September Book Club Pick: Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts

For September’s book club, we’ll read acclaimed narrative nonfiction writer Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin.

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If you haven’t yet weighed in on Tom Scocca’s Beijing Welcomes You, head over to this month’s discussion to post your input!

For the month of September, I’ve selected Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin. The book is set in 1933 and follows the experiences of the Dodd family — U.S. ambassador William, a second choice for the post appointed by President Franklin Roosevelt, and his wife and children — during the nascent days of Nazi Germany.

Like Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Larson’s 2004 bestseller about the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, In the Garden of Beasts is a work of narrative nonfiction. If you read Devil in the White City, you’ll recall Larson’s vivid, fictitious-seeming portrayals of a Chicago frenzied by fair preparations and stymied by a mysterious killer.

I expect that Berlin will play a similar role in In the Garden of Beasts, and hope that in next month’s discussion, we can pull apart the literary device of the city as a character, rather than merely a backdrop. As Brevity Magazine explains, Berlin anchors Larson’s portrayal of the rise of Adolf Hitler’s regime.

Of In the Garden of Beasts, NPR Books says, “It’s a detailed portrait of the man who served for four years as the ambassador to Germany before resigning — after repeatedly clashing with both Nazi Party officials and the State Department.” Though the A.V. Club gave the book a B-, the New York Times called it Larson’s “best and most enthralling work of novelistic history.”

“I was interested in [Dodd] because I wanted to find out what was that like, to have met these people when you didn’t know how all of this would turn out?” said Larson in the NPR segment. “We, of course, have the power of hindsight in our arsenal, but people living in Berlin in that era didn’t. What would that have been like as this darkness fell over Germany?”

We’ll have history on our side while reading and discussing In the Garden of Beasts, but we should nonetheless try to locate ourselves in the Berlin that Larson details.

I loved Devil in the White City and expect Larson’s precise, masterful storytelling to make his latest, at the very least, an engaging read. I’ll see you back here on Sept. 26 for a discussion of In the Garden of Beasts, which is available in hardcover, paperback or as an e-book and should be in stock at your local public library or independent bookstore.

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