Ten books that matter to me

boekenShow me your library and I will tell you who you are…

My mother used to read books to me. A lot. Often the same book,  at my request. Over and over again. When I was five I knew “Jantje’s eerste boek” (H Kaal, 1933) from cover to cover by heart. From that moment on, from the moment I could read myself, I’ve been a real ardent reader. Definitely after I finished Johan Fabricius’ fabulous book for boys, “De scheepsjongens van Bontekoe” (1924. Bontekoe’s ship-boys), which is set in the 17th century and tells the story of a few boys from the city of Hoorn sailing on an VOC ship to the East Indies. I was eleven or twelve years old and it may have shaped my lifetime appetite for literature and Indonesia ;-). Though a few years later there was a serious lull as far as my literary interest is concerned.At the peak of my  puberty the dictatorship of hormones directed my attention almost exclusively to the fairer sex.

Back to subject.

Now it happened the other day that fellow blogger, Fallissa Putri, asked ten persons to mention ten books that matter most to them. And to do so spontaneously.

Till now I didn’t respond to her request. Because… Well, just try yourself and you’ll find that it is tough. Frankly, it’s practically impossible to mention those books out of hand, to do so without taking a time out to think it over first.

As a book-lover you’ve read more than ten books which did stick on your mind. Most likely scores of books are or were important and dear to you. And moreover it’s quite a challenge to make a ranking. And of course there are several ways in which books can matter; style, content, emotion, plot, dialogues, intellectual or moral compass quality, whatever. Also for each of them there may be a separate list of most influential first ten books. Last but not least you can’t choose without asking yourself “why?” first.

Yet, after taking some time, I came to a conclusion. Several conclusions actually.

It seems it’s not the plot which is crucial to me. Nor the psychological development of the main characters. And, though it’s very important while reading, not even the style of writing.  Rather I tend to get hooked by books’ emotional atmosphere first and foremost. Books which go to my guts before influencing my brains I like best. So I select by using that criterion.

Next I noticed themes matter. Much. Four of them are of utmost interest to me apparently.

As someone who grew up and was educated during ( ’39 – ’45) and in the aftermath ( ’45 – ’55) of WO II, it is not that surprising that that global catastrophe is the first theme.  This specific war has been a literary crystallisation point for the largest part of my life ( * – scroll down for my three favourites in this category).

Probably adolescent  and student years ( 18 – 25 ) are the most determining stage in one’s life. In my life and times those were the years of high hopes and idealism. Leftist ideals mostly to me. No wonder the second main theme of my reading life is the  demise of the great ideals of socialism (social democracy) ( **  -  scroll down for my three favourites)

The next, third theme I seem to be obsessed by, is the melancholy of vulnerable people, their human condition ( like Malraux coined it).  The attempts of such ordinary people, common people, decent people, to compromise with or surrender to the  overwhelming challenges of life. It’s a popular genre, books galore.(*** -  scroll down for my two favourites).

My fourth and last theme is also almost obvious: the male perspective. I can’t deny I’m a man after all. Evidently many authors (m/f)  have a feminine perspective ( Isabel Allende) and many are as an author of prose or poetry literary  androgynous ( Paulo Coelho). But I seem to love those who take a masculine approach to their subjects (**** – scroll down for my two favourites).

So ultimately I found  ten novels that constitute the answer Fallissa’s question:

1.  Louis Paul Boon : Kapellekensbaan** (  Chapel Road)

2  Willem Frederik Hermans : De donkere kamer van Damocles*  (The Darkroom of Damocles)

3. Louis Ferdinand Céline : Voyage au bout de la nuit** (Journey to the end of the night)

4. Primo Levi : Se non ora, quando?* (If not now when?)

5. Günter Grass: Die Blechtrommel* (The tin drum)

6.  Bohumil Hrabal: Vita Nuova*** (Vita Nova)

7. Brigitte Reimann:  Ich bedaure nichts ** (I regret nothing)

8. James Salter: A sport and a Pastime ****

9.  Malcolm Lowry : Under the volcano ***

10. Ernest Hemingway: A farewell to arms****



Yokyajarta is a renowned Indonesian city. A popular destination for tourists. One that is inhabited by  hospitable people. It’s a centre of tradition and modern science. Of open mindedness and religion. Where a guy I met, a Muslim, drank a cordial beer or two with me, a non believer, on our brand new friendship ( well, only if we call “Bintang”  genuine beer. Which is open to discussion…).

I hold the city in high esteem.

But  a student, Florence Sihombing, at the famous local university experienced some cracks in the paradise-like surface of Yokyakarta. Or just thought so. And wrote a tough critical review about it on social media. Yokyakarta according to her rant was inhabited by “poor, idiotic and uncivilized”  people. And she wanted it to be known by everyone.

Well, those addressed were not amused. They cried ‘slander’ or similar words. And Florence  got arrested. She apologized and promised not to do that again. But she stayed in custody. Her case became a hype on internet though. And her Alma Mater ran to her rescue. She was set free, but definitely is not off the hook. After saying sorry publicly, governor Sultan Hamengkubuwono X asked his subjects to forgive the perpetrator. In spite of that for her the scandal is not over yet.

That is a pretty drastic reaction after some angry words by a ( probably slightly spoiled) young lady.

Overreaction actually. Freedom of speech, freedom of expression, is a universal human right after all. 

However apparently it’s content and limits are different in different places.

Florence had back luck living at a spot on the globe where the definition of slander ( and I guess libel, religious offense, pornography, obscenity etc also) is much less restricted than elsewhere. If, for instance, I would like to state that my small town’s citizens on average are, lets say, dull, behind the times, egoistic and materialistic followers of capitalistic consumerism, I could do so without the risk of being arrested.


Hey, by the way, this is an opportunity for me to vent some personal anger.

So, for the sake of solidarity with Florence and because of the urge I feel to at long last frankly speak my mind on my home town Zeist, I repeat that it’s


behind the times,



and crowded with petty capitalist consumers.

So much for Romantic Love?


“When a love relation comes to an end it shows that a lot of emotional bookkeeping had been taking place all the time while it lasted: ‘what did I receive in return for what I gave?’ “.

It’s a quote from last night’s ( 29.08.2014)  interview with Esma Linneman on Dutch public radio.  Subject was her autobiographic novel “Muze” (‘Muse, a love story in b-minor’) about an ‘unconditional love’ affair which collapsed.

I wonder is her observation gender-neutral or specifically feminine?

The other woman


At 60 I fell in love with another woman. She was not even forty when I met her.

I told my wife.  She was broad minded as she usually is and didn’t raise objections to my new relation. On the contrary, she was happy for my renewed passion.  So we decided to pay a visit to  Brigitte’s  home in Neubrandenburg, Germany,  together.

Brigitte Reimann was a famous author in the Deutsche Demokratische Republik.  Almost forgotten though towards the end of the century.

After the “West had won the cold war” and  the Berlin wall had come tumbling down, the achievements of artists who had their career behind the Iron Curtain and had not been oppositional,  generally were in low esteem. And actually Brigitte Reimann had been one of  those novelists who had had high hopes and socialist ideals in her country.

Now of course Babes, my wife, had few reasons to be jealous. After all this particular DDR writer had died at the start of the seventies.  And my sudden infatuation was a direct result of the hype the unexpected publication of her diaries caused in literary Bundesrepublik Deutschland.

Her life – on a modest scale- was heroic.  In spite of her obvious literary success, tragic also. Because of her genuine ideals fading by and by, her sloppy love life  and her anxieties while loosing her battle against breast cancer. Yet she didn’t give in, kept on writing and publishing and always stood out as an intelligent, independent woman.

Perhaps – though her “Ankunft im Alltag” is social realism at it’s best -  she is not the most prominent female author of novels the DDR has produced. But her diaries definitely belong to the top. I even think they are the best since ’45. I’m taking all continents in consideration.

I bought part 1,  “Ich bedaure nichts” ( I regret nothing),  and got carried way.  Next I bought part 2,  “Alles Schmeckt nach Abscheid” ( The taste of goodbye is everywhere), and got moved to tears. Then I bought all of her oeuvre I could buy which was a lot actually.  After the commercial success of her diaries publishers were eager to publish whatever they could in connection with this lady.  And I still wasn’t satisfied.  Hence the visit to Neubrandenburg.

Well, that’s what happens when a man falls head over heels in love with a woman, okay?

This was a voice from the past. A lucid and independent voice, an upright voice also. One that told what made young German idealists in the Eastern part of the country  tick immediately after WWII and two decades on.  Not blinded by ideology but driven by cool idealism, subtle but clear language, touching sentiments but without sentimentality,  realistic but in no way playing victim.

She took me along to make me understand what it meant to be hot-blooded in DDR’s prudish society, to be literary talented but stay in line with officialdom, to dedicate time to manual labour for idealistic reasons in stead of writing and ultimately be a dead woman walking after cancer had been diagnosed without complaining.

She died at the age of 39.  An aborted talent.  An unfinished life. But still the author of two of my most favourite books ever.

Save Our Souls



It occurs twice, three times a year. You can count on it. You can count on them.

My wife is shrewd. She pretends not to see them, or not hear them or to be too busy when the problem occurs. So it’s always me who has to answer the door.

It had been some time since their last visit, but yes I knew they would return. They always return. Relentlessly.  So there they were again last Thursday.

No, it’s not that bad.  It’s just a major nuisance.

People standing on your doorstep, ringing the bell and asking if you’re interested to have your soul saved from eternal doom. And actually.. I’m not.

They usually are persistent. It’s hard to get rid of them.

They always come in pairs.  American evangelicals sometimes,  but most of the time Jehovah’s Witnesses.  Usually a middle aged lady and a middle aged male.

Sometimes two middle aged women. That’s worse, because it’s tough to be sufficiently rude to ladies. A method which I reluctantly resort to. Every now and then.

But worst of all are the villains who come with a small child in tow. You have to be polite and even charming, because of that little boy or girl. Especially if it’s a girl. That condition immediately reminds of the female British novelist who, as a young girl, experienced herself the embarrassments of being in tow of fanatically proselyting Pentecostal parents  – and heartbreakingly wrote about it *.

Yet, in the light of recent events the relatively innocent encroachments upon the ‘my home is my castle’ privilege, were mere blessings in disguise. Pretty peaceful basic trainings for what will follow. What the future has in store for us.  That future where words, even abusive words, arguments, angry facial expressions and threatening body language words won’t do any more to get rid of the unwelcome missionaries.

Today I visualize a future in which bearded, funnily dressed, heavily armed young men call upon me and offer me a choice to convert on the spot, pay up considerable amounts of money or being staged for a summary execution. No words or body language will chase them away.

So let it be known to those who are on a mission from God, I will prepare.

There will be a quote by John Cale on my door **.  And I will have my Kalashnikov ready.


*  Jeanette Winterson; Oranges are not the only fruit.

> John Cale,  quote from Hanky Panky Nohow,  Album `Paris 1919′:

“Nothing frightens me more
Than religion at my door”