Sunday, May 15, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts - Erik Larson

The Periphery

It’s clear that Larson did a lot of research on his topic. In his notes, he indicates that the immersion into the atrocities of Nazi Germany “proved to be a uniquely trying experience.” I can imagine. Unfortunately for me as the reader, I think that shows in the final product. We are kept on the periphery, and thus spared the same trying experience as the author.

Part of my disappointment of this book lies in my own expectations of it. The jacket clearly says “The story of one family in the shadow of Hilter’s rise to power.” And the focus is on the family, and they are definitely in the shadow. What appealed to me about this book was that it was about Hilter’s first year in power. I wanted to know more about him, his motivation, the people around him. I realize now, that there are other books for that.

That being said, this is definitely a comprehensive look at the Dodd family. Borderline unremarkable people who found themselves in remarkable circumstances. I can’t say I felt anything much for Dodd, or his daughter Martha. I felt Larson spent way too much time on Martha’s affairs, and ultimately they did little to further the story. I’m not even sure how Larson felt about Dodd. Ultimately, I guess he portrayed him very impartially – which probably explains why I feel ambivalent about him.

That’s a lot of criticism for a book I gave four stars to (3.5 in actuality). I’m definitely in a period of fascination about WWII. Historically, I’ve avoided stories with a WWII foreground or background; now I’m at a place where I’m finding them increasingly fascinating. I want that “uniquely trying experience.” This is certainly a topic I would not have thought much about. American dignitaries living in Nazi Germany, so from that perspective it was illuminating.

Parts were choppy, parts were slow, parts were seemingly irrelevant, but in spite of that, Larson managed to tell a really interesting story, and definitely answered some of my questions. Gave me some additional food for thought. Not to get too political, but America is often criticized for “sticking their nose” where it doesn’t belong. I think of the movie “Team America, World Police.” The condemnation of our involvement in the Middle East, etc. (I’m not giving my position on that, merely stating the sentiments exist.) But one does wonder, if in the time of Hilter we were more “Team America, World Police”-oriented if we couldn’t have saved a lot of lives. What I got from this book was that we took a position of wait and see. And by the time we saw, it was too late.

3.5/5 stars

Friday, May 6, 2011

The Other Life - Ellen Meister

What if?

This is one of those Sliding Doors/Post Birthday World kind of stories, where you kind of get the answer to "What if you had made a different decision?" This isn't just a rehash of that concept, though, it's really done in quite a unique way. I'd almost say there's a magical realism type vibe to this book, but not in the truest sense of the genre.

In fact, this is women's fiction, most assuredly dealing with women's issues. With a sprinkling of moral dilemmas, and the thought provoking idea of knowing what could have been, and deciding - is that what I prefer?

I found the story fast paced and the writing good. I'm not much of a "women's fiction" reader, so that in part prevented me from totally loving it, but also there were some minor flaws in the duel storylines. I was completely captivated, though, right from the start. I liked the main character. She was flawed. People are. I liked the way Meister was willing to show her at her most selfish, at her most irrational, at her weakest.

I listened on audio, and I loved the narrator for the main character Quinn. She was quite laconic in her delivery, so if slow audio bugs you, I'd go for the written version. I also didn't love the voices she did, but the story was told primarly by Quinn so there wasn't an overabundance of the other voices.

Engaging! A very solid 4 stars.