Review: In the Garden of Beasts

So, one of my (informal – can’t break them if they’re not made!  I shoot for the stars… ) New Years Resolutions (per usual, along with flossing more) is to read more.  Note:  read more BOOKS.  Not blogs and magazines.  I used to read all day every day.  Then, I went to law school.  Nothing really makes you want to burn all books within reach more than spending all night reading Civil Procedure.  If it were made into an audio book, I promise you could hear the droning.  Think Ferris Bueller’s teacher, waaaaaaah.  Anybody?

Anyways, I digress.  So, trying to read more.  While one goal is to read more novels, that didn’t work out this time around.  Next time.  I like non-fiction because I know I’m learning something.  (Another reason I probably don’t read as much as I’d like is because I tend to pick out books about Bosnia or genocide (or both!), and sometimes, laying in bed or dragging yourself home after a bad day at work, you shockingly just don’t want to pick up something that heavy.  Crazy, I know.)  Yet, I’m not learning my lesson.  I picked out this book because 1) I read and LOVED Devil in the White City by Erik Larson (if you haven’t read it, it’s great – history, murder – who doesn’t love it???) and 2)  this promised… well, history and murder!  Plus, I think World War II is such an interesting period in history.

This book is unique because it focuses on the rise of Hitler when the world did not know who he was.  No one had any clue what was coming.  The perspective is of the arguably naive, newly minted American ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, appointed by Roosevelt in 1933, when Hitler had just become Chancellor.  The ambassador, and his slutty daughter (oh yeah, she had some international relations (zing!)).  It was the job of the family to hob-nob with the regime, and they regularly dined, socialized, and attended parties with the likes of Joseph Goebbels and Herman Goring.  It’s interesting to read about the Nazis before people realized how awful they were.  Yet, the portraits give a bit of humanity to many of the members of the Nazi party, especially those that did not fall in line with Hitler.  It’s also really interesting to read, in small vignettes, how this American family came to realize the true nature of Hitler and his regime, and how hard it was to convince the outside world upon their realization.  You want to scream “Hello!!!  Don’t you see what’s happening?!?”  But, hindsight is 20/20, and it is just incredible the number of people that turned a blind eye.  Or, more often, convinced themselves that each atrocity was just an isolated incident and not a systematic destruction of an entire race and an aggressive campaign to expand borders.

In the end – *spoiler alert!* – Hitler turns out to be a bad guy!  Seriously, though, Dodd ends up being removed from his post for speaking out against the regime, when the American government felt that his job was to keep communication open and to work with the regime.  Dodd was too disgusted to do so, and he heads back to America, the antithesis of a hero.  America’s isolationist attitude is particularly highlighted, as the country desperately attempted to avoid entanglement in Europe, and Dodd returns to his small Virginia farm, with his only consolation being a big, fat “I told you so.”

At times, especially at the beginning, I felt like the book was a bit slow and hard to get into, which was really disappointing after Devil in the White City.  It does not come across as as dark and as exciting as you might expect from a book of this time period.  I don’t believe that the terror of the era was appropriately conveyed to the reader.  I just felt like I wanted… more.  Still, I do think this book gives an interesting perspective on the time leading up to Hitler’s aggression, and I still think it’s worth the read.  Buy it here!

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