In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson, 5/5
It’s been a long time since I picked up a book that I couldn’t put down again (especially a nonfiction one), but I read this for 3 hours straight one morning and finished it almost in one sitting. This true story takes place in an odd slice of history–the years directly preceding the outbreak of WWII, as Hitler consolidated his power in Germany and gradually revealed the extent of his aspirations to the tentative but growing concern of the rest of the world. The characters on whom the story focuses are even more odd: an elderly academic, appointed in desperation to the role of American Ambassador to Germany when more qualified men turned it down, and his free-spirited daughter who lets few opportunities to party and sleep with the enemy slip through her fingers, despite the delicacy of her family’s situation in Nazi Germany. Even more interesting than the political twists and turns of this turbulent time are the many appearances of famous and infamous entities, portrayed from a more personal, intimate perspective than the hard, cold light that history usually shines on them. Author Erik Larson somehow achieves a well-researched tone without diminishing the natural drama of events.
There were, as might be expected, many horrifying things in this book. What was unexpected to me, however, was the source of this horror. I was most shocked, not by Hitler and his Nazis’ iconic atrocities, but by the greedy, irresponsible, antisemitic attitudes documented in the behavior of many U.S. politicians and other high-profile citizens. Many influential policy-makers were more than willing to identify a so-called “Jewish Problem” in the U.S. and seemed more interested in Germany’s ability to repay high-interest war loans than any human rights concerns. Wealth and social prestige, unbelievably, seemed to be acceptable qualifications for positions of world-event-affecting influence and politicians trusted by the U.S. public to guide their country in perilous times floundered without coordinated priorities or plans. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, but knowing in retrospect the millions of lives that were at stake makes the outcome of events documented in this book seem even more tragic.
Why I read it: My friend, Peggy, passed it on to me.
14 Minutes: A Running Legend’s Life and Death and Life by Alberto Salazar and John Brant, 5/5
Salazar’s life-story is every bit the page-turner that the book’s title suggests. It was fascinating to get a glimpse into the obsession that drives world-class athletes, but I was even more interested in how Salazar dealt with injury, set-backs, losses and depression to establish a thriving post-competitive career in a non-lucrative sport.
Why I read it: My friend, Peggy, passed it on to me.
Tapisserie de Bayeux: Photos and Captions of Bayeux Tapestry, published by Éditions Artaud Frères, 5/5
This high-quality souvenir book contains photos of the complete 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry and terse captions in six languages, outlining events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and culminating in spoilers King Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The needlework is charmingly quirky, from the multi-colored horses to the occasional nude figures in the border, proudly displaying their embroidered nethers to my extreme amusement.
Why I read it: this book has been in my to-read pile for so long that I can’t remember where or when I bought it. Glad I did, though!
Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, 5/5
Far from the tidy Victorian romance I expected, this short novel has a plot as fast-paced and dramatic as a play and stars a cast of four flawed personalities engaged in a brutal love rectangle. I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I later despised the shallow and cliched 2015 film version.
Why I read it: my sister, Grace, recommended it to me.
Complete Poems 1904-1962 by E.E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage, 5/5
By turns beautiful and baffling, these poems seem less made to be read than absorbed. Many passages that stoutly resisted my best attempts at analysis revealed their meaning at a careless second glance, like stepping back from a painting far enough for the brushstrokes to blend together. Brushing aside petty rules of grammatical convention, Cummings covers the whole spectrum of poetic possibility, from grotesque to delicate, brutal to erotic (sometimes both at the same time–no judgment here), simple to incomprehensible.
Here’s one of my favorites that captures most of the things I love about Cummings:
the great advantage of being alive
(instead of undying)is not so much
that mind no more can disprove than prove
what heart may feel and soul may touch
–the great(my darling)happens to be
that love are in we,that love are in we
and here is a secret they never will share
for whom create is less than have
or one times one than when times where–
that we are in love,that we are in love:
with us they’ve nothing times nothing to do
(for love are in we am in i are in you)
this world(as timorous itsters all
to call their cowardice quite agree)
shall never discover our touch and feel
–for love are in we are in love are in we;
for you are and i am and we are(above
and under all possible worlds)in love
a billion brains may coax undeath
from fancied fact and spaceful time–
no heart can leap,no soul can breathe
but by the sizeless truth of a dream
whose sleep is the sky and the earth and the sea.
For love are in you am in i are in we
Why I read it: I hoped to find more poems like his famous “i carry your heart with me,” which I did! The following poem reminded me of it most because of its sweetness and simplicity:
skies may be blue;yes
(when gone are hail and sleet and snow)
but bluer than my darling’s eyes,
spring skies are no
hearts may be true;yes
(by night or day in joy or woe)
but truer than your lover’s is,
hearts do not grow
nows may be new;yes
(as new as april’s first hello)
but new as this our thousandth kiss,
no now is so
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, 5/5
All my words are insufficient to convey how exquisite this semi-autobiographical novel is; I am reduced to a string of mere adjectives…raw, beautiful, funny, insightful, uplifting, bittersweet…none of which can fully capture this story of two sisters, one a struggling writer with a history of failed relationships and the other a beautiful concert pianist who possesses everything happiness requires…except the will to live. Intensely personal, defiantly human, undeniably humorous, this book is a masterpiece and a privilege to read.
Why I read it: The first chapter is in McSweeney’s No. 48.
Beach Stones, photography by Josie Iselin, text by Margaret W. Carruthers, 5/5
Great photography and informative descriptions make for a book that is as beautiful as it is interesting.
Why I read it: a random library find.