Summer Reading, Part II: Family Sagas, Dilemmas and a Treasure Hunt

July 2, 2012 — Whether it's a story that covers multiple generations or one family in particular, two members of the University of Virginia community have some good reads to recommend about family dilemmas.

Suggestions from Bruce Boucher, director of the Fralin Art Museum, and Beth Blanton-Kent, who works in the Charles L. Brown Science & Engineering Library, range from books about an art collection to an alligator-wrestling theme park.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show about Bruce Boucher's reading picks:

Boucher included a nonfiction title that touches on U.Va.'s recent "family" crisis, "College: What It Was, Is and Should Be," written by Columbia University humanities professor Andrew Delbanco. Boucher, who also teaches art history in the College of Arts & Sciences, called it "required reading."

"I think it particularly appeals to me because, being an academic and also being in a research university, it addresses the stress between the role of undergraduate education, which is the traditional focal point of higher education, and research, which has now become the engine of higher education," he said.

A June 8 New York Times Sunday Book Review said, "At a time when many are trying to reduce the college years to a training period for economic competition, Delbanco reminds readers of the ideal of democratic education."

To Boucher, "Delbanco asks honest questions, looks at the situation unsentimentally, and it looks like it will be a salubrious reminder of the kind of issues that we've been facing here in Charlottesville and across the nation in recent times."

Closer to Boucher's art history interests, "The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance," follows a family's collection of 264 Japanese carvings, called netsukes, that is passed down through the Ephrussi family, who grew rich and powerful in Vienna in the 19th century, he said. A descendant, Edmund De Waal, a well-known ceramic artist, went on "a treasure hunt," as Boucher put it, and wrote the true story after he received the collection of small, carved pieces as a wedding gift from his uncle.

"It's an interesting story of the rise and fall, financially speaking, of a powerful Jewish family, who at first became part of the establishment, considered themselves secular, and then, with the rise of anti-Semitism in Vienna in the 1890s, and then particularly with the Anschluss with Germany in 1938, were persecuted," Boucher said. "In spite of this, they managed to hang on to this one part of their fabulous art collection, these netsukes which escaped with them to London and then went to Japan with Leo Ephrussi after World War II, and then at Leo's death were given to his nephew, Edmund De Waal."

Boucher also recommends the novels of Joseph Roth, especially the multi-generational volume, "Radesky March," about the decline of the fictional Trotta family, along with the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The novel concludes with Archduke Ferdinand's assassination in 1914.

Boucher said he regards Roth as one of the best writers of the 20th century, comparable to Marcel Proust. The translator, Michael Hoffman, has done an excellent job rendering the novel from German into English, he said.

Blanton-Kent, who, like Boucher, reads widely, recommends several books, nonfiction and fiction.

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show about Beth Blanton-Kent's reading picks:

"Swamplandia!" is a "quirky and innovative" first novel by Karen Russell about a 13-year-old girl wrestling with her own family's decline, including its failing business – an alligator-wrestling theme park.

"It's Barbara Kingsolver meets Stephen King," Blanton-Kent quipped.

"Swamplandia!" is set in the Florida Everglades, and that makes all the difference in the story. "The author does an excellent job of using the primal sense of the murky and dark swamp," she said. "It really provides an interesting framework, as well as the foreboding and foreshadowing of events that will take place later on."

"Swamplandia!" is a story of hope, of loss and of family, Blanton-Kent said. "It's a great read."

She also described another character she finds fascinating, who's disaffected from his military family, in a series by author Lee Child. His 16th and latest book, "The Affair," chronicles more experiences in the life of Jack Reacher, who becomes a drifter after a career as a military police officer. Reacher ends up helping people in trouble, who seem to gravitate toward him.

"It's my guilty pleasure," Blanton-Kent said, since the popular crime series probably won't go down in history as a literary classic. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal called it "compulsively readable." There's a movie in the works, too, with Tom Cruise playing Reacher, she said.

Blanton-Kent also enjoys travel books, and recommends British writer Eric Newby, who died in 2006. She read his 1958 book, "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kusch" about his trip in Afghanistan to climb the 20,000-foot peak, Mir Samir – even though he'd never done any mountain climbing. She's planning to read "On the Shores of the Mediterranean" this summer.

"He revels in his experiences, bad or good," she said. She likes his voice, his "somewhat sardonic sense of humor" and his style of conveying information, she said.

For a title that appealed to her as a librarian, Blanton-Kent recommends the nonfiction tome, "The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood," by James Gleick, a writer noted for delving into science and technology. It speaks to how modern perceptions and definitions of information have changed since the 1940s, accelerated by the computer.

"It's an interesting combination of philosophy, logic, linguistics, a little mathematics and some anecdotes that describe how information is created, accessed, stored and communicated," she said.

"It's somewhat of a daunting book, but it's fascinating how information has changed and the ways that we consume it. ... One review called it 'sexily theoretical.'"

No matter how a particular book engages her, Blanton-Kent said she never goes anywhere without "a book tucked in my backpack or the car." Having added an e-book reader to her collection, she said she now has an electronic pile of books, as well as physical stacks of books, waiting for her.

— by Anne Bromley