After the jump: 5 new reviews, a bit shorter ones this time.

First up is Dark Matter, the 2016 sci-fi bestseller by Blake Crouch. After that, I write a bit on The Door by Magda Szabó, which floored me. Really, get that. Two books about Pieter Bruegel follow. I’ve been reading up on him in preparation of a possible visit to the once in a lifetime Bruegel exhibition in Vienna. Catch that if you can, it runs until January 13, 2019, and it’s incredible how many of his surviving paintings they managed to get on loan. One of those Bruegel books, a biography, is in Dutch, as is the review. This post ends with another recent biography, in Dutch as well, on the Flemish writer J.M.H. Berckmans, who died 10 years ago.

Next time I hope to tackle Blindsight and H is For Hawk. Happy reading!

DARK MATTER – Blake Crouch (2016)

Dark Matter

Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines trilogy was adapted into a television series, and that shows here too: this is very much a cinematic page turner.

Having read tons of commentary in reviews buzzing about Dark Matter I actually came to it with the wrong expectations, thinking it would be a rather thin, pulpy blockbuster affair. I was wrong.

This is plain and simple excellent scifi with a multiverse story. Granted, it is a page turner, it is fun, and it has an overall light touch, but these things are not a negative in themselves. The prose itself is not the focus, the story is not complex – quite easy even, don’t expect to be bedazzled by quantum mechanic jargon – and there’s not that many characters. So what?

While Dark Matter is not literary in the sense of the stunning Version Control, it still has a lot of merit – writing a solid, smooth page turner is not simple at all. There’s a few bits of truly clever stuff in the book, and especially the final 100 pages make for quite the ride.

What is missing from all the reviews I’ve read is the fact that this story is also an emotional reflection about having a family. It uses these reflections – on fatherhood and being a loving partner – to get the protagonist elegantly out of a conundrum that seems impossible to solve. Most books with a similar set-up – just as time travel stories – fail to deliver a satisfying ending. Dark Matter manages to avoid a pitfall of the multiverse trope and doesn’t short-circuit.

One final remark. This type of multiverse story – with different choices of characters branching out into different scenarios – obviously is bullshit. It’s a gripping story, but bullshit nonetheless. Not that this matters, as bullshit doesn’t claim truth value. Why is it bullshit? Because it starts from a faulty assumption: that of free will. It presupposes people are able to make different choices – which obviously is not the case. People make the choice they need to make, and that’s that. Recommended nonetheless.


Update 8/2020: Here‘s a good explainer of some of the issues of Dark Matter, should you have questions after reading it. There’s also some stuff in the comments below you might want to check out, with another reasons why these type of multiverse stories are theoretically problematic. (Also, Crouch’s next novel, Recursion, was a giant, giant mess of plot holes and inconsistencies. I talk about those here.)

THE DOOR – Magda Szabó (1987, translation 2006)The Door

Hungarian author Magda Szabó (who died in 2007) is outright fantastic in her depiction of a tried and tested method of defence against the harsh brutalities of life.

The book’s narrator – like the author a writer named Magda – follows the intricacies of her filial relationship with her mysterious, baffling housekeeper, Emerence. Emerence is just as much a victim as she is an agent in her life – Szabó paints her larger than life, as a kind of Slavic witch or Fairy queen, but never sacrifices realism or plausibility for mere theatrical effect.

The Door has a haunting, poetic quality, yet it isn’t written in service of an aesthetic. This is both a simple tale and a brutal cudgel. The Door is not a fantasy novel, but it should appeal to fans of Susanna Clarke.

A deeply human book, a deserved classic, a masterpiece even. I don’t say this lightly: it truly comes with the highest possible recommendation. Do make sure you get the award-winning Len Rix translation.


BRUEGEL IN DETAIL – Manfred Sellink (2014)Bruegel In Detail

About 70 details from Bruegel’s paintings and drawings selected by Manfred Sellink, one of the foremost Bruegel specialists.

The book is a bit of a missed opportunity, as the accompanying texts are rudimentary – while there was plenty of room on the pages to provide more insights or objective information. The publisher chose aesthetic concerns over content, making this a coffee table book. On the other hand, the main draw of this book obviously are the details themselves.

Another important remark concerns the quality of the images. Mostly the printing is simply good, at times even excellent, with sharp, clear reproductions, but sadly not in all cases. Still, I know of no other book in which one can study Bruegel’s brush technique and the texture of the paintings as well as here.

Conclusion: with more text and a 100% attention to the quality of the photographs of the works this would have been a 5-star publication. I’d say 3.5 now.

PIETER BRUEGEL: DE BIOGRAFIE – Leen Huet (2016)Pieter Bruegel De Biografie

Een wat moeilijk boek om een oordeel over te vellen: enerzijds doet Huet schitterend werk om het tijdsgewricht waarin Bruegel leefde tot leven te brengen – met veel details en soms erg interessante zijwegen. Huet schrijft vlot en duidelijk. Anderzijds doet het boek niet echt wat het beloofd op de achterflap, met name inzicht verschaffen in Bruegels leven door naar zijn werk te kijken.

Bovendien leer je weinig bij over dat werk zelf als je al een paar andere boeken over Bruegel hebt gelezen, zoals het monumentale boek van Silver – die Bruegel trouwens veel duidelijker inbedt in de beeldende artistieke traditie van zijn tijd dan Huet – of de publicaties van Sellinck. Ik las hier en daar wel iets nieuws qua interpretatie of duiding, maar ik had wat meer verwacht.

Zeker in de tweede helft van het boek blijft Huet wat mij betreft ook vaak steken bij loutere beschrijving van de schilderijen en prenten, en een serieuze handicap daarbij is dat dit boek geen grote, duidelijke afbeeldingen bevat – al is dat ook niet de ambitie geweest van de uitgever. Idealiter dus te lezen met een andere publicatie binnen handbereik, of het internet natuurlijk.

Alles welbeschouwd denk ik toch dat het boek verplicht leesvoer is voor elke die hard Breugelfan – verwacht alleen geen grote wonderen, aangezien de historische bronnen spijtig genoeg zo beperkt zijn. Huet weet wel heel wat te doen met wat er wel te vinden is om Bruegels context zo duidelijk mogelijk te maken, en zeker de eerste helft van het boek is echt een plezier om te lezen.

Voor de Bruegelliefhebbers die nog niet zoveel anders over de meester hebben gelezen is dit boek zonder enige twijfel fantastisch – als je tenminste ook van een gezonde dosis geschiedenis houdt.


SCHRIJVEN IN DE GRAUWZONE: J.M.H. BERCKMANS, DE BIOGRAFIE – Chris Ceustermans (2018)Schrijven in de Grauwzone

Jean-Marie Berckmans is tien jaar geleden op 54-jarige leeftijd van ontbering overleden, en nu publiceert Uitgeverij Vrijdag eindelijk deze dappere biografie.
Schrijven In De Grauwzone leest als een trein: Ceustermans schrijft erg vlot en trefzeker. Het boek is bovendien erg goed gedocumenteerd, Ceustermans’ research moet erg veel tijd hebben gekost – hij heeft met tientallen en tientallen mensen gesproken, en Berckmans heeft ook erg veel papieren sporen nagelaten van zijn chaotische bestaan. Daardoor had Ceustermans toegang tot een groot archief van ongepubliceerde teksten en brieven. Hieruit wordt vaak geciteerd, op een manier die erg organisch is, zonder dat het de flow van het lezen stoort. Daardoor overtijgt het boek de loutere biografie: pakweg een 5e van dit boek is immers door JMH zelf geschreven.

Het leven van Berckmans tart elke verbeelding, en deze biografie is zo een van die zeldzame boeken waar het cliché dat de realiteit fictie overstijgt ook effectief klopt. Hierdoor leest dit boek ook als een soort picareske roman, en moet het volgens mij ook boeiend zijn voor wie niet vertrouwd is met het werk van de bipolaire schrijver. Aangezien leven en schrijven voor JMH sterk met elkaar verweven zijn, werpt dit boek ook een verhelderend licht op zijn oeuvre. Kenners van zijn verhalen zullen daardoor zeker worden aangezet om Berckmans te herlezen.

Schrijven in de Grauwzone is alles wel beschouwd een intriest verhaal: de kroniek van een trage zelfmoord van een manisch-depressief miskend genie met een zware alcoholverslaving. Ik hoop dat dit boek een fatsoenlijke uitgave van Berckmans’ verzameld werk een stap dichterbij kan brengen. Verhalen uit de Grauwzone – de nieuwe bloemlezing die gelijktijdig uitkwam met deze biografie – is al mooi, maar bijlange niet genoeg.

Klik hier voor mijn andere teksten over Berckmans.


  1. Strangely (or, rather, dumbly) enough, the idea of reading up on the subject before heading for an exhibition never occured to me. Among other things, it would probably enable me to engage with the presented artworks more fully, as it would soften my mind-numbing compulsion to read the explanatory texts before actually looking at the works next to them.

    I imagine the conjunction with the Albertina exhibition of Monet, another popular favorite, is drawing quite some crowds to Vienna. I won’t probably be able to resist myslef, but it has to be said that the usual Bruegel room at Kunsthistorisches already packs/packed quite a punch without having to purchase tickets for a particular time slot.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I know, I’ve been there twice already, I’ve already had the joy to experience those 11 paintings without the burden of preloaded scholarship… 🙂
      Sadly, it looks more and more like I won’t be able to make it, so I guess that’ll warrant other citytrips in the future to see the ones I haven’t yet – Madrid and Darmstadt most importantly.


  2. So I read your little “I’m changing” Post before this. Would you mind explaining why 1 post a month, filled with multiple reviews, works better for you than 5 small posts spaced throughout the month?

    Reading the comments in that post definitely made me realize you’re approaching this from a creative writers perspective instead of as an archivist, which is where I tend to come from. So it is really a whole different mindset and I can’t wrap my head around it.

    I’m not being pugnacious, I’m just trying to understand and would appreciate some input. If an email would work better, that’s cool too.

    By the by, I chose to write this comment 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I started reviewing mainly as an archivist activity, and it still is. It’s just that while doing so, I noticed I started to repeat myself etc., so that kinda took the fun out of the writing part of the archiving. Writing reviews also became a kind of test whether I could bring something new to table in the online discussion surrounding a book, and that’s not easy to keep up. I also have less time on my hands so longer posts like that is a bit harder nowadays than 2 years ago – although time is not the main factor in my decision to scale back the posts.

      As for 1 bigger post a month vs. a smaller post after every book I finish, I guess it’s mainly a matter of me wanting to offer some substance to the readers, and some of these reviews are so short I don’t feel like they merit a separate post. Also, I usually write the reviews anyway and post them on Goodreads, but after gathering a few of them, I tend to tinker a bit with what I wrote, a few weeks tend to shed new light on things, so it’s also a matter of quality control.

      Btw, it’s not the existence of choice that I dispute. We all make choices. The question is wether you could have made a different choice in the exact same set of circumstances?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks. More explanation is always good 😉
        And I’m guessing that you’re feeling that wordpress is more of a backup to Goodreads than anything?

        Gotcha. So not against free will, just at a different level than the absolutists. I’m with you on that.

        Liked by 1 person

        • The ultimate backup is a Wordfile I keep at several locations. But I like the idea of having an own blog to collect this kind of writing. It gives more freedom than Goodreads (lists, year end posts, the possibility of non-book posts, etc.), you can change the lay-out, etc. It’s more personal than a Goodreads profile. I also like the fact that you can see the statistics on WordPress, whereas if you write for Goodreads only, you have no way of telling how many times your reviews are read. The same goes for Worlds Without End (don’t know if you know that, good site, check it out, link in my link section).
          I’m not against will, but I do think the notion of free will is problematic. I don’t think it is free in the sense that we can determine our own choices in 100% freedom, or even determine our will itself (we cannot will what we want, so to say).

          Liked by 1 person

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  7. Finally read Dark Matter. It’s very much in the same vein as Recursion, just less ambitious. Which makes sense given it was written before. As you say, it isn’t too complicated but I see so many questions on Goodreads. So I put another explainer together here: https://www.starvind.com/bookreviews/dark-matter-explained/
    Perhaps you can give it a read and link to it in your post?

    I have to say I don’t grasp your position on free-will which is such an interesting question. In fact, I think it is the most important scientific question. You take it that it does not exist and there is no doubt about that? To paraphrase Schopenhauer: “You can choose whatever you desire but you’re not free to choose your desires”
    I however see it as an unsettled question.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cool, I’ll read your explainer asap. I did think Dark Matter to have much less issues & plotholes, I think Crouch overstreched in Recursion – in that sense I’m not sure less ambitious is the right word, that sounds a bit negative, while I believe it is a quality of DM – although I get what you mean.

      On free will: my reviews of Dune & LOTR discuss that matter further, also in the comments, especially the comments to LOTR go deeper on the issue. I agree that it’s a very important question. If you believe in causality, there is no doubt indeed. In that sense, I think the matter is settled, and most brain scientists I’ve read think so too.

      Obviously, part of the discussion is about the definition of the word ‘free’, and it’s my conviction most of the debate is actually about that. I always link to this article as a starter, it sums up my position well: https://www.pnas.org/content/107/10/4499

      Liked by 1 person

    • Also my review of Alex Rosenberg’s ‘How History Gets Things Wrong’ might be interesting to you: that book describes the neurology of decisions, more of less validating behaviourism. The scientists involved got 2 Noble prizes.

      Liked by 1 person

    • And yes, Shopenhauer was right. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Aside from the free will issue, the other big problem I have with this kind of multiverse stories, is that they actually always underestimate the number of different universes possible. If you let go of determinism, everything becomes a choice or another possibility. Suppose I type the letter ‘e’ in ‘next’ one fraction of a second later than I could have: does that spawn another branch? You see, it becomes nearly absurd if you think it true. It’s not only about leather jacket or denim jacket, it’s actually about every large and small movement everybody makes all the time, including the blinks of your eyes, etc.

      As such, in Dark Matter, you would actually get a swarming of millions and billions and trillions Jason-1s and Jason-2s in each other’s timelines very quickly, as this is obviously all exponential. (It would even get to that fairly quickly if you just stick to the which jacket-type of decisions.)


      • This concern I address in my explainer. We are dealing in infinitudes since quantum measurement/collapse is occurring all the time. But since this leads to infinities on both sides (e.g. Daniela’s post kidnapping worlds and Jason-1’s ‘I want my family back’ worlds) there’s a near one to one mapping of potential timeline matches. So I think it’s reasonable that only a few paths cross. One of my FAQ answers this as well.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes, that’s a valid line of reasoning, thanks for clearing that up further. I was writing my thoughts with the ending in mind, as there’s a multiple Jason stand of at the end, as you wrote. If I recall correctly, that wasn’t about “a few” only. As such, I think it’s an inconsistency. Either they can reason and get back to the same timeline (and in that case it should be billions, trillions,…), or they can’t, and in that case it would not even be “a few”. But it has been over 2 years since I read the book so I could be totally wrong here.

          Regardless of Jason’s swarming each other’s timelines Dark Matter or not, I think it’s very telling most – if not all – multiverse stories underestimate the number of choices/branches. Part of that has to do with the impossibility of writing about infinity, but also because authors simple wouldn’t be able to tell a coherent story if they did. The same happens in lots of time travel stories: authors sacrifice internal logic for a neat story.


  8. PS: I’m going to take your recommendation and read Version Control one of these days (and will make sure not to read the Kirkus review as you advise)

    Liked by 1 person

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