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4.5 out of 5 stars
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4.5 out of 5 stars
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on 27 March 2001
This book skilfully combines a broad historical narrative with individual anecdotes about Amsterdam's more notable characters, and brings out the main themes of its history - trade, tolerance and solid middle-class practicality. While he clearly loves the city, Mak does not shy away from the more sordid aspects of its past, particularly its less-than-shining war record. The translator must also be highly commended - the language is flowing and natural, and one hardly realises that this is a translation. Altogether an excellent read, and a very good preparation for visiting the city.
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on 23 March 2012
Amsterdam, written by Geert Mak, a journalist and popular history writer, is a history of the city from its beginnings. It is great reading for anyone visiting or moving to Amsterdam, but because the city was so central to Dutch history, it also provides a good overview of the Netherlands' past. The book is well balanced, giving equal weight to the various periods since the city's foundation in the twelfth century. Holland's golden seventeenth century, of course, the century of Rembrandt, features well, but so do the modern era and its struggles. The book draws very largely from contemporary anecdotes and concentrates on the life and growth of the city, though it necessarily also touches on the political context. Finally, because its many small stories are so often related to existing buildings, streets, or canals, or to archaeological finds, the modern city comes alive as much as the historical. Recommended to me by a Dutch friend, complete with maps and illustrations, this is for anyone vaguely curious about that incredible European city that has been Amsterdam.
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There are countless travel guides to Amsterdam, but many fewer books in English which give you a broad overview of Amsterdam's historical, geographical and cultural development. This is what Geert Mak sets out to do and on the whole he has created an entertaining and enlightening portrait of one of Europe's most lively and individualistic cities. Mak's approach is thematic focusing on particular aspects of the city's history which he considers most crucial to the city we see today. Therefore, you will find sections on the cities endless battle with flooding, the development of trade, the relationship with the Dutch colonies, Amsterdam's fierce desire to retain a degree of independence from the rest of the Netherlands up to more recent history such as the black years of the Nazi occupation and the protests of the 1960's and 1970's which often put those who wanted to preserve the unique architectural heritage of Amsterdam at odds with the city council. Mak intersperses his narrative with many personal and often amusing anecdotes which prevents the narrative from becoming dry and I defy anyone not to learn something new about the city from this book. One revelation for me was the observation that Amsterdam is a very young city with little or no history before 1300 which, allied to the fact that no royal family or central administration was ever based here for long has given the city its distinctive look without the grandiose buildings and avenues of power you find in London, Paris or Rome. There are are couple of caveats to my recommendation. The book stops in 1980 so we learn nothing of the current tensions and issues which affect Amsterdam and the writing style doesn't always flow particularly well, partly connected to the translation perhaps. Nonetheless, a very good read for anyone who loves this fascinating city.
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on 28 March 2014
Geert Mak writes well - his prose is approachable, and he turns history into a storytelling exercise.

The history of Amsterdam is fascinating - arguably, Amsterdam was the first modern city, founded on trade rather than church or empire; ruled by citizens, not kings or bishops. During the Dutch golden age, Amsterdam underwent a boom which turned a sleepy, provincial town into one of the most powerful players on the European political scene. Geert Mak paints this era beautifully, describing the politics, people, and society in detail.

From a modern perspective, Mak hints at the transition that happened as part of this trade boom - within a few generations, the Amsterdam traders started dealing in money and risk, rather than goods - leading to some of the first recorded bubbles (the tulip mania).

As Mak takes us through the years after the boom, he brings out a few characters as ways of telling his story; this accentuates the human aspects of the story.

As we get to the 20th century, Mak goes into a little more detail - his description of the persecution of the Jewish population is unemotional but harrowing.

The book left me wishing for more - more detail, more context - but it's already a reasonable size, and it's not clear what Mak could have left out.
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on 18 June 2001
This book did not turn out to be the history lesson i thought it would be. Mak concentrates on the lessor published events and ordinary people who lived in the city. The diary's of the priest who feared for his life and the auctioneer who looked forward to the public handings on the Dam being 2 examples on ordinary folk in the 1600's. Mak's research for detail is immense. I found the period from the 1800's to the present day the best read of the book, especially the War effort and re-building of the city thereafter. But those first 200 pages are hard work. There is so much information to take in you really cannot have long breaks between reads or you'll find yourself re-reading parts you have forgotten. I'd would only recommend the book to those who know or live in the city. It is not to be taken lightly and definitely not a travel guide.
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on 11 September 2016
This is one of Mak's best books, in its skilful interweaving of history, geography and anecdote. Mak is brilliantly qualified to write this book - now as a respected social commentator and formerly as the editor of the radical weekly 'De Groene Amsterdammer'. To simply read this book, before you visit the city, will make you realise after some its human failures during the war, it now displays such a real humanity and candour in its welcome, inclusivity and attitude to friend or stranger. But when you go to Amsterdam, take this book in one pocket and good guidebook ('Rough Guide' or 'Lonely Planet' ??) in the other - for when you finally stop to rest, you will be able to understand even more about what you have seen and will see tomorrow. Be European, read Geert Mak at his best.
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on 24 October 2016
I wasn't sure whether to believe the review of the book by Ian McEwan but it is brilliant. It was slow to get into as he uncovers Amsterdam from an archeological point of view. However, stay with it as it reveals sides to Amsterdam that are fascinating, and sometimes not what you expect.
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on 17 March 2016
Having just visited Amsterdam I am finding this book fascinating. The author writes well and uses stories usually based on archeological finds, artifacts or paintings etc. to tell the story of this remarkable city. He knows his subject well, but has made this book a very accessible read.
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on 27 April 2009
This book is written by an Amsterdammer who is fascinated by and proud of his city. As with "In Europe", he does not avoid cool, realistic assessments of those involved in the development of his subject, even if some of these are uncomfortable at times. He uses Amsterdam as a microcosm of the Netherlands at large. This should not be taken too far: not many Britons would wish to be regarded as Londoners manque. However it is an interesting slant on a fascinating story.

As ever, Mak exhibits an outstanding grasp of detail together with the ability to draw the reader into his story. Whilst in no way a guide book, to read it before visiting the city will add a very rich layer of enjoyment and understanding of a fascinating place.
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on 16 April 2016
very interesting, great writing style, exploring the history without the pain of dates and boring stuff
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