{Book} In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

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 surprisingly 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.

I read both Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City in 2010, which means I became a fan of Erik Larson right before In the Garden of Beasts was published. I probably obtained my used copy in 2011 because the book started to show up in earnest on my TBR list in January of 2012.

But while I wanted to read In the Garden of Beast, I was never in the mood to read it. I waited for the right time, but there’s never a good time for Nazis. Even less so in recent years. In the relative political quiet of a pandemic (and I stress the word “relative” here), I figured it would be perfect for the Unread Shelf Project’s May prompt: a backlist title by an author with a newer book out. (Larson just released The Splendid and the Vile, about Winston Churchill.)

Without knowing much about history, it’s easy to think that someone like Hitler abruptly took power and “boom” Nazi Germany is in place. The reality is much more insidious, that there is a rise to power and the violence and policies against certain groups came about gradually. When Dodd begins his tenure, there is still some optimism that Germany’s new government would become more moderate. We know know that it doesn’t.

I was also unaware of how much in-fighting there was between the higher ups in the Nazi party. Maybe that’s just what happens when a group of individually ambitious men take control. There is a continual grappling for power and loyalty.

Is there a cautionary aspect to reading In the Garden of Beasts? Knowing history is often helpful in avoiding repeats of situations, although these seem to be lessons hard earned and often over-looked. But mostly, there’s never a good time for Nazis.

Published: Crown Publishers, 2011
My Copy:
paperback, 2011, probably from Paperback Swap

Unread Shelf Project

{Books} Charles Fort & The Book of the Damned

The Book of the Damned (Illustrated)

The Book of the Damned by Charles Fort

Time travel, UFOs, mysterious planets, stigmata, rock-throwing poltergeists, huge footprints, bizarre rains of fish and frogs-nearly a century after Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned was originally published, the strange phenomenon presented in this book remains largely unexplained by modern science. Through painstaking research and a witty, sarcastic style, Fort captures the imagination while exposing the flaws of popular scientific explanations. Virtually all of his material was compiled and documented from reports published in reputable journals, newspapers and periodicals because he was an avid collector. Charles Fort was somewhat of a recluse who spent most of his spare time researching these strange events and collected these reports from publications sent to him from around the globe. This was the first of a series of books he created on unusual and unexplained events and to this day it remains the most popular. If you agree that truth is often stranger than fiction, then this book is for you. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
This is a book from my Classics Club list. Fort is often mentioned hand in hand with some of science fiction and horror writers of the early 20th century.

What Did I Think?
First of all, I didn’t really know what I was getting into with The Book of the Damned. You can read the above summary, but that doesn’t prepare you for the recitation of weird phenomena punctuated by jabs at both science and religion. It is much more a round-about statement of philosophy than anything else.

Second of all, I did not finish this book.

The deluge of weirdness was amazingly boring. I read a few chapters. I skipped ahead. It didn’t make any difference. Was Fort really serious in his conclusions that these things were extra-terrestrial? Did he truly believe that it was a better solution than what science could offer? I decided that I needed to know more about Charles Fort.

Original Publishing info: Boni and Liveright, 1919
My Copy: Project Gutenberg ebook
Genre: nonfiction

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural

Charles Fort: The Man Who Invented the Supernatural by Jim Steinmeyer

Historian Jim Steinmeyer goes deeply into the life of Charles Fort as the man saw himself, first and chiefly as a writer, a tireless chronicler of inconvenient facts for which science has no answer. Steinmeyer makes use of Fort’s correspondence, providing a portrait of the relationship between Fort and his friend, champion, and protector Theodore Dreiser. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
As luck would have it, one of my favorite authors had written a biography of Fort. And it fit the Unread Shelf Project’s April challenge: the book you most recently acquired.

What Did I Think?
Not my favorite book by Steinmeyer, but his others are about magicians and Bram Stoker, subjects I enjoy.

Fort was sort of interesting. He was rather hermity with few friends other than his wife and author Theodore Dreiser. Dreiser was instrumental in getting The Book of the Damned published. I’d say he’d handle safer-at-home orders well, but he and I do have two things in common. We like going to the library and to movies. He went to the library every day to do research. He would note down strange phenomena on slips of paper and file them at home.

Fort had his supporters (some of them established the Fortean Society) and his detractors (among them H. G. Wells). I am a strong proponent of science, so obviously Fort’s books are a challenge to me.  Somewhere along the way, I realized what bothered me about his criticisms: like many people, he didn’t understand that science is a “continuing exploration,” to borrow a phrase from Wells. Science only starts at “We saw this and we think this is the explanation…”

Original Publishing info: Carroll & Graf, 2007
My Copy: Kindle ebook
Genre: biography

{Book} The Long Winter

The Long Winter

The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder

On the empty winter prairie, gray clouds to the northwest meant only one thing: a blizzard was seconds away. The first blizzard came in October. It snowed almost without stopping until April. The temperature dropped to forty below. Snow reached the roof-tops. And no trains could get through with food and coal. The townspeople began to starve. The Ingalls family barely lived through that winter. And Almanzo Wilder knew he would have to risk his life to save the town. (via Goodreads)

Why Did I Choose This Book?
I joined the Unread Shelf Project at the beginning of March. The month’s challenge was to read the book that’s been on my shelf the longest. The Long Winter is part of a box-set of Laura Ingalls Wilder books given to me when I was in grade school. So, I figure it pretty much counts.

What Did I Think?
Little House on the Prairie (the TV series, 1974-1983) was staple viewing at my grandparent’s house. My grandpa grew up in northern Minnesota; cabins, farms, and all. I am fairly certain it was one of my aunts and uncles from Minnesota that sent me the set for Christmas. At least the first couple of books were read aloud in grade school as well. I grew up in Nebraska and, even though I’m from Omaha, the prairie and its dangers were never far away. Personally, I didn’t care for the show or the books. I was and ever shall be a city girl and I have never really like kid protagonists, a trait I didn’t really put my finger on until I was an adult. I never quite got into Anne Shirley, or Heidi, or Pippi Longstocking, or even Nancy Drew. I wanted adult adventures, thank you very much. So, I never jived with Laura Ingalls.

Which means that it comes as a bit of a surprise to me that I enjoyed The Long Winter as much as I did. I think the key here is that The Long Winter is the start of a slightly more grown-up Laura, a character with more understanding about her place in the world. She is often melancholy, but consciously sets her feeling aside for the good of her family, especially her younger sisters. I’m looking forward to the next few books in the series in order to see Laura grow. I doubt I would have appreciated this as much when I was younger.

There is a repetitive quality to the narrative. A blizzard blows in, the family ekes through, repeat. It is what it says on the tin: a long winter. I have some patience for such things, but Wilder is a deft writer too. A detail like the frost on the heads of the roof nails is beautiful and strange enough that it weathers repetition well.

In context of the world at the moment, I can’t ignore some of the messaging in the book. Hardships pass and joy can be taken in little things. I’m not eating brown bread twice daily because that’s all there is and glad the snow has covered the building because at least now the wind can’t get in. I don’t want to pretend that the “olden days” were better (or that the story isn’t lightened for the young readership Wilder was writing for), but there is something nice about the concept of life being a little less extravagant; about enjoying a surprise of Christmas candies and really looking forward to reading the newspaper. Just something to keep in mind during these days of isolation and uncertainty.

Original Publishing info: Harper & Brothers, 1940
My Copy: Trade Paperback, Harper & Row, 1971

Unread Shelf Project

Unread Shelf Project : March!

Jinjer (aka The Intrepid Arkansawyer) mentioned the Unread Shelf Project in her February wrap-up. I think I missed earlier posts about it because I’ve been trying hard to not join every reading challenge that crosses my path. I’m not very good at sticking to lists or even “read 10 books of X genre” challenges. Usually, I peter out by the middle of the year.

But I have a large collection of unread books, and I wouldn’t mind a challenge to motivate me to read a few of them.

The Unread Shelf Project is relatively simple:

Twelve monthly challenges to get you into your unread shelf!

These twelve challenges are the core of the Unread Shelf Project. It’s a simple assignment: over the next year, we will choose one book per month from our unread shelves. We either finish it by the end of the month or get rid of it.

I’m starting late, but hey, that okay. Maybe I’ll catch up on the January and February challenges at some point.

The Challenge for March: the book that’s been on your unread shelf the longest.

That’s a tough question. I’ve been collecting books I haven’t read since college (which is not in the recent past) and I’ve only been keeping track of acquisitions for the last few years. I planned on finding a title from college while dusting one of my shelves this evening, but then I realized: I have unread books from my childhood. When my mom moved to Prescott a few years ago, she passed on some of my early library which I had left at her house, including a set of Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books. The first couple of that series were prime story-time reading in grade school. Despite growing up in Nebraska, I never really took to them. I lived Omaha, a city, after all. I had no interest in the wilderness or farming. But, after growing up and moving to Arizona, I am intrigued by early settler stories.

So, I’ll be reading The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder for March.

The Long Winter