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Archive for the ‘Non-Fiction’ Category

The Passage to Europe

In Non-Fiction, Pick of the Week on August 5, 2013 at 8:30 AM

The Passage to Europe
Political philosopher, historian and adviser to the president of the European Union Herman van Rompuy, Luuk van Middelaar provides in a vivid narrative of the crises and compromises that united Europe in his recently translated The Passage to Europe; How a Continent Became a Union. It is a story of unexpected events and twists of fate, bold vision and sheer necessity, told from the perspective of the key players – from de Gaulle to Havel, Thatcher to Merkel. The author cuts through the institutional complexity by exploring the unforeseen outcomes of decisive moments and focusing on the quest for public legitimacy.

Financial Times selected The Passage to Europe as one of the books of the year. Tony Barber wrote in the Financial Times: It is a discerning, balanced, gracefully written book, flavoured with the insights of political science but filled with the meat of European Union history over six decades.

Tribune: Luuk van Middelaar has written by far the best, accessible, thoughtful account of Europe as was and is and as he hopes will be that we have seen in years.

The Passage to Europe was awarded the Socrates Prize for best Dutch Philosophy book and the 2012 European Book Prize. The English translation by Liz Waters, publisher Yale Books.
More information and reviews can be found on the books’ website.


History’s most dangerous sport

In Non-Fiction, Pick of the Week on July 20, 2013 at 2:39 PM

In The Gladiators; History’s Most Deadly Sport traces Fik Meijer, professor of Ancient History at the University of Amsterdam from 1992 to 2007, the origins of the gladiators over 2,500 years, from the initial belief that their blood spilled on a grave would sustain the dead on its journey to the underworld. Yet, as centuries passed and the Roman Empire grew, gladiators became part of vaster, more brutal entertainments staged by successive emperors eager to manipulate the public with “bread and circuses” and to exhibit their supreme power over men and animals, life and death. Meijer has pieced together true stories from contemporary evidence, describing the gladiators’ origin, daily life, training and the odds of their survival pitted against there legions of fans’ lust for blood and spectacle.

New York Times: Mr. Meijer understands exactly what readers want to know about gladiators and anticipates their every question in this admirable little study. He explains who the gladiators were; how they were trained, fed and paid; what weapons they used; and what rules governed combat in the arena. One chapter reconstructs a full day’s program at the Roman Colosseum and, as a bonus, Mr. Meijer looks at two films, Spartacus and Gladiator to see just how well Hollywood captured the flavor and the period detail of Rome’s most popular sport.

The Daily Mail: Forget Russell Crowe in a skirt and sandals, this is the real deal if you want to know about blood and guts in the arena.

The Gladiators : History’s Most Deadly Sport was published by St. Martin’s Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books in 2007. Earlier editions were published in 2004 and 2005. Translation by Liz Waters.

Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases

In Non-Fiction on March 12, 2013 at 9:32 AM

Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older
Is it true, as the novelist Cees Nooteboom once wrote, that ‘Memory is like a dog that lies down where it pleases’? Where do the long, lazy summers of our childhood go? Why is it that as we grow older time seems to condense, speed up, elude us while in old age significant events from our distant past can seem as vivid and real as what happened yesterday? Douwe Draaisma explores the nature of autobiographical memory. Applying a unique blend of scholarship, poetic sensibility and keen observation he tackles such extraordinary phenomena as déjà-vu, near-death experiences, the memory feats of idiot-savants and the effects of extreme trauma on memory recall.

Douwe Draaisma (1953) Professor History of Psychology at the University of Groningen, wrote the best selling Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, How memory shapes our past which was translated in multiple languages. This book is both entertaining and educational, Draaisma’s bbok raises almost as many questions as it answers. He a blend of scholarship, poetic sensibility and keen observation in exploring the nature of autobiographical memory.

Immigrant Nations

In Non-Fiction on December 16, 2012 at 6:47 PM

Immigrant Nations - Paul Scheffer
Immigrant Nations by Paul Scheffer is a reassessment of how immigration is changing our world. The policies of multiculturalism that were implemented in the wake of post-war immigration have, especially since 9/11, come under intense scrutiny, and the continuing flow of populations has helped to ensure that immigration remains the focus of intense social and political debate.

Based on his knowledge of the European and American experience, Scheffer shows how immigration entails the loss of familiar worlds, both for immigrants and for host societies. The conflict that accompanies all major migratory movements is not the result of a failure of integration, but is part of a search for new ways of living together. It prompts an intensive process of self-examination on all sides.

Immigrant Nations – a mix of reportage, memoir, analysis and history first published in Dutch in 2007 – is bursting with curiosity about the immigrant condition. Scheffer is a professor of urban studies at Amsterdam University but he brings a literary imagination to this vast subject, together with a psychological insight and aphoristic style not found in the academic tomes.

Immigrant Nations is an important, ambitious book. It rambles in places, and Scheffer ducks the big issue of what national identity should look like in open, rich societies. But as the revolt against mass immigration and multiculturalism shows no signs of weakening in Europe, it is timely to have a rational and liberal defence of the new scepticism that ranges with such confidence across so many countries – and is a damn good read too.

David Goodhart, The Financial Times

Immigrant Nations is published by Polity Press (2011) and is translated by Liz Waters.

Darwin’s Dreampond

In Non-Fiction on December 4, 2012 at 1:49 PM

Darwins Dreampond
Darwin’s Dreampond by Tijs Goldschmidt is the story of a Dutch fish taxonomist who happened to be working in Tanzania when the colorful cichlids he was classifying were overfished to extinction. It stands head and shoulders above the predictable genre of eco-gloomies, and is in large part a work of literature. It originally appeared in Dutch in 1994 and was shortlisted for the major AKO Literature Prize and was awarded the prestigious Science Prize from the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research.

In 1981 Goldschmidt left for Tanzania in order to carry out research on cichlids, small percoid fish that form new species at an extraordinarily high rate and thus comprise one of the world’s most spectacular flocks of species. During his research the biologist was eye witness to a terrible destruction of fauna when an introduced army of Nile perch rapidly exterminated a large number of the hundreds of cichlid species. Goldschmidt ingeniously interweaves the story of the collapse of the ecosystem of Lake Victoria with a discussion of Darwin’s theory of evolution and his own experiences as a researcher amongst bureaucrats, missionaries and fishermen. The ecosystem collapses but the fishery booms and the lives of millions of Africans are drastically altered.

The biological story itself is fascinating, and Mr. Goldschmidt tells it well. But the genius of his book lies in the way he has combined the science with travel writing. He interleaves the two in a highly readable way, so that his Tanzanian experiences lighten the science.

Read the New York Times review of Darwin’s Dreampond.

During the London Book Fair 2012 Athenaeum Publishers have sold the World-English rights of a collection of over 20 essays by Tijs Goldschmidt. American publisher Seven Stories Press will publish the essays next year.

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“When you touch a Lipizzaner, you are touching history”

In Non-Fiction on November 21, 2012 at 10:00 AM

Brother Mendels perfect horse

“When you touch a Lipizzaner,” Frank Westerman was told as a child, “you are touching history.”

As a noble breed that has borne emperors and kings, and is imbued with “power and grace, loyalty and eagerness to learn”, it is a “horse to top all horses”, writes Frank Westerman in his history of the Lipizzaner. The lineage of these famous white beasts, which can be trained to perform a sort of equine ballet, stretches back to 1580, when the Habsburgs’ imperial stud farm outside Trieste began a breeding programme to create the perfect horse.

Westerman’s account of the Lipizzaners’ remarkable survival makes stirring reading. Brother Mendel’s Perfect Horse: Man and beast in an age of human warfare tales of research in secret archives and encounters with wartime veterans who helped with Operation Cowboy have the subterfuge and tension of a thriller.

His chronology is sometimes confusing, and his determination to link the Lipizzaners’ history with the genetic theories of Mendel and Lamarck, ideologues like the Soviet biologist Lysenko and Nazi programmes of eugenics is sometimes strained and can lead to lengthy and somewhat indigestible digressions. But Westerman never loses sight of the emotional connection that inspired his story: the deep attachment between humans and horses which is, it sometimes seems, more than we deserve.

Read here the full review in The Financial Times by Carl Wilkinson.

Engineers of the Soul

In Non-Fiction on November 18, 2012 at 8:00 AM

engineers of the soul

Frank Westerman draws the reader into the euphoria of the Russian Revolution, as art and reality were bent to radically new purposes.

Writers of renown, described by Stalin as “engineers of the soul,” were encouraged to sing the praises of canal and dam construction under titles such as Energy and The Hydraulic Power Station. However, their enthusiasm—spontaneous and idealistic at first— soon became an obligatory song of praise as the massive waterworks led to slavery and destruction in the service of a deluded totalitarian society. On the dilemma of the Soviet writers, which he faced alongside contemporaries such as Maxim Gorky, Isaak Babel, and Boris Pasternake, novelist Konstantin Paustovsky wrote: “It is easy to die a hero’s death, but it is difficult to live a hero’s life.

Combining investigative journalism with literary history, Westerman examines the books and lives of writers caught in the wheels of the system. Engineers of the Soul is the riveting story of how authors were forced to write in service of an ideology, in this case communism as it was practiced in the Soviet Union. Westerman’s sharp pen combines a fine example of investigative journalism with a dash of literary history. In the book’s ingenious construction he continually contrasts the Soviet past with present-day Russia, leading the reader into a maze of mirrors through “Absurdistan.”

Engineers of the Soul was shortlisted for both the Dutch AKO Prize and the Golden Owl and was awarded the Dr. Wijnaendts Francken and the J. Greshoff Prize. Engineers of the Soul, English translation by  the gifted Sam Garret is published by Harvill Secker (UK) and The Overlook Press (US). It was also translated in Spanish, German, Polish, Croatian, Swedish, French, Estonian and Italian.

You can read a sneak peak here >>

Misrepresenting the Middle East

In Non-Fiction on November 3, 2012 at 4:21 PM

people like us - misrepresenting middle east joris luyendijk

In People Like Us Dutch journalist and writer Joris Luyendijk tells the story of his five years in the Middle East in a breezy but self-critical account of “one journalist’s search for truth”. This huge bestseller in Holland, describes the five years that Luyendijk spent as a foreign correspondent.

He was one of the youngest correspondents, but fluent in Arabic, he spoke with stone throwers and terrorists, with taxi drivers and professors, with victims, aggressors and their families, experiencing first-hand the effects of dictatorship, occupation, terror and war. The more he lived through, the more surprised he became. An enormous gap yawned between what he saw as correspondent on the ground and what he later saw in the media. Luyendijk shows through powerful examples and with great humour how the media gives us a filtered, altered and manipulated image. A book full of insights about the lack of objective journalism, about media led reporting, an eye-opening account of what’s behind the news.

People Like Us was translated by Michele Hutchison and published by Soft Skull Press

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