A Bookish Vacation

I won’t bore you with photos from my whole trip (we took over 1000 photos…) but there were some particularly bookish attractions we stumbled upon or hunted down on our trip. No Italian libraries but plenty of other distractions.

Take me back!


Books About Amsterdam: The Miniaturist

Amsterdam might be my favourite city in the world. I first visited when I was 13 and thought it was the coolest place but it wasn’t until I was 22 and got to live there that I realized it was the most amazing city.

I’m always searching for books about or set in my city. It’s one of the reasons I jumped on The Dinner so quickly, why I read Tulipmania, why I got so excited when I saw Russell Shorto’s Amsterdam on the shelf at the book store.

So when I started hearing about Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist, set in the Golden Age in Amsterdam, I knew that I would be reading it shortly.

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to go to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, you will likely have seen the cabinet houses that they have there. They are an incredible example of the wealth and craftsmanship available in the city at the time. I hope you clicked on that link because those houses are mesmerizing – there’s nothing I love more than to get up on the ladder in front and stare at it. Sadly, I’ve never been able to stay for a long period of time because there are always so many other people waiting to get their turn.

Burton has used the cabinet of Petronella Oortman as a jumping off point for a kind of magical story. Petronella Oortman arrives at the canal house of her new husband, Johannes Brandt. Petronella, Nella as she is known, is a provincial girl who has been married to this older, wealthy merchant trader as a way of helping her family in the wake of her father’s death. Her family’s name is an old one and the hope is that her name will help legitimize the new wealth of the Brandts.


But Nella’s husband isn’t interested in his new wife at all. Nella expected to have to perform her wifely duties, as unpleasant as they were sure to be, but Johannes isn’t interested at all. Instead he secrets himself away in his study, not to be disturbed. Her austere sister-in-law Marin is all about the Calvinist way of depriving oneself of the pleasures of this life, serving plain meals, wearing sensible un-showy clothes and refusing to light expensive fires despite the cold. Nella feels alone, unsure of what her place is in this strange new household.

Then Johannes presents her with the cabinet house – a perfect replica of their house on the Prinsengracht. He tells her she has free reign to do with the house as she pleases. At first she is totally offended by the gift, thinking it is mocking her status in the home that she is not mistress of. But when she finds the name of a miniaturist on the Kalverstraat, she decides to write and ask him to make some pieces for her. The pieces she gets are incredible. It is as if the miniaturist is spying on the house. As she gets more pieces that seem to tell secrets that the household would rather stay hidden, Nella becomes obsessed with finding out who the miniaturist is and how s/he knows so much about the household.

The reviews that I’ve read are really focused on the mystery surrounding the identity of the miniaturist, often expressing frustration that there aren’t clear cut answers. And I would agree with that part of it – the miniaturist’s story is never fleshed out. But I think that the miniaturist, despite the title, is actually a secondary plotline. I think the point of the novel is more about finding one’s place in the world. Nella comes to Amsterdam without any idea of who she is and what she’s supposed to be doing and in the end she has taken charge of her household and the people in it, finding her place and fighting to get what’s hers. Johannes is living with a dark secret that threatens his life and livelihood when it’s discovered. He spends his days tortured by his reality, knowing that he can never be himself fully. Marin too has a secret and she tries to make amends for it by living austerely. If she can deprive herself of a warm fire, of nice things, then maybe she will be able to make up for the shame she feels at the love she cannot control. Ultimately Johannes and his sister are confronted by the truth and pay the ultimate price and it’s kind of devastating.

The Miniaturist is about prejudices and mob mentality and finding the ability to stand up for what you believe in and just be yourself.

I started reading this book because it was set in a place that I love but I ended up loving it because it made a greater point about love and humanity.


Sometimes My Little Sister Knows Best

One time, I was having a discussion with my then 12-year old sister about books and reading and coming up with some titles that I thought she might enjoy.

She flipped out and stomped out of the room yelling for me not to tell her what to read before slamming her door.

It’s one of my favourite memories.

These days we’re much more likely to trade recommendations. Most of the time these solicit an eye roll from me. Since my sister is 17 she’s much more likely to be found reading YA fiction than anything. She’s the reason I read Twilight. It took years for me to recover from that enough to get started on The Hunger Games. Which led, very indirectly, to Divergent. Last week she leant me The Fault in Our Stars and then I ended up buying Fangirl on her recommendation.

She is now a part of a very select group of people who can recommend books to me.


I read The Fault in Our Stars in the car on our way to our long weekend retreat. I read almost straight through, right until the sketchy ending when it got too dark and I wanted to read privately anyway because I knew this was going to get messy.

I’m the last human to read this book right? So I don’t need to tell you that The Fault in Our Stars is about Hazel Grace Lancaster and her fight against terminal cancer? That her mom forces her to go to support group that she hates but which is where she meets (the amazingly named) Augustus Waters?  And then he reads this book that she is obsessed with and he becomes equally obsessed so he uses his Wish (through a Make-A-Wish type foundation) to take her to Amsterdam to find out what happens to the characters in the book because it just abruptly ends?

And everything is so wonderful and great, aside from the whole cancer thing, and then everything falls apart and you’re left sobbing quietly in a room away from other people because you’re an unholy mess of snot? You all already know that stuff?

Right. So I was prepared for sadness but I wasn’t prepared for how much. Or for how thoughtful and intelligent Hazel and Augustus both are. The book is brilliant and poetic and filled with so much hope despite the devastating ending. I found myself thinking about teenagers in a whole new way. I mean, if they are all losing their minds for this beautifully eloquent book, then they will probably all be OK in the end right?

So after using Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Agatha Christie is always called for on long weekends) to get back my book equilibrium, I was ready for Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl.


Cath and Wren are twin sisters who have always shared everything, including a deep and abiding love of the Simon Snow books. Each is active in the Simon Snow fan fiction world. But when they go off to college and Wren decides that they need to have other roommates so that they can get out in the world more, Cath is left to her own devices for the first time. She ends up rooming with Reagan who makes no secret of the fact that she doesn’t want a roommate and Cath retreats further and further away from the real world in favour of the fictional world of Simon Snow.

But life has a way of getting in the way despite all our best efforts doesn’t it? Cath can’t help but notice her sister seems to be drinking a lot and her dad doesn’t seem right when she talks to him on the phone and the higher level fiction writing class she asked to take part in doesn’t seem to be going the way she thought it would.

That’s before we even get to the boys in Cath’s life or the estranged mom.

I loved it. I was completely swept away by Rowell’s charming characters. Here’s another author that knows how to channel the teenaged voice but in a way that doesn’t diminish what they feel or force grown up emotions on them. Cath is very nearly a full person, figuring out how it all pieces together in the end. It’s no wonder legions of young people love this author – she gets them.

I’m told that Eleanor and Park is even better. For now, my sister wants to borrow Fangirl to read it again.


Book Club Pick: The Dinner

I just finished reading The Dinner for the second time.

I think this is one of the first times that I’ve re-read a modern book. I re-read Austen or Bronte all the time, but a modern novel? That doesn’t happen very often.

I first read Herman Koch’s The Dinner last summer. I had heard great things about it; it was hailed as the European Gone Girl. It had recently been translated from the original Dutch and takes place in Amsterdam- there was no way I wasn’t going to read this.

So I read it last summer and then I had no one to talk it over with. Months later, I hosted book club and as the ladies were perusing my bookshelves, The Dinner was taken down and I couldn’t help gushing about how great it was, how messed up and that I had wanted to talk it over with someone ever since. But no one had read it.

It became our next book club book.

I think I enjoyed it more the first time. But only because the first time, in an effort to take in the whole story and all the characters, I was only able to do a surface read. The second time, I was able to understand the characters better, and I didn’t love them.

the dinner

Paul and Claire Lohman are on their way to have dinner with Paul’s brother Serge and his wife Babette. The couples are having dinner (at a fancy Amsterdam restaurant) to discuss their two teenage boys, Michel and Rick. The boys have clearly done something but you don’t know what it is until about half way through the book. Paul arrives at the restaurant ready to pick a fight – he’s annoyed that he has to pay 10 euros for an appertif after the manager makes it sound like it’s on the house. His brother, Serge, waltzes in like he owns the place. He is the favoured candidate in the ongoing Dutch election which further complicates their relationship.

Over dinner the pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place. Paul remembers the past 11 years by revisiting significant moments: the time his employer suggested he see a psychiatrist, the time his wife was in the hospital for a significant amount of time and Serge and Babette came by to take Michel to stay with them, the time his son came home and told him about the neighbour down the street that invited the boys on the block to come into this home and listen to records.

As the story unravels and you sort of realize what Paul is (as the narrator, Paul refuses to ever go into specifics because that stuff is private and he doesn’t understand why everyone has to make everything so public all the time) and what his son has done, the story shifts to how best to handle it. Paul and his brother have very different ideas of what the next steps should be.

I remember reading it the first time and kind of agreeing with Paul about what the best way to handle his son’s future was. This time I was horrified by it and was hard pressed to find a redeeming character in the whole thing. That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it the second time – I did. It just means that this reading experience was really different from the first one and that surprised me.

One thing is for sure – this little novel packs a big punch leaving us with loads to discuss at book club next time.

PS The Dinner was recently released in paperback.