Dave Cullen's Reviews > In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
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Jul 08, 11

Read from June 03 to 07, 2011

I just finished, and what an awful taste in my mouth. I am perplexed by his conclusions about both his protagonists, though that perhaps explains the curious choice of asking us to spend 350 pages with them. (Perhaps he saw something he failed to communicate.)

Actually, with Martha, I'm convinced there WAS something extraordinary to communicate. Quite close to the start, we see two great writers sitting on either side of her at (I believe) her farewell party. They were close friends. I wrote in the margin there that that's no coincidence. People like Carl Sandburg are likely to be attracted to others with something going on. One might be a fluke, but two, unlikely. This woman obviously had something. I couldn't wait to discover what.

For 300 more pages, we see her accumulate a dizzying number of men successful in all sorts of fields, but particularly artists, who were quite taken by her. And it wasn't her looks. She must have been extraordinary in some way. It totally seems to have eluded Larson. I kept waiting for her personality to come through--for some redeeming qualities. She just seemed like a clueless simpleton. Lame, annoying character at the center of the book, and presumably a discredit to her as well.

So what happened? I have no idea. Larson seemed to fall for her, but then forgot convey why.

That's one of the many problems with this book. The periodic bursts of "dark and stormy" prose were also annoying, though they came and went.

I just don't get the appeal.

Here were some of my early thoughts, a few days ago:

I'm halfway through, and conflicted, starting to sour.

The short intro got me very interested, and I mostly loved Devil In The White City, so I dove in. But it never really grabbed me. (Certainly not the way Devil did--I was enraptured in both its stories immediately.) The two main characters here are exceptionally bland, and their story uncompelling. (Not much story to their story.)

What it DOES do, brilliantly, is its main intent: to provide a POV into what it was like for two outsiders to venture in and see the Nazi world as it took hold.

That was fascinating, and wonderful for awhile, though I was restless and yearning for a more interesting story and characters to take me in. And the longer it wore on, the more redundant it felt.

Then, this morning, I dove into history of the period elsewhere, and discovered how the story begins rather late, after Hitler had effectively taken control.

The prose is solid and Larsen is a natural storyteller most of the time, though he skitters into 'Dark and stormy night' territory too often.

Now . . . I'm wondering whether I should invest the time to finish.

I will adjust my rating as I go.

(I'm finished now. It has me irritated enough to want to slap one star on there, but that's unfair. There is lots of good storytelling in here, too. I'm just so exasperated by it.)
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Comments (showing 1-8 of 8) (8 new)

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Rich Giblin I just finished the book recently. I have read extensively on that time period in Germany and also during WWII. This provided an interesting perspective of what it was like to be the representative of the US while the Nazis were strengthening their hold on power in Germany. I read Albert Speer's book "Inside the Third Reich" and got the perspective from Hitler's inner circle. This book helped me understand things better from a US perspective, including both the ambassador's viewpoint and that coming from the State Department and Roosevelt at that time.
There was an interesting transformation in the story line that involved Martha, Dodd's daughter. She initially embraced the changes happening in Germany, thinking what Hitler was doing was a good thing. Over time she swung about 180 degrees as the truth slowly became apparent and some of the friends she developed were actually threatened by the tyranny. She was a microcosm of what much of the world went through as it slowly learned of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the irrational thugs who came to power in a major European capital and led the whole world into war. And then the world learned the true extent of the horror as the war drew to an end and the depth of "The Final Solution" was revealed to the world.
This wasn't quite the read that "Devil In The White City" was, but I found it interesting because of interesting viewpoint it gave into that time frame. It also proved interesting to me by showing how someone not from the world of diplomacy and bureaucrats was thrust into that world and onto a stage with the major players in events that changed the world as we knew it then. I could empathize with Dodd being thrown into a totally different world and then also being caught between the pincers of unscrupulous men and bureaucrats who did not fully understand the dangers we faced and were more interested in exercising and maintaining their hold on corner of the government they ruled.
The saddest part was reading this and seeing the parallels to the most recent administration and its total cluelessness about what they got our country into.


message 2: by Caroline (new)

Caroline Good to know. I just found out about this book and was thinking of adding it to my to-read. Might have to rethink that.


message 3: by Jennifer (new)

Jennifer I tried reading Devil in the White City when it was getting so much buzz, but I had a difficult time wading through it. I definitely won't be picking this one up. Thanks for the review :-)


message 4: by Sue (new)

Sue I really liked Devil in the White City, but his 2nd book was not nearly that gripping, and this new book seems to portray an increasingly horrifying time with a lack of character response? I'll give it a miss too.


message 5: by Jane (new)

Jane I tried this one, too. I just couldn't get into it.


Dave Cullen Thanks for these great comments.

I feel very conflicted about all of this, because I learned a great deal from White City--particularly how he juggled two stories, and built suspense and anticipation. I feel somewhat indebted to him.

I do wonder whether some of my feelings on this book are due to feeling let down. I tried to weigh that in, but I'm close to it now. Bottom line, I feel it was misconceived and can't recommend it, so I can't in good faith give it three stars. But the guy has got tremendous talents, which shine through much of the time. (I found myself engrossed in some passages--though always chapters/scenes focused on the Nazis, never the protagonists.)


message 7: by jv (new)

jv poore Thank you for such an articulate review. This will definitely not be on my to-read list.


Stephanie God what a disappointment

I felt edgy the whole time I was reading likely just thinking "something HAS to leap off the page at me soon"

I read it on Kindle and kept watching the percent of completion to see how soon I could jump to another book...not a good sign. I was SOOOOO happy he had voluminous notes as it meant the torture ended with about 20% left-- a nice surprise

It DID make me want to find something else about the rise of Hitler and how Americans were viewing it ( or ignoring it ). Want to dig into news from that time...


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