Posts from ‘Non-Fiction Writing’
Several weeks ago, after reading a review in the New York Times, I downloaded In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson. An amazing, true tale of William Dood, an academic turned diplomat, who with his wife, Mattie, daughter, Martha, and son, Bill, went to Berlin in 1933 to represent the United States. Larson is such a master at non-fiction, the story reads as easily as fiction and I was caught up immediately in the tension and horror of what unfolded. What is even more remarkable is to be so enthralled despite (1) knowing how events unfolded and (2) reading many other books set in and around WWII.
The author chooses the interesting technique of working two story lines – one line follows William, a straight-laced, earnest and well intentioned man, while the second follows Martha, his beautiful and rather impulsive daughter who falls in with (and in love with) a range of people from diplomatic, artistic, military and intellectual circles. Larson made me feel a bewildering blend of emotions from optimism to disbelief to outrage and horror. He mixes horrifying facts with embassy parties, diligent efforts to influence Hitler and his cronies with underhanded conniving and backstabbing, well-intentioned people with those whose evil was at the very core of their beings. Hitler’s intent was so clear, it is hard to fathom how blind the world was.
When they first reach Berlin, the protocol officer has words of warning for Martha:
“you must learn to be seen and not heard. You mustn’t say so much and ask so many questions. This isn’t America and you can’t say all the things you think.”
As William Dodd learns his new role and finds moderates within the German government in contrast to:
“Hitler, Goring, and Goebbels, whom he described as adolescents in the great game of international leadership.”
A woman who lived for years in Germany but ultimately fled the country had this to say:
“Looking back on it all is like seeing someone you love go mad – and do horrible things.”
As time unfolds, Martha becomes less enamoured with Berlin and Germany:
“There began to appear before my romantic eyes … a vast and complicated network of espionage, terror, sadism and hate, from which no one, official or private, could escape.”
While events unfolded in Germany, Dodd interacts with colleagues back in the US who had another agenda:
“the State Department’s main concern about Germany remained its huge debt to American creditors.”
Martha, through connections with a senior German official, meets Hitler at a restaurant:
“Hitler’s eyes … were startling and unforgettable – they seemed pale blue in colour, were intense, unwavering, hypnotic.”
The philosophy of Nazi power comes through in several chilling phrases:
- “tolerance means weakness”
- “only Germans who are physically fit belong in the Third Reich”
- “violence and terror were valuable tools for the preservation of power”
- “a people survives by fighting and dies as a consequence of peaceful policies”
“With Germany united as it has never been, there is feverish arming and drilling of 1,500,000 men, all of who are taught every day to believe that continental Europe must be subordinated to them … I think we must abandon our so-called isolation.” and “In my judgment, the German authorities are preparing for a great continental struggle. There is ample evidence. It is only a question of time.”
If only someone had listened.
Monday night, the bookclub gals gathered chez moi for our annual free-for-all discussion of next season’s list. Our challenge – 23 recommended books and only 9 meetings to schedule. The rules we try to play by are that the recommender has to have read what she recommends and the length is preferably 400 pages or less. (We aren’t anal enough to worry about how small the font is.) The buzz created by thirteen women was energizing and our leader – the woman facilitating selection – ran a superb process.
What excites me is the inclusion of four books set in times from the late 1800′s to mid 1900′s. Exactly the period I have been writing about.
The Paris Wife – Author, Paula MacLain says “Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, is the perfect person to reveal him to us — and also to immerse us in the incredibly exciting and volatile world of Jazz-age Paris”. The novel promises to tantalize us with 1920′s Paris and larger-than-life artists like Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound and James Joyce.
The Hare with Amber Eyes – Edmund de Waal writes the true story of five generations of his family, the Ephrussis, their triumphs and tribulations during the turmoil of the 20th century.
The Glass Room by Simon Mawer – According to Ian Sansom, writing in The Guardian, this is a book about a “culture slipping from decadence into catastrophic decline. It’s a study of a marriage. It concerns itself with art, music, architecture, indignity, loneliness, terror, betrayal, sex. And the Holocaust.”
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin – a narrative non-fiction book by Erik Larson telling the true story of William Dodd, the American ambassador to Berlin, and his adult daughter, Martha, who along with his son and wife live in Berlin from 1933 until 1937. A chilling and compelling account of how the world was determined to ignore the warning signs, and the true intent of Hitler.
Could not be better from my point of view. And, as it turns out, I have a novel planned around Czechoslovakia, the setting for The Glass Room. Bookclub = research!
I began writing in 2004 while living in Hong Kong with my husband who had been asked to take on a three year assignment. We hesitated only long enough to consult with our two children and our mothers then plunged right in. After three or four months reality reared its head. Loneliness, loss of identity, dislocation are the words I subsequently used to describe that time. Writing became my salvation as I explored this strange world, discovering not only a new culture but a lot about myself.
In addition to my novels, I’ve written a few articles about overcoming the challenges of being an expat spouse. You can find links for a few of these on the Non-Fiction Writing page. The latest article is hosted on Expat Arrivals website. It’s all about the balancing act between communication ‘back home’ and building a new life while on assignment.
For any of you expat spouses out there, I’d love to hear about your experiences.