I was speaking to one of my bookseller friends about our success with The Hare with Amber Eyes (we just passed our 50 mark, which is good for us) and he said to me, "The what with what what who?" and that was my first indication that success with this book is not universal. I looked up the details on Treeline, and there are definitely haves and have nots with this title. But the truth is that if you latch onto it, the book is pretty sticky (see your Gladwell encyclopedia for explanation).
Edmund de Waal is a well-known potter (if you know your potters) who inherited a collection of Japanese netsuke figurines from his Great Uncle Iggie. He decides to write a history, following the family ownership from Charles in Paris, to Viktor in Vienna, to Iggie in Japan, and finally to Edmund in England. But de Waal is from no ordinary family. Despite being the son of a minister, his familiy line leads back to one of the great banking families of Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, the Ephrussis, whose story really begins in Odessa.
We had a nice crowd of folks to talk about the book, and though in the end, most folks liked The Hare with Amber Eyes (that's the British paperback pictured at left, German below) in retrospect , there was a lot of grumbling during the reading process, and lots of quibbling with detail. I think in this case it was a question of expectations. Not only did the book win the Costa Prize for biography, but reviews, particularly in England, were effusive, and though I can't verify the source, Caroline quoted a review saying it was the best book in a decade. How do you live up to that? On the other hand, there were a few of us who felt the book well stood up to its praise and were quite passionate in its defense.
Some people felt that their wasn't enough about the netsuke as objects, but I saw them more as a framing device and perhaps as a metaphor for the stories themselves, often lost or hidden, but in this, case, rediscovered and passed on. Gloria of course brought one of her netsuke, and noted that the Village Bazaar has a nice collection available for sale. And if you've never been to this store, located at 2201 N. Farwell Avenue, you absolutely have to go.
Also in the show and tell department, Peter brought several books that touched on Charles Ephrussi's life in Paris, and was able to find a print of Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party, where Charles is that guy in the upper right in top hat.
And there was some talk about the reconstruction of conversations. It's always nice if an author in a nonfiction book acknowledges in the preface that he recreated some scenes. That said, much of The Hare with Amber Eyes seemed to be reconstructed from letters and journals, which could mean he's just telling it as the participant saw it. So I'm not coming down either way on that one.
Roger had some issues with omissions in the history. I think that this is something that would hit some readers--this is a family of privilege, and should the author have acknowledged the awful conditions around them. Roger mentioned the movie "Y tu mama tambien" in comparison. There certainly could have been more class consciousness in the story, but that also would have made it a different story.
I was chatting with Elaine, one of our phone customers, trying to convince her for the second time to purchase the book, being that she has a strong interest in Jewish history, particularly concerning the Holocaust. You'd be savaged for looking too Jewish or not Jewish enough; you're savaged for being obsessed with the arts or with money. You're evil for being a communist; worse for being a capitalist. And yet de Waal also portrays the family in most if not all of their warts; this is not an Anne Frank story.
And the story also has an LGBT history element too. Iggie was a bachelor who adopted his Japanese companion, and while there was less clear evidence regarding Charles, he was said to have a mistress who had numerous other men in her stable, while Charles was content to be mentor to a series of younger accolytes, like Proust, for example. And yes, I would consider this must reading for all the Proustian scholars I know. I know one, by the way.
It works as group biography. It works as travel lit. Regarding some of the art history, I suspected that this manuscript was at one point longer, and that things you might have expected like the art theory and more of de Waal's own life might have been edited out for bogging down the story. Who knows? I guess if the author ever tours again, you can ask him. I believe he only did museums for the paperback. You can also see some of his own beautiful ceramics on his website.
But in the end, I think the netsuke did hold the story together, and they triumphed. They may not be in every scene, but there's at least one amazing escape story. I will tell you that I was a bit weepy at the end. The book had a quite powerful hold on me.
What are we reading next?
Monday, December 5, 7 pm: The Tiger's Wife, by Téa Obreht
We're journeying back to the Belgrade of Aleksandar Hemon, only this time after the war, in all its rubble. A young doctor in the Balkans tries to unravel the mystery of her grandmother's death.
Monday, January 2, 7 pm: How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu
A young man leaves his wife and job in New York to journey to his Ethiopian homeland and recreate his family history. As you can see, I'm slowly checking every country off a map in my head.
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