Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A family caught up in overseas storms

Book: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
Author: Erik Larson
Published: 2011 (Broadway Paperbacks)
Pages: 365

I might’ve mentioned the cultural conflict I have about World War II-era Germany. Sometimes Nazis make me cry and think of my Oma, and sometimes they make me sing the loudest to “Springtime for Hitler” while watching the Wolfenstein 3D match of a video game tournament. The shame and introspection spectrums are fully represented.
This book falls squarely in the middle, the nice calm spot I like to call “ooh, interesting” that kept me interested in the history being presented. Good nonfiction writing seems to disappear into the subject, the writing quality only becoming obvious when it’s bad and you can see the knobs and levers (and dead doves…) of the trick (“ILLUSION, Michael” – sorry, been on a final season of Arrested Development binge this week), so I can tell you I was thoroughly absorbed in this tale about a reluctant American ambassador and his family who travel to pre-war Berlin and take that as a compliment to the author.
It primarily focuses on the dad and the daughter, who end up being influential for totally opposite reasons. The dad is a history professor who loves farming and writing about the Old (American) South and hates all the pomp and ceremony all the other ambassadors take as normal and is reluctant to make any sort of forceful policy decisions until he sees Hitler getting dangerous. And then nobody’ll listen to him because nobody likes him on either side of the Atlantic.
The daughter is twenty-four with a string of boyfriends and a failed marriage behind her and a love of art and culture with just the amount of anti-Semitism that lets her fall hard for the Nazi cause until she gets an up close and personal look at its literal destructive nature. She scandalizes and works to use her position to protect several of her lovers, but nothing ever really works because, like her father, nobody really takes her seriously. Because ladies can’t like sex AND be serious about politics, right boys? *rolls eyes*
Fighting for what they believe in the best ways they know how comes to depressingly little as the dad gets increasingly stress-sick and the daughter socially shunned until they are all abruptly posted back to the U.S. right before Germany gets serious about war.
It’s a good view on how Germany controlled what they wanted visitors to see and their international reputation in general, pulled from first-hand prospective that had the best view of both presentation and suspicion of what was missing and what that revealed about foreign policy back then. Somehow I can read all day about past foreign policy and not get bored, but trying to figure out what’s going on today makes me want to strangle my computer screen (because who has time to read books about it before it changes again?), which I hope says more about my slacking as a citizen than actual lack of accessibility.
This one’s a bookshelf!

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