Love me some Erik Larson

Have y’all heard of Erik Larson!? If not you’re not alone, most people that I talk to haven’t. But this needs to change. Like now. This week I read his latest, In the Garden of Beasts.

I first came across Larson during my summer down south in Alabama. I had decided to branch out in my reading preferences a little bit because it was the first time since law school where my work and studying schedule wasn’t too crazy. So glad I did because the man is a genius. Seriously.

I guess the best way to describe Larson’s writing style is that of an entertaining historian. Technically, it falls under the rubric of Popular History. He takes a historical event and using letters, memoirs, journals and pretty much any other reliable historical scrap, he pieces together a story from it. The result is that you end up learning about a piece of history from a uniquely personal perspective and it’s bloody brilliant.

In the Garden of Beasts follows the rise of Nazi Germany as seen through the eyes of the American Ambassador assigned to Germany in the 1930’s, William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha. And I know that you’re sarcastically thinking “Oh yay! A history book on Nazi Germany, exactly what I want to read,” but stop that nonsense right now because the book is A-Mazing.

The true star of the book is Martha. When she first arrives in Germany she immediately falls in love with the storybook scenery of the country. And let me tell you, I felt the same way when I visited Germany. To me the place looked like Disneyland with its gingerbread trimmed buildings and breathtaking backdrops. Not to mention how clean everything was. Out of all the places I’ve vacationed Germany is one of my favorites.

Tell me this doesn't look like it's out of a fairytale. 

Okay so I went a little crazy with the pictures, eh.

Anyways, back to the book… So Martha’s enchantment with the country logically led to her fascination with its’ current leaders, the Nazis. This is where the book really interested me because I still have trouble understanding why the Nazis retained power for so long, I mean how is it possible that they went unchecked for the amount of time that they did?! The typical historical explanations always focus on the treatment of Germany during the Versailles treaty and the world’s hope for peace after WWI. In contrast, this book attempts to provide an explanation for the world’s appeasement of Hitler from a personal point of view. For instance, in the beginning, Martha’s, and others’, love for the Nazis wasn’t tarnished by the government’s acts against the Jewish population because the degradation of the Jewish population started so slowly and on such a small scale that it didn’t cause an outrage among the world at the time. In fact, many persons of the Jewish community were still attending parties and dinners with the Nazis when Martha first arrived. Although to be honest it wasn’t even until nearly every Jewish person lost their civil rights that Martha and Dodd started to become disenchanted by how the Jewish people were being treated, mostly because of the anti-Semitic attitude of the world in the 1930’s. It was astonishing to actually read Martha and Dodd’s words concerning Jewish people or the Jewish problem as they called it, especially since they were considered to be the average moderate person. Before reading this I never really understood how widespread and prejudiced people at that time really were.

If the history of it all isn’t enough to draw you in, the sex will. Larson gives us accounts of all of Martha’s torrid love affairs. The lady got around! She had affairs with the Chief of the Gestapo at the time (who believe it or not was very moderate as far as Nazis go) princes, French statesmen, and even a member of the Russian KGB. Crazy right?!

Another thing I love about Larson’s writing style is that he sneaks in fun, seemingly random facts throughout his books. Although he didn’t do that as much in this book, which left me feeling kind of cheated.

All in all I liked the book but not as much as The Devil in the White City, which simultaneously detailed the growth of the Chicago World Fair and the life of a serial killer who lured in his victims by creating a sort hotel of horror complete with in room gas ventilation systems designed to knock the occupant unconscious. Again, craziness. So if this is the first you’ve heard of Larson I recommend starting with The Devil in the White City and then give In the Garden of Beasts a whirl.

And onto the next….. I’m currently reading Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children and so far it’s really good. Like hard to put down good. 


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