Photo: cricket New York park

Cricket, like this match in a New York park, plays a significant part in Netherland.

Photograph by Kevin P. Tyson

By Don George

May 2008

Book of the Month: 
Netherland,
by Joseph O'Neill

Sitting in a San Francisco suburb thinking of New York City, I imagine a place roughly defined by Central Park South, Seventh Avenue, 23rd Street, and Park Avenue—the New York of museums, magazine offices, bistros, and bars that I inhabit when I visit. But as Joseph O'Neill's lovely, elegiac new novel, Netherland, reminds us, there are scores of New Yorks—some defined by geography and others by what we might call psychography. O'Neill shines his illuminating narrative on one of these rarely seen sub-cities—a place of expatriates from the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies bound by a passion for cricket.

Our entrée to this exotic New York is provided by the novel's transplanted Dutch protagonist, Hans van den Broek, a 30-something banker who specializes in analyzing oil and gas stocks. Displaced after 9/11 and adrift as his marriage begins to unwind, Hans takes up his childhood sport of cricket after an accidental encounter with a charismatic Trinidadian entrepreneur named Chuck Ramkissoon.

This is the narrative impetus of O'Neill's novel, but the power and poignancy of this remarkable book derive from his textured prose and his tender, nuanced recreations of places present and remembered: the Hague of his childhood, the London of his early married years, and especially the New York of his unmoored expat odyssey. Through Hans we encounter a New York of cabdrivers, cooks, and back-alley businessmen, Hindus, Muslims, Christians, and Sikhs, speaking in the tongues of Guyana, Jamaica, Pakistan, India, and Sri Lanka, and meeting to play cricket in Idlewild Park, Monroe Cohen Ballfield, and Randolph Walker Park—home of the Staten Island Cricket Club, founded in 1872.

Interwoven with this New York are other strands, other cities—the New Netherland of 17th-century Dutch immigrants, the Chelsea Hotel's assemblage of misfits, the Midtown oil analyst's 21st-century cabal. O'Neill's evocation of these amalgamated New Yorks offers a fresh appreciation of the metropolis and the American ideal it embodies.

Short List: New & Noteworthy

Song of Brooklyn, by Marc Eliot, an oral history of "America's favorite borough," featuring Brooklynite contributors such as Spike Lee and Arthur Miller.

The Cellist of Sarajevo, Steven Galloway's novel inspired by true events, about a cellist in besieged Sarajevo who vows to play for 22 days at the site of a bomb blast that killed 22 people.

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich's 13th novel, set in and around an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota where a mysterious killing in 1911 continues to haunt relationships between whites and Indians generations later.

New Book Roundups

Women Abroad
In timelessly romantic Venice, the parallel stories of two troubled wives play out a century apart in the novel The World Before Her, by Deborah Weisgall. One woman is Marian Evans (aka the British novelist George Eliot), in Venice on her 1880 honeymoon with a husband 20 years her junior; the other is a sculptor in town accompanying her much-older husband on a 1980 trip. A love letter of another sort, Cassie Knight's memoir, Brazzaville Charms, paints a portrait of a little-known country, the Republic of Congo, where she spent years working in humanitarian aid.

Summer Islands
Beach-set beach reads include In the Hamptons, Dan Rattiner's celebrity-filled memoir of 50 years living in Montauk and editing the popular and quirky local newspaper Dan's Papers, and Moon Shell Beach, Nancy Thayer's Nantucket-set novel about two girlhood friends trying to repair their damaged relationship years later.

Viva Italia
Fuel your summer vacation fantasies with the images of cypress-lined terraces, antiques-graced sitting rooms, and creamy marble bathtubs in Italian Hideaways, a large-format, photo-filled guide to 30 private villas and smaller hotels, by Meg Nolan (with photography by David Cicconi). Passion on the Vine, Sergio Esposito's memoir of "food, wine, and family," also celebrates Italy. Esposito is the owner of Italian Wine Merchants in New York City, but grew up in Naples and returns often to his native country.

Behind the Headlines
China is squarely in the Western spotlight these days, but it was dismissed and ridiculed in the mid-20th century until a Cambridge University professor named Joseph Needham began to publish his revelatory multi-volume series Science and Civilisation of China. The eccentric academic and his infatuated adventures in China are recreated in Simon Winchester's enthralling biography, The Man Who Loved China. In the debut novel A Case of Exploding Mangoes, author Mohammed Hanif provides his own darkly comic take on the 1988 plane crash that killed Pakistan's president, General Zia. In the compelling Jerusalem: City of Longing, Cambridge University professor Simon Goldhill tackles the archaeological and architectural history of this long-revered and -embattled city.

Reading Matchmaker: If You Like...

...Arundhati Roy's The God of Small Things, check out Evening Is the Whole Day, by Preeta Samarasan. Like Roy's bestseller, this is a notable debut novel that has at its narrative center a child trying to make sense of sudden tumultuous events in her large Indian family's life. Aasha's family are successful immigrants in Malaysia, and the country's postcolonial turmoil sets the scene for the Rajasekharans' own unraveling.

One Last Thing: On the Trail of Ink Drops

Novel Destinations, by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon, is a book after my own heart. Aside from the fact that it's published by National Geographic, this guide to "Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen's Bath to Ernest Hemingway's Key West" hangs out at the same place this column does: at the intersection of reading and travel. Bibliophiles will enjoy dipping into Novel Destinations again and again, for its roundups of author houses and museums, like the Brontës' parsonage in Haworth, England; literary festivals, like the Zora Neal Hurston Festival of the Arts and Humanities in Eatonville, Florida; and literary lodgings where you can spend the night, such as the Keats-Shelley House in RomeNovel Destinations also delves into ten places especially connected to a particular author—Charles Dickens's London, Louisa May Alcott's Massachusetts—places whose character and allure have been indelibly enriched by the authors' words.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

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