Guus Bosman

software engineering manager


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Here I keep track of some of the books that I've read, often with a short review and some personal thoughts. These are only a selection since I read a lot more books for work.

I like to read book in their original languages where possible: French, German, Dutch, English and I even read three books in Bulgarian. Here is the list of books I'd like to read. See also books about technology or management, and my all-time favorite books.

I'm an engineer, and enjoy science fiction novels. Some of my favorite authors are Vernor Vinge, Terry Pratchett and LE Modesitt Jr. No overview of my reading habits would be complete without mentioning The Economist -- I love that magazine.

Books below are in order of date read; this overview starts in October 2002.


Topic: 

The Alchemist

After our visit to New Jersey I caught a cold and I was looking for some easy reading. Yesterday I read The Alchemist after seeing it mentioned several times in a Quora thread.

It was a nice book to read and brought me into another world for a few hours.

I didn't care much for the life-philosophy described in the book. Not only is it a scientifically lazy way of looking at the world, with seeing "omens" everywhere, but it was also presented in a fairly obnoxious way. Too much speechifying, too much elaborating by various characters in the book. It reminded me of the Celestial Prophecy that I read years ago, although The Alchemist at least has some literary qualities which compensates for the medieval worldview.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading the descriptions of the life of the shepherd boy and his travels through Spain and Africa and I can see why it is such a bestseller.

English
Paulo Coelho
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Topic: 

Nooit meer slapen

After reading De donkere kamer van Damokles I was looking forward to this book, the 2nd one by WF Hermans on the list with 10 most popular Dutch books, and the book did not disappoint.

The style of the book was quite different than the magic realism in the previous one. This one felt like a biography at times and was very realistic. The main character makes a trip through Norway and the cold and rain are palpable. It serves as a good reminder never to visit the northern part of Norway.

The book became quite a page-turner in the end. Enjoyable.

Dutch
WF Hermans
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Topic: 

De grote zaal

The book has obvious parallels to Hersenschimmen, the story of a man with Alzheimer's. De grote zaal precedes it -- it was published in the 1950's but then somehow forgotten. It's good that the book got more attention in 2010 again, it is worth reading.

The text is very clean, very straight which makes a pleasant read.

Dutch
Jacoba van Velde
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Topic: 

De Avonden

This is an enjoyable book, even though the subject is a lonely adolescent who has a very cynical outlook on his life. I don't usually care for coming-of-age books -- I hated the Catcher in the Rye -- but Frits Egberts, the main character in De Avonden, is likeable. This is a post-war classic in Dutch literature and while I have read about the book, I never the story itself.

The main character is a clumsy boy, 23 years old, who still lives with his parents. He's not too happy about living with them, and criticizes them in his thoughts. The father is hard-hearing and rather clumsy and detached. Seems like the parents don't have the greatest relationship with each other either ("'Dat is nu een intellectueel', zei zijn moeder.")

The book is well-known for its emphasis on the physical, and the low ambitions of the main characters. This is contrast to the prevailing (pre-war) literature which often was, if not moralizing, then at least hopeful and with characters "fit and of good characters". The World War murdered the illusions of young people, as an award description for this book would say. In De Avonden the conversation is often about bodily functions, hair loss, diseases or even torture. I skipped over the more egregious descriptions of animal cruelty.

Details of life after the World War are interesting. My father was born in 1949, so he could almost be one of the babies figuring in the book. At one point the light in the house goes off, and won't go on until they deposit a guilder coin in a box in the hallway. Coal is expensive and people are careful not to heat the house too warm. At one point, Frits is eating slices of bread with gravy, something pretty similar to the horrible but efficient dinners that Maarten Koning in Het Bureau would make for himself when his wife wasn't home.

The book showcases a lot of traditional Dutch food. At the end of the story, before New Year's Day, Frits mother is making appelbollen. Sure enough has lots of comments on her cooking and he tries to eat one when it's still very hot. Here are some more dinner descriptions in the book:

  • "'s avonds vlees, aardappels en veldsla; pudding van rijstgries, met bessensap, na"
  • "als dessert was er gele vanillepudding met beschuiten jam en chocoladehagelslag in lagen er in verwerkt"
  • "Zijn moeder bracht vijf kleine chocoladepuddingen binnen, elk in een theekopje. Ze kiepte ze een voor een op een schoteltje. 'Gelukt', zei ze."
  • "Hij schepte zich uit de schalen op. Er waren aardappelen, ingemaakte tuinbonen, appelmoes en varkensvlees. 'Ik vind, dat het weer verrukkelijk is, moeder', zei hij, 'vooral de jus.' 'Doe daar niet te gek mee alsjeblieft', zei ze, 'want meer dan in de kom is er niet.'"

I read this in the first week of December, which is kind of appropriate since the storyline starts on December 22nd and has its finale in New Year's Eve, 1946.

Dutch
Gerard Reve
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Topic: 

Max Havelaar

I did not finish this book and do not intend ever to do so. It is too boring!

I realize that the book had an important influence on the relation between Indonesia and the Netherlands, and that it exposed the cruel treatment of people of Indonesia by the Dutch, so it is an important political document. Having said that, it is very slow and boring and I don't want to spend more time on it.

I read the book for 30% and then I gave up. Probably the first time I gave up on a classic.

Dutch
Multatuli
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Topic: 

Hersenschimmen

This book about dementia made me sad. It was often painful to read but it is a beautiful work.

Maarten Klein, the main character, grew up in the Netherlands and thinks back to his childhood and early years in the northern part of North-Holland, near where I was born. He now lives an hour outside of Boston with his long-time wife Vera.

Maarten suffers from Alzheimer's disease and he is slowly losing his mind. The first-person perspective show how invasive the disease is. Through flashbacks and lost-and-then-found memories we learn about his life, his relation with Vera and the impact of the disease on their relationship.

Painstakingly beautiful.

Dutch
Bernlef
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Topic: 

De donkere kamer van Damokles

After finishing Het Bureau I fell into a deep hole, literature wise, and needed another "fix". I had never read anything from W.F. Hermans so I read this book, his most famous work.

I don't read reviews or background articles before I start a book, since I like to make up my own mind and to be surprised by the story. This is one of those books where it is especially important not to know anything about the plot.

Almost to my surprise, I greatly enjoyed this book. I was skeptical after the first 10 pages but the book became a real page-turner. I understand why this is such a popular novel.

I am looking forward to read Herman's next book on my list, Nooit meer slapen (Beyond sleep).

Dutch
W.F. Hermans
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Topic: 

Het Bureau

Het Bureau is a series of seven books that describes several decades of the life of Maarten Koning. It is an autobiographic book based on the career of the author J.J. Voskuil at the national research institute for Dutch language and culture.

I read the first book during my trip to Menlo Park and finished the final book a month later. I greatly enjoyed these books and it become one of my all-time favorite works. Het Bureau is a little like a "soap for intellectuals", describing the life and the career of an academic working on Dutch folk culture and mythology, and the bureaucratic entrails of a stuffy research institute that nobody takes very seriously.

The story is slow, but very carefully crafted. The people in the book involve into very rich characters. I enjoyed the descriptions of Amsterdam and the Dutch country side. Meneer Beerta has become one of my ever favorite characters in Dutch literature. The book is almost boring at times, but very addictive, and sometimes very funny -- the part about the “dorsflegel” was hilarious.

I especially enjoy reading about the board meetings (“de Commissie”). They are short but full of political intrigue. When I read about the interaction between Maarten and his subordinates, it makes my blood curl. They flat-out refuse the work assigned to them, undermine his work and pretend to be out sick all the time.

The book has a nostalgic mood occasionally. It is interesting to read how things were done in an office in the 1960’s. All letters, for example, were typed on a type-writer with overlays for the archive. It is interesting to see how cars get more and more common, and throughout the years more and more employees at Het Bureau get a car. The main character despises cars and doesn’t hesitate to make his opinion known.

The main character is not exactly an optimistic person. "Hij besefte plotseling hoe weinig er van het verleden was overgebleven en hoe uitzichtloos de toekomst was tegen de achtergtrond van de zich opstapelende, zinloze verantwoordelijkheden.” (“He realized how little of his past remained, and how pointless the future was against a background of steadily increasing but futile responsibilities”).

Maarten Koning is cynical about his profession and his fellow researchers.

“Maar ik maak geen indruk! Daarvoor praat ik veel te snel en veel te ingewikkeld. Als je indruk wilt maken, moet je wachten tot iedereen moe is, en dan moet je heel langzaam iets ontzettend banaals zeggen. Dat begrijpen ze en dat wordt het!”

“But I don’t make a strong impression! I speak too quickly and too complicated. If you want to make a good impression you should wait until everybody is tired, and then very slowly say something very mundane. That will be understood, and then implemented!”

Snobism

'Er komen daar natuurlijk allemaal natuurkundigen, chemici, biologen, geologen. Wat moeten die met de Nederlandse volkstaal en volkcultuur?' 'Dat interesseert ze juist!' zei Balk apodictisch. 'Eindelijk eens echte wetenschap!' - hij lachte met een grimmig sarcasme. Voor wat wij doen, heeft iedere intellectueel belangstelling. Dat geeft die bètamensen juist status! En anders prikkelt het het snobisme!' - hij glimlachte gemeen.

Balk is right about that, I greatly enjoyed reading about the scientific work that is being done in Het Bureau and how the ideas about the field change through the years. I subscribed to Quotidian, a new magazine about the study of everyday life.

When I was in high school I had heard about new parts of the book being published -- the publisher managed to stir up quite a hype around these books -- and it was a lot of fun to read old newspaper articles and interviews with characters from the book afterwards.

On a final note -- this is the quintessential Dutch book. If you want to understand more about Dutch culture and history, and your Dutch is fluent and you don't mind reading 5,500 pages... this is the book for you.

Dutch
J. J. Voskuil
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Topic: 

Liars and Outliers: enabling the trust that society needs to thrive

Bruce Schneier

In February of this year Bruce Schneier released his latest book, Liars & Outliers -- enabling the trust that society needs to thrive. This accessible book does a good job exploring the scientific theory of trust and collaboration and combines a theoretical framework with real-life examples. It does not bring many new insights to people who have followed Schneier's other work but the theoretical framework is useful and this is a book worth reading.

978-1-118-14330-8
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English for work
Topic: 

Het Diner

Sasha pointed me to a glowing review in The Economist of a new book by Dutch author Herman Koch. The book hasn't yet been released in the U.S. but I read the Dutch version on my phone.

This book is a real page turner and the story captured me from the first chapter. The book is well written with very credible characters -- yet completely unpredictable.

Dutch
Herman Koch
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