Archive for March, 2012

In the Garden of Beasts

Wednesday, March 14th, 2012

By Erik Larson

The Short Take:

Larson recounts the early days of Nazi Party dominance in Germany, as seen through the eyes of the thoughtful historian turned ambassador, William Dodd, and his reckless daughter, Martha. Thoroughly documented and written in a suspenseful manner, this book predates the invasions and wholesale genocide of the later Nazi regime, but is still shocking. Almost as shocking are the amorous exploits of the glamorous Martha, who collects lovers of every political stripe.


It’s easy to love Larson and the way he divides a story between two different points of view. In this case, not only are we given a detailed vision of Germany in 1933 and 1934, from two very different people right in the midst of everything, we also see how their impressions collide with those of State Department and diplomacy officials back in the U.S.A.

Considering you know what eventually happens, this book still keeps you on edge. Since so much literature focuses on the later years, learning about the myriad rivalries, plots, and suspicions within the Nazi leadership is eye opening.

It’s an amazing book, though admittedly it’s sometimes hard to read about the suffering and outright terror so many people felt. What’s even harder is reflecting on how many of these same distressing elements are still in the world today. It’s good to read Larson’s masterful book just so we recognize what is going on in the world right now for what it actually is.

A Little Plot:

William Dodd and his daughter  start out their tenure in Germany predisposed to support the Nazis, who seem to bring new energy and pride to a country humiliated and economically destroyed since World War I. Despite contrary reports and rumors, they want to see only the positive side.

Dodd, for his part, is actually far more critical of the extravagance and lackadaisical ways of other embassy employees. He intends to stand as a solid symbol of America: hard working, sensible, down-to-earth.

Martha,on the other hand, is enchanted by all the strong young men, and embarks on a series of love affairs that include high-ranking Nazis as well as Communist diplomats. She is even presented to Hitler as a potential girlfriend.

But gradually, they both begin to change their minds. This not only makes their lives more complicated, it also puts them in greater danger, because no one is truly safe in Nazi Germany.

For more about Eric Larson and his outstanding books, click here.

The Anatomy of Ghosts

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

By Andrew Taylor

The Short Take:

Once again Taylor explores another place and time in this mesmerizing mystery.  This time it’s a college in 1786 Cambridge, England; where some young men go to learn, others go to endlessly amuse themselves, and one has been labeled insane because he saw a ghost. To get to the bottom of this unfortunate situation, his mother sends an investigator who adamantly denies the existence of ghosts. It’s a really good read — as much for the mystery as for the window on this other world..


Taylor writes a smart mystery. In addition to multi-layered plots, interesting characters, and misleading clues, he also utilizes unique and interesting settings for his novels. And, his in depth research makes them come alive. His fictional Jerusalem College is no exception, with it’s faculty rivalries, student pecking order, and less-than-stellar academics.

The way he reveals his mystery through the investigation of ghost sceptic, John Holdsworth, leads you to suspect virtually everyone of everything. Questions of who is responsible for the ghost appearance, the deaths of two different women, the disappearance of a rare book, and other questionable activities all intertwine. In lesser hands, it would be enough to make your head spin, but Taylor keeps things clear and understandable.

Of course, I was totally wrong about almost everything I suspected. But that just adds to the pleasure for me.

A Little Plot:

Holdsworth’s wife was so addicted to hearing a medium’s messages from their dead child that she ultimately ruined their finances and killed herself. That drove him to write a book denouncing the existence of ghosts. In turn, the book brought him to the attention of the wealthy mother of a college student who claimed to see a ghost.

So Holdsworth heads to Jerusalem College, where he encounters — among other things — a group of debauched young men with a secret club, multiple academic rivalries, and a caste system that very clearly squashes the common man. Knowing there are no ghosts, Holdsworth is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery as well as help the young man currently imprisoned at an insane asylum.

He’s got a lot on his plate, and is still dealing with his own internal ghosts.

For more about Taylor and his work, click here.


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March 2012