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Erik Larson – In the Garden of Beasts

June 20, 2011

77. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson (2011)

Length: 438 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction

Started: 05 June 2011
Finished: 09 June 2011

Where did it come from? From Crown Publishers for review.
Why do I have it? I enjoyed Larson’s The Devil in the White City way more than I expected to, so I was definitely interested to read his new book.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 15 May 2011.

How could the Nazis
have gained so much power, and
no one protested?

Summary: In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of the build-up to World War II from the point of view of people who experienced it first hand: the American ambassador to Germany in the 1930s, and his family. William Dodd was a history professor by training, not a diplomat, and may have seemed an unlikely choice for the representative of U.S. interests in Germany during such a pivotal time. Arriving in Germany a few months after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, Dodd and his family, particularly his lively socialite daughter Martha, had a front-row view of the building popularity of the Nazi party… and the growing climate of suspicion and fear that was slowly co-opting the glorious vision of “New Germany.”

Review: Once again, Larson proves himself to be a writer with an eye for the untold stories of history, and the skill to bring those untold facets of the past to vivid life. So many pages have been written on World War II, both fiction and non-fiction, that it’s hard to imagine each new author finding a new perspective to write about, but Larson does it, and does it with style. Perhaps it’s because he reaches further back in history, focusing on the rise of the Third Reich and the slow build to war, rather than on the war itself. And by focusing his story on a family who was themselves out of place in Hitler’s Germany, he gives the readers easy access to the unfamiliar parts of his tale. I was engaged and fascinated throughout, even though political history writ large has never really been my thing, perhaps because by blending the history with a biography of William and Martha Dodd, everything seemed much more immediate and alive. I did enjoy Martha’s sections more than William’s (despite not particularly liking Martha as a person), as they’re more personal and lively, whereas some of the diplomatic politicking in William’s story got a little tedious, even in Larson’s hands.

There were a few places I had problems, though. First, Larson’s trick of building dramatic tension by ending every chapter with vague but ominous pronouncements about characters or events (ominous pronouncements that, more often than not, were not brought up again until they were resolved in the epilogue) got very tiresome by about halfway through. It’s an effective tactic for driving your reader onwards, but it’s overused, and I thought the story had enough drama on its own merits without needing to artificially create more.

I also found the pacing strange, especially near the end. The bulk of the book is spent on the Dodds’ first year in Berlin, told in occasionally day-by-day detail. Then, very abruptly, Larson starts covering large swaths of time in single paragraphs, so that Dodd’s remaining three years as ambassador take about as many pages as a week or two from the early part of the book. While I can understand why Larson chose to condense time the way he did, I still found that it pulled me out of the story, and took me a while to get settled back into the rhythm of the storytelling again. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: World War II history buffs will enjoy this one, for sure, but Larson’s also a great historian for non-history readers, since he’s very good at finding stories and presenting them in such a way that will draw in even the most inveterate fiction readers.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Canadian Bookworm, Killin’ Time Reading, MarysLibrary, She Treads Softly, Sophisticated Dorkiness
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler’s Berlin.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 47: “There were double-decked omnibuses, S-Bahn trains, and brightly colored trams whose catenaries fired off brilliant blue sparks.” – the cable, running above the track, from which the trolley wire is suspended.
    .
  • p. 152: “The ballot also would invite the public to pass judgment upon his foreign policy through a yes-or-no plebiscite.” – a direct vote of the qualified voters of a state in regard to some important public question.
    .
  • p. 180: “Martha ordered onion soup, salad, and beer; Voris chose vodka, shashlik, and herring immersed in sour creem and onions.” – shish kebab.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 20, 2011 7:52 am

    Your critiques are good points — I noticed both of those things. I was disappointed about the way the pacing changed. One of the things I didn’t like about Devil in the White City was the way it flipped back and forth so much. I was really enjoying the long sections in this book at the beginning, so was bummed when things switched near the end.

    • June 20, 2011 2:40 pm

      Kim – I didn’t really mind the flipping in DitWC so much, I think because I was more interested in Holmes’s story than in Burnham’s, so every time we went back to the fair I knew it’d get back around to the serial killer part soon. But in this case, I was involved in all aspects of the story, so any narrative jumping around didn’t bother me… until time sped up at the end.

  2. June 20, 2011 10:17 am

    Even though I’m not much of a non-fiction reader, I do like Erik Larson’s books. My book group enjoyed DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY a lot. So, I’ve got this one on my radar. Good to hear of your experience. I’ll get around to reading it at some point. :-)

    • June 20, 2011 2:44 pm

      Kay – I’m becoming more of a non-fiction reader as time goes on, although I usually prefer micro-histories to straight-up histories like this. I’ll always make an exception for Erik Larson, though!

  3. June 20, 2011 10:34 am

    Hmm…your problem spots would probably frustrate me, too, but I’m still intrigued and hope to read this at some point. I’ll link to your review on War Through the Generations.

    • June 20, 2011 2:45 pm

      Anna – On the whole, the parts I had problems with were minor as compared to the parts I didn’t have problems with; the bulk of the book was really well-written and engaging, so hopefully you enjoy it too and don’t find it too frustrating. Thanks for the link!

  4. June 20, 2011 2:32 pm

    That’s odd about the pacing, but it sounds like it’s worth putting up with. I’d like to give this book a try.

    • June 20, 2011 2:47 pm

      Kathy – I understand why Larson paced things the way he did; the main story he wanted to tell really did happen in the first year of the Dodds’ time in Berlin. Just ending it without following up on what happened to the main characters would have felt incomplete, and going into the same level of detail would have been too much… so, like I said, I get it; I just felt a little wrong-footed by the abrupt transition.

  5. June 20, 2011 3:44 pm

    I loved The Devil in the White City, so I am actually kind of scared to read this one because I am afraid it won’t live up to it.

    • June 21, 2011 9:02 am

      Lola – I think it’s entirely a matter of how interested you are in the various topics; style-wise, this one certainly lives up to its predecessor.

  6. June 20, 2011 6:28 pm

    As someone with a history degree, I might like this book. Thanks for sharing.

  7. June 20, 2011 6:43 pm

    It’s a shame I discovered the existence of this book when I did — I had just finished reading a tiresome book about Americans in Nazi-occupied Paris, and I felt very cranky with Erik Larson for writing another book about Nazis at such an inopportune moment. I could have had a free copy of this book! But I elected not to have it.

    • June 21, 2011 9:04 am

      Jenny – How dare he publish a novel without consulting you re: topic first! :-) But if you come back around to wanting another book on the subject in the future, this one is hopefully substantially less tiresome.

  8. June 20, 2011 7:30 pm

    Interesting points about the chapter endings and the pacing. I’ll read this one but I think Isaac’s Storm is my favorite.

    • June 21, 2011 9:06 am

      Gavin – He’s so well known for Devil in the White City that I always forget he has several other books too. I’ll have to check out his backlist – thanks for the reminder!

  9. June 26, 2011 4:29 pm

    Okay, I really want to read this! I have Devil in the White City on my TBR pile, but this sounds like more my type of book…

    • June 29, 2011 9:19 am

      Kailana – Well, the good thing about non-fiction is there’s no reading order; no reason you can’t pick this one up and read it first! (Other than TBR-related guilt, I suppose…)

  10. June 26, 2011 10:18 pm

    I really enjoyed DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, and I’ve been eyeballing Larson’s latest. I haven’t decided if I want to read it or listen to it on audio. I love WWII history and fiction, so I can’t believe I’ve waited as long as I have to decide which one to choose. Thanks for your honest reflections! Even with the problems, you’ve convinced me I need to add it to my TBR immediately!

    • June 29, 2011 9:22 am

      Michelle – Two thoughts on the paper vs. audio debate: first, because I listen more slowly than I read, I would have been even more likely to forget the Dire Hints at the end of each chapter by the time Larson got around to explaining them, but if you’ve got a less-leaky memory than I do, that might not be a problem for you.

      Second, if you do get it on audio, I’d also sneak a peak at a paper copy in a bookstore or library, just to get the pictures (there’s not a lot of them, but it was nice seeing what the people I was reading about actually looked like) and the few chapter endnotes, which have some interesting anecdotes.

      • June 29, 2011 7:51 pm

        Thanks for the info! You definitely swayed me towards the print version. I love pictures and would hate to miss that.

      • July 1, 2011 10:23 am

        Michelle – Happy to help! I hope you enjoy it!

  11. Deb R permalink
    June 11, 2012 12:55 pm

    I need a list of characters. The one on wikipedia was too small. Does anyone have one? My book club is struggling with all the characters. I am enjoying the book.

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