The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived (CBR5 #13)

This book holds in it the kernel of a really neat idea – what 101 fictional characters/myths/legends influence our lives and has affected history?  But by the end I wished it had been written by someone other than this team. There were plenty or entries which kept strictly to the facts, ma’am but the zany asides at least one of the three authors tried too hard and most of the snarky jokes simply fell flat. There is a difference between something that is funny with the proper inflection or when you know the writer and something that reads well across many audiences.

The list is given to the reader right away, the strict list of 101 in order. Then the narrative is broken up into chapters, and each chapter features a different category the 101 fall into – myths, folktales, propaganda, theatre, literature, etc. Each category has at least three example which fall into it, and each example is given its own description while the chapter is given its own introduction which attempt to make the argument for why these characters are influential. However, the arguments are not always well made and often selections weren’t actually influential, just favorites of the authors, which was clear from their entries.

From what I could piece together in the asides and prologue the writers are members of a writing group. While they weren’t personally bothersome to me, there were political asides in the entries which were out of place and distracting and typical of lesser experienced authors. While there were some technical issues and oddly placed humor I could have done without; there were some really interesting choices on the list and plenty of obscure background details. A particularly interesting tidbit for me was that I had completely misunderstood the concept of the Wandering Jew for my entire adult life. I’m sure there will be plenty of interest for you as well.

A side note: I used inter-library loan to get this book from my fantastic local library. And I found this sticker:                                    

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Why would you place it right in the middle of the author biography? There was plenty of space on the opposite page.

Exclusively Yours (CBR5 #12)

From Goodreads: “When Keri Daniels’ editor finds out she has previous carnal knowledge of reclusive bestselling author Joe Kowalski, she gives Keri a choice: get an interview or get a new job. Joe’s never forgotten the first girl to break his heart, so he’s intrigued to hear Keri’s back in town–and looking for him. Despite his intense need for privacy, he’ll grant Keri an interview if it means a chance to finish what they started in high school. He proposes an outrageous plan–for every day she survives with his family on their annual camping and four-wheeling trip, Keri can ask one question. Keri agrees; she’s worked too hard to walk away from her career. But the chemistry between them is still as potent as the bug spray…”

I had to stop it there. I’m not saying it was a bad book, it was a perfectly serviceable rom-com but the story did little for me personally. I decided to pick up this series based on Malin’s review of the second book in the series, Undeniably Yours. It sounded like the kind of story I needed after working my way through Nazi-looted artwork. Light and fluffy here I come!

And it was. But, not light enough for me. My brain wouldn’t turn off to simply enjoy the plot and there was some similarly named characters and some age math which just refused to jive for me. But, all that aside, the story of Joe and Keri and their rediscovery of the love they shared as teenagers now that they are in teir mid-thirties certainly kept me interested, and it was nice to see a male protagonist as sexually activated by his female counterpart as she was by him. Something that not enough contemporary romance writers achieve.

The Monuments Men (CBR5 #11)

*I’m not sure if a spoiler warning is appropriate, but proceed with caution, I discuss the book in detail*

I found myself drawn to Robert Edsel’s book The Monuments Men quite naturally. I work in museums and studied to do so. As part of that study, Nazi-looted art and reparations took up quite a lot of time. As part of one of my classes (well, two to be honest) we watched the documentary The Rape of Europa which documents the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA)section to preserve the cultural patrimony of Europe. I sincerely recommend it. Viewing that movie led me to seek out more information about the MFAA and found myself with The Monuments Men on my to-read list. I am so glad that I got around to reading it now.

“An informed army, in other words, is a respectful and disciplined army.” (15-16).

The Monuments Men were an incredibly limited force caught up in the largesse of the Allied forces in Europe. Given the scope of the goals of the MFAA, to save as much of the culture of Europe as they could during combat, Edsel chose to focus on the members who formed the initial group which crossed as part of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. This group of eight, along with two members of the museum corps in France, forms the main characters of Edsel’s story. Without funding, transport, or a central commander these initial officers – all of whom came from creative fields of work – were assigned to various divisions spread across Western Europe with the invading Allies. One of their first missions was to prevent as much damage and looting as possible. So, on the fly, the MFAA wrote and published pamphlets for enlisted men detailing the monuments they were likely to come across in any area in order to encourage them to preserve them as best as possible. They were also, initially, running around the French countryside placing ‘OFF LIMITS’ signs on the monuments and culturally important buildings they came across. Within weeks they were running low on signs.

Shortly we will be fighting our way across the Continent of Europe in battles designed to preserve our civilization. Inevitably, in the path of our advance will be found historical monuments and cultural centers which symbolize to the world all that we are fighting to preserve. It is the responsibility of every commander to protect and respect these symbols whenever possible.’ – Eisenhower (63).

World War II was unique in American military history in regards to art preservation. It was the only time that there was a concerted effort to protect the cultural artifacts in combat zones. With the strides being made in the arts community, conservers and other museum folk were prepared to help in unprecedented ways, and worked to be included in the military mission.  Beyond this, there was the decision early on to restore cultural property to their original country. This plan would never have succeeded had there not been leadership from the generals at Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force. It was not flawless; there were areas which suffered devastating losses in many city centers and the near total destruction of Dresden as one example.  Edsel uses some of the most descriptive language I’ve read in a long time as he depicts what was lost and what remained.

“On the outskirts of Bonn, the sun was shining. The buildings were untouched. But like so many other cities, the farther toward the center he [Hancock] drove, the more damage he saw. The town center was mostly destroyed, the result of Western Allied bombing runs, but even here he saw cherry trees in bloom, twisting up among the ruins.” (255).

Much of Edsel’s narrative is spent with the individual Monuments Men. It is through these men, and in their own words often interspersed throughout the book in their letters home, that we are able to see what occurred on the front lines of the Western Front during 1944 and 1945. The suffering they experience, and the amount of work and hours they placed into preserving what they found and protecting what remained. This is the backbone of The Monuments Men, the ordinary service of dedicated men, and what that tells us about a forgotten chapter of one of the best known stories in our collective history.

“Sometimes Stout felt he was fighting another war entirely, a war within a war, a backward-circling eddy in a downward-rushing stream. What if we win the war, he thought, but lose the last five hundred years of our cultural history on our watch?” (237).

Edsel does not shy away from telling the stories of the pieces, collections, archives, monuments, churches, and other buildings which were lost. Through the chronicling of what was lost, we are better able to understand the magnificence of what the MFAA, and the many people who worked with them, managed to save.

“The Germans had used the [Dampierre] library’s renowned Bossuet letters for toilet paper, but after they left, the caretaker found the letters in the woods, cleaned them off, and returned them to the library. Now that was dedication. That was service.” (157).

As the members of the MFAA worked their way across northern Europe, they came across many dedicated art officials who worked tirelessly through the six years of the war in Europe to preserve whatever they could. Edsel works to intersperse all angles of those who worked for the preservation of cultural objects into the story, making the narrative larger than the eight MFAA men featured, or the 350 officers who served throughout the life of the MFAA. Whether it involved hiding artworks, furnishings, and books in mines, in basements, or in keeping records of where Nazi officers had shipped treasures into Germany, or preventing the bombing of strongholds, there were countless people who took part in the preservation work.  It’s for all these reasons and a unique look at a lesser known aspect of World War II history that I heartily recommend this one.  Happy reading!

 “The story of Altaussee, so monumental in the world of art and culture, was quickly subsumed by larger stories – Auschwitz, the atomic bomb, and disintegrating relations with the Soviet Union that would define the new world order as the cold war.” (378).

P.S. This book is going to be a George Clooney directed movie starring Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, and a bunch of other faves, in December.

The Perfect Hope (CBR5 #10)

I think I’ve learned my lesson with Nora Roberts’ trilogies. Wait until they are all published and read them in one go, not spread out over the course of a year. I read and reviewed The Next Always in June and The Last Boyfriend in October of last year for Cannonball Read Four. They were enjoyable and looking back The Next Always was certainly my favorite of the three.  The Perfect Hope was a standard wrap up but lacked a certain something to hook me in.

I think that in the waiting for books two and three to arrive at my library and be available I had conjured up the story as I wanted it to unfold and was left disappointed with the story as it actually turned out. In recent years Roberts has not shied away from writing books of length. Many of the books I read by Roberts last year were in the neighborhood of 400+ pages. However, I fear she has decided that ideas she as deemed to be for trilogies are to be kept shorter. The idea for the Boonsboro Inn trilogy is simply too big for the pages Roberts allotted for it.

The trilogy masquerades as the story of three brothers refurbishing a local inn and falling in love with three friends in series.  If that had been all that was going on there would have been plenty of personal dynamics and backstories to keep the reader busy and hooked. However, Roberts injects a ghost story into the mix, the elusive Lizzy. While she is a minor plot mover in the first, by the third book Lizzy and her lover Billy become almost an equal focus to the third book’s protagonists – Hope Beaumont, innkeeper and Ryder Montgomery, eldest brother of the Montgomery clan.

In dealing with the resident ghost and her long lost lover we’re cheated more time with Hope and Ryder, two characters I was truly hoping to spend more time with. They experience an instant spark and spend the first two books ignoring it, it would’ve been lovely to spend additional time with these two as they figure out they feel more for each other than lust. My other chief complaint is the amount of current pop culture and technology interspersed within the book. I fear it’s going to date the book quickly and kept pulling me out of the narrative even though it’s all current as of this date. Somehow it seemed out of place as Roberts has tended to leave these pieces out of previous works.

Gabriel’s Angel (CBR5 #9)

Gabriel's Angel

I’ve returned once more to the land of Nora Roberts. I’m working my way through an intense non-fiction piece about art in World War II at the moment and I needed a break to something fun and fluffy. So while making what has become my weekly trip to the library I picked up Gabriel’s Angel, a new to me Nora Roberts for a much needed palate cleanser. I’m happy to report that this is not as painful as my previous forays into early Roberts fare this year. While this story is simplistic and lacking in the details that mark Roberts later work it is a serviceable story with well drawn leads and an interesting meet cute.

We meet our protagonists, the titular Gabriel, and Laura on a mountainside road in Colorado during a snowstorm. Gabriel is driving up the mountain to his cabin with supplies for what is turning into a blizzard while Laura is driving down the mountain on her way into town on her way to Denver. Laura looses control and narrowly avoids hitting Gabriel, but wrecks her car. With not other choice Gabe offers to provide Laura with a place to stay since there is no chance of getting back down the mountain. The twist is that Laura is secretive about her past, her plans, and is pregnant. Snowed in, Gabe and Laura form a bond and it changes the course of both their lives (of course it does).

I’m not really sure how to rate Gabriel’s Angel. It’s not bad, but I found myself just waiting for the end to arrive. It’s a good, sweet story and although it was a bit cliché, it wasn’t too predictable. And I think that’s what’s keeping the book at good, is that I enjoyed the characters, I enjoyed the twists and turns in the plot and wished that we got a better insight into why these characters make the decisions they do. Side note – this is not really a holiday read, don’t let the cover fool you.