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In the Garden of the Beasts

Book Review of: In the Garden of the Beasts

Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin

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Review of In the Garden of the Beasts, by Erik Larson (Hardcover, 2011)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


This book has a good writing style, but suffers from "where's the beef?" syndrome. While the book is enjoyable from a reading standpoint, it left me disappointed due to its (mis)focus and seeming indifference to the important events occurring around the family about which it's presumably written.

The author maintained my interest by teasing with suggestions of events to come, but routinely failed to deliver. The book contains many short chapters that end with a remark to the effect that so and so would find out such and such was a big mistake. But you read on and nothing happens. This cliffhanger without a cliff routine got old after the first few times.

Given the subtitle, I expected to read about how this family coped with Nazi Germany, and what specifically they coped with. Though this was a family of four, we read mostly about one member of the family. That member is the daughter, who apparently was ahead of her time because she celebrated "free love" before it became a fad in the 1960s. We read little about the mother or the brother.

The father, Dr. Dodd, was the US ambassador to Germany during the core period covered by this book, yet we find little of substance about what he actually did. Mostly, he writes letters that are simply ignored by higher-ups back home. He got little support from the Secretary of State, a situation that would seem worthy of more exploration and explanation.

Certainly, Dodd was in a position to observe and record far more of the story than what Larson provides in this book. Dodd was, by training and practice an historian. Yet we readers are left with precious little of the story Dodd might have told about his time in Germany during the rise of Hitler. To me, this seems like a glaring hole in the book. That is, unless one assumes Dodd is merely a character incidental to the story of Dodd's daughter's dalliances.

Larson does describe a few events, most notably the SA purge. His coverage of the SA purge is anomalous for the book, due to its detail a and relevance to the historical period in question. Yet, the subtitle promises this sort of story for the whole book.

Clearly, Larson missed an opportunity to create a work that truly informed the reader. While this work may help some readers understand more about the events that gave rise to Hitler, the author mostly just made Nazi Germany just a backdrop for talking about the daughter's crazy love life. Much of that has to do with Boris, who worked in the intelligence operations of the USSR. Larson provides ample detail about these two lovers, but provides almost nothing about what her parents thought of this. Boris may as well have been a native German pastry chef.

Now, consider the situation. The daughter of the US ambassador to Germany, during the rise of Hitler, is openly engaging in an affair with a man who works for the intelligence operation of the USSR. Larson gives the impression that the ambassador apparently didn't connect the dots here. It's just not plausible. The reason for omitting the father's viewpoint is the book should have been subtitled, "The love life of the daughter of the US ambassador to Germany during the rise of Hitler." That was the focus of the book. Edit out the false cliffhangers, and you still have a book of little historical interest. But at least it would deliver on its promises.

Yes, I am demanding much more of the book than the author delivered. But my reasons for that should now be clear at this point. That said, this book wasn't painful to read. The writing style was direct and clear, the text was devoid of grammatical errors, and I don't recall encountering factual errors except for Larson's great exaggerations of Goering's obesity. If you read Larson's descriptions and then look at Goering's photos, this will be readily apparent.

And I did like the few bright spots of "not just the daughter's love life" in the book. For example, the account of Goering's tour gave me new insight about Goering (although, as noted, his physical description was inaccurate).

A feature I like in documentary and "based on a true story" movies is the "what became of them" riff that such movies typically offer at the end. So I was pleased that Larson included an epilogue that let us know what happened to various people in the book. Amazingly, several lived into their 90s and one died at 102.

The text of this book is 365 pages long. That said, some of those pages are blank. And for each year covered, there's a page that has the year on one side and is blank on the other. And there are short chapters that leave quite a bit of blank page space. So I'm estimating about 300 pages of text. The pages inside the front cover are printed with a map of the Tiergaren, 1933; the rear with a map of Berlin (presumably the same period). Larson wrote six pages on "Sources and Acknowledgements," and he has 56 pages of notes. The book includes 11 photos, and is indexed.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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