Erik Larson‘s books, which include Devil In The White City, and In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, take a moment in our American experience and turn that moment into the most riveting and thrilling story imaginable. Each of his books reads like a thriller, set against a grand tableau, where we get to know the players intimately. And sometimes it’s a challenge to remember that Erik Larson’s books are nonfiction– because truth is always so much stranger than anything we could make up.
Larson’s most recent book, In the Garden of Beasts , is a book that prompts as many questions as it does answers. It concerns a history professor from University of Chicago, William Dodd, who becomes America’s first Ambassador to Hitler’s Germany in 1933. Ill prepared for the task at hand, Larson suggests that William Dodd could have been confused with another William Dodd whose qualifications more clearly matched the job at hand. As Dodd and his family initially enjoy the glamor and glitz of prewar Berlin, they take advantage of the city’s social and cultural life; it could be said that Dodd’s daughter, really delights in the glamor of prewar Berlin, engaging in affairs with Gestapo and Nazi top brass one after the other. As the ground shifts in Berlin, Ambassador Dodd becomes increasingly alarmed, and yet his dispatches to Washington seem to fall on fairly deaf, if even indifferent, ears. In the Garden of Beasts is, like Larson’s other books, a shocking portrayal of Washington’s disinterest and Berlin’s horror. This is a most amazing story. It is no wonder that Erik Larson is one of the most successful and respected nonfiction writers in America today.
In conversation with David Kipen, proprietor extraordinaire of Libros Schmibros, a do-it-himself community lending library in Boyle Heights. David is the editor of two magnificent resource guides: Los Angeles in the 1930’s: The WPA Guide to the City of Angels; and San Francisco in the 1930″s: The WPA Guide to the City by the Bay. He is the former Director of the National Endowment for The Arts’ National Reading Initiative and Big Read Project, and was book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the author of several books, and is the book critic for KPCC.