Saturday, July 21, 2012


If you don't like to read history books, you're not reading the works of Erik Larson.

Larson, alongside U.T. history professor H.W. Brands, ranks as one of the best popular history writers working today. Larson's books include ISAAC'S STORM (about the 1900 Galveston hurricane), THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY (the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago intersects with the life and crimes of a serial killer) and THUNDERSTRUCK (Marconi invents the "wirelesss" and the technology is used to track and capture a murderer fleeing from England to the U.S.). I've read them all and they are all great books, all worth your time. My favorite of the three is DEVIL but your mileage may vary.

I just finished reading IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS: LOVE, TERROR, AND AN AMERICAN FAMILY IN HITLER'S BERLIN which was first published in 2011 and is now available in trade paperback. In the book, Larson recounts the fascinating story of one William Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Berlin in 1933. Dodd arrives in the city shortly after Adolf Hitler has been appointed Chancellor of Germany and his Nazi party is beginning to take over all aspects of society, politics, the economy and the military. Dodd, a professor from Chicago with no diplomatic experience is woefully inexperienced and ill-suited to the task at hand. His naivete and frugality set him apart from the senior diplomatic corps but he tries his best to do the job that President Roosevelt has expressly asked him to perform. Complicating matters are the affairs of  Dodd's daughter, Martha, a free-spirited, beautiful young woman who has many lovers including a Gestapo official and a Russian agent.

GARDEN is history as a spy-thriller novel, with intrigue, back-stabbing, double-dealing, espionage and ultimately a grand-scale massacre (The Night of the Long Knives) taking place over a period of time. Larson takes a very complex period of world history and lets us see it through the eyes of an innocent, Dodd. He makes the city and the major players come alive with telling detail. It's a brilliant feat of reportage and it's to Larson's great credit that he keeps you turning the pages even when you know the ultimate outcome.

This is an outstanding book, one of the best I've read in a long time and I rank it second only to DEVIL as my favorite of Larson's works. Rest assured, I'll read whatever he writes next. Highest recommendation.

If you say you don't like to read history, try one of Erik Larson's terrific books. I guarantee you'll change your mind.


  1. I especially like your comment about turning the pages even though you know the outcome. While reading the book, I kept thinking "Why am I getting so excited about the possibility of there being any other outcome than the one I know happened?.." Thanks for reminding me of that I shall use it in my book club summary.

  2. Thanks for reading and commenting Claudia. I really enjoyed reading IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS.