Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

Several friends recommended The Hare with the Amber Eyes to me, given my interest in both Japanese art and Jewish history. This nonfiction paperback from 2010 reads like a mystery. When artist Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 Japanese carvings, he decided to trace these netsuke through five generations of his family's tumultuous history.

The Ephrussis were once influential bankers and art patrons, like the Rothchilds, but after two world wars, little remained of their vast collections beyond the netsuke. De Waal travelled from his home in England to Paris, to Vienna, to Japan and to Odessa, collecting photos and documents, and interviewing survivors. Like a detective, he pieced together the clues to learn about his collection, the collectors, and how the Nazis nearly obliterated his Jewish family. Old photos illustrate his narrative, taking us back in history. His book was well written and very original.

While reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes, I had the opportunity to visit the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, which has netsuke on display. The tiny figurines were designed as toggles for purses hanging off traditional Japanese garments since kimonos didn't have pockets. Carved of wood or ivory, the netsuke are small enough to hold in hand but are exquisitely detailed. Their often grotesque humor reminded me of gargoyles. The netsuke were invented in the 17th century and were popular until 1868, when Japan was opened to the West. I loved the story of how the Ephrussi collection returned to Japan, and how these small artifacts survived so much history. I wish the museum would let visitors hold their netsuke in hand.

While in California visiting my son at UC Berkeley, I took the train 15 hours south to meet Barrie Summy in San Diego. Although we've been crit partners for years, this was our first time meeting in real life. We talked enough for all that missed time. It was so much fun! I'm so grateful to Barrie for hosting this wonderful book review club for more than a decade and for connecting all of us through our shared passion for books and blogging. Thanks, Barrie!

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