The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History could easily be a sugary, romanced story of American heroism during WWII — but it is not, although it occasionally paints (;)) a Manichean picture of Nazi actions and characters.
It tells the story of a small group of men (all men, alas, although some of the crucial supporting characters are women) who were tasked with locating, identifying, and returning art work stolen by the Nazis to their rightful owners. With a tiny team and scarce resources, they visited hidden caches in private cellars as well as vast salt mines transformed into enormous warehouses, exploiting the well-kept records of the Nazis while needing to gain the trust of the victims who had learned to resist and conceal and were often, understandably, leery of sharing their secrets. The author chose to draw vivid portraits of the men and included personal correspondence between them and their families, which gives glimpses of everyday life during the war, both for soldiers and the families back home. Well done.
(If you are worried that FT Books has succumbed to rating inflation in the new year, fear not. I just read a wonderful series of wonderful books. I remain unafraid to assign one-star ratings when deemed necessary!)
East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” attempts an ambitious feat: to tell the story of how the Nuremberg trial first introduced the concepts of genocide and crimes against humanity through the biographies of the two lawyers who created the concepts, and at the same time recount the life of his grandfather, who hailed from the same Polish town as the two lawyers.
The family history unfolds brilliantly, starting with tiny clues and photographs that his maternal grandfather, who never spoke about the war, left behind, and blossoming into the identification of long-lost witnesses and heroes who helped saved the family. The legal history I found much less compelling. It certainly is interesting that the two lawyers hailed from the same modestly sized town (and even more extraordinary that the town is the same as the author’s grandfather’s birthplace) but their lives seem much less relevant to the thread.
In Their Promised Land: My Grandparents In Love And War, the author tells the story of his grandparents through his own memories but mostly the letters that they wrote to each other, and they wrote many since they were unlucky enough to live through two world wars, during which they were separated. Both grandparents are second-generation German Jews living in Britain in a very comfortable manner but they still have to contend with antisemitic discrimination that makes it difficult for him to find a position as a physician, for instance. The story is a love story, between Win and Bernard for sure, but also for the family they built together against the background of the wars. (Much better than All The Light We Cannot See!)
I will easily predict that All the Light We Cannot See will delight book clubs for months and years to come, and I will readily admit that the plot is finely honed and grabs the reader’s emotional attachment.
But. Do we need yet another book about WWII (I griped about WWI recently)? Isn’t a book that stars both a blind (French) teenage girl and a savant orphaned (German) teenage boy just a little too sentimental? Of course, the German boy loathes the Nazis, let’s make sure that all the proper feelings are displayed here. Of course the girl’s family is in the Resistance (the very bad neighbor is collaborating, but everyone else seems to also be in the Resistance!) And there is a completely insane plot about a lost jewel, with a curse attached to its possession, that seems almost completely irrelevant to the rest of the story.
What irked me the most were the caricatural and incorrect details. No scientist in an official museum would have a glass of wine in his office on a workday afternoon. At the nearby cafe, perhaps, but not in the office. Sandwiches are not, and certainly were not in the 40s, a proper lunch in France. And it’s not just the French details that beggar belief. How could an isolated orphan teach himself physics? It took me hundreds of pages to recover from these early stumbles and get back into the story.
A reassuring novel that tells us that good people and good and bad people are bad, in a moving way.
Want a little horror to end your summer? Try Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 and its 750,000 dead. At least you know it’s going to be brutal before you even start. The book tells the story in a remarkably lively manner (lively is a bad word here, can’t think of another), relying on private diaries and correspondence to illuminate the sufferings of the besieged inhabitants, starved by their own government’s incompetent as much as the Nazi’s implacable war strategy.
Perhaps because of the positions of the individuals who kept diaries and whose diaries survived, there are as many stories about saving artwork and architecture as there are about saving people, which seems a little uncaring, but the author manages to tell many personal stories of struggle and, occasionally, amazing altruism in the midst of chaos.