In the Garden of Beasts, Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

by Erik Larson, 2011, Broadway Paperbacks, New York

This is a fascinating book, well-written and extremely well-researched.  I was amazed at how well the author could reconstruct events that occurred so many years ago.  I couldn’t help compare his work to The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan which I had recently read.  In that book the author apparently had the opportunity to interview many of the participants in that particular piece of history and did a poor job of bringing those insights to his book.  In the case of Larson’s book, he did not have an opportunity to interview many of the persons involved in his book because almost all of them are deceased.  Nevertheless, he did a much better job of relating the events that occurred.

Another aspect of the book that I appreciated was that the author didn’t attempt to over-embellish the narrative.  He just describes the events and lets the reader react.  All too many times an author seems to try to pound home his or her particular views (e.g., Stacy Schiff in Cleopatra and Doris Kearns Goodwin in Team of Rivals.  I much prefer Larson’s style where he leaves it up to the reader to react and form opinions.

It is chilling to read about this period of time in history when almost an entire population of a so-called civilized county was highjacked by a ill-educated megalomaniac and his henchmen.  In current times where there are very real dangers in our own country that require extra vigilance (i.e., surveillance) by our government of individuals’ actions, it behooves us to ensure that adequate processes and protections are in place to ensure that a similar result never occurs.
four stars

Night

by Elie Wisel, 1972 (new translation by Marion Wiesel, 2006), Hill and Wang, a division of Farrer, Straus, and Giroux, New York

Compelling, horrifying, saddening – one individual’s story of his Holocaust experience.  Also, I might add, beautifully written.

Reading this, I can understand why it is so difficult to believe that there exists a living God who loves each and every one of us.  How can this ever happen on earth if that were true?  Elie Wisel became convinced a benevolent God who answered his prayers did not exist when he witnessed the atrocities being committed by his fellow human beings.  This book not only calls us to remember the Holocaust so that it can never be repeated, but it also raises questions as to how God, if he exists as a god who loves us, would ever permit this to happen to anyone.

The prose in this book is so compact and powerful, that it is extremely easy to read.  Only the content makes it difficult to get through.  After reading it, though, I am grateful to the author for sharing his experience, as painful and difficult as that effort may have been.5 stars

Citizens of London

The Americans who Stood with Britain in its Darkest, Finest Hour

by Lynne Olson, 2010, Random House, New York

This book is about three Americans who played prominent roles in London during World War II, ambassador John Gilbert Winant, Edward R. Morrow, and Averill Harriman.  While Morrow and Harriman are well known, Winant seems to be pretty much a forgotten figure in our history.

Lynn Olson not only portrays the roles each of these played, but she also outlines many other aspects of the war, including many aspects of the relationship between Roosevelt and Churchill as well as some of the stress that Eisenhower endured .  She focuses particularly on the issues that strained the relationship between Britain and the U.S. prior to and during the war years.

The book is extremely well researched and is very readable.  I was somewhat surprised, however, by her depiction of Roosevelt and a vacillating, dithering leader and Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s dislike of one another.  The book left me with the impression that Olson focused a bit too much on negative incidents and discounted the positive accomplishments and aspects of these situations.  Why, for instance, did Churchill go into a complete emotional funk on hearing of the Roosevelt’s death when he supposedly didn’t like or get along with him all those years?  Why do the British seem to recall the all the American soldiers who were in England during World War II with such nostalgia if they wreaked such havoc on its citizens?

Despite what I think is possibly too much focus on the negative, the book provides a telling framework of the relationship between the British and the Americans in World War II and the differences in our cultures.  It also provides a lot of information about John Gilbert Winant who played a significant role in helping to ameliorate our differences during that time, even though he seems to be largely forg

3 1/2 stars

Hornet Flight

by Ken Follett, 2002, Audiobook read by John Lee, Books on Tape, Inc., Santa Ana, California

This was a fairly enjoyable book to listen to.  It moved along, the characters were interesting (if somewhat predictable), and the reader was very good.  Despite all these attributes, the book was not one of Follett’s best.  It didn’t really have the cliff-hanger qualities of some of his other books.  I listened to the audiobook on a 3-day trip from Florida to Rhode Island.  The book got a bit more interesting as I got into it and it held my attention while driving.  What else can I ask for?  3 stars

Wild Bill Donovan, The Spymaster Who Created the OSS and Modern American Espionage

by Douglas Waller, 2011, Free Press, New York

This looked like a pretty good book as the subject sounded pretty interesting.  On the plus side, the book did have a lot of information about what went on behind the scenes in World War II.  On the downside, for a biography, I didn’t feel as if I really knew Bill Donovan after reading the book.  The author provides a really good accounting of his actions and deeds, but I felt he somehow came up short in revealing the real person behind all of it.  The narrative also left me cold as it was primarily a chronological accounting of all the things that Bill Donovan did.  While Waller tried to provide a picture of Donovan through his relationships with members of his family, he just doesn’t seem to project the person well.

The bottom line is that the author managed to make what should have been a fascinating story very dull. 2 1/2 stars

With Wings Like Eagles, A History of the Battle of Britain

by Michael Korda, 2009, Harper, New York

This was a pretty interesting book, but only because I didn’t know much about this campaign.  Missing was a sense of the hardships that the pilots and crew went through as well as the impacts on the ground.  Korda attempts to give a sense of this but his descriptions seem to fall short.  Also, the book tends to be repetitive in places.

On the plus side, the book seems to be well researched and factual.  It’s too bad that it didn’t capture my imagination a bit more. 3 stars

I Will Bear Witness, 1933-1941, A Diary of the Nazi Years

by Victor Klemperer, Translated by Martin Chalmers, 1999, Modern Library Paperback Edition, Random House, New York (First published in Germany under the title Ich will Aeugnis ablegen bis sum ltestn: Tagebucher 1933 von Victor Kempere, Copyright Aufbau-Verlag GmbH, Berlin, 1995).

First of all, this is a book that I wouldn’t ordinarily read but I found it in a box of books that my son had after taking a master’s degree in Eastern European History.  I picked some of the books out of the box thinking I would like to check them out.  I decided I would give this one a try.

It was a moving book for me to read, although it was also very tough to get through.  In the first place, I don’t particularly like reading diaries.  The day-to-day activities of a person seem to drag and, in this book, there is no exception.  Secondly, Klemperer spends much of his time working on his writing and there is a great deal of detail about the subject of one of his books, the literary history of 18th century France.  Ughh!!!

Where the book has impact, however, is in the depiction of the inexorable tightening of the restrictions on his freedoms by the Nazi regime.  Klemperer and his wife, Eva, are both Protestants, but he has Jewish ancestry and is deemed to be “non-Aryan.”  Because of his extraction, he is targeted with the same restrictions placed on Jews.

Klemperer is also fervently anti-Zionist and considers himself thoroughly German.  He fought in the trenches in WWI and has a close affiliation with German culture – at least in the beginning of the book when the Nazis first come to power.  He recognizes very early, however, that the National Socialist movement is severely flawed and that Hitler is a madman.  His continually references his overriding desire to outlive the Third Reich.

The cover of the book has a quote from Time Magazine comparing it to Anne Frank’s diary.  It says, “Richer and more disturbing than Anne Frank’s journals”.  There is some truth to that as it reveals a similar level of anxiety and fear.  On the other hand, this diary was written by a professor of literature versus a young girl.  Klemperer is a master of expression and captures his thoughts and emotions extremely well.  Another major difference is that Anne Frank was essentially isolated from the rest of the world while she was in hiding.  Klemperer and his wife are out living in society during this period (although his freedoms are gradually constricted).  He and Eva attempt to live “normal” lives while all of the lunacy goes on around them.  He has access to news accounts and speeches of the Nazis as well as the reaction of both Aryans and Jews to what is happening.  He is able to not only express his own feeling and reactions, but he also pays a lot of attention to the mood of others in Germany as all of this is happening.  It’s like having a recorder playing back the events and the resulting effects.

The attempts a living a normal life while these events are happening are notable.  Despite losing his job as a professor of literature at one of the state schools of higher education and being severly constrained financially, he manages to build a house, learn to drive, buy a car, go on trips, visit relatives and friends, go out to eat, etc. (at least until his house is appropriated in 1939 because he is “non-Aryan.”)  He continues to focus on the books he is writing, even after he is forced into confinement.

The book ends suddenly at the end of 1941.  I have not investigated whether there is another volume that covers his diary from that point on.  The preface of the book tells of his eventual fate so that is never in doubt, but I am curious as to what he experienced between 1941 and the end of the war.  I am not sure, however, I will ever read that as I had such a difficult time wading through this volume.  It was a tough read, but ultimately I am glad I read it.  Heaven help us if a bunch of nut cases ever manage to take over power here!four stars

The Gift of Rain

by Tan Twan Eng, 2008, Weinstein Books, New York

This novel is about the experiences of Phillip Hutton, a half-Chinese, half-English person in Malaya before, during, and after World War II.  Prior to the war, he meets a Japanese man who has come to Malaya and develops a strong personal relationship with him.  He does not realize that the man has come to scout Malaya to aid in the invasion by the Japanese.  The young man, in order to protect his family, eventually becomes a collaborator for the Japanese during their occupation.

The story is beautifully written and captures the conflicting emotions of the main character of the young man and the times.  The book, however, did not provide me with a lot of empathy for Hutton as he continuallly seems to be blind to the treachery of his Japanese friend.  Even when he finds out that the man has betrayed him and commits heinous acts against the local population and his family, he continues to be drawn to him.

Despite my dislike of Hutton’s behavoir and my dislike of his Japanese friend, I enjoyed the book a great deal. four stars

Unbroken, A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

by Laura Hillenbrand, 2010, Random House, New York

This is an excellent biography of a World War II hero.  The book details the life of Louis Zamparini and how he survived a POW camp in Japan.  The details of the brutal treatment in the prison camp is horrific and the author does a pretty good job of showing the long-term effects on the soldiers after returning from the war.

Hillenbrand becomes so close to her subject that it seems at times that the story is unbelievable.  Despite this tendency, the book is a very good read.four stars

Tears in the Darkness

The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath, 2009, by Michael Norman and Elizabeth M. Norman, read by Michael Prichard, Tantor Audio

This book is incredibly well-researched and the reader was great!    It also told the story of Bataan from both the U.S. and the Japanese perspective.  The authors used interviews and diaries to develop the story.

The negatives of the book are quite a few, however.  The book sometimes went into excruciating detail and it sometimes seemed as if getting through the book was was a death march in and of itself.  Also, the book seemed to jump around a bit and it left out some information that I would have liked to hear about.  For instance, the primary soldier that the book focused on was a Montana boy named Ben Steele.   There was quite a bit of narrative about Ben’s learning to draw while being held as a prisoner by the Japanese and how this activity helped him survive.  There was also some information about how Ben pursued his talent right after the war.  Then Ben is suddenly 80 years old and having a heart attack.  There is nothing about how Ben used his talent in his life after he went to school.

One thing that I gleaned from the book was how miserably MacArthur managed the defense of the Philippine Islands.  He probably should have been court-martialed  early on for such negligence rather than given a medal.  It is interesting how his public relations staff managed his image for him so that he was treated as a hero rather than the mediocre general that he really was.

This book is okay from the standpoint of the information it contains and the wonderful job Micheal Prichard did as the reader, but it certainly isn’t a great piece of literature or history.3 stars