By Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw
To learn more about the Netherlands and Belgium past and present, check out some of these books and films.
If you're interested in the WWII years in the Netherlands, read The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank), The Hiding Place (Corrie ten Boom), and A Bridge Too Far (the story of the battle of Arnhem, by Cornelius Ryan).
Amsterdam (Mak) is an academic but engaging look at centuries of the city's history. Equally comprehensive is Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. Covering a similar time frame, Daily Life in Rembrandt's Holland (Zumthor) focuses more on the everyday concerns of Dutch society in the 17th century.
Tulipmania (Dash) is about the Golden Age financial craze. Holland was at the center of the spice trade back when a pinch of cinnamon was worth its weight in gold. For engaging histories of these times, try Spice: The History of a Temptation (Turner) and Nathaniel's Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History (Milton).
The Undutchables: An Observation of the Netherlands, Its Culture and Its Inhabitants (White and Boucke) is an irreverent guide to modern Dutch culture. My 'Dam Life: Three Years in Holland (Condon) is a humorous account of adventures in a low country.
Fans of Vincent may want to consider Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent van Gogh, edited by Irving Stone. (Stone also wrote the fictional book about Van Gogh, Lust for Life.)
If you're visiting Belgium and have an interest in World War I,read Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Guns of August. For a look at contemporary Belgium, try A Tall Man in a Low Land (Pearson).
Set in 17th-century Holland, Alexandre Dumas' The Black Tulip tells a swashbuckling story of fortunes held in the balance. Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company is another literary classic, in which the author, Multatuli, writes of the injustices of the Dutch colonial system in Indonesia.
For more modern reads, best sellers set in Holland include Girl in Hyacinth Blue (Vreeland), Girl with a Pearl Earring (Chevalier), Tulip Fever (Moggach), and Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Maguire). For Belgium, consider Resistance (Shreve) and The Adventures of Tintin (featuring the famous Belgian comic-book character, by Hergé).
Vincent and Theo (1990) captures the relationship between the great artist and his brother. Girl with a Pearl Earring (2003) shows a fictionalized Vermeer in love with his servant in Delft.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) is a good version of Anne's story, which has been translated into film and theater many times. Paul Verhoeven's Soldier of Orange (1977) delves into the bleak WWII years (it's also a fine book). In Black Book (2006) — another Verhoeven film, which was filmed in Holland — a sexy blonde bombshell fights for the Dutch Resistance.
Set partially in the modern era, Antonia's Line (1995) tells the story of five generations of Dutch women. Ocean's Twelve (2004) has many scenes set in Amsterdam's Jordaan neighborhood. The dark and violent comedy In Bruges (2008) was filmed just where you'd think.
Gene Openshaw is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Amsterdam, Bruges & Brussels guidebook.