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26 August 2018

Book Review: The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a great story told with the indecision not only of what to include and leave out but simply how to tell it. Edsel, and Witter, who is credited with co-authoring, decided early in the book to leave out the Italy Monuments Men but, after having read it, I wish they had focused even more. The survey they tried to do left me confused about who was who and jumping back and forth over the continent chaotically, much like the Monuments Men themselves.

I feel like now that this story is being rehabilitated, better popular histories will emerge. I can only hope they will, because these are great stories about the Greatest Generation. I don't think we'll ever fully understand the magnitude of what they saved.

Nor are we giving culture and art the same priority in our current world-wide conflicts. We still have a thing or two to learn, I think.

"If, in time of peace, our museums and art galleries are important to the community, in time of war they are doubly valuable. For then, when the petty and the trivial fall way and we are face to face with final and lasting values, we...must summon to our defense all intellectual and spiritual resources. We must guard jealously all we have inherited from a long past, all we are capable of creating in a trying present, and all we are determined to preserve in a foreseeable future." Minutes of a Special Meeting of the Association of Museum Directors, 1941

The provenance and ownership of art can be a tangled web and war tangles the tangle. Take the Ghent Altarpiece, one of the masterworks of Western art. Hitler's K├╝mmel Report, commissioned in 1940, laid Germanic claim to much of Europe's valued art.

"The inventory listed every work of art in the Western world--France, the Netherlands, Britain, and even the United States--that rightly belonged to Germany. Under Hitler's definition, this included every work taken from Germany since 1500, every work by any artist of German or Austrian descent, every work commissioned or completed in Germany, and every work deemed to have been executed in a Germanic style.

The Ghent Altarpiece, though fully Belgian, was deemed Germanic in style. But there was further claim. Prior to World War 1, Germany owned six side panels of the Ghent Altarpiece. The Treaty of Versailles was designed to punish and decimate Germany. It was the thorn in Hitler's side, to him, it was the fullest representation of the humiliation that the rest of Europe visited on Germany and the most concrete example of the failings of German leaders of the past. It was such a flashpoint for Hitler that when Germany overran France in 1940, Hitler had his underlings locate the exact railcar in which the Treaty had been signed. And in that railcar, he forced the French to sign a new treaty.

But Hitler wasn't done. In accordance with the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to return the Ghent Altarpiece panels to Belgium as war reparations. So, for Hitler, stealing the panels back, and acquiring the rest of the Altarpiece, was personal.

The Ghent Altarpiece was one of the holy grails of Monuments Men work. Michelangelo's Bruges Madonna was another. The Nazis looted the Louvre (thoughJ acques Jaujard had already secretly removed almost 4,000 of the most important works). But there were also thousands upon thousands of minor works. There were the art collections of prominent Jews. And, near the end of the war, the treasures of Germany hidden from the Allies.

The Monuments men were looking for all of it. They were also trying to protect important buildings from destruction. They were protecting spires, stained glass, Roman ruins.

The Germans hid many works in salt mines. Salt, which used to make the world go round (it was so valuable that Roman legionnaires were sometimes paid in salt, from whence we get our word "salary.") became important again, but only as a bystander to the salvation of the world's art and culture.

They also hid art in aristocratic castles, like Neuschwanstein and others. Lincoln Kirstein (who after the war started the NY Ballet with Balanchine) had a run-in with a German countess that he describes in delicious detail in a letter home. "One lovely old countess received us in bed. She only had one poor little room in this elegant old mansion, and almost broke her neck flying into bed no doubt, as we swept into the court. She was an ancient bitch, Italian, who married a great german name, and is harboring a whole slue of art dealers, young 'sick' counts and barons...and my, have they had a terrible time. They almost didn't get out of Paris in time, and them with their weak lungs...she only had one little insignificant request to make. It seems some displaced Russian jewish polack american negroes had taken to shooting the deer in the animal-park, and it was not in season, and it was giving the chief forester NIGHTMARES."

This was the aristocracy that made Hitler's rise possible. They rode the wave, toasted themselves and their brilliance in Paris, then went home to hide and escape prosecution when the war started going the other way, often with their railway cars stuffed with stolen art.

Then they told fantastic stories about how they were never Nazis in the first place. Some claimed hardship. Some claimed torture. Others claimed they had never believed. Heinrich Hoffman, Hitler's photographer, had grown rich off of Nazism. But he had never been a "...believer, only an economic opportunist. Wasn't this the American way?"

Edsel writes that history is "more often than not a messy combination of intention, courage, preparation, and chance."

And at the end, Edsel encapsulates one of the ironies of the war. Harry Ettlinger, a translator with the Monuments Men, had been born a German Jew. He escaped to America in 1938, right after his bar mitzvah, and then was drafted by the American Army the day he graduated from high school. Growing up in Karlsruhe, he was never allowed, as a Jew, to go to the Staatliche Kunsthalle, where the prized exhibit was a self-portrait by Rembrandt. After the war, Ettlinger was photographed saving the very Rembrandt he had always heard about, but had never been allowed to see. https://static.timesofisrael.com/www/...

I look forward to reading more about the Monuments Men as their story is coming into focus in the 21st century.

And apropos of nothing, this is a description of a Monuments Man named Walter Huchthausen, who was killed in action.

"...the few people who saw him at his job--friend and enemy--must think more of the human race because of him."

We should all strive to be the kind of person about whom things like this are said.

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03 June 2018

Book Review: The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House

The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill HouseThe Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: or the Murder at Road Hill House by Kate Summerscale
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

With blurbs like "Gripping, unputdownable" I expected more from this book.

I found it putdownable in both senses of the word. It was obtuse, disorganized, and unsatisfying.

The introduction set me up for a thrilling read. Then Summerscale dissertationed the heck out of it, heading off on trivial tangents, spending pages saying virtually nothing, and never giving the reader the satisfaction of insight.

Summerscale describes the investigation into the crime as "...like a torch swung round onto sudden movements, into corners and up stairwells." And, indeed, her book was the same, though she let her flashlight rest on minutiae far more than necessary, perhaps in an attempt to create content where there was no content.

Some interesting trivia about the development of the idea of a "detective" and fiction devoted to the craft, though. The word "clue" derives from "clew" which means "ball of thread." The word had come to mean "that which points the way" do the the myth of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. The word "detect" comes from the Latin de-tegere which means "unroof." Summerscale says "the original figure of the detective was the lame devil Asmodeus, 'the prince of demons,' who took the roofs off houses to spy on the lives inside." The term "red herring" was not invented until 1884 and derives from something that puts bloodhounds off a scent.

And this, from an 1853 editorial in the London Times was moving to me;
"Nothing can be more slightly defined than the line of demarcation between sanity and insanity . . . make the definition too narrow, it becomes meaningless; make it too wide, and the whole human race becomes involved in the dragnet. in strictness we are all mad when we give way to passion, to prejudice, to vice, to vanity; but if all the passionate, prejudiced and vain people were to be locked up as lunatics, who is to keep the key to the asylum?"

But otherwise? Skip it.

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26 May 2018

Book Review: Camino Island

Camino IslandCamino Island by John Grisham
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

We picked this up at the airport in Paris. We are about to move from Africa, back to the US for the summer, and then to Shenzhen, China in the fall. Because of this, we are trying to reduce our weight; meaning we need to be able to fit our belongings in 7 boxes weighing less than 50 lbs each.

So we told the kid we weren't buying any more books. His argument was, "But it's about F. Scott Fitzgerald's manuscripts! Dad LOVES Gatsby!"

We bought it. It's a paperback. Those don't weigh much, right?

I haven't read much recent Grisham. I loved his early best-sellers -- The Firm, Pelican Brief, A Time to Kill-- but then I stopped reading him.

I expected something different from this book, the plot of which seemed to wander about in a lethargic way, like a southerner telling a tall tale while sipping lemonade on a wrap-around porch during a hot summer afternoon. I didn't think Grisham was capable of wandering. But this book is mostly spent lavishing with a cast of characters that would be more comfortable in a lazy summer beach read.

The New York Times wrote the book "reads as if Grisham is taking a vacation from writing John Grisham novels." Yes. That. Exactly.

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23 May 2018

Book Review: The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train RobberyThe Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I used my "define words by context" skills quite a bit in this book;

"It was the stickman's job to take the pogue once Teddy had snaffled it, thus leaving Teddy clean..."

"She's a judy. Clean Willy's doll. Pinches laundry, doesn't she? Aye, she does a bit of snow."

"Every night. It's the reeb that does it. Reeb gives a man a powerful urge."

"That's the lay? You popped me out of Newgate for this? This is no shakes, to knock over a deadlurk."

Finally, on page 179, Crichton admits to the cryptic nature of the slang;
"'Dressed proper, with good manner, but speaks a wave lag from Liverpool, and he can voker a romeny." Harrenby glanced at Sharp, in the corner. From time to time, even Harranby needed some help in translation."

The word "cockchafer" was used multiple times before it was defined at the end of the book as a treadmill used to punish prisoners.

This is historical fiction. But one would make a mistake if one actually tried to learn history from this historical fiction. Crichton is an unreliable historian. Though he mentions well-known things from history, like the Crystal Palace from the 1851 Great Exhibition, he also fully invents some things, like the story of George Bateson.

Google George Bateson. There are several articles citing as fact that he invented a system to prevent people from being buried alive. But, in fact, this "fact" originated in this book. Crichton made it up and, through a series of erroneous citations, Crichton's fiction has been elevated by some to fact.

I took it as fact. Then I thought to myself, "Huh. I wonder if 'bats in the belfry' comes from Bateson and his belfry?" It doesn't, of course. George's name and the name of his fictional device is a joke, designed to make the reader think of the phrase, not the other way around.

The Bateson story doesn't happen until 3/4ths of the way through the book. Makes me wonder how many other asides I took on faith as accurate Victorian history when they were really just fanciful inventions of Crichton's imagination. Is a cockchafter even real?

Just another reminder to read, research, and check your facts with reliable sources before you claim something as real. A good lesson to learn, again, in this age of "fake news."

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19 May 2018

Book Review: The Other Einstein

The Other EinsteinThe Other Einstein by Marie Benedict
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I hate reading about abused women. I hate having to be a bystander while these women make decision after decision to stay with a person who only seeks to invalidate and minimize them.

So I did not like this book.

It was interesting to me that the word "mercurial" popped up every five pages or so. Either that was a calculated conceit by the author or she needs a better editor.

However, I did enjoy the clarity with which the idea for the theory of relativity comes to Mitza; "What would happen if the train left the station not at sixty kilometres and hour but at close to the speed of light? What would happen to time? If the train left the station at rapid speeds approaching the speed of light, the clock's hands would still move, but the train would be moving so quickly that light could not catch up with it. The faster the train accelerated, the slower the hands would move, ultimately freezing once the train reached the speed of light. Time would effectively freeze. And if the train could go faster than the speed of light, then time might roll backwards."

I also enjoyed this nugget of reflection on why great people who are also awful people are sometimes universally adored; "It's as if they've transformed their professional admiration into unshakeable personal affection, no matter how contemptibly he has acted."

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15 April 2018

Book Review: Timeline

TimelineTimeline by Michael Crichton
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Interesting idea but poorly executed and written. I did not care about even one character, which was a shame. The descriptions of the Middle Ages were intriguing (as well as the lecturing about how we have the Middle Ages all wrong) but I wanted a better story, or, rather, a story that was peopled as carefully as it was plotted.

"In other centuries, human beings wanted to be saved, or improved, or freed, or educated. But in our century, they want to be entertained. The great fear is not of disease or death, but of boredom. A sense of time on our hands, a sense of nothing to do. A sense that we are not amused."

"If you didn't know history, you didn't know anything. You were a leaf that didn't know it was part of a tree."

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14 March 2018

Book Review: Pompeii

PompeiiPompeii by Robert   Harris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I devoured this book. As someone said in the Goodreads thread, "To focus on the water systems of Pompeii and surrounding towns as effected by the imminent volcanic eruption is genius and I can't put this book down. Think it is a great way to add interest to an event we already know of the outcome."

The idea of aqueducts has always been fascinating, though I lack the specific engineering understanding to fully comprehend how amazing they actually were. I've seen the ruins of several (most impressively, Segovia in Spain and Pont du Gard in France) but knowing that before laser measuring and surveying, Roman engineers were able to build these massive, yet delicately-designed, structures. "The great Roman roads went crashing through Nature in a straight line, brooking no opposition. But the aqueducts, which had to drop the width of a finger every hundred yards--any more and the flow would rupture the walls; any less and the water would lie stagnant--they were obliged to follow the contours of the ground. Sometimes it was only the eagles, soaring in the hot air above some lonely mountainscape, who could appreciate the true majesty of what men had wrought."

Harris is a good writer in the sense that I was never given pause by his structure. Nor was I frequently blown away by his prose, save for a few dog ears like this one, where he is describing how smell and touch set off memory;

"But lately almost anything could set it off--a touch, a smell, a sound, a colour glimpsed--and immediately memories he did not know he still possessed came flooding back, as if there was nothing left of him any more but a breathless sack of remembered impressions."

I enjoyed every bit of it. Not once was I thrown off by the anachronistic coupling of language using modern terms cuddled up with Roman terms. Nor was I thrown off by the fictionalization of known Roman citizens.

Harris puts thoughts into Pliny the Elder's mind (and I'll leave it to the learned historians to determine how accurate his imaginings might be, although in the Acknowledgements, Harris says that Mary Beard read the manuscript and provided feedback; having just finished SPQR, I tend to trust that Beard knows what she's talking about) but one stream of consciousness Harris attributes to Pliny's thought process was particularly moving;

"Perhaps Mother Nature is punishing us, he thought, for our greed and selfishness. We torture her at all hours by iron and wood, fire and stone. We dig her up and then dump her in the sea. We sink mineshafts into her and drag out her entrails--and all for a jewel to wear on a pretty finger. Who can blame her if she occasionally quivers with anger?"

Ampliatus, the villain of the piece, wants his work in Pompeii to be important through the ages. He also wants to use predictions of the future as a way to solidify his power, so he commissions a sibyl, a fortune-teller, to give him a prophecy. And it's this prophecy that causes him to stay in the town as it is being pelted by ash and pumice; his conviction that Pompeii will survive.

"She saw a town--our town--many years from now. A thousand years distant, maybe more. She saw a city famed throughout the world. Our temples, our ampitheatre, our streets--thronging with people of every tongue. That is what she saw in the guts of the snakes. Long after the Caesars are dust and the Empire has passed away, what we have built here will endure."

The moral? Interpreting prophecy can dangerous.

"It killed more than two thousand people in less than half a minute and it left their bodies arranged in a series of grotesque tableaux for posterity to gawp at. For although their hair and clothes burned briefly, these fires were quickly snuffed out by the lack of oxygen, and instead a muffling, six-foot tide of fine ash, traveling in the wake of the surge, flowed over the city, shrouding the landscape and moulding every detail of its fallen victims.The ash hardened. More pumice fell. In their snug cavities the bodies rotted, and with them, as the centuries passed, the memory that there had even ben a city on this spot. Pompeii became a town of perfectly shaped hollow citizens."

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Book Review: SPQR

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The snob in me was prepared to hate this book. Like a learn-ed history teacher probably should.

But, me, I am not so learn-ed. And my knowledge of Rome was spotty, at best. SPQR helped me put everything together in a chronological order that finally helps me understand Rome.

See, it's not just empire. First it was a city-state run by Etruscan kings. Then there was the Lucretia incident, a likely mythical tipping point for Roman citizens to overthrow their foreign king and form a republic (I actually played Lucretia in the Britten opera once but never quite made the connection as to what point of Roman history all of it...too busy learning notes and blocking to learn history; shame). The Roman Republic was born at approximately the exact same time as Athenian democracy, but neither was glorious and fully formed at any point in history; at best, it was always a bunch of rich people struggling to retain their power. Then Julius Caesar is murdered, because they were worried he was becoming too powerful, and Octavian becomes Augustus Caesar, who became the power-concentrated-in-one-person those who killed Caesar feared.

Beard puts all of this together in an attractive narrative that gives just enough detail to keep me interested and intrigued but not so much as to overwhelm. I'm what she knows about Rome that she left out of this book would fill volumes.

As usual, the greatest pleasure of history is the interesting trivia about things I've never thought about before.

Like the word "Aborigine" comes from ab origine meaning "from the beginning."

Or September comes from "7th month" (October, 8th, November, 9th, December (10th) because the old Roman calendar was structured differently and then suffered from development as they were continuously challenged to find a way to keep time that was consistent but also matched with the natural rhythms of the world, which has 365 1/4 days in a lunar year (back then, once in a while, they'd add an extra month to get things back on track; now we add an extra day every four years)

Or the fact that, of course, they did not calculate time like we do. BC, AD, BCE, CE; all a product of our modern sensibilities applied after-the-fact to ancient times. Romans usually referred to dates by the names of the consul who held office.

Or the fact that in the 4th century BCE, the base of the main platform for speakers in the Forum was decorated with the bronze rams of enemy warships captured from the city of Antium during the Latin War. The Latin word for "rams" is rostra, from where we get the word "rostrum."

Or the idea that the very idea of an electoral government is flawed because of the eternal conflict over whether the elected official is a "delegate," bound to vote exactly the way the people who elected him wish him to, or a "representative," elected to exercise his own judgement.

I'm writing this review 3 full days after I finished the book and I've already forgotten 80% of what I learned.

So I'll have to read it again. Then again. Then one more time. And I suspect it will be enjoyable each time because I'll have forgotten that I learned all this once or twice before. Everything old is new again.

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