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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss Hardcover – August 31, 2010

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best of the Month, September 2010: At the heart of Edmund de Waal's strange and graceful family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, is a one-of-a-kind inherited collection of ornamental Japanese carvings known as netsuke. The netsuke are tiny and tactile--they sit in the palm of your hand--and de Waal is drawn to them as "small, tough explosions of exactitude." He's also drawn to the story behind them, and for years he put aside his own work as a world-renowned potter and curator to uncover the rich and tragic family history of which the carvings are one of the few concrete legacies. De Waal's family was the Ephrussis, wealthy Jewish grain traders who branched out from Russia across the capitals of Europe before seeing their empire destroyed by the Nazis. Beginning with his art connoisseur ancestor Charles (a model for Proust's Swann), who acquired the netsuke during the European rage for Japonisme, de Waal traces the collection from Japan to Europe--where they were saved from the brutal bureaucracy of the Nazi Anschluss in the pockets of a family servant--and back to Japan and Europe again. Throughout, he writes with a tough, funny, and elegant attention to detail and personality that does full justice to the exactitude of the little carvings that first roused his curiosity. --Tom Nissley

From Publishers Weekly

In this family history, de Waal, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, describes the experiences of his family, the Ephrussis, during the turmoil of the 20th century. Grain merchants in Odessa, various family members migrated to Vienna and Paris, becoming successful bankers. Secular Jews, they sought assimilation in a period of virulent anti-Semitism. In Paris, Charles Ephrussi purchased a large collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny hand-carved figures including a hare with amber eyes. The collection passed to Viktor Ephrussi in Vienna and became the family's greatest legacy. Loyal citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Vienna Ephrussis were devastated by the outcome of WWI and were later driven from their home by the imposition of Nazi rule over Austria. After WWII, they discovered that their maid, Anna, had preserved the netsuke collection, which Ignace Ephrussi inherited, and he settled in postwar Japan. Today, the netsuke reside with de Waal (descended from the family's Vienna branch) and serve as the embodiment of his family history. A somewhat rambling narrative with special appeal to art historians, this account is nonetheless rich in drama and valuable anecdote. 20 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; First American Edition, 1st Printing edition (August 31, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0374105979
  • ISBN-13: 978-0374105976
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (934 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #139,766 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

256 of 258 people found the following review helpful By R. G. Saunders on September 23, 2010
Format: Hardcover
This is a mesmerising many-layered book. The fascinating narrative of the fabulously wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family moves through the decades from commercial Odessa to the Paris of the Impressionists and artistic salons to the brutal destruction of the Anschluss of 1938 in Vienna and a familial diaspora over three continents. Parallel to this, we follow with the author his own emotive journey to reclaim the lives lived in the vanished rooms of his forbears. This he does sensitively and successfully, imagining his way there through archives, letters and contemporary fiction. He visits all the great houses and, in Odessa, tasting the dust of the demolished palace rooms, he rejoices in the survival of the Ephrussi family emblem on a last remaining banister.

Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.

The netsuke are the beginning and happy ending of the story. Their exquisite detail is emblematic of this beautifully crafted book and its touching story of the individuals through whose hands they passed. One or other of them seems, like a rosary, to accompany the writer in his travels: a constant reminder to keep faith with his past.
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540 of 560 people found the following review helpful By M. E. Llorens on August 31, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Imagine you are the descendant of one of those families of 19th-century Jewish financiers who spread around the major capitals of Europe to forge a continental empire. Along the way, the family comes to feature an art collector who served as a patron for the Impressionists and inspired Proust's Swann. A later generation includes one of the first women to attend university in the early twentieth century; she graduates as a lawyer, becomes a writer and corresponds with Rilke. Imagine that the family's wealth disappears in the blink of an eye when Germany annexes Austria. That is in a nutshell the story of the Ephrussi clan, which Edmund De Waal chronicles in "The Hare with Amber Eyes." That is only a peek at the material that the author had at his disposal, which should have made the work relatively simple to write. But the author set himself a challenge. He refused to produce a straightforward history: "It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient-Express, of course, a bit of wandering around Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin."

Instead of a predictable tale from Mitteleuropa about lost grandeur, the author takes a (slightly Proustian) shortcut that leads to unexpected and sometimes deeply moving places. One of the illustrious ancestors collected tiny but incredibly intricate Japanese carvings called netsuke used in early modern Japan as toggles for purse strings. The book traces the story of these sculptures as they are passed down from one generation of Ephrussi to the next.
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Format: Hardcover
There are men and women who write beautifully, every word inevitable, the paragraphs building into chapters, the chapters adding up to a great book, and we never suspect that their work is a phenomenal trick --- that they bled over every word, turned every sentence around a dozen times, missed meals with their children, sacrificing all to make their writing look effortless.
And then there are men and women who write beautifully because they're tuned to a different frequency and do everything beautifully. They may work to make their writing better, but they're starting at such a high level they really don't need to --- they're in humanity's elite.

Edward de Waal is in that second group. And so we start with an irony --- the author of the most exquisite memoir you're likely to read this year isn't a writer. He's a potter, said to be one of the best in England, and Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster.

You could say the eye that judges a pot is also a writer's eye.

And you could say a gifted Brit who studied English at Cambridge really should be able to write a compelling family story.

But none of that would explain the fierce attachment early readers of "The Hare with Amber Eyes" have for it, why they can't help talking about it, why they press copies on friends. Let me try. Start here: "The Hare with Amber Eyes" has, as they say in show biz, everything. The highest echelons of Society in pre-World War I Paris. Nazi thugs and Austrian collaborators. A gay heir who takes refuge in Japan. Style. Seduction. Rothschild-level wealth. Two centuries of anti-Semitism. And 264 pieces of netsuke, the pocket-sized ivory-or-wood sculpture first made in Japan in the 17th century.
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