August Online Reading Challenge – Wrap Up

Hello!

August has come to an end! How did your Reading Challenge reading work out this month? There are a lot of great books about art and artists, so I hope you were able to find something you enjoyed.

I had a good reading month. I read Stolen Beauty by Laurie Lico Albanese. It focuses on women from two different time periods, Adele Bloch-Bauer from the 1900s through the 1920s and her niece, Maria Altmann in the 1940s. Both women live through turbulent times and their stories are heavily influenced by one of Gustav Klimt’s most iconic paintings.

Adele Bloch-Bauer comes from a wealthy family and marries a wealthy, influential man. Despite her many privileges, she longs for more – more freedom, more intellectual stimulation, more passion. Vienna before World War I was second only to Paris for artists and intellectuals and the avant garde movement. Adele became a part of their social circle and, with her husband, became a patron of the arts. Through these circles she met Gustav Klimt who was already creating a stir with his modern paintings. Gustav asked Adele to pose for him and she sat for what became “Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer”, a painting rich with symbolism and painstakingly embellished with gold leaf.

Maria was a newlywed when the Nazi’s invaded Austria in 1938. Almost immediately restrictions were imposed on the Jews. Maria and her family debate whether to stay or leave. They were non-practicing Jews and had served Austria loyally for generations, but it didn’t matter; their homes were confiscated, their possessions seized and their rights denied. Bit by bit Maria and her extended family flee, some to England, some to America, some to Canada, leaving everything behind. Not everyone survives – Maria’s parents refuse to leave Vienna – but those that do build new lives far from what they knew before.

One day, decades later, Maria learns that Austria is offering reparations for the art and valuables that were seized during the war to anyone who can prove that they are the rightful owner. Maria realizes she has a claim to the famous portrait of her aunt and begins the uphill battle to have it returned to her family.

You may have seen the movie The Woman in Gold starring Helen Mirren that came out a few years ago and is adapted from this book. The focus of the movie was on Maria’s political battle over the painting, but Stolen Beauty focuses more on Adele’s story and her relationship with Klimt, about Klimt and his various projects plus there is a lot more information about the modern movement in art and architecture which was shaking up the establishment at that time. Maria’s chapters are tense and vivid as the mounting pressure on the Jews becomes unbearable but Adele is the real star of the book. As usual, the book was better than the movie except for one thing – the movie allows you to actually see the painting, it’s size and its remarkable intricacy and detail. And the gold – breathtaking!

Stolen Beauty makes me want to visit Vienna and New York City (where Adele’s portrait now hangs) to see Klimt’s work in person! Highly recommended.

How did you do this month? What did you read for August?

Online Reading Challenge – Wrap Up

Challengers! How did your reading go this month? Did you find a gem? Or was the month a clunker for you?

I read A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell. It is quite good, a can’t-put-down, I’m-still-thinking-about-it that follows a lesser-known part of World War II. It’s also pretty grim and includes some gruesome scenes. It’s not a light read, but it is well worth the effort.

It’s 1943. Mussolini has been defeated and Italy has broken with Germany and made peace with the Allies. Thousands of Jewish refugees struggle over the Alps, away from Eastern Europe toward what they believe will be a safe place to wait out the war. Instead, they discover that the war is still very much present in Italy with the Nazis’ arrival, the Resistance battling them, Jews forced to flee or go into hiding again and ordinary citizens simply trying to survive. The Nazi rule is harsh and unrelenting – anytime a German soldier is killed by a Resistance fighter, 20 (or more) citizens are killed in retaliation. Sweeps are enacted regularly searching for hidden Jews or Resistance fighters; any that are found are killed or deported (to death camps) as are those that hid or aided them. Food and fuel are scarce. And then the Allies begin bombing the tiny villages and towns in an effort to break the weakening German Army.

A Thread of Grace follows a variety of people living in this Italian valley including a priest, a Resistance leader, an Italian Jewish family, a German doctor, Eastern European Jews who have fled to Italy, an Italian soldier and several Catholic nuns. Each has suffered great losses and struggle to continue against impossible odds. There is despair and sorrow and anger, but there is also fellowship and kindness. The Italians, whether Jewish, Catholic or atheist, open their homes to the Jewish refugees without hesitation, often risking their own lives, hiding, feeding and clothing them with no expectation of repayment.

You get a real sense of what the war meant in this Italian valley – the desperation, the randomness, the cruelty. The kindness of strangers is breathtaking – Italian soldiers helping the refugees over the mountains by carrying their luggage or a tired child, nuns hiding orphan refugee children among their other charges, helping a sick German doctor, a deserter, even though he has caused thousands of deaths, and confusing and distracting soldiers at checkpoints to smuggle someone past.  Although this is fiction, Russell spent several years researching this part of the Italian campaign. It has often been overlooked once the Allied invasion began and attention shifted to Normandy and France. In fact, the war continued in Italy, with a devastating toll, until May 1945.

I did have some trouble keeping the large cast of characters, hailing from various families and nationalities, straight but there is a list of the major players at the beginning of the book. This book is often difficult to read, but it is well worth the effort, an eye-opening look at both the worst and the best of humans.

Now it’s your turn. What did you read this month?

The Alice Network by Kate Quinn

This is a book about two wars, of the price paid both by those who died and those who survived, of sisterhood and loyalty and immeasurable bravery. The Alice Network by Kate Quinn alternates between the two World Wars. The similarities are chilling with threads that tie the two together in more ways than one.

1915. Eve Gardiner is one of thousands of file clerks in London, unremarkable in appearance, quiet and demure, but because of her upbringing she speaks flawless French and German. She is bored and feels useless so when a Captain from British Intelligence recruits her to be a spy, she leaps at the chance. After a few short weeks of training, she is sent to Lille in occupied France and takes on the role of a shy, simple waitress in a restaurant that caters to German generals. The information she gleans from their overheard conversations is passed on to her contact, the “Queen of the Spies” Louise de Bettignies who becomes a bright and shining light for Eve in a dark and dangerous world. The work is exhilarating and treacherous, even more so when the owner of the restaurant takes an interest in her. One misstep and all will be lost.

1947. Charlotte (Charlie) St. Clair is young, unmarried and pregnant. Her wealthy parents send her to Switzerland to have her “Little Problem” taken care of and to preserve her (and their) reputation. Charlie is heartbroken over the recent suicide of her brother (a soldier who came home from the war but never left it) and the complete lack of information of what happened to her beloved French cousin Rose who she is convinced is still alive. In London, Charlie slips away from her Mother and contacts the one person she thinks might be able to help her – one Evelyn Gardiner. Evelyn’s hands are horribly disfigured and she is bitter and angry (the first thing she does to Charlie is to pull out a Luger and threaten to kill her) but eventually she agrees to go to France with Charlie see if they can find Rose. Accompanied by Evelyn’s driver Finn, they make their way to a France that is still torn and broken by the war. The horrors of World War II are very much still evident, but the shadows cast by World War I are still present too.

The book alternates between these two story lines, chapter by chapter. The connecting threads between the stories is gradually revealed, leading to an explosive final confrontation. It is one of those books that’s difficult to put down when you’re reading it and nearly impossible to forget about when you’re finished. I certainly found this to be true.

There are a lot of books about the World Wars, especially WWII, but The Alice Network manages to take a closer look at two lesser known subjects – the women who spied for the Allies during World War I, and the aftermath of the war in the countryside of postwar France. What really adds weight to the book though, is that many of the people and heart-stopping incidents depicted are true – there really was a network of female spies in German occupied countries during WWI and it really was called the Alice Network and was led by Louise de Bettignies, one of the most accomplished and successful spies the Allies had. Most of the things that happen in the book – the secrets the women uncovered, the danger and brutal punishments they suffered – actually happened. And in Charlie’s timeline, there is one episode that she comes across that is absolutely true (and absolutely chilling) but probably little-known outside of France. Evelyn and Charlie are fictional, but what they see and feel and experience are very real. Don’t miss the author’s notes at the end for more about these nearly forgotten heroines. And don’t miss this book.

 

 

 

The Good War Wrap-up

Hello Fellow Readers! It’s hard to believe but it’s the end of April already – how did you do with this month’s Reading Challenge? For me, the hard part was picking which book to read – there are so many excellent books set during World War II. Did you find any gems that you’d like to share with us? Please let us know.

bookthief2I was planning on reading two books, but ended up having time for only one – The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. This is a pretty amazing book. It did take me awhile to learn the rhythm and pace of the book and to accept the narrator, but once I did, it was nearly impossible to stop reading.

Narrated by Death, The Book Thief follows the fortunes of a poor street in a suburb of Munich during the war, especially the story of Liesel Meminger. After her little brother dies and her mother abandons her to foster care, Liesel goes to live with the Hubermann’s. In their own wildly different ways, Hans and Rosa love Liesel and raise her as their own. As the war arrives and hardships mount, they hang on grimly, finding happiness in simple things such as music, a stolen apple and books.

One day Hans fulfills a promise and agrees to hide a young Jewish man in their basement. Max and Liesel become fast friends, sharing stories and bound by their shared pain and nightmares. When it becomes too dangerous and Max must leave, Liesel and the Hubermanns are devastated. The hardships mount – rationing, the growing presence of the Nazi’s and the carpet bombing of Munich and its neighboring towns. Huddled with neighbors in a basement during a bombing, Liesel reads aloud from one of her stolen books, bringing comfort and some calm to the frightened people.

Through it all, Death watches. His voice is wry and even humorous at times, and he is surprisingly compassionate, puzzled by the cruelty and moved by the agony he witnesses. His arrival often means the end of suffering and is welcomed. He narrates Liesel’s story lovingly, even gently – he is impressed by the young girl, not only her will to live, but to find happiness.

The choice of Death as narrator is especially interesting as is the fact that he’s presented as a sympathetic character. His ability to see across history and vast distances brings a unique perspective. His descriptions of gathering the soul’s of the dead and taking them to their eternal rest is often gentle and tender; he always carries the souls of children in his arms. The view of the war from the German home front is also interesting. There is no such thing as simple “good” or “evil” (with the exception of the Nazis) – they are like any human with complex, often conflicting emotions and actions, capable of great cruelty but also great kindness.

This is not a light and happy book, yet it is also not altogether a dark book. The sadness and suffering are very real, but hope for humanity remains. That there is some kindness and that there is an end to the suffering combine to create a book of lasting power. Highly recommended.

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May is nearly here – on Monday we’ll start on the next step on our year long Reading Challenge – graphic novels. Who’s with me?!

The Monuments Men: “No Biff, you leave that art alone.”

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.

The Secret Rescue by Cate Lineberry

secret rescueThe Secret Rescue by Cate Lineberry is the compelling untold story of a group of stranded U.S. Army nurses and medics fighting to escape Nazi-occupied Europe.

When 26 Army nurses and medics-part of the 807th Medical Air Evacuation Transport Squadron-boarded a cargo plane for transport in November 1943, they never anticipated the crash landing in Nazi-occupied Albania that would lead to their months-long struggle for survival. The group and its flight crew dodged bullets and battled blinding winter storms as they climbed mountains and fought to survive, aided by courageous villagers who risked death at Nazi hands to help them.

A mesmerizing tale of the courage and heroism of ordinary people, The Secret Rescue tells not only a new story of struggle and endurance, but also one of the daring rescue attempts by clandestine American and British organizations amid the tumultuous landscape of the war. (description from publisher)

Death in the City of Light by David King

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 Last Time I Saw Paris by Lynn Sheene

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!

City of Thieves by David Benioff

The setting for David Benioff’s City of Thieves is grim and brutal – the siege of Leningrad during World War II – yet there is also light and optimism, even laughter in this book. Lev Benioff, is a naive, 17-year-old is picked up for looting, a sentence punishable by death. Instead of the firing squad, he is thrown together with brash, confident, Red Army soldier Koyla Vaslav (arrested for deserting). They are given a task: find 12 eggs for the general’s daughter’s wedding in five days. If they succeed, they’re free; if not, they’ll be shot.

What follows is the nearly impossible search for fresh eggs in a city that has virtually no food (conservative estimates place the number of Soviet deaths during the siege at 1.7 million, most of whom starved to death) The unlikely pairing develops from forced to begrudging to a true partnership. What these two see, both the cruelty and kindness, is almost unfathomable now in our comfortable, well-fed lives, from the desperate couple resorting to cannibalism (who they barely escape from), to the former call girl that shelters artists and surgeons made homeless by the relentless bombing, to the Nazi commander they must outwit, the book is full of unforgettable characters and heart-stopping tension.

At first, you will want to hate Koyla. He is arrogant and brash and a bit of a braggart. He is also charming and charismatic and at heart, a kind and generous man who does the right thing for others time and again. Lev, who narrates the story, is full of self-doubt and (he believes) weakness, but finds unimaginged courage and strength when he needs it, partly because of Koyla.

Based on Benioff’s grandfather’s memories, this is storytelling at it’s best, the kind of book that stays with you – a story of cruelty, desperation and hardship, but also of kindness, strength, loyalty, love and friendship.