Chrissie's Reviews > The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
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Jul 05, 11

bookshelves: austria, art, bio, history, japan, kirkus, religion, soviet-union, france
Read from June 29 to July 04, 2011

NO SPOILERS!!!

ETA: I changed this to two stars. For most of this book I struggled to keep turning the pages. I think it is wrong to judge an entire book by the last 100 pages. Back to two stars, which reflects my feeling for the majority of the book.
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On completion: So how can I complain so much about a book and then give it 3 stars? (See ETA!) The answer is simple, this is how I felt when I finished the book. I have been discussing this book with Amy Henry. I have a link to her review in the comments below. If you are considering whether to read this book, I suggest you look at our dicussion under her review. She is the one that kept me reading the book when I was about to dump it. I am glad I didn't.

The ending is tremendous. Starting with part three and WW2, then when the reader follows the collection to Japan and finally the brief conclusion of the book, these last 100 odd pages are wonderful. Absolutely. After reading this book i really am not interested in just looking at a netsuke, but also in holding one or several. They are meant to be held. They are not fragile. WW2 and its impact on the family was dramatic and engaging. The character study of the individuals was well done in the latter part of the book. Life in Japan immediately after the war was fascinating. Learning about Iggy and Jiro and the trip to Odessa, all of this drew me in. I loved the thoughts on what we keep secret and what we reveal. I loved how the author made the collection accessible to his own children so the stories about each figure could commence once again.

Can a little more than the last 100 pages save a book? I am giving it three stars, because by the end I liked it a lot. I had planned on two stars, but have bumped it up to three. The book offered too much interesting information to only give one star. Although it was interesting, much of the book was not engaging, and that is why I was planning on two stars.

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Through page 207: Yes, the book has definitely improved. About halway through, when the collection was given to Victor and his wife, living in Vienna, that is when the collection of "objects" came to life. The children in the family came to play with them and invent stories about them. They stopped being things; they became part of the familily's life. Then WW1 came and history was drawn into this family's life. Yes, I like the book now, but it has taken too dam long to get to this point! I really didn't like Charles. For him the netsuke was merely a collection of valuable objects.

********************************

Through page 157: The book begins to offer what I am looking for when Charles gives the collection to his cousin Victor as a wedding gift. The collection moves to Vienna. Here, in Vienna, the reader gets to meet a family with women and children. You learn of the summers spent in Kövecses, Czechoslovakia. It is amusing because Patrick Leigh Fermor stays with them at the summer house. I have read enjoyed Fermor's book on his travels acroos Europe by foot. (See A Time of Gifts ).There is, as before, a lot of description, now about Vienna rather than Paris.The reader gets not just a description of the architecture of the buildings and the layout of the streets, but also the whole lifestyle and culture of these cities at the end of the 19th century. Of course, anti-Semitism is rife. The prose is filled with detailed historical facts. Be aware oif this when you pick up the book.

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Through page 90: I am having serious trouble with this book. Yesterday, I decided to dump it. Today I decided I will continue. Let me explain why. This book, so far, is like reading a dry art history book. The author has decided to investigate everything related to the netsuke collection which he has inherited. Everything. The collection was purchased in Paris by his great uncle Charles. In fact, he bought it in one go, not peice by piece. He wanted the "collection". I wanted to discover the personalities and traits of the people involved in the story. More than that, I want to discover what makes each of these characters tick. What I have learned about Charles is that he is an art critic, an art collector and he knew all the right people, although his Jewish heritage is beginning to cause troble. He was great friends with many of Impressionism's artists - Renoir, Sisley, Pissaro, Monet, Degas and Manet... Yes, and others. However the reader is told who painted what and who had an exhibition in the Salon and that the back of Charle's head is to be found in that painting..... The author practically attempts to find every painting in the room where Charles kept the netsuke collection. He states where the given painting is now located. He brings one netsuke, the hare with amber eyes, with him on all these searchings to reunite it with the things that had all been together in Charles showroom. I found these chapters extremely dry.

On one occasion I felt the author delivered what I was looking for. Charles bought Manet's painting of a bundle of asparagus on a table. You will recognize the painting when it is shown in the book. What is amusing and interesting, because it states something about the personality of Manet, is when Manet comes to Charles with another painting. This painting he gives to Charles. It is one asparagus stalk, and his comment is this one fell out on the way. It was dropped. I am not quoting, That is the gist. This is fun. This says something about Manet, who he was as a person. This is the kind of information I am looking for. Such information is presented, but not often enough.

So then I went and read the review of a GR freind who has read this book. She says the book will tell me about the personalities of the people involved. She says the book is not about a collection of objects but about the people tied to this collection. This is why I chose to read the book. I have read about 1/3 of the book. I think this should have been made evident by now, but I am willing to give it another chance. I do not doubt my friend's views. Maybe she simply reacts differently than I do. Maybe I simply have not read enough. We all are different; obviously, given all the rave reviews of this book, others feel differently. Some people like dry history books. Some people don't mind if it takes many pages to really get into a book, to discover what it is about. I hope by continuing I will come to like this book.

I forgot to mention that Proust most likely based his character Charles Swann on ....guess who? That is right - Charles Ephrussi!

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Through 51 pages: At the top of this box it says: "What do I think?" Well, I am curious to now more about Japanese art. I love how the Japanese people value the beauty of every day articles. They make everything one uses, from toothpicks to wrapped presents to grillwork at the base of a tree worth looking at, looking at carefully because it is so beautiful. Then I am also interested in this wealthy Jewish family. It starts with Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), born in Odessa. This family is on a par with the famed Rothschild family. They lived in Odessa, Paris, Vienna, Japan.... Right off the bat, I am a bit disgusted with the dilettante life of Charles. It is he who began the collection. It is all a bit too poshy for me, but the author, the great nephew of Charles, also questions the extravagant lifestyle. I will have to see how I react to the family members, but I am interested in the places, the history and beauty of the netsuke themselves. Art is something that should be felt - holding a perfect bowl, rolling the netsuke figure in your hand. The netsuke were used in Japan as toggles to fasten a bag onto the sash of clothing. These were begun in the Edo era. They were teeny statues to be used daily, to have near your body, to be felt, touched and pulled, and they had to be beautiful. It is good that I am reading this as a paperback because you must continually look at the family tree at the front of the book. There are photos interspersed throughout. I suggest you look at Wikipedia to see how beautiful these netsukes are! What daily utensil in Japan isn't beautiful, or well designed? And I think the story will be become suspenseful when the collection must be hidden during WW2. A maid plays a large role, but I do not know more than that. I have just begun. I just hope I do not feel antipathy for the family members. I hope I don't get annoyed by the teeny font in the book.....

And I am now adding an excerpt to show you how this author writes and what I mean about the poshy lifestyle:

Before the netsuke comes a collection of thirty-three black-and-gold lacquer boxes. It was a collection to place with Charle's other collections in his apartment at the Hôtel Ephrussi, something to sit next to his burgundy Renaissance hangings and his pale Donatello sculpture in marble. Charles and Louise put his collection together from Sichel's chaotic house of treasures. It was a stellar group of seventeenth-century lacquers, as good as any in Europe: to choose them they must have been regular visitors to Sichel's. And very pleasing for me as a potter, alongside these lacquers,Charles also had a sixteenth-century stoneware covered jar from Bizen, the Japanese pottery village in which I studied when I was seventeen, excited to finally get my passionate hands on those simple tactile tea-bowls.

In "Les Lacques Japonaise au Trocadero", a long essay published in the "Gazette" in 1878, Charles describes the five or six vitrines full of lacquer on exhibition at the Trocadéro in Paris. This is his fullest writing about Japanese art. As elsewhere, he is in turn academic (he is exercised about dating) , descriptive and ultimately lyrical about what he sees in front of him.
(page 51)

For my tastes, Charlie is annoyingly uppity, covetous and an art critic to boot! I personally have a hard time reading critical essays on art. Art should emotionally move the observer. I do not want to be told what to think. The author, who inherited the collection, is a potter. He too know that art is felt, seen and even heard individually, one person at a time. In a garden you see and smell and hear the "garden". All of one's senses create a picture. However, the author has set out to discover the path the netsuke collection has taken. Here is where we must begin.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 56) (56 new)


message 1: by Barbara (new) - added it

Barbara Well written review, Chrissie! I agree with you about art critics trying to tell us what to think, but isn't this what all critics do?

My brother lived in Japan for several years. He has exceptional tastes and amassed a large collection of netsukes. He's probabaly had them for over 50 years. They are remarkable in their exquisite detail.


Chrissie Barbara, please read Amu's review. I thought I would get to know the characters. To understand what moved them. I reread her review and have decided to continue. I have left a comment there too. Some art historians bring the characters alive, most don't. I want to know what moved the artists, not that they painted this and that in year XXXX. I want to know why they painted as they did. I want to know what in their lives pushed them to be who they were. So far this book has let me down. I have read 100 pages, approximately 1/3. I will stick it out further on the basis of what Amy has said.


message 3: by Barbara (new) - added it

Barbara Chrissie, who is Amy? She is not my GR Friend, so I cannot read her review.


Chrissie Barbara, http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/... is the link to Amy's review.

Halfway thorugh the book, finally the book came alive for me. the netsuke became a part of the lives of the Ephrussi family. As I staated in my review it was given by Charles as a gift when his cousin Victor married Emmy. In this new family the collection changed from being objects of a collection to being toys the children were allowed to touch and play with. They became the sourse of imagined stories. Finally they stopped being just "objects. With the coming of the war hisotry is drawn into the lives of the famiy. Finally, I am satisfied.

I must ask you. How do you distinguish between a very small detailed Japanese statue of ivory and a netsuke? Are they one and the sme? The statue I am thinking of is only 7 cm high and is of a very old man sitting atop a horse. Is it a small Japanese statue or is it a netsuke?


message 5: by Barbara (last edited Jul 03, 2011 04:40PM) (new) - added it

Barbara I think the difference between a statue and a netsuke is that the latter has holes in it to attach to the clothing. Also they are smaller. Anyone who has better information is certainly welcome to correct me!


message 6: by Barbara (last edited Jul 03, 2011 04:49PM) (new) - added it

Barbara Chrissie, I just read Amy's review. It is quite well written and informative. She also notes that netsukes are tiny. You and I have often noted how differently people are effected by certain books. It seems that she found this one more exciting than you. I'll just have to read it some time and decide for myself.


Chrissie Exactly, do you see why I have pushed my self to continue. As I point out in my latest updat, the book clearly impoves in the second half!


Lynne Now I can't decide!


Chrissie Lynne, let me finish it and make a final appraisal. Reading it is not a waste of time, but even Amy agrees with my criticisms. See the discussion under her review. I think it is important to point out both negative and positive aspects of a book.


message 10: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail I never finished this book and only lasted thirty pages. De Waal describes himself as a potter who "writes" which is quite laughable. That's the problem and why I could not get through the text. It's very dry and stilted. De Waal comes off as an insufferable elitist.


Chrissie Gail, I really had a hard time with the beginning. The begiining details on art and inventory of Charles' possessions were not to my liking, but when the collection is transferred to Emmy and it becomes part of family life the writing does slowly begin to improve. By the time WW2 occurrs and then when the collection goes to Japan there was a lot of interesting bits. This book warms up at the end.

Nevertheless, it is inexcusable that the majoirty of the book is horribly dry. I, as a reader, was not engaged. I didn't give a hoot about the people. I encountered humor twice in the entire book. The first being what Manet said on presentation of the second painting.

Another thing bothered me, which I forgot to mention in my review. When De Waal writes about the collection staying with Anna, the maid, he stresses how very much indebt their family was to her. Then later when he lists all the differnt people by whom the collection is cared for, he skips over Anna. This annoyed me to pieces. In some unconscious way he regards his own family as being so worthy, so special, sublime. OK, maybe I am overdoing this, but this is what went through by head. Jeeze, he forgot Anna!

I hate it when books are labelled as being simply wonderful, and then nobody has the guts to criticize them. I have tried in my review and the following discussion to clearly explain my annoyance. I also explained what I did like. I gave the specifics. If a review is going to be helpful, it has to be very specific. I believe I made it very clear in my review that although I did enjoy the last 100 pages, to get that far was a huge struggle.

It is nice to know you agree.


message 12: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Gail, I really had a hard time with the beginning. The begiining details on art and inventory of Charles' possessions were not to my liking, but when the collection is transferred to Emmy and it be..."

Chrissie wrote: "Gail, I really had a hard time with the beginning. The begiining details on art and inventory of Charles' possessions were not to my liking, but when the collection is transferred to Emmy and it be..."



Chrissie, I thought that I was the only one who didn't like this book. It bothers me, also, when reviewers rave about a book and then, it's just awful. I sometimes wonder if they even read it!
My mother took the book out of the library because a friend of hers had recommended it and I never heard anything further. She probably didn't like the book, either.
By the way, I have a blog called "Reject Reads" and this book is on it.
Gail


message 13: by Chrissie (last edited Jul 05, 2011 09:08AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Chrissie Gail, it is very important to know what NOT to read! I always think I am the weird one, but quite clearly people quite simply life different books. Sometimes I see what others are reading...... and I think OMG! I am not saying one is right and the other wrong, but we are different. I like the idea of your blog, but I am stuck on GR. I spend too much time here already. I have to read too. If you want some ideas of books not to read, I have a shelf "disliked" where I put all my one star books. I have quite a few popular books there.

Nice, I always get a kick out of it when I am talking to somone who is also online the same time as me.


message 14: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Gail, it is very important to know what NOT to read! I always think I am the weird one, but quite clearly people quite simply life different books. Sometimes I see what others are reading...... a..."

Chrissie, I definitely agree with your first statement. I actually have three book blogs: www.book-a-holics.blogspot.com, www.rejectreads.blogspot.com and www.mediocremush.blogspot.com. Check them out and let me know what you think. If you're interested and want to receive my reviews, I can add you to my distribution lists.
I phoned my mother today to ask her what she thought of The Hare with Amber Eyes and she didn't like it, either. She got about as far as I did and couldn't understand why her friend raved about it. "Different strokes for different folks."


Chrissie Gail, I stick with GR. Thank you anyway.


message 16: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Gail, I stick with GR. Thank you anyway."

Chrissie, No problem.


Chrissie Gail, on afterthought I put the book rating down to two stars. Jeeze, through most of the pages I was struggling.

Gail, another thing....I rarely do blogs b/c it is so popular to make them "pretty" using all sorts of font and background colors. Yes,they end up pretty but very difficult to read for many who have eye problems. This is NOT a critique of your site, just a general statement.


message 18: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Gail, on afterthought I put the book rating down to two stars. Jeeze, through most of the pages I was struggling.

Gail, another thing....I rarely do blogs b/c it is so popular to make them "prett..."


Chrissie, I realize that I never rated this book and will do so with one star.

My blogs are not pretty; they're just standard, plain formats with no advertising and no junk.


Chrissie Gail, some people are annoyed when a person that doesn't finish a book gives it a rating. I happen to agree with you. If you read a good portion of a book, have given it a fair chance, and still absolutely hate it the time spent reading that book, why not rate it. The beginning of a book is just as important as the middle and the end.


message 20: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Gail, some people are annoyed when a person that doesn't finish a book gives it a rating. I happen to agree with you. If you read a good portion of a book, have given it a fair chance, and still ab..."

Chrissie, that is why I have my "Reject Reads" blog because I never finished any of the books. Thirty pages almost always seems to be my cutting off point of whether I want to continue reading or not. By that time, you know what the book is about, the style of the writing and you can determine whether it's good or not and alert people to stay very far away from it.


Chrissie Book I have already bought I give a good chance.... I have no general rule.


message 22: by Gail (last edited Jul 07, 2011 09:23AM) (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Book I have already bought I give a good chance.... I have no general rule."

I haven't bought any books in quite some time. I get all of my books from libraries.


Chrissie You are very lucky.


message 24: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "You are very lucky."

I take it that you don't live near any libraries.


Chrissie No, Belgium has two languages. Dutch and French. You have few English books available in either of these libraries. Now I only buy Kindle books due to bad vision.


message 26: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "No, Belgium has two languages. Dutch and French. You have few English books available in either of these libraries. Now I only buy Kindle books due to bad vision."

You are from Belgium? If so, where? I was in Brussels back in 1979. Parlez-vous francais?
Je faisais mes etudes a Montpellier, France en 1979-80.


message 27: by Chrissie (last edited Jul 07, 2011 11:44AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Chrissie I am born in the US, lived most of my life in Sweden, but now live in Brussels. I can read and talk French but I get embarrassed when I make mistakes.

J'adore la Bretagne! Nous sommes là souvent. Je n'ai jamais visité Montpellier. :0(


message 28: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "I am born in the US, lived most of my life in Sweden, but now live in Brussels. I can read and talk French but I get embarrassed when I make mistakes.

J'adore la Bretagne! Nous sommes là souvent..."


Montpellier etait magnifique. Je l'adoree. Qu'est ce que tu as fait en Suede et qu'est ce que tu fais maintenant en Belgique?


Chrissie Mon mari est suédois, mes enfants aussi. Mon mari travaille ici en Belgique. It is easier for me to write in English.......


message 30: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Mon mari est suédois, mes enfants aussi. Mon mari travaille ici en Belgique. It is easier for me to write in English......."

Pas de probleme. Est-ce que tu parles suedoises?
Do you want to exchange regular e-mail addresses?


Chrissie Yes, i am fluent in Swedish, but I you hear that my accent is not correct. I am not linguistically talented....but I do manage fine in all three languages. i have spend most of my life in Sweden. i no longer know where I belong. Nowhere really. I am a mix....... I left the US when I was 18.

Gail, I do not know you. Send me a PM here at GR if you like.


message 32: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Yes, i am fluent in Swedish, but I you hear that my accent is not correct. I am not linguistically talented....but I do manage fine in all three languages. i have spend most of my life in Sweden...."

I love languages. Besides, French, I also speak German and Spanish plus I know some Mandarin, Farsi, and Hebrew.

I see that you have many shelves on GR. I'll have to check into them and see what you have enjoyed reading. I am only interested in non-fiction.


Chrissie Gail, I answered your comment the same day you responded to me...... I have not ignored you!! It was GR. Are you having trouble. Several days now when I write something it doesn't stick.

Wow, I am impressed by your knowledge of languages. How do you do it? I am much more a person who sees things than hears things. This makes it hard to learn languages. I studied French so much it got to the point where I was scared to open my mouth b/c I knew so many rules. so I quit classes to get myself to reaax and to dare to open my mouth. And know I am forgetting stuff. I have a sieve for a head.


message 34: by Gail (new) - added it

Gail Chrissie wrote: "Gail, I answered your comment the same day you responded to me...... I have not ignored you!! It was GR. Are you having trouble. Several days now when I write something it doesn't stick.

Wow, I a..."


But you speak Swedish and I'm sure that's a hard language to learn. I started speaking Spanish when I was in sixth grade. I had three girlfriends and we started our own Spanish club with homework and lessons amongst ourselves. It was fun and by the time I was in seventh grade and I had to pick a language, well, naturally, it was Spanish and I was way ahead of everyone else. I thought that I would major in it in college but then I picked up German and French at the same time and loved them all. I find languages interesting and am fastidious about the correct pronunuciation. I even learned a littl of Hindi so that whenever I went to an Indian restaurant, I could speak Hindi to the waiters.


message 35: by Chrissie (last edited Jul 09, 2011 09:51PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Chrissie Gail, I am terribly impressed. You clearly have a knack for languages.

I type and onmy a few words appear. It seems like my computer os busy doing something else.

I feel like kicking it.

Swedish is much easier than French.

ETA: Pope Joan is anoither popular book you can add to your list of terrible books.......


message 36: by Celia (new) - added it

Celia Lynch Good grief. I think the reviews are probably better than the book.
I have been struggling I must admit but the promise of the last 100 pages will get me there. Slowly I will admit. I found the first pages hard going.
Unfortunately I have now become fascinated by netsuke and have begun my small collection. 3 so far & counting. ..


Chrissie Celia, I know the beginning of this book totally sucks! However netsuke and other Japanese forms of art are beautiful. I think people reading this book are searching to learn more about Japanese art forms, but the book is lacking and promises what it does not deliver. Except maybe at the very end.

You are very lucky to nave netsukke. I have this teeny statue that is so delicate, finely carved and painted that I cannot understand how it was ever made. It is NOT a netsuke b/c it stands and is not meant as a toggle. Have you seen the intricate silk paintings/embroideries made in Suchow? Some even have different pictures on the two sides. But think of the women making these..... I shuidder. What does this do to their eyes.

Don't get me going on Japanese art. Their gardens are another form of art, and the cloth and.....even how they wrap presents is a form of art.

It makes me happy that my review worked for you. Thank you for telling me.


Katherine Govier got sidetracked am still reading Waiting for Columbus by Thomas Trofimik


Chrissie Katherine, maybe getting sidetracked is a good thing! I haven't read Waiting for Columbus. So what do you think of that?


Katherine Govier Oh it's lots of fun! Laugh out loud in places. I'm reading it slowly, a bit each night in bed... and that works. There's no particularly urgency to the story but just very rewarding all along the way.


Chrissie Hmmm.


message 42: by Jan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jan I am on page 117 and struggling.... after reading your review - I will plug along just to get to the last 100 pages.


Chrissie I always get nervous when people follow my advice. This IS how the book worked for me. I liked the end, much, much mire than the terrible beginning.


message 44: by Jan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jan It has only taken about 200+ pages - but it is finally starting to grab my interest and I finally feel like it is going somewhere!!!


Chrissie Yes, the first is the worst, and the further you get the better it is. I am glad we agree.


message 46: by Jan (new) - rated it 3 stars

Jan Oh my.....I am on page 293 and just want to keep reading. Can't believe that something that started out so rough has become something this smooth. This is definitely a book that must be finished, though it is one that is difficult to start!!


Chrissie This is why I have a hard time quitting books, particularly if I have bought them. Sometimes they turn around. For me it was the end that was the best, but I am very stingy with my stars. I faintly remember that the book began to improve then slowed a bit and then got super. I hope you continue to be pleased.


Chrissie Gaeta, the setting switches from country to country. It is a Viennese family so I would put it in Austria.


Chrissie IF I remember correctly 50% is not in Austria. You cannot put 50% in any one country. I do not have the book here to count the pages.

Yes, I had lots of trouble with this book. Absolutely hated the beginning, then it got a bit better, then worse again..... but the end was super good. I do NOT recommend the book, but maybe I am too picky. I do not think one should value a whole book by about 100 pages. When you finish the book, one maybe tends to weigh the end more strongly since it is clearer in your mind, you disregard how you suffered before! I do not think this is fair. The whole book should be judged. This book was OK. Nothing more.


Chrissie You are welcome.


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