Lilian Pizzichini travels from Amsterdam's past via the South African ostrich to Shackleton's expedition in the `Endurance'
Amsterdam: A Brief Life of the City

Geert Mak

(Harvill, pounds 20)

The cover of this densely written, studious book shows Adriaen van Nieulandt's 1657 painting Outing of the Lepers on the First Monday after Epiphany. It is remarkably apt. The scene is one of sober chaos as the city's burghers and their families, luxuriously ruffed and gowned, promenade around Amsterdam's main square displaying their wealth in the self-righteous pride of their stance. The sails of ships, the source of their wealth, flutter in the background; the church's spire, symbol of their moral rectitude, stands tall. But, in the emblematic presence of the lepers, disease is signalled to be rife. Amsterdam is in its prime, one of the great cultural capitals of the world and a major financial centre. Even so, the decadence that we associate with contemporary Amsterdam has already made its mark.

Geert Mak, one of the Netherlands' best-known journalists, goes back to the city's origins in the 12th century, when the "Venice of the North" was no more than a settlement of wooden huts cradled in the mouth of the river Amstel, to demonstrate the growth both of the city and its citizens' communal psyche.

This is a book for those of a serious, historical bent, who enjoy ruminating on the implications of a medieval woman's shoe unearthed during building work. Lovers of Amsterdam will revel in the exhaustive reconstruction of everyday life in the medieval city, especially as it affected the merchants who turned it into a thriving metropolis.

Mak is most enlightening, though, on the Netherlandish political "culture of compromise", a characteristic he traces back to bitter necessity. For centuries, the city's people were forced to work their hearts out as a community to keep the place, literally, above water. Without a common effort, they would have sunk. Thus a natural feeling of ownership of the land was felt by everyone, and at the same time power relations coagulated into an inimitable system of consensus.

Mak's achievement is in his extrapolation of psychological essentials from the study of agriculture and architecture. It is a rewarding approach to travel-writing, which delivers factual information as well as insight into a city's psychogeography. He cites features of Amsterdam's unmonumental architecture as indicative of the people's innate modesty.

The city fathers felt no need to boast of their achievements, they merely wished to accrue personal fortunes that could be bestowed on future generations. This introversion can be seen in the long rows of gabled houses which continue to be a draw for visitors. The public and private are kept firmly apart; we know the voorhys, or "front house", from cityscapes by Vermeer. This was where clients were entertained. The inner hearth, however, was intimate and enclosed, embodying an atmosphere the Dutch define with the word gezelligheid, "snugness".

Mak is unafraid to dwell on his subject's less admirable features (for example, the betrayal of the city's Jews under the German occupation). His intentions are worthy, his tone portentous, but glimpses of light emerge in the charming, poignant and downright bizarre details he unearths along the way.


Rob Nixon

(Anchor, pounds 6.99)

Rob Nixon's father sounds a man both serious and purposeful. "He believed," Nixon tells us early in his South African memoir, "that you had a moral obligation to know the place you lived in, preferably in Latin." Nixon's father was an avid amateur bug man whose emigre Scottish parents met and married on the edge of the Karoo desert. Young Rob took his father's words to heart, but luckily not the Latin bit. His profound knowledge of his birthplace - in particular its bird life - is worn lightly and exuberantly, and is all the more moving for it.

The title for his book comes from the idea that the ostrich has been "an object of reverie for generations, a glamorous creature inspiring dreams". As a young boy, this odd bird symbolised his need to escape from mundane realities. As a young man, these realities proved inescapable with the onslaught of apartheid. But the ostrich still retained its symbolic significance, for what else is the ostrich position but the embodiment of the "follies - and temptations - of denial"?

All human endeavour, for Nixon, is summed up in the mournful desert song of the ostrich that swallowed a mouth-organ. And the little hick town he grew up in, with its monumental feather museum and ostrich abattoir, is equally resonant. When Coco Chanel's minimalist style came into fashion, the town's sole industry was devastated.

Nixon is a gifted writer with a great knowledge of ornithology whose deeply quirky book is a beguiling account of his turbulent country.

The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition

Caroline Alexander

(Bloomsbury, pounds 12.99)

This is a riveting account of Sir Ernest Shackleton's expedition to the South Atlantic, one of the greatest survival stories of all time. And, to entice the reader further, it is illustrated with crew member Frank Hurley's astonishingly direct and atmospheric photographs. Caroline Alexander, who has already written about the ship's cat, Mrs Chippy (charmingly photographed here alongside Owd Bob, the sledging dog), relates the events in a suitably enthralled manner.

She starts in the darkness of a long polar night, the temperature is -30F. The wind and ice are groaning in concert, the Endurance quakes in response. A voice breaks in. It is Shackleton's: "The ship can't live in this, Skipper ... what the ice gets, the ice keeps."

Hurley's visual record keeps the momentum going, documenting the majestic beauty of Antarctica, the destruction of the ship and the crew's daily attempts at continued survival. The survival of these images is almost as miraculous as that of the crew. The glass-plate negatives were stored in canisters that lasted five months on the ice floes, a week in an open boat on the polar seas, and five months buried in the snows of a rocky outcrop. Thanks to Hurley's personal triumph in harrowing conditions, the photos are an unparalleled achievement in the history of photography.