As is the case with any collection of essays, quality varies from one article to the next, but on the whole I found the work collected here utterly fa...moreAs is the case with any collection of essays, quality varies from one article to the next, but on the whole I found the work collected here utterly fascinating. The best are those that delve into forgotten corners of music and specifically jazz history: the essay on Lovie Austin and Lillian Hardin Armstrong (yes, Louis's wife), two early female jazz pianists, for example, or a reconsideration of the multitalented but consistently overlooked musical powerhouse Hazel Scott, or an account of Ivy Benson's dance orchestra of female swing musicians who supplied music for the BBC during the shortage of male talent during WWII--you get the idea. A treasure trove of musical information and knowledge.(less)
Entertaining, informative, and endlessly readable, which compensates for a perhaps inevitable thinness. As a survey/overview it likely won't yield a w...moreEntertaining, informative, and endlessly readable, which compensates for a perhaps inevitable thinness. As a survey/overview it likely won't yield a whole lot--aside from the choice bits of tasteful gossip--to a reader already somewhat aware of the terrain it covers, which is perhaps is why I had more or less the opposite reaction of many here who thought it ran out of steam as it went along; I happen to be interested in and know more about the authors covered early in the book (Baldwin, Vidal, Capote), but not as much about more recent authors, so for me the latter half was more compelling. The highlight, I think, is Bram's astute analysis and defense of Christopher Isherwood's oeuvre, who still remains rather underrated despite a recent reignition of interest in his work (I for one was startled to find out how many of his novels I had never even heard of).
Bram's style is very approachable and lucid, and it's like listening to a literate and culturally knowledgeable friend hold forth on books, art, and history. I personally was hoping for something more along the lines of Sheri Benstock's magisterial Women of the Left Bank, a more dense undertaking that combines literary analysis with historical scholarship, but I don't hold my expectations against Bram. Because this is clearly intended to be accessible cultural scholarship, and on that level it overall succeeds admirably. And if it gets people, myself included, to pick up the work of more of these authors, well then, all the better. (less)
I finished reading this book almost exactly a year ago. And in the year that has since passed, I have attempted to wrap my head around everything meti...moreI finished reading this book almost exactly a year ago. And in the year that has since passed, I have attempted to wrap my head around everything meticulously laid out in the 450 pages of tiny black print that make up this book. I find that I grapple with the knowledge I gained here more often than I could have possibly imagined. You know how people use solar eclipses to glance directly at the sun? Well, I have found that it is through this book that I have started to honestly fathom the horrific nature of the Second World War, in all of its crippling, incomprehensible intensity. It has become, quite simply, the loophole upon which I can relate to things I previously only knew but had never actually felt.
The Louvre, post evacuation
Confiscated Jewish art and property in Paris
Considering the sprawling nature of the subject matter—Hitler and Goering's insatiable art collecting addiction, the stunning evacuations of the Louvre and the Hermitage collections, the "legal" seizure of Jewish art collections and property, the marginalization of "degenerate" modern art and artists, the meticulous destruction of the cultural heritages of Poland and other Slavic countries, the Nazi occupation and plunder of Italy, the tireless work of the American Monument Men, etc, etc—Lynn H. Nicholas does an admirable job with her cobwebby material that constantly threatens to spin in countless directions, organizing it into dense but generally cohesive chapters. And along the way, she packs in shocking anecdotes that could inspire countless novels and films of their own: the boot print left on Da Vinci's Lady with an Ermine after German soldiers found its hiding spot and unaware of the priceless art, ransacked the accompanying gold objects, two British reporters entering an occupied castle to interview some soldiers and coming face to face with Botticelli's gigantic Primavera, American soldiers discovering Hitler's personal art collection in a rural salt mine, and then staring at the Ghent Altarpiece and the Bruges Madonna by Michelangelo in the darkness a full quarter of a mile underground.
What remained of the frescos at the Campo Santo
Original Tchaikovsky manuscripts tossed into the snow
Hitler, Herr Art-Collector-in-Chief himself
But more than anything, it's the stories of people that shine through. As just a single example (and one I found most moving): the description of the group of people who lived in the basement of the Hermitage during the Siege of Leningrad, in conditions so cold that frozen corpses could be stored unattended for months, subsisting on "jellied soup made of carpenter's glue." And then I nearly cried over the accompanying page describing the group of starving "not-so-young" women working every day in the building itself, chipping away with crowbars at the ice building up on the walls and floors after the windows had been shattered by bombs and gunfire. I honestly had to start confronting the "big" questions: how valuable is art? Is it ever worth more than human life? And what is it about it that inspired countless people to accomplish reality-defying feats to try and preserve it for future generations?
The images included above are from the really excellent documentary adapted from this book that was released in 2006, and I can totally see the temptation in skipping this labyrinthine book in favor of a concise two hour film. But inevitably, the film only skates on the surface of most issues, and doesn't even mention many others, including some of what I thought were the most moving parts of the book. But it does has its own set of advantages, namely the sheer impact of visual confirmation of the information. Needless to say, it's an excellent supplement to Nicholas's massive tome, if not really an adequate replacement.
Just after finishing this book, I read an amazing collection of poetry called In Praise of the Unfinished: Selected Poems by Julia Hartwig, a previously untranslated Polish poet who also tapped into something deeply emotional that I never really quite came to grips with either (which is why I never reviewed it here on GR). One reoccurring theme throughout the collection is regarding art itself in all of its multifaceted forms. And these few lines, I thought, got closest to articulating the inexpressible thoughts and feelings this book evoked for me, its precise eloquence doing more justice to this topic than I ever could, so I'll just end this rambling review with it:
“Art casts a spell summoning life so it can continue but its space extends to the invisible It is also an intelligence reconciling discordant elements with similarities It is brave because it seeks immortality by being—just like everything else—mortal”