2010 Memoirs Non Fiction

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

Winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Prize

Five words from the blurb: Japanese, carvings, history, family, century

Last year I tried to read The Hare with Amber Eyes, but abandoned it after about 50 pages. I was therefore a bit disappointed when my brand new book club picked it as their first title. Unwilling to be defeated by the very first book I battled through the entire thing. Unfortunately it wasn’t to my taste, but it did at least provoke a good discussion.

The book is a history of the author’s family. Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of tiny Japanese carvings called “netsuke” and, by investigating the way these passed through the generations, he charts the story of his family through the last century. Beginning in Paris in 1871, passing through Nazi occupied Vienna, and finishing in Tokyo; the book gives a detailed history of the family as their fortune changes.

Unfortunately this book was too dry for me. It was very well researched, but the details were of no interest to me:

Ten houses down from the Ephrussi household, at number 61, is the house of Abraham Camondo, with his brother Nissim at 63 and their sister Rebecca over the street at number 60. The Camondos, Jewish financiers like the Ephrussi, had come to Paris from Constantinople by way of Venice. The banker Henri Cernuschi, a plutocratic supporter of the Paris Commune, had come to Paris from Italy and lived in chilly magnificence with his Japanese treasures on the edge of the park. At number 55 is the Hotel Cattaui, home to a family of Jewish bankers from Egypt. At number 43 is the palace of Adolphe de Rothschild…..

I just didn’t care! I wanted to know about the lives of these people – their thoughts and emotions.  I didn’t care who they lived next to or how their house was constructed. 

It probably didn’t help that I have no interest in art or classical music and so the famous names mentioned did nothing for me. I was also well aware of the plight of Jews in occupied Vienna and so none of the details were new to me. There were some beautifully described scenes, but I’m afraid these weren’t enough to make up for the long boring sections. 

The first and last chapters, in which the author described his own thoughts, were the only ones that contained any emotion. I wished he’d been able to inject this emotion into other members of his family. I also wished that he’d been able to include more information about the life of his gay uncle. The story of a homosexual man living in less tolerant times would have been far more interesting than the story he actually told. 

Overall this book was too dry and boring for me. Recommended to those who love the history of art.




My Book Club

The first meeting of my new book club went really well. It was a lovely group of women and we had a great discussion about the book. I was a bit worried about going to the meeting having had such a negative reaction to the first book, but luckily most of the group felt the same way I did! Only one member of the group enjoyed The Hare with Amber Eyes, but we managed to discuss its positive attributes and its flaws without any bad vibes. I’m looking forward to discussing the next book, Cloud Atlas, and getting to know these lovely women better.

2010 Non Fiction

Little Princes by Conor Grennan

Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal

Five words from the blurb: Nepal. children, volunteer, reunite, families

Earlier in the year I asked people to name their favourite narrative non-fiction books. Little Princes was mentioned by so many people that I felt I had to get a copy. Having read it I can see why they love it – Little Princes is an inspiring example of how much one person can achieve when they have the motivation and determination to do so.

Conor Grennan was twenty-nine-years-old when he realised he needed more excitement in his life. He quit his day job and decided to go travelling around the world for a year. In order to impress his friends he registered to volunteer at an orphanage in Nepal for the first three months, but once there he fell in love with the children and couldn’t abandon them. He has spent the rest of his life doing everything he can to help these vulnerable children, occasionally risking his life to do so.

I loved Conor’s honest, friendly approach to life. He made no attempt to hide the more selfish areas of his personality and it was wonderful to see his attitude to life change over the course of the book. 

His writing was engaging throughout and packed with emotion.  

If walking into the responsibility of caring for eighteen children was difficult, walking out on that responsibility was almost impossible. The children had become a constant presence, little spinning tops that splattered joy on everyone they bumped into. I would miss that, of course. But the deeper sadness, the deluge of emotion, came from admitting that I was walking out on them. 

It was perfectly paced and I loved the way it was structured to ensure that the information was revealed slowly, creating a compelling narrative that hooked me throughout. I especially loved Conor’s trek into the mountainous area of Nepal. It reminded me of the fabulous book, Touching The Voidand I had my heart in my mouth throughout this section.

If I’m forced to criticise this book I’d say that it occasionally gets a bit too sentimental, but when faced with the joy of little children I guess that is hard to avoid and I’m willing to forgive it.

This book does a fantastic job of highlighting the problem of child trafficking in Nepal. It is heartwarming and inspiring.

Highly recommended.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

It made me laugh out loud and moved me to tears. S. Krishna’s Books

…the moving, memorable story of an unexpected hero in an unlikely place… The 3 R’s Blog

…a remarkable, heart-breaking and heart-warming book. The House of the Seven Tails

2010 Graphic Novel

The Master and Margarita: The Graphic Novel

The Master and Margarita: A Graphic Novel (Eye Classics)

A few years ago I read The Master and Margarita, but although I enjoyed it, I felt as though a lot went over my head. When I saw the graphic novel version I decided to read it in the hope it would shed light on some of the more bizarre aspects of the book. I think it did a great job of summarising the plot, but as it can be read in less than an hour it didn’t delve into any of the more complex areas of the book.

The graphic novel is made up of both colour and black and white drawings. The style was simple, but effective:


The pictures also managed to convey Bulgakov’s satirical humor and I found myself smiling at more scenes from the graphic novel than from the original.

I think it works well as an introduction to the book. Having a brief over-view of the story will help readers to understand more of Bulgakov’s complex book – or give those who are too intimidated to try a brief glimpse into this weird world. But anyone really wanting to gain a deep insight into The Master and Margarita probably needs to study it for years.


2010 Non Fiction

The Great Singapore Penis Panic by Scott Mendelson

The Great Singapore Penis Panic and the Future of American Mass Hysteria

Five words from the blurb: Singapore, terrified, penis, psychiatric, hysteria

Every year The Bookseller award The Diagram Prize for the oddest book title of the year. I always enjoy looking at the shortlist, but normally just marvel at the variety of bizarre books out there. This year one title on the shortlist stood out and I was intrigued enough to try a sample chapter on my kindle. The introduction left me keen to understand why hundreds of men from Singapore thought their penises were shrinking, so I bought a copy.

In 1967 an outbreak of Koro occurred in Singapore. Koro is a frightening condition in which sufferers believe their penises are retracting.

Most often the men arrived at the hospital in a state of panic with their hand, or the hand of a loved one, firmly gripping their penis to prevent it from withdrawing up into the abdomen and killing them. Others came with their penis tightly anchored with ribbon or string.

The condition originates from Chinese folklore and isolated incidents are not uncommon, but it is unusual for so many people to succumb at once. The exact cause of this outbreak cannot be linked to a single event, but a combination of factors joined together to produce this strange reaction. The book describes the history of Singapore and all the important global events that resulted in “penis panic”.

The book goes on to describe similar conditions that arise in other countries around the world and it explains how cultural background has a strong influence on the nature of the problems experienced. Almost all of the conditions were new to me, but there was also a section on America and I was surprised to see that conditions like bulimia are specific to American society, or countries strongly influenced by it.

Unfortunately the book focused on things from a scientific perspective, noting the number of people affected on any given day and the extent of the epidemic. I longed for more personal stories and for some insight into what causes an individual to fear for their life, despite there being no real danger. I’d have prefered to read details about the situation in the hospital waiting rooms, rather than just the briefest details of which drugs the patients were given.

I also found the writing to be nothing special – it could have benefited from some editing as the same few facts were often repeated.

Despite these problems I’m pleased I read this book. It was fascinating to learn about the cultural influences on medical conditions and this final warning was particularly pertinent.

Absurd and dangerous culture bound notions are ever evolving in the United States. The use of the Internet and other lightening fast forms of social media and communication appears to be accelerating this process. There is not the slightest basis for Americans to be smug or condescending in their view of the culture bound syndromes of other societies, including Koro and the Singapore Penis Panic of 1967. In America, the next culture bound epidemic is a mouse click away.

Recommended to anyone interested in the origins of mass hysteria.


2010 Non Fiction Other Prizes

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea Winner of 2010 BBC Samuel Johnson Prize for Nonfiction

Five words from the blurb: North Korea, repressive, secretive, survival, stories

Nothing to Envy is a frightening insight into the lives of ordinary people in North Korea. By interviewing those who managed to escape the oppressive regime Barbara Demick has created a comprehensive picture of what life is like for those living under the thumb of a powerful dictator.

More than 2 million North Koreans died during a famine in the 1990s, but their plight was made harder by the fact they could trust very few people. Under constant fear of being reported to authorities each individual had to find their own food, often by committing a crime that, if caught, could have lead to their execution.

It isn’t necessary to know anything about the country in advance as this book explains the situation perfectly, without a hint sensationalisation. Details of the slow decline in living standards are mesmerising in their horror and I think everyone should read this book so they can understand what occurs at the limits of humanity.

I have always been fascinated by North Korea and so I expected to love this book from the very first page. Unfortunately I initially felt a bit overwhelmed – so many people were introduced that I found it hard to keep track of them all and I longed for a bit of emotion to be injected into the statistics.

Luckily things improved quickly and by page fifty I was hooked. I began to recognise each person as their story was continued and it was impossible to not be moved by their increasingly difficult lives.

I thought I had a reasonable idea of what went on in the country, but I was shocked by some of the details of their existence.

North Koreans learned to swallow their pride and hold their noses. They picked kernels of undigested corn out of the excrement of farm animals. Shipyard workers developed a technique by which they scraped the bottoms of the cargo holds where food had been stored, then spread the foul smelling gunk on rooftops to dry so that they could collect from it tiny grains of uncooked rice and other edibles.

This book is one of the most important pieces of journalism to be written in recent years and it has just become one my favourite nonfiction titles.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Nothing to Envy is a truly astonishing book. Reading Matters

Readers, even those who don’t often read non-fiction, will find themselves completely absorbed in these stories. Olduvai Reads

The book is fascinating, sad, and frustrating all at the time, which is the best sort of narrative nonfiction. Sophisticated Dorkiness


House Rules – Jodi Picoult

House Rules

Five words from the blurb: Asperger’s, trouble, police, murder, guilt

My eldest son has Asperger’s syndrome so I am always interested in books that deal with the subject. I was impressed by the research that has gone into this book, but I’m afraid the plot didn’t do much for me.

House Rules is the story of Jacob, an 18-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome, who has a special interest in forensic science. One day his tutor is found dead and Jacob becomes the prime suspect in the murder investigation. The book uses multiple narrators to show how those with autism have a different perspective on events, and also to highlight the thoughts off his mother and brother.

Jacob’s actions were realistic and tactfully described, but I was even more impressed by the descriptions of the emotions felt by his mother and younger brother, Theo. Some of the scenes were heartbreaking for me to read as they could easily relate to my family in ten years time (I also have a younger son without Asperger’s).

Motherhood is a Sisyphean task. You finish sewing one seam shut, and another rips open. I have come to believe that this life I’m wearing will never really fit.
I carry the bowl to the sink and swallow the tears that spring to the back of my throat. Oh, Theo. I’m so sorry.

Unfortunately I found that the plot wasn’t sustained over the 650 pages of this book. There was far too much padding and repetition of the problems faced by those with Asperger’s. Despite being engaged by all the characters in this book, I was bored by large chunks of it; the court room scenes were particularly dull.

The ending was quite clever, but I’m afraid it was too little, too late. The plot wasn’t complex enough to justify the length and the same message could easily have been achieved with half the number of pages.

I applaud Jodi Picoult for bringing autism to the attention of a wider audience, but I think this would work better as a (heavily edited) film.


The thoughts of other bloggers:

Although well-researched and presenting a detailed and gripping insight into the realities of life with Asperger’s syndrome, I felt the book was hampered by the legal plot. Life…With Books

The audio book made this story a home run for me. It was fantastic… Bibliophile by the Sea

Overall, this novel didn’t “wow” me, either as literature or as a believable portrayal of life with Asperger’s. But this author has a knack for storytelling and creating interesting characters… Laughing Stars