Monday, December 26, 2011

255 (2011 #60). In the Garden of Beasts

by Erik Larson,
read by Stephen Hoye

This is Larson's most recent book, subtitled "Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin."  The American family is that of University of Chicago history professor William Edward Dodd, ambassador to Germany from 1933 to 1937 as the Nazis came to power.

Larson typically has two storylines going on in his books, and this one follows that pattern by covering this time period from the viewpoints of both Dodd and his daughter, Martha Eccles Dodd, who was 24 when she arrived in Germany with her parents and brother.

Martha in particular was an interesting character.  Previously married and with affairs with Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe behind her, she was prepared to have a good time in Germany.  She had relationships with German officers and French and Russian diplomats. Initially impressed with the Nazis, she grew disillusioned with them, but was later considered to be a Communist sympathizer.

Dodd was not President Roosevelt's first choice for ambassador.  Dodd's lack of wealth and insistence on living within his salary, combined with his focus on time to work on his Old South history, resulted in his concerns about the Nazis being ignored back in the United States.

Larson's narrative nonfiction is based on Ambassador Dodd's Diary, edited by Martha and her brother Bill, and Martha's memoir, Through Embassy Eyes. According to Larson's afterword, "Neither work is wholly trustworthy; both must be treated with care and used only in conjunction with other, corroborative sources.  Martha's memoir...contains interesting omissions....However, documents among Martha's papers in the Library of Congress...include her detailed and never-published accounts...and correspondence" (page 370).

Similarly, there are questions whether Dodd's diary "is truly a diary as conventionally understood or rather a compendium of his writings pieced together in diary form by Martha and Bill....In my research at the Library of Congress, I found one leather-bound diary full of entries for the year 1932....[and] oblique references to a more comprehensive and confidential diary....after having read Martha's memoir, her Udet novel [Sowing the Wind, 1945], and her papers, and after reading thousands of pages of Ambassador Dodd's correspondence, telegrams, and reports, I can offer one of those intangible observations that comes only after long exposure to a given body of material, and that is that Dodd's published diary sounds like Dodd, feels authentic, and expresses sentiments that are in perfect accord with his letters to [President] Roosevelt, [then Secretary of State Cordell] Hull, and others" (page 371).

Stephen Hoye's reading is adequate.  I borrowed a print copy of the book from public library to see photos of Dodd and his family (there were a few).  The endpapers had maps in the back and front respectively of 1933 Berlin, and an enlargement of the Tiergarten (German for "animal garden" - or "garden of beasts") area,  which were quite helpful.  There was also a large (about 80 pages) "Sources and Acknowledgements" section that was not in the audiobook, including seven pages of commentary by Larson (part of which should have been in the audiobook), plus extensive notes, bibliography, and an index.

I liked this book least of the four Larson books I have read, but I would still recommend it, particularly to those interested in the rise of Nazism.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Sunday, December 25, 2011

254 (2011 #59). Thunderstruck

by Erik Larson,
read by Bob Balaban

Similar to Larson's The Devil in the White City, this book tells two stories (however, the time periods are not always parallel) that are connected, although in this case the connection doesn't occur until near the end.

Part of the book focuses on Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor who shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics for his "contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy," despite a lack of formal training in science.  Marconi is not especially likable, but one must admire his persistence (his experimentation method is primarily trial and error) and his business acumen - he sure knew how to take advantage of his competition!

The other part of the book is the true-crime narrative of Hawley Harvey Crippen, an American homeopathic doctor accused of killing his overbearing, unfaithful American wife, aspiring actress Corrinne "Cora" Turner, born Kunigunde Mackamotski, stage name "Belle Elmore," in London in 1910.  Crippen fled the country with his young British secretary and lover, Ethel Le Neve.  How they were caught is where the two stories intersect.

There's still some controversy today (much of it arising after the book was published in 2006) on whether or not Crippen was guilty - and just how innocent Le Neve really was.  I also found it remarkable that a technology being developed just a little over 100 years ago - wireless telegraphy - is virtually obsolete today.

Actor Bob Balaban has a nice voice, but his reading is flat and somewhat halting, with pauses in unusual places.  The hardbound book includes (as usual for Larson), extensive end notes and bibliography, an index, a few photographs (not enough in my opinion), and endpaper maps of 1902 London and the north Atlantic area, showing the locations of Marconi's early telegraphy stations.

This was an interesting book - not quite as good as The Devil in the White City, or even (in my opinion, since I was particularly interested in the subject) Isaac's Storm, but still worth a read.  Larson has a penchant for including every detail he uncovers in his research in his books, even putting them in his end notes "for no better reason than that I could not bear to expel them" (page 399) when they had to be cut from the narrative.  So be forewarned.

© Amanda Pape - 2011

[ The audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my public library.  I also purchased a print copy of the book.]

Friday, December 23, 2011

253 (2011 #58). The Night Circus

by Erin Morgenstern

This debut novel is part fantasy, part romance.  Two narratives occurring over different time periods eventually intersect at the end.  The setting is the mysterious Night Circus (Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams), with black-and-white striped tents that appear suddenly and are gone the same way, and is only open at nighttime.  Everything inside the circus is done in black and white and silver and shades of gray, with a few spots of red provided by the reveurs, the circus fans who follow it from town to town and wear that color as a badge.

In one storyline, which begins in 1873, Celia Bowen and Marco Alisdair are trained from youth as illusionists/magicians by their mentors, respectively, Celia's father Hector (aka Prospero the Enchanter), and the mysterious "man in the grey suit" known only as Alexander H., who plucks Marco out of an orphanage.  Hector and Alexander are in an unspecified contest, and unknown to each other at first, Celia and Marco are the competitors.  The circus is designed to be their venue, with Celia working from within as a performing illusionist, and Marco from without as the assistant to the circus' owner, the eccentric Chandresh Christophe Lefevre.  Other unusual characters are involved with the circus' development, and they all benefit (and suffer) from the circus' seeming ability to prolong their lives.

Celia and Marco eventually learn they are opponents and fall in love.  This was not surprising to me; I can see how one would be attracted to the competitor in such an intellectual contest..  Many of the fantastic attractions of the circus - the Ice Garden, the Wishing Tree, the Labyrinth - are things they make for each other, or in collaboration.  Ultimately, though, this game of their mentors in which they are pawns turns sinister.

The second story begins in 1897 and involves two children born the day the circus first opens, the red-headed Murray twins (children of the lion tamer), Penelope and Winston, nicknamed Poppet and Widget, and a young circus fan named Bailey Alden Clarke.  The two stories come together in 1902, when Poppet, Widget, and Bailey are all sixteen.

Drawbacks of this book include a weak, thin plot; mysterious but flat, underdeveloped characters, and problems with the writing.  Most of the book is written in awkward third person present tense, with frequent inserts in second person present tense describing the circus.  There are also some anachronisms, the most glaring one being the nickname "Widget" - the first known use of that word was not until 1926.

The competition is never really explained and doesn't appear to have any rules or limits, other than the fact that it's a duel, and one competitor will not survive.  I found Celia interesting and likable, as well as the twins and widgets, but Marco was a boor, and most of the other characters were enigmas.

The strength of the book was the setting - the night circus - and the gorgeous, imaginative, vibrant imagery Morgenstern used to describe it.  There was something ephemeral about these descriptions that kept me going with this book even when the plot and characters couldn't carry it.

The book also has a gorgeous cover and design.  The black background on the cover is shiny, the tents and hand are embossed, and the scroll work around the tents is holographic.The end papers are striped like the circus tents.

The book has received a lot of hype, and I'm not quite sure why.  The author is young and describes herself as an artist.  I think the publishers were seduced by the thought of someone of the Harry Potter generation writing a fantasy involving magic, and the book was published with very little editing.  I enjoyed the book, but it's not one that I would re-read.  But then, I also didn't re-read any of the Potter books and only saw the first movie, so perhaps I'm not the right audience for this book.

While I only give it three stars (and that only because I loved the descriptions of the circus), other readers would give it five of five, and still others (those who strongly need their books to be plot- and/or character-driven) would not even give it one star.  For all those reasons, I'd recommend borrowing this book from the library (as I did) rather than buying it.  If you like it enough to re-read it, then buy a copy.

text © Amanda Pape - 2011

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.  Photos are from the author's website.]