Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Nonfiction Makes Its Way to the Screen

 Two of my summer books this year have been nonfiction works with an extended life.  I had been interested in the movie Monuments Men when I heard about it (but somehow have never found time to view it yet) because I've always had a real interest in some of the stories of art theft and destruction during war, especially WWII.

I'd read The Forger's Spell, the story of Han van Meegeren, whose forgeries made their way into the private collections of Goering, Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean, a story set in the Hermitage when the Russians were diligently working to move their art works to save them from the Germans.  (I had first read the lovely poem "The Curator" by Miller Williams that introduced me to the fact that the pictures had been moved but the empty frames left hanging.)   Other books that had piqued my interest:  Thousand Splendid Sons by Hosseini, which described some of the ancient statues and other art destroyed by war, and Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna, in which I first learned that treasures of the the National Gallery were removed and hidden at the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC, during the war.

In Monuments Men, readers are introduced to a number of major players. At first they seem like a lot of keep straight.  When I consider trying to accomplish their goal, though, the number seems far too small. They had few resources and had to make up their game plan as they went along, trying to protect churches, cathedrals, sacred texts and priceless artworks.  Many of these works were endanger simply because of their proximity to war, but as Hitler and the Nazis had specific plans to take any Germanic arts back to Hitler's home for a new museum, the threat increased exponentially.

One of my surprises came when I learned that one of the Monuments Men was Robert Posey, from a poor farm family in Alabama.  He not only played a big role in this effort but went on to work (as an architect) on the Sears Tower in Chicago.  The men involved in this project came from diverse backgrounds and seemed to work together effectively (which doesn't always happen in this kind of assignment.)  The author also pinpointed a number of citizens who played a huge role in saving or finding artworks.

At the end, while I celebrated the discovery of thousands and thousands of works--Rembrandts, Vermeers, huge altar pieces, and more--I had to wonder about all the art that was lost--or the art stolen from Jewish families that still haven't made their way back to rightful owners.

In a completely different vein, Orange Is the New Black, the true story of Piper Kerman's experience in women's prison on a ten-year-old drug charge, has become a huge television hit.  I had no idea it was based on a true story.  Kerman, a blue-eyed blonde twenty-something, the well-educated daughter of an upper middle class family, describes her actions that led to her fifteen year sentences and incarceration in Danbury, CT.  While not as dramatic, violent, and "sexy" as the television show is reported to be (I'm not a TV person. OK?) the story is fascinating.

Despite seeming completely out of her league, Kurman learns more than survival skills. She takes care of her body and mind, while learning to befriend her fellow prisoners and to stay out of trouble with the prison CO's.

An article in a recent Rolling Stone reports that Kurman is now working for prison reform.  Anyone reading the book can certainly see areas that need fixing.  She also shed a lot of light on the ineffectual way the legal system deals with drug law enforcement and the lack of genuine focus on reform in prison.

Kurman's books has the narrative structure of a good novel, and I enjoyed her honest self-appraisal in the book.  While I admired her self-discipline, I hope never to need a prison stint to accomplish personal growth.  I look forward to her future ventures into writing.


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