Reading Lately: Update #2 for 2015

The year is half over!  I truly can't believe it.  I set a goal again this year to read a book every week, for a total of 52 books in 2015.  I have to confess that I've gotten a little behind during the second quarter of the year, but here are my reviews of a few of my favorite books that I read in April through June...

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History
by Robert M. Edsel

While the Allied and Axis powers battled to gain dominance in Europe during World War II, a special force of military personnel fought equally hard to preserve and gain back the treasures that Hitler and the Nazis viciously stole from families and museums throughout the continent -- paintings, sculptures, historical artwork, tapestries, jewelry, gold, musical manuscripts, household goods and other significant monuments.  In the biggest art heist in history, Hitler had a vision to gather all important works of art in all of Europe, especially those with any resemblance to the German style, to create his own great museum, and he would use whatever means he could fathom to steal from the homes, cathedrals and museums that his army encountered.  

"The Monuments Men" were a group of men with backgrounds as museum directors, artists, histories, architects, and curators who dedicated their military careers to preserving that which, in many ways, is more important than money or weapons -- the cultural representations of what makes us human, and the meaningful expressions of life that have been treasured for centuries.  They were assigned to a little-known and poorly organized division called the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) section.  "Stout [a lead Monuments Man] 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?"

The men were positioned at the front lines, often unarmed and lacking valuable resources for their mission, with the goal of avoiding unnecessary damage to important historical structures and discovering Hitler's hiding spots for valuable stolen art pieces.  They believed it was not only possible, but worthwhile and essential, to preserve culture and meaning in the midst of violent warfare and bloodshed.  Among the stolen pieces were Michaelangelo's Virgin (Madonna of Bruges), the only one of his pieces to ever leave Italy during his lifetime, Vermeer's The Astronomer, and the Ghent Altarpiece (Adoration of the Mystic Lamb).  The monuments men were courageous, dedicated to their work, and passionate about the mission.  "To save the culture of your allies is a small thing.  To cherish the culture of your enemy, to risk your life and the life of other men to save it, to give it all back to them as soon as the battle was won... it was unheard of, but that is exactly what Walker Hancock and the other Monuments Men intended to do."

There were many obstacles along the way, including a lack of understanding among other soldiers and a low rank of many of the MFAA men.  Hitler had maliciously created laws that somehow justified his massive theft, and many civilians were too fearful to speak out.  For months the monuments men were without any leads, until the pieces started to come together toward the end of the war in Europe.

Toward the end of the war, the Monuments Men gained access to a salt mine in the Alps, as well as the castle of Neuschwanstein, both goldmines in terms of the value and sheer number of stolen art pieces.  They worked continuously for days to remove thousands of pieces of art from these hiding places, and attempt to return everything to its country of origin.  "We do not want to destroy unnecessarily what men spent so much time and care and skill in making... If these things are lost or broken, or destroyed, we lose a valuable part of our knowledge about our forefathers.  No age lives entirely alone; every civilisation is formed not merely by its own achievements but by what it has inherited from the past."

Big Little Lies
by Liane Moriarty

Big Little Lies is the story of the mothers of kindergarteners in a yuppy, suburban area.  Jane is a single mother, new to the area, who wants more than anything to fit in, make friends, and create a home for her son.  She will defend her son to the end against unjust accusations, while also haunted by the memories of her son's biological father.  Madeline is a courageous and passionate woman, the leader of the "good guys," whose daughter is in the same kindergarten class as her bum ex-husband's daughter.  In addition to the kindergarten drama, Madeline also deals with a teenage daughter who seems to be forming an uncomfortably close bond with Madeline's ex-husband's granola-eating, yogi wife.  The third musketeer of the group is Celeste, the gorgeous, kind, and seemingly flawless mother of twin boys, but she is spacey and jumpy, and her life is not the picture-perfect fantasy that it appears to be.  Then there are the "blonde bobs," the materialistic and egocentric mothers, the bullies of the parent community, who believe their children can do no wrong.  They all become intermingled in each other's lives.  The tension builds throughout the story as each character deals with her own family drama, struggling to survive in a world burdened by parenting responsibilities and impossible expectations.

Combine stressed-out kindergarten mothers, family scandals, and a little too much alcohol, and the result is a tragedy at a school function, where someone ends up dead.  The format of the book leads to a lot of suspense and foreshadowing as it bounces back and forth between the events leading up to the incident and the investigation afterwards.  The plot scenes can be so over-the-top and absurd that, despite the murder mystery aspect, this book is quite hilarious.  It was a quick and engaging read!  I couldn't put it down!

I love this quote from USA Today...
"Reading one [of Liane Moriarty's novels] is a bit like drinking a pink cosmo laced with arsenic... [BIG LITTLE LIES] is a fun, engaging and sometimes disturbing read” –USA Today

A Thousand Acres 
by Jane Smiley

The setting is a farmland in Iowa, where Larry Cook has created a large, successful family farm through a long-standing tradition of hard work.  However, Larry is aging, at times becoming senile, which is further complicated by his drinking problem.  He decides to divide up his large and profitable plot between his three daughters.  His youngest daughter, Caroline, a successful and outspoken lawyer, disagrees with the decision, and a lawsuit ensues that creates division and conflict among the family.  Simultaneously, one of the neighbor boys, Jess Clark, arrives back in Iowa after a long absence, bringing charm, excitement, and novel ideas to farm community.  Larry's middle daughter, Ginny, the protagonist of the story, dealing with her own stagnant marriage and inability to conceive children, is wooed by Jess and his creativity and passion.  Jess says to her, "I always think that things have to happen the way they do happen, that there are so many inner and outer forces joining at every event that it becomes a kind of fate.  I learned from studying Buddhism that there's beauty, and certainly a lot of peace, in accepting that."

This Pulitzer prize winning novel is a story of hope, betrayal, forgiveness (and sometimes the importance of not forgiving the unforgivable), understanding, suffering, change, and internal human conflict.  While the plot is slow, the writing is beautiful and eloquent.  I was so moved by Ginny's insights and reflections into her own life events, her flaws and struggles as she comes to terms with the events of her past and how to become the person she really wants to be.  Ginny, who throughout her life has selflessly put others first, ignored her own desires, and stepped carefully around her father's moods to make him happy, is learning to be her own person, say no to her father's ridiculous demands, embrace change, and find her own happiness.  As she learns to stand up for herself, she finds herself drifting further away from her husband, Ty.  "This was a new world for me, for us.  We had spent our life together practicing courtesy, putting the best face on things, harboring secrets.  The thought of giving that up, right now, with my remark, was terrifying."

As a Midwesterner myself, I also felt that I could relate to the values of the Cook family's hard work, perseverance
, and avoiding offending others in an attempt to keep the peace.  I learned a lot about the lives of Midwestern farmers, and I pictured all the farming families who live near my husband's home town in southwestern Minnesota.

"We might as well have had a catechism:
What is a farmer?
A farmer is a mad who feeds the world.
What is a farmer's first duty?
To grow more food.
What is a farmer's second duty?
To buy more land.
What are the signs of a good farm?
Clean fields, neatly painted buildings, breakfast at six, no debts, no standing water.
How will you know a good farmer when you meet him?
He will not ask you for any favors."

And the complete list so far for 2015:
The Monuments Men, by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter
MaddAddam, by Margaret Atwood
'Tis, by Frank McCourt
The Leopard, by Jo Nesbo
I'll Drink to That, by Betty Halbriech
Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty
Harvesting the Heart, by Jodi Picoult
A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley
Funny Girl, by Nick Hornby
The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins
A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
Chicken Soup for the Nurse's Soul, by Mark Victor Hansen
The Snowman, by Jo Nesbo
Frog Music, by Emma Donoghue
Emotional Intelligence 2.0, by Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves
Flirting with Felicity, by Gerri Russell
How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents, by Julia Alvarez
Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Sharp Objects, by Gillian Flynn
Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult
The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci


  1. Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough, useful post. Putting some of these on my to read list starting with big little lies!


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