Review: The Hare with Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

Last summer my husband Chris and I ran into someone we hadn’t seen in years, and spent considerable time chatting with her and her husband about books.  A few days later, The Hare with Amber Eyes arrived in our mailbox.  Our friend recommended it especially to Chris because of its connection to Marcel Proust, one of Chris’ favorite authors.   After reading it he suggested I might like it as well.  And then he suggested again.  I read the blurb and was intrigued:

When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.  And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story …

Edmund de Waal inherited the netsuke collection from his great-uncle in 1994.  It was originally acquired by a cousin, Charles Ephrussi, more than a century before.  The Ephrussi family left Odessa for Paris and Vienna in the 1850s, and became wealthy financiers.  Very wealthy financiers, with palatial homes and fabulous art collections.  They moved among the rich and famous, and supported the artists of the period (Charles can be seen in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party).  But by the time de Waal was born in the 1960s, the netsukes were all that remained.  This memoir relates the family history, and de Waal’s self-discovery, a by-product of his research.

The netsuke had a unique appeal.  During their long history they were sometimes displayed prominently, and at other times relegated to less-used rooms.  But they were always displayed in a vitrine, for a special reason:

But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening.  And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric. (p. 66)

The Ephrussi family remained strong through the early 1900s, despite the growing antisemitism in both Paris and Vienna.  But Hitler’s arrival in Vienna changed everything.  Homes were searched, possessions seized in the  name of the Reich, and men arrested on trumped-up charges:

This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble and hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping yo back to your essential characters — wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back. (p. 251)

Needless to say, the war had a profound impact on the Ephrussi family.  For a while I was caught up in the human story and forgot all about the netsuke. I cried when they emerged from the war intact and de Waal revealed their story.  That’s a rare event for me, and a credit to de Waal’s ability to write a factual, engaging, and yes, “extraordinarily moving” memoir.  His ancestors came alive on the page, and so did de Waal, as he reflected on a project that distracted him from his livelihood for two years:   “I worry that I am becoming a Casaubon, and will spend my life writing lists and notes.” *  (p. 173)  Never fear, Mr. de Waal, it was worth it.

* What’s not to like about a memoir with a Middlemarch reference?


Review: The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

When Yun Ling Teoh retires from her career as an attorney and a judge, she returns to the Malaysian highlands, where she spent the years immediately following World War II.  Recently diagnosed with a degenerative memory disease, she wants to record her life’s memories before they disappear.

Yun Ling was the only survivor of a Japanese camp; her sister died there.  After the war, Yun Ling sought out Aritomo, former gardener to the Japanese emperor, to learn the art of Japanese gardening and create a garden in her sister’s memory.  Yun Ling is filled with anger at the Japanese, and overcome with guilt over her sister’s death. Her time with Aritomo becomes a time of healing and spiritual renewal.

As readers we live in Yun Ling’s mind, moving seamlessly between present and past.  So seamlessly, in fact, that occasionally I had to back up and re-read pages to ground myself in the correct time period.  In the present day, Yun Ling is visited by a man researching Aritomo’s life and work.  This storyline, combined with Yun Ling’s memories of Malaysia during and after the war, convey the brutality of this period in a very powerful and emotional way.  But this is not “just” a wartime story. The Garden of Evening Mists is also about beauty and love, and the ability of both to persist through the most horrific circumstances.

I had looked forward to reading this book after it was nominated for the 2012 Booker Prize, and received several rave reviews on LibraryThing.  I was expecting a 5-star read, which is probably unfair.  The writing was beautiful and poetic, but it wasn’t “unputdownable,” and I always felt at a slight distance from the characters and the plot.  Nevertheless, I recommend this book for those who like quiet, slow-paced, character-driven novels.

Review: An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

It’s 1948, and retired Japanese artist Masuji Ono is watching his country rebuild — physically, emotionally, and politically — after the damage wrought by the second World War.  He lost loved ones and his home was damaged, as were some of his regular haunts.  Now his life revolves around his two adult daughters Setsuko and Noriko, and his young grandson Ichiro.  Setsuko and Ichiro live far away, but Noriko lives with her father.  A marriage deal is in the works, but the sisters are nervous because a previous negotiation fell through.  Ono is oblivious to the risk, and even more importantly fails to grasp that his own pre-war activities could be damaging Noriko’s prospects.

Ono provides the narrative, and while there’s plenty of dialogue, a great deal is inside his head.  Details drip out like water from a leaky faucet.  He goes off on tangents, and sometimes references important events or conversations, but doesn’t fill in the details until later.  He often ends a long story by saying it may not have happened exactly as he remembered it.  Kazuo Ishiguro uses Noriko and Setsuko to fill in the blanks through conversations with their father.  And his portrayal of the Japanese father-daughter relationship is brilliant.  When Ono’s daughters challenge him, they do so in a very indirect way.  They make suggestions instead of overt requests, even when the matter is of the utmost importance.  As Noriko’s marriage negotiations begin, Setsuko is clearly worried about something from their past, and wants Ono to clear things up with certain associates:

“I wonder how Mr Kuroda is these days. I can remember how he used to come here, and you would talk together for hours in the reception room.”

“I’ve no idea about Kuroda these days.”

“Forgive me, but I wonder if it may not be wise if Father were to visit Mr Kuroda soon.”

“Visit him?”

“Mr. Kuroda.  And perhaps certain other such acquaintances from the past.”

“I’m not sure I follow what you’re saying, Setsuko.”

“Forgive me, I simply meant to suggest that Father may wish to speak to certain acquaintances from his past.  That is to say, before the Saitos’ detective does. After all, we do not wish any unnecessary misunderstandings to arise.”

“No, I suppose we don’t,” I said, returning to my paper.

I believe we did not discuss the matter further after that. Neither did Setsuko raise it again for the remainder of her stay last month.  (p. 85)

As Ono reminisces on his pre-war artistic career the reader comes to understand his daughters’ concerns.  But Ono is more savvy and self-aware than he lets on, and takes a personal risk at what he judges to be a critical point in the marriage negotiations.

This is one of Ishiguro’s early novels, and its style is much like The Remains of the Day, which is one of my all-time favorite books.  An Artist of the Floating World is nearly as great, and highly recommended.

Just Thoughts: Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto

I finished this book about a week ago, and I’m still flummoxed.  It’s short, only 152 pages, and is actually comprised of two stories:  ‘Kitchen’ and ‘Moonlight Shadow.’  I didn’t particularly care for it, but I am at a loss to explain why.  So I can’t really call this a review … just a few thoughts:

  • The blurb on the back cover calls Kitchen Yoshimoto’s “best-loved book … an enchantingly original and deeply affecting book about mothers, love, tragedy, and the power of the kitchen and home in the lives of a pair of free-spirited young women in contemporary Japan.”
  • Kitchen is translated from the Japanese.  The writing comes across as unsophisticated, almost juvenile.  I suppose it could be the result of poor translation.
  • Both stories deal with grief and loss.  While I could understand the grief characters felt after losing loved ones, the language felt flat and neutral.  And in ‘Kitchen,’ I knew the kitchen itself, and food, were supposed to be important but the prose didn’t convey the sensuality and power of food and cooking.

I’m taking part in an online conversation about this book and held off for a while hoping to get some new insights that would help me better appreciate this book.  It hasn’t happened, and I’m ready to move on.

Review: The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa

This story of a mathematics professor and his housekeeper is a quiet, thoughtful book about friendship and family ties.  The professor was severely injured in an automobile accident 20 years earlier, erasing much of his memory.  He can recall events before 1975 with precision, but in the short term, can only remember the last 80 minutes.  As his sister-in-law put it, “it’s as if he has a single, eighty-minute videotape inside his head, and when he records anything new, he has to record over the existing memories.”  This presents a number of challenges for his new housekeeper, not the least of which is that he cannot remember her from one day to the next.  To overcome this difficulty he pins notes to his suit, including a drawing of the housekeeper and her son, who he has nicknamed “Root” because his flat head reminds him of the square root symbol.

The novel begins on the housekeeper’s first day of work in his home.  The professor has gone through a series of housekeepers, so she expects a challenging client.  And he is, in a way: he’s a bit of a curmudgeon, set in his ways.  But he also introduces her to his world by teaching her about prime numbers, amicable numbers, and mathematical theorems.  The professor fills a void in the housekeeper’s life, and she in his.  The professor and Root discover a shared love of baseball, and he helps Root with his homework.  Although they don’t live together, they are very much a family.

The story of their relationship is simple, dealing with everyday life and events.   And yet there’s so much meaning in the fine details, and the mathematical and baseball metaphors.  A fine read.

This book was also reviewed in Belletrista, Issue 1

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