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7th August
2009
written by Steph
We went all the way to Bon Aventure cemetary to see this famous statue only to find she's no longer there!  Curse you popularity!

We went all the way to Bon Aventure cemetary to see this famous statue only to find she's no longer there! Curse you fame!

In my search to find region-appropriate reading fare for our honeymoon vacation, I had a heck of a time finding books set in Charleston, and the ones that I did find didn’t exactly look like my kind of reading.  But when it came to Savannah, the choice was pretty clear: Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil.  Heck, Savannah has walking tours dedicated to taking tourists round the places made famous throughout the book!  What could be better for our short stay there? I always get a kick out of reading books set in places that I’ve been.  It always gives me such a thrill when an author mentions a street name or a local institution that I actually know; it somehow makes the story feel all that more real to me, as though I’ve entered into a more private sanctum within its folds where a genuine shared experience can blossom. So, it’s no surprise then that it was immensely fun to read about all the scandals and gossip of Savannah after having strolled along Broughton St myself.  Just imagine how cool it was to be lounging out near the old lighthouse on Tybee Island while characters were attending a soirée at the DeSoto Beach Hotel, sharing the same swath of sand as myself! For those not in the know, the basic premise behind the book is that Berendt first visits Savannah on a whim, becomes enamored with the city, and decides to spend some time there living amongst the locals.  The first part of the book is like a series of short stories as he recounts his various experiences in the city and the zany folk he encounters and who more or less embrace him as a native.  In the second-half of the book, things take a turn for the more sinister when one of the more prominent Savannahians is charged with murder.  The rest of the book traces the trials and the ultimate verdict that ensue. Visiting Savannah may have been my motivation for reading the book, but even if I hadn’t been there, I know I would have enjoyed the book a ton.  Sure my day-to-day experiences about the city helped, but Berendt paints such a vivid and lively portrait of the sleepy city, you’d feel transported there on the backs of his words alone.  He perfectly captures the lush laziness the abounds, the sense that Savannah is trapped in a time totally unto itself.  A city caught between the present and the past, between decay and revival, it's a city of contradictions.  For all the scandal and the fact that the book largely revolves around a murder, there’s a lot of joy, vitality, and fondness in the Savannah Berendt recounts to the reader.  It’s no wonder so many people feel the need to visit the city after having read the book.  That being said, I remarked to Tony that I wasn’t sure that I would have had the same response.  I can never know for sure, and perhaps it’s because I was already there having my fill of the city, but I am not convinced that Berendt’s account would have instilled within me this yearning to visit.  I can’t say exactly why this is, but I think it might come down to two things.  First, the peak into Savannah society and its inner workings is intriguing and fun, but I think it’s one of those perspectives that you get as a resident of a place rather than a short-term visitor.  As a tourist wandering about the city, you don’t get to know the quirky personalities Berendt comes to know and feature in his book; it’s part of a world and a life that the casual traveler just isn’t going to experience.  The second reason is, as strange as it may sound, likely due to Berendt’s immense prowess as a storyteller.  Even though Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil is shelved as non-fiction (or true crime), it doesn’t read like it at all.  Throughout the entire thing, I had to keep reminding myself that this stuff was real, that Berendt hadn’t simply invented it all; it all just read like fiction.  Some might consider this a negative, but I couldn’t have been happier about this, since I pretty much never read non-fiction.  Too dry, too plodding, this was anything but.  We took some great walking tours while we were in the city, but I think my favorite way to learn about the place was through the book!  I certainly had fun parroting off facts and trivia to Tony as we wandered about, that’s for sure! (Just ask him how many times I told him the Lady Astor story…)  I particularly enjoyed learning about all of the efforts to preserve and restore the few historic buildings that remain, an endeavor that was not without its own set of controversies. Overall, this was a wonderful read, one that I enjoyed immensely.  I didn’t do a ton of reading on our honeymoon, but I had a hard time putting this one down, nonetheless.  To give you an idea of how addictive it is, I’ll say that Tony read a few snippets over my shoulder one day, and a few days later he had swooped down under my nose and picked the book up to start reading it in earnest (no doubt he’ll be posting his own review in a few days).  Initially I was reading to learn about Savannah and also for the murder trial (you know I love a mystery), but eventually I was just reading, caught up in whatever story Berendt wanted to tell me.  If more non-fiction were written like Midnight, I would read a heck of a lot more of it. Do any of you have any other recs for true crime novels, travel literature, or other non-fiction that blew you away (and preferably read like fiction)?  I am inching In Cold Blood up my TBR pile because almost everyone who is in the position to do so is always comparing this to Capote’s great work.  Anyone read Berendt's follow-up book, The City of Falling Angels? Rating: 4.5 out of 5 A brief note from Tony: After reading this over Steph's shoulder and starting it on our honeymoon, I took this book up as soon as we got back to Nashville. I was (and am) in the middle of reading a massive tome on the geology of North America (I know, sounds exciting, right? It is! A review to come if I live long enough to finish the book) and decided to take a hiatus and read Midnight. The text is compelling and the story moves along brilliantly and overall this is a wonderfully compelling caricature of a city. It's easy to see that Berendt is a writer for Esquire, as his style smacks of what you find in that publication. Something about the turns of phrase, the colloquial diction and the almost effortless integration into local culture all stitch together into this "man about town" and "guy on the inside" style that is plainly evocative of Esquire writing. Which is a good thing, as Esquire usually employs top-notch writers. As Steph says, there is always something thrilling about reading something, especially something this famous, and knowing you've walked that street, eaten at that restaurant or what have you. Overall a great read, and in retrospect, as far as the movie goes I would have to say Kevin Spacey plays the lead perfectly. After reading this book I can't picture anyone else doing it as well. Rating: 4 out of 5

10 Comments

  1. 08/07/2009

    This book is on my list. In answer to your question, I was going to suggest In Cold Blood, which I enjoyed last year, and then I saw you mentioned it in the next sentence.

  2. i LOVE LOVE LOVE this book…everytime (i’ve read it a bunch of times) i read it, i want to move my butt down to savannah. i’ve been there three time and adore it…except for the heat and humidity. lol.

    i rented the movie before we visited last time so my hubby could see it…he also enjoyed it.

    as for city of falling angels…i read it but it didn’t have the same magic for me even though it took place in italy…and i love italy.

    as for other travel novels…the only ones i can think of are bill bryson ones–especially a walk in the woods, which i love. it’s not the same tone as midnight, but it’s a worthy and educational read. 🙂

    ps. i wanted to say that we visited nashville last year on our road trip and really liked it. we had some seriously good food–breakfast at martha’s at the plantation and a yummy dinner at the loveless cafe…my hubs also enjoyed a record store in town. fun city!!

  3. 08/09/2009

    You have made we want to re-read this one. I remember loving it when I read it quite a while ago now but my very poor memory for books I have read probably means it would like reading it for the first time. I agree with Nat – I didn’t love Falling Angels as much as this one – but it was still a great book I thought. I would give it a go if I were you but just don’t have the expectation that it is going to be as good and Midnight.

  4. 08/10/2009

    I really enjoyed this book, too. It was so wonderfully written that I really had a hard time remembering that it was a true story. It was so wonderfully written.

  5. 08/10/2009

    Oh my goodness, I actually squealed when I read your comment on my blog. I would LOVE to see you! Please keep me posted on your plans. Squee!

  6. 08/10/2009

    Last comment, I promise. Did I hallucinate, or did you have wedding pics on your blog that are no longer here? I swear I saw them, gushed, and planned to comment but I came back around, they were gone. Am I crazy?!

  7. 08/10/2009

    @ charley: I have high hopes for In Cold Blood, which I don’t expect to be as spirited as this, but I think it’s kind of the pinnacle of true crime literature.
     
    @ nat: Thanks for the reading tips! I think I might stick to borrowing Berendt’s second book, rather than buying it. But I had totally forgotten about Bill Bryson (mostly because I never see him at the used bookstore)! I must read more of him!
    And yes, Nashville is not all that bad! We both wish that traveling from here were a bit easier (not like all you lucky ducks on the Eastern seaboard), but it’s a very livable city. And the Loveless makes the best fried chicken – we actually had them cater our wedding! 😉
     
    @ Karen: My memory is notoriously poor for book plots as well, which is probably a blessing in disguise since it means you can re-experience old favourites over and over again! 😉
     
    @ Chavonne: I remember a while back you said that you found the book dragged a bit, but I thought the pacing was pretty good. I did get antsy a bit when it seemed like the murder would never come, but even then I still enjoyed it!
    And yes, I will keep you posted on my Pittsburgh plans!
    Oh, and the wedding photos are still there! They’re posted on Aug 1, I believe, in a post entitled “Wedded!”

  8. 08/12/2009

    Haven’t read this one, and I wasn’t totally sure what it was about. After reading your review, I think I might check it out. It sounds a bit similar in style to Up In the Old Hotel, and I liked that one very much. I am particularly interested in the stories he tells in the first half of the book about the residents of Savannah. I love reading about quirky characters. Great review, and I’m glad it melded so well with the trip.

  9. 08/12/2009

    Hope you have a great honeymoon with lovely memories galore!

    I have noticed this book on numerous occasions at bookstores but have never picked it up. Maybe the cover is too Gothic that it shies me away. Now your thorough review (as usual) affords another shock: it’s non-fiction! No wonder I have seen the book featured alongside In Cold Blood!

    As to reading books about places I have been, i havalways got a kick out of books set in Hong Kong—modern or vintage. I love the descriptions of familiar places, landmarks, and streets. I dig novels set in my hometown to cure my nostalgia!

  10. 08/13/2009

    @ zibilee: It wasn’t until we were decided on going to Savannah that I became interested in this one, but it really was a great read. One of those books where you can understand why so many people were taken by it – it was really just a pleasure to read, and Berendt’s writing is wonderfully engaging. I haven’t read Up in the Old Hotel (or even heard of it!), so I can’t compare the two, but I do highly recommend this one!
     
    @ Matt: Yeah, I never really realized until I went to pick this up from the library that this was non-fiction either! And as I say, reading it won’t help you remember that either, because it’s just so lively and fun! It’s really very colorful and not really Gothic at all – a little bit of voodoo, but it’s smoggy and spicey, not cold & Victorian, if that makes any sense!
    As I’m originally from Toronto, I love to read books that are set there (or on occasion, recognizing movies that have been shot there, even though they try to pass it off invariably as some American city). Never been to Hong Kong, but it’s on the list of places I’d love to go!

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