traveling to Amsterdam (Eyjafjallajökull-willing) and since it’s always good to know something about a place before one visits, I’ve added a number of books to my reading list by Dutch authors and/or books about Amsterdam and the Netherlands.  Many of these books come recommended by the excellent biblioblog The Hieroglyphic Streets.

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
The Dream Room by Marcel Möring
My ‘Dam Life by Sean Condon
The Darkroom of Damocles by William Frederick Hermans
The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
The Assault by  Harry Mulisch
The Embarrassment of Riches by  Simon Schama
Amsterdam by Geert Mak
Amsterdam : a traveler’s literary companion edited by Manfred Wolf.

Here are a couple of other books apropos to the topic that I’ve read previously with links to the reviews:

Brilliant orange : the neurotic genius of Dutch football by David Winner
Vermeer’s Hat. The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook

I’ll keep reading until the vacation is over, but I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to read all of these books.  Still, if anyone wants to recommend the quintessential Dutch book that I  must read, let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Amsterdam by Geert Mak

Author:Geert Mak
Title: Amsterdam
Publication Info: Harvard University Press (1999)
ISBN: 0674003314


This is a highly-readable history of eight centuries of the history of Amsterdam.  Dutch journalist Mak makes great use of hooks upon which to build each chapter of Amsterdam’s history such as an archaeological artifact, a sketch by Rembrandt, primary source writings, paintings and photographs.   I get the sense that the translation is a bit off in places and the place names are hard for an Anglophone out-of-towner to keep up, but these things largely do not impede my reading or enjoyment of this work.  This is a good introduction to the city I hope to visit next month.

For other reviews check out The Hieroglyphic Streets.

Recommended books: Dr. Johnson’s London: Coffee-Houses and Climbing Boys, Medicine, Toothpaste and Gin, Poverty and Press-Gangs, Freakshows by Liza Picard
Rating: ****

Book Review: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr by Nancy Isenberg

Author: Nancy Isenberg
Title: Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2007), Edition: Unabridged, Audio CD
ISBN: 0143142283


This biography attempts to make up for two-centuries of scholarship on Aaron Burr that’s been informed by myth and fiction.  Isenberg makes Burr’s case – while not ignoring his mistakes and flaws – as one of the important leaders of the early United States republic, albeit one whose career ended in failure.  Not only that, but since his posterity has had no supporters, much of what is taught about Burr comes from the writings of his political rivals Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.  Isenberg also makes it clear that Burr had many positive qualities that have been overlooked:  a war hero in the Revolution, an excellent lawyer, an intellectual, a feminist, an innovative political campaigner and someone who often refused to play the game of sycophancy nor venomously maligning his political rivals.  These last traits though honest would hurt him in both his military and political careers as less noble figures would claw their way past him.

In this book Hamilton comes across as the Fox News pundit of the Federal period willing to wield his poison pen to bear false witness against his political rival.  Jefferson on the other hand is intent on building a Virginia dynasty and while willing to have Burr get him votes from New York did not want to lose power to the Northern Democratic-Republican Party.   Isenberg explores all the famed events of Burr’s life – the contested election of 1800, the duel with Hamilton, and the western filibuster – and Burr comes out looking pretty good in all of them, at least on a relative scale.  For if Burr is ever immoral, corrupt, or dishonest he is no more so (and often less so) than his contemporaries who have much better historical reputations.

Isenberg’s final paragraph sums it best:

These were our founders: imperfect me in a less than perfect nation, grasping at opportunities.  That they did good for our country is understood, and worth our celebration; that they were also jealous, resentful, self-protective and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography.  What seperates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods.

Recommended books: Duel: Alexander Hamilton, Aaron Burr, and the Future of America by Thomas Fleming, Aaron Burr by Milton Lomask, Ordeal of Ambition: Jefferson, Hamilton and Burr by Jonathan Daniels and Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side by Leonard W. Levy
Rating: ****