In the Garden of Beasts, Erik Larson, Crown Publishing Group, 2011, 365 pp
Here is another book I would not have read if not for a reading group. So why do I read books I don't particularly like for these groups? Some members just choose not to read certain picks. Three reasons:
1) I feel it is part of being a member to come to discussions prepared to discuss.
2) I am interested in how other readers react to books whether I like them or not, because I am both a writer and a book reviewer.
3) For the same reason that I read the Top 10 bestsellers of each year in My Big Fat Reading Project: to learn about the social factors which make books widely read.
Erik Larson is not my favorite non-fiction writer. I read The Devil in the White City (also for a reading group) and was bothered by the odd juxtaposition of a serial killer true crime story with the history of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. In the Garden of Beasts combines the growth of Hitler's power with the sad case of a US diplomat. For added thrill and sex appeal, Larson includes the adventures of the diplomat's promiscuous daughter.
Many readers in my reading groups and among the reading public like Larson's books just fine. I have been left both times with a confused palate, as if I have eaten a meal of foods that don't go well with each other.
Because I have read pretty widely about the rise of Hitler and the dastardly ways of the Nazis, I felt that Larson's story construction rather downplayed the insanity of all that. In addition, the inefficiencies and faults in our diplomatic corps, about which the author goes on ad nauseum, were hardly the major cause of Hitler's igniting the Second World War, but the book suggests as much.
Finally, William E Dodd, ambassador to Germany from late 1933 until 1937, was not an especially interesting character. To center a book about the years leading up to WWII around such a lackluster man was a bad idea in my opinion. If he hadn't had that wild daughter Martha, who ran around Berlin having serial affairs with members of the Gestapo, a Russian diplomat, and other colorful fellows, In the Garden of Beasts would have bogged down early and never recovered.
(In the Garden of Beasts is available in paperback and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)