Thursday, January 12, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson (Audio)

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       
  

          

26 comments:

farmlanebooks said...

Oh no! I expected you to love this book. I think having too much knowledge about a subject can be a negative sometimes. I've got Devil on my TBR thanks to you. Hopefully I'll love it as much as you did.

Anna said...

Sorry this was such a disappointing read for you. As you know, I recently added it to my shelves and am looking forward to reading it. It's probably a good thing that you dampened my enthusiasm just a bit. ;)

JoAnn said...

So disappointing! I listened to The Devil in the White City ages ago, before blogging. Had high hopes for this one, too. Maybe if I do get to it, I'll borrow it from the library rather than use an audible credit. Just in case...

Anita said...

Too bad, the premise was really a good one.

bermudaonion said...

Yeah, you're not the first person to tell me this wasn't Larson's best work. I may just skip it.

Jenners said...

I don't think you are alone in this. I've read quite a few other reviews where the readers were terribly disappointed with this and they loved his previous book. In fact, more than anything, I've learned that I need to read The Devil in the White City.

And I just listened to Stephen Hoye narrate The Emperor of All Maladies, a 20+ hour book about the biography of cancer. I could see what you mean about his voice. I didn't crave it and I wasn't sure if it was the subject matter or the length or his voice. Perhaps he gets saddled with long hard to read books stuffed with facts for some reason.

Jenny said...

I thought this looked really good but it definitely sounds disappointing. The things you didn't like are things that would bother me too for sure.

Melissa (Avid Reader) said...

I'm right there with you. I've loved some of his other work, but this one just didn't do it for me. Too many people, none of them likeable, it just never came together. I would absolutely recommend Isaac's Storm though. That's actually my favorite of his books!

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I heard so many negatives about this book I actually gave it away, so I'm very glad to read your review! :--)

Ti said...

I loved Devil, but when I read the write-up for this one, I went...meh. It didn't sound like anything I would enjoy, but I'm surprised that you didn't love it.

BookQuoter said...

One off my list. Thanks for saving me time.

Darlene said...

I'm sorry this one wasn't a good one for you Sandy. It's disappointing especially when another that the author writes isn't as great as the one you loved.

Zibilee said...

I have not read any books by this author, so I can't compare, but it does sound as if this was rather dense in some unpalatable ways. I think perhaps that Larson had big shoes to fill after his release of Devil, and it might have made him a tad ambitious. I also don't think that the narrator sounds like he was a good choice. Thanks for being so forthright about your reactions to this one. I think I will skip it and read Devil instead!

Brooke said...

I loved Devil as well and couldn't wait to read this one, but after all the negatives I've been hearing I'm not sure I should! Thanks for the candid review.

Trisha said...

You are not the first I've read who loved Devil and was very disappointed with this one. I, being totally lame, still have to read Devil....

Julie P. said...

I just finished reading this last week. You at least set my expectations lower so I wasn't as disappointed as I might have been. I thought it was pretty long and dull in places though.

heidenkind said...

That's disappointing. :( Although I can't say I'm surprised. The synopsis on the book made it sound like a bit of a mess.

Carrie K. said...

You're not alone. I appreciated the info - but definitely too broad in scope. And Martha was a mess!

Beth F said...

I've put off reading this one and I may just pass it along to Mr. BFR and be done with it.

Serena said...

Sorry this one was so disappointing for you, but I've had hit or miss experiences with Larson. I will have to read Devil at some point since you've raved about it on numerous occasions.

softdrink said...

I know! I'm surprised, too, by how many people are raving about this one. I think I even saw it on the Indie Lit awards shortlist...

Aarti said...

Oh, what a bummer! I've heard positives and negatives about this book, so I am not SUPER surprised you didn't love it. I really like the way Larson juxtaposes two topics together in his books, though- it's a really interesting take, but I can see how it could be fact-heavy.

eveningreader said...

I checked this out of the library after reading the first few sample chapters on my Kindle I thought it would be fascinating, but I returned it after only reading half of it. You perfectly captured the reasons why I did so. I still plan to read The Devil in the White City, though...someday!

Kathleen said...

I really liked this one but read it so maybe that made a difference. I never reviewed it though so maybe I liked that I learned so much but I didn't have anything else really compelling to say. That's probably a sign that it wasn't as good of a read as I thought.

Melissa said...

I think I'll stay away from this one, but will add White City to my list to read!

wordsandpeace.com said...

I totally share your opinion for the audio production of this book! see m review: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/07/26/2012-37-review-in-the-garden-of-beasts/