Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel

The Monuments Men cover

The Monuments Men
by Robert M. Edsel
with Bret Witter

Hardbackback: 496 pages
Publisher: Center Street
First Released: 2009

Book Website
Author on Twitter
Buy from Amazon

Source: ARC from publisher

Back Cover Description (modified by me):
In what is perhaps the last major story about World War II that hasn't been told, a little-known Allied division called the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives section was given the mission to help protect important historical buildings from war damage and to find European art treasures and historical documents that had been looted by the Nazis at Hitler's command. The art included works from Michelangelo and Da Vinci to Van Eycks and Vermeers.

In a race against time, often near the front lines, and each man working on his own, they organized protection and rebuilding for historical buildings while also gathering and putting together the scraps of information needed to locate hidden caches of movable art. These unlikely heroes, mostly middle-aged family men, went from quiet lives (mostly involved in the art world) into the epicenter of war, risking--and sometimes losing--their lives.

This is their story.

The Monuments Men uses letters written by the Monuments Men and other documents to tell the story why the MFAA section was created and what eight of those men encountered while doing work in Normandy, France and in Germany.

The book assumes the reader doesn't know much about WWII and so fills in the details about the war occurring around them as we learn where they went and what they found and did there. The first part is mainly about how the MFAA section was formed and the problems they encountered in the field because no one else in the military seemed to know about them. The book picks up in excitement (at least, for me) once they get more organized and start tracking down the movable artwork. This part reads like a detective story with the fate of both the artwork and the men searching for it in question.

The story jumps around a bit in time and place as we switch from one Monuments Man to another. The author gives plenty of information so the reader will remember which man this is and what he was last doing, but this started to feel repetitious to me near the end. Also, some stories brought up small points that were never resolved (like a request from a priest to a Monuments Man to get several boys who where his fire brigade released from the Allies--we never know if he succeeded). But perhaps this was because that information was never given in the letters and documents used to make this book.

It would have been nice to have photos of the major pieces of artwork that are mentioned, but the Advanced Readers Copy didn't have them. The back of the ARC did say, though, that 16 pages of photo inserts are included in the final book, though, so likely these will be included among those photos.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. I think it would most appeal to people who love artwork or who want to know everything there is to know about WWII.

If you've read this book, what do you think about it? I'd be honored if you wrote your own opinion of the book in the comments.

Excerpt from Chapter Thirty-Six, page 290
Slowly, the Monuments Men began to realize just how much was hidden in the Merkers mines. Crated sculpture, hastily packed, with photographs clipped from museum catalogues to show what was inside. Ancient Egyptian papyri in metal cases, which the salt mine had reduced to the consistency of wet cardboard. There was no time to examine the priceless antiquities inside, for in other rooms there were ancient Greek and Roman decorative works, Byzantine mosaics, Islamic rugs, leather and buckram portfolio boxes. Hidden in an inconspicuous side room, they found the original woodcuts of Albrecht Durer's famous Apocalypse series of 1498. And then more crates of paintings--a Rubens, a Goya, a Cranach packed together with minor works.

"There's no order," Kirstein said. "Time periods and styles mixed together, masterpieces alongside novelties, boxes from different museums. What happened here?"

"They were packed by size," Posey said, pointing out the uniformity of the paintings in one of the crates.

Read the first few pages of the book.

No comments: