Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “Erik Larson”

faintingviolet’s #CBR4 review #52 (!) Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

*commences happy dancing*

This is my 52nd Cannonball Read 4 review, and I am typing it on December 31, 2012! I did not dare to dream I would reach this goal (I only signed up for a half cannonball), but since I have it is fitting that it’s for reading a book I was not sure I ever would.

Why I was relatively sure I wouldn’t read Devil in the White City was that while it focuses on the men and women (but mostly men) who designed and built the Fair it also focuses on killers lurking in Chicago at the same time, one of who used the Exposition to lure his victims. So y decision was made, since I didn’t feel like reading about serial killers I was simply going to move past this book on the shelf. Then, earlier this summer I watched a documentary about the same serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes, born Herman Mudgett. I was intrigued by the story of Holmes and decided that I could in fact abide reading his tale through Larson’s authorial voice. I’m ever so glad I made that decision. Read more over on my blog.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, completes my Cannonball Read 4!

Siege’s #CBR4 #31: The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America by Erik Larson

In which Siege is mildly disappointed but mostly fascinated by a book about both the history of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and serial killer H. H. Holmes.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #20 In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

“I walked across the snowy plain of the Tiergarten – a smashed statue here, a newly planted sapling there; the Brandenburger Tor with its red flag flapping against the blue winter sky; and on the horizon, the great ribs of a gutted railway station, like the skeleton of a whale. In the morning light it was all as raw and frank as the voice of history which tells you not to fool yourself; this can happen to any city, to anyone, to you.” -Christopher Isherwood, Down There on a Visit

If you’ve read anything by him, you pretty much know what you’re going to get when you read an Erik Larson book. A thoroughly researched historical book written in a novelistic style. Larson’s MO is to filter a well-known historical event through the experience and perspective of something very specific – the invention of wireless communication through the first man to be charged of murder through it’s aid in Thunderstuck; the 1900 Galveston Hurricane through the chief meteorologist on staff in Isaac’s Storm; the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago through both its architect and the serial killer who used it as the perfect front to lure his victims. In his latest, Larson takes on perhaps his biggest challenge yet – to re-tell the lead up to World War II and the Holocaust through the eyes of William E. Dodd, the unlikely ambassador to Berlin from 1933-1937, and his insatiable daughter, Martha.

In the Garden of Beasts is, as usual, very well-researched; Larson uses Dodd’s posthumously published diaries as well as he and Martha’s personal letters, and a host of other resources. Larson’s research doesn’t just function as his credibility, though; it lends a nuance to his work that you don’t find in many historical accounts. This is a bit of a dangerous game to play when you’re writing about Nazis, nuance not being among the top 5 things people are looking for when they read about Hitler. But it’s what you get. Larson is objective but unapologetic about revealing the anti-Semitism rampant in the State Department at the time; the Nazi regime’s persecution of Jews was euphemistically referenced as “the Jewish problem,” and it ranked fairly low in the State Department’s list of priorities for its new ambassador (getting Germany to repay its debts from World War I is, of course, number one). He also refuses to treat his subjects as stock characters, delving into the life of Ernest Rohm, openly gay leader of the SA (for which Lucas’ Storm Troopers was named) and Rudolf Diels, head of the Gestapo from 1933-34. Diels in particular is an Indiana Jones level villain, on the surface. A protege of Herman Goring, his face is right out of a Bond movie: that perfectly sinister mix of classic 40’s movie star handsome and obtrusive scars, which in Diels’ case were won from boyhood games of barefaced sword fighting. This is not a man whom one looks at and says, “now there’s someone whose inner life I want to know more about,” but Larson paints a picture of someone who was deeply conflicted about the Third Reich, but simply prioritized his own self-interests above others.  Diels was marked for death twice: once on the Night of Long Knives and a second time after he refused to arrest Jews in 1944. He survived both, and went on to testify in the Nuremberg trials.

There’s a picture about 2/3rds of the way through the book, of Hitler and Goring standing side by side. It is the only picture I have ever seen of Hitler smiling. He looks like a barber. Goring looks like a small-town butcher. It did more than any of Larson’s anecdotes to drive the point home that Hitler, before he was Hitler, was just another overly ambitious politician (albeit one with a boulder-sized chip on his shoulder). Goring was an overgrown adolescent who was obsessed with his late wife and with amassing new toys. There’s a tendency for us, as humans, to want to discount the humanity of those we feel are truly evil: we speak of Hitler in terms like “inhuman,” because we don’t want to admit that we might have something in common with him. But he was not inhuman. He was a human, albeit possibly a sociopathic one. And acknowledging that fact, trying to come to terms with what it is about him that makes us want to relegate him to a different species so we don’t have to be associated with him, is what will ultimately help us learn to be better humans.

Ultimately, what unsettled me most about the book wasn’t Hitler, or Goring, or Goebbels (though Goebbels is a creepy fucker) – it seems obvious to me that the single most important thing that these men lacked that made it possible for them to go on to do the things they did was a profound lack of human empathy. Whether that was derived from sociopathy or psychopathy is less sure, and to be honest, I don’t really care. Because Hitler isn’t the most unsettling thing about the Holocaust. Nor are Nazis (though I did find it interesting that the inter-party machinations were like a particularly high-stakes version of high school, party members selling each other out for the smallest of personal slights). No, what is really unsettling about the whole thing is the willingness with which we all looked away. Larson describes Berlin beautifully as it was before the war, alive with culture, but ultimately what he describes was a facade. Berlin’s attractions were served up to travelling dignitaries and the German upper class to divert their vision from the atrocities going on right outside (and sometimes inside) the city; it was a disguise, but it was a very thin one. Hitler started by stripping away small rights, rights that were easy to ignore, rights that only applied to certain people, but eventually he became bolder and even then, we looked away. We were the emperor’s citizens, who didn’t want to admit he had no clothes – in the case of the Germans, perhaps it was because they were scared to admit the truth. In the case of the Americans, perhaps we were ashamed at how much our decisions were driven by the economic implications. Either way, the fact remains: we looked away. We did it willfully, until matters became such that we couldn’t anymore.

And the thing is, we still do.  Because here’s the interesting thing about us humans: we constantly dismiss anyone who commits an atrocity as inhuman, and anyone who lets them as stupid. Consider how we treat rape: we believe the only people who commit rape are monsters, and easily identified as such. But we also dismiss people who are raped as stupid, unobservant – “she wasn’t protecting herself,” “why did she get herself into that situation,” etc. We do this for two reasons: we don’t want to admit the possibility that we might count a rapist within our circle of acquaintance, and we don’t want to admit that we could at some point be a victim of rape. In both cases, it removes us from danger in our heads. Similarly, as a society we dismiss Hitler as somehow uniquely evil and Germans as at best foolish and at worst uncivilized brutes for not seeing where their country was headed and stopping it. Both of these are comforting myths, because it removes us, as good old-fashioned American humans, from having to worry about anything similar happening here. But consider the way we talk about undocumented immigrants. Consider Arizona. Hell, consider the fact that we have already had internment camps in this country. We roll our eyes every time someone compares anything about America to the Nazis, not because the comparison isn’t apt (though it usually isn’t), but because we know in our hearts that America could never be anything like the Third Reich. But the potential is there. The potential is always there. The only thing that protects us is our rights, and the only thing that ensures those rights is us, and the only way to do that is to never stop paying attention.

My hope is that books like this, that paint Nazi Germany and the lead-up to the Holocaust in colours other than red, black and white, can open our eyes to the reality of genocide. Because it’s not a war movie. It’s a slow erosion of rights, that leads up to an opportunity. When that opportunity is taken, we call it genocide. We express shock and horror. But it was happening, all along. We could have seen it, if our eyes had been open, if we had wanted to look.

Doodlepants’s #CBR4 Review #4: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

For me, the best non-fiction books are the ones that read like fiction. Stories that are so exciting and characters so three dimensional that you have to take a step back from the book and remind yourself that the events in the novel really occurred, that they are not merely some figment of the author’s imagination.  In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, was just that sort of non-fiction that I crave, a page turning story about Ambassador William Dodd and his family in Hitler’s Germany. 

 In the Garden of Beasts tells the story of Berlin during Hitler’s rise through power from the perspective ofAmerica’s ambassador, William Dodd, and his daughter, Martha. William Dodd is uprooted from his modest life as a history professor in Chicago to the glitzy life of Ambassador in Berlin. As ambassador Dodd shuns the conventional role of his predecessors and insists on continuing with his frugal lifestyle, driving himself and refusing to employ a house full of servants. Dodd refuses to accept his peers’ view of humoring Hitler, instead questioning the regimen that is rising to power. Martha, meanwhile, becomes enamored of the lifestyle of the rich and famous in Berlin. She loves the glamour associated with the Nazi party and flits her way between social engagements and romantic trysts, becoming involved with many of Berlin’s elite. The story climaxes with “the night of long knives”, a night when hundreds, maybe thousands of innocent people are murdered, that Hitler’s true capacity for violence and hatred becomes known to both William and Martha. 

While the plot I described might sound slightly interesting to the couple of history buffs reading this review, I imagine that a majority of people read my synopsis and groaned, another World War II story.  The joy of reading In the Garden of Beasts comes not from the actual plot (which I admit at times can be a bit dry and middle-school-history- bookish) but from Erik Larson’s rich description that transports the reader to Berlin with the Dodd family.  Larson captures the sights, smells, and sounds of Berlin in such detail that as a reader you believe that you are sitting in a meeting with Hitler or at a party in the embassy.  Despite the rather grim topic of the book, Larson manages to find idiosyncratic moments that make the reader chuckle and that humanize figures that history has portrayed to be larger than life.  Larson successfully takes a moment in history that we know so well and delves so deeply into the details of that moment that suddenly the reader sees the event from a whole new angle.

In the Garden of Beasts was a page turning non-fiction that will transport the reader to Hitler’s Germany. For those who have read Larson’s The Devil in the White City and loved it, this book will not disappoint. For those who haven’t read one of Larson’s brilliant non-fiction novels, give it a shot, you are missing out and might be surprised that there is excitement in history.

CynicalJerk’s #CBR4 Review #04: In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson

In The Garden Of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts is the latest book by Erik Larson, who is still best known for his breakout book, The Devil in the White City, about a serial killer and the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago.  In his newest book, he turns his attention on Berlin during the 1930s, and manages the dubious feat of making the Nazi Party less intimidating than a single 19th Century serial killer.

Read more…

Janel’s #CBR4 Review #3-6

I’m behind with posting my reviews to the group blog and decided for these 4 books I would just put them in one post with a highlight from my full review on my personal site.

Review #3 The Broken Teaglass – Emily Arsenault (2 stars)

Overall I thought this book was cute and an interesting look into the lexicographer world.  The author captured the essence of a small company office environment. Read more

Review #4 The Devil In The White City – Erik Larson (2 stars)

I had tried to read this book right after it came out and I had a hard time trying to get past the first couple of chapters.  Reading it this time, I still struggled to get past the first couple of chapters, but the different tidbits & trivia about the fair kept me reading further.  Read more

Review #5 The Innocent – Taylor Stevens (5 stars)

This book was on my list of most anticipated to read this year.  I simply fell in love with Vanessa Michael Monroe reading Stevens’ first book The Informationist.  This book was just as well written as the first.  I was on the edge of my seat the whole time.  I cannot recommend these books enough.  Read more

Review #6 Save Me – Lisa Scottoline (3 stars)

I was intrigued by the book’s premise from the first chapter and as the mystery continued to unwind I couldn’t wait to figure out what happened. Read more

Carolyn’s CBR4 Review #10: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

It has often been said that for evil to win all that needs happen is for good men to do nothing. That was what the United States government did, at least officially, for much of the lead-up to World War II. Too often chances to speak out and try to stop the madness that was engulfing Germany were ignored. Too frequently the atrocities were overlooked.  There were some exceptions, some people who tried desperately to alert the United States to the horror that was building across the Atlantic. George Messersmith, who worked at the Berlin embassy, was one of those who tried, often in vain, to bring about some change in the US policies, though he was often ignored as having too vivid of an imagination. So, too, were various Jewish groups in the USA, though they were often ignored for being Jewish. And, eventually, so did William Dodd, the United States ambassador to Germany, though he was ignored because, frankly, too many people didn’t want to believe any of what was happening in Berlin.

One of the malicious nicknames given to William E. Dodd by his fellow American diplomats in the 1930s was “Telephone Book Dodd.” The joke was that Franklin D. Roosevelt, who appointed Dodd ambassador to Germany in 1933, had supposedly meant to offer the post to a Yale law professor named Walter F. Dodd but made a mistake in looking up the name.  Dodd was by no means the first pick for the job, but other candidates had already shown their reluctance to do time in what, even before Adolf Hitler assumed absolute power, was an increasingly menacing Germany.  Dodd was unusual partly due to his modest ambitions. He accepted the position, thinking it would give him more free time to complete his book, a study of the antebellum American South. Dodd, an unassuming and scholarly man, was an odd fit among the extravagance of the Nazi elite. His frugality annoyed his fellow Americans in the State Department and Dodd’s growing misgivings about Hitler’s ambitions fall on deaf ears among his peers, who were content to “give Hitler everything he wants.”

 Dodd’s daughter was Martha Dodd Stern, an indiscriminate flirt who was working her way out of her first marriage and aspired to be a writer. Immediately upon arrival overseas, however, she revealed her true talents as the town bicycle. Out every night, she has one affair after another, including with the surprisingly honorable first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolf Diels and Ernst “Putzi” Hanf­staengl, who at one stage tried to persuade her to become Hitler’s mistress. Though she would become a popular author, live a long, complicated life and eventually be accused of spying for the Soviet Union, the young Martha favored breathless, thick-headed comments that no nonfiction chronicler of the Dodd’s’ misadventure would have dared to make up. “I was slightly anti-Semitic in this sense: I accepted the attitude that Jews were not as physically attractive as gentiles and were less socially desirable.”

At first, the Dodds — like many in Germany — tried to give the new regime the benefit of the doubt. The attitude most adopted was along the lines of, “Once the dust settles, they surely can’t be all that bad.” The city was beautiful and charming and so were some of the Nazis. The U.S. State Department was more concerned about the debt than politics. People spoke excitedly about this “New Germany.” And yet the new government kept passing laws restricting the freedoms of Jews. Americans and other foreigners were frequently beaten on the streets, usually because they failed to offer the Seig Heil salute when brown shirts marched by. Hitler’s ultimate aims were arguably plain to see when he repudiated the Treaty of Versailles and began rebuilding the army. Concentration camps, like the one at Dachau, were becoming operational, even if their eventual purpose was still clouded.

Dodd eventually became critical of Hitler’s regime, although his objections were based more on history than morality. He never became a great statesman, but he was one of the few who refused to bow to German pressure. The Dodd’s story is fascinating, tinged with rising peril and pityingly persuasive about the futility of Dodd’s mission. “In the Garden of Beasts” is a vivid portrait of Berlin during the first years of Hitler’s reign and the rise of the Nazi Party told from the perspective of those previously relegated to the shadows.




Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #7, Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

“I was born with the Evil One standing as my sponsor beside the bed where I was ushered into the world, and he has been with me since.” -H.H. Holmes

I am lagging way behind the proverbial bandwagon in this review. Everyone and their Aunt Margaret has read this book and recommended it to their friends. It has been on constant 2-for-1 sale at every majour bookstore for the past five years. It also has an appealing cover font, and is about a hugely interesting era in one of my favorite cities in the world. In other words, I’m not sure why it took me so long to pick this one up from a friend’s bookshelf. But I’m certainly glad I did, because it’s a great read.

The best thing I can say about Devil in the White City is that it’s highly cinematic (and indeed, Leonardo DiCaprio bought the film rights to it in 2010. Kathryn Bigelow was at one point attached to direct, a rumor I dearly hope proves to be true). It interweaves the story of Daniel H. Burnham, chief architect of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and titular White City, and the story of H. H. Holmes, known as America’s first serial killer. The two men are linked by the World’s Fair, which represented to Burnham his life’s work, and to Holmes the opportunity to pursue his (I don’t exaggerate when I call the murdering of women Burnham’s life’s work. In his own confessions, he said “”I was born with the devil in me. I could not help the fact that I was a murderer, no more than a poet can help the inspiration to sing.”). Much is made of the juxtaposition of the Black City and the White City, and though the metaphors can sometimes hit you like a mallet, at the foundation of these two stories is an important point: Chicago at the time was a fairly depraved city. The distribution of wealth was incredibly unequal, the crime rate appallingly high. The World’s Fair offered an opportunity to not only line rich men’s pockets, but to show the world (not to mention its own residents) a more glorious picture of Chicago. For a season, the black and smelly streets were paved over in marble. But no matter how much blood, sweat and money were poured into the building of the fair, it was a temporary structure, built simply to distract.

Like I said, the metaphor is obvious, but the point behind it is no less valuable for all its dramatic value, and intertwining both stories makes it all them more effective. The story behind the building of a Romanesque White City in Chicago is indeed inspiring. But contextually, it took place during a very dark period in Chicago’s history, and by personifying that darkness in the character of H.H. Holmes, Larson drives home the point that for every shining city there’s a seamy underbelly. And believe me, he drives the point home. And into the driveway, and then backs out and pulls in again, for good  measure.

Devil in the White City is, perhaps above all other things, deliciously pulpy. This is clearly a book geared towards people who don’t make a habit of reading non-fiction. Clunky metaphors abound, and some license is taken to up the dramatic ante (though admirably, it is followed up shortly with a lengthy disclaimer as befits a seasoned historical non-fiction writer). But – and I cannot emphasize this enough – this is not a bad thing. In fact, I would call Larson’s departure from traditional non-fiction a solidly good thing. I’m currently taking a writing class (and as a quick side-note: if any of you who live in Boston have not yet heard of Grub Street, do yourself a favour) in which the teacher made the excellent point that every non-fiction writer should take classes in fiction writing, and vice-versa. Erik Larson has certainly benefited from a fiction writing class in his time, and as readers we benefit from it as well.

Recommended for: most people, really. It’s hard not to enjoy this book. But so much the better if you enjoy crime lit or architectural fiction, because there’s a lot of both.

When to Read: during a thunderstorm, like any good serial killer book.

Listen With: Inoffensive jazz. “Night in Tunisia” by anybody.

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