Kingdom of the golden dragon (Memories of the Eagle and the Jaguar #2) by Isabel Allende

As you’ve probably noticed before me because of the title of this review, this is part two in a three-part series. I only discovered that when I was about halfway through the book, so don’t let that stop you from reading this review or the book itself! Although, I admit that it would make more sense to start with the first one now you know it’s a series. I’ve only read this one so far and could understand everything that happened. Isabel Allende cleverly explains the important parts that happen in the first book throughout this one, such as Nadia’s background, necessary to understand the things happening in the second part. This only made me more curious to the first part though. The second part is a new adventure with some characters from the first book, and some new ones.

This series is written by Isabell Allende as three young adult novels. Each book in the series is a stand-alone adventure story, which is set in a different remote part of the earth. The fact that it is YA, does not mean she does not talk about the serious topics as usually present in her books, such as corruption, dictatorial politics, justice and the position of women. Each book in the series centres on Alexander, also called Jaguar, Nadia, also called Eagle and Alexander’s grandmother Kate Cold. Kate Cold works for International Geographic, which I assume is Allende’s version of ‘National Geographic’, for which she is sent to remote places in the world. In the first book it is the Amazonian jungle, in the third the plains of Kenia, and in this one, the second, it is the ‘forbidden kingdom’ somewhere high up in the Himalayas. The forbidden country is a Buddhist kingdom, closed-off to most visitors because the authorities want to keep the purity of the nature and the people’s minds intact. I have to say here that I don’t know how close to Buddhism the practises in this book actually are, because I know too little of it to say. Kate and her crew of photographers, together with Alexander and Nadia, are allowed in the kingdom to make a reportage. This trip of Kate and her family is one part of the story.

The second part of the story is about somebody called the ‘Collectionneur’ who, as his name suggests, collects valuable artefacts from all over the world.  Also, he has the wish to become the richest person in the world, because now he is only the second-to richest and he does not deal with that well. He has heard rumours about a golden dragon statue used in the forbidden kingdom to predict the future. Naturally he wants that statue. To do that he hires somebody called ‘The Specialist’ to steal the statue and the code needed to predict the future. He hopes that the statue will help him to get even richer. The specialist is the kind of villain often present in adventure and spy novels. The Specialist is smart, cunning and ruthless. Basically, if you pay The Specialist’s exorbitantly high price, the job will get done, no questions asked.

The characters are what makes this book very good in my opinion, especially the women. There is Kate, the weathered international geographic writer with a great love for her grandson and her special vodka tea. There is Nadia from the Amazonian jungle who has an eagle as spiritual animal, which is also why she is sometimes called ‘Eagle’ in the book, but has actually a great fear of heights. This however does not stop her from being extraordinary brave. Finally, there is Pema, who lives in the capital of the forbidden kingdom, and turns out to be maybe the bravest of all people in the book. Isabel Allende is always most successful in writing strong female characters, who go their own way in life, not always impressed by the men who love them. This makes a nice change from a lot of the other YA books, where loving a boy seems to be the biggest occupation of females present. Here is one example from the book which makes this difference very clear. Nadia and Alexander are discussing doing something very dangerous. At a certain point Alexander ‘allows’ Nadia to go along with him, but he tells her to do whatever he tells her to. Her reply to that is that she won’t do everything he says, but will do whatever she thinks is best. Also she tells Alexander that the situation is just as dangerous for him, as it is for her, so she might as well join him, ‘so deal with it,’ I imagined her ending her statement with.

I don’t think the forbidden kingdom is one hundred percent based on a real country, but it does have a lot of similarities with Bhutan, which is also a mountain kingdom in the Himalaya. In Bhutan they also adhere to Buddhism, and Bhutan is sometimes referred to as the ‘forbidden kingdom’, because it is pretty closed off from modern society. I do not know enough about Bhutan and its political system to see how similar it is to the one in the book, but they are both monarchies. For me it is always interesting to see how writers use something we have on this earth, and shape it into something they can use in their stories. It’s the same with the way Isabel weaves spirituality into this adventure story.  Supernatural things are happening in this book, but in such a way that they are part of the story from the start, and not as a way to solve a big unsurmountable problem at the end as a ‘deus ex machina’.  It does take some suspension of disbelief to go along with the spiritual solution of problems, but once you do it makes this book a wonderful journey through the power of the mind, and the believe that there is actually magic in this world. Also inclusion of those spiritual elements gives the reader some nice ideas to ponder, while enjoying the adventure part of the story.

In conclusion, this book is a bit different from Isabel Allende’s other works, because it is aimed at young adults. However, it shares many elements prominent in her other works, such as interesting female characters, a strong moralistic component and it is written in her compelling writing style that basically sucks you in and won’t let you go until you’ve finished the book.  Because this is an adventure novel written by Isabel Allende, it is ideal for girls who love spy novels, secret society books, and all other books where the protagonist gets to do awesome things, the best thing being that the protagonist is often a women. And of course this book is also for the guys who need to be introduced into the beautiful world of Isabell Allende.

Indiana Jane award for showing that adventure books are not only a boys’ game

Isabel Allende, El reino del dragón de oro (New York, 2003)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

Christmas Recommendations

First off, we’d like to wish all of a you a merry Christmas!
We hope your days will be filled with joy and many, many books.

So, to help you along a bit, we’ve compiled a list of books that we think suit the holidays best. These books will get you right into that Chistmassy vibe!

    1. A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (1843)


      This one is a bit of a no-brainer on this list, but still important to mention. Everybody will know the story through the Muppets or another rendition of this well-known story, but when you read the book you will discover more. The book goes further than the movies, and generally speaking focusses more on the redemption part of the story. It also focusses on the importance of family and friends for a good life and how to become and stay a decent person. This sounds like a very good message for Christmas to us!

    2. Sherlock Holmes: A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)


      I’m pretty sure it’s more of a personal feeling, but we really associate Sherlock Holmes with Christmas. Not that he is a particular festive person, nor do any of the stories take place during Christmas, but a good old fashion murder case, thought over by Sherlock himself, in his wing chair while smoking a pipe…to us, that’s the perfect cherry on the top of the Christmas season. I’d recommend ‘A study in scarlet’, as it is a novel and it’s chronologically the first novel: this is where you learn about the special relationship Holmes and Watson have. So maybe it will even get you a little bit sentimental!

    3. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (1997)


      What book better to read during the holidays of joyfulness and togetherness, than a book in which a lonely boy finally finds his true family. Also something about the whole approach Hogwarts has towards decorations and celebration, together with the people who are close to you, makes this a very suitable Christmas read. Plus, it also gives warm feelings to read a book loved in one’s youth. And Hogwarts will always be home.

    4. Hercule Poirot’s Christmas by Agatha Christie (1938)


      Murder at Christmas, it’s that time of the year again! Our Belgian friend and his great mustache never really get to have a break… Now, imagine a Christmas scene, cozy and cheerful, all these decorations and good food; sounds lovely, right? Now imagine adding a lot of uncut diamonds, a black sheep in the family, an emotional and sadistic game and a crucial last will and testament. What do you get? Yes, murder: a wonderful locked room mystery, with a festive touch.

    5. The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann (1816)


      Yes, before there was the ballet masterpiece by Tchaikovsky, there was a book. In the story, a little girl’s favourite Christmas toy comes to life to defeat the evil mouse king. It’s an imaginative tale, with a battle and a curse and good versus evil, mostly set in the night before Christmas! Honestly, that’s what Christmas is all about, isn’t it? Imagining the unimaginable.

    6. Fairytales: The Singing, Soaring Lark by the Brothers Grimm (1815)


      Fairytales are perfect for Christmas, because they can so easily be read aloud to children or friends. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm traveled for years to collect German folk tales. The ones we all know are wonderful, but it’s worth it to look into some of the lesser known stories, like ‘The Singing, Soaring Lark’. This story is about a brave young woman whose perseverence leads her to encounter a dragon, lions, a griffin and many other things, all to reunite her family. It’s only a few pages long but it contains several plot twists and, greatest of all, a woman saves the prince for once.

    7. Crime at Christmas by C.H.B. Kitchin (1934)


      I can’t tell you why it feels so right to read about horrific murders on such a hopeful, holy day, but it does. Crime at Christmas has the classic setting of a wealthy family that plays parlor games with their guests in their big house, until Christmas morning brings a gruesome discovery. Your Christmas might be miserable, but stockbroker-turned-detective Malcolm Warren has it worse: it’s bad enough that someone has died, but a death makes the whole holiday awkward, and that’s not what he signed up for when he accepted the invitation to Beresford Lodge.

    8. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868)


      Christmas is supposed to be a time of magic, but how do you keep that magic alive when you’re father is away at war and money is tight? That is the situation the four sisters and their mother find themselves in, in this book. However, as is also shown in this book, Christmas is also a time of sharing and spending time with your loved ones without worrying about the materialistic side of life. This book will show you how Christmas can be enjoyed when you have little, by sharing what you have, and will also warm your heart, because of the obvious love the four sisters and their mother share.

    9. Babette’s Feast by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) (1958)


      A lot of people associate the holidays with lots of food, family and good spirits (not just of the alcoholic kind). This Danish story, though not set during Christmas, is all about food. In the story, a refugee from France just appears, so just the idea of a refugee changing the lives of others is already deeply connected to the Christmas story to me. But this stranger tries to convince these pious sisters and their guests to enjoy life just a little more, so she offers them this fantastic meal, that in the end they can’t help but enjoy, without fearing for their souls. It’s a wonderful pure tale on just enjoying the earthly things. Even though it’s mostly people eating food, the characters change over the course of the meal and it’s a wonderful story of people coming together and really opening up to each other.

    10. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)


      Dickens is Christmas. Though hardly historically accurate, he paints a picture of a snow covered London, with carriages and bells, warm churches and family dinners. The story starts off with complete poverty though: a young boy, whom terrible things happen to and a mysterious plot in which somehow an insignificant boy appears to be crucial. But through the actions of women mostly, he finds his family in the end. What could be more Christmassy: the message of hope, through a child in poverty and dispair, as he escapes from the dark criminal underworld of London. Also, Dickens is mostly known for creating brilliant characters and this book has some of the best in my opinion. A book everyone should read at least a dozen times, so why not at Christmas this year?

    11. Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (1950)


      This story is about four children, who find themselves in a magical, hidden land called Narnia that is cursed by an evil snow queen: it’s always winter, but never Christmas. The children learn that, according to a prophecy, their arrival means that the rightful King of Narnia will return. Not only does he bring back Christmas, but he will defeat the White Witch, free her prisoners and forgive the traitors. Does that sound familiar? It might, because The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is not so much a Christmas story as it is an allusion to the original Christmas story.

    12. The original Christmas story in the Bible


      We decided that creating a list of stories to read over Christmas simply wouldn’t be complete without the story that started it all.
      The original story of the birth of Jesus can be found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, in New Testament of the Bible. Luke 2:1-20 is probably the most well known version of the story, but there’s a lot of the story we know from the Christmas books we read as a child missing from there. You will find the birth of Jesus there, the angels singing and the shepherds visiting. However to find the three kings and the story of an angry King Herod, you will have to turn to Matthew 2: 1-12. These two gospels appear to give two very different accounts of the birth of Christ, but as they are often thrown together in populair books or series, it’s best to read both gospels. The annunciation by the angel, which sets the story, can be found in both Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1: 26-38. And this is really what Christmas is all about: the birth of Christ and a light of hope in a seemingly dark world.

We hope you all have a great holiday!

Crime at Christmas by C.B.H. Kitchin

Last week, Thura and I reorganised my bookshelves. The book collection in my one-room-appartment had got a bit out of hand and Thura is, after all, the daughter of a librarian. As a result, after some hours of work and a bottle of port, all my books are now sorted by genre, use and origin. Placed quite appropriately next to the cookbooks, there’s a small section I am very proud of, exclusively devoted to Christmas books. One of the books you’ll find there is Crime at Christmas, which according to its cover is a ‘classic festive mystery’.

Set in a big city house in Hampstead at Christmas time, with an array of family members, house guests and domestic staff, the story reads like a game of Cluedo. Malcolm Warren is the narrator of the story: a stockbroker, who was invited to the house of one of his clients to celebrate Christmas with the family. He is a stuck-up and whiny man, who sprains his wrist in the first chapter during a game of musical chairs. “To my great relief I found that I could walk without any difficulty. Evidently I still had legs, if not arms, ” he tells us, before he retires to bed to recover. He keeps this dramaqueen attitude throughout the book, taking to bed every time a dead body turns up. He ought to know that while in the midst of a murder mystery, nobody has time for your complaints about a ruined Christmas or bruised arm.

In the first two chapters, the many characters who stay at the house are introduced. These people will, later on, all either be under suspicion or become victims themselves. They are, besides Warren and probably some anonymous other staff, the following people:
Mr Quisberg is the owner of the house, a rich businessman with a foreign accent, although Warren can’t quite guess what country he comes from. He is the third husband of Mrs Quisberg, who has five children from her two previous marriages, one of whom spends Christmas in Switzerland with his cousins. The other four stay at Beresford Lodge for the holidays. They are Clarence James, a somewhat sulky painter and poet; Amabel Thurston, a pretty blonde socialite who is engaged to a loud and somewhat rude man called Leonard Dixon; Sheila Thurston, who has just finished school; and Cyril, who is only twelve years old and recovering from an operation. He is tended to by the beautiful, dark Nurse Moon and regularly visited by the house doctor: McKenzie. Staff members Warren meets are Edwins, the footman and Mr George, the butler. The other house guests are Harley, who is Mr Quisberg’s secretary, Harley’s elderly mother and finally Mr Quisberg’s best friend: Dr Martin Green. The doctor is a big and eccentric man, whom some people call a genius. Warren takes an instant liking to him, but like all the other characters, he seems to be involved in some sort of secret business.

At dawn on Christmas morning, a body is discovered on one of the balconies, and Warren gloomily guesses that this will mean the end of the festivities and his comfortable holiday as a pitied ‘invalid’ in Beresford Lodge. He now has to be nice to the shocked members of the family and he is no longer the centre of attention. He isn’t really interested in finding out what happened, although he fancies himself a bit of an investigator, but he is bored and so he observes and asks questions. As an unobstrusive, mildly unpleasant person and by sheer luck, he manages to overhear quite a lot of things. He tells the readers about his own selfish thoughts and feelings as well, which makes him such an irritating character that the story becomes quite funny in my opinion. I can, however, imagine how people could be impatient with this story, waiting for the detecting to begin. Luckily, a second death occurs, and this time Warren is sparked into action by fear of being implicated in what is, this time, clearly a murder and not an accident. Clues involve mysterious flute playing, secret meetings on the heath and midnight fireworks.

The book is concluded by a ‘Short Catechism’, in which Kitchin imagines questions the reader might have, and has them answered by Malcolm Warren. Kitchin uses this opportunity to have his narrator explain why he deems detective stories worth telling: because they present a nice puzzle, and because they are studies of ordinary life by way of the contrast with something terrible. Warren uses a lot of words to explain it and seems rather proud of his thoughts. From this strange piece of meta-story I got the idea that Warren wasn’t just an invented character made obnoxious for comic effect, but actually quite like Kitchin himself and the obnoxious part was just accidental. I think I take back what I said in an earlier review: that writers of murder mysteries must be very interesting people. I have only read this one story by Kitchin so he might have cleverly fooled me, but I don’t think I should like to meet him. His book was fun, though!

And that is exactly how you should approach this book, I think: a fun read. If you expect a dark, gritty mystery, you will be disappointed. This is a story full of self-important characters who overreact and have not-so-deep thoughts and try to get on with their spoiled lives in the big house. We’re not talking Scandinavian psychological drama here: this book is an unashamed whodunnit. I do have to admit I was a little thrown by the ending. The mystery is resolved by the police while Warren, the narrator, isn’t quite there yet, and has to be brought up to speed by an inspector. This felt a bit sudden and I would have liked to follow Warren till he figured everything out by himself. But we can’t have everything we want, as Warren’s thwarted Christmas plans prove. He has a way of dealing with his disappointment, though, and I’ll leave his advice with you: “Apparently I was the only drinker in the room. ‘Better one than none,’ I thought, as I poured out my second glass.”

Downton Abbey Award for all those breakfasts taken in bed.

C.B.H. Kitchin, Crime at Christmas (London, 1934)


Jo Robin

Zombies, Run! by Naomi Alderman & Six To Start

Let me start off with a little bit of personal information: I hate running, or jogging. I have this problem that whenever I run, I start thinking to myself after a few minutes: why am I doing this? And then I have to stop. Another piece of information about me: I do love hiking, survival, climbing and any kind of self-defence. After a rough period in life, I’ve found that I am much happier and more comfortable in my own skin if I feel strong. I used to try and explain this to my friends by saying: ‘If ever a zombie apocalypse were to occur, I want to feel like I’d be able to survive it.’ And then I read about this app called Zombies, run! and it was perfect.

This is a book review of course, but I would like to start off by telling you a little bit about the app that started it all. Six To Start created the app in 2012 and it’s basically an audiobook with different seasons and episodes, and you are the main character. The idea was to incorporate fitness into a cool story where you are the hero of the tale, which is great for your confidence. You are Runner 5, and as you walk or jog outside, you have a radio connection with a lovely man named Sam, who coaches you through the post-apocalyptic world where you complete a mission every time. He tells you to RUN!, to pick up stuff and every now and then you hear zombies breathing down your neck and you are forced to sprint. As the story continues, you find out more and more about what has happened, different characters and what you can do to help. During the first episode, you are in a helicopter, which crashes, and you have to run for the gates of your township, in order to escape a horde of zombies. The thing is, in the beginning you know very little about how the zombie apocalypse came to be. Who Runner 5, your character, actually is, is quite unclear, but is also left up to you to fill in, which is great. Mind you, this app does make you a little paranoid, but it’s so much fun. It doesn’t even feel like a workout; you’re just running for your life.

You don’t really need the app in order to enjoy the book, but the setup is much the same and it was based on the bestselling app. The book Zombies, run! is also a combination of fitness routines and just a great story. The book is written as a ‘ministry of recovery publication’, as a guide to ‘keeping fit and living well in the current zombie emergency’. You will find fitness routines here, but also a lot of how-to’s, on how to protect your home, barricade a door, keep your spirits up, map your area and find other survivors. In addition there’s the story of what happened during the apocalypse, different kinds of zombies, a few recipes and case studies of other survivors. If you like any kind of story that deals with a subject as though it is real and happening right now, this is just the book for you. Once again, mind the paranoia in you.

The book is divided in seven different parts. Section one is ‘the home front’, where you will learn some exercises to build muscle and stamina from home, as well as some basic chores to keep you occupied and healthy. Section two is ‘venturing forth’, which is all about scoping your neighbourhood, and how to walk and run, or even swim and cycle, safely, while recognizing any kind of danger. Section three is ‘building a community’, where you will read testimonies by other survivors, learn how to take care of others and yourself with food and medicine and just work and train together after the apocalypse. Section four is ‘fit for battle’, which teaches you how to actually kill a zombie, how to make weapons on your own and how you can prepare yourself for that fight. Section five is ‘fit for survival’, and this section mostly focuses on how to be prepared and vigilant at all times. Here you will learn what items to pack and collect and how to stay alive, basically. Section six is ‘food for heroes’, on where to find food (and water!) and how to prepare it. And the last section is ‘your ministry and you’, in which the ministry thanks you for your service (and for staying alive so far) and shares with you their plans for the post-apocalyptic future.

I very much love books that deal with these fictional situations of creatures as though they are real. I also enjoyed encyclopaedias on dragons or faeries very much when I was little. This book pretends to be in the midst of chaos, and after reading a few pages on how to survive, you get right into it. I tried to barricade my door. I checked my stored food supply. I suspected passers-by of being zombies. Soon, you are convinced this book will save your life. And even though there isn’t an actual zombie invasion going on right now, I do believe this book is all we will need if it does happen. And if it doesn’t happen… well, it’s just a fun read.

The idea of building an app or book that makes a workout feel like less of drag and more of a battle for survival was brilliant to me. But then I found out a bit more about the fan base this story has, and I found an even better component to it. And yes, because it is a story, a lot of fanfiction is out there and people create a whole background for their personal Runner 5. But what I found, and it really touched me, was that this story has helped a lot of people with depression. Not only is there a community of support to this story, that can be found on forums and Tumblr, but when depressed it can be very hard to do anything at all. When you use the app, however, there’s someone constantly telling you that you are their hero, that you’re saving everyone (simply by walking!) and that you’re doing great. This is such a powerful message. The same goes for the book: you will get excited about going outside and scoping the area and train a little. Just moving about a little is another massive leap for someone with depression. The app and the book can all be done at your own pace and you will still be the hero of the story. So, for someone struggling with a low self-esteem, physical difficulties, obesity, depression or whatever that holds them back from going outside, this story can be an actual lifesaver.

Of course you don’t have to exercise in order to enjoy this book. You can read it for fun or to study some zombies, without actually doing the workouts. But this really is one of those experiences that you have to try out for yourself. You can just try the app, and I guarantee you will actually look forward to running, simply to find out how the story continues. But the book is a great addition or can even be read on its own. You may actually start to do some squats, because survivor Sara Smith told you that’s what she did in order to live. You may try the rationed risotto recipe. You will certainly have a good time reading this book, just as fiction. For now.

Fitness award: zombies breathing down my neck are the only motivation I’ll ever need to run

Naomi Alderman & Six to Start, Zombies, run! (London, 2016)


Thura Nightingale

Het pauperparadijs, een familiegeschiedenis, door Suzanna Jansen

Dit is een prachtig toegankelijk boek over de geschiedenis van de armen in Nederland, en met name over de armenkolonie in Veenhuizen. De tijdsspanne van het boek bedraagt ongeveer eind 18e eeuw tot de jaren veertig van de negentiende eeuw. Voordat Veenhuizen een gevangenisdorp werd, was het een plek waar landlopers en armen heen gestuurd werd om ‘heropgevoed’ te worden. Dit boek maakt heel erg duidelijk hoe er vroeger, en nu nog steeds, neergekeken wordt op armen, ook wel paupers genoemd. De analyse van Suzanna Jansen maakt duidelijk in welke omstandigheden paupers gedwongen werden te leven, wat weer belangrijk inzicht geeft in hun leven, en het waarom van hun omstandigheden.

De armen in Veenhuizen werden ondergebracht in iets dat het ‘derde gesticht’ wordt genoemd in het boek. Het derde gesticht was tegelijkertijd een woon- en werkplek. Ook waren er scholen aanwezig. Het idee achter de kolonie was dat de paupers uit de armoede konden komen door nuttig werk, scholing en een Godvruchtige omgeving (zonder alcohol en seks dus). Over het algemeen werden mannen en vrouwen in de kolonie dan ook gescheiden van elkaar. In veel gevallen werden de kinderen ook apart gehouden. Of de filosofie achter de kolonie nu wel of niet werkte, het wordt in ieder geval al snel duidelijk in het boek dat de kolonie permanent kampt met geldproblemen en de dreiging van sluiting. Dit zorgt ervoor dat de levensomstandigheden in de kolonie slecht zijn: er is te weinig eten en veel ziekte. Ook doet de manier van leven heel erg gevangenisachtig aan met veel vrijheidsbeperkingen en een strikt regime. Jansen merkt op in het boek dat veel mensen die na een aantal jaar de kolonie mogen verlaten om het in de echte wereld te proberen, onherroepelijk na een aantal jaar weer aankloppen aan de poort van de kolonie, omdat ze het niet zelfstandig kunnen redden.  Ook Cato en Teunis, Jansen haar voorouders hadden het een tijdje buiten de kolonie geprobeerd, voor ze noodgedwongen toch weer terug moesten. Er was een gebrek aan voldoende hulp en werk voor Cato en Teunis om zelfstandig buiten de kolonie het hoofd boven water te houden. Dit gaf mij als lezer veel om over na te denken aangaande hoe wij als Nederland met arme mensen omgingen.

Op deze manier stelt dit boek ook een interessante vraag over het verschil tussen mogelijk goede bedoelingen en de praktijk. De armenkolonie is gesticht door Johannes van den Bosch, die het als zijn persoonlijke missie zag om de paupers van Nederland te helpen. Zelf ben ik geneigd te geloven dat hij goede bedoelingen had, maar dat betekent niet meteen dat het bestaan van de strafkolonie louter gedragen werd door mensen met goede bedoelingen. De historische bronnen die Jansen aandraagt over de politieke discussies over de kolonie wijzen op desinteresse van de politiek. Ze willen graag het probleem van landloperij en paupers oplossen, maar lijken net zo tevreden te zijn paupers op te sluiten ver weg van de beschaving in een onherbergzaam stuk van Drenthe, dan het probleem daadwerkelijk op te lossen. De algemene filosofie was toentertijd dat arme mensen het vooral aan zichzelf te danken hadden, en dat ze inherent eigenschappen hadden die het hun onmogelijk maakten om van de armoede te ontsnappen. Paupers die het niet voor elkaar kregen uit de armoede te komen na hun verblijf in de kolonie, hadden het waarschijnlijk ook aan zichzelf te wijten.

Jansen omschrijft de geschiedenis van de armen in Nederland aan de hand van vijf generaties van haar familie, die allemaal of in de kolonie hebben gezeten, of op een andere manier afhankelijk zijn geweest van de armenzorg in Nederland. De generaties gaan van ongeveer 1800 tot 1960, en zijn op die manier en goede weergave van de ontwikkeling van de armenzorg in Nederland van de armenkolonie tot aan de uitkeringen in ongeveer de vorm die wij nu kennen. Dit boek speelt zich dan ook niet alleen in Veenhuizen af, maar ook deels in Amsterdam, waar Jansen haar familie ook gewoond heeft. Eerst heeft haar familie in de binnenstad gewoond, en later in Tuindorp, een wijk van Amsterdam, die oorspronkelijk gebouwd is om de arme mensen van Amsterdam een betere woonplek te bieden in een sfeer van strikte controle. De nadruk in het boek ligt wel op de armenkolonie in Veenhuizen, maar Jansen praat ook over uitkeringen in Amsterdam, afhankelijkheid van altruïsme van de armen en vroege vormen van sociale huisvesting en werkverschaffing. Iets wat Veenhuizen en Amsterdam aan elkaar verbindt is dat armenzorg altijd samen ging met een grote mate van controle en vrijheidsbeperking voor de armen. Het verhaal gaat door tot haar opa en oma die het begin van de verzorgingsstaat hebben meegemaakt. Het feit dat ze gekozen heeft haar familiegeschiedenis te verweven met de geschiedenis van paupers in Nederland maakt dit een heel erg persoonlijk verhaal. Dat hielp mij als lezer om me in te leven in het verhaal, ondanks dat het boek ook heel veel feitelijke informatie geeft.

De combinatie van onderzoeksjournalistiek gecombineerd met een persoonlijke familiegeschiedenis in een verhalende schrijfstijl maakt dit boek zo krachtig. Dit maakt het boek erg toegankelijk, zeker voor mensen die, zoals ik, erg weinig weten over de Nederlandse geschiedenis. Dat maakt dit boek ook erg interessant voor niet-historici. Het boek is niet begonnen als geschiedenis over Veenhuizen, maar als een zoektocht naar de herkomst van haar familie. Op een bepaalde manier is dit boek een persoonlijke vertelling van Suzanna’s zoektocht naar de oorsprong van haar familie wat erg duidelijk wanneer het boek de generaties nadert die ze zelf gekend heeft. Het feit dat het boek zo persoonlijk is, maakt het dat het waarschijnlijk niet 100% historisch accuraat is. Jansen zegt zelf al in het boek dat ze dingen heeft moeten aannemen over haar familie, zeker als het gaat om het waarom van hun acties, omdat er simpelweg geen bronnen van waren. Arme mensen laten over het algemeen weinig sporen na in de geschiedenis. Ze heeft geprobeerd er een lopend verhaal van te maken, en op sommige punten leest het boek inderdaad als een spannende roman. Ze heeft de levens van haar familie in zekere mate geromantiseerd om het een pakkend verhaal te maken. Persoonlijk kan ik haar daar wel om vergeven. Ik denk dat het helpt geschiedenis wat menselijker te maken, om het toegankelijker te maken en gemakkelijker te begrijpen hoe het leven toen was. Zeker als de doelgroep van een boek het algemeen publiek is.

Al met al is dit boek een indrukwekkende prestatie, waar heel veel informatie gegeven wordt op een meeslepende manier. Dit is des te indrukwekkender omdat het boek relatief dun is (ongeveer 250 pagina’s). Het laatste hoofdstuk, waar Jansen aanwezig is bij de opening van het gevangenismuseum in Veenhuizen, is een indrukwekkende afsluiting, omdat het erg persoonlijk is. Met een korte schets maakt ze duidelijk dat haar kijk op Veenhuizen, en de paupergeschiedenis daar, voor altijd veranderd is, en dat ze nooit meer hetzelfde naar Veenhuizen en de armenkolonie kan kijken. Misschien wil ze met die laatste schets aangeven dat ze hoopt dat het boek dat effect ook op lezers heeft gehad. Voor mij heeft dat in ieder geval gewerkt.

Brood en cake award voor een meeslepend geschiedenis boek waar iedereen wat kan leren

Suzanna Jansen, het pauperparadijs (Amstedam, 2008)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The city of dreaming books (Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher) by Walter Moers (Zamonia #4)

Everything is about books! That s a sentence that probably sounds appealing to most of the people reading this, as it sounded appealing to me.  In this books that sentence is both literally and metaphorically true. The food in this book is book-shaped, the places and characters are in one way or another obsessed with books, the book is full of anagrams and other references to books, and the book is full of quotes from ‘other’ books.

This book is the fourth part in the ‘Zamonia’ series, written by Walter Moers. Zamonia is a fantasy continent and each book is set in a different part of it. This means that all the books have a different theme, with different main characters. Therefore, the books are easily read as separate books and because each book has another theme, everybody can find something of their own liking. Rumo, for example, is about a society inspired by how dogs interact with each other. Ensel und Krete is a rather imaginative re-telling of Hansel and Gretel, sadly not yet translated into English. The book discussed in this review is about books. The city of dreaming books is by far my favourite in the series, partly because it’s about books and partly because I think it is the best one I’ve read so far. I’ll try to explain why in this review.

Zamonia is inhabitated by all kinds of different creatures, some resembling insects, others mythical creatures, others animals and there are even humans in some of the books. The city of dreaming books, however, is about Hildegunst, a Lindworm, who dreams of becoming a writer. The English readers know him as Optimus Yarnspinner, but I think the original name is the coolest ever, so I use that one. Lindworms are especially suitable for authorship, because they grow very old, which gives them a lot of time to perfect their writing style and their claws are perfect to hold a pen to write neatly. Also, because they are a kind of dinosaur, Lindworms can take criticism well because of their thick hide, or so it is explained in the book. Hildegunst lives in the Lindwormburcht, which is the homemountain of the Lindworms and famous for all the writers it produces.  The story starts when Hildegunst’s authorial godfather, Danzelot is dying. An authorial godfather teaches a lintworm about books and writing. The last thing Danzelot tells Hildegunst is to go find the author of a mysterious piece of perfect writing he once received for feedback. Danzelot never heard from the author again and has always felt guilty for not helping the mystery author. Upon his authorian godfather’s death, Hildegunst packs his bag and goes to Bookholm with the piece of writing to find the author. Bookholm is the capital city of everything books and writing related.

There are two quests in this story: the one for the writer of the perfect story, and one for Hildegunst to search for ‘Orm’. ‘Orm´, is a kind of universal source of divine inspiration. Especially the older people in Zamonia believe attaining Orm is essential to write books worthy to be called a piece of art.  Hildegunst is of the generation of ‘new’ writers and does not believe in Orm, to the great sorrow of his godfather. However, it is obvious there is something special about the piece of perfect writing his godfather bequeathed to him, for when Hildegunst reads it he laughs and cries and forgets everything around him for the duration of the story. Afterwards he is dumbfounded. This is basically the reaction everyone has upon reading of the story. The reaction of people on the perfect story makes it apparent that writing and stories can also be very dangerous in this world, even deadly in many different ways.

All the books surround a band of fantasy characters on a fantasy continent. The only connection to the world as we know it is how the people react to each other. In a way Moers uses his stories to parody the real world and make this book a satire about the publishing world. I personally always like it when an author uses an imagined setting to tell something about humans.  Fantasy seems to create a certain distance, which makes it easier to critique, and to make fun of the habits of humans. The writer himself, Walter Moers, is a mysterious man. He lives somewhere in Germany, and nobody is really sure who he is, despite the fact that his books are well-known in Germany -an impressive feat in these modern times. There are, I think, one or two bad quality pictures of him and an audio recording. Moers also claims that he did not write the Zamonia books, but merely translates them for the real author from ‘Zamonisch’. Hildegunst von Mythenmetz is the real author. The fact that Moers himself is such a mystery, gives the opportunity for wild theories: is Hildegunst anything like Moers? Is Hildegunst a critique of Moers on how writers are, or maybe Moer’s own hermit lifestyle is a way of giving all the attention to the real writer of the books,  or is Moers just having some fun with the readers by creating a slightly annoying character and subsequently be very mysterious about it? As a reader it is often a bit frustrating to be made fun of, but if it is true that in this case, Moers has found a delightful way to make fun of, and with it, his readers. Hildegunst is a famous writer in Zamonia and The city of dreaming books is part of his own autobiography. He has an enormous ego, and does not really learn much from his own mistakes. This makes it a different narrator from the standard action heroes in books. Often Hildegunst is making life difficult for himself, because he says something stupid or does not listen to good advice, and ofcourse as a reader you, consequently, get the satisfaction of stuff going wrong and laughing in frustration at someone who thinks he knows everything already.  Also he experiences the most amazing adventures, and while he is fighting for his live he still manages to complain and to be a hypochondriac – you would imagine with so many things actually almost killing you, you would stop imagining silly stuff trying to kill you.

This book was originally written in German, and luckily I managed to read it in both Dutch and German, which gives you the opportunity to hear about the difference between translation and original language.  To me the German language always comes across as super precise, which worked very well for this book, especially because Moers invented many new words. Because Germans are used to merge several words together for a new word, Moers’ invented words are easy to understand. I do not know how that translated to English though. In my opinion German seems very suitable for fantasy that parodies, and where the use of language is very important. The humour of this book is dependent on the language. I initially read the Dutch version a few times, otherwise I would never have managed to read through the German one, and that one was good as well. However I think I prefer the German one because the play on words is just better. Although, beside all the magic Moers does with his writing skills the book is still a joy to read in any language, because of the imaginative story, its obsession with everything BOOKS, and the fascinatingly annoying writer Hildegunst.

One downside of Moers’ writing is that he tends to be a bit long-winded. This could be explained because the character Hildegunst is one of those writers who really likes his own writing, however there is a fine line between making a joke and making a story boring, by stalling the story too much. Lots of the wordy distractions give details about the world, so if you like to get as much detail of a world as possible, those diversions might not bother you at all. For me sometimes the diversions were too long, taking away from the action and pace of the book. Because of the many diversions there are many things about this book I did not manage to tell you about. For example I did not mention the terrifying booklings, the shadowking, the evil Smyke, bookbread, Eyedeten and gruesome bookhunters, and finally the amazing illustrations in this book! This book is simply full of amazing fantasy elements you’ll have to discover for yourself by reading the book. Meaning this is a book you should certainly go and read for yourself.

Book awards because of books, books and even more books!

Walter Moers, Die Stadt der Träumenden Bücher (München, 2004)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear