Archive for the ‘berlin’ Tag

Tasting for Evil   Leave a comment


History has already documented the atrocities of World War II at the hands of Adolf Hitler. In addition to the horror, his idiosyncrasies and his death are well detailed. Nonetheless, author V.S. Alexander has one more story to add to the fiction side of the scales: The Taster.

Magda Ritter is adrift in war-torn Berlin. With no job or romantic prospects, her parents send her to Berchtesgarten in the German Alps to escape the bombing – to ensure her safety. Their efforts succeed but not the way Magda imagined. She’s assigned to taste Hitler’s food to ensure it’s safe for him to eat.

Alexander describes the bucolic life at Hitler’s mountain retreat, the Berghof, where much of the novel is set. It’s a stark contrast to other parts of Germany. Initially, Magda is frightened by her responsibilities, but she soon realizes they are keeping her and her family alive. Still, she is repulsed by the knowledge that by tasting Hitler’s food she is keeping him safe.

The focus of Alexander’s narrative is Magda who falls in love with Captain Weber, a conspirator within the SS. The cook, other tasters and Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress, are among the interesting characters with whom Magda interacts. Feelings of mistrust, a constant cloud of fear and the blind devotion so many had toward the Fuhrer are well developed.

Alexander notes this is a work of fiction, and his research is chillingly thorough. Knowing Hitler’s death is imminent does little to dispel the thriller he creates.

The Taster
Four Bookmarks
Kensington Books, 2018
320 pages

Eclipsing Cliches   Leave a comment

The Boys in the Boat isn’t compelling as a title until considering the subtitle: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. That, believe it or not, provides just the amount of spark to pick up the book. Once in hand,  Daniel James Brown’s account is riveting. Sure there are a few spots where it catches a crab, in rowing vernacular where an oar doesn’t completely come out of the water and slows the pace of the shell (boat). Fortunately, Brown keeps a mostly steady tempo.

The narrative follows the unlikely evolution of nine young men who find their way to the University of Washington rowing crew. Much of the story follows Joe Rantz, a particularly poor young man with a heartbreaking past: his stepmother convinced his father to essentially abandon Joe. His history, along with that of his crewmates and their coaches, provide the book’s heart, literally and figuratively. Each chapter begins with a quote from George Yeoman Pocock the boat builder who served as a mentor to Joe and others.

Interspersed with descriptions of the men’s pasts, their grueling training and the exciting races — particularly those against California – Brown describes events in Germany before the world fully understood the atrocities occurring there.

Even though the outcome of the race is known from the start, how the American crew made it to Berlin is fascinating. It’s a story of indomitable spirit that demonstrates the power of hard work, friendship and the American dream.

The Boys in the Boat
Four Bookmarks
Viking Adult, 2013
416 pages

Fear and Ineptitude   Leave a comment

It’s difficult to imagine a more unlikely, unqualified person to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Germany as William E. Dodd during Hitler’s rise to power. It’s equally hard to visualize that his daughter’s scandalous behavior never, well, caused a scandal.

Erik Larson’s In the Garden of  Beasts chronicles one of the four years Dodd spent in Germany first trying to ignore the problems, later attempting to convince others of the threats, fear and destruction caused by the Third Reich. He was equally inept at recognizing the potential dangerous behavior exhibited by his daughter Martha, who was attracted, it seemed, to any man who looked in her direction.

Larson relies on numerous letters, memoirs, newspaper articles, personal diaries and other accounts to piece together his narrative. The result is a well-constructed look at a fascinating time in world history. Beginning with Dodd as a professor at the University of Chicago, Larson tracks his path to Berlin, with brief stops through his backstory as a son of a poor North Carolina farming family. Although Dodd’s wife and son also moved to Germany, Larson’s focus is on the senior Dodd and Martha. He because of his position and his eventual, ineffective efforts to share his concerns/fears to greater powers; she because of the disreputable manner in which she socialized.

Larson’s descriptions of pre-World War II Berlin are riveting, as are his references to Dodd’s frugality. For example, Dodd insisted on shipping the family Chevrolet to Germany to save costs. Even in the face of the ensuing events, this is endearing.

In the Garden of  Beasts
Three-and-a-half Bookmarks
Crown Books, 2011
488 pages, including end notes, bibliography and index