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A patient, long before he becomes the subject of medical scrutiny, is, at first, simply a storyteller, a narrator of suffering – a traveler who has visited the kingdom of the ill.

Microhistories are probably my favorite sub-genre of non-fiction (after biographies), and of all the ones I’ve read so far, none was as epic and all-encompassing as The Emperor of All Maladies. I’m now convinced the history of cancer reflects (and sometimes even leads) global movements. I’m still in awe of the task that Dr. Mukherjee set out to accomplish and of the amazing result.

This book’s philosophy is that the history of cancer is not only a story of scientific activity, but also of the doctors, researchers and lobbyists that fought it, and, most especially, that of the patients:

Resilience, inventiveness, and survivorship – qualities often ascribed to great physicians – are reflected qualities, emanating first from those who struggle with illness and only then mirrored by those who treat them. If the history of medicine is told through the stories of doctors, it is because their contributions stand in place of the more substantive heroism of their patients.

Together with the stories of individuals struggling with cancer, Dr. Mukherjee tackles an impressive number of topics, from cell theory to the cultural movements of millions of people, from scientific achievements to political will, and he’s able to summarize this in close to 600 pages (or 21 audio hours) of clear and compelling story-telling.

Even the parts I found less interesting – genetics, methodology of medical trials – were still surprisingly accessible, and the most interesting ones like the fight with Big Tobacco, the story of palliative care and the rise of patient’s right, were downright gripping.

About 90% of The Emperor of All Maladies focuses of the USA, but on the other hand, most of the book is set in the 20th century, a time when the US led cancer research. Still, I missed a bit of a geographical range. which is my only little quibble with an otherwise fantastic book.

At the beginning of the book we’re told the story of Atossa, a Persion Queen born in 550 BC, who was the first registered case of breast cancer. At the end of the book Dr. Mukherjee imagines Atossa being diagnosed and receiving treatment over the centuries: in the Middle Ages her problem would become a blackbile unbalance (or trapped melancholia), to be cure with goat dung or holy water; the radical mastectomy favored in the 19th century would probably have cost her not only her breasts, but also muscles, lymph nodes and bones in her chest cavity; the 20st century’s passion for aggressive drugs, radiation and chemotherapy might have almost killed her without any results; and 90s/2000s’ doctors would be able to identify the mutation in her genes and better adjust her treatment to her cancer type.

This imaginary birds-eye view of Atossa’s life was my favorite scene because it illustrates perfectly the way Dr. Mukherjee associated cancer’s history to our history as humans.

Today, Atossa would live decades longer than she would have in the past, but, if instead of breast cancer she’d had metastatic pancreatic cancer, her prognosis wouldn’t change more than a few months over the last 2,500 years.

I appreciated the book’s balanced tone that avoided the cheerful optimist about developments and cures that always sound too cheerful, too optimistic, when compared to reality. We still have a long way to go. There’s hope, there’s life extension, but still no universal cure.

A little aside to say that as A Reader I loved all the literary metaphors and references used throughout the book: Alice in Wonderland, Calvino’s Invisible Cities,  Anna Karenina (“Normal cells are identically normal; malignant cells become unhappily malignant in unique ways.“), Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward, etc. I was also strangely excited by getting his reference to HeLa cells, which I got to know through the wonderful The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

About the narration: Stephen Hoye was the only narrator in the Audies History category that was nominated for two books: this one and In the Garden of Beasts. This distinction is well justified. The Emperor is full of  technical explanations and complicated drug names that are accessible in part because of  Hoye.

There’s a cadence to his reading that’s very particular to him. I usually get a bit annoyed by this in other narrators, but surprisingly not with Hoye. I also appreciated how you could really notice the emotion in his voice during the last “pages” of the book, when he’s describing the brave, fearless but ultimately vain struggle of a cancer patient.


Other thoughts: Avid Reader’s MusingsThe Book Lady’s Blog, S. Krishna’s Books, Book Addiction, My Books. My Life., let’s eat grandpa, Life… with books, Devourer of Books, Bibliophile by the Sea, Scuffed slippers and wormy books, Maple Gazed Kiwi (yours?)

Just like the recent 1812: The Navy’s War, this is another book from my Armchair Audies History category, another book about 19th century US, and another book clearly written by an American for an American audience (e.g. sentences like “the people of this country” and sorry Mr. Goodheard, but, President Garfield who?!).

Fortunately for me, this was where the similarities ended. I was afraid it would also focus too much on military and political strategy, but my mind was soon put to rest when Goodheart explains in the Prologue that

 … to get the full story of that moment in American History, it is necessary to go much further afield, to the slums of Manhattan, and the drawing-rooms of Boston, to Ohio villages and Virginia slave camps and even to the shores of the Pacific.

It is also necessary to consider people and ideas that were migrating from the old world to the new. It is only then that this defining national event can truly be understood as a Revolution, and one whose heroes were not only the soldiers and politicians. That Revolution began years before the guns opened, as a gradual change in the hearts and minds of men and women, until suddenly, months before the attack on Sumter.

(…) One person at a time, millions of Americans decided in 1861 – as their grandparents had in 1776 – that it was worth risking everything, their lives and fortunes, on their country. Eighteen sixty-one, like 1776, was – and still is – not just a year, but an idea.

Sorry for the long quote, but I thought it was a great one, and one that can apply to all major events. A non-fiction author that feels like this is half-way towards writing a book I’d really enjoy reading. 1861 might be another of the thousands of books about the American Civil War, but it offers a fresh perspective by staying away from legislative bills and instead following the cultural movements of the day and people who inspired them.

The most surprising part for me was understanding the national feelings towards slavery of the time. I realized that even though the North despised slavery they weren’t abolitionists, who were considered dangerous radicals hell-bent on dividing the country. In these early days, Lincoln himself was willing to sacrifice abolition to preserve the Union (*gasp*).

From here Goodheart describes how the North came to a position where it was willing to accept  (and even welcome) war as the only solution against secession. Lincoln of course couldn’t be excluded from the story, but Goodheart also focuses on almost-forgot figures, like the dashing Elmer Ellsworth (photo), founder of the New York Fire Zouaves regiment, who inspired unprecedented patriotic passion. He also describes how states who were divided between Secession and Union came to a final decision. Ohio in particular went through a fascinating process.

There were only a couple of things that didn’t make me give it a 5/5, the most important of which is that the story is told from the Northerners’ perspective and I often wondered about what was going through the minds of their Southern counterparts. Also, Goodheart is prone to unapologetic flights of poetic patriotism that are a bit uncomfortable for someone from a much more self-effacing culture like mine (1861 is the story of Americans who rose up to the situation “not just with anger and panic but with hope and determination, people who, amid the ruins of the country they had grown up in, saw an opportunity to change history.”).

About Jonathan Davis’ narration. As I’ve mentioned above, it’s a very passionate book and Goodheart even includes the odd piece of poetry. It’s also full of inflamed speeches and proclamations, so it wouldn’t do to have a flat narration or one that goes the other way and becomes theatrical. I though Davis found the perfect balance.

The only thing I have to point out is that sometimes it was hard to differentiate between normal text and quotes – often there was just the slightest hint of change in tone or subtle accent. Probably this doesn’t apply to Davis, but don’t you sometimes have the feeling that narrators are ashamed of using a strong accent (or maybe insecure about it?)?


Other thoughts: Vulpes Libris, Book People’s Blog, Viral History, Read All Day (yours?)

We’re in a non-fiction mood here chez Sleepless Reader, also helped by the Armchair Audies, which are almost at an end. I’ll post and overview and my predictions for the History category early next week.

I’m usual curious about anything historical, but I’m afraid I didn’t finish 1812: The Navy’s War. I’ve probably only reached as far as I did (about five of the almost 19 hours) because of Marc Vietor’s narration.

The book was clearly well researched by a naval historian in love with his field of expertise, and I’m sure anything of importance about America’s first great naval war was there, but my attention wandered off once too many times. There were almost none of the personal histories that I so love in historical non-fiction, Daughan focusing instead on political and military macro-strategies.

It also included extremely detailed descriptions of ship-to-ship combat, which lost me after the first couple of starboard broadside descriptions and lists of the sails which were up during a particular battle.

These are the kind of details I really try to understand in the Aubrey/Maturin series – I look at maps and boat diagrams, Google strange naval words – but I just wasn’t as invested in 1812, so got lazy and then disinterested.

It’s also a book clearly written by an American for an American audience. Not only because it’s a given the reader has heard of certain people, political processes or historical events, but also because of the patriotism the book exalts. The blurb reflects really well the tone found inside:

In 1812: The Navy’s War, prizewinning historian George C. Daughan tells the thrilling story of how a handful of heroic captains and their stalwart crews overcame spectacular odds to lead the country to victory against the world’s greatest imperial power.

In short, not my cuppa, but I wouldn’t hesitate recommending it to a naval history buff or an America history buff with a thing for naval detail.

Regarding the narration (at least the part I’ve actually heard), it must have been an easy book to read – no foreign names or languages, only a quote here and there with no strange accents – but Vietor nailed it without flaw. His voice fitted perfectly with the book because it has a certain… manly low pitch (here’s a sample, notice especially the end of sentences).

Next stop, another book about American History: 1861: The Civil War Awakening by Adam Goodheart, narrated by Jonathan Davis.

At some point in Casablanca, after a conversation about the refugees who’re trying to reach Lisbon, Rick goes “What’s in Lisbon?” and Renault answers “the Clipper to America”. This book is about what was happening in that city during that time and why so many people where trying to reach it.

In WW2 Portugal was in a unique and complex situation: it was a neutral country with a large colonial territory and little international influence, it was under a dictatorship that was sympathetic to Hitler’s fight against communism, it had close diplomatic and commercial ties to Britain, was surrounded by Nazi-friendly Spain and was also the main and safest port in Europe to cross to the United States.

During those years, Lisbon was a city of refugees, espionage and counter-espionage, negotiations, corruption, scheming, smuggling and counterfeiting. Portugal went from a poor and peripheral country in Europe’s tail to a player of strategic importance in the war theater.

I’d recommend Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light to anyone with an interest in WW2. Lochery focuses on how Salazar (the Portuguese dictator) out-maneuvered both sides but also paints a compelling picture of the daily life of a city with a fascinating double(or triple)-life. He also maintains a good balance between the macro-history and the personal stories of the locals and refugees who were passing by.

It’s a book especially interesting to Portuguese (and Lisboners like me) who would like to know more about a time often over-looked in our history classes. I come from a very left-wing family who tends to villainize Salazar without mercy, but in this occasion I must give him some credit. He played a risky and cunning game during WW2 and achieved his goals: maintain neutrality, independence, territorial integrity and get rich by negotiating with both sides.

Commemoration of the Allied victory in front of Lisbon’s British embassy

He kept the Axis happy by selling them precious wolfram (my grandparents worked in one of the mines) and the Allies happy by helping to persuade Franco to remain neutral. He allowed many Jews and other refugees to leave Europe through Lisbon, and Jewish relief organizations to work freely in the capital, but the Portuguese secret police was pressured on both sides to hand over people and occasionally gave-in.

The balance of the country hanged by a thread, yet Salazar played the game like the best of them until the end of the War. It was probably the height of his career and, as Lochery also thinks, when he should have counted his blessings, implemented democracy, released the colonies, returned the Nazi gold, and retired to write his memoirs quietly. Instead, he tightened his regime, stagnated the country and eventually entered a colonial War that only ended with the Carnation Revolution of ’74.

Interesting facts I didn’t know before Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light:

  • Salazar was considered by many to be the handsomest European dictator.
  • Portugal was one of the only countries to keep its Nazi-gold, most likely through a deal with the US, that in return kept their military base in the Azores Islands until this day.
  • Leslie Howard (Ashley in Gone with the Wind) died in a flight from Lisbon to the UK. Supposedly because the Germans though Churchill was on that plane.
  • Spain was on the brink of invading Portugal during the War. The British, and later the Americans, were on the brink of invading the strategic Azores.
  • During the pre-War negotiations, British Prime-Minister Chamberlain offered Hitler the Portuguese colony of Angola without consulting Lisbon.
  • Portugal was one of two countries that offered official condolences upon the death of Hitler. The other country was (also neutral) Ireland.

Salazar, posing.

I’ve only started reading about Portuguese history as seen from foreign eyes in the last 10 years or so. Until then most of what I knew had the official sugar-coat of history classes – the golden period of Discoveries, owning half the world, the brave struggles to gain and maintain independence from Spain, the honor to have the Guinness record for the longest standing alliance between two countries with England.

And then I started travelling, talking to people from different backgrounds, reading in other languages (books like this one), and entered a hard process of reality-adjustment that’s still ongoing today. It’s almost like being re-programmed with the growing pains and resistance that come with it.

I remember meeting for the first time an Indian at a party in the US and her saying, after I mentioned I was Portuguese, that we had done some horrible things in her region during the Discovery period. Wait – WHAT?! But… but… we were “nice” colonizers! Look at what Spain did in the Americas! We opened trade! We brought civilization and globalization! We discovered you!

Like I said, it’s a hard process, but an enriching one. Sometimes people and events I put on a pedestal crumble, and sometimes, someone like Dictator Salazar is shown in a different light. Still, he saved Portuguese lives by keeping us neutral, hurrah for him, but was it the brave and honorable thing to do while other nations fought? He prevented Spain from invading, but also ensured that most of the population was illiterate and compliant. “Orgulhosamente sós“, or “Proudly alone“, was his motto, which reflected his taste for economic and cultural isolation.

There’s nothing like travelling and reading to put everything into a healthy perspective and force you to confront those pesky grey areas. In Brussels, city of expats, I’ve had many interesting conversations with people from other countries who are going through the same process of building and re-building old dogmas.

Have you had any similar experiences?

I’ve read many books and watched many movies and documentaries about WW2 and the rise of Hitler’s regime, but this is the first time I get such a in-depth glimpse at the personal experiences of Berlin’s elite at the time. It was also a great book to shed some light into one of the most asked questions in History: how did the World let it happen?

In the Garden of Beasts is an account of William Dodd during his 4 years as the American ambassador to Germany(1933 and 1937). He was an unlikely choice for such a sensitive position: a 64-year old mild-mannered scholar, whose life-long goal was finishing a four-volume History of the Old South.

The rest of the Dodd family included his wife, his 27 year-old son and 24-year-old daughter Martha, who was as central to the book as Dodd himself. Martha was a free spirit, who became enchanted with Berlin’s care-free and bohemian life and only slowly came to realize what lay beneath.

During those four years, Martha had many prominent lovers, such as the head of the Gestapo, a French attaché and a Soviet undersecretary-come-agent. At some point a common friend though she would be a good wife for Hitler and set them on a date, of sorts (I kid you not!).

The documents Martha and Dodd left and that Larson expertly weaves, give us an interesting insight into the personal lives and character of these people. One of the book’s most fascinating episodes was the account of a surreal event at Göring’s country estate, where he shows-off his hunting skills. Other fascinating moments are Dodd’s private meetings with Hitler and other Nazi high-officials. The way they managed to out-smart and counter-argument any accusations are as brilliantly and they are frightening, not least because it’s not difficult to find modern examples of similar smoke-screening tactics.

As also obvious with The Devil in the White City, Larson knows his pacing. It’s with skill that he describes the growing tension in Berlin, from the warm welcome received by the Dodds, to the first signs of violence, to the infamous Night of the Long Knives. He also clearly admired Dodd and portrays him as a Cassandra-figure, who tried to break through the propaganda and warn America. Still, I couldn’t but wonder what would have happened with a more energetic, forceful, and better connected ambassador.

Dodd was a good man, honorable, an old-fashioned gentleman, but no matter how Larson puts it, Dodd was probably the right man at the wrong time. He spent time and energy worrying about the price of the cables sent by the Embassy, when one of the most terrifying events in human history was happening at his door-step. He also lobbied Washington to cut the number of Jews on him staff, arguing that it would help relations with the German government.

And before you say anything, I’m completely aware I’m passing this judgment from the comfort of my 21th-century couch, but I guess we all wonder about what we would do in such a situation.

I usually measure the quality of my non-fiction books by the amount of hours they make me spend on Wikipedia. By those standards, it this was a great read. I started with the fascinating concept of gleichschaltung (coordination), meaning the process by which Nazism took control of all aspects of German life, and ended in Göring’s first wife, who’s body he move from Sweden to Germany, to be buried in a stately funeral.

This audiobook is one of the nominees of the Audie Awards 2012‘s History category. It was narrated by Stephen Hoye and produced by Random House Audio. It’s the first time I hear anything read by him, but I hope it won’t be the last. He has great diction, both in English and German, and the type of voice that’s dynamic enough to fit the different moods in the book, from the parties to the tragedies, from Martha’s love letters to Goebbles’ speeches.

It’s still the first of my Armchair Audies category, but we’re off to a good start. The next one in line: 1812: The Navy’s War by George C. Daughan, narrated by Marc Vietor.

Dickens lived until he was 58 and had a busy life, so my congratulations to Claire Tomalin for managing to put it all into 400 pages. Some of the reviews I’ve read criticized how she didn’t include more insight into his era, into his relationship with his sons, his work methods, etc. But I found it the perfect book for someone like me, who was curious about Dickens, but didn’t want to read Peter Ackroyd’s 600-page tome or Michael Slater‘s more academic biography.

It felt like a solid overview of his life, well researched and thoughtful. She starts with his problematic childhood then moves on to his early career and seemingly infinite energy, his difficulties in coping with middle-age, the problems brought on by the affair with Nelly Ternan and his ultimate decline.

Tomalin doesn’t produce any new and amazing discovery, but she does have good insights into his books (I especially liked her analysis on Dickens’s flat female characters), his inspiration, and how his frantic way of working created both brilliant and weak stories. Dickens was always on the move, always busy with dozens of old and new projects. One month after finishing this book, it’s this sense of nervous energy that lingers.

She’s pretty hard on Dickens over some episodes, especially on way he treated his wife during the Nelly affair, but I must agree with her. Dickens might have been the hero of England’s poor, and extremely generous, but he seemed to preferred to do good works for strangers, rather than be affectionate to most of his family members, especially his sons. Considering these two sides of his character it’s fascinating to understand how Dickens created and managed his own myth.

After his death, Dickens’ daughter Katey wrote she wished someone would correct the general perception of her father as “a joyous, jocose gentleman walking about the world with a plum pudding and a bowl of punch”. I think she would be proud of this biography. Claire Tomalin’s Dickens comes out as a troubled, self-centered, and often mean person, but also a genius of writing, acting and creating emotional responses in general.


Other thoughts: Random Jottings, The Book and the Biscuit,  (yours?)

According to my 2011 end-year statistics, 40% of the books I’ve read are audiobooks, but I only remember reviewing them as such twice. This happens because I haven’t figured out the best way to do it. Saying things like “She has good diction” or “Hearing his sharp intakes of breath really distracted me from the story” sounds too personal, like commenting on a person’s hairstyle. Would love some advice from experienced audiobook reviewers. Is there a “Reviewing Audiobooks for Dummies” post somewhere?

Yesterday I discovered an event that looks perfect to get me out of the closet as a huge audiobook fan: The Armchair Audies. It’s organized by Jennifer (The Literate Housewife) and Bob (The Guilded Earlobe) and invites bloggers to celebrate the Audies, the audiobook industry’s Awards. The nomination list is daunting, comprising 28 categories, each with 5 nominates, so Jennifer and Bob suggest that participants chose one or more categories and just listen to all the books in it.

The winners will be announced in June and Armchair Audies participants should be able to publish their closing post (maybe with some predictions?) shortly before. Jennifer is reviewing Literary Fiction and Bob will ambitiously tackle three categories: Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Paranormal.

I’ll go for History. Although all the books in this category sound interesting, and some were already under my radar, the topics seems a bit limited: two about WW2 events, three on American History (or from an American perspective) and two of these about the 19th century. Only one written by a woman and only that one narrated by one. Four written by American writers, but even Mukherjee, although Indian, lives and works in NY. As a reader I’d prefer more variety.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
by Siddhartha Mukherjee (Tantor Media)

Read by Stephen Hoye

Already had it in the TBL, so I’m happy it’s nominated. It’s a history of cancer, from the first documented cases thousands of years ago to the 20th century attempts at better understand it and finding a cure. Heard great things about it.x



1812: The Navy’s War
by George C. Daughan (Audible, Inc.)

Read by Marc Vietor

It’s about the American Navy but it’ll still be a nice compliment to my recently Navy interest, brought about by the Aubrey/Maturin series. The blurb says it “is the first complete account in more than a century of how the U.S. Navy rescued the fledgling nation and secured America’s future.


Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil
Hannah Arendt (Tantor Media)

Read by Wanda McCaddon

This is the one I’m more curious about, but Audible doesn’t let me buy it because of my Belgian credit card! Hopefully, the copy-right issue is solved before June. Arendt (a Jew who fled Germany during Adolf Hitler’s rise to power), reported on Eichmann’s trial for The New Yorker. While covering the technical aspects of the trial, she also explored the nature of justice, the behavior of the Jewish leadership during the Nazi Regime, and, most controversially, the nature of Evil itself.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
by Erik Larson (Random House Audio)

Read by Stephen Hoye

Really liked The Devil in the White City, so this one was already on the wish-list. It’s the story of William E. Dodd, America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany, and his attempts to report to the outside world the rising horrors happening there.



1861: The Civil War Awakening
by Adam Goodheart (Audible, Inc./ Brilliance Audio)

Read by Jonathan Davis

Most books about the Civil War are about the fighting years, so this account of the years that led up to it should be interesting.

Mike Brown led the team of scientist responsible for Pluto losing its planetary status. They discovered “Xena” (now Eris), which would have been the 10th planet had Pluto kept its status, but instead became its downfall.

It’s a fun book full of anecdotes and a good dose of personal stories. Brown in a scientist, but he’s also a husband and a father and he’s refreshingly ok with showing that side of him.

How I Killed Pluto is a great insight into the world of professional astronomy in all its glory and dullness. It’s all very exciting discovering a new planet, but let’s not forget the mind-numbing hours following tiny dots of light in endless image-stills to figure out if they’re moving.

Brown gets extra brownie points for acknowledging that scientific discoveries are never accomplished in isolation. Instead, he presents it as the work of many very bright and very creative risk-takers swimming against the tide of a long-established dogma. Add to that the academic rivalries (Brown even has an evil nemesis, The Spanish Professor who tried to steal his discovery Muahahaha!) and you have a very entertaining science book.

By the end I felt really curious about the day-to-day life implications of downgrading a planet. For instance, how long did it take for school books to make the change? Did some of them include an errata sheet? How did science museums update their exhibitions. Was there a PhD student on the brink of finishing a thesis on Pluto that had to re-write the whole thing? What about astrology, will Pluto in my 1st House no longer mean I “radiate intensity”? What do creationists think about this?

And linguists? One of the most interesting parts of the book was when Brown pondered about a planet’s definition: is it based on scientific criteria or just a convention? It’s the same with “continents”. I was taught that “Oceania” was a continent  and am always surprised when someone tells me that no, Australia is a continent (don’t Kiwis get pissed with this?!). On the other hand, if what matters are tectonic plaques, then why are Europa and Asia separated? Words matter and Brown’s own questions brought me back to heated debates in philosophy and semiotics classes.


The re-definition of Pluto and Eris as “dwarf planets” while the others become “classic plants” sounds muddy even to a non-expert like me – is a dwarf planet still a planet? Brown calls the new classifications “a slew of unscientific clutter”, a sitting-on-the-fence decision created to be comfortable and not change the universe as we know it.

But no matter what, Pluto will always be a planet to me. Whenever I recite the planets, I can never stop at Neptune.


Other thoughts: S. Krishna’s Books, The Ya, Ya Yas, an adventure in reading, Canadian Bookworm (yours?)

The Devil in the White City has to be one of the most reviewed non-fiction books in the book blogosphere.  I can see why – it reads like a novel. So much so that I hear Leonardo DiCaprio bought the rights and is planning to play H.H. Holmes himself.

The book is divided into two alternated (and practically independent) stories: the history of the Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and that of H. H. Holmes, America’s first documented serial-killer.  The slim connection between the two is that Holmes lived in Chicago during the Fair and used the influx of strangers to get away with many murderers.

The first chapters mostly deal with the pre-Exposition events, when architects were hired, committees formed and blueprints drawn. The mission of this impressive group of men was to make the event the greater, larger, more magnificent thing ever seen, especially greater, larger, more magnificent than the recent Paris Expo. I’m sure Freud had a thing of two to say about this desire to “out-Eiffel Eiffel“.

Almost 120 years later, you can tell Larson also fell for the Fair’s spell, but I must confess I often thought “Columbian who?”. Excuse me my ignorance, but I had never heard of the Chicago Exposition before. I did know about the St. Louis one, but then again, there was Judy Garland singing “Meet me in St. Louis“ – not that makes an event last!.

(Talking about marketing, although I liked the book, I felt a bit cheated by the way it was promoted. I was not “murder, magic and madness at the Fair that changed America“. I was more “group of men try to become immortal by organizing a humongous Fair, while in another part of Chicago a serial-killer is on the loose, and in yet another part of the city – because it’s also an interesting story so why not put it in? – a madman kills the mayor”. From the way it was promoted, and from Larson’s introduction, I thought Holmes actually killed (or at least met his victims) at the Fair).

Larson chose his topics well and would be hard pressed to make them sound boring. He tells delicious anecdotes about Helen Keller, Buffalo Bill, Tesla and Susan B. Anthony, but the best part were the micro-stories. They made the Fair come alive: the couples who wanted to marry in the Ferris Wheel, the firemen wounded and killed, the Women Committee’s political battles. My favorite was the one about a Ferris Wheel passenger who had panic attack and another passenger’s drastic measurements to control him:

A woman disrobing in public, a man with a skirt over his head – the marvels of the fair seemed endless.

I looked at many photos of the Fair while reading the book and have to agree with the critics that said that by choosing a neo-classic style, the architects might have lost the opportunity to create something truly ground-breaking and memorable. Because let’s face it, the Ferris Wheel is great, but did it really revolutionized world architecture the way the Eiffel Tower did?

But no matter how exciting a World Fair is, it’s almost impossible to compete with a well-told story about a serial-killer. I wouldn’t be surprised if this part was included after Larson’s editor said something like, “Well Erik, the Fair is a fine idea, great potential, but why not er… spice it up a bit? How about including a serial killer? I’m sure there were some around.

There were moments during the audiobook (read by Scott Brick), where I got goose-bumps, especially with the graphic descriptions of Holmes’ evil deeds. It made it extra hard to go back to the Fair part of the story.

I must have spent hours on Wikipedia navigating between articles about Daniel Burnham, the Flatiron Building, Graceland Cemetery, the zipperCracker Jacks and the Titanic. I always have great respect for books that pique my curiosity (that’s why I’m not a Da Vinci Code nay-sayer) and this was a perfect example.

(credits: Edmund de Waal)

I finished this book the same way I finished In Cold Blood: thinking I had never read another non-fiction quite like it. You can read it as a family saga or an insightful look at the European history from the late 19th century to the mid-20th. It can also be seen as a personal journey into the world of family heritage and how that influences who you are.

Edmund de Waal is a British ceramicist who inherited 264 netsuke and decides to discover more about how they came down the Ephrussi family line. (He’s now writing a history of the color white – looking forward to it!)

The book is mainly divided into three sections that mark the different stages of the netsuke’s life: the first is set at fin de siècle Paris where a Japanism-obsessed Charles Ephrussi first buys them from an art dealer. The second takes us to early 20th-century Vienna, at the time of its annexation by Hitler, and finally to post-WW2 and bombed-out Tokyo, a place I knew almost nothing about.

I was afraid that amidst all the family history the netsuke would become irrelevant, but they’re cleverly woven into the story. They become a sort of vessel that embodies the zeitgeist of the different times. In Paris they’re a collectors item and objects of art, in Vienna they’re on display in an intimate recess of a golden house, where a Lady dressed to go to parties and meet lovers, but they also become toys to the children allowed to witness that ritual. In Tokyo they are once again in the world they were build for and become a symbol of family history and resilience. I wonder what the future will bring to these intriguing objects.

(favorite Paris anecdote: Monet’s asparagus)

I found de Wall a remarkable writer, one that’s able to bring an artist’s awareness to another format, paying careful attention to the language, its pace and its evocative potential. He often tackles abstract topics, but always in a very accessible way:

You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.

When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories.  It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous (a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement.  Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress. It probably doesn’t.

One of the great strengths of The Hare with the Amber Eyes is that it doesn’t ignore the excesses of the nouveaux-riches. It doesn’t downplay the extent of their wealth and privilege, nor the self-indulgence of their way of life. I couldn’t help but make parallels to the current social movements against the 1% and the financial sector in general. The 99% of that time were angry and laid open the way for Hitler and his comforting blame game. But although I believe most readers thought  “this is too much” at some point in the book (a jeweled turtle – are you kidding me?!), we were never allowed to share the “they got it coming” philosophy.

It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage.  I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name.  It reads “Israel”. An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them “Israel” for the men, “Sara” for the women.

I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry.

*goose-bumps* It reminded me of the time I crumbled watching Alan Cumming’s episode of Who Do You Think You Are.

For a book that goes so deeply into family history, I learned a lot about history in general. The gradual infiltration of Nazi ideals in Austrian society was especially interesting. It coincided with some of the book’s most moving scenes: de Waal’s grandfather isolated in his country estate, penniless and without a nationality, the courage of his grandmother in entering the country to rescue him, and the story of Anna, the faithful servant. Her part in the netsuke’s history is the stuff of legend.

Anna gave me lots of food for thought. What made her stay and rescue the netsuke? Loyalty? Her own personal form of rebellion? And then, shockingly, the family didn’t even remembered her last name. There is no excuse for this, although I also saw her as someone self-effacing and easily over-looked. How else could she have lived all those years in the occupied house?

There is such pedigree in the Ephrussi family, they were all so amazing and influential (Charles has a cameo in Monet’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and was the inspiration for one of main characters in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past) that I can’t help but keenly feel just how utterly obscure my ancestors are. More than that, I feel sorry there’s almost no family history or objects that have trickled down to my brother and me.

By the end of the book de Waal is in possession of the netsuke. Apart from frail letters and documents, they’re all that’s left of a great family that once had everything. The netsuke are once again ready to begin yet another chapter in their amazing history.


Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Shelf Love, Reading Matters, things mean a lot, Tales from the Reading Room, chasing bawa, Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog, Boston Bibliophile, Winstonsdad’s Blog, My Book Year, Vulpis Libris, Novel Insights, Canadian Bookworm, Lucybird’s Book Blog, Page 247, Desperate Reader, MarysLibrary, Cornflower Books, Eve’s Alexandria (yours?)

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