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Re-Reviews: ‘Lost in Shangri-La’ and ‘In the Garden of Beasts’

And finally, the last two books that were part of the nonfiction list for the Indie Lit Awards this year! These last two books — Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckhoff and In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson — were rereads for me. Rather than write two new reviews, I thought I’d link back to my original thoughts and share some impressions I had of the books in the process of reading and thinking about them again.

And if you’re interested in the other books that were shortlusted the year, check out my posts from earlier in the week.

Lost in Shangri-La by Mitchell Zuckhoff

Title: Lost in Shangri-La: A True Story of Survival, Adventure, and the Most Incredible Rescue Mission of World War II
Author: Mitchell Zuckoff
Genre: Narrative Nonfiction
Year: 2011

Some Thoughts From My First ReadLost in Shangri-La perfectly exemplifies everything that I love about narrative nonfiction. It puts a new twist on a familiar story, shows meticulous research through primary and secondary sources, and pulls these pieces together with well-spun characters and a story full of the dramatic ups and downs of the best adventure fiction. …

The way Zuckoff wrote about the survivors and rescuers was amazing. In just a few pages I was emotionally wrapped up in their stories, worried about them as they boarded the plane and mourning with them as they lost close friends in the crash. It’s just a great story and I highly recommend the book, especially for people looking for accessible and entertaining nonfiction — you won’t be disappointed.

Thoughts on a Re-Read: One of the big discussions the panelists had as we tried to pick a winner was about the scope of nonfiction — does a great book need to take on a big event, or can we be equally as enthralled with a compact, self-sustaining story?

Of all the books we considered, Lost in Shangri-La has the most limited scope, focusing on just a single plane crash and the aftermath. In some ways, that makes the stakes lower — fewer people are impacted by the outcome. But in other ways, Lost in Shangri-La captures the human drama of disaster and tragedy better because of it’s tight focus on this particular story.

Although I loved almost all of the books that made the short list, Lost in Shangri-La was my favorite (by just a tiny, tiny bit). The story Zuckhoff tells probably lost a little bit of the emotional punch on a second read, but otherwise it was just as great a second time around.

In the Garden of Beasts by Eric Larson

Title: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Author: Erik Larson
Genre: Narrative nonfiction
Year: 2011
Acquired: From the publisher for review/at BEA

Some Thoughts From My First ReadBy putting this father and daughter next to each other, Larson is able to show the range of attitudes about Hitler’s rise to power — veiled caution to complete disregard — and how those attitudes came about. There’s no real blame to be placed on any one person or even group of people for letting Germany derail so completely, and I felt like Larson was able to make that case through the book.

The only other Larson book I’ve read is Devil in the White City, which was about the the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and a serial killer in the city. Ultimately, I think In the Garden of Beasts might be a better book — the narrative feels like it has more of a cohesion to it. There aren’t as many moments of obvious violence, but the tension Larson builds through the small acts of terror he writes about build to a terrifying conclusion.

Thoughts on a Re-Read: There is so much to admire about the way In the Garden of Beasts is crafted. Larson’s choice to write about both James Dodd, the ambassador, and Martha, his daughter, gives the book so much depth and way to write about both politics and personality in Hitler’s Germany without one feeling forced. They’re such good foils too each other, but I think it takes a master of narrative nonfiction to see that and write about it so well.

I will say that on a second read some of Larson’s writing quirks stood out to me since I knew what to expect from the plot. He has a tendency to, for example, foreshadow an event that’s either too vague or too far in the future to have an impact. You get all these moments of, “Ooo, something terrible is going to happen!” that don’t payoff quickly or obviously enough. But I think that’s a pretty specific and minor quibble for a book that’s otherwise absolutely excellent.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Helen Murdoch March 22, 2012, 5:51 am

    I also really enjoyed Lost in Shangri-La and am so glad it’s now getting some attention. I found it fascinating and a story well told

    • Kim March 25, 2012, 1:28 pm

      I liked it a lot too. I hope it winning the award will help convince more people to read it!

  • Maphead March 22, 2012, 8:14 am

    While I enjoyed both of these fine books, Lost in Shangri-La was a joy to read. It, like The Social Animal, easily made my best of list for 2011. Right now it’s featured under the “Recommended” label on my blog.
    Glad you enjoyed it the second time around!!

    • Kim March 25, 2012, 1:29 pm

      Most definitely! It was such a fun book, despite the sad subject.

  • Melissa @ Coffee, Books and Laundry March 22, 2012, 8:49 am

    I have these two down on my list of non-fiction to read this year. Though I am looking forward most to Shangri-La.

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) March 22, 2012, 9:47 am

    I want to read both of these books!

  • Lisa March 22, 2012, 6:51 pm

    I got frustrated by the back and forth of William and Martha’s stories. I can understand the concept of the two view points but I really felt like her personality often took over the book. I did learn so much!

    • Kim March 25, 2012, 1:34 pm

      Martha did have a big personality, and plenty of exciting adventures. On a second read I appreciated the struggle that Dodd had keeping his job and being taken seriously as an ambassador more.

  • Suzanne March 23, 2012, 10:40 am

    I have problems with Larson’s style as well, both in this book and in Devil in the White City; but nevertheless I enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts. It’s a fascinating part of history.

    • Kim March 25, 2012, 1:35 pm

      Larson does have a very particular style. The very short chapters sometimes get to me after awhile, especially as they alternate viewpoints and I just want to dive into one story for awhile.

  • Ash March 23, 2012, 10:41 am

    Someone I took a trip with was reading In the Garden of Beasts and he loved it. I got it at BEA but have yet to read it, although it looks so good and I’m sure it’d be a page turner.

    • Kim March 25, 2012, 1:36 pm

      It is a page turner. The very short chapters are part of that, it’s easy to think, “Oh, I’ll just read one more!”

  • Florinda March 25, 2012, 12:38 pm

    I just put IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS on my “official” wish list–that is, I pinned this post on Pinterest–but it’s been on my radar since BEA last year. I’m glad it held up and did so well in the Indie Lit Awards!

    • Kim March 25, 2012, 1:36 pm

      Woohoo! I got this one at BEA last year, I believe. Hearing Larson speak at the author breakfast was totally awesome.