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In the Garden of Beasts (Larson)

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
Erik Larson, 2011
Crown Publishing
464 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780307408846


Summary 
Erik Larson has been widely acclaimed as a master of narrative non-fiction, and in his new book, the bestselling author of Devil in the White City turns his hand to a remarkable story set during Hitler’s rise to power.
 
The time is 1933, the place, Berlin, when William E. Dodd becomes America’s first ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in a year that proved to be a turning point in history.
 
A mild-mannered professor from Chicago, Dodd brings along his wife, son, and flamboyant daughter, Martha. At first Martha is entranced by the parties and pomp, and the handsome young men of the Third Reich with their infectious enthusiasm for restoring Germany to a position of world prominence. Enamored of the “New Germany,” she has one affair after another, including with the suprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels.

But as evidence of Jewish persecution mounts, confirmed by chilling first-person testimony, her father telegraphs his concerns to a largely indifferent State Department back home. Dodd watches with alarm as Jews are attacked, the press is censored, and drafts of frightening new laws begin to circulate. As that first year unfolds and the shadows deepen, the Dodds experience days full of excitement, intrigue, romance—and ultimately, horror, when a climactic spasm of violence and murder reveals Hitler’s true character and ruthless ambition.
 
Suffused with the tense atmosphere of the period, and with unforgettable portraits of the bizarre Göring and the expectedly charming—yet wholly sinister—Goebbels, In the Garden of Beastslends a stunning, eyewitness perspective on events as they unfold in real time, revealing an era of surprising nuance and complexity. The result is a dazzling, addictively readable work that speaks volumes about why the world did not recognize the grave threat posed by Hitler until Berlin, and Europe, were awash in blood and terror. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—January 01, 1954
Where—Brooklyn, New York, USA
Education—B.A., University of Pennsylvania; M.S., Columbia
   University
Awards—Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, 2004
Currently—lives in Seattle, Washington


Often times, truth is indeed stranger than fiction. Take the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Illinois. The fair was the groundbreaking birthplace of such things as neon lights and the Ferris Wheel; a wonderland of futuristic technology and architecture. It was also the playground of a demented murderer who set up his very own chamber of torture within striking distance of the fair. This bizarre dichotomy of creation and destruction is what enticed Erik Larson to tell the twisted tale of the 1893 World's Fair in his fascinating fourth book Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America.

Journalist Larson's work displays a fascination with the ways various forms of violence affect every day life. His second book Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun is an exploration of gun culture throughout American history, using a horrendous incident involving a machine-gun toting 16-year old as its uniting thread. His next book, the griping, critically acclaimed Isaac's Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History, detailed one of the worst natural disasters in American history, a hurricane that hit Galveston Texas in 1900 leaving between 6,000 and 10,000 people dead. However, when Larson first encountered the story of Dr. Henry H. Holmes, he was reluctant to use it as the basis for one of his books. "I started doing some research, and I came across the serial killer in this book, Dr. H. H. Holmes," he told Powell's.com. "I immediately dismissed him because he was so over-the-top bad, so luridly outrageous. I didn't want to do it. I didn't want to do a slasher book. It crossed the line into murder-porn. So I kept looking, and I became interested in a different murder that actually had a hurricane connection, where I of course got distracted by the hurricane and wrote Isaac's Storm."

When Larson completed Isaac's Storm and began researching ideas for his next book, he began reading about the 1853 World's Fair. Hooked by the numerous colorful characters and amazing occurrences surrounding the fair, Larson decided he would use it as the subject for his fourth book. Still, he had little interest in telling a straight chronological play-by-play of the fair's creation. So, he resolved to revisit the subject that had so repulsed him prior to writing Isaac's Storm.

Dr. Henry H. Holmes was a heinous modern monster. Just west of the fair, he built the mockingly named "World's Fair Hotel" where he would torture his victims by any number of means. The grotesque hotel was equipped with its very own gas chamber, dissection table, and crematorium. As abhorrent as Holmes was, Larson could not resist the jarring juxtaposition of this remorseless killer and the fair.

The resulting book Devil in the White City is both a richly detailed history and a chilling yarn as unbelievable and spellbinding as any work of fiction. The book was both a finalist for the National Book Award and a Number 1 New York Times bestseller. It was garnered nearly universal raves from the New York Times, Publisher's Weekly, Esquire, Chicago Sun Times, and San Francisco Chronicle, among many, many others.

Perhaps the most awe-inspiring aspect of Devil in the White City is the fact that the book is an accurate history that also manages to be a riveting page-turner. As Larson says, "I write to be read. I'm quite direct about that. I'm not writing to thrill colleagues or to impress the professors at the University of Iowa; that's not my goal." Larson's goal was to render a fascinating story, and he succeeded admirably with Devil in the White City.

Erik Larson lives in Seattle with his wife, three daughters, a Chinese fighting fish, a dwarf hamster, and a golden retriever named Molly.

Extras
• As entertaining as Larson's historical works are, he currently has little interest in expanding into fiction. "The research [involved in nonfiction] appeals to me," he told Powell's.com. "I love looking for pieces of things in far-flung archives—but the beauty is that the complexity of the characters is there. You don't have to make it up."

• As thoroughly detailed and well-researched as Larson's books are, it is hard to believe that he does not employ an assistant. Every detail in his books was gleaned by the author, himself. (Author bio from Barnes & Noble.)



Book Reviews
In this mesmerizing portrait of the Nazi capital, Larson plumbs a far more diabolical urban cauldron than in his bestselling The Devil in the White City. He surveys Berlin, circa 1933 1934, from the perspective of two American naïfs: Roosevelt's ambassador to Germany, William Dodd, an academic historian and Jeffersonian liberal who hoped Nazism would de-fang itself (he urged Hitler to adopt America's milder conventions of anti-Jewish discrimination), and Dodd's daughter Martha, a sexual free spirit who loved Nazism's vigor and ebullience. At first dazzled by the glamorous world of the Nazi ruling elite, they soon started noticing signs of its true nature: the beatings meted out to Americans who failed to salute passing storm troopers; the oppressive surveillance; the incessant propaganda; the intimidation and persecution of friends; the fanaticism lurking beneath the surface charm of its officialdom. Although the narrative sometimes bogs down in Dodd's wranglings with the State Department and Martha's soap opera, Larson offers a vivid, atmospheric panorama of the Third Reich and its leaders, including murderous Nazi factional infighting, through the accretion of small crimes and petty thuggery. Photos.
Publishers Weekly

Best-selling author Larson (The Devil in the White City) turns his considerable literary nonfiction skills to the experiences of U.S. ambassador to Germany William E. Dodd and his family in Berlin in the early years of Hitler's rule. Dodd had been teaching history at the University of Chicago when he was summoned by FDR to the German ambassadorship. Larson, using lots of archival as well as secondary-source research, focuses on Dodd's first year in Berlin and, using Dodd's diary, chillingly portrays the terror and oppression that slowly settled over Germany in 1933. Dodd quickly realized the Nazis' evil intentions; his daughter Martha, in her mid-20s, was initially smitten by the courteous SS soldiers surrounding her family, but over time she, too, became disenchanted with the brutality of the regime. Along the way Larson provides portraits based on primary-source impressions of Hermann Göring, Joseph Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, and Hitler himself. He also traces the Dodds' lives after their time in Germany. Verdict: Larson captures the nuances of this terrible period. This is a grim read but a necessary one for the present generation. Those who wish to study Dodd further can read Robert Dallek's Democrat & Diplomat. —Ed Goedeken, Iowa State Univ. Lib., Ames
Library Journal



Discussion Questions
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for In the Garden of Beasts:

1. William Dodd went to Germany believing that Hitler would have a positive influence on Germany. Why were so many at first enamored of Nazism and willing "to give Hitler everything he wants"?

2. How would you describe German society at the time of the Dodd Family's arrival in Berlin? Talk about the ways in which Germany appeared to be a modern, civilized society...and, of course, the way in which that appearance was at odds with reality.

3. What was it that made Dodd begin to suspect the rumors he had been hearing about Nazi brutality were true?

4. Why did Dodd's—and numerous others'—warnings about Hitler fall on indifferent ears in the US? What was the primary concern of the US in its relationship with Germany? Was the US stance one of purposeful ignorance...or of sheer disbelief?

5. Did America's own anti-semitism play any role in dismissing the growing chorus of concern ?

6. What do you think of William Dodd? What about him do you find admirable? Were you mildly amused or impressed by his sense of frugality?

7. What was Dodd's reputation among the "old hands" at the State Department? What role does class play in how he was viewed by his diplomatic peers?

8. What about Martha? What do you find in her character to admire...or not? Did she purposely allow herself to be blinded by Udet and Rudolf Diels...or was she truly dazzled by their charms? Her promiscuity could have made her a serious liability. Were you surprised that her parents seemed untroubled by her multiple love affairs, or that they didn't try to reign in her behavior?

9. How does Erik Larson portray Hitler in his book? Does he humanize him...or present him as a monster? How does he depict Goebbels and Goering...and other higher-ups in the Nazi party?

10. How does the fact that you know the eventual outcome of Nazi Germany affect the way you experience the book? Does foreknowledge heighten...or lessen the story's suspense. Either way...why?

11. What were events/episodes you find most chilling in Larson's account of the rise of Nazism?

12. What have learned about the period leading up the World War II that you hadn't known? What surprised you? What confirmed things you already knew?

13. Is this a good read? If you've read other books by Larson, how does this compare?

(Questions issued by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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