Tuesday, October 9, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power. The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history. A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels. But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition. Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming--yet wholly sinister--Goebbels, In the Garden of Beasts lends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror. (from Goodreads)

Flo's Review

I have to admit, this is not my normal type of read, and it's not something I would pick up on my own. It's non-fiction. It's not YA or chick lit. But I joined a new book club and it was September's selection. 

Long story short, this novel blew me away. 

In the Garden of Beasts is the story of the American ambassador to Germany during the time when Hitler was first rising to power. It's a work of non-fiction, but Erik Larson's writing style and detail was so precise and lively that it read like a novel. He documented tiny, tiny details. He breathed life into the major players of the time. The book ends with The Night of the Long Knives, an event I will admit I did not even know about. The book really showed how Hitler  came to be, how it was possible little by little, bit by bit, for him to rise to power as he did and for the German mindset to become what it did. 

I listened to the audiobook and there were parts that had my literally screaming out in my car, "Noooo!!!" Larson has a distinctive voice that allows some dry humor to slip into this factual re-telling at times.  So one minute I was laughing, but the next minute I was sobered up immediately by the description of a new sad reality in Berlin. Larson did such a good job describing the motivations and reactions of Dodd and his family that I found myself alternating between liking and not really caring for Dodd and his daughter Martha, who were the two main figures in the book. Now that I'm done with it, the jury is still out on my thoughts about those two. 

If you are interested in books about different periods of history, this is definitely one to pick up. And if, like me, this might not be the type of book you usually read, this is definitely one to pick up. As for me, I had multiple people tell me that I need to read The Devil in the White City, arguably Larson's most famous book, about murder at the 1893 Chicago's world fair, so I may need to check that out.

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