In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson has been sitting on my "to read" shelf for quite awhile. As a history buff, the 1930s and 1940s have always been some of my favorite historical decades to study, and I have read widely in this area, both fiction and non-fiction. This book chronicles the lives of the Dodd family in Berlin, after William Dodd is chosen to be the U.S. ambassador to Germany. Dodd and his family arrive in Berlin just as Hitler is rising to power.

I loved how Erik Larson approached writing this book. If you are looking for a dry, boring recounting of historical events, then this is not the book for you. Larson's narrative is highly engaging and almost reads like a fiction novel would. Instead of the events being described by a removed narrator, they are presented through the perspectives of the "characters," so the reader gets the feeling of experiencing the events as they happen. This puts an interesting twist on the book, especially for anyone who has studied this era. You already knows what happens - hindsight is a beautiful thing - but for the people of that time period, Hitler's grand plan was not always so obvious. It was interesting to see how people reacted to Hitler, to see the signs that were missed or ignored, knowing already how the whole thing plays out.

The book is largely confined to the Dodd family, so some of the bigger players like Hitler play a smaller role, because Dodd's interactions with the dictator were limited. However, you do get to meet some of the leading Nazis of the time, as well as some of Germany's writers, journalists, and politicians who were alive at the time. It's through the stories of these people that one can really start to understand what it was like to live in Berlin during this period and the effects that Hitler's policies and ideas had on Germany. It is a fast read, and I was not disappointed.

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