Monday, January 30, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts. Erik Larson. 2011. Crown. 464 pages.

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.

In the Garden of Beasts is nonfiction. It is a biography of the Dodd family--primarily of William Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Berlin, and his daughter, Martha. The book focuses--a bit unevenly--on the four and a half years the family lived (and served) in Berlin, 1933-1938. (The author meant the narration to focus more on the beginning than the middle and the end.) It's an account that is both personal and political. The book does deal with politics--American, Nazi, Soviet--during this time period. But it is also personal. For the most part, it gets personal with the daughter's love life. Much focuses on her friendships and relationships with various men--both in the U.S. and Germany. Trying to keep track of who she was seeing at any one time was quite confusing. (I eventually gave up.)

I'm sure the book is meant to accomplish many things with readers--in addition to informing and/or entertaining. But. For me, I saw it as highlighting human frustration. Being ambassador was not a grand adventure. Trying to please even a handful of men from each country proved absolutely impossible. There were so many people saying do this, don't do that, say this, don't say that. So many people judging him, criticizing him, and in some cases, wanting him to fail. He was supposed to tell the truth, but, at the same time he was supposed to be all about peace, peace, peace. He was supposed to tell the truth, but not at the cost of offending anyone. He was supposed to tell the truth, but not necessarily the unpleasant truth.

I'm not exactly sure how I feel about Martha's story in all this. Was it necessary to include every little detail? Were we supposed to like her? to sympathize with her? I'm not sure I can do either. The way she jumped in and out of relationships, the way she manipulated men, well, it bothered me. The way she would resort to trying to make every man she was involved with jealous by seeing someone else. Perhaps she grew out of her immaturity. I don't know.

I didn't love In the Garden of Beasts. I'm glad I read it. I was interested in some of the details included in this one. But for me it was a little too long.

Read In the Garden of Beasts

  • If you're looking to read nonfiction about this time period--Germany in the 1930s
  • If you're looking to read biographies of American Ambassadors
  • If you're interested/fascinated by politics

© 2012 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews


Kailana 10:39 AM  

I have books by Larson on my TBR pile, but have never actually read him before. One day!

MoniqueReads 5:29 PM  

It sounded like an interesting read. I really like the fact that your add the Read if portion. It's very helpful.

Kate {The Parchment Girl} 6:42 PM  

I haven't had the chance to read this one, but my dad did and thought that too much space was given to Martha's story. I'm thinking I'll pass this one over.

Fall Into Books 7:02 PM  

Man, I love Erik Larson because of Devil in the White City, and I'm a Chicagoan. Terrific story. I'll read this one some day, but I won't rush out and get it. I read enough nonfiction in school. I rarely want to read it when I'm relaxing anymore, haha. Great review though! :D

Anna 10:40 AM  

I've added your review to War Through the Generations.

I'm really looking forward to reading this one, but my expectations have been lowered (thankfully) by reading a lot of reviews like yours where the readers liked it but didn't love it. Maybe they thought Martha's story would attract people who don't want too much politics, banking on the whole sex sells idea. I don't know.

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