12.01.2010

Monsters, Desks, and Netsuke

The Hooblers' The Monsters
Despite a few luke-warm reviews, I found this biography of Mary Shelley fascinating. The story surrounding the creation of Frankenstein is almost as intriguing as the novel itself, and the Hooblers do a commendable job of communicating this interest. Though I could have done without the literary criticism and the Hooblers' efforts to find significance in their subjects' literary work where none may have been, it was largely a thoroughly researched and enjoyable read.

In some ways, Mary Shelley could be seen as a tragic figure, as she strove to survive the pressures from her dictatorial, insensitive father and her playboy, insensitive husband. Her life was full of tumult and loss - the loss of her children was especially difficult - but she used her fiction and her powers of imagination to digest much of her hurt. It is fascinating to see the interplay of fiction and reality in her life, how the two sometimes crossed or were completely subsumed by the other, depending on the situation or the crisis that needed to be overcome.

This is a useful companion to Frankenstein or a smart introduction to the interwoven lives of the British Romantic poets.


Nicole Krauss' Great House
Why isn't everyone talking about this book? I haven't read Freedom yet, but I assure you I will not like it as much as I enjoyed Krauss' latest release. This novel was beautiful - beautifully moving, beautifully crafted, beautifully told. And it was a bit of a brain teaser, which I always enjoy.

The novel, from the book jacket at least, seems to be about a giant desk, a piece of Herculean-sized furniture that has been owned by various, disparate people and passed around. It is not the desk, though, that is of great interest, but what the desk respresents: love meant for a child, a reminder of a lost father, a connection to a lover. The novel contemplates what we have to give to others and how we give it them: the words that are passed on, the items, the things we share. Ultimately, though it asks the questions of what can you pass on, when you have nothing - tangible - to give and how can you reclaim connection with those important to you. It is a stunning novel, and Nicole Krauss, as she did with A History of Love, peels back the layers of human relation to suss out the essentials.

Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes
I had not intended to follow Great House with a thematically similar book, but that is what happened. Edmund de Waal traces the history of his family's collection of Japanese netsuke, a collection that was assembled by de Waal's ancestor Charles Ephrussi. Spurred on by the tendrils of family story and the recent inheritance of this amazing netsuke, de Waal begins to put the story of his family together, and it is quite a story. de Waal is descended from the Ephrussi, a powerful, banking family, similar to the Rothschilds, who made millions in the late 19th century. They lost much of that wealth during World War I and all of their property in World War II, but what they still had were the netsuke, the funny little figurines from Japan.

What could have been merely a singular, insulated family tale turns into a powerful reminisince on European and Jewish history and a rumination on the power of family stories. de Waal grows up hearing the tales of family lore, but knows little of context or how they all fit together. In the beginning he wants to know the story of the netsuke - how they came into the family, how they survived - but what he ends with is a powerful portrait of the people who came before him. His ancestors suffered tremendous loss but in telling their stories, and preserving the netsuke for the next generation, he creates a testimony of their lives, a testament that is far more intricate and important than mere stuff.

Michael Dirda's Review of The Hare with Amber Eyes

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