Gail'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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's review
May 04, 2011

really liked it
Read from December 20 to 24, 2011

Erik Larson has a knack for knowing which blown-over bits of history will make for the most buzzed-about book subjects. It's his particular talent to get everyone talking about history, to make an event or person from our past seem suddenly relevant and... alive again. While my favorite title of his will always be "Devil in the White City" (put that on your 2012 to-read list if you haven't already), "In the Garden of Beasts" is his latest attention-holding read.

And, really, how can it not be? This is pre-WWII, Hitler-era Berlin we're talking about. Larson focuses his scholarly attention on William Dodd, Berlin's U.S. ambassador, as the Dodds set up their life in the German capital upon Dodd's appointment to the position in 1933. A set-in-his-ways history professor from Chicago, Dodd's career and miserly habits make him an unlikely candidate to be tapped by FDR for the role. Yet they make for key reasons he's such a compelling subject for this book (along with a daughter whose promiscuity—a love affair with the chief of the Gestapo!—keeps you wondering what hijinks she'll be up to next).

Because the time period Larson takes us back to is still 1933, you read on with a sense of foreboding, knowing Berlin still has so much horror to endure in the years to come: the Kristallnacht of 1938, the bombings of WWII...none of it far from your hindsight bias. And that knot that forms in your stomach? That, too, stays with you as you read about a city and country powerless to stop Hitler's dictatorial rise. It's a chapter of history we are loathe to remember. One that, in Larson's hands, reads distressingly new all over again.
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