Just now, sitting on my patio on a beautiful late-summer morning, I finished reading a long, and sometimes drudgingly difficult, book. In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson wasn’t quite what I was hoping it to be, mostly because one of his earlier books, Devil in the White City, is one of my—if not the—favorite books. Devil has a combination of history, Chicago, architecture and serial murder. Some of my favorite topics. I had also read his Thunderstruck, a non-fiction dramatized book about the development of the wireless radio signal, full of passionate pursuits and unknown (to me) history.
This latest book was a bit more complex but also involves history, a world class city and murder: it’s about the American ambassador to Germany and his family in Nazi Berlin. It wasn’t an easy read mostly because I’ve learned how little I know of the details of that time – names of people (and there are a lot!) and the structure of the American ambassador/consulate departments and the structure of pre-WWII German government, etc. It was a lot of things to track and try to get through.
Sadly, I almost gave up.
It was only in the last third or so of the book that it all started to come together for me. Larson is a heady-writer. Extremely academic, very journalistic, but with an occasional (though less in this book than previous) flowery, romantic descriptive passage. Now I realize that what he does, especially here with the Ambassador Dodd and the Nazis, is slowly paint a picture in bits and pieces. It’s a kind of journey where along the line few parts of the road, in and of themselves, are interesting, But somewhere along the path they all start to come together as a whole, and then his writing seems a bit genius. While first half of the book felt as if it were taking forever, the last half all fell in to place easily.
There were numerous (perhaps too numerous) characters (actually, people) to follow, and follow for years. In the end though it presents a picture of people at a remarkable time in our and Europe’s history; a time that none of the players involved could have any idea how important it was or what was going to happen in the coming years. I think the combination of history and Larson’s dramatized narrative is cleanly woven. It’s not textbook – it’s non-fiction fiction, as he includes descriptive passages and dialogue that he couldn’t have garnered from his 70 pages of bibliography and notes at the end of the book.
That lengthy documentation puts in to perspective about the breadth and value of research and homework when writing on a subject. Being that my own most successful writing was a dramatized piece of nonfiction (albeit a play) I should remember to be diligent about such thoroughness.
Truthfully though, the things I was thinking as I finished the book this morning was what’s happening in our own world and country these days. How will today’s international relations and political strife and despots be seen in 75 years? And like Dodd, who is speaking the words that are falling on deaf ears?
I don’t mean to sound political (as I’ve vowed not to do in this blog) but this world is ripe with topics that writers and artists should explore, and explore well.