18 March 2012

Recent Reading

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal
This non-fiction book was recommended to me well over a year ago by a colleague. Sometimes despite all the books I have access to (or more likely because of that) it takes me a while to get round to reading books.
This is a book about a family and a collection of small Japanese figurines (netsuke). The author inherited a collection of nearly 300 netsuke from his great uncle and decided to trace their journey through his paternal grandmother's family. The Ephrussi family were Russian Jews who made their fortune trading in grain and became bankers. Different branches of the family settled in different parts of Europe. Parisian art collector Charles bought the netsuke at a time when Japan was in vogue. He sent them to Vienna as a wedding present for his cousin Viktor (the author's great grandfather).

I don't tend to write about non-fiction here very much, but most of the non-fiction I enjoy (as opposed to that which I find useful) has a narrative to it. This is probably why I like history so much, I think I am geared towards narrative.
Parts of this book were so sad. When you're reading about a Jewish family in Vienna you have an idea what's coming. You might not know specifics, but you know enough to see that as well as things are going later chapters are going to see a horrific change in fortune.
I really felt as though I learned from this book. I knew only a little of Monet and Proust and the Parisian society they lived in, but reading about it here filled in my knowledge. I didn't understand all the forms anti-Semitism could take, or how ingrained it was. I didn't know much about what Austria was like in either World War, my previous learning had always been about Germany, England or the Western Front. I knew very little about what Japan was like during the American occupation.
This book was not intended to teach facts. It set out to tell a story, to understand certain people in their time and place, which it does beautifully, but I learned from it all the same.

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