The Song of Achilles
Madeline Miller

I’ve read this novel few weeks ago and ever since am thinking to write review. I’m somewhere in between and not sure what to think about it. So first I’d like to stress that the book is definitively worth reading and I liked it. Truth, I tend not to be too strict, too judgmental when reviewing debut novel (yes, there is “but”).

First impression: it’s clearly there is a massive research about the topic behind the story (which is not surprise considering professional background of the author); I liked a lot she took “Iliad” and Homer as a main resource, therefore there is no famous legend about “Achilles’ heel” (which is unseen in the “Iliad”). Truth, she changed characters, chronology, etc a little bit but that’s fine considering it’s a piece of fiction and in that case artistic freedom is untouchable constant.

When I read “Iliad” in high school I didn’t like Achilles that much. He was like a savage, truth just like the world he lived in. Patroclus as well, though he was kind but nevertheless quite a valiant warrior. However, in the novel they couldn’t be more far away from their image in “Iliad”. They were soft, nature and music loving characters, artistic souls. That especially is the case with Patroclus who is presented as weak (physically and mantaly), clumsy, even as a coward (except that famous last move he made but then it was more love that lead him than his rational he) … it was weird and I’m not sure if I liked that. And the language didn’t help either. It’s strange to mark as a flaw beautiful writing style. It is lovely but in kind of over-blossoming way, it’s lyrically overwritten. Even though the narrator is a man (yes, homosexual but still) those words, sentences he’s saying are so feminine. You simply know those words have been put in his mouth by a woman’s hand. This is (or should be) historical novel with one love story as a main theme and as such there are moment when you can’t escape from the feeling that descriptions are kind of soft-pornish. But don’t get me wrong, there are no sex scenes whatsoever.

Even though I never thought profoundly about that, it’s pretty much obvious that Achilles and Patroclus were lovers. I like she put an accent on their relationship as it was [in one interview she expressed her hope the novel will at least slightly change that homophobic perception about homosexual relationships] but then she made a crucial error: She described their society exactly as if they live in our own. They were facing disapproval of both men and gods because of the feeling they had. And while you can give yourself artistic freedom to change the legend, with this issue you’re entering into the sphere of historical (more/less) facts where you don’t have that freedom anymore.
Not only ancient Greeks but pretty much all pre-Christian civilizations: Romans, gosh just remember (or check if you’re unfamiliar with) Khajuraho Temples in India! I visited India (and temples) in March and you just can’t not be stunned with what you’re looking at as well as with nonchalant way they were depicting all varieties of sexual activity (and I mean ALL!). And temples were built 1000 years ago!

Anyway, point is: homosexuality was something quite common and definitively not prohibited or shameful (like in the novel). It was even called: “the principal cultural model for free relationships between citizens.” (Wikipedia). Truth that mostly (probably exclusively) refers to men. Women were quite socially excluded which is one of the reason why it was acceptable relationship between two men.

Therefore it was kind of strange to see how society is judgmental toward Achilles and Patroclus just as nowadays society would be. And here (along with few more issues, some of which I mentioned here) novel falls horribly.
But even so I think it’s worth reading and, as my friend who gave me the book said (don’t be surprised if realize that you’ll) “think of Achilles differently now”.

Sacré Bleu: A Comedy d’Art
Christopher Moore

This is my first Moore (I know, I know) and I enjoyed very much in it. Here I hope this doesn’t mean I will not enjoy in his previous books (which I have on my never-decreasing to be read pile) since majority is like love previous= don’t like this one.

Three days ago I just peeked inside without intention to do more than just that: peek. But since the book started with one of my favourite work of art (“Wheatfield with crows” in front of which I spent hours and more that, than once) I was like hypnotized, obsessed by sacre bleu ;) I know it’s just an expression but I literally couldn’t stop reading. Masterpieces after masterpieces (many of which I saw on my traveling), painters I knew so much about, now under totally different light, everyone knows each other; Belle Époque in Paris was never more tempting *sigh*.

I’m a slow reader and plus English is not my mother tongue but I stormed (for my standards) through this book in less than 3 days leaving behind cloud of blue dust :)

Yes the story went in all directions; he might have lost his compass but I didn’t mind whatsoever. It was funny, not hilarious but with those subtle (not always so subtle though) jokes that requires knowledge about the (real) characters. That’s probably the reason why I was bothered cause he decided to reveal last name of Oscar (Wilde) and especially (!!!) title of the novel he was about to write. I was like “Oh no! Why?” almost insulted with his presumption that I might don’t know what he’s writing about (and those who wouldn’t know without his “clarification” well… they should go back in elementary school and start all over again). Speaking of wittiness I’ll never think the same about the myth of Sisyphus (there’s only one sentence about it but still).
And of course I’ll never think the same about Toulouse-Lautrec ever, ever again! I had to remind myself more than once what I’m reading IS a fiction :)

Half trough the book you will probably realize … umm … well who is who but that will certainly not decrease you interest and spoil the journey. And when the journey is over you’ll most definitively have urge to make another one, to the nearest museum or gallery and meet … someone :)

The Tiger’s Wife
Téa Obreht

I’ve read this book in its original language, English even though it has been published in (in Tea’s own words) “the most important of all translations”, Serbian. Because I love reading work in its original language whenever I can. And it was strange experience because I did recognize my own folklore but in the same time was thinking how there’s no way that anyone unfamiliar of that folklore would recognize it and more importantly, understand it.

OK we know Tea is from Serbia (or if you wish ex Yugoslavia) and that is what I believe was the starting point for many foreign (!) reviewers to place its plot here in Balkan region. I being from the region could find connections with it even though she (Obrecht) clearly put an effort not to make it obvious: the only two places mentioned in the book that actually exists in reality are Vienna and Istanbul. All other names are fictional and majority of them sounds quite impossible. The pretty much the same goes with the names of characters (and I’m not sure why she decided to do that). There are only few names that are names in reality. Moreover some of the names (for example Gavran which means “raven” or Dure or Darisa) are words you cannot associate with the person. Maybe those sounds interesting, exotic, or … for English speaking world (which is of course legitimate reason). So I asked myself how would you (if at all) know the plot is in ex-Yugoslavia? Yes there are hints like “we” are celebrating Christmas in January (ok so it is settled in the region where Orthodox Christians live); Muslims don’t have it, Catholics don’t have it but “they” do (meaning tree religions live in the same region); after the war Nobel Prize writer became theirs and we named our airport after that crazy scientist (writer is Ivo Andric but we consider him as ours and scientist is Nikola Tesla, airport is in Belgrade); numerous words she used in their native form (vila, mora, hajduk, gusle, ajvar, … and about that it’s strange the English edition didn’t offer translations or explanation), some names, some last names… etc. So based on those things I would be able to conclude that the plot is settled in my region indeed BUT would I made the same conclusion without knowing these things? If I’m not from here? Well I doubt. But nevertheless it was interesting how everyone (I’m quite sure) without knowing those things, understanding the non-English words or recognizing the customs have placed the book here.

Saying all this I’m not sure can I give one objective review because there are so many things that I’m familiar with and this especially when she was describing air raids in an unnamed city. Of course it was all too obvious she’s speaking about NATO bombing of Serbia 1999 and yes those few pages where she describes those first days, weeks of bombing in real life were exactly how she described: disbelief at first and then people fled into shelters and they came out of the shelters deciding to be in the open, on the bridges, cafes, restaurants refusing to give up of those few scrapes of normal life they had. What a flashback that was! The story about the zoo during the bombing however was fiction.

The story is interesting enough. Really good actually if you consider it’s a debut novel so thumbs up. I did like drops of surrealism combined with a Slavic folklore but what I really loved is a painting of a mentality in a small isolated village and how they are facing fear of the unknown.
In the end it was fast and interesting read.

My Brother and His Brother
Hakan Lindquist

I’ve read this novel in one sitting (which doesn’t happen quite often). It was a lovely melancholic story written in simple but quite effective language. One of those quiet, unpretentious books you stumble upon every now and then and after you’re done you realize that you just found a true gem. Absolutely recommending to everyone in love with fine literature.

This was debut novel that received critical acclaim when it first appeared in Sweden in 1993. It won “Prix Litteraire Bordelaise de Lunetterie” when in was published in French in 2002.

You already know my posts from Holland will not be chronologically ordered (there were so many things and I was more than few times too lazy to type every evening). So May 6th I went on one-day trip to South Holland to The Hague, Scheveningen and Delft (and I managed to stop for an hour and a half walk through Leiden on my way back).
Everyone in Serbia knows about The Hague and Scheveningen because in The Hague are two courts which plays very important roles in our lives: one is International Court of Justice (which was dealing with genocide issue in the war in ex-Yugoslavia) and the other one is International Court Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, or ICTY (where many of politicians from ex-YU republics were/are still on trials for their role in the war); Scheveningen is place where is the prison where are those politicians.
So my first association when hear these two places was indeed trials and I didn’t even imagining there’s anything else. As if The Hague are two buildings and Scheveningen one prison; and that’s it. Indeed this trip was in my “schedule”prior coming here and among things I really wanted to see were those mentioned buildings. I guess some of you might find this odd but I really had need to bee there and see it with my own eyes.

Of course that’s wasn’t everything I was hoping to see. When checking what else is there I was so surprised to discover how in my mind politics has completely covered real treasures those places have. Before this trip I didn’t even think about Vermeer and his life here, nor about Rembrandt or Rubens, or Escher.

Anyway I jumped on the morning train and was in The Hague about 10.30am. Luckily the weather was lovely although quite windy (but that’s fantastic for Holland). So first thing I was heading to was The Mauritshuis, one of the finest galleries in The Netherlands. It is placed in beautiful mansion which was bequeathed to the state after Johann Maurits death in 1697, and since 1821 it has been the home of the Royal Picture Gallery. And indeed what an amazing collection it is. I was stunned first by “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr Nicolaes Tulp” by Rembrandt; In the same room is the very last Rembrandt’s sefportrait and then in the next room the pearl of the museum, Jan Vermeer’s “Girl With a pearl Earring”. It was an amazing feeling to stand in front of “Dutch Mona Lisa”, the painting I know so much (nope, I didn’t read the book, nor saw the film). I was standing some half an hour looking it and listening audio guide when suddenly I’ve heard one quite weird sentence:“Jan Vermeer made the most famous pearl in western art by only two brushstrokes of white paint” and I thought “What?”. Then I approached even closer and was staring into the pearl and indeed is made by two different white: one that reflects the light and other that reflects the the clothes and that’s it. There is no definitive shape nor the hole in the ear. Amazing!

After the Mauritshuis I remembered advice from BookCrossing friend from The Hague and visited Escher Museum (which is oddly enough not included in the guides) and how good advice that was! I was completely lost in the impossible landscapes, optical illusions, and interactive things museum offers. I love how he used geometry in his art and all puzzle-like metamorphoses he made.

After Escher’s museum I finally went to Vredespaleis (or Peace Palace) in which is The International Court of Justice. The building (or should I say castle) is breathtaking. Sadly I couldn’t get in because I made stupid mistake and didn’t announce my visit which is mandatory. I almost begged but without any success. One simple phone call day before would solve the problem but hey, at least I’ve seen it from the (safe) distance. This means nothing but I’ll have to come back ;)
Enormous palace was completed 1913 and many of the member nations of the Court of Arbitration contributed to the interior’s (according to the guide) rich decoration. In 1946 the Untited Nation’s International Court of Justice was formed as successor to the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
In a front of Vredespalais was a tram station where I could catch a train to Scheveningen so I did but after a few minutes I’ve seen a familiar building so I jumped off and indeed it was what I thought it is: The International Court Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (and I think Rwanda as well). It was very strange feeling to stand in a front of the building which was on news almost everyday. I even saw a van with some Serbian crew (I recognized the names). So I text message to Serbia where I am and got reply “I hope you were spitting it”. Strange thing is that every side involved in the war think the ICTY is against precisely their side favouring other two but indeed I would agree. I do think it at least a little bit less favouring our side but I’d rather not be part of that game so I’ll stop here.
Anyway, I’m so glad I fulfilled my, maybe perverse wish and visited both courts.
Then I catched a train to Scheveningen. As I said at the beginning, the only thing I could imagine about Scheveningen was a prison so I was extremely pleasantly surprised when I saw absolutely gorgeous little town on the coast of North Sea (yup sea again). I walked and really enjoyed myself in the view and nope, I didn’t went to see the prison. I really enjoyed my time there and actually didn’t know how much I love the sea because I was always thing about myself as more mountain-type but those waves and the salty air were incredible and indeed something I obviously missed a lot.
There is a joke about Scheveningen, that during WWII Nazis were able to distinguish Dutch from others by forcing them to say Scheveningen. This is indeed historical fact; the joke is that the allies (i.e. Americans) were pronouncing it something like “Shave-a-nigger”.

In the opposite direction of the same tram line was Delft, my third planned destination for that day. And after some half an hour ride I was there. Friends who were there told me it’s gorgeous but I couldn’t imagine how right they are. Indeed it’s so cosy with small and numerous canals and bridges, squares and churches. OK churches are everything but small but anyway I’m so glad I decided to go there as well. Delft is by the way world famous fir its blue-and-white pottery as well as the resting place of William of Orange (1553-84), one of the most celebrated figures in Dutch history. He commanded the Dutch Revolt against Spanish rule from his headquarters in Delft, and his victory resulted in religious freedom and independence for the Dutch people.
Delft was also the birthplace of Jan Veermer who was so underrated during his lifetime that he died in extreme poverty. Well, so many painters had the same destiny. I just remember that I’ve heard on audio guide that “Girl With a Pearl Earring” has been bought for only 2 euros! Nope even then that wasn’t much!
So after spending few hours in Delft it was time to go back but then in the train I thought “Why not get off the train in Leiden, spend an hour or so there and then catch another one?” which is precisely what I’ve done. This was indeed second time I was here but first time was after biking some 50 km (I posted about that) and then I wasn’t keen on going deeper in the town.
Leiden was founded 1575 precisely by William of Orange, a year after he relieved the town from a year-long siege by the Spanish. As a reward for their endurance, William offered the citizens of Leiden a choice of the building a university or the abolition of tax. They choose wisely and the city’s reputation as a centre of intellectual and religious tolerance was firmly established.
The dark was fell long time ago when I left Leiden.
I’m very happy to say that after this trip The Hague and Scheveningen will not be places where our “Balkan heroes” are but home of Vermeer and Escher and lovely coastal town.

Today was a fantastic day! Don [Marlene's father] drove us [Marlene, Ro, Maureen (Marlene's sister), Sigourney (Maureen's daughter) and me] in Volendam, lovely little (quite touristic) fishing village in the North Holland on the mouth of river Ij. The village is famous because its inhabitants still wears traditional Dutch clothes. To be honest I really thought that wearing a wooden clogs is a myth but then Marlene told me that she was wearing them and also she bought every year new pair for Ro! Indeed you can by them in the shops here with all proper sizes and everything but I never thought some would use them. Well I was 100% wrong! One of the first images when we arrived in Volendam was a guy in jeans on the street wearing wooden clogs! (no jeans aren’t part of Dutch traditional clothes).

So anyway, inhabitants of Volendam made their town famous because of the clothes with those high pointed bonnet on women’s heads that became one of the most recognizable of the Dutch traditional costumes. The houses are lovely as well. Everything was quite in (as one of my friend said) “Hansel and Grethel” style :)

And the we took a picture in traditional costumes as well. Don is playing an accordion, Marlene is testing her muscles with an enormous piece of Dutch cheese, Sigourney is showing some smaller pieces, Maureen just picked fresh tulips from the garden, Ro is grinding the coffee and myself showing my pray from the fishing. And of course we all wearing lovely wooden clogs!

By the way Volendam is the place where Picasso and Renoir spent some time.

After a nice walk, coffee and taking some photos we headed back home. Luckily today was The Day of Open Mills! I’ve never been in one before so this was a perfect opportunity. And where would be better place to do so than in Holland! We passed beside few and then stopped near one where the miller explained us the history of that precise windmill (which I didn’t understand cause he was speaking Dutch, later I got translation) and the working mechanism. He was so nice when he realized that I don’t speak Dutch he explained me in English and even opened the highest part of the windmill (which was closed for visitors) so that I could see it.

Many would think that windmills have been used to grind the corn and wheat but actually the main role was to drain the land of lakes and marshes , and extend the shoreline to create fertile farmland. Don’t forget that much of the Netherlands lies below the sea level.
The whole mechanism is made of wood and was working using the power of the wind. I was confused cause I thought it’s moving in one stable rhythm but miller said the case was quite opposite. Then outside I saw system of ropes that are modifying the changes in the wind.

Also nearby windmill there was a little shop where people were buying flour made in that same windmill. One man was shaking a sack of flour homogenizing it. he explained me that they have few flour types with different level of pulverization and they are mixing them in some precise measurement and then by turning the sack upside down he homogenizing it in the final flour. It’s totally traditionally made! And beside that little shop there was a tent where one girl was selling pancakes made from the flour from that mill. We took some (they were delicious) listening not quite Dutch melodies which one older man was playing on his accordion.

I must say that the route was quite scenic and in lovely little towns we were passing through we were making stops to take pictures. For instance Monnickendam (which we visited on out way to Volendam) is beautiful. When we continued our journey back Don was explaining me history of that part of the Holland. He showed me also some places which aren’t on tourist’s maps like steal factory, the steam train still working and railroad that it uses especially to transport steal from the factory (you know, steam locomotive is something you really can’t see in Holland). We also went to the IJmunden harbour which is quite huge with big cruisers and numerous fishing boats. In the harbour there are three huge locks which are enabling the ships to go from the sea into the dutch-canal-system and vice versa. There is a fourth one which can only be used for letting the surplus water out of the canals into the sea (North Sea) [this part was edited thanks to Don]. The harbour was curled among wast dunes and among the dunes there was hidden Atlantic Wall.

I must admit I was totally ignorant about the existence of Atlantic Wall but luckily one of Don’s passions is history (and as far as I noticed, especially wars) so he explained me bunch of things about it. The wall has been made by Nazis as a defense from the Allied forces. The wall is a system of coastal fortifications stretching from the very north of Norway till the shores on the french-Spanish border. Indeed the wall is mainly covered with weed or sand, some parts integrated with the dunes but he showed me some places where is still visible as well as a bunkers in which Nazis had huge canons.

It was such a nice history lesson about which I didn’t have a clue which was really icing today’s cake.

Beatrix of the NetherlandsYup I said I’ll write next time about Queens’ Day but today happened something quite strange: I’ve seen the Queen! OK the circumstances at the end weren’t so lovely but still. Namely after visiting few museums (among the rest Hemp Museum where you can smoke a little bit weed) during the day I ended on the Dam Square in Amsterdam where was about to begin the big event: it is Remembrance Day, a national memorial ceremony. All flags show mourning (they aren’t on the top of the stick (don’t know expression in English)) and each May 4th there is a ceremony on the Dam Square in which the Queen also take participation and at 8.00 pm there is a 2 minutes of silence.

Edgar DavidsIt was quite crowdy on the Square. The speeches have been made first in the church on the square and then there is a procession from the church to the Square to leave the flowers on the memorial monument to the Dutch who lost their lives in World War II which is also on the Dam Square.

I was in the crowd and I saw Dutch Queen, Beatrix of the Netherlands (I was some 5 m from her) as well as some famous people (and among them Edgar Davids).

Anyway, during 2 minute of silence suddenly some man started to yell (and I thought what a stupid, stupid joke). Then there was another scream which I believe it was some Dutch word and then we heard a roar, very strange sound as if a massive train is passing beneath us. That is when people were started to scream and stampede began. The metal fences were down, everyone was running away from the sound. My backpack was on the ground and camera in the hands so I was clumsy; managed to grab backpack, guarding camera but couldn’t avoid the lying fence so I fell. It wasn’t pleasant whatsoever because people in panic ARE dangerous.

Luckily I was on my feet soon enough to avoid to be covered with more bodies. I jumped over one fence in the area that was restricted few minutes before where there were no many people so I was able to watch what on earth is going on. People were hysterically crying, both kids and adults; many were carried by policemen and ambulance and no one knew what was the cause of the those screams and what was that really frightening sound.

Of course first association for all was last year’s Queens Day when many people lost their lives in the attack. Today however, luckily there were no such a consequences but I realized how deep trauma event from the last year has left on Dutch people. And that was the scariest part: knowing that people in such a perfect and ordered lovely, wealthy country live in utter fear without even realizing it. All they need is a trigger, a shout of a sick man and voile: psychology of the mass in on the stage.

Marlene was completely in panic. She sent me text message immediately to check if I’m alright. Rowena called to tell her that she just saw me on TV (there was a live broadcast from the Dam) and she turned on TV and start to type me a message when all this happened. She raised her eyes from mobile phone to TV and saw panic and stampede. Later when they said it was a sick man who was screaming Rowena explained what happened: “Oh it was just Milan not behaving himself”

I thought how would we in Serbia reacted: probably just thinking “What an idiot!”, maybe someone would be irritated and solve the problem with his own hands but I doubt it would provoke such a panic. But I totally understand Dutch people. They just didn’t accustomed to such violent excesses and after experience from the last year I doubt they’ll be cured anytime soon.

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