I am one of those people who understands history through art. Partly for the classic idea that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, but also because the concept of “this artist made this during this time while these things were happening” just somehow clicks with me. To me, art IS history, so I am always a bit baffled when I hear other people snicker or gripe at stories that come out about people who make heroic efforts to save a piece of artwork as if the idea that a person would put themselves in danger to save history is somehow silly. I am also one of those people who understands things by relating them to movies made in the 1980’s. And thanks to the Back to the Future Trilogy, those of us living in the twenty-first century should all now be fully aware of how saving history will also save our future.

But alas, earwax! The Back to the Future Trilogy did not exist during World War II! Can you imagine telling a Superior Officer in the military (who has no IDEA what Jan Van Eyck painted, nor what song Marty McFly sang after his parents’ first kiss) that he needs to set free a recently captured group of German Soldiers because a German Monk told you that they are the only men trained to keep a historical church from catching on fire from the bombs the Allies are still blasting at the city? Yeah, he may not take it that well…

Luckily, the small group of men and women assigned to the MFAA, the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives Division, understood the importance of their job even when others did not, and were able to save the history (and thus, the culture, spirit and future) of Europe from total destruction. Their story, after being forgotten for many years, is finally receiving worldwide attention thanks to the wonderful book by Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter), The Monuments Men : Allied heroes, Nazi thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History and the new movie based on Edsel’s book, Monuments Men, directed by and starring George Clooney.

Led by George Stout, an art conservation pioneer from Iowa (and who Clooney based his fictional film character on–Learn more about George Stout here: http://bit.ly/MeLsKn), the MFAA members managed to protect historical world sites from unnecessary bombings, repair sites damaged due to necessary bombings, protect priceless cultural items from looting by both the Nazis and Allies, and track down and conduct emergency conservation efforts on millions of items stolen by the Nazis and return them to their rightful countries and owners, including those owned by Germany. And here is the super amazing part, although the MFAA would eventually include hundreds of members (still a very small amount compared to the millions who served during WWII), the Monuments Men numbered UNDER TEN MEMBERS during their most critical period to save all of the art in NORTHERN EUROPE (and unlike in the film, they were mostly working ALONE). As the brilliant Dr. Emmett Brown would say, “Great Scott!”

Robert Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men, as well as his companion books and the related documentary, The Rape of Europa, are must-sees for those interested in Art History, World History and Military History as well as anyone who likes a good treasure hunt around Europe.

~~Sigh~~ A windswept island, daring escapes from Nazis, British country estates, dancing with soldiers in London, writing Food Ministry brochures extolling the values of carrots to hungry British citizens and a funny little sister who bullies a young Princess Elizabeth at a aristocratic Girl Guides Meeting. The Montmaray Journals by Michelle Cooper (a series of three lovely books: A Brief History of Montmaray, The FitzOsbornes in Exile, and The FitzOsbornes at War) are those kind of books where the narrator feels so natural, so familiar that I often forget that the stories in the book didn’t actually happen to me. Sadly, the memories are not all pleasant. These books are about a teenager’s family evolving and trying to survive World War II, all with the weight of a small country on their shoulders. I had originally written “evolving and surviving World War II,” until I remembered the pages and pages of sobbing while reading The FizOsbornes at War. Don’t worry, there is a wonderful ending.

Montmaray is a (fictional) tiny island monarchy between England and Spain whose already small population was decimated during World War I, and there are only a few village families left living in the shadow of a romantic, crumbling castle when 16 year old Sophie begins keeping her journal in 1936. Oh yes, ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLE. Sophie is actually Princess Sophie of the FitzOsborne Royal Family– she is one of three Princesses of Montmaray (the others being her stunning, intellectual cousin, Princess Veronica, and her younger tomboy sister, Princess Henry) and also the younger sister of the future King of Montmaray, charming Prince Toby FitzOsborne. However, Sophie’s royal title does not correspond to a royal lifestyle, at least not while she is living on a remote island in a stripped bare castle under the rule of her mentally ill uncle. Their wealthy aunt is forever trying to get the girls to move away from Montmaray and become a part of British Society, but their loyalty to Montmaray keeps them grasping to its shores until they have no choice but to fall into the lap of luxury. And then, of course, the war begins and Sophie’s home seems lost forever.

It is no secret among people who know me that my favorite book is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (I have written about it on the blog here and compared it to another fabulous book, The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets, here, and the Montmaray Journals shares much in common with Dodie Smith’s fantastic novel (which is pretty much the highest praise I will give a book!). Both stories are told in thoughtfully-written diary entries by quiet teenage girls in 1930’s and whose lives seem both beautifully ordinary and bohemian at the same time. Both girls fall in love with men named Simon. Both feel inferior to their prettier, outgoing relations. And yes, both live in ROMANTIC, CRUMBLING CASTLES!

P.S. I will just say, that for those of you who thought the end of I Capture the Castle was not a happy one (and I disagree with that! but now is not the place to discuss…), you will be very satisfied with the ending Sophie chooses for herself.

code name verityThe less said about the plot of Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, the better. “Careless talk costs lives,” say our heroines, and in a tightly plotted and breathlessly suspenseful book like this, you won’t doubt it. Verity is a prisoner of the Gestapo in occupied France, writing out her confession. Maddie, a young woman pilot, is a part of that confession. As Verity writes, she confronts and examines her beliefs and her fears.

And that’s about all I can tell you.

I am not (usually) a lover of war stories or YA novels, but this one is just too good to miss. The characters are vivid, the plotting is superb, and the immersion in wartime Europe is complete. I loved reading about women in war – active, brave, brilliant women – instead of men. It’s more than a story of torture and war and espionage: it’s about life-changing friendship, love, incredible bravery, and the difficult choices we face (whether our lives are ordinary or extraordinary). Everything about this book was refreshing, surprising, exhilarating, and beautiful (even when it was terrifying). I wanted to reread it as soon as I turned the last page!

Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s co-authored epistolary novel has a very long title: Sorcery and Cecelia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: being the correspondence of two young ladies of quality regarding various magical scandals in London and the country. Please don’t judge it by this wordy title or by its tragically hideous cover. It’s great!

It’s Regency England, magic is real, and cousins Cecelia (Cecy) and Kate correspond over the course of a summer, unraveling alone and together the mystery surrounding the titular enchanted chocolate pot and the “Mysterious Marquis.” The action is very exciting, the letters brisk and forthcoming, the characters sympathetic, the romance delightful, the magic subtle and delectably menacing. It’s a delight – the only complaint I can offer to temper my enthusiasm is that Cecy and Kate are virtually indistinguishable. I cannot recall a single difference between them, whether in temperament, opinion, age, physical appearance, or letter-writing style. The only difference between them is that Kate is in London and Cecy in the country; or did I switch that around? I’ll have to look back at the letters to check.

By sheer good luck, my reading of this novel overlapped with my listening to the also epistolary, also long-titled, also co-authored, and also excellent The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. This was an enormous hit with book clubs a couple of years ago, but if you missed out on it then, treat your ears to this audiobook right away! It has become my standard audio fiction recommendation, even surpassing At Home and Twenties Girl. Juliet Ashton corresponds with and befriends the people of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel which was occupied for 5 years by the Germans during World War II. Each character’s letters are read by a different voice actor, and the result is entirely winning. It’s a lovely book read by lovely people, and it’s about resilience and friendship and bravery and the love of books. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Death in the City of Light is the gripping, true story of a brutal serial killer who unleashed his own reign of terror in Nazi-Occupied Paris. As decapitated heads and dismembered body parts surfaced in the Seine, Commissaire Georges-Victor Massu was tasked with tracking down the elusive murderer in a twilight world of Gestapo, gangsters, resistance fighters, pimps, prostitutes, spies, and other shadowy figures of the Parisian underworld.

The main suspect was Dr. Marcel Petiot, a handsome, charming physician with remarkable charisma.  He was the “People’s Doctor,” known for his many acts of kindness and generosity, not least in providing free medical care for the poor.  Petiot, however, would soon be charged with 27 murders, though authorities suspected the total may have been as many as 150. Who was being slaughtered, and why?  Was Petiot a sexual sadist, as the press suggested, killing for thrills?  Was he allied with the Gestapo, or, on the contrary, the French Resistance?  Or did he work for no one other than himself?  Trying to solve the many mysteries of the case, Massu would unravel a plot of unspeakable deviousness.

Death in the City of Light is a brilliant evocation of Nazi-Occupied Paris and a harrowing exploration of murder, betrayal, and evil of staggering proportions. (description from publisher)

The History of Love is a bittersweet novel that tells the intertwined stories of Alma Singer and Leo Gursky, a teenage girl and an old man whose lives collide under extraordinary circumstances.

When Alma explores her namesake, the main character of the book-within-a-book also titled “The History of Love,” she discovers a dense tapestry of love, heartbreak, and friendship that centers around another Alma, Leo Gursky, her deceased father, her bereft mother, an unknown writer from Poland by way of Chile, and the famous American author Isaac Moritz. Nicole Krauss makes this potentially convoluted tale feel truly magical by illuminating the long, tangled strings of time and events that bring her characters together. There are few detours from the plot and no wasted words, so the story is fully explored and feels deeper than its 272 pages. It’s sweet and sad and thought provoking, but doesn’t carry any depressing baggage to sour your mood. The ending is uplifting without being tidy and perfect.

I selected this book for my book club and I was delighted to see quotations from its pages popping up in my fellow members’ status updates and conversations. There are a lot of beautiful language moments and highly quotable passages (“her kiss was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering” – *swoons*), which help make the book such a joy to read.

Krauss is married to author Jonathan Safran Foer, and their novels make lovely companions. If you loved his novels Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close or  Everything Is Illuminated, you will fall for The History of Love, and vice versa. Both authors employ lyrical language to explore the topic of Jewish history (to put it broadly) through the eyes of fictional writers. In Everything is Illuminated, the protagonist is a writer who travels throughout eastern Europe looking for the history of his family and their village. In The History of Love, every major character and almost every minor character are writers in one form or another. Both books are so beautiful that it’s hard to decide which one I liked better, but either or both would make a great springtime read.

The Paris of World War II comes to life again in Lynn Sheene’s The Last Time I Saw Paris, as seen through the eyes of an American ex-pat searching to find her own place in the world.

Manhattan socialite Claire Harris has secrets to hide; when those secrets threaten to expose her, she escapes her glittering cage for Paris and the promises made by a summer fling. However, instead of lavish parties and luxury, she arrives in Paris just as the Germans approach, bringing war and depravation, fear and cruelty. Claire stays, scrambling to survive, making friends, finding a place in a world suddenly turned upside down. When her papers expire, she makes a deal with the Resistance, providing information about the Germans in exchange for forged documents.

Sheene keeps the tension high and the action moving briskly. The terror of living under Nazi rule is shown as harsh and random, the fear of not knowing who to trust is vivid. People are realistically portrayed – Claire is a reluctant freedom fighter, only gradually leaving her shallow dreams behind for the good of others; the Resistance is shown as ruthless and not above blackmail; and the ordinary citizen is often simply struggling to survive. This is a quick read – it’s hard to put it down when you can’t wait to find out what will happen!

Daddy by Loup Durand was a bestseller in France but, amazingly, never a huge hit in the U.S.  

Thomas, an 11-year-old genius, is being chased by Nazis, after they discover the boy’s grandfather has entrusted him with information about Jewish fortunes held in Swiss bank accounts.

American millionaire David Quartermain, the father Thomas has never known, is summoned by the child’s mother when she realizes her life is in danger. Not only an incredibly tense cat-and-mouse chase novel, this is also the story of how father and son learn to trust and love each other.

Intricately plotted, there are iconic characters (a sociopathic Nazi, a mysterious sniper/bodyguard and wealthy playboy turned patriot), mysteries, secrets, and  the always-fascinating setting of World War II Europe. A great and satisfying page-turner.

So much has been written about Anne Frank and her two years hidden in the Secret Annex during World War II, but little has been written about the woman who hid the family, Miep Gies.  Anne Frank Remembered, by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gold, tells the story of the woman who not only helped the family to survive in hiding, but was also the person who discovered Anne’s diary after the family was arrested.

The book begins with Miep’s own desperate childhood in Vienna during World War I and how she was sent to the Netherlands with many other Viennesse children in order to live with families who could temporarily take care of them.  Years later, Miep decides to stay in Amsterdam after accepting a secretarial job with a company who produced kits so women could make jellies and jams from the comfort of their home – her new boss was a man named Otto Frank.  Her recollections of meeting his family, especially Anne, are charming and the long friendship she shared with the Frank family is vividly recalled.

The book follows the progression of World War II and the eventual occupation of the Netherlands.  Even though this story is one that has been written about frequently, Miep’s first hand account of the lives of the Frank’s and their friends is an invaluable historical story.  The co-author, Alison Leslie Gold, wanted to capture Ms. Gies and her husband’s own thoughts and remembrances – the first edition of the book was published when Ms. Gies was nearly 80 years old.  She died this past January at the age of 100.

Before World War II fades from living memory and thereafter resides exclusively in the history books, take a few moments to appreciate those who actually lived it. After all, the history books can only tell us statistics and names, the locations of battlefields and the number who died there. Only the people who were actually there can tell you the personal stories – sleeping in cow pastures, spending time with your buddies in a war zone, seeing the planes of D-Day flying overhead, the pain of watching your best friend die. The Last Good War: the Faces and Voices of World War II with photos by Thomas Sanders, shines the spotlight on some of these last remaining veterans through a series of affecting portraits and reminiscences. Proud, solemn, spirited, these men and women once again show us what made them “the greatest generation.”