Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Monuments Men - Robert M. Edsel

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in HistoryThe Monuments Men came to my attention during one of the most awesome courses I took in college, "Indiana Jones in History," which wasn't about Indiana Jones so much as it was about historiography--that is, who gets to tell history and how they form those narratives.  As part of the course, we read The Rape of Europa, which is about the looting of art, sculptures, etc. from locations all across Europe during World War II, as well as the efforts to protect and preserve those same cultural items and to retrieve the ones that were stolen.  It was interesting, and the Monuments Men factored into it, and I consequently didn't really have any interest in reading The Monuments Men because I figured The Rape of Europa had already covered it all.  And then, of course, The Monuments Men became a movie.  I still didn't really have any interest in reading it...until the Popsugar Reading Challenge threw out "A book that was made into a movie."  While I had other books that had become movies, I'd also picked up The Monuments Men when it was on sale on Kindle, so I figured this was as good a time as ever to read it.  And?  Well, it was much, much better than The Rape of Europa.

Don't get me wrong.  Europa was good.  But it was a very academic work, one that was written for more of an art history audience.  It seemed to rely heavily on the reader knowing the names of tons of artists and tons of pieces of art, and its scope meant that it went from place to place very quickly.  The Monuments Men also jumped from place to place, but Edsel did this very purposefully to build tension and cover a select handful of people rather than to just cover as much territory as humanly possible.  Edsel also focuses exclusively on the work of the Monuments Men in the areas of France, Germany, and Austria, mostly from D-Day onward, and the recovery efforts of the few who made it into the Monuments Men's ranks.  By restraining his scope, Edsel manages to make this a narrative history that, while it's well-noted and researched, still manages to be engaging and readable to someone who isn't totally versed in either WWII history or art.  Instead of producing laundry lists of art and artists, Edsel uses a few well-known artists (Vermeer, Michelangelo) and a few iconic pieces of art (The Astronomer) to illustrate his points and keep a continuous narrative.  Consequently, the book is informative while also reading like a gripping war story.

I had two main complaints about this book.  The first was the chapter length.  Edsel's chapters vary wildly in length; some are only a handful of pages long, taking less than five minutes to read.  Others are more than four times that long.  While none of the chapters were bad, the differences in length could be frustrating.  There were many times that I wouldn't start a new chapter because I just didn't have time for it--though if it had been the length of the other chapters, I could have read two or three more.  The other complaint was that, at the end, Edsel suddenly seems to switch from telling a story to solving a mystery.  I didn't necessarily mind the mystery-solving aspect, because most history books do revolve around an argument that tries to "solve" some aspect of history.  However, in most cases, the entire book revolves around building and supporting an argument; any narratives are secondary to the argument.  In this case, it was the other way around.  Most of the book was a narrative, and the argument came out of nowhere at the end, which just seemed...odd.

Okay, there was a third thing, and that was that Edsel suddenly took a moralistic approach at the end.  World War II was horrible on so many fronts.  We know that.  (Well, most of us do.  There are certainly Holocaust deniers out there, but I doubt they'd be reading this to begin with.)  Edsel's random preachy moment at the end, about one of the Monuments Men recovering a painting that he, as a German Jew, had never been allowed to see when it was on display, came across as rather abrupt, and it would have been best if it had been either left out or worked in a bit more subtly...which would have been hard, because the Monuments Man in question really wasn't even involved for most of the story, and instead seemed to have been incorporated only for this purpose.  It was weird.

Despite the rather jarring bits at the end which didn't seem to properly incorporated, I did enjoy this.  The narrative style worked well, and the book as a whole was engaging.  I definitely read on later than I should have on several occasions, because it was just so good.  I might even read this one again.  Maybe.  We'll see.

4 stars out of 5.

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