Christmas Eve shoppers looking for that perfect last-minute gift to put under the tree might consider The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. It’s been a rampaging success in Europe, and several authors among 65 claim it as their best book of the year in The Times Literary Supplement.
Another favorite among the esteemed TLS 65 is Seamus Heaney’s recent book of poetry, Human Chain. That also would make a nice holiday gift for the poetry lover in the family, but I emphasize de Waal’s family history because, for me, it’s the book that wins the 2010 year-end stalking award. I bestow it on a new book I took note of earlier in the year that hasn’t and won’t allow me to ignore it. There’s always one as the year comes to a close. In 2009, the award went to Tears in the Darkness by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman, an outstanding history and soldier profile about the 1942 battle between Americans and Japanese for the Philippine peninsula of Bataan.
The Hare with Amber Eyes also has a Japanese theme. The story follows a collection of 264 ornamental Japanese carvings known as netsuke through the hands of the author’s relatives. Those relatives were the fabulously wealthy Ephrussi family, once as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, powerful Jewish grain traders and bankers during the 19th century and up until the Nazis destroyed their empire in the 20th century. The netsuke collection survived the family’s demise and the Nazi’s confiscation of their art collections, thanks to a family servant. It now resides with the author.
Edmund de Waal is a successful potter in Britain whose work with porcelain is widely exhibited and resides in many museum collections. He is the fifth generation of the Ephrussi clan to inherit the netsuke collection. The Washington Post’s review places de Waal’s family history beside Nabokov’s Speak, Memory, both “depictions of how even the lofty, beautiful and fabulously wealthy can crack and shatter as easily as Fabergé glass or Meissen porcelain — or, sometimes, be as tough and enduring as netsuke, those little Japanese figurines carved out of ivory or boxwood.”