Every once in a while, I run across a book that has such wide appeal that I can easily imagine giving copies to nearly everyone on my gift list. One such book—and my favorite work of non-fiction this year—is The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. The author, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, contemplates the history of his ancestors—a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family—from the latish 19th century through World War II. He uses as the linchpin for his discussion a collection of 246 netsukes, miniature ornamental carvings (including one of a hare with amber eyes), which were originally collected by the first Charles Ephrussi, and handed down from generation to generation. In the process, the collection moved from Japan to Paris to Vienna, back to Japan, and thence to the author, in London. The Ephrussis were a cultural force both in Vienna and Paris. You can see what was once their house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse even now. Charles was a patron of many artists and writers; he was also the model for Swann in Proust’s great novel, and he appears in Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party (he’s the man in the back, in profile, with a top hat and a reddish beard). I’m giving this book to friends and family who love history or biographies or art or visiting and/or reading about Paris or Vienna; to those who enjoy family sagas and, especially, to anyone who appreciates graceful, understated writing. And those who love books with family trees. Kudos to the publisher, FSG, for producing a book that’s both a pleasure to hold and behold.
Archive November 2010
by Bernard Cooper
In The Bill from My Father, Bernard Cooper takes a familiar trope—a complex and unreliable parent—and gives it a unique spin as he looks back on his stormy relationship with his father. Edward Cooper was a prominent Los Angeles divorce attorney, once seemingly invincible (at least to the author) but now sinking into dementia, whose constant philandering was hardly a secret from his sons (or presumably, his wife). Now, with his mother and all three of his older brothers dead, Cooper attempts to understand the complicated bond with this most difficult man, which means trying to come to grips with his father’s strong disapproval of both his choice of career as a writer (the elder Cooper wanted Bernard to become a lawyer, as all three of his brothers did) and his homosexuality. As you might imagine, the father/son relationship did not noticeably improve when his father sent him a bill for nearly 2 million dollars—the cost of raising him. This moving account is liberally leavened with humor and never morphs into the oh-poor-me school of autobiography.
Truth to tell, I have a real love/hate relationship with memoirs. Because I very much enjoy reading about people’s lives (an unappreciative therapist might term my predilection voyeurism), I gravitate toward the biography and memoir section of libraries and bookstores. But despite the fact that memoirs are, by definition, self-referential and are therefore—to one degree or another—filled with variations of me, me, me, I don’t really enjoy (and therefore tend not to read) what I call the “Children of Job,” sub-genre of memoir-writing. You know the type, and I don’t need to name any names. Rather, what I’m looking for are engaging characters, enlightening and/or entertaining stories, and good writing. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my favorites. Here’s the first:
If you, like me, could watch “Law and Order” reruns eight hours a day, or if you’ve ever been curious about the inner workings of police departments, you’ll want to rush right out and read Edward Conlon’s Blue Blood. After graduating from Harvard, Conlon came home and joined the New York City Police Department, walking a beat in some of the worse housing projects in the South Bronx. His wide-ranging book is partly a memoir of his experiences (he is now working as a detective for the NYPD); the effects— pro and con—of the Giuliani anti-crime years; the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases; 9/11; and the scandals and the triumphs, both large and small, that mark the history of the NYPD. Nicely written (some of it appeared in the New Yorker as “Cop Diary,” written under the pseudonym Marcus Laffey) and filled with interesting characters (both cops and perps— wait, make that suspected perps), this is both a pleasure (and an education) to read.
My nine-year-old friend Sydney and I get together once a month or so to discuss a book that we’ve both read, the writing life, and (sometimes) school. To me, Sydney in all her realness is the future of reading, writing, bookstores, and libraries; and it’s always a treat for me to hear her ideas, comments, and insights into the books we’ve chosen to read together.
She sent me a book review that she wrote for school of H. M. Bouwman’s The Remarkable and Very True Story of Lucy and Snowcap, the novel we just discussed last week (over lunch at a Thai restaurant). Sydney liked this book better than I did. I felt that in some ways it was two different novels, one about Snowcap and one about Lucy; and I wasn’t convinced the author combined them effectively. Sydney definitely saw my point. And we both agreed that there was too much foreshadowing. We wanted to discover what happened as we turned the pages: we didn’t want someone telling us what was coming. (That’s why I tend to ignore the jacket copy of anything I’m about to start reading.)
Here is Sydney’s book report. If I were her teacher (and not her friend), I would definitely grade this with an A. You will note that she gave the novel a very high rating (8 ¾ out of a possible 10). After we talked for a while, Sydney allowed as though this might be a tad too high a rating—I’m using my own words here, not hers.
Our next book? Betty Macdonald’s recently re-issued Plum and Nancy.
Now, over to Sydney:
Guest Blog by Sydney Armstrong
This book is about two girls who live on the Colay Islands. Snowcap is the English Child Governor of one big island,Tathenland, which the British have taken over. Lucy is from the native Colay tribe. They are much alike: they both love telling stories; they both love Lucy’s baby brother, Rob; and they both have a birthmark on their faces. They meet one day when Lucy takes Rob for a walk.
The evil Protector and his helper, Renard, are searching for Snowcap to murder her so he can become king of Tathenland; and the Colay are being blamed for it. Lucy also is told by the Gray Lady of the Mountain that because her brother will be the last baby boy to be born on their island, Sunset, she must take him to a desert shaman called Beno.
Philip, Snowcap’s tutor who dreams of becoming what he calls a Great Author, gets together with Adam, who takes care of the horses, and together they embark on their own ambitious journey to find Snowcap and punish her malicious Protector. The two girls wander back into Tathenland and steal or, as they call it, “borrow” Snowcap’s gentle, kind, horse, Peat. The friends travel on him to the desert, where they find Beno (who is the Gray Lady’s son) and learn healing and other very important lessons under his guidance.
Meanwhile, Philip and Adam struggle to survive in the vast and enormous wilderness. When Snowcap and Lucy come back, they meet up with Philip and Adam, who are more than relieved to see them, though they are not so sure about Lucy at first, since she is Colay. They all go back to Tathenland and turn Sir Markham, the Protector, and Renard in.
I like this book because as the story intertwines, you really start to care for the characters and see through their eyes. Sometimes I didn’t like it because at times it was very difficult to understand why something could happen. I learned that two people who you believe are quite different actually sometimes are very alike and form the best friendships of all. I am also discussing this book with some one else, which will be extremely interesting. It made me wonder that if somebody was trying to poison me, if I would be as brave as Snowcap and run away. I am not entirely sure about what I would rate it, but I think I would give it an eight and three quarters.