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!
A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting by Sam Sheridan, 3/5
Sheridan put a lot of blood and sweat into this appropriately self-deprecating foray into the world of martial arts, which sees him train Muay Thai at the Fairtex camp, MMA with Pat Miletich of UFC fame, BJJ with Brazilian Top Team, tai chi, and boxing with Virgil Hunter and Andre Ward, before veering off-topic for a unsettlingly positive take on the sport of dog fighting and finally ending a bit lamely on a Hollywood set. While Sheridan is a thoughtful and competent writer, he is by no means an insightful one. I found it frustrating that he rarely achieved more depth than a men’s magazine article would, despite being surrounded by legends and, as a paid writer, enjoying opportunities beyond the reach of the average amateur fighter. Still, it was an entertaining read and could have been unimaginably worse if written by a less enthusiastic personality.
Why I read it: Jake from the gym recommended and lent it to me.
Sugar and Salt–Foods or Poison? by Axel Emil Gibson, 3/5
As a sugar addict in a state of near-constant relapse, I have first-hand experience with the bizarre, drug-like power of sugar and the rarely-acknowledged withdrawal symptoms that accompany any serious attempt to resist it. Over-dramatic as this may sound, it’s positively restrained compared to Dr. Axel Emil Gibson’s opinion on the topic:
The dominating ingredient in most of our dishes, sugar perverts our taste, blinds our instincts, bewilders our gastric consciousness, and leaves us guidelessly and aimlessly adrift in the rapids and breakers of morbid and despotic cravings, not infrequently decoying the individual into body-and-mind-destroying excesses (13).
Though a proponent of naturally-occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables, Dr. Gibson fervently denounces “free sweets” (extracted or concentrated sugar) and has no qualm about addressing the metaphysical and moral implications of one’s nutritional choices. Written in 1913, this eyebrow-raising rhetoric, accompanied by old-fashioned science, makes it tempting to dismiss the book as outdated and of historic rather than practical value. After all, if current, more-enlightened times see numerous fad diets fueling a multi-billion dollar weight loss industry, what crazier, more ignorant, unscientific advice might this doctor from over 100 years ago recommend? The answer is extremely embarrassing. Gibson’s dietary recommendations are simple, commonsense, and inarguable: he preaches moderation and “[nature’s] own faultless cuisine, where the sun does the cooking and the earth the seasoning” (26). And yet, it is just in recent years that science and popular culture have started to catch up with this hundred-year-old wisdom, after spending decades hardheadedly demonizing fat. To me, this supports the “sugar conspiracy,” which is a rabbit hole well-worth traveling down since the “evidence” against it actually seems to argue for it instead. Just read a summary of Science magazine’s article claiming to prove there is no “sugar conspiracy,” or this Verge article on the topic. Both focus on salvaging the scientific community’s credibility and denying the conspiracy, while at the same time verifying and attempting to excuse the sugar industry’s underhanded dealings.
Why I read it: The title caught my eye in an antique store and for $5, I couldn’t resist discovering 100-year-old opinions on a still-controversial topic.
Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, 4/5
This true story wasn’t quite as readable as I’d expected, having been absolutely blown away by Hillenbrand’s later work Unbroken. I was partly to blame for approaching the book with a skepticism that made me look disconsolately for footnotes where there were none. For some reason, I just couldn’t escape the nagging question “does she really know what all the people in her story said and felt, or is she just making it all up?” I would have had a much more enjoyable experience if I’d read the end notes, acknowledgements and interview with the author at the end of the book first. These sources helped me realize the insane amount of time and energy Hillenbrand, already an accomplished equestrian author, put into researching the story of Seabiscuit.
I just have to point out how bizarre it is that the horse’s face didn’t make it onto the cover of the book! Even the image on the spine is of the jockey, not his famous steed.
Why I read it: I was looking for something light to read while traveling and Seabiscuit had been on my radar for quite a while.
The Field Guide: The Art, History and Philosophy of Crop Circle Making by Rob Irving and John Lundberg, edited by Mark Pilkington, 2/5
This book, bizarrely, seems to affirm the mystic nature of crop circles (in the process, condoning the associated pseudo-science and quackery of self-styled “experts” in the field) while completely denying crop circles’ otherworldly origins so blatantly as to give instructions for their creation and to interview the men credited with starting the whole phenomenon back in the 1980s. At least, that’s what I understood from the rambling, incomplete sentences in this confused and cluttery little book, which is so deficient as to lack even good photographs of the patterns it describes. The only redeeming feature of this little disaster is the informative interviews with crop circle makers at the end.
Why I read it: the title caught my eye in a used bookstore.