I'm fresh off of finishing two books in a row that both failed to live up to my expectations for them.
First was In The Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson, the nonfiction account of the American ambassador to Germany in 1933, during Hitler's rise to power. Like in his earlier acclaimed book The Devil in the White City, Larson focuses this story around two principle figures, Ambassador Willam Dodd, a Chicago academic who was something like Roosevelt's fifth choice for the post, and his twenty-something daughter Martha, who accompanies her father to Germany on the heels of her divorce. Once they are settled in Berlin, the Dodd family becomes reluctant witnesses to the increasing power of the Nazis. As the book chronicles Dodd's official duties and Martha's active social life, it emphasizes the complicated grey area that marked much of the American perception of Hitler in those early days. Although the Dodd family is disturbed by various acts of violence against foreigners and mistreatment of German Jews, they still count certain Nazi party members as friends and allies, and tend to believe Hitler's assurances to the outside world. Their hopeful, or some might say gullible, attitudes erode as the book progresses and the writing on the wall becomes more legible.
Although this is certainly a worthy and interesting story, it just didn't hold me in its grip in the same way that The Devil in the White City did, perhaps because the ultimate outcome of the story is already common historical knowledge. The individual episodes portrayed in the book are heavily focused around diplomatic meetings, events, and government correspondence, which naturally make the story lean a little more toward the dry end of the spectrum. There were a couple of interesting details that stood out to me, like appearances by famous writers like Carl Sandburg and Thomas Wolfe in Martha's circle of friends and the way that Roosevelt comes off as much more of a waffling politico than he's typically portrayed as being. In spite of these highlights, I found that I had to push myself to make it through to the end of this book.
The second disappointment was The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty, which was widely raved about when it came out this past summer. It's a fictional telling of movie star Louise Brooks's first trip to New York City. At he behest of her parents, Louise, who is headstrong and dangerously wise beyond her years, travels in the company of a chaperone, Cora Carlisle, a Kansas wife and mother of grown children who as a secret reason of her own for wanting to visit New York.
The first chapter or so started out really strong, making me think I was in for a treat. The story is really more Cora's than Louise's, and the way Cora is characterized at the beginning made her seem like a complex and likable character. There's one fantastic passage early on where Cora listens to a neighbor extol the "good works" the Ku Klux Klan is doing. Cora, while internally revolted, knows that she must be careful not to be too vocal in expressing her dissent. Instead, she targets her neighbor's weakness--a desire for wealth and prestige. Trading on the fact that she is the wealthier of the two, Cora implies that she is staying away from Klan activities because they are "common" and instantly see her neighbor's opinion change. It was such an interesting passage in that it showed Cora as someone who was capable of using cunning tactics in pursuit of good. I had hoped to see more of this complexity as the story progressed, but unfortunately, it didn't make as strong an appearance as it did in that first scene. Instead, the emphasis turned to Cora's "prudish" morals in the face of Louise's outrageous behavior, Which were played up to the point of irritation. I found myself siding with Louise as they butted heads and came to view her as the more interesting character. I would have preferred to have seen more time devoted to getting inside Louise's head instead of just relegating her to a rebellious thorn in Cora's side.
Not to belabor my negative reaction here, but I really felt like this was a book where the more I read it, the more I disliked it. I'll admit that a lot of that may have had to do with the particular mood I was in at the time. As increasingly dramatic revolutions were made, I found myself craving more quiet, slice-of-life kind of story. I will give The Chaperone points for the ease of Moriarty's prose. It made for a quick read, which was a bit of salvation when I got to the later chapters of a book that went on for long beyond the point at which the story could have ended.
I can't wholeheartedly recommend either of these (unless you're an avid history buff--then In the Garden of Beasts might be worth a try). A book that I can recommend, however, is the one you can win in my giveaway. You still have until Thursday to enter!
Have you had any big reading disappointments lately?