Thursday, June 7, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

Now, let's take a moment to consider that any book about the rise of Hitler in Berlin may be a little overwhelming at times.  German names are confusing (there, I said it), nonfiction can be heavy on background without much forward plot development, and it's maddening to think that we as a country waited several years before thinking, "Hey, this Hitler guy could be dangerous, maybe we should at least say a few things about it in the press." 
Erik Larson's latest book, In the Garden of Beasts, covers Berlin, 1933, in great detail.  This happens to be the same year William Dodd took over as American ambassador to Germany and moved to Berlin with his wife, son, and daughter Martha.   The first year starts on a high note, as all of the family is a bit under the spell of the Nazis' promises to rebuild Germany into a world power.  Martha begins having a number of high-profile affairs (including one with the head of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels), while Dodd sets about trying to get Germany to pay back its bonds to the US.  As the months wear on, reports of attacks on and civil liberties revoked from Germany's Jewish popularion grow, and the Dodds' perception of the country and Hitler begins to do an about-face.  The State Department at the time seems unflustered by the reports Dodd sends back, and Martha begins flirting with socialism (and a prominent Soviet Union spy) as a slap in the face to the Nazi party in Germany.  While I'm on the topic of Martha, Larson spends an awful lot of time detailing her exploits with men, but most of these seem to have little to do with the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party, and felt forced.  She's just not as interesting as Larson makes her out to be. 
I wish I could say I enjoyed this book more, as it's immensely important to remember events like Hitler's slow but determined crawl to power, so as to (hopefully) avoid it in the future.  I had a lot of issues with it, though.  Having enjoyed Larson's Devil in the White City, I was hoping this work would read much like a novel.  However, neither William or Martha Dodd are intriguing or even likable people, and the end is far too rushed.  While he covers things as mundane as the weather in 1933, Larson barely covers the later years of Dodd's ambassadorship (is that the right word?) that led up to the U.S. commenting on Hitler's Germany.  As a result, stories about a trip to visit a Nazi official's house to look at his mansion and herd of bison feel random and infused with unnecessary tension. 
This is not to say that I didn't learn a lot from Beasts, but perhaps lower your expectations if you loved Devil in the White City.  This didn't flow as easily, and includes a lot of information about a mostly-superfluous character in Berlin at the time (Martha). 
In more exciting news, you may want to read this before Tom Hanks' film version comes out in a few years so you can compare the two works.


  1. I'll put this on my "don't read" list!

  2. We need to talk books more often! I also loved Devil in the White City.