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CBR4 review #5: In The Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson

I’ve been reading furiously (furiously, I tell you!) this year, but between school, work, and motherhood, sitting down and actually writing reviews has proven pretty difficult. So over the next few days, I’ll be posting much more often in an effort to complete this year’s Cannonball Read!

In the Garden of Beasts is the true story of the American ambassador to Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power. William E. Dodd is a college professor at the University of Chicago. A quiet, Jeffersonian Democrat (and friend to Woodrow Wilson), his greatest wish is to finish his multi-volume history of the Old South. Plucked from his post, he moves his family: wife, son Bill and daughter Martha – to Berlin in the spring of 1933.

This is as much Martha’s story as it is Dodd’s. A wild young woman fleeing a bad marriage, she has literary aspirations but not much focus. She takes to the glittering Nazi social scene, and embarks on an energetic series of affairs. Her lovers are both high-ranking Nazis and Communist agents, and her behavior threatens Dodd’s standing.

Dodd himself is an outsider to the diplomatic corps. Dubbed the “Pretty Good Club”, they consist mostly of wealthy Ivy League graduates. Dodd is determined to live frugally, and even drives his own American-made car around town. This difference, and his unwillingness to “play along”, will make his job much harder in the years to come. The US government at this time is more concerned with Germany’s debt (and acquiring repayment) than with any human rights violations. Dodd is sent to Berlin with this goal in mind. As he and his family become witnesses to Hitler’s brutal rise and consolidation of power, his focus changes. Convincing Washington to act, however, proves difficult.

In the Garden of Beasts is an interesting, frustrating and ultimately sad read. Interesting, because Larson has the ability to put the reader right there in the action. Frustrating, because we can’t help but become angry at the inaction of the diplomatic community. Sad, of course, because we know what comes after. As Edmund Burke famously said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

I recommend this book.

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Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read review #4: Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor

One of my favorite websites has a book review series called “Classic Trash”. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor definitely belongs in this category.

It is the story of the orphaned Amber St. Clare, and her rise to fame at the court of Charles II. Raised in a small village in the countryside, Amber is distinguished by her great beauty and rebellious spirit. She longs for adventure, and over the course of 900+ pages, she finds it. She travels to London, has affairs, marriages, children. She is witness to the plague and the Great Fire of London. Her single-minded pursuit of wealth and power is a wonder to behold. She sleeps her way to top, and becomes a favored mistress of the King. Throughout all this, Amber remains faithful in her heart to the only man she wants, the “one man she can never have”, Lord Bruce Carlton. Their on-again/off-again love affair is a central theme of the story.

Originally published in 1944, the book was banned in 14 states as pornographic. I found it to be fairly tame by today’s standards. There is nothing explicit here; all the sex is implied. But the unromantic depiction of Restoration England and the absolute lack of morality in court society may have had something to do with the criticism. Glittering parties, rampant infidelity and back-stabbing abound. Good Times! These are completely amoral people here. I’d heard that Charles II (they didn’t call him the Merry Monarch for nothing) had a LOT of mistresses, but I was left wondering when he’d had time to actually rule the country. Winsor does a masterful job of presenting this world to us without judgement.

Amber herself, while not exactly likeable, has a pluckiness that you can’t help but admire. It’s like hanging out with your self-destructive college roommate, the one you go to parties with until you find people with whom you actually have something in common. Even when she is at her most reckless, you want her to come out on top, because, really, she’s got a good heart. You watch in fascination, and you occasionally shout, “OMG WHAT ARE DOING???? Amber, GIRL, NO!!!” But she doesn’t hear you. Because she’s a fictional character.

I never quite understood Amber’s obsessive love for Bruce. Are we supposed to see him as dashing, and honorable in his own way? Not sure. His wants and needs are presented as more noble than the frivolous court, but I just found him to be selfish and cruel in his treatment our heroine. I wanted Amber to gather her self-respect and just send him away already.

The one real problem I have with Forever Amber is how it ends. Without giving anything away, the ending of the book is abrupt and we are left feeling that there should be more. I’d read somewhere that after editing, the final manuscript was one-fifth of the original length. Was something cut? Or did Winsor intend a sequel? We’ll never know.

Told on an epic scale, Forever Amber is a rollicking story without any kind of moral center. It’s like a gooey piece of candy with about 732 empty calories. It’s like a flashy piece of costume jewelry with no real value, but boy is it shiny! This book is all of those things, and good fun to boot.

Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read review #3: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Ethan Frome. I’d heard the title and knew it was well-regarded, but beyond that I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’d never read any Edith Wharton before. She wasn’t one of those authors we were forced to read in high school (HELLOOO Dickens!) Despite being a voracious reader there are quite a few classic novels that I just never got around to.

What is it about? Simply put, it’s the story of a man with no luck. Seriously, this is one sad little book. It’s also beautifully, sparingly written. The story is set in the hamlet of Starkfield, Massachusetts, and a more apt description of the place couldn’t be found. The cold landscape sets the tone for a dark tale. The prologue is told from the point of view of an newcomer to the community. He arrives in town one day and is intrigued by Frome. Despite the fact that Frome is described as ”a ruin of a man”, he has something different about him, and the narrator begins asking around. We get a few tantalizing hints about a Frome’s life: his early promise, his parents’ deaths and the struggle to save the family farm, his sick wife, and the “smash-up” that left him crippled years before.

From there, the story shifts to Frome’s point of view, back many years before. He’s still a youngish man, but nevertheless, his best years are behind him. He lives in silent misery with his wife Zeena and her cousin Mattie Silver. Zeena is sickly and mostly bedridden. Mattie is a poor relation who has come to help around the house. Zeena is dried up and mean, and we get the impression that she’s also a hypochondriac. Did I mention she’s mean? Mattie is everything Zeena isn’t: sweet, vivacious, and beautiful. Mattie stirs something in Ethan. They grow close. When the end does come, it’s devastating.

Ethan Frome is not told on a grand scale. There are no big, important ideas at work here. It’s a small book about small people and their small lives. And it’s perfect.

Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read review #2: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Millar

The Song of Achilles is the story of the great mythological hero from the point of view of his beloved companion, Patroclus.

Full disclosure: I love anything to do with Greek mythology and the Trojan War. I even watch the movie Troy whenever it’s on, for which my husband mocks me brutally. (The film IS a real stinker despite the talent involved, but I can’t help myself.) Achilles has never been a favorite of mine, what with sulking in his tent and the (spoiler!) vindictive treatment of Hector’s body and all. But, this promised to be a fresh look at the oft-told tale and I dove in.

Unlike many modern takes on the story, this book stays relatively close to the source material. The gods and mythical creatures are real, and play an important part in the plot. The usual suspects are all accounted for: clever Odysseus, villainous Agamemnon, honorable but clueless Menelaus. And Hector, who we only ever see from the Greek lines.

The Trojan War itself, though defining, is not the focus of most of the book. We are taken from Patroclus’ early days, to his fostering at the court of King Peleus, where we meets Prince Achilles. He’s dazzled by the glorious and golden prince, and doesn’t really fit in.  Before long Achilles chooses the newcomer as his most favored companion, and not long after the two become lovers.

The story is told in the first person, and Patroclus’ “voice” is a sweet one. Despite this, I never really felt as if I understood what drew him and Achilles together. The two of them are so different – Achilles godlike and distant, Patroclus self-effacing and human. Perhaps it’s because I never felt as if I got to know Achilles.

A couple of years ago I read Margaret George’s Helen of Troy. Told from Helen’s point of view, it drew me in almost immediately and some of the more haunting images from it have stayed with me. The narration had a way of making me feel as if I were there, instead of watching the action from a distance. I think this is where The Song of Achilles ultimately fell short for me. I never connected with the characters in a meaningful way. It was a quick read, and enjoyable, not not something that will linger in my memory.

Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read book review #1: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

Continue reading “Miss Kate’s Cannonball Read book review #1: The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman”

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