Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Review: In the Garden of Beasts

Summary: 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. -- Crown

You might be a little surprised to see that I'm reviewing IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS by Erik Larson. Usually when there is a nonfiction/history book review on this blog, it's written by Booking Pap Pap. However, my long-time book club decided to read IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS this month, and I have to admit that I wasn't thrilled -- especially after a few warnings from some fellow bloggers.

So I guess you could say that I was pleasantly surprised by IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS. That's not to say that I loved this book by any means, but I didn't dislike it as much as I thought I would. In fact, I can even say that this book is probably really good. I'm just pretty sure that I wasn't the target audience. I'm not the biggest fan of history books; and while I am interested in WWII, this book just seemed a little too detailed and dry for my taste. My dad said that's how these books are and maybe that explains why I rarely pick one up! What can you really expect from someone who prefers to learn history through fiction?

Despite my reluctance, I did find much of IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS to be very educational. The story of Dodd and his family, as well as what was happening in Germany prior to WWII, is interesting to say the least. As I read this book, I was continually bothered by the notion that the United States did know what Hitler was doing in Germany, and at times, I was outraged by our inability to do something... anything. But this book also make me think a great deal. I'm not making excuses for anyone because there is no doubt in my mind that the United States could have gotten involved much earlier, but I think it's easy for me to judge the errors of everyone involved using hindsight and holding them to today's standards. I'm sure the decisions to act (or not to act) were very involved and complicated, yet I still have to wonder why it took us so long to stop Hitler.

I think one of the biggest reasons that I didn't love this book was that I didn't really like many of the characters. It goes without saying that the Nazi leaders and their actions were despicable, but I really wanted to like Dodd and his family. I admit that Dodd's daughter Martha was slightly entertaining because of her promiscuity with lots of men, but I soon got tired by her drama and escapades. And as far as Dodd goes, I felt nothing for him until the very end of the book. However, I think by that point, I was already a little tired of him.

I am still willing to give Ms. Larson's book THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY as try because I have heard wonderful things about that book. (Of course, I've also heard great things about this one so maybe I'm not the best judge.) I was most definitely impressed with Mr. Larson's ability to tell this story, but I will say that it did take me awhile to get used to Mr. Larson's writing style. Once I did, the book flowed for me and became much easier to read but I felt like I really had to work to get through the beginning. In addition, the amount of research Mr. Larson did while writing IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS was extraordinary. It was apparent on every page and in every footnote just how thoroughly he examined this subject matter.

10 comments:

Carol said...

I've loved the two Larson books I've read. I have this one, but let my mom borrow it and she hasn't gotten it back to me yet. I am looking forward to reading it, even though, like you, I don't read many history books.

Sandy Nawrot said...

Watching paint dry on a medieval church is probably considered a type of history lesson too, but...

Well, you are nicer than me. I AM the target audience and I could barely get through it. Definitely give Devil a try though. I loved that book.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have read the same thing about Dodd and his family, so I think I'll be skipping this one!

Jenners said...

I've heard not so good things about this one but raves about the White City one. At least you were prepared for it to be bad so it ended up not being so bad! : )

bermudaonion said...

I suspect this one isn't for me. Kudos to you for reading it!

Serena said...

I've only ever read Isaac's Storm by Larson and hated it. So I'm not sure I want to give him a try again, though the WWII subject matter of this one has me interested.

Beth F said...

I've heard this isn't Larson's best. Mr. BFR has read two of his books, but not this one.

educationdiva said...

I haven't read In the Garden of Beasts yet, but Devil in the White City was one of my favourite books I read last year. Don't give up Larson! Thanks for the review. From your description, it looks like my kind of book.

Laura Fabiani said...

I love narrative non-fiction but I don't know if I would read this one. Thanks for your honest review.

Anna said...

I've seen mixed reviews of this book, but it still interests me enough that I'm looking forward to reading it.