Monday, December 15, 2014

Great Books VI

Woman Seated on a Sofa by Edouard Vuillard, The Art Institute of Chicago

Travel Oyster is back with the sixth edition of its Great Books series. This year's recommendations are all memoirs of a sort, but each book is infused with history: the history of a family, a language, a time, a cuisine. 

The Hare with Amber Eyes
A Hidden Inheritance
by Edmund De Waal 
2010, 351 pages

The Hare with Amber Eyes has all the qualities one hopes for with every newly-begun book. It's beautifully written, throughly engrossing and full of interesting characters. De Waal, already well-known as a ceramic artist before writing this book, is a descendant of the famously-rich Ephrussi banking family. When he inherits a family collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings called netsuke from his great uncle in Tokyo, he sets out on a quest to learn more about who made them and who owned them. 

De Waal is a discreet moderator and he has the wisdom and restraint to stand in the background and let his family history speak for itself. Their story begins in the 1850s, where the Ephrussi, a Jewish family in Odessa, have become the greatest grain exporters in the world. By the 1870s, the family has established a financial empire in Paris and Vienna. In Paris, De Waal's great-uncle Charles is friends with Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir.  An avid collector and art critic, Charles is also the first owner of the netsuke. 

As De Waal traces the history of his inheritance, he gives life to these small, inanimate objects and to the history of 19th and 20th-century Europe; its buildings; its people; its art. And, as his family fortunes turn in the era of Nazi Germany, De Waal reflects on loss and the importance of cherished family objects. 

From the very first page, I was entranced with The Hare with Amber Eyes and arrived at the last page with a small sense of loss myself that such a wonderful book had to end.

La Bella Lingua
My Love Affair with Italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language
by Dianne Hales
2009, 290 pages

Years ago when I began studying Italian, many people asked me why. In this charming book, Dianne Hales answers that question, weaving together the study of this beautiful language with the history and culture of the country. As a professor in her book remarks:  "You cannot separate our language from our culture.  When you learn Italian, you enter our history, our art, our music, our traditions."  

For more than 25 years, Hales visits the country taking Italian lessons and spending enough, she calculates, to finance a down payment on an Umbrian villa. We meet her friends and acquaintances, everyone from  the actor Roberto Benigni to a Roman cab driver who gives her a lesson in Italian cursing. On the road to fluency, she studies everything from the graffiti on the walls of Pompeii to the melodic beauty of Dante's Divine Comedy. And as she traces the evolution of the language, the history of the country, its art and its food, she serves up linguistic delicacies that give us a taste of what makes Italian such an emotionally expressive language.

Italian is number 24 on the list of the world's spoken languages, but it's the fourth most studied language in the world. So if you have ever studied Italian, dream about studying it or just want to know more about 'the world's most enchanting language," then this is the book for you.

Blue Highways, A Journey Into America
by William Least Heat Moon
1982, 411 pages

In the late 1970s, after losing his wife to another man and his teaching job at a Missouri college to budget cuts, Least Heat Moon decides that "a man who couldn't make things go right could at least go." And so begins his journey down America's back roads (printed in blue on old maps).  It's a three month, 13,000-mile trip that takes him through 375 mostly small and often forgotten towns - towns with names like Bug, Chucky, Grit, Snowflake and Nameless. (Click here to see all the towns he visited.) Along the way, he meets extraordinary people living often ordinary lives. They invite him into their homes and he, in turn,  tells their stories with empathy and wit, perfectly capturing the cadence and style of their language. 

Blue Highways is a wonderful road trip through an America that most of us never see from the Interstate, a book that remains as fresh and engaging as the day it was published more than 40 years ago.   

After reading this book, you may want to take to the back roads yourself. If you do, you will find that the Blue Highway America is still out there waiting for you. JR and I discovered that not so long ago when we took the back roads home to Ann Arbor from our cabin in northern Michigan. In the process, we stumbled on Trufant, “the Stump Fence Capital of America." Everywhere in this small town perched on the edge of a lake called Muskellunge, homes, gardens, parks and squares are enclosed with fences made of enormous stumps of long-ago-logged Michigan trees. In case you are interested, the town also has an annual fall jubilee where after your pancake breakfast, you can participate in the frog jumping contest or the greased pig scramble. 

My Life in France
by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
2007, 333 pages

This is a lovely, funny, charming memoir by the woman who introduced America to the art of French cooking. As Child herself puts it, it's a book about "some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating.

The book begins in 1948 when Julia arrives in Paris with Paul. She speaks not a word of French, knows nothing about France, and can't cook. Her desire to learn and her zest for life, however, soon take her to the Cordon Bleu for cooking lessons. For the next six years, her life in France unfolds in a series of vignettes which she infuses with her love for France, its people and most of all, its food.

Yes, Meryl Streep played a wonderful Julia Child in the film Julie & Julia, but for the voice of the real Julia Child, you'll want to read this captivating book.

Happy Reading, 

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


  1. Thank you for these great recommendations, Geraldine! My wish list grows ever longer!

  2. nice i am going to read and have already ordered La Bella Lingua My Love Affair with italian, The World's Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales sounds like fun! D.

  3. Blue Highways is one of my favorite books! I also read River Horse by him. I liked it too, but he didn't include as much personal info as he did in Blue Highways. Vicky

  4. You might be interested to know that Least Heat Moon just
    published "Writing Blue Highways." Here is the link:,2172.aspx

  5. I look forward to each installment of the Travel Oyster that makes me forget for a few minutes that I have deadlines to meet and projects to complete. Thanks for the book recommendations. I too fell in love with The Hare With Amber Eyes and have given it as gifts to my art-appreciating friends. G.G.

  6. Thanks, Geri. I am going to put them on my Xmas wish list.


Thanks for your comments.