books in a stack

Book review: The Hare with Amber Eyes

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden InheritanceThe Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Hare with Amber Eyes
by Edmund de Waal

I don’t read much nonfiction. I like books that are stories, with a plot and a climax, and characters I can empathize with. Nonfiction often drags for me, with its insistence on sticking with real events and real people. I do read historical fiction because I like to read stories in distant places and long ago times. The Hare with Amber Eyes is the rare nonfiction book that worked for me.

Edmund de Waal is an English potter with a Dutch last name, but his grandmother was born into a fabulously wealthy family of Jewish bankers and grain merchants. The Ephrussi were contemporaries and equals of the Rothschilds, related by marriage. Originally from Odessa, they moved to Vienna and then some of the younger sons moved to Paris. Through this family, de Waal inherited a collection of 264 netsuke, small carved figures that Japanese gentlemen used to wear on their obis, rather in the manner of a watch fob. The collection included the eponymous hare with amber eyes. De Waal decided to tell the history of the various Ephrussi who had owned the netsuke, starting with his great-great-uncle Charles Ephrussi, who was, among other things, a patron of the arts and a critic in late 19th Century Paris. If you are familiar with the famous painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party, Charles is the man in the background, looking slightly overdressed in a top hat and black frock coat. He was a friend and patron of Renoir and other Impressionists, right at the peak of that movement in art.

In fact, as it turns out, the history of de Waal's netsuke is largely the history of the 20th Century. Charles eventually gave them as a wedding gift to a nephew who lived in Vienna, and they made the journey across Europe to take up residence in the incredibly grand Palais Ephrussi where eventually they became the playthings of de Waal’s grandmother and her siblings. From post-war Vienna they eventually made their way to England and then, amazingly, back to Japan.

Obviously, netsuke cannot speak, but de Waal has researched his well-documented family, and he describes their lives and times beautifully. When a visual and tactile artist tells a story, you would expect a level of detail that makes you feel like you are there, and de Waal does not disappoint. He clearly sees more than many of us; he never says “tree” but always linden, or elm, or oak, or whatever kind of tree it was. His history immersed me into first Paris, and then Vienna, and then Tokyo. I even forgave him his extensive use of present tense, a thing I do not forgive easily.

I should mention that I read the Kindle version, which was very clean and had only two tiny formatting errors (an excess hyphen and a space in the middle of a word). The photographs of people and places came through very well; I suspect they were all (or almost all) taken in black and white. The only thing missing from the Kindle version was the book cover! Oh, and the netsuke themselves, which do not appear in the book (not even the printed version; I know because Michael Dirda mentioned it in his review). Luckily, you can see some of them online, as well as Mr. de Waal’s pots. One thing he never mentions is that he is not just any potter, but a world-class potter with gallery showings.

All that and he wrote this fabulous book, too! I am so happy he did.

Lego in ultraviolet

Finally, someone is working on getting rid of housework!

To heck with industrial robots, or dancing robots or any other kind of robots! What we need is something that will take care of all those chores around the house that no one want to do.  As a first start, a Spanish furniture company called OHEA has created a "smart bed," a bed that can make itself. If the embed code (pun!) works, here's the video from the article. 

It looks like the bed is in the video has no top sheet, not unusual in Europe, and that is requires special duvet covers to work as shown. Not as good as an actual all-purpose household robot, but it's a start!

Paging Dr. McCoy!

I'm not sure how much of this Ghost Productions animated video is real, as in available right now, and how much is future technology, but watching it definitely made me think of Dr.McCoy of Star Trek TOS, running his little lighted slat shaker over a patient and announcing a diagnosis. It does make you wonder if the medical technology is so fantastic, why are they still using such fragile ladders?

The animation is pretty cool, too! I hope the embed code works.
Dealers' room

Con weekend redux

This year the Nebulas were a local event (see last week's post) and so I ended up with "cons" on back-to-back weekends. I went to Balticon on Friday and stayed though half of Sunday. It's only about 60 miles from my house and should take less than an hour a half to get there in good traffic but Saturday was NOT a good traffic day, so I was glad we had booked a hotel room for Friday and Saturday nights. I was also glad they opened a Wegman's right near the con; we ate several meals there because for a grocery store they had an excellent selection of prepared food.

photo of a young girl dressed as a pirateBalticon is not a huge con, but they do run several programming tracks at once.  There's an active gaming contingent, and this year hall costumes were very popular. I didn't get that many pictures but I loved this little bitty pirate (right). There were a numbers of kids running around in costume. Grownups, too. One time I stepped on the elevator only to be confronted by an alien! He seemed quite peaceable, even though he's gesturing wildly in this photo (below). 

guy gressed as an alien

Readings are run in triplicate, three authors in one 50-minute time slot, which improves an authors chances of having listeners. I went to one triple reading (which included most of a story byscottedelman), and some interesting panels: e-publishing, self-publishing (they overlapped a lot but not completely), book covers, and The Walking Dead (mostly the TV show but a little bit about the comics). The room was cold enough to have kept zombies, but fortunately, I had a sweater. I'm not really into zombies but a friend was on the panel, so I went. The panel was almost all male but ranged in age from teenagers to gray-hairs,  The knowledge of the show demonstrated by both the panel members and the audience was an testament to its appeal.  I snapped one last photo of the panel to show I had not merely wandered the halls of Balticon. 

And of course, we hit the Wegman's on the way out of town! 
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panelists for the Walking Dead TV show

DC skyline

My Nebula weekend, 2012 edition

The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) hold an annual event known as Nebula Weekend or even just "The Nebs" (as in, "Will I see you at the Nebs?"). It moves every two years and last year was the first year I went to one. You don't have to be a member of SFWA to go (I'm not, actually); the only members-only activity is their business meeting.

The event consists of tours of local interest, workshops and panels, the aforementioned business meeting, and the banquet where the Nebulas are awarded. The banquet costs extra, of course. It's a bit like a small convention except that almost everyone there is either a writer, an editor, or an agent. 

This year, in addition to the regular Nebulas, Connie Willis was inducted as a Grand Master. It was great to be there for that!  Who does not love Connie Willis? I wish I had thought to bring my camera instead of just my phone, so my photos aren't great, but I had a wonderful time, especially at the banquet.  The MC was Walter Jon Williams (think overgrown imp) and the speaker was NASA astronaut Mike Fincke (imagine if Bob Newhart had become an astronaut).  Also, Neil Gaiman was there because he was nominated for (and won) the Ray bradbury Award for best dramatic presentation for his Dr. Who script of "The Doctor's Wife."  SFWA President John Scalzi has a list of the other winners here.

Next year the Nebs are in San Jose. If you're anywhere near there, I recommend it as a fun activity, whether you're in SFWA or not. And if you want to save money, you can attend the awards after the banquet at no extra charge. 

Here's a photo I snapped while they were waiting to take the official photos; the rest of mine are here.
Some of the award winners
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DC skyline

Truly amazing!

There are times that reality catches up with science fiction, sometimes in a bad way (think atomic bombs), but other times in a really good way, as in this video on the Washington Post site where a quadriplegic is able to manipulate certain objects using her thoughts. I think this is a fantastic development and a wonderful use of technology. Truly amazing and heartwarming to watch! 

(The video embed doesn't seem to work so go here to watch).

red rose

A new key to the The War of the Roses

It might seem strange for someone who writes science fiction, but I enjoy reading historical fiction quite a lot. I have a special fondness for novels written against the backdrop of English history because it illustrates so well that personality, talent, and circumstance had as much to do with who was in power as birth. Not to say that you could be born a peasant and become king, but even if you were born a prince, your place in life was never guaranteed. The War of the Roses between Lancaster and York that ended with the Tudors taking over the throne of England (with no real claim to it) was an excellent illustration of this. I have read several novels set in this era, so when The Stolen Crown, by Susan Higginbotham was free for a day in the Kindle store, I snapped it up. It's written in alternating first person accounts by Katherine (Kate) Woodville, sister of Queen Elizabeth, Edward IV's queen, and Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. They are both kids when it starts, and Higginbotham does a good job of showing how different was the view of children in that era of very young arranged marriages.

The story is engrossing but very complex. All the major players and many of the minor ones are related to each other by birth or by marriage, and many of them have the same names (too many Henrys and Edwards!). And then I noticed this book has something not all Kindle books have: the X-Ray feature. When you press the menu key, on the lower right corner of the screen is an option labeled X-Ray, that only appears if the publisher has provided the right kind of files to Amazon. While you're reading you can go to the X-Ray screen and see for the characters and places that occur on that page a sort of DNA-mapping that shows you how often that specific character or place occurs on the page, in the chapter, and in the whole book. You can also tap their name and see a brief explanation of who they are and some snippets where they are mentioned in the text. For this kind of book, this is a fantastic feature. The author included a cast of characters but referring to it, in print or in ebook, is not nearly as easy to do as using the X-Ray feature.

This is the first time I've used X-Ray, and I have to say it's one place where the ebook is superior to the print. I wish I had had this kind of thing when I was taking history classes in college. It's also something that for some kinds of books could justify a higher priced ebook, because it requires extra work on the publisher's part.

I'm going to keep an eye out for this in other books!
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DC skyline

DC Power Players and me

I live in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC. I work in Virginia, and every day I drive home through a small corner of our nation's capital, but I rarely go into the District otherwise. Unlike my friend mindyklasky I don't take enough advantage of the many museums and cultural attractions DC has to offer, but today I spent the afternoon in DC in the DAR Constitution Hall, watching the filming of the game show Jeopardy!

I've always been a Jeopardy! fan, and when a friend of my daughter's couldn't use the two tickets she had (my heart bleeds for her), I snapped them up. It was quite a trek to get there. This being DC,we had to check for protests before driving into the city, and sure enough, there were some road closings because of World Bank meetings, so we decided to take Metro,  Then, of course, we had to check for track maintenance; this time we got luckier; they were working on the other end of the red line, so we were OK.

We lucked out in a couple of other ways. The tickets said the doors opened at 2:30 pm, so we got there at 1:30, and the doors were already open! When we went to wait in the line in the lobby, we were shuttled off to the handicapped entrance, even though neither of us is handicapped. I figured it out once we got our truly wonderful seats. They let a bunch of us old folks cut in line so we wouldn't keel over or anything like that. Our row was full of gray-haired and no-haired geezers, the hearing aid and cane set. I recently decided to stop covering the gray in my hair, and now I'm wondering whether I should go back to coloring my hair or just enjoy the benefits of age (a young man offered me a seat on the Metro! That hasn't happened since I was nine months pregnant!).

Once the filing started it was fun to watch. They do a complete practice game for each set of celebrity contestants (I wonder if regular contestants get that?) so in a way, we watched four games. I noticed some of the contestants did  noticeably better in the rehearsal game; I don't know whether to attribute that to nerves or luck (in terms of knowing the categories). All the contestants were playing for great charities so it made it difficult to root for anyone in particular. 

I also managed to take the picture at the right before they announced were weren't supposed to take any photos (yes, mtlawson, I DO know I am the reason they made that announcement!). If you watch Jeopardy the week of May 14, watch for me in the audience. I am there for the game with Katty Kay, Chris Wallace, and Dr.Oz, and the one with Anderson Cooper, Kelly O'Donnell, and Joseph Friedman. I won't spoil things by telling you who won, but one game was a runaway and one was not.

There was one science fiction question. In the category "A.C." (meaning the answer was two words that started with A and C) the clue was about a science fiction master winning an award, and the answer was (naturally) Arthur C. Clarke. The panelists didn't get it! But it was fun doing something I had always wanted to do. 

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Apple iPad

An Apple lawsuit in the bush is worth a Nook in the hand?

My goodness! Things are hopping these days, in the world of digital publishing/reading! Rumors were flying that the Department of Justice lawsuit against the Big 5 publishers (minus Random House) and Apple was going to break any minute now, and it did, sort of, except if was Apple and the Big 2 because three of the publishers settled with the DoJ

Nook Glowlight photo

This seems to indicate that agency pricing for ebooks, as practiced so far, is, if not dead, hobbled. At the same time, Apple can afford damn good lawyers, so we will see what happens.  Of course, there is always the EU investigation. And now 16 states have also brought suit against some of the same folks for price fixing.

Oh, well, at least Barnes & Noble has a new Nook, and it's got a built-in light!  Not a light case, mind you, or a back-lit screen. In fact, it's got a front-lighted screen where the light is built into the bezel.  It looks totally cool! 

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Kindle 3

I'm throwing my Kindle away!

I've decided that I miss the feel, the heft, the smell of printed books too much to do without them any longer. Ergo, I'm throwing my Kindle away and changing my entire house into a library of physical books, which I will now be acquiring as fast as I can.

April Fool! If you know me at all, you know this is just not happening. But it's not as good a joke as this one (be sure to watch that video!), or this one, which is priceless! I do feel sorry for anyone who wins the lottery today. No one will believe them!

If you know any other good pranks, do me a favor and post a link to them in the comments.

p.s.This is not actually an April Fool's prank but it is a very clever book trailer with something of a prank as its premise. 

p.p.s. It's almost not April Fool anymore, but I had to add this link about a "new feature" on the Kindle, since it fit in so well with my own theme. 

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