Book Review: The Soft Atlas of Amsterdam

This delightful large-format paperback by Jan Rothuizen, subtitled Hand Drawn Perspectives from Daily Life, is one of the most charming and fascinating books in my library. My fondness for maps, hand artwork, participant observation, and Amsterdam coalesce perfectly in this book.

Gordon Meyer holding book

Each two- page spread is a “map” of a mundane (or sometimes famous) area of the city. The artwork is engaging, but it’s the annotations and details that draw you in. You’ll laugh, you’ll cringe, and you’ll frown. Having spent a little time in many of the areas, the art brought new details to light, and also (because the book is a couple of years old) let me consider how the area has changed since being captured.

It’s hard for me to decide on a favorite, but his drawing of an Albert Heijn supermarket certainly stands out. I was instantly transported back to the aisles of the one near our apartment at The Wittenberg. And the annotations resolved a few unanswered questions that puzzled American me. (Such as why Kellogg’s boxes are smaller — it’s to fit the Dutch shelves, which are shorter on the bottom rows. Duh.)

Other maps, such as Rokin, Vondelpark, and a canal houseboat stand out too. Having personal experience, I found these were honest representations, so it leads me to trust the others I didn’t get to see, such as a methadone clinic, a delivery room, and commune-style home.

I bought my copy of the book at the gift shop at Our Lord in the Attic (Ons’ Lieve Here op Solder) and proceeded to haul it around in my briefcase for the next several weeks. It was well worth the effort and is now one of my favorite souvenirs of the city. You can get a copy from Amazon, too. If this sounds like something you might dig, don’t hesitate. You can imagine me waving at you from the nave in Oude Kerk.

Thank you, Pinboard

Congratulations to Pinboard, a bookmarking service that has reached the age of 11 years. That's an eternity in the Internet world, but I'm not surprised, because it is a service that I not only love, but consider essential. I've only been a member for 10 years, and during that time I've stashed thousands of links, which are searchable, cached, and virtually at my fingertips. Additionally, I have an archive of every tweet I've made since joining Pinboard, which might come in handy in court one day. (I kid, I kid.) It's also remarkable that Pinboard remains a one-man, lovingly crafted artisanal software operation. If you're the type who bookmarks pages so you can refer to them later, you should definitely sign up.

Book Review: Chicagoing Straight to Hell

Subtitled “The Unofficial Secret Insider Guide to Nonexistent Chicago Tours” this booklet by “Mr. Dan Kelly” (clearly a pseudonym) of Highland Park (of all places) demonstrates a fun and snarky sense of humor. The publication makes a compelling case for tours that are beyond the downtown area (“Rahmsylvania”) and cover more than just the insipid “touristy crap.” Examples include a walk along The 666 elevated cattle shoot, a survey of the Lake Michigan Lizard People who, having bred with humans, are responsible for a race of ensconced Alderpersons, and a stroll through neighborhoods where residents pound out paranoid NextDoor posts.

Gordon Meyer with book

I thoroughly enjoyed this inexpensive self-published monograph (available at Quimby’s) and I was rather sad at the end that these tours exist only in Mr. Dan’s warped and hilarious imagination. For more of that, don’t miss his website.

Book review: Superstitions

Superstition: Black Cats and White Rabbits by Sally Coulthard offers a history of common folk beliefs, and being a UK publication, many of the tales are heretofore unknown to most Americans. And even those you might already know — such as “touch wood” or avoiding sidewalk cracks — are illuminated with nuance and history. I found several new superstitions to add to my usual repertoire of practices.

Gordon Meyer with book

But aside from Coulthard’s content, the production and design of the book are both outstanding. The illustrations by K.J. Mountford are lovely. (Don’t you think that “Coulthard & Mountford” sounds like a Broadway team?) And I guarantee you’ll appreciate Hardie Grant’s clever, and perfectly executed, two-books-back-to-back design. The “white rabbit” side of the book covers superstitions that bring good fortune, while the “black cat” pages feature practices we should all avoid.

Well, as you can tell by now, I think this book is simply delightful. It might be difficult to find in a US bookstore (provided you can still find a US bookstore) but it’s available at Amazon. If you read it, I promise you’ll never look at a rainbow in the same way.