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311 of 321 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An artist 's relationship with ancient artefacts
Edmund de Waal is a renowned ceramic artist who's work has been exhibited in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He can trace his ancestry back to a wealthy Ukrainian family who made their fortune from grain exporting and later banking, and who had spacious and luxurious homes in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris. When Edmund inherited a collection of 264 tiny...
Published on 26 Nov 2010 by A Common Reader

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439 of 478 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A slight myopia
I really wanted to like this book and, as far as literary craftsmanship is concerned, I do. It is beautifully written. But I can't help feeling that there is something important missing. We read about the fabulous wealth (and it was really fabulous) of the Author's forebears (the Ephrussis) going back five generations. These were men - and a few women - who...
Published on 2 Feb 2011 by Amazon Customer


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311 of 321 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An artist 's relationship with ancient artefacts, 26 Nov 2010
By 
A Common Reader "Committed to reading" (Sussex, England) - See all my reviews
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Edmund de Waal is a renowned ceramic artist who's work has been exhibited in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He can trace his ancestry back to a wealthy Ukrainian family who made their fortune from grain exporting and later banking, and who had spacious and luxurious homes in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris. When Edmund inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese netsuke carvings from his Uncle Ignace, he felt prompted to investigate their place in the family history. The Hare With Amber Eyes is the result.

The book opens with De Waal studying in Tokyo in 1991 while on a two year scholarship, visiting his Uncle Iggie (Ignace) in his home in Tokyo, which he shares with Jiro, his partner of 41 years. Ignace has a wonderful collection of netsuke which has been in the family since the late 19th century. Three years later, Uncle Iggie dies, and Jiro writes and signs a document bequeathing the netsuke to Edmund once Jiro himself has gone.

When Edmund eventually owns the netsuke he finds himself greatly intrigued by the history of this remarkable collection, and realises that all he really knows are a few anecdotes, which become thinner in the telling. The only answer is to carry out a proper investigation into their story - and off he sets to visit the locations the netsuke have resided in and to investigate those who owned them before.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is a lovely book. I have read similar accounts of family history where too much is assumed, where scenes are guessed at, conversations created where none could possible be recalled, and personalities are elaborated until they are far too larger than life. Edmund de Waal seems to be a very careful writer. He has only written about what he knows and what he can prove from primary sources. This gives the book a far greater sense of authenticity than many others. In addition, as an artist himself and a creator of fine porcelain objects, he is well suited to trace the course through of these netsuke over the last 150 years - he is wholly equipped to understand the meaning of such things and is adept at communicating his love for them with his readers.

The book is nicely produced and is illustrated with in-text photographs of Edmund's family and the places they lived in. The only omission is pictures of the netsuke themselves. Fortunately a few images of his collection can easily be found online.
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519 of 537 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Remembrance of Times Past, 24 Jun 2010
By 
R. G. Saunders (Beckenham, UK) - See all my reviews
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This is a mesmerising many-layered book. The fascinating narrative of the fabulously wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family moves through the decades from commercial Odessa to the Paris of the Impressionists and artistic salons to the brutal destruction of the Anschluss of 1938 in Vienna and a familial diaspora over three continents. Parallel to this, we follow with the author his own emotive journey to reclaim the lives lived in the vanished rooms of his forbears. This he does sensitively and successfully, imagining his way there through archives, letters and contemporary fiction. He visits all the great houses and, in Odessa, tasting the dust of the demolished palace rooms, he rejoices in the survival of the Ephrussi family emblem on a last remaining banister.

Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.

The netsuke are the beginning and ending of the story. Their exquisite detail is emblematic of this beautifully crafted book and its touching story of the individuals through whose hands they passed. One or other of them seems, like a rosary, to accompany the writer in his travels: a constant reminder to keep faith with his past.
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73 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fabulous insight into European history through the story of one family, 13 July 2010
By 
Lesley Whyte (Scotland) - See all my reviews
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I have been recommending this book to all my friends since I read it. It provides a fascinating insight into fin de siecle Paris and early 20th century Vienna while exploring the lives of members of the Ephrussi family. The plight of the Jews and their treatment at the hands of the Nazis suddenly becomes personal, because you feel you know these people. You also get an insight into the factors that lead to their persecution.

It's mesmerising to learn of the provenance of some of the world's most famous art works, while the constant presence of the collection of netsuke is a leitmotif that binds everything together. This books crosses generations and continents. It is an easy read, but also a work of profound content. The author has managed to balance the emotions aroused learning about his forebearers with a detachment that analyses the factors that lead to their downfall. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art, 19th and 20th century history or just enjoys family sagas.
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439 of 478 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A slight myopia, 2 Feb 2011
I really wanted to like this book and, as far as literary craftsmanship is concerned, I do. It is beautifully written. But I can't help feeling that there is something important missing. We read about the fabulous wealth (and it was really fabulous) of the Author's forebears (the Ephrussis) going back five generations. These were men - and a few women - who commissioned works of Art from such as Renoir and Manet; who lived in huge palaces in the centre of Paris or Vienna; who owned huge estates in the Czech countryside and homes in many different cities; and who assembled their massive wealth, not through invention or production, but through banking and brokerage in foodstuffs. In living as the Author describes none of them, I am certain, meant any harm to anyone. They saw themselves, surely, as model employers, as philanthropists. They floated above normal Viennese (and Parisian) society; they were hardly affected by the First World War; the slump and depression of the early 1930s didn't affect their standard of living much; only the Nazis were able to bring down their world of privilege after the Austrian Anschluss of late 1937. And, unforgiveably, this happened because they were Jewish, as it happened to so many at the time. But the consequences for this particular very rich family were not as serious as for many of their fellow Jews, since they were able to buy their exits from Nazi Austria, albeit at the expense of almost their entire fortune, and with a huge amount of very stressful anxiety (which circumstance, the Author indicates, sadly killed his Great Grandmother). But those members of the Family who ended up in England for the duration of the Second World War lived in more comfort than many of the English, in a villa in Tunbridge Wells. Distant connections and some friends had their lives ended, tragically, in Nazi death camps, but these cultivated, educated, privileged people survived, although in very reduced circumstances.

The account of events immediately after Anschluss are very interesting. At first the local Austrian Brownshirts trashed the Ephrussi Palace in what seems, from the descriptions in the book, as much like undirected class resentment as political violence and sequestration. Only when the Germans arrived did the systematic theft of the family's treasures take place. The poor (or poorer) people of Vienna wrought a sort of violent anti-capitalist vengeance before the serious work of the German SS commenced. All this was and is deplorable, of course. But, rather like the Bankers in our present society, I wonder if the Author's forebears had any idea of the resentment that they had stoked up against themselves with their fabulous and unreal standard of living.

So I read this book with great interest and enjoyed it for the most part. But from fairly early on I had an unworthy feeling that "they had it coming". Not the anti-Jewish persecutions - which, it surely goes without saying, were utterly barbaric and inexcusable - but a reckoning with and by the poor and the dispossessed, even if their poverty and dispossession was only relative. (I sincerely hope that no-one reads this as any sort of apology for or justification of, the atrocities of the Nazis' vile regime; I have simply tried to be scrupulous in my explanation of the uneasiness I felt at the story told in this book.)

And I was left with an interesting question. Just how civilised are (were) the very rich? Of course, they have all the hallmarks of civilisation - appreciation of high Art and Culture, a code of behaviour which appears to be the epitome of politeness, often a great philanthropy, a facility with languages, a wide reading, cleanliness, reliability, and (that elusive quality) character. But - you have to accept - the very rich are very rich because they are able to make a profit from the labour and from the needs of their fellow men. At what point on the sliding scale does "a fair profit" become rank exploitation?

It is always fruitless to say "this would have been a better book if . . ." but a little more empathy from the Author for the poor and the dispossessed who formed the foundations of the society in which the Ephrussis flourished so remarkably would have been welcome.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Narrow sphere of interest but engagingly written, 12 Aug 2012
By 
David Bowen "exile dai" (Leeds, UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Paperback)
I rarely abandon a book. Having battled to about half way i started skimming then gave up. The narrative is engaging and the writing of high quality. However the subject is of limited interest to the general reader and it amazes me that this book has been so popular. In addition, although there is evidently a modicum of primary source material available to the author I found myself questioning many of the descriptive sections as probably pure speculation. How can he be sure that the Ephrussi children played with the netsuke in their mothers boudoir? In fact the majority of the personalisation sections describing family life read like an attempt to create a novel within a framework of historical facts. This just did not work for me. Not having any idea of the content other than the subject matter of the netsuke, i was very disappointed about the lack of history of the making of the netsuke themselves which is only paid lip service to early in the book. Perhaps one of my problems is that i have rad this book sandwiched between two of Lawrence Durrel's island trilogy. His prose and ability to capture the people and culture of his subject island are second to none, and alas for all of his qualities Edmund de Waal fails to reach anywhere near these heights in the half of his book that i managed. Sorry.
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56 of 61 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A beautiful read, 21 July 2010
A beautiful read. A loving and descriptive book travelling over continents and cultures. Written in a flowing and tender style following the lives of the elegant relatives and forebears that made up the authors ancestors. I found it held my interest down to the last pages filling in the russian connection in Odessa. The first book to make me cry in many years.
This book not only follows the development of the Ephrussi family over many years but includes the history of europe both politically and culturally (including art and music) from the years in Paris that saw the great flowering of impressionist painting. The title of the book describes the little figures of Japanese netsuki that symbolise the survival of this family. They survive being moved from Japan to paris then vienna and finally back to Japan. Their story is the story of the family too. This book is a work of immense research into the history of the authors family but also a work of great beauty and love.
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136 of 149 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious, Moi?, 9 Mar 2011
By 
Tamara L (North West England) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Paperback)
This is an extremely erudite book and cosily assumes a shared level of knowledge about art and European culture. If you know your Cassatt from your Pissarro this is probably right up your street but it left me feeling a bit of a numpty. It is littered with phrases from French and German that the reader is expected to nod their head at knowingly. The reviews are gushing, and largely deserved but I can't help but come over a little churlish.

Disappointingly, there are very few illustrations of the netsuke. You might assume by the title that they are the core of the book but they function largely as a device for de Waal to explore his illustrious family history which ranges across several continents. As a family memoir it works well but I felt a certain amount of unease, bordering on distaste, reading about the fabulous wealth and conspicuous consumption that the family - and de Waal -seemed to take in their stride. I am emphatically not signalling some kind of sub-text here. De Waal's dissection of the development (and language) of anti Semitism during this period is, for me, the most interesting - and disturbing -part of the book and his description of the family's art works and possessions being sequestered by the Nazis was horrifying and undeserved. Still, whilst reading the earlier sections I couldn't escape the reflection that my own ancestors, like many people, were barely surviving, illiterate and underfed in slums and cellars, while de Waal's were gaily cavorting with Proust, Renoir and most of the European Intelligentsia. The injustice of extreme wealth living side by side with severe poverty doesn't merit a mention. Class war anybody? Maybe a legacy of this inequality is my inadequacy when it comes making sense of this kind of passage about Charles Ephrussi and his secretary:

Laforgue wishes to be remembered to `our' room, signs off with `good wishes to the Monet -you know which'. His
summer with Charles was an encounter with impressionism, an encounter that would challenge him to find a new kind
of poetic language. He tries out a kind of prose-poem, calls it `Guitare', and dedicates it to Charles. But
surely these descriptions of Charles's study are prose-poems themselves: there are the mixtures of the exact
markings of colour `la tache colorée' - the yellow armchair, the red and blue jersey of Renoir's girl. The
letters, pell-mell with sensation, high on ideas, are close to Laforgue's description of impressionist style as
one in which spectator and spectacle are knitted together, `irrémédiablement mouvants, insaisissables et
insaisissants'. (p70)

I can't reproduce the italics here but they are scattered intrusively on virtually every page, sometimes it feels like every paragraph. Fortunately Google is a great leveller. I didn't even know a vitrine was a glass display cabinet. I thought it was some kind of toilet but figured out that wouldn't be the best place to store your valuables. You might find a map of Europe comes in handy too if you want to plot the location of the various palaces and country houses etc.

There is a layer (or patina as de Waal would say) of pretentiousness that becomes irritating and I found myself wincing every time he referred affectedly to his `vagabonding'. He protests his sincerity too much -or is perhaps forestalling criticism - with his agonising about how to tell the story, claiming that he doesn't want to reduce the lives of these people to some kind of twee anecdotes or sepia-tinged nostalgia. Better to have left out the navel-gazing and let the reader decide whether he had done them justice or not.

Aside from all that, the early part of the book is fairly heavy going. It started well though I was baffled by the handing over of the netsuke. One minute Jiro, his uncle Iggy's Japanese partner, is theatrically sealing a document saying that once he has gone then it will be de Waal's turn to look after the netsuke. Jiro doesn't seem to go anywhere but de Waal carries them off to London regardless and spends a lot of time fondling them in his trouser pocket. After that, the section about Charles Ephrussi in Fin-de-siècle Paris (oops, I mean end of century: his style is rubbing off on me!) is a bit drawn out, full of the kind of overblown passages quoted above.

It took quite a long time for the story to grip me and for me to warm to any of the characters. Eventually it fell into place, so it was worth persevering. It becomes more absorbing as it progresses and tension builds with the realisation of the horrors that are circling the family in Austria in the nineteen thirties. I found myself unable to avoid the temptation of flicking back to the Ephrussi family tree, anxious to establish if they would all get out in time. No such worries about the netsuke of course.

The story of the Ephrussi family encompasses a whole swathe of history, culture and geography but it's not an easy journey. Leave it on your coffee table if you want to impress people with your intellect and taste, but enjoy it as well. Despite my sniping I don't feel I can give it less than four stars. Three would suggest mediocrity and for all its shortcomings, that isn't one of them. I wish I could write half as fluently but it would have been better had he reined himself in a little.
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71 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars great book, but not enough pictures..., 20 Jun 2010
By 
S. Park (Seoul) - See all my reviews
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I can't remember when the Economist last urged readers to "buy two copies" of a book, before this came along. I would recommend the same. The book starts out as a personal quest, a family history, and seamlessly incorporates the social, cultural and political history of 19th-century Paris and 20th-century Vienna, plus some deep thoughts on art and objects, the act of owning and losing, leaving and remembering. Sometimes people who don't write for a living outwrite all the other professionals, and Mr de Waal is one of them. Luminous, condensed, thoughtful prose. Wonderful!

The cover wasn't very enticing but it is nicely bound - it looks and feels better than the jpg image. However, there are not enough pictures (photos) to accompany the text. If you were to name your book "The Hare With Amber Eyes", and keep talking about netsuke for hundreds of pages, wouldn't the readers be entitled to look at at least SOME of them??? It helped that there was a picture accompanying the review in the Economist, so I had an idea of what they looked like from the start, but here in the book itself (I expected to find many, if not all, of the 264 netsuke in color inserts) there is not a single photograph. The eponymous hare, plus some additional photos, are featured in the paper strip wrapping the bottom 1/3 of the book (no proper dust jacket) - tiny, tiny(the size of a thumbnail). Black-and-white photos, mainly of family, are interspersed throughout but the absence of the netsuke is so frustrating. Otherwise, a quite perfect book.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb book, 6 Dec 2012
By 
Sally Walker (Eastbourne, UK) - See all my reviews
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This is a superb book of many layers. It is immediately obvious why it won the Costa biography award. The writing is beautiful, intelligent and lyrical.

In essence it is Edmund De Waal's `Who Do You Think You Are?', unveiled around the centre point of two hundred and sixty four netsukes that have been in his family for a nearly one hundred and fifty years.

These netsuke have travelled widely from their place of origin in Japan to Paris, Vienna, Tunbridge Wells, Japan and now London. De Waal tells us about each stage of their journey and the life stories of each of his antecedents and some of their relatives who have been their custodians. The lives of the first of his forefathers abounded in untold wealth, all lost at the beginning of the WW2 and the persecution of the Jews in Austria.

This book is also a histiography telling us of events in Europe in the first and the second world war, and in Japan after its surrender to the Americans in WW2.

It is also a travelogue for Tokyo and Japan.

Interwoven through this biographical and historical study is an account of the netsuke themselves: the fads for them in the 19th and 20th centuries; what they were made from, what their original purpose was; and one of the netsuke artists and the lengths he would go to get his art just right.

I do hope that this is not the one and only book that the author will write because writing this good needs to be continued.

This falls into my must read category.
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31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars In Search of Time Lost Reading this Book, 15 Oct 2011
By 
Quicksilver (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Paperback)
I am genuinely surprised about how many people love this book. Whilst it does offer a lens on anti-Semitism across a century of European history, 'The Hare with Amber Eyes' also manages to be incredibly tedious.

I should probably offer up a few caveats of my opinions before offering my assessment of what is obviously a much-loved book. I am not a great reader of biography. I can probably count the number I have read on one finger. Despite having read many excellent reviews of this book in the press, I had decided it wasn't my thing at all. But then my book-group (which has a most democratic arrangement) decided to read it. Not being one to duck a book I don't like the look of, I gave it a try.

The novel traces the history of the author Edmund De Waal's family, though an inheritance - 264 carved Japanese netsukes. De Waal wants to trace their history and the meaning they had for their owners. I had assumed from this premise that the objects would be of great significance to their owners, but I don't feel that they ever were.

Originally from Odessa, the Ephrussi family were extremely wealthy bankers. The branch we follow first has relocated to Paris, where they are patrons of the arts. The netsukes were purchased as part of the fashion at the time for Japanese items, and I get the impression it was done without much thought; acquisition was the key. Most of the Paris section of the book is an exercise in name dropping. Ephrussi knew Renoir, Proust, and countless other luminaries of the time. - So what? It's vaguely interesting, but it takes more than a list of famous people to make a good book. The bulk of the first hundred pages, could be distilled as - 'Rich people buy stuff'; hardly a revelation.

De Waal's depiction of the Ephrussi family is lifeless, and perhaps this stems from it being a biography. In a novel, emotions and thoughts can be expressed easily, but I assume De Waal was working through source material that only detailed facts; what his ancestors did, rather than what they felt. The result is very dry.

Where the book is strongest is as a document of social history. The casual anti-Semitism of fin-de-siècle Paris, is something about which I was shamefully ignorant. The factions and politics around the Dreyfus affair was a subject that I was only dimly aware of, but the Ephrussis were at its heart. Interesting, yet the netsukes barely feature.

My impression that the netsukes were a mere bagatelle for the Ephrussi family was reinforced when they are casually given away as a wedding present (I don't think it was because they were much loved that they were passed on). This is how the story moves to Vienna. Here the netsukes become children's playthings, which at last shows some emotional attachment to them.

The Viennese section of the book is by far the strongest. The details of the family's desire to assimilate into Viennese society is interesting, as is the insight into the strong Jewish network in a city that was the cultural and intellectual hub of Europe. As the Second World War approaches the mood becomes stormier and the lives of the family more turbulent. The effect of the Anschluss on the family is devastating.

Interesting though this was, I still found the book lacking. The story of Holocaust is one that can't be told too many times. The plight of the family is of course, deeply affecting but not because of great writing on the author's part. This is a story that has been told many times before and so much better too. I wonder if people's love of this book is because of the emotive nature of its subject matter.

After the war the story trundles on, and to reveal much more would spoil what little surprise the book has. Despite having now been alive at the same time as the major players in his family's history, and having met and conversed with them, De Waal's ancestors still felt flat to me (With the exception of his remarkable Grandmother). There is one tantalising revelation that could have opened up the human side of his Uncle, but it is glossed over in a single sentence.

I seem to have had an adverse reaction to this book, and many will find my opinion unpalatable, but I found `THWAE' to be turgid and putdownable. The netsukes that supposedly form the backbone of this book, for me at least, failed to come alive. If I had to sum it up in single sentence (too late!), I would say it was `Cash in the Attic' meets `Who Do You Think You Are?'. A harsh appraisal, but I think an apt one. Mr De Waal's next book is apparently about pots - This one is about as interesting as watching glaze dry.
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The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal (Paperback - 27 Jan 2011)
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