Best wishes for 2015 everyone!
In the past year I was happy to read some wonderful, inspiring, surprising, playful, entertaining, fascinating and otherwise exciting books. Let's have a look at them.

In 2014 I continued my discoveries of the year before by reading new books by Patrick Leigh Fermor and Valeria Luiselli. I followed Leigh Fermor's journey on foot through Europe with the second book of his travels and continued my fascination with Luiselli through her novel De gewichtlozen.
Frank Westerman has become a steady name on my reading lists these last years. Stikvallei is already the 4th book I've read by him and he hasn't disappointed me so far.
Further, I finally found the mojo to pick up Truman Capote's In cold blood. It took my quite a few years to do so, but I'm glad I did. A great classic and it set me on track to discover another classic, To kill a mockingbird. That one I enjoyed even more.
New discoveries in 2014 were Anna Seghers, Kate Atkinson, Sten Nadolny and Olivia Manning. Anna Seghers made such an impression with Het zevende kruis that I'm now reading her second masterpiece, Transit. More on that one soon.
Kate Atkinson really was a delight. Such a catchy good read and deep at the same time, perfect!
Sten Nadolny's De ontdekking van het langzame leven was a gift we all received from our boss. A delightful historical novel - written in the 1980's and recently translated into Dutch - about a man who is slower than most, but manages to get quite far in life. He becomes a successful captain in the navy and even leads expeditions to discover a way through the northern ice sea. Inspiring stuff.
My last big reading project of the year was The Balkan Trilogy by Olivia Manning. More than a thousand pages of highly detailed descriptions of Manning's stay in Romania and Greece during the Second World War. I admit to cursing this book on a number of times, but ultimately I loved to read it all. Perhaps I'll try the follow up The Levant Trilogy this year.

These are all ten of my favourites in 2014 - the order I've read them in:

Anna Seghers Het zevende kruis
Patrick Leigh Fermor
Between the woods and the water
Truman Capote In cold blood
Valeria Luiselli De gewichtlozen
Frank Westerman
Stikvallei
Kate Atkinson
Life after life
Sten Nadolny
De ontdekking van het langzame leven
Harper Lee
To kill a mockingbird
Olivia Manning
The Balkan Trilogy

In 2014 I published 33 reviews on Jacob de Zoet. Seven books read this year have remained unreviewed so far. I hope to catch up on some of them soon. At the very least Jaap Scholten's latest book Horizon City deserves a review. I quite liked it.

What else?
I started to read in German! I'm quite proud of this I have to say. I could already keep up a steady conversation in German, but I'd never read more than a few pages in a book. It feels very nice to discover a language in this way, just like I used to try my hand at English books for the first time many years ago.
I've read two German books in 2014 and I'm currently half way through a third one (Tschick). Another, with the delightful title Die Entdeckung der Currywurst, I picked up in Berlin last summer
. I hope to read that one sometime soon.

I had three interviews with authors in 2014, a new feature on Jacob de Zoet. My aim was to do a small Paris Review type of interview, to see who influences them, what books they enjoy reading and how they write. I plan to do more author interviews, so if you have any names to suggest or connections to make please let me know! Ideally they´re young, relatively unknown and nice to talk to...

I wish all of you a great reading year in 2015, with lots of books and hopefully some good ones too! As always do let me know if you have anything special to recommend me. Something old I've never heard of, a young author you're enthusiastic about or your all time favourite book which you couldn't find on this website. I look forward to reading them!

6 January 2015




















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In A time of gifts Patrick Leigh Fermor walked from Hoek van Holland through Germany, Austria and Slovakia, first along the Rhine and then along the Danube. The Danube marks the border between Slovakia and Hungary and that is where Between the woods and the water picks up the thread. This book deals with Leigh Fermor’s travels through Hungary and Romania, the part I was looking forward to the most. Transsylvania, that old, oft-contested land, ancient source of myth and fairytales, and further on die wilde Wallachei, wild Wallachia, the old Romanian principality bordered by the Carpathians in the north and the Danube in the south that, to German and Hungarian speaking people, marked the end of Europe and the start of barbarian wilderness.

But first Hungary: crossing the Danube at Esztergom Leigh Fermor heads down to Budapest, where he will spend some days among the same set that had opened their doors for him in Austria and Germany. Barons and counts, all from ancient noble families, who seem quite enamoured of the young Englishman and who gladly write or telephone ahead of his approach to secure him a welcome at the next stay. Between the joys of the Budapest nightlife – ‘Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib und Gesang der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang!’ (p. 184) seems a recurrent motto – Leigh Fermor has time to wonder at the strangeness of the Hungarian language. As always he is interested in the history of the country and all the different peoples who once overran this part of Europe: Huns, Magyars, Avars, Turks and a score of others.

To travel the puszta, the Great Hungarian Plain to the east and south of Budapest, Leigh Fermor borrows a horse called Malek. Malek brings him a long way southeast, across the river Tisza and near the Romanian border. Crossing the border by train, as it is said you’re not allowed to cross by foot, he finds himself in Transsylvania, officially part of Romania since the Treaty of Trianon at the end of WWI. The network of his Hungarian friends stretches far, as Leigh Fermor is once more invited into various country houses. He befriends a young man called István and falls in love with a (married!) girl called Angéla. Patrick, István and Angéla decide to go on a wild car trip through Transsylvania which, to my great delight, is roughly the same trajectory as we travelled two years ago: from Alba Iulia northwards to Cluj Napoca (I will stick to the Romanian place names, since that is how I remember them. Leigh Fermor clearly has fun explaining all the different names for these towns; Apulon-Apulum-Bălgrad-Weissenburg-Karlsburg-Gyulaféhervár-Alba Iulia and Klausenburg-Koloszvár-Cluj). From there east and southwards to Târgu Mureş, Sighişoara and Braşov and past Sibiu westward to the beginning. They find it a rather beautiful trip, as did we.

For Leigh Fermor it is time to travel alone again, from the southwestern part of Transsylvania down towards the dangerous stretch of the Danube called the Iron Gates. Towards the end of the book, once more on the banks of the Danube, Leigh Fermor muses how a little island in the river where descendants of a long-forgotten Ottoman contingent still lived in the 1930’s has now disappeared under water. A huge hydroelectric power plant that was built thirty years later completely changed that stretch of the Danube.
Between the woods and the water
was written and published decades after Leigh Fermor’s journey in 1934 and a sense of loss is prevalent throughout. Many of the places he’d seen would be gone or unrecognizably changed within a few years and many of his friends and acquaintances along the way would be killed or uprooted from their homes (see Jaap Scholten's Kameraad Baron). And yet, despite this sad undertone, the book breathes the adventurous spirit of the young Patrick Leigh Fermor. There’s a genuine appreciation of the beauty of nature, the pleasures of friendship and the depth of historical knowledge one can gain along the way. This combination of youthful enthusiasm and a sadder-but-wiser knowledge of life make these such rich books, books I know I’ll be coming back to in the future. And what’s more, the third and final part of Leigh Fermor’s journey that deals with the final stretch to Istanbul has just been published as The broken road. Reading that will be something to look forward to!
  the Transylvanian road trip


24 February 2014

New York Review Books, 2005
Originally published 1986






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When he was 18 years old Patrick Leigh Fermor made a walking tour across Europe, in the early 1930’s. Crossing the North Sea on board a Dutch ship he started walking from Hoek van Holland and went all the way to Istanbul, carrying just a backpack and a walking stick. Forty years later he wrote two books about this journey, A time of gifts and Between the woods and the water. The second book, which largely takes place in Hungary and Romania, I’d already come across in Jaap Scholten’s Kameraad baron. Scholten, and many others before him, were intrigued and impressed by Leigh Fermor’s descriptions of Europe before the destructions of the Second World War and the rise of communism.

Leigh Fermor had chosen a perfect time for his walk. Traces of the old Europe, from before the First World War, could still be found everywhere and people were more than willing to tell tales about a seemingly more innocent time. The young Leigh Fermor must have been a charming, unimposing young man who, luckily enough, spoke some German and French. Wherever he went people put him up for the night without a fuss. Often, while walking, he got into conversation with farmers or huntsmen, who always managed to recommend him to acquaintances in a neighbouring village. Occasionally, he even ended up in a manor house, at the fireside of an ancient noble family who, fascinated by this young Englishmen’s quest, immediately announced all their friends along the route of his approach. Rather friendly times it seems.

The itinerary of A time of gifts follows the Rhine and the Danube, through Holland, Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia, and ends with crossing the Danube into Hungary. Bigger cities such as Munich, Vienna and Prague call for longer descriptions, but Leigh Fermor seems most at ease out in the country. Cities offer friendship, culture, the occasional replenishment of a purse that seems to empty by itself, and of course warmth (rather masochistically, Leigh Fermor sets off on his journey in the middle of December and only after crossing half of snow-covered Europe comes upon spring in Hungary).

Walking alone, however, there is ample time to muse on history, language, literature and art, ideally in connection with a nearby castle, monastery or church. It is bemusing to read Leigh Fermor’s enthusiastic descriptions of an old monastery, with a lonely Dominican monk as his guide. The view, the light, the styles of construction, the patience of the builders, the boldness of the designer, the memory of a long-forgotten abbott or bishop; all put together can trigger a lyricism that can go on for pages. Amazing how much someone is able to see in one building. Leigh Fermor shows a huge interest both in culture and people and is, even at such a young age, already highly educated.

Clearly, you shouldn’t forget that what you read has been edited by the mature Patrick Leigh Fermor. Nevertheless, A time of gifts is interesting to read on a variety of levels: for the actual travelling, but also the time, the history and especially the language. It is not for nothing that these two books get mentioned so highly. Leigh Fermor really does write travel literature. If you turn a blind eye on his occasionally florid descriptions it is rather beautifully written, in a high British style. This means long sentences with many sub clauses that can be highly rewarding once you manage to find your way through them. My one complaint would concern my edition of the book, an otherwise nicely printed New York Review of Books Classic: if you do publish a classic travel book, do at least include a map! I managed to find a map that shows the route from Vienna to Budapest, which you can see below.
 
I hope to read the sequel, Between the woods and the water, soon enough, especially because that part deals with Eastern Europe, the area that interests me most.

18 August 2013

New York Review Books, 2005
Originally published 1977



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