Books on Screen: The Monuments Men

Have you ever been somewhere in Europe, like the Louvre or the Rijkmuseum, and wondered how on earth all of these paintings survived the fiery destruction of the Second World War? Or had the privilege of visiting Mont St. Michel in France or Neuschwanstein in Bavaria, and marveled at the fact that they are still intact?

If you stop and think about it, you will realize what a miracle it actually is.

Until you read Robert M. Edsel’s The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and realize that it was less of a miracle and more due to the hard work and dogged perseverance of a select group of art historians, architects and sculptors.

Sometimes the advent of a movie based on a book is a great thing. It brings attention to a book that might otherwise have been overlooked by most people. I’m not sure I would have been aware of this book if it weren’t for the movie. I’m ashamed to admit it, but there you are.


The book itself is incredible. At first my eyes kind of glazed over at the mention of battle particulars (a common failing of mine) but I soon got used to the pace of the novel: the battle details are mentioned to set the scene for you, so that you, who never lived through anything resembling World War II, can have an idea of the scope of the devastation. Once I got through that, I realized that Edsel is talented like Erik Larson at telling a non-fiction tale in the style of a novel. He introduces us to real-life people that sound like storybook heroes and villains, from the always impeccable George Stout, to the bull-dog like James Rorimer, the quiet brilliance of Rose Valland, and the immense bulk and self-serving ego of Hermann Goering.

We follow these men (and one woman) as they make their way through Europe, trying to save as many historic monuments as possible. We feel the pain of history lost at Saint-Lo where the whole town is basically levelled; the frustration as the Brugges Madonna slips through their fingers again; the elation upon their discovery of hundreds of famous paintings hoarded in one place.

The book is full of interesting tidbits that are sure to come in handy next time you play Trivial Pursuit. For instance, the word salary comes from the salt that was paid to Roman legionnaires since, at the time salt was the basis of all life. Or that the Nazis pillaged hundreds of private collections and stored hundreds of them in the fairy tale castle, Neuschwanstein.

I loved this book and now I can’t wait to see the movie. The work these men did to save hundreds of years of cultural history is an enormous gift to humanity and I’m glad that they are finally getting some recognition.

I leave you with the movie trailer in the hopes that it inspires you to search out the book. Also – a little George Clooney or Matt Damon never did anyone any harm.


Abandoned Read: Catch-22

I’m so ashamed. I think this is the third time this year that I am considering abandoning or full on walking away from, a book.

I’ve never had a year where I’ve made so many wrong book choices for myself! Or for other people! First there was the debacle with The Prague Cemetery. Then I was seduced by Michael Fassbender and decided to read the book before seeing the movie and A Dangerous Method! Oh man! I could NOT get through it. And I tried twice. I still haven’t seen the movie, having been completely scarred by the non-awesome of the book.

And now! Worst of all, I have abandoned a classic.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 is hailed as an American masterpiece. The title has worked itself into our lexicon, so important and groundbreaking and masterful is this work. Every time I chose another book over it, I felt a little stab of guilt. It was just sitting there all blue and 50th Anniversary like. So when I finished My Life in France I thought that I should probably finally devote myself to Catch-22.

For those of you that have not had the (non) pleasure, Catch-22 is the story of World War II pilots stationed in Italy. Their commander keeps raising the number of missions needed to be eligible to go home and the men are all starting to lose their minds. The premise of the book centres on this ridiculous rule, the Catch-22 that says that a man is considered insane if he willingly flies these missions, but if he requests not to fly, to be removed from duty because the mission is so dangerous, then he is proven sane and ineligible for grounding.

Amazing right?

Except I got 150 pages in and I still had no idea what was happening most of the time. I felt no affinity for any of the characters, I was mostly annoyed by their conversations which tended to go round and round without saying anything at all. It’s the kind of book that I just know my brother will love and I will most likely just give it to him so that I don’t have to keep looking at this book that I never read. It will haunt me like the Tell-Tale Heart.

I never make book abandonment decisions lightly. In this case I consulted a few friends and the authority of Goodreads.com to see if I was the only reader not smart enough to get this book. I’m not. And when my friend told me that he had read the book but it took him a long time and he didn’t like it, that pretty much sealed the deal for me.

I have since tucked the offending book high up on my shelves in the hopes that I won’t notice it much until I give it to my brother. In the meantime I have begun reading a seriously disturbing book about a serial killer in Nazi-occupied Paris. Delightful.