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18 February
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Book Review: The Monuments Men

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The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History

I just this moment finished the book the Monuments Men by Robert Edsel.  Initially I was very excited about this book, because I knew it was coming out as a movie.  It was released this month (February 7, 2014) .  As I write this the movie is number 4 at the box offices and has grossed $43.7 million dollars.  As far as how good the movie is, I don’t know…yet.  I plan on watching that now as I have finished the book.  I always like to read the book first.  However, I’m a little weary as its not getting great reviews.  On IMDB it has a score of 6.5 out of 10 and on Rotten Tomatoes it has a score of 34%.  Not steller by any means.

But this review is about the book, the movie review will come later.  First lets look at what others thought of the book.  Amazon reviewers seem to like the book, they gave it 4.3 our of 5 so far.  Goodreads reviewers were less kind to this historical work, giving it only 3.79 out of 5.  For those of you who don’t know the book is about  how WWII caused the greatest dislocation of cultural artifacts. Hundreds of thousands of items went missing. The main burden fell to a few hundred men and women, curators and archivists, artists and art historians from 13 nations. Their task was to save and preserve what they could of Europe’s great art, and they were called the Monuments Men.

I felt the book was slow.  Interesting definitely, but not being as cultured as some, I could not picture many of the artwork that was discussed in the book and often found myself wondering if the monuments men time would have been better served rescuing the victims of the Nazi’s.  But I also understand that the artwork had a huge cultural significance.  I’m torn about all of this really.  Should we have helped Europe so much in finding these pieces of art?  After all, wasn’t this whole mess their fault?  Or was it just the fault of a few misguided souls and the monsters who lead them?  This war brings up some very strong feelings in everyone, even those like me who didn’t live through it.

Lets get right down to it.  Should you spend your time reading this book?  I spent a month reading this 479 page book.  I did keep picking it up and looking for time to read it.  So, it was a page turner.  Not like a thriller at all.  But I did keep hoping that something more exciting would happen.  It never did.  My notes from the book are brief.  I highlighted the name Errol Flynn, to remind myself to watch some of his cool old movies.  I also found it interesting that the word salt was the basis of the English word Salary.  Then there is a huge gap until the end of the book where I took note of the books that some of the people involved the saving the artwork wrote.  For your reference they are:

Makes me sad that they didn’t print many copies of the above books and now they are almost impossible to find.  Also, sad that the movie is the only reason these people are no remembered and they were not remembered for their accomplishments during their life time.  The only one still alive according to the book is Harry Ettlinger.

Lastly, there have been a lot of other online articles being written about the Monuments Men.  Here are just a few:

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27 October
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Book Review: Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch

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As a whole I really loved Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch. I thought it might be dry and boring. I was excited to get a free book no matter the subject. But I have always had an interest in the royal family, after all as Americans those are our roots, however old.

For me the book never got dry or boring it was never full of dates/names with out relevant and interesting stories. Overall, it was very well written! A hefty book to be sure, but Ms. Smith covered a lot of information very well and concisely, I thought.

I have a new interest in the royal family and can’t wait to see what happens next. I wish we had better coverage of all the news about them here in the states. If anyone has some links to share to good websites I would really appreciate it. Also, anyone “in-the-know” about the royal family could perhaps share a few more book recommendations? I am very interested in learning more about the next generation of royals that Ms. Smith covered in the last chapter.

I wish there had been more about each of the Queen’s children, but it was of course a book about her and not her children.

A couple of things that I found interesting about the queen.

Although the text seems to call out the fact that the queen is very cold not a very loving or personable individual, Ms. Smith went to lengths to try to say that was okay over and over again. I thought this was odd. Almost as if the author was defending the queen’s iciness.

Here is a questions for the group. Do you think the Queen was a good mom? For me I would have to say no, but is that really so bad, I mean for the kids yes, but is she a queen first or a mother first? How does her mother/leader role differ from that of the first lady here in the states?

Why doesn’t the queen give interviews or write a biography? Over again and again was the point that the British people needed to know her better, wouldn’t an interview/book do that?

Sally Bedell Smith: “Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch” from Radnor Historical Society on Vimeo.

Learn more about the other Royals.

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25 October
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Book Review: Enemies: A History of the FBI

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I didn’t have high hopes Enemies: A History of the FBI, I thought it would be dry based on its topic and thickness. However, I really like how the book was laid out, covering an era at a time and what was going on in the nation and how the FBI reacted to it. It made the book very easy to follow and a nice read. While I was not very excited about the story, it was not the first book I picked up when I had time to read, it was well written. It did have some fairly excited parts for me like when discussing spies especially. I wish there would have been more discussed about spies as that is very interesting to me. However, I realize that this would have left the book astray of its intended topic.

I learned a lot about the history of the FBI so the book succeeded in its goal. I had no idea that Hoover was such a large part of the agency. For the first 2/3 of the book I felt like I was reading his biography.

Overall, I enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone with an interest in the FBI. I now feel I have a better understanding of one of our nations super secret agencies.

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02 June
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Book Review: Lost in Shangri-La

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I recently read Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II by Mitchell Zuckoff. This was a great history book. It has all the things I look for in a history book. Zuckoff is not a historian but a journalist so he tells a story. It is not a dry retelling of facts in chronological order. The book is about an obscure military base that is very remote. I love obscure history, I hate re-reading what I already know about with just a few new facts thrown in here and there, or worse yet someone else’s “new” observations.

Zuckoff writes in a way that is very readable especially for those with no interest in history. There is action, adventure and drama in this great book. It all happens during WWII but there is very little about the war in this book, it all about a small group of people stranded after a plane crash. I don’t want to say anything more because this book is very much worth your time if you decide to read it. I really enjoyed this book and I think any reader of this site will too. If you have read it please let me know what you thought of it in the comments. Happy reading!

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12 May
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Book Review: Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies

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I recently listened to the unabridged audio production of Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. I can’t say that I really enjoyed this book. If you don’t mind a completely basic run through of how the three subjects have impacted human history you might be okay with this book. I however, thought this book was extremely dry and often found my mind wondering while I listened to it.

I should mention that I am one of the few people who did not enjoy this book. It has a 3.94 out of 5 star rating on Goodreads with 3,186 reviews. It has similar ratings on Amazon.com, 4 stars out of 5, with 1,201 reviews.

Here is the publishers blurb about the book:

Explaining what William McNeill called The Rise of the West has become the central problem in the study of global history. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond presents the biologist’s answer: geography, demography, and ecological happenstance. Diamond evenhandedly reviews human history on every continent since the Ice Age at a rate that emphasizes only the broadest movements of peoples and ideas. Yet his survey is binocular: one eye has the rather distant vision of the evolutionary biologist, while the other eye–and his heart–belongs to the people of New Guinea, where he has done field work for more than 30 years.

My final word on this one is to save your money and time, read something else. Like Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II which I am listening to now and enjoying immensely.

Click here to watch a C-SPAN video of Mr. Diamond discussing his book.

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12 April
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Book Review: The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood

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I read The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood mostly because it was on the non-fiction bestseller’s list and I thought it might be interesting to read about the history of information. But this book is not just the history of information but also the communication of that information. Actually, I think the book might be miss named. Maybe it should be named the History of Communication. After all, the author first starts out with discussing the use of drums to convey messages, then he moves on to smoke signals and this theme is returned to throughout the book. He even covers (quite extensively) the history of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which I had just read a full history of and will have to post a seperate review here later.

After the OED, he covers the interesting history behind the telephone, computers, Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), wikipedia, domain names, photography, printing press, email, microfilm, twitter, and google. During all this discussion he also takes time to discuss information theory, information overload, and too much information (TMI) e.g. noise.

All these topics and more are covered extensively in the book. I found that in places he was a bit over verbose, but that may be because I had just read all about the OED and was really bored through this section, because I already knew the history of this monumental work.

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22 March
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Book Review: Unsolved Mysteries of History

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I picked up Unsolved Mysteries of History: An Eye-Opening Investigation into the Most Baffling Events of All Time (n avery long title!) off the discounted shelves at Barnes & Noble on a whim. It sat for probably a year before I got to it. I was interested in it because I was hoping it would have some obscure historical mysteries in it. The book is divided up like this, each chapter covers a topic. Each one is presented as a question. For example, the first chapter is called “Were the Neanderthals our Ancestors?” It does cover some interesting topics, but each one is covered very quickly. Not enough attention is paid to each topic. Like the first chapter, you could write a whole book about this topic, but the author only covers this topic as a chapter. The book as a whole is very short making it impossible for the author to give the right amount of attention to each topic. The book is only 225 pages.

This books is one of those quick reads that you pick up for a short plane ride or something. Not something you are really going to get engrossed in. A quick history fix, if you will. I can’t recommend you to pick this one up, spend your time on something better that goes into the depth of a subject not something that briefly covers a large range. It has 3 stars out of 13 reviews at Amazon.com and 3.21 stars out of 28 ratings at Goodreads.com. Not a lot of people are reading this and they don’t really like or dislike the book.

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25 February
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Book Review: A Little History of the World

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I have been reading A Little History of the World by E. H. Gombrich. I wasn’t able to finish it. It was just too boring. It reads like a children’s bedtime story. So, while this may be a great children’s book, I don’t think it speaks to adults as well.

I wanted to like this book so much. It has great reviews on Amazon, 75 with an average of r 4.5 out of 5 stars. On goodreads, a social book readers website, the book has 755 ratings with an average of 4.01 out of 5. It is clear that people love this book. I just couldn’t get into it. First of all, it’s a book for children. It was originally published in German 70 years ago. It has been translated into many different languages. Also, Gombrich was never a historian. This is revealed in the story of how he came to write this book, which is in the introduction. It says that he was reading something from a publisher friend of his that was about to be published as a children’s history book, and he thought it was terrible. His friend the publisher challenged him to do better. He accepted the challenge and this book is the result of that wager.

As a children’s book I think this might be good. Hard to tell, since my little girl is only 2, I think it is too soon to regale her with this kind of content. But I will keep my copy and see how she responds to it in the coming years. There are lots of comments from amazon reviews like, “Wonderful Book for Homeschoolers” or “Bedtime Stories of History”. Some of those reviews say it is great for adults too, but I just can’t agree. To me there just is not enough there to keep me engrossed. I’m not looking forward to reading this when I’m away from it.

I think the goodread’s reviewer David Giltinan summed it up best in his review:

I can’t bring myself to jump on the warm and fuzzy bandwagon of approval of this deeply flawed book. It is what it is – a condensation of all of human history into sequential “stories” suitable for “children“. [my emphasis] Supposing for the moment that this is not an inherent recipe for disaster, what is baffling is the number of reviewers who claim to see something in this work “for adults”.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Please share your review in the comments section below. Better yet, if you have kids do you read this to them and what do they think about it?

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