Amherst Magazine

What They Are Reading

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Deborah Gewertz, the G. Henry Whitcomb 1874 Professor of Anthropology and author of Cheap Meat—which is about the controversial trade of inexpensive fatty cuts of lamb—writes about the books on her figurative bedside table.

I am enjoying mightily The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, Edmund de Waal’s remarkable account of a collection of 264 netsuke—small, intricately carved toggles, usually made from wood or ivory. Brought from Japan to Paris at the height of Japonisme during the 1870s, they were acquired by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of the author’s great-grandfather (and a figure in the background of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party). Ephrussi, an extremely wealthy art collector and critic, was also a Jew, and he and his kin—merchants and bankers throughout Europe—did not fare well with the rise of anti-Semitism. Yet the netsuke collection, traveling from Paris to Vienna to Tokyo and, eventually, to the author in London, remained intact and in the family. De Waal’s story is of the social life of remarkable things and, in telling it, he indexes and embodies major political events as well as artistic movements of the recent past.

I am also enjoying revisiting my father-in-law’s autobiography, The Red Gods Call, preparatory to a project my husband and I are about to undertake. Paul Errington’s account concerns a South Dakota farm our family has recently given to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service so that it may be returned to prairie. It was on this farm and its adjoining marsh that Paul, born in 1902, first developed his love of nature and, eventually, his scientific focus as an ecologist of some renown specializing in the marsh ecosystem. Our project, not unlike de Waal’s, will be to tell the social life of this property, described in one of its incarnations in Paul’s book.

I am also dipping in and out of two other books with pleasure. The first is Henry James’ The Ambassadors. I chose to reread it after finishing Foreign Bodies, Cynthia Ozick’s homage to James’ masterpiece. The second is Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss’ marvelous memoir of his expedition to Amazonia. I decided to re-engage it (in English) after two of my students, anthropology and French double majors, read it in its original language as part of their comprehensive examinations for the French department.

Finally, I yearly read the winner and runners-up for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. This is because I often like contemporary novels. But it is also because I cowrote a social history of a sugar plantation in Papua New Guinea managed by Booker Tate, a subsidiary of the company which then gave the prize. (The prize was originally instituted by Booker Group PLC after they established an Author Division to help Ian Fleming shield his heirs from death taxes!) I have A.D. Miller’s Snowdrops and Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers to go. And the 2012 shortlist will soon be announced.