Back before I started blogging, I experienced something that has only happened to me a handful of times in my reading life. I was completely swept away - consumed, even - by a novel. That novel was "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson. It delved into the history of Chicago architecture, the 1893 World Fair, and a serial killer that was picking off young women who had come to the city to take advantage of job opportunities. You couldn't have found a book more suited to my tastes, and will forever be in my top ten books ever.
On paper, "In the Garden of Beasts" should have had the same effect. Erik Larson writing about an insider's view in 1933 Berlin, as Hitler was circling the wagons? I almost jumped out of my skin when I first read about it. It made my "Wants and Needs" list. I barged into line for the audio at my library. It had my name aaaaaaaallll over it.
Synopsis: In 1933, a stodgy and humble professor from Chicago, William E. Dodd, was chosen to be the first US ambassador to Hitler's Germany. The fact that he was far from the first choice because all previous candidates had declined the assignment should have been his first warning. Nevertheless, armed with his shield of high morals, his wife, son and promiscuous daughter Martha, he sailed off to Germany determined to make a difference.
Almost immediately upon arriving, Dodd knew this was not the Germany he remembered from an earlier time. Jews (and even a few Americans) were being attacked in the streets, Hitler was talking about building the "New Germany", and nobody paid attention to the earnest but bumbling ambassador. He couldn't have been less equipped to manage the momentum building under his nose.
On the other hand, vivacious Martha was star-struck by the Nazi power, and slept her way through Berlin, the notches in her belt including a Gestapo commandant and a Soviet spy. One of Hitler's men even tries to set her up with the Fuhrer himself.
As the Dodds' time in Germany comes to a close, one of the most notorious signs of Hitler's rise in power occurs...the "Night of the Long Knives", when the Gestapo launches a massive preemptive strike against all of the Third Reich's enemies by invading their homes and executing their entire families.
My thoughts: I find it amazing to actually see, from an American's point of view, what Berlin was like six long years before the invasion of Poland. Hitler's master plan was one that did not happen overnight, but was strategically and methodically planned. The signs were there long before he set up the death camps. Unfortunately, the people that could have made a difference either were afraid to say something or wrote him off as a goofball.
Nobody loves this stuff more than I do. But I can't recommend this book. And it breaks my heart.
There are literally hundreds of names and facts, almost too broad in scope. Too many to inspire any solid foundation upon which the reader may invest. None of the characters are likable. Dodd was weak and his daughter was a floozy. US politicians turned their backs on Dodd's warnings, instead focusing on how much they disliked Dodd. It all felt like a big ugly mess. Does that make for good reading? Perhaps, but the focus of the mess (how Hitler was allowed to grow into a monster, unchecked) strayed off-course, and more than once settled instead on Martha's sexcapades and Dodd's inadequacies. It left me feeling irritated and confused. And bored.
A word about the audio production: It would be easy to blame the audio. If you did, you would be half right, the audio did play a part in my unhappiness. The narrator, Stephen Hoye, was not the right voice for the job. He does a decent job at talking murder and mayhem in the Michael Harvey series, but he lacks the dynamics to hold your attention for 13 hours when historical fact is the main entree. About halfway through, I began to do something I call "separating myself from the audio", and try to imagine reading the words. I'm just not sure if reading this information would have made it any more palatable.
When I look through the reviews on Amazon and other websites, I see that my opinion is not one that is shared by many people, and you need to know that. Is it possible that the panache of Larson and WWII combined have clouded judgements? I'm just asking...
2.5 out of 5 stars