Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Review of In the Garden of Beasts

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is Isaac's Storm, the story of the great hurricane that obliterated Galveston, Texas in a single night in September 1900, written by Erik Larson.  I also enjoyed The Devil in the White City, and generally find Larson's writing engaging and readable.  He writes nonfiction in the same way Jon Krakauer does - you feel like you're reading a novel and are immediately taken to the place where events are unfolding.  So when I was looking for my next book, I searched to see if Larson had written anything new, and found In the Garden of Beasts.  Although it wasn't something that seemed highly compelling from a subject-matter perspective, I trusted that I would still find it interesting and engaging.  And I did.

Larson tells the story of the Dodd family from 1933-1937, when William E. Dodd left his life as a professor at the University of Chicago to become the U.S. Ambassador to Germany in the years leading up to WWII.  His wife, grown daughter and son move with him, and the book follows the family's (namely his daughter's) exploits and challenges as Hitler grew ever stronger and his maniacal hold on Germany and oppression of Jews grew.

This is a difficult book to review because of the numerous threads that run throughout the story.  First there is Dodd, a frugal, Depression-era man who is acutely aware of the insidiousness of Hitler and his regime, yet unable to gain any traction or respect from within the State Department, and who harbors his own kind of antisemitism.   Then there is his daughter, Martha, his daughter, who is 'taken' by the Nazi lifestyle and enraptured by the power and influence of the many high-ranking officers she brushes elbows with (and more - turns out she slept with quite a few of them too).  And then there are all of the players that weave their way in and out of Ambassador Dodd and Martha's lives as Germany continues to advance towards war while the rest of the world watches. 

I think this last thread was what I actually found most interesting about the book, and where I learned the most: for years the world looked on as Hitler lined up his country and prepared for war, all the while continuing to repress and make his intentions towards Jews very clear.  Yet no one acted.  Dodd saw the writing on the wall and tried, in vain, to get his country to be more proactive.  But even his efforts were weak, at best.  No one thought Hitler would remain in power - he was too crazy, too uneducated, too fascist.  But he did, and he managed to bring almost an entire country and population with him under using oppression, fear, and lawlessness.  By the time the rest of the world finally took notice, it was too late, and WWII was upon them.

Overall, Larson didn't disappoint - I was engaged and interested to learn about the Dodds and their experience, and how their actions and roles impacted the events unfolding at the time (and ultimately, history).


Review of The Weird Sisters

I'm now on maternity leave with three weeks until my due date, Tessa is in day care, and I have this eery feeling of having too much time on my hands.  I therefore have no good excuse for not updating my book blog.

Jason picked up The Weird Sisters somewhat randomly when he went looking for books for me.  It's probably not one I would have chosen from the back cover, so I was eager to give it a shot.  And it was OK.  Not great, but not terrible.  Set in a small-town Ohio, it tells the story of three sisters who have all come home at difficult times in their lives.  Their mother is sick, and their quirky Shakespeare-professor father is struggling to care for her on his own.  Rosalind (Rose), the eldest, is an uptight control freak. Bianca (Bean) is the wild middle child, bucking the rules to set herself apart.  And Cordelia (Cordy), is the babied youngest, irresponsible and a bit flighty.

Bean returns home under the auspices of wanting to help care for her mother, but really because she is fleeing New York City after having bilked the law firm for whom she worked out of several thousand dollars to cover her expensive NYC lifestyle.  Cordy shows up in the middle of the night not having showered for days from her Deadhead/roaming the country/sleeping with random men lifestyle, pregnant and scared.  Rose, who has never left town (although she no longer lives at home), is missing her fiance, who has taken a temporary professorship in Oxford.  Needless to say, no one is happy, and that sets the tone for the entire book.

The sisters are not close, and they never have been.  What unfolds is a bit of a reckoning for all of them -- with their own demons, with the reality of their lives and where they all find themselves, with their long-held resentments and frustrations with one another, and ultimately, with themselves.  I found the self-reflection and examination that each sister is forced to conduct in the face of the other sisters and their mother's illness quite interesting, if not somewhat predictable.  It was difficult to 'like' anyone, which I always find difficult, as it's hard to really enjoy a book when you can't truly empathize with the characters because they're so unlikeable.  But I did want things to work out for each of them, and was therefore willing to read to the end and see how things unfolded.  Overall, this isn't a book I would recommend to someone, but it wasn't one that I would fling across a room either.