Monday, July 15, 2013

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal

This week all of my books feature art and artifacts: netsuke from Japan today, American painting and sculpture Wednesday, and Ancient Egyptian images of birds Friday.

I think I have a new sure-bet book to suggest to readers who ask me for something wonderful to read. Of course, they will probably not use the word "wonderful," but will somehow indicate that they are tired of settling for formulaic fiction or cookie-cutter memoirs. I will offer The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. Set in Tokyo, Odessa, Paris, and Vienna, this book recounts six generations of a Jewish family as its fortunes rose and fell with the tides of European history. Binding the threads of story together is the fate of a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese carvings used to toggle small purses or bags. One of the netsuke is a small hare with yellow stones inlaid as eyes.

Even sure-bet books need a reader ready for them. I know I brought The Hare with Amber Eyes home once before, read two or three pages and decided it was too involved for my mood at that time. This time I borrowed the audiobook expertly read by Michael Maloney. I enjoyed having the epic story of the Ephrussi family, Russian grain merchants transformed into international bankers, wash over me as I drove, cooked, and worked in the garden.

In an interview, de Waal says that he tried to stay out of the story, but I am glad he failed. His descriptions of travels to see old family homes and to visit archives with family papers connects our time with the 19th and 20th centuries, and we get to feel what he felt when he made discoveries. I also enjoyed learning new words, such as netsuke, bibelot, and vitrine. The Hare with Amber Eyes is a richly-told story to enjoy if you are ready.

Libraries have many opportunities to promote de Waal's book. They can add The Hare with Amber Eyes to displays on Japanese art, art collecting, family history, Jewish history, Impressionist France, 20th century Austria, or World War II. They may want to pair it with the novels of Marcel Proust or the poetry of Rainer Marie Rilke, which figure in the telling of the Ephrussi family story.

De Waal, Edmund. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010. 354p. ISBN 9780374105976.

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