Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Big Books I've Read. Sources of Inspiration

While De eeuw van mijn vader is the first book I've blogged about, it isn't the first big improbable thing I've read. There have been too many others. The list follows, in the order in which I started reading. It includes books I'm currently reading.

War and Peace: Growing up, I always heard the cliche that this book equalled anything ridiculously long. I had to read it. My parents had a two volume copy, and I borrowed it while in college. I carried it around for the first couple of years, reading it on and off until I finished it. After about 500 pages, my good friend James E. C. started reading it. He sarcastically remarked that he would finish first, and he did. We read the Rosemary Edmonds translation. The book is fantastic and keeps moving all the way to the end. Edmonds was the first to translate both the Russian and French passages, which were printed in italics.

Os Lusíadas: This book was a gift from a cousin in Portugal. I didn't know enough Portuguese to get very far when I got it. As I started learning Portuguese for a recent trip in which I saw my relatives for the first time in over 20 years and the second time ever, I started reading it again and finally finished. The book is the earliest European work I have seen to describe many faraway places as diverse as Africa and Vietnam. On the downside, it's extremely pompous. It's required reading in Portugal, but the explorer component of Portuguese identity seems to have left with the diaspora. Portugal itself is stuck with Jose Saramago forever noodling about Lisbon.

The Bible: Once again, James E. C. started reading this after me and finished first. I read the New American version. I finished reading it as I finished grad school. There is an overall theme of God's message going from a few people to the world over time. If you try to read it from cover to cover, be strong through Leviticus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. Before and after that, it's easy reading. Those three books are mainly long family trees and ritual prescriptions for burning food.

100 Years of Solitude: I started it when I was learning Spanish, because it was something I had heard of. I only finished it recently, going all the way through because language snobs love it. There is always another test for an interpreter. That being said, I hated it. It's an overrated, hopeless mess. It sold to a generation that consistently confused deep thought with being stoned. What helped me get through it was that I had learned a lot about Colombian politics between attempts. Knowing some of the facts behind the magical realism was a big help. The author is undoubtedly great, but read his journalistic writing instead. News of a Kidnapping is fantastic. I also liked Love in the Time of Cholera, which I read in English and Spanish after attempting 100 Years the first time.

Don Quijote de la Mancha: The experience and reasons were similar to my reading of 100 Years, but I liked it a lot more. Considered to be the first modern novel, this is a long, freewheeling book with several detours, including a full-length parody of a pastoral novel. Although it is uneven, it is worth reading both books all the way through. This is a book I wish more people would read. I remember reading that Ronald Reagan said he was influenced by King Arthur stories. I wish he had read Don Quijote to temper that. Don Quijote ended a nostalgia craze and a whole genre of stories about heroic knights. In between the Cervantes volumes, there is a book by Avellaneda, which might qualify as the first piece of fan fiction had it not been such a profitable fake. It's of interest to scholars for many reasons, but if you're looking for entertainment or quality, skip it. I glanced through it, and that was enough.

Diccionario panhispánico de dudas: Being self taught mainly, I need a grounding in grammar. I finally decided to read this grammar dictionary from cover to cover. It's very difficult to read very much at a time, but I have been at it for over a year now. I am on p. 470 of 687. I had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X in high school. He describes how he read the dictionary in prison and copied the words he didn't know. Later, when subbing in a special ed class, which was more of a dumping ground for malcontents, I met a girl who obviously didn't belong there. Thanks to her efforts, she would be leaving special ed, but not until the year ended, so that her current teachers could most likely take credit for, "Bringing her out." She had hand copied two dictionaries to increase her vocabulary. I was impressed, but it took a couple of years before I could follow her example. I started with a LaRousse monolingual dictionary, but the print was too small to read the whole thing. The one I'm reading now looks like a continuation of Maria Molliner's work. Having thrown out any religious orthodoxy, many language snobs worship her, though their linguistic standards are usually inconsistent when applied.

De eeuw van mijn vader: In earlier posts, I mentioned why I got started. What inspires me to finish is an article in The New Yorker about Burma. I believe it was by one of the Theroux brothers. He describes a man who learned English by reading Charles Dickens. He reports that his speech had, "Victorian cadences." I figured that if someone could learn English by reading Dickens, then I could learn Dutch by reading Geert Mak. After I finish the book and close the blog, I will continue with Dutch language reading. Most likely, the next book will be a volume I have by Renate Dorrestein. Then I'll move on to Max Havelaar.

Monday, December 28, 2009


I'm house sitting now and on a different computer. So as not to tax it, I'm not playing any podcasts. Consequently, I have been doing my Dutch reading in silence. It's wonderful.

Previously, I had always read while listening to somthing, pounding linguistic competence into my thick skull. I listened to either Radio Nacional de España to assimilate good grammar and do better on my next test, Radio Nederland to reinforce what I was reading, or something from Portugal on occasion to not leave that language behind.

I always used to tell my ESL students to listen to radio and TV in English. I would tell them, "If you really want to speed things up, listen and read at the same time."

This silent time has helped me remember something else I have observed: Many kids are semiliterate because they have too much noise in their lives. Learning to read must be done in silence.

It is only in the past couple of days that there has been a major breakthrough: I read several pages without using the computer. For whatever reason, I was able to figure out word roots and only use the printed Dutch English dictionary. Ironically, I never would have thought of reading Dutch in silence if it hadn't been forced.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Vrolijk Kerstfeest

It's Christmas Eve Eve. This is the perfect time to examine how to promote the Dutch language.

Christmas in the US and the Netherlands provides a great example of how things work out differently among the diaspora and those who stay home. The American myths of Christmas are Dutch. Santa Claus is Sinterklaas. "A Visit From St. Nicholas," better known as, "Twas the Night Before Christmas," was written by a Dutch-American. Celebrations evolved differently, but the American Christmas celebration bears a heavy Dutch imprint. Before that, Christmas here was a wild drunken celebration, still sung about in some carols like, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas."

As I look around this Christmas, it appears that Dutch is losing ground. The language needs to be promoted and expanded. Here are some ideas:

  1. Build a better image for the Netherlands. France and England ooze snob appeal. Spain and Italy offer fun and history for the cognoscenti. Holland, to the extent that anyone thinks about it, is known for pot and prostitution. The current image is out of tune with our time, which is marked by ads for memory improvement products and an AIDS pandemic. Anything else, from wind power, to Dutch businesses, to Rembrandt would be a better starting point.

  2. Promote the Dutch language arts. This should be a full court press. As an interpreter would put it, it should cover the entire register. At the high end, the Dutch government should promote Geert Mak along with old classics, such as Max Havelaar. Radioboeken should have some readings available in English. On the low end, efforts should be made to market Dutch language tv output to other countries. Kinderen Geen Bezwaar could easily be remade in other countries, as could FC Kampioenen. American television has long been full of recycled ideas from Britain. Why not import from the Netherlands? Also, Dutch filmmakers should be encouraged and pushed through the international distribution chain.
  3. Do product placement in foreign tv shows and movies. All sorts of products do it. The characters on a popular sitcom could go to Holland. A movie could be filmed in Rotterdam. Feature a sidekick who speaks Dutch.
  4. Promote the entire Dutch speaking world. "Win a Trip to Suriname!" Why is it so hard to get to Suriname? When I looked, there was one flight from the US. It is not connected to much, either by air or by road.
  5. Promote Dutch langage learning. All over the world, dedicated Francophones can find branches of the Alliance Française. There is no Dutch equivalent. If someone's going to do it, make it more fun and less stuffy than the French group. Language learning should also be promoted in tourist destinations. A Dutch only section of Amsterdam would be fun and helpful for linguistic tourists, and it would provide some relief to locals.
  6. Promote the advantages of knowing Dutch. I have read that Dutch is the best jumping off point for learning other Germanic languages. Thanks to studying Dutch, I can hear some German dialog in movies and read some Swedish signs at Ikea.
  7. Finally, Dutch culture has influenced the world. Wherever possible, cultural attaches should commemorate it. There is Dutch architecture and influence everywhere. The Dutch influence should especially be promoted over the next couple of days. Whether Santa Claus visits from the North Pole or Sinterklaas comes in from Spain, he'll wind down with a plate of haring.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Geert Mak=Bruce Springsteen. Both are thoughtful and ruminate a lot. They rarely rock out, but when they do, make sure you're there for it.

After 170 pages of careful history, explanations and ruminating, Mak suddenly becomes a great action writer. He takes us back to the 1934 London-Melbourne Air Race.

Holland's pilots, "Pull a typical Dutch stunt," and enter the race in a new airliner from Douglas. The other teams from the US, Britain and Germany enter purpose-built planes, with additional gas tanks and all sorts of extra equipment. Mak does a great job of setting the scene. He points out that the race was only a little further than the usual KLM run from Amsterdam to Medan.

The drama includes problems with weather and a hastily organized landing in Australia, with a runway lit by the headlights of cars parked on both sides.

This was the most exciting part of the book so far.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

More Dutch TV

With a big translation due, it's time to watch TV. I just saw a great interview with Fr. Roderick Vonhögen on VARA. Very confident and ever amenable, he explains the Church and new media, answers tough questions about Africa and AIDS, and shows off the gadgets that make Katholiek Nederland possible. The segment ends with the host clowing around with Fr. Roderick's iPhone.

Remember to check back on December 23rd and read about Christmas and promoting the Dutch language.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Boer zoekt vrouw

The problem with the internet is that it's limitless. Any interest can devolve into perseverating. Yesterday, I read what was almost a few entire books on corruption. They were on a seller's web site, and the posted pages just went on forever. It was great.

I have always read to see how the world works. When I was a kid, I read biographies, which, as it turned out, only told half the story. Now, I read about corruption to learn about the other half. Even though I have given talks to court personnel about money laundering, and even though I need to keep up with the field, it was too much.

Although the past week wasn't very good, I did manage to keep up with Dutch culture, this time by watching more TV. I was on a run reading Chapter 6 but got sidetracked.

I used the IMDB to find Dutch performers and writers, then looked at their output. There were two memorable shows that I don't recommend. Both show that Dutch culture can be as banal as any other.

The first one I saw was Costa! a romantic triangle cliche movie. The fact that it centered on lesbians did not make it interesting. Every member of the multiracial cast was a white spot on a white wall.

From there, I moved on to KRO's YouTube page and watched some commercials for their shows. Nothing but Boer zoekt vrouw was memorable, and even that was very formulaic, as tv always is. A farmer is shown interviewing women who are amenable to marrying him. I was appalled that American style reality tv was popular enough in the Netherlands to be posted.

Later, I was relieved to find that the show was a remake of a British show, which has been remade everywhere, to varying degrees of success. The American version ran for 8 episodes.

My running review of Geert "Big" Mak's book will reappear on this blog between Dec. 23rd and the New Year.

In the meantime, you can enjoy my post on Christmas and promoting the Dutch language on Dec. 23rd at 4 am in California, 1300 hrs in the Netherlands.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


Right now, The Getty has an exhibit of Dutch drawings. It was my first time there since about 1991, long before the current buildings were put up. It was also the first time I paid close attention to the artists nationalities. I looked longer at the Dutch paintings.

Signs identifying Dutch painters said they were "Netherlandish," early on, then "Dutch" later. I read one sign that mentioned, "The founding of the Dutch Republic," but then I started wondering how a royal family showed up.

It got me to wondering about paintings. Does what you notice say more about you or the painters? I was conscious of looking for the flatlands, but the seascapes really got to me. Part of my family is historically seafaring, but I don't do so well on boats. It's a regret, even though I have no real need to be on the water.

The line drawing with the sailboat on the right is a Rembrandt. I didn't note who painted the others, but all are Dutch.

Be sure to log on December 23rd. At 4:00 a.m. in California and 13:00 hrs. in the Netherlands, my post on how to promote the Dutch language goes up. It also has to do with Christmas. Wow!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The 2009 Los Angeles Auto Show

Nothing brings me down like ostentatious luxury. When I see cars like the giant-toaster Rolls-Royce with its stainless steel hood, I feel demoralized. I used to aspire to such things, and older luxury cars still seem more accessible. Newer offerings turn everyone into Liberace.

And so it was that I felt even worse when I saw the Spyker. It's a really gaudy car, with fly-away doors and a high collar around the back with a Latin motto in chrome letters. Correctly translated, it reads, "Doodle doodle dee, wubba wubba wubba."

Why was this car worse? Because it's from the Netherlands. When you learn a language, you take on part of it as your own. I have found myself rooting intently for Mexico against Brazil in soccer. I watched the Dutch baseball team take apart the Domican Republic. Then today, I saw this horrific, brightly painted disaster on four wheels. It was a terrible disappointment.

Monday, December 7, 2009


After promoting the virtual party, I got a couple of emails from Jan in Dutch. I read them without using dictionaries.

Today, I read my first Dutch news article all the way through. The Catholic Diocese of Utrecht is getting two assistant bishops, for the first time in a while.

It's thrilling to know that the language is finally sinking in.

Sunday, December 6, 2009


It's unlikely, but it would be great if it happened.

I would like to meet everyone who reads this. I was wondering where we should get together. Then it hit me: The place to meet at the end of the blog is where the book begins. Schiedam, the area once known as Zwart Nazareth, would be the place to meet. The book doesn't give any addresses, but I suspect that in 1899, the Mak's lived somewhere around the old Dutch Reformed cathedral, near the water.

From what I saw of Street View, there isn't much of the old days there. It looks very Euro suburban, the type of place that's been torn down and rebuilt 6 times in recent years. Still, it's the place where the book starts.

It would be great to get everyone into a small cafe and talk about what they thought. I would like to hear about what I read correctly and what I got wrong. After lunch, we could walk down to the shore and look at the ships coming and going.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Sweeping Up the Confetti

What a party. The top three floors of the Learning Dutch with Geert Mak Building are a mess. I don't even want to think about the bottom 28.

Bianca of the Dutch East Indies Heritage Project stopped by. She left some angklung to help everyone wind down.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Happy Birthday Geert Mak!

Welcome to the virtual birthday party for Geert "Big" Mak! The event is 33 hours long. We start at midnight, December 4th in the Netherlands and end at 11:59 p.m. on the same day in California.
Wherever you are, have some cake and ice-cream, a beer or maybe even a broodje kroket. This is also a good day to enjoy some haring. Start your version of this event off with Boogie-Woogie from the Netherlands' own Eeco Rijken Rapp. Here is The Youtube-Blues.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

At the 1/3 point.

After nearly a year, I've made it through one third of this book. I hope the rest doesn't take 2 more years. I thought I would be faster by now. Things are going a little faster.

The action has moved back to the Indies. Mak found the letters between his parents and grandparents from the years 1932-46. He is also talking to his relatives about their memories.

An old aunt he visited would watch travel shows on German TV.