Review: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

The story of a diplomat and his family in Nazi Germany

Erik Larson, the author of “In the Garden of Beasts” stands in a small group of non-fiction writers who realize that non-fiction does not have to be boring. Other writers in this small group include: Rebecca Skloot, Jon Krakauer and Sebastion Junger. “In the Garden of Beasts” is the true story of the American Ambassador to Germany and his family and their observations right before World War II.

Much of the focus of the book is on Ambassador Dodd’s daughter, Martha, who was described as both capricious and wanton. Martha viewed herself as something of a writer, and much of the book seems to have been taken from her observations written in both letters and in her journal.

Unfortunately, the Dodds and Martha in particular, were anti-semitic at the start of their trip in Germany. The family made friends quickly and interacted with many other high-ranking diplomats, but didn’t observe or comment too much initially on the transgressions against the Jews in Germany.

In one disturbing scene in “In the Garden of Beasts,” Martha had the opportunity to meet Adolph Hitler in person. He kissed her hand and she toyed with the idea of “never washing it” because of his fame and seemingly great popularity within Germany.

Martha was entranced more with the ex-pat lifestyle in Nazi Germany at the time; she had the opportunity to mingle with some highly ranked diplomats. Erik Larson didn’t go into tremendous detail about her sexual encounters, but did note that Martha Dodd had several affairs.

Martha’s brother and mother were there at the time, but weren’t mentioned nearly as often in the story; either their roles scintillating enough to maintain the story or Erik Larson didn’t have enough information about them.

To their credit, however, the Dodds did finally start to take notice of the atrocities in Germany. At first they heard the rumors and saw small incidents, but when some of their friends started to disappear, the Dodd family definitely did take notice and eventually became much more involved and much more communicative to Washington, DC about the horrifying incidents taking place in Germany at the time.

The lack of communication with Washington, DC struck me as strange, as did the strategy of trying to sway the opinion of Nazi Germany through the weak and uniformed diplomacy of Dodd, who did not even want the post to begin with.

Who should read this book? Anyone wanting an engaging story about World War II from a perspective not normally seen or told.





History + vampires = ?

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

When my husband and I saw Prometheus in the theaters recently, there was a preview for Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.  I've known about the book for a long time, and actually got the eBook a couple of months ago at a discounted price, but the upcoming movie made me decide to go ahead and read the book pronto -- I don't like seeing the movie before I've read the book, so I wanted to read it first.

I had had someone tell me that the book was satirical, which I didn't realize -- but sure enough, it is.  It is written like a scholary history book, the kind of book that quotes passages from other sources and has footnotes and that sort of thing.  But of course, although I suspect quite a lot of it is grounded in reality, it's a revisionist history type of fantasy -- weaving vampires into the story of Lincoln's life and presidency.

Because the book is written in a tongue-in-cheek style, meant to sound like a real history book, it doesn't feel like a novel at all, though of course you know it's fiction.  I wonder how the movie is going to be, and whether they are going to try to keep this particular flavor.  Or will they just try to tell the story like any other sensationalist vampire movie?  I can't imagine how they could maintain the original feel of it, unless of course they made it like a documentary -- or a "mockumentary," I guess you would call it.

I do wonder how much of the book is grounded in real history, and whether the author used actual facts as the basis for the vampire story.  Does anyone here know?  How much of the "history" in this book is true?  Obviously the vampire aspect is made up, but did the author use real events to make the story seem more authentic?

One more Titanic book

A Night to Remember by Walter Lord

Last week I blogged about the many articles and books I have been reading about the Titanic, in honor of the 100th anniversary on April 15th.  Although I mentioned Walter Lord's book A Night to Remember in my last post, once I finished it, I felt it deserved a post of its own.

Of course, much of what I have to compare it to is the movie Titanic.  Lord's book was written in the 1950s, long before the movie or even the discovery of the wreck, and even before it was known that the ship had broken in half as it sank.  Still, the book is quite clearly the first attempt to put all of the known events on board the ship in any sort of chronological order and tell it as a complete story.  Having seen the movie, I recognized many of these events; the movie clearly drew quite heavily from Lord's research.

In fact, because I saw Titanic again in the theaters (in 3D!) just after reading A Night to Remember, I was able to immediately recognize many characters or events described by Lord, brought to life again in the movie.  And of course, there was some liberty taken with some of it. For instance, when Rose and Jack find Andrews, the ship's designer, in the dining room, Rose says, "Won't you even make a try for it?"  That scene supposedly really happened, but those words were spoken by a crew member.

If you love the movie Titanic, or even just enjoy reading about the ship, I highly recommend A Night to Remember.  Although the book was written before many important discoveries regarding the Titanic, it's still a valuable and engrossing telling of what happened that night!


Celebrating the Titanic

With this month being the 100th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking, there has been a lot of new books coming out about the disaster, as well as some fantastic magazine articles.  I've always been pretty interested in the disaster, so I've admittedly gotten rather caught up in the anniversary hype, and have been reading practically everything about the Titanic that I can get my hands on.

For instance, both the Smithsonian and the National Geographic magazines have wonderful articles this month about historians' newest discoveries regarding the disaster.  The Smithsonian article talks about how mirages may have played a part in delaying aid until well after the ship sank, and the National Geographic article is about the recently-completed sonar images showing the complete crash site of the Titanic -- and what we have learned about the ship's last moments now that we can see the entire wreck.  I have to admit, of the two magazine issues, I preferred the National Geographic's, mostly because of its better pictures, but also because I felt the article was much more thorough and informative.

I've also been reading Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, a memorable book written in the 1950s that used eyewitness accounts to piece together the Titanic's last hours.  The research that must have gone into this book is incredible, especially since (I believe) it was one of the first works to try to piece the whole story together so accurately.

One other book I read on the subject recently was Lifeboat No. 8, a short (about 70 pages) eBook about the passengers and events surrounding just that one lifeboat.  It's fascinating and heartbreaking to read about the passengers' lives, but Lifeboat No. 8 is especially heartbreaking, especially if you are a fan of the movie Titanic: The love story that the movie was based on plays a role in this short book, but instead of Jack, the nobody, and Rose, the socialite, it's about Jack, the wireless operator, and Roberta, the maid.  (Yes, I am a fan of the movie, and yes, I am going to see it while it's in theaters.)

What about you?  Are you reading anything interesting about the Titanic, or are you planning on seeing (or have already seen) the movie while it's in the theaters for the 100th anniversary of the disaster?

Celebrate St. Patty's Day with Some Irish History

The Irish Americans by Jay P. Dolan

Happy St. Patrick's Day!  How did everyone celebrate the holiday?  One of my friends posted today on Facebook about how you can tell you're getting old when you're at home for the night by 8 o'clock on St. Patty's Day.  If that's the case, I've been old for a really, really long time, because this has never been a big drinking holiday for me.

Until a couple of years ago, we didn't think there was any Irish blood in my family, and I never had the feeling some people get, that everyone is Irish on St. Patty's Day.  My sister, on the other hand, married into an "Irish and proud" sort of family, so she was elated when we discovered recently that we actually are part Irish: A branch of our family that we thought was German or English actually turned out to be Scottish and Irish.  It's a very little part, but hey, who am I to crash my sister's party?

It is, however, a branch of the family that I am very interested in learning more about, so this year St. Patty's Day is, for me, more about rediscovering family roots.  So I was pretty interested in the ebook of the day on both Barnes & Noble and Amazon (Kindle): The Irish Americans by Jay P. Dolan.  It's supposed to be a pretty good comprehensive history on the Irish in America, from immigration to the colonies until John F. Kennedy, an Irish American, was elected president in 1960.  The ebook was 99 cents today on Kindle, and $1.99 at, though I don't know how long those prices will last -- it's only supposed to be for the day, though sometimes the prices do last a little longer.

What about you?  How did you celebrate St. Patrick's Day?

Favorite Periods in History

With Presidents Day just having past, my mind has been on history lately -- more specifically, the history of the United States of America.  There were many free and sale ebooks offered over the holiday weekend and throughout the week, to celebrate Presidents Day -- mostly books about the Founding Fathers and other great presidents such as Abe Lincoln.

The Revolutionary War happens to be my husband's favorite period in history, which got me to thinking what my favorite period is.  I used to really like the Civil War (the influence of my best friend growing up is probably at least partially to blame for that), but lately I've become enamored of the 1920s.  Part of it was that my husband and I got married in a 1920s-themed wedding ceremony and reception, based on the fact that my perfect wedding gown turned out to be an authentic one from 1929 (found it on eBay!).  I've gravitated toward books and movies about the 20s ever since, and I've discovered I really like the style of the era's clothes, furniture, and architecture.

Now I've eve started writing a series of books that take place in the 1920s, and as a result I've been doing more research on the era than ever.  I've been learning about Prohibition and the politics of the era, researching the fashions a little more, and watching movies set in the period.  Who knew I would ever become so interested in this period in history?

What about you?  Do you have a favorite period in history that you like to read about?

Old Booklets Make Interesting Reading

A promotional booklet nearly a century old turns out to be a jackpot of information!

For someone who genuinely loves history, finding copies of original documents can be unexpected sources of history.  Earlier today I was searching for information on Sears, Roebuck & Co., since I am writing about a character who works as a typist for the company in the 1920s -- Sears was a major employer of female typists in the 1920s.  I was delighted to come across a digitized copy of "A Visit to Sears, Roebuck and Co." -- a promotional booklet that describes the generous working conditions and the process of filling orders from the point of view of an anonymous visitor -- during my search.

Sometimes history can be found in the most unexpected places: old booklets and promotional pamplets, for example.  For instance, from this booklet I learned how my character was likely to go during her commute to work each day, and I got to see pictures of the grounds -- the photographs being much more impressive than the descriptions I had read so far.  I was also able to compare the pictures to some old zoning maps I found online and Google's street view of what is left of the complex now, and create a pretty detailed map of my own that shows where everything is.

Old photographs and postcards can also contain some great history lessons.  I've been searching for old images of Chicago, the Sears Complex, and other locations, and it's amazing what you can find via eBay and Google.  I'm finding that many library and museum websites have collections of old photographs that they have scanned and made available online (you can usually order prints for a small fee).

In what unexpected places have you found lessons in history?

First Person Accounts: Bringing History to Life

Auschwitz by Miklos Nyiszli

In the category of sale and inexpensive ebooks from Barnes & Noble, I found an eyewitness account of life in a concentration camp: Auschwitz, by Miklos Nyiszli.  Although I've learned about World War II, read books and watched movies, reading the words of someone who actually lived through it was a very different experience for me.

The author of this little book was a doctor who was selected to help the Nazis with autopsies at Auschwitz, primarily (according to his account) to help them prove their theories that the Jewish people were genetic degenerates (their justification for mass extermination).  Nyiszli wasn't a willing participant, of course -- he was only trying to survive from in a no-win situation -- but some of the things he went through or saw done to others, and occasionally some of the things he was a party to, were the kind of awful most of us couldn't imagine unless a record of it were right in front of our eyes.

For instance, Nyiszli talks about the entire trainloads of people he witnessed going directly to the gas chambers upon arrival, and how they were misled into thinking they were getting showers (they were told that to explain why they had to undress -- the Germans wanted their clothes and especially their shoes).  He also describes the many autopsies he was asked to do on twins who had been killed right there in camp, and how once he had to do autopsies on a father and son whom he had examined alive 20 minutes earlier.

The Nazis didn't want anyone to know about the gas chambers, and although they tried to keep them a secret, thanks to people like Nyiszli, of course the truth was discovered.  Despite the harsh foreward to the book, it's hard to blame Nyiszli for what he was forced to do, because he was only trying to stay alive and keep his family alive -- and if he hadn't been in the position to curry some favor and therefore escape his many brushes with death, he never would have been able to tell his story in this gripping memoir.

Historical Fiction How-To by One of the Genre's Experts

The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom

I can remember reading Follow the River in high school -- a novel by James Alexander Thom about a woman who was kidnapped by Indians, and memorized the path they took her on so that she could escape and find her way home again.  It was one of the first serious historical fiction novels that I had read, and I devoured it.

Writing historical fiction has been an interest of mine ever since, so when I was browsing books by Thom on my Nook the other day, I was quite interested to come across this book: The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction.

Doing research -- good research -- for historical fiction requires more than just Googling your subject, or (heaven forbid) checking Wikipedia.  But if you haven't done the research before, it can pretty overwhelming trying to figure out how to get the information you need.  This book has a lot of information on how to use the various resources available to us.

Ultimately, don't forget that we have a fantastic resource available to us now that wasn't around in the early days of Thom's career: the Internet, of course.  For example, the other day I was looking for information about 1920s Chicago for a novel I am working on, and found an extremely helpful archive of scanned historical maps of the city.  With the Internet, virtually anyone can research these things, and from just about anywhere, too.

What about you?  Have you ever taken an interest in a subject, and set out to learn more about it?  What resources, either online or offline, did you find to be useful?

History Through Photographs

Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman

I was a little skeptical at first about getting a book that calls itself a "photobiography" on my Nook, but when I saw my library had Russell Freedman's Lincoln, I decided to check it out.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that the illustrations all looked great on my Nook Tablet.  I imagine they would look okay, but not quite as great, on a black and white e-reader, and even better on a tablet with a larger screen, such as an iPad, but the Nook Tablet did them plenty of justice.

Other than photographs, I wasn't entirely sure what to expect.  To my pleasant surprise, a short biography -- about 90 pages on the Nook -- accompanied the photographs.  It turned out to be a concise yet informative biography of Abraham Lincoln's life, from early childhood to the White House and assassination.  The biography dispels a few of the myths about Lincoln, such as one regarding the supposedly tragic love affair he had as a young man (according to the biography, it never happened).

But what adds so much to an otherwise short biography are the pictures: photographs of Lincoln throughout his life, photographs of himself and his wife (they loved one another enough to marry against the will of her parents) and their children, and of their house.  The author does a nice trick of showing the photographs taken of Lincoln while he was president, to demonstrate the obvious signs of stress in his facial expression as the war progressed.  There were also quite a few engravings and drawings from the newspapers and periodicals of the time.

It's a fabulous book, not only because of the quality of the writing and the photographs, but also because the length enables you to get through it quickly, while still feeling like you've learned something!