Sunday, December 4, 2011

Best of 2011 Countdown: #21

We're going non-fiction today.  Whip out those holiday gift idea lists--these two are perfect for Uncle Bob and Cousin John...and Aunt Suzie for that matter.


In the Garden of Beasts
Erik Larson

Larson’s fascinating book is set in 1933, just as Hitler begins his reign of power. America’s first ambassador to Germany has relocated to Berlin with his wife, son and uh, how to say it nicely…rather outgoing daughter Martha. Martha is like a Kardashian; she enjoys the limelight, the nightlife and the men of Germany. Of course, instead of professional athletes she favors the men of the Third Reich, including the head of the Gestapo.

The Dodd family
The Dodds are initially content in Germany, but they quickly become disillusioned. In hindsight, they were slow to understand what is about to unfold, yet when William Dodd does begin to alert the United States of Hitler’s actual motives, he is largely ignored. As William learns more about Hitler’s plans and Martha moves her way up the Third Reich food chain, they both become major players in Hitler’s Germany.

This is a terrific piece of history written only the way Larson can. There are many Larson wannabes, but in the end he is the master. Isaac’s Storm, Thunderstruck, and The Devil in the White City are all amazing, yet this is his best book to date. 


The Destiny of the Republic
Candice Millard

Readers might remember Millard from her previous book, The River of Doubt, the true story of Theodore Roosevelt's failed expedition to navigate a previously uncharted river in the Amazon Basin.  (It's a must-read.)  Now Candice Millard is turning her historical eye to another President, James A. Garfield.  

If you were paying attention in the fifth grade, you might remember that Garfield was one of four Presidents assassinated, and if you saw the Stephen Sondheim musical, you might even know that Charles Guiteau was the guy who shot him.  Chances are, though, that you don't know that Garfield was one of the greatest statesmen this country has ever known.  He was dedicated to ending the Gilded Age corruption in Washington.  And that he didn't die from Guiteau's bullet.

James Garfield was a legislator, but he never sought the Presidency.  During the Republican convention, Garfield was giving a speech to nominate a colleague and his oration was so powerful that when he rhetorically asked at the end of his speech, "Who do we want?," somebody yelled back "We want GARFIELD!"  Days later he was the Republican nominee.

Millard also gives the engrossing back story of Charles Guiteau (and you know I love any story that involves weird, cultish commune living), and the details of the assassination.  As I stated earlier, the bullet didn't instantly kill Garfield, and The Destiny of the Republic is as much a history of 19th Century medicine as it is a Presidential biography.  In fact, Alexander Graham Bell, telephone inventor, raced time and disease to find a method to save the President.

The Destiny of the Republic is a compelling read about a mostly forgotten President, and Candice Millard is the perfect writer to tell the story.

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