Sunday, January 12, 2014

Reading, Writing, and Riches

Perhaps this January, more than any other, I have felt the need to withdraw, hibernate, and read--almost to the exclusion of all else.  Maybe it's because I've got some kind of pinched nerve in my neck and shoulder area that makes it painful to crochet, write, or do much of anything with my hands... so I read.

The most recent two books that I've finished actually seemed to have some things in common.  They were both about wealthy families and the precious objects they came into contact with.  Both books were true--nonfiction--yet had incredible elements.  Both stories were quite compelling and thought provoking, though one was told much better.

The Hare with Amber Eyes (by Edmund de Waal) is a story about a collection of netsuke, tiny Japanese carvings, once collected and prized by the wealthy during the end of the 19th century when a love for all things Japan swept through Europe among the wealthy and artistic.  The author traces the netsuke from their first arrival in Paris, then to Vienna, and on until they arrived, full circle, back in Japan.  But more than just a journey for the netsuke, the book is about the rise and fall of a fortune and a family.  What struck me the most was the impermanence of money and class.  One day there was wealth, splendor, and all the comforts of life.  The next day, a new regime, and the wealth and everything else taken away.  Yet some survived, and so did the beautiful Japanese netsuke.  The author has a lovely writing style, which I found very conversational.  I felt as if I were listening to a story told by a friend, and it drifted along very naturally.  The prose was elegant, measured, but never got in the way of the events unfolding, even though the author, a descendant of the people in the story, had a personal connection to the history.

On the other hand, the next book I read was written very clumsily, sometimes awkwardly.
Empty Mansions (by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell, Jr.) tells the story of W.A. Clark and his daughter Huguette.  W.A. Clark was one of those men who "tamed the west," founding a copper empire in Montana, and amassing a fortune because of it.  Huguette was his youngest daughter, and inherited much of his fortune, though she spent most of her life hidden away from society, almost never leaving her New York apartment.  The last twenty years of her 104-year life were spent in Beth Israel hospital, though she had no reason to be hospitalized.  The stories of W.A.'s life were very interesting, and it was mind-blowing to think that someone who was alive in 2010 had a father born in 1839.  But the most interesting part of this book, for me, was the moral question about what is a "proper" thing to spend money on, and who should get another person's money when they die.  Huguette was ridiculed by some when they discovered that she spent much of her time and money buying expensive dolls and commissioning intricate dollhouses for them.  One of her greatest pleasures seemed to be making gifts of money to her nurses and distant friends.  One can never know who was "taking advantage" of Huguette because every check she wrote seemed to come straight from her heart, and the ones who benefited from her generosity were also those who constantly defended her goodness, devoted enormous amounts of time to her, and made her happy.  In fact, just as I was beginning to wonder at the propriety of a nurse who accepts 5 million dollars from her "patient," I was disgusted by the distant relatives of Huguette who, though most had never even seen or conversed with her in all those years, descended on her estate the minute she died and sued to have it for themselves.  At least the nurse took care of Huguette and did something to earn the money! 

This was a fascinating story, but its main flaw was the terrible way in which it was written (so often the case with non-fiction, much to my dismay.)  Maybe terrible is too harsh, but the author(s) were so focused on the dollar amount of everything that it became annoying, and many times the direction of a paragraph seemed to lead nowhere, or jump from subject to subject for no apparent reason.  Perhaps they should have asked Edmund de Waal to write this book too.

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