Monthly Archives: September 2013

A Very British Murder

There simply are not enough shows on the telly about books, fact! So when one does come along invariably I will watch it just because it is about books, occasionally though one comes along that is so up your street and so brilliant you want to tell everyone about it. This is exactly how I feel about ‘A Very British Murder with Lucy Worsley’ the second episode of which is on tonight on BBC Four at 9pm and which I insist you watch. But here is a teaser, without spoilers, of why (if you missed it) the first episode was so brilliant…

Lucy Worsley, who hosts the show, is Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces where she puts on exhibitions like ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’ which is currently on at Hampton Court Palace. She is also a writer of several historical non-fiction books the latest of which just so happens to be ‘A Very British Murder’ and is now on my bedside table to be read between bouts of ‘The Luminaries’ (which I am still making very slow progress on bit by bit) though for the purposes of this post I moved it by the telly as you can see below…

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You can tell you are in good hands with Lucy, and that she loves a good book, as before the opening credits of the first show have rolled she states “Grisly crimes would appal us if we encountered them in real life, but something happens when they are turned into stories and safely places between the covers of a book.” It is of course the history of the British crime novel which this series celebrates, from Dickens to Christie and onwards, and to start it all Lucy looks at the first real cases of murder (The Ratcliffe Highway Murders, The Murder in the Red Barn and The Bermondsey Horror) which really got the public talking about murder and gave them an appetite for the salacious and sensational, which authors of course switched onto and as ‘the Detective’ was born, so of course was ‘the Detective novel’.

Well I was spellbound for an hour. I have since been recounting several people will facts like ‘did you know that in 1810 only 15 people were convicted of murder?’ or ‘did you know of The Bermondsey Horror and that Maria Manning was Charles Dickens inspiration for Hortense in ‘Bleak House’?’ It has made me desperate to go off and find some old ‘Broadsides’, newspapers/pamphlets solely aimed at chronicling the most horrid of murders for the public, also Thomas DeQuincy’s essay ‘On Murder’ from 1810 and dig out some modern books, which didn’t get mentioned on the show, like ‘The Maul and the Pear Tree’ by P.D James and Thomas A. Critchley (a non-fiction about the Ratcliffe Highway Murders) and Nicola Upson’s new novel ‘The Death of Lucy Kyte’ (a fiction with shadows of The Murder in the Red Barn). Plus with autumn in the air here in the UK I have been pondering dusting off some Wilkie Collins etc and bringing back a sensation season myself! I love it when TV makes you want to switch it off and read a book instead, don’t you?

Suffice to say Lucy is marvellous, and brilliantly camp or ghoulish when required which makes it all the more enjoyable, as she hosts often sat beside a fire making you feel like she is almost telling you a bedtime story brimming with murder in itself, which I suppose it is really. Anyway if me going on and on about its brilliance wasn’t enough I will just mention the facts that Simon Callow is on it tonight as we discover what the Dickens, erm, Dickens thought and was inspired further by and Kate Summerscale will be on discussing the case which inspired ‘The Suspicions of Mr Whicher’. What more could you ask for on a Monday night?

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Catching Up… Again…

Sorry for a little bit of Savidge Reads silence again last week. I have very much had the intention of blogging much more regularly yet last week was my last week with Culture Liverpool and it seemed to whizz by (lots of finishing up, lots of gossiping and lots of laughing and feeling a teeny bit sad) and then suddenly my leaving lunch had happened and I was handing in my pass and heading for the door, leaving behind lots of weeping co-workers obviously. I have had a brilliant time over the summer working on events and festivals throughout the city and it has been hard work but its also been a real hoot too. I know I have made some friends for life, and who knows I might just go back there at some point. Mind you not too soon as they might want me to give this lovely leaving loot back…

Leaving Gifts

Cat stationery, moustache memorabilia, sweets and book vouchers. My team knew me well it seems as these are indeed just a few of my favourite things. You can never have too many notebooks can you? I am actually thinking of doing something on stationery on the blog in the future as I have noticed lots of people who love books tend to love stationery in a big way. Naturally I was straight down to Waterstones at the first chance I had (which happened to be this morning) to buy some lovely new books and after really really long time perusing the shop I came away with these…

waterstones loot

Looking at this selection you might think that I am in quite a dark place mentally, in fact Gav has pointed this out on Twitter, this is not the case. I have already got ‘Sharp Objects’ by Gillian Flynn, which I grabbed in a second hand shop after loving ‘Gone Girl’, but I love having a matching set of books and I absolutely LOVE these covers so a second copy along with ‘Dark Places’ was snapped up. Wallace Stegner’s ‘Crossing To Safety’ is a book I have been meaning to read since it was discussed, and loved, on The First Tuesday Book Club, then mentioned in the amazing ‘End of Your Life Book Club’ and these being two of my favourite sources of book recommendations was snapped up. (Note – I am thrilled Waterstones have chosen some older titles for their book clubs, not just the ‘new’ books.) Finally at the counter they had a ‘You’ll Love These…’ shelf and so I swiftly nabbed Erin Kelly’s ‘The Sick Rose’ at a pinch of £2.99, she is on You Wrote The Book! this week and I have read her first and third book so this seemed like a last minute destined purchase. Hoorah.

So what else have I been upto? Well, thank you so much for asking, I have had my lovely friend Ms Emma Unsworth come to stay this weekend which was an absolute joy. We managed to spend a lot of time eating cheese, drinking wine, talking books, reading and writing plus putting the world to rights. We also managed to eat donuts on an island in the middle of the sea at low tide…

Emma and I

We also went to go and look at TATTOOS! I have been meaning to get on for ages. Alas ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’ won’t fit on the inside arm, but it looks like this will…

Danvers Tattoo

Now I might have to change the ‘s’ because it looks like an ‘f’ but I think you can all tell what it says… if you can’t tell that it is indeed my favourite character from Daphne Du Maurier’s ‘Rebecca’ (not it doesn’t say Rebecca) then we might be in some trouble as I am booked in to get this in a few weeks.

If that wasn’t enough I have also been researching the purchase of one of these (including what licence I need to drive it and many other boring admin things) which I am possibly thinking of doing on a kick-starter kind of funding thing…

mobile library

It is all a bit up in the air at the moment but I am working it all out and seeing if the idea I have had, think bookshop on wheels (if any of you steal this idea I will cry) that goes around the UK especially to places with no indie bookshop nearby, can become a reality and indeed viewing some mobile libraries next week… I shall report back.

What have you lovely lot been up to? Book wise and all other ways wise?

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On The Reading Horizon…

Now that we are back from a week away in the Netherlands, metaphorically, I thought we could all have a little catch up about our ‘Reading Horizon’s’. On The Readers podcast Gavin and I used to do a section called ‘What We Have Read, Are Reading and Want To Read Next’, which was a bit of a mouthful, and I thought I might do the now and next with you as a) I am reading an absolute chunkster at the moment and so thought a nice short post while I crack on with that might be an idea b) I always want to hear what you have been reading and this seems like a nice post to do irregularly regularly from now on. My current reading horizon looks like this…

Reading Horizon

No, that isn’t a delightfully attired breeze blog in front of you, it is indeed Eleanor Catton’s currently Man Booker shortlisted second novel ‘The Luminaries’ (which I embarrassingly spent weeks calling The Illuminaries, oops) with the Women’s Prize Fiction 2013 winner, A.M. Homes’ ‘May We Be Forgiven’, sedately waiting in the shadows to follow it up. It is only now that I have realised my reading would look to a stranger as being a bit ‘prize’ driven and that I am following the herd, they would be slightly right but also slightly wrong.

I wish I could remember who called ‘The Luminaries’ a modern authors version of a sensation novel, because whoever it was is the person who saved it from being given to a friend who loves loooooong books more than anything, ever – well, maybe with the exception of cake, which is why we are friends. It was that comparison that made me sit back and think ‘well, I have to bloody read that don’t I? And I must read it right now!’ Alas, right now might not have been the best time as with finishing my contract at Culture Liverpool (which I am really sad to be leaving, even though it looks like I have a very exciting work project coming in the autumn, as the people and the events have been amazing) and the final few events have not been ideal for getting into a mammoth book. I am about 150 pages and characters and possible plot lines, as it is a mystery, were still being introduced and despite notebooks I wasn’t keeping up even though it is written BRILLIANTLY. So I have had a break but am getting back to it now.

Question… If you are starting a massive book (and I am planning on reading Vikram Seth’s ‘A Suitable Boy’ on a long trip to London in a few weeks so this will be very helpful) do you read it in little bits, possibly keeping notes, or do you need big hour or longer reading sessions to gulp it down and get a real handle on it? I would love to know. I am definitely in the latter category, which helps with ‘The Luminaries’ also as the chapters are quite long too – it is a book in proportion, ha.

The other book, almost quite literally waiting in the shadow of ‘The Luminaries’ , is A.M Homes latest novel which won the Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. This is actually a re-read for my book group and one I am really looking forward to because the first time I read it, for The Green Carnation Prize last year, I had a ‘loved it and also hated it’ reading experience so I am looking forward to going back and then chatting about it all over again. After those two I think it might be time for a crime novel.

So that is what I have on my reading horizon, have you read either or these and if so what did you think? More importantly, what is on yours, what have you been reading, what are you reading and what might you most likely read next? Let me know, oh and also share your habits when starting a really, really long book too please, little reading bursts or big reading gulps?

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Anne Frank’s House, Amsterdam

056As I showed you the other day, the streets of Amsterdam are quite a site to behold as they wind along the canals. Every street has its sense of peace and quite, there is no real hustle and bustle on theses roads, maybe a little on the ones that interconnect them perhaps. As you walk down Prinsengracht, which I often did as my hotel was on it, I would take in the houses as I headed towards the centre of the town, beautiful town houses with their own sense of history yet ultimately unassuming. Houses including this one here ——-> only this one does stand out a little the nearer you get as along side it’s next door neighbour, then through the square, then around the church nearby is a huge throng of people (apparently starting at before opening ours until the last possible moment every single day) all waiting for the unassuming house you see is the home of Anne Frank’s, or was when she and her family were taken into hiding from the Nazi’s.

I read Anne Frank’s Diary for the first time not too long ago. My impressions were a little mixed. It was a book that initially I was a little worried I wouldn’t get on with as I wasn’t sure about Anne herself. Now some people might be up in arms about this but actually there’s a fascinating exhibition on Anne once you’ve been through the house that showed all the sides of Anne, a brave but brilliant thing to do. I found when I got a rounder picture of her the more horrific what befell a normal young girl who happened to be born in the era she did. Yet actually I think this just added to the experience of visiting the house which was, for me, a deeply moving and disturbing one.

The experience of being in her home is a shocking one from the start, so shocking a fellow visitor was actually physically ill as we entered the first room which showed videos from the concentration camps. A silence befell all of us that then walked on throughout the warehouse cum house and the more we learned of the history of the family and their escape there. Yet it isn’t until you come to the famous ‘secret bookshelf door’ that it really hits you that these were scared people hiding for their lives. Anne’s diaries inform us of this and yet looking back I realised how brave and upbeat she was considering and a wave of emotion hit me I wasn’t prepared for.

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As you climb the steep staircase onwards it hits you even further, a family, and additional couple and a male friend all in these confined spaces. How must Anne’s parents, and indeed Anne, really felt about her sharing such a small space with a strange man. How could they have coped in such a confined space?

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Obviously having read her diaries I had known they had all had their moments. Yet nothing prepares you for how small it all really is. How cramped, and claustrophobic. The room above May look all jolly but it’s a replica of what the room was like with light, when you’re there the lights are off as they would have been, curtains drawn during the day, in order to remain so hidden. The more we went on the harder it was to believe Anne and her family coped with it all, but what choice did they have?

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I had always felt a bit funny about the idea of visiting Anne Frank’s house, a bit like hearing people visiting concentration camps, I was concerned it might be inappropriate/car crash tourism. Having now been myself, seen where Anne Frank lived in those conditions and the exhibition about what happened to her, the family and many of her friends I have changed my mind. It isn’t for the faint hearted, some of the videos and accounts you see and hear are incredibly disturbing (on more than one occasion I was reduced to tears) yet we must never forget these people and what happened and try and stop it happening in our world now. The fact so many people are going to see Anne Frank’s house and reading her diaries for me is a sign of hope for future generations. May they always read and remember.

The Anne Frank House is situated in the centre of Amsterdam at Prinsengracht 263-267. A huge thanks to Holland.com who sent me to Amsterdam for work and then managed to get me an advance track ticket into the Anne Frank House, a place that, along with all it holds, will stay with me forever. Also note only the top picture is mine, pictures cannot be taken throughout so I have borrowed these from many sources.

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In The Dutch Mountains – Cees Nooteboom

Before I go any further I think that Cees Nooteboom may have the best name for an author ever. There, now that’s out of the way we may move on as usual, well possibly after saying Cees Nooteboom again a few more time to ourselves, see it is an amazing name. In the latest post during my week ‘going Dutch’ with you all (friends will note I may have been going Dutch on the blog but alas not in the real world, sorry) we take a look at an author who is often described as ‘one of the best living Dutch authors, Cees Nooteboom, and his recently reissued novella aptly named ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Maclehose Press, 1984 (2013 edition), paperback, translated by Adrienne Dixon, 159 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

I should state that any book which starts with ‘Once upon a time there was…’ is going to most likely become a firm favourite with me, fairytales are not something that I have grown out of though I will admit I do now prefer the full ‘uncut’ originals to the Disney versions. So the signs were good from the very start of ‘In The Dutch Mountains’ and got even better when I discovered that not only was this going to be a retelling of Hans Christian Anderson’s ‘The Snow Queen’ it is also a book that looks at what makes a fairytale and the nature of writing one.

In the heat of the summer a road inspector sits in an empty classroom and writes. Inspired by one of the years he spent inspecting the roads from the North to the South of the Netherlands he is inspired to retell the tale of ‘The Snow Queen’ only set in a more current climate and one that shows the harsh differences of the same country in its northern and southern divides. He tells the tale of two circus children, perfect beyond compare, who become lovers and marry until the interest in circuses wanes and who must seek stardom in some other way. Reality TV could be the answer but it is short lives and so they must descend to the darker side of the country and indeed the land of the woman many call the Snow Queen.

As Alfonso, our narrator and also third person in many ways, writes on he simply cannot stop himself from interweaving himself and his thoughts, as a road inspector who also writes, about the world of books, writing and literature into the narrative thread himself. Thus creating a really interesting mixture tale and tale telling and also a sense of oral storytelling yet via print on the page, it is very cleverly delivered so that, as could easily be the case, it never gets on your nerves or really interrupts the flow of the actual story, on the whole.

As we have been formed by the conventions of European literary culture, there is little scope for an individual writer to exercise his imagination; the terminology has been fixed ever since writing began. Lucia’s hair was, of course, golden. (Like honyseime, the fat of the honey, as someone in the South was to say later.) She had clear blue eyes like a summer sky, her lips were red as cherries, her teeth as white as milk. Anyone who tries to think of other words is mad.

As the book went on I found myself thoroughly enjoying Alfonso (well Nooteboom) and his modern twist on the famous fairytale and also hoping that every page or two he would pop in with a few comments. Towards the end I have to admit there were a couple of occasions that this didn’t work quite as well. At one point when he went on about God and religion for a little too long and I frowned and that really jarred with me. In another Alfonso ends up having a conversation with Plato, Christian Anderson which threw me completely though in the context, and in hindsight, I rather liked.

What is so marvellous about this book is it a case of ‘meta-fiction’ where a story is told, the story behind the story and the telling of it is told and a conversation between the author, or in this cases authors, and reader all plays out in one go simultaneously. It is the first time that this very cunning trick has worked so effectively on me and actually made me want more. The discussion about fairytales, their history, their rules and them vs. myths was so fascinating and so brilliantly done I was hoping Nooteboom, no Alfonso sorry, would decide at the end to retell another so we could natter about it further… in my head, which makes this all sound very weird but is what happens.

‘In The Dutch Mountains’ not only reminded me of why I love a fairy tale but also why I love them…

As soon as you have said “once upon a time”, you have created an extratemporal and extraterritorial reality in which anything is possible. A free-for-all. The characters travel by wild goose or reindeer.

I think it is that sense of endless possibility and escapism that sums up not only what I love about fairytales but what I love about reading. No, I know you might not find characters travelling by reindeer or wild goose in a book by every book you pick up, yet the excitement of experience something ‘other’ is always there when you open the first page. It is rare a book makes you talk to the author, metaphorically and in a one way conversion, about this yet somehow as if by magic that is what Nooteboom does when you go on a journey with him and Alfonso ‘In The Dutch Mountains’.

Have a gander at Stu of Winstons Dad Blog for more thoughts on the book. Who else has read this and what did you make of it? Are you a Nooteboom (I can’t get enough of that surname) and if so which other of his novels would you recommend? What are your thoughts about meta-fiction and those narrators who interject and discuss things with the reader, does it work for you or simply put you off?

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Filed under Cees Nooteboom, Maclehose Publishing, Quercus Publishing, Review

The American Book Center, Amsterdam

No matter what city I find myself in, anywhere in the world, the moment I have some Wi-Fi (in the unlikely case that I haven’t researched this thoroughly before getting there) the first thing I try and locate are the nearest bookshops. I don’t care if they have English titles or not, if there is a bookshop in the vicinity and I can find it then that is where I am headed. I was told, by my lovely friend Adem who I met up with for an afternoon of wandering and cake hunting, that in Amsterdam THE best bookshop in the whole of the city was also in the heart of it and that was The American Book Center, and so off we toddled.

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It is not often that the moment I walk into a bookshop I am left completely speechless and yet with a treasure trove like The American Book Center I found myself very much dumbfounded – the books literally go on forever as soon as you walk in…

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Amazingly though, even though the bookshop is choc-a-block it manages to be light and airy throughout. I also loved the way that, with some wonderfully places tree bark/trunks the bookshop both feels it has the outside inside and pays homage to what books are after all made of.

I love a bookshop that is literally brimming with books and, like all the best bookshops, The American Book Center is one of such bookshop without it ever feeling cluttered or two much, even as you walk up the first flight of stairs there are books to admire and peruse as you make your way up…

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And, to maximise on space, and look stunning, the books go from the very floor of the bookshop to the ceiling three stories up…

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Once up the stairs the shop gets even better as books are EVERYWHERE yet whilst the bookshop does become something of a maze (in a good way) it never feels claustrophobic and because of the gaps between the shelves light gets through and it feels very open all at once.

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And the shop just goes on and on, it is like a labyrinth of literature and one that I would love to get lost in all day – which I nearly did…

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What was also really lovely about the place was the staff! Initially Adem and I simply couldn’t find the English language section of the book shop at first (not that I minded because I do love looking at foreign editions of books and their covers, don’t you?) and so we had to ask and the staff couldn’t have been better. We had a good chat as we meandered to the right place, talking about which books were big in Amsterdam and the Netherlands and also which books were big in the UK. We even had a chat about reviewing vs blogging and about why on earth the UK is so slow at translating books. Amazing.

So if you are ever in Amsterdam then make sure you head to The American Book Center, and that you leave yourself a good amount of time to have a wander around.

The American Book Centre is located at Spuistraat 12, 1012 XA Amsterdam (nearest tram stop is Spui) you can visit their website here.

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The Detour – Gerbrand Bakker

I promised you a detour today after our wanderings around Amsterdam yesterday (metaphorically) as we continue to ‘go Dutch’ this week. ‘The Detour’ by Gerbrand Bakker, who aptly lives in Amsterdam, is a novel that I have been meaning to read ever since I saw William review it (much better than I am about to the swine) and the premise immediately caught my attention, it has only taken me a year and a half to get around to it. What appealed to me at the time was that it was a tale of an outsider who moves into the rural unknown and there is something I really like about books set on farms in the middle of nowhere, or places on the periphery of a village or in a rural setting as well as loving books about outsiders. Combine the two and you are going to get a book that I will most definitely want to read, at some point, if only there were a guide to books of such ilk.

Vintage Books, 2013, paperback, 240 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

We all know what it is like to need to escape from our lives, even if we might never actually do it at some point I am sure we have all thought about it to varying extremes. Emilie has thought about it and then acted on it as she has left her life, husband, family and job, behind in Amsterdam and rented a remote farm in rural Wales, somewhere in Snowdonia to be precise. Emilie, as we read on, seems to be hiding. She has no interest in the nearest villagers (wisely in some cases) and when a young boy injures himself and looks for a bit of shelter she couldn’t be more resistant to it if she tried. The question we as the reader want to know is why Emilie has done this. Slowly (and very subtly) but surely Bakker tells us.

It is incredibly difficult to say too much more without spoiling what is a beautifully crafted and delivered slow burning and subtle novel with a sense of mystery at its heart. It is one of those books that very quietly takes you by the hand and slowly but surely grips you as you go on.

What I found very interesting was the way that Bakker gives Emilie and her situation a sense of dual mystery – I don’t mean mystery in a murder mystery way, she is just an enigma. The first layer is, of course, why on earth Emilie has left Amsterdam for this hidden away life, the second mystery though is Emilie herself because as the novel progresses she, and of course Bakker, hold all the details of her life as close to her chest as possible. Emilie is a mystery within the mystery if you know what I mean.

“For a few nights now the rushing stream no longer calmed her: noises – creaking boards, the shuffling of what she hoped were small animals, and an almost unbearably plaintive cry from the woods – kept her awake, and awake she started thinking. She got wound up again, defiant and angry.”

As I was reading on, with this woman who is almost a recluse and a past that eluded me, I was reminded of Evie Wyld’s latest (and stunning) novel ‘All The Birds, Singing’. Yet whilst both are equally stunning in their atmosphere and dark sense of menace they take their novels in very different directions, even though I have just realised that they both have the plot twist of a stranger moving in. Whist Wyld alternates with the present and then the past (going backwards), Bakker alternates between the present for Emilie and also with her husband back in Amsterdam as her disappearance, which he wasn’t so surprised about, starts to nag at him and he decides to look for her and in doing so uncovers more of Emilie’s life including one strand that I never saw coming and was a huge impact in the novel.

There I will stop with the plot, and indeed the comparisons to Wyld (which I couldn’t not have popped in this post as I have read them within a relatively short space of one another) apart from the fact that it too could be one of my books of the year, because I wouldn’t want to spoil anything for anyone. Suffice to say that the book surprised me, especially with its subtle nature which I admired it all the more for. In terms of a book set in the middle of nowhere, and a winter in Snowdonia is painted vividly for the reader, about outsiders and the grind of rural life I couldn’t have asked for more.

Snowdonia in winter

‘The Detour’ won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize earlier this year and having read it you can easily see why. Bakker creates a story that is subtle and slow burning yet all at once brimming with a sense of mystery and menace. It is also a book that will linger on with the reader long after you have read it and, if you are like me, long after it devastates you with both its prose and most importantly its story. A much recommended book.

Have any of you read ‘The Twin’ by Bakker? As I am desperate to read it now but am slightly worried that this being a later book it might be more accomplished? Is that a bad/lazy assumption to make? I tell you what though, it is books like this that remind me I need to be a bit more like (the legend that is) Stu of WinstonsDad Blog and read much, much more translated fiction.

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Filed under Books of 2013, Gerbrand Bakker, Review, Vintage Books