I am trying so hard to hit my cannonball before I leave town on Saturday, since I know I’ll finish several books on my trip but won’t have internet access to post my reviews. Unfortunately, Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts took me a full week to finish due to its dense subject material and rather dry writing.
“Like most people, I acquired my initial sense of the era from books and photographs that left me with the impression that the world of then had no color, only gradients of gray and black. My two main protagonists, however, encountered the fl esh-and-blood reality, while also managing the routine obligations of daily life.” From Larson’s afterword.
In 1933, unassuming tightwad (actually one of his more endearing characteristics) William E. Dodd gets appointed as the new ambassador to Germany — the first under Hitler’s regime. He moves his family to Berlin, and spends the next several years watching as Hitler rises to power. He occasionally tries to intervene, or notify those back home how things are changing, but remains mostly ineffectual. His primary concern is how much money everyone spends on parties, while he lives tightly within his budget (seriously — this comes up constantly).
His daughter Martha? Much more interesting. Although married when she initially arrives in Berlin, she has affair after affair with newspaper reporters, society men, plus the occasional Nazi and a KGB spy. If the book had focused primarily on her (which it does at times, before shifting back to Poppa Dodd), it would have been more interesting — not only because of her actions but also because she apparently wrote a lot of it down.
I did find certain parts of the book informative. It is kind of amazing/horrifying how slowly the Nazis seemed to take things over, and then bang — everything changes. And the terror that even his own people lived in constantly surprised me. But most of it felt like a bit of a slog — particularly compared to some of the other books I’ve read by Larson.