Friday, July 06, 2012

In the Garden of the Beasts by Erik Larson

I had high hopes. I’d read Larson’s Isaac’s Storm a few years ago and never was there written a more interesting book about weather. Not ever. And then I read his Devil in the White City, which is evocative and compelling and has a cast of historical characters dear to my New York City heart (Frederick Law Olmsted, for a start). I couldn’t put it down.

It’s taken me weeks to get through this one because I forget to read it.

We all know the outcome of the events occurring in 1930s Berlin and, true to Larson’s style and research ability, there are some details here that are new to me and bring me easily, if uncomfortably, to garden parties with Nazis. For these quickening moments I am grateful, but this book is otherwise thin and slogging, with much being made of very little and not enough attention to some whopping, momentous, world-altering precursors.

The tale is told through the experiences of Walter E. Dodd, our reluctant diplomat at the time, and his sleep-around daughter Martha. Dodd’s adult son and wife are faint characters with only cameo appearances…perhaps they were dull(er). Dodd himself is sleepy, bland, without grandeur and awareness, so focused on the picayune that it seems nothing will shake him from his stupor. A political science professor at the University of Chicago before being tapped (mistakenly some say, a mix-up of names… the appointment was to have gone to Walter F. Dodd, a Yale professor), Dodd imagined his life’s work was a history of the old South, a book I’d guess is no loss and was in fact never finished. The time and place is so richly, if horrifically, documented that focusing on the lackluster and ineffectual is inexplicably beastly. I’m not exactly sorry that I read it, but had I been in my garden pulling weeds instead, I’d be better off.

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