Friday, June 24, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts By Erik Larson

After reading Devil in the White City, I became a huge fan of Erik Larsen, so when I heard on NPR that he had written another book, I knew that I had to read it. I even thought enough of Larsen to actually purchase this book as a hardcover!

In The Garden of Beasts is the story of Hitler's Germany in its infant stages, when Hitler had just been made chancellor and Hindenberg was still President (and some control over Hitler) as observed through William Dodd (the newly minted American ambassador to Germany) and his daughter Martha (who was scandalous by anyone's standards, but perhaps more so considering the time at which she was living). Dodd was an interesting pick for the position - and it's made clear pretty early on that he wasn't FDR's first choice - because he is a history professor, extremely frugal, had no real experience in politics (in spite of his friendship with Woodrow Wilson, of whom he wrote a book), and is very unassuming (which makes him an oddity in the ambassador society and among the Nazis, who are very extravagant). Martha initially falls in love with the burgeoning Nazi movement - she seems to romanticize the movement and sees it as a revolution. She is connected romantically, at various points, to the head of the Gestapo and, when she's not with him, a Soviet spy. She even meets Adolf Hitler at one point. We read not only of Martha's affairs but of Dodd's interactions with the Nazi leaders and the novel culminates with the Night of Long Knives.

This book took my breath away.  Absolutely astounded me.  From the get go, I was absorbed into the lives of William and Martha Dodd, their relationships, their trips, their parties and the people that they met.  I was also impressed by the depth of Larsen's research.  He used mostly primary sources - a lot of the stories and descriptions that he gave were taken from letters, diaries and other writings composed by the people that he was writing about.  The depth of his research and the material was also absolutely remarkable.

What perhaps most impressed me about this was how interesting and accessible Larsen made this topic. He took an extensive amount of information, compiled it and narrated this true story in a way that was interesting, educational and accessible.  He taught about a topic in a humble, everyday manner that would appeal to anyone, even if you don't like history.

Definitely read this one.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Strange Stirring by Stephanie Coontz

So I heard about this book on NPR and it sounded really interesting - it is described, accurately, as a biography of a book that changed the discourse in this country: The Feminine Mystique.  It was actually better than the book that it was about!

Coontz writes this book after having talked with the women that The Feminine Mystique impacted (and those who didn't) and looking at other primary sources: letters written to Ms. Friedan and by Ms. Friedan for instance.  It was a wonderful perspective really and raised not only the old, tired arguments about the work but continued to peel back the layers of the onion and pierce the veil so to speak.

What was also really interesting to me was the chapter in which Ms. Coontz talked about the current mystiques that prevail. I wished that there had been more discussion about the prevailing modern mystiques but I also realize that this could really be a complete book unto itself.

A really good, accessible read that provided really good analysis of an important work.  A must read.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Muhammad by Deepak Chopra

I was browsing through the stacks at the library and saw this and was immediately intrigued. Deepak Chopra attempts to tell the life of the prophet of Islam through the eyes of the people that are often closest to him - his wife, his daughters, his followers.  And it was amazing, to say the least. I had never read anything by Deepak Chopra before, so I was a little nervous, but it was totally worth it.

This book is one of a trilogy of sorts - Chopra also wrote fictional accounts of Buddha's life and Jesus' life (aptly - Buddha and Jesus) and I intend to read at least the one on Jesus but will probably end up reading the one on Buddha as well.  This is a really well researched novel that discusses Muhammad's teachings and how they relate to Christainity and Judaism, both older religions relative to Islam. I was also really impressed by how Deepak Chopra chose to tell the tale - he told each part of the Prophet's life through the viewpoint of an important person in his family.  It included everyone from his nursemaid, to his wife and children, to a slave and even his worst enemy. It was a very effective way of conveying the Prophet's life and his belief system and i was absolutely enthralled.

This book was also really good because it provides a very simple explanation of the basic tenets of the Islamic faith. People that have read the Koran or have a much better education in the Muslim faith would probably not get a whole lot of out of this but for everyone else, it would be a pretty good introduction. It has inspired me to learn more about the Muslim faith!

The Power by Naomi Alderman

If you liked The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, you will want to read this dystopian novel, which has won a number of awards in th...