on June 5, 2004
This book is like two others that I've read in the past few years. The first was "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" by Dunne, and the other was "The Bark of the Dogwood." These two, along with "Midnight" are excellently paced, gossipy, accessible, and great reads. But of the three, "Midnight is by far my favorite. "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" is really two books - the first half is a present day snapshot of Savannah, Georgia, an old-style Southern city with plenty of grace and charm. The second half is the story of the murder trial(s) of Jim Williams, one of Savannah's most interesting residents. The second half is much more interesting than the first. Perhaps that is because every time Williams makes an appearance, things turn interesting very quickly. (Having seen the movie, I can't picture Williams without thinking of the remarkable Kevin Spacey). One character who draws a lot of attention in both the book and the movie is the Lady Chablis. In the movie she occupies far too much screen time - her role in the book is much more reasonable. I suppose the popularity of the Lady is due to her "exotic" nature as a drag queen, but I find her character to be pretty unremarkable - it seems faintly ridiculous to complain that she could be any ol' drag queen, but realistically, she adds nothing to the story of any substance. I wish more attention had been paid to the "occult" aspects of the story - the title seems to invite this scrutiny. The fact that an extrememly wealthy Southern man on trial for murder puts more stock in voodoo than his defense lawyers is remarkable. I found myself wishing Berendt would have questioned Williams at length as to the reasons he chose to believe in these supernatural powers. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil does a great job of transplanting the reader into "Old South" Georgia with enough colorful characters to keep the interest level high; it's just a shame none of us will ever get invited to one of Jim Williams' Christmas Parties.
Would also recommend "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" and "Bark of the Dogwood."
In the morning hours of May 2, 1981 shots are heard from one of Savannah, Georgia's grandest mansions. Was it a murder or self-defence? For nearly a decade, the aftermath has reverberated throughout this beautiful city.
This true crime murder story interweaves amongst a gallery of remarkable characters:
Well-bred society ladies compare notes about their husbands, a hilarious foul mouth black drag queen does her act, a voodoo priestess works her roots in the graveyard at midnight, a morose inventor with a bottle of poison powerful enough to kill everyone in town, a turbulent young redneck gigolo is a "walking streak of sex", an aging Southern belle is the "soul of pampered self-absorption". Some other eccentric residents of Savannah are observed .A sweet talking piano playing con artist, a arrogant antiques dealer, a young black dancing the minuet at a black debutant ball are just a few more.
This book is brilliantly written in the first person and Berendt himself is a significant player in the events as they unfold. The story is a captivating travelogue that gives an engaging portrait of a colourful southern city and its residents. The plethora of eccentric and bizarre characters makes you forget that they are real people. This novel is an entertaining masterpiece.
on March 10, 2006
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a tour-de-force of emotion. The truth sings in this page turner. The Deep South is America's bastion of antebellum traditions and social graces that permeate every tier of life in Midnight in the Garden. Truman Capote is probably the closest thing we have to MIDNIGHT and that would be his In cold Blood—but that was set in the Midwest, even though it was written by a Southerner. Savannah is the gatekeeper of it all, wrapping itself in isolation from intrusions of northern or foreign influences that have even permeated its sisterly rival, Charleston, in a more homogenous age. John Berendt, a true foreigner in this antique city, slowly unfolds a murder mystery with the same whispery gossip that can only exist in venues where the present day characters have evolved from a musty, mildewed past. To wend his way into Savannah's cloistered social maze, Berendt must become a trusted confidant, a real participant in wildly divergent lifestyles extending from a black drag queen's flamboyant escapades to a loveable drunken shyster and into the silver and crystal studded mansion society that still rules much of the South. Integrating himself into this intense crazy quilt of fascinating people who make up Savannah, Berendt has created a magnificent novel, one of the best to come from the South in many years. To truly understand the non-fiction side of this scandalous murder story, one must become a part of the society that whirled around it. A southern murder event is like none other. It envelopes families, history, racial and social barriers, and seems to silently pervade the oppressive summer mist that often creates a surreal stage amid the huge live oaks and their ghostly moss on moonlit nights. If you’re one for another flamboyant and riveting Southern genre novel, you must, must, must read -----A Tour of Southern Homes and Gardens by Jackson McCrae-----with its myriad twists and turns. While Midnight is one of my favorite books----- A Tour of Southern Homes---- makes it look somewhat pale—and that book also is rooted in truth. Truly, the Southerners have it hands-down when it comes to telling a good tale.
on July 13, 2004
This story is a good read about some of the wild and wealthy who lived and died in Savannah in the 1980's. My parents live in Savannah, if you have ever spent anytime in that area you would know that it is a dead on account of the people who live there... Everything from the kooky insect guy (Driggers) to the Voo Doo which goes on "religiously" just over the Savannah river in South Carolina. As usual the book and movie share the same name and thats about it (read: the movie stinks the book doesn't).
on May 6, 2004
MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL is a piece of nonfiction. However, it's not really a crime story, nor is it a straight biography/memoir. Instead, the book falls somewhere inbetween the two. The story revolves around the author's experiences living in Savannah, Georgia and meeting up with Jim Williams and his trial for murder that ended up being tried four different times over a period of eight years. The murder and the trials are kind of interesting and they are the threads that hold the story together. However, the really interesting parts about this book are the people. From Luther Driggers, a man who has a bottle of poison that could kill off everyone in Savannah, Georgia to the transvestite Lady Chablis to the vodoo mistress Minerva, this book is filled with quirky people. After reading the book it occurred to me that Savannah, though a city, reminds me of every small town I've ever lived in. People not familiar with small towns will probably find the characters interesting, but people who grew up in small towns might be amazed because they probably know someone who is an awful like one of the characters in the book. A very interesting read and a book that I didn't want to put down until I had finished it.
on April 21, 2004
If you are looking for a great read that captivates you at each turn of the page, then this is the book for you. I cannot think of just one word to describe it. It is interesting, intriguing, fascinating, suspenseful, and very well paced. You get caught up in the craziness of it all. If you get the chance to read this book, I would jump on it.
I absolutely adore the writing style of John Berendt, the author and at times, narrator. In the beginning, he manages to whet your appetite, and keeps you wanting more throughout the book's entirety. Midnight is several stories in this one book, and many of them are gossip having to do with the patrons of the town. Berendt does an excellent depiction of each one of these outrageous characters. By the end of the story, you feel like you have actually met them yourself.
Midnight is a work of non- fiction that takes place in Savannah, Georgia, the hostess city of the South. The main story of the book revolves around Jim Williams, a wealthy antique dealer who simply oozes of charm and arrogance, and how he manages to murder his close friend, Danny Hansford. Was it murder, or self defense? Decide for yourself.
Although the storyline is suspenseful, do not be fooled. The real star of Midnight is where the whole thing actually takes place, the city of Savannah herself. Berendt depicts Savannah as a preserved lifestyle, a place that will resist change at any cost. I visited Savannah after the first time I was captivated by Berendt's work, and I have never heard a statement more true. I highly recommend this book.
on March 26, 2004
Anybody who did not grow up in the south will be amused and charmed by the characters portrayed in this book. Anyone who grew up in the south will really understand the characters because they will almost assuredly know someone in their hometown that fits the same description. I was able to put different names on several of the people portrayed in this book and thus picture them with perfect clarity. No matter where one might live in the south, if you haven't been gobbled up by the so-called new south, you will feel like you have known these people for years.
The story is as intriguing as the characters in it and the reader will find themselves drawn more and more into the story. I finished the last one hundred and seventy-five pages in one sitting. I was so caught up in what was going on that I couldn't put the book down and ended up going to be around 2:30 in the morning. Berendt develops the characters so well that one really begins to care about what happens to them and what they do next. This is one amazing book.
When the movie came out I really didn't think I would like it and didn't see it until a few months ago. After seeing the movie I just had to read the book and I am glad I did. There are some differences in the movie and the book and while the movie is good, the book is better. In fact, I have seldom read a book that I liked as much as this one. John Berendt had a lot of good material to start with to be sure, but his wonderful style of writing makes the story entrancing. It is clear that Berendt considers many of these people his friends and that they feel the same way about him. That he cares deeply about both the people and the story comes through very clearly and is part of the reason the reader will also begin to care.
In case you haven't seen the movie I am not going to give away any of the story in this review but whether you have seen the movie or not, do not miss the book. Beg, borrow or buy, I don't care how you get this book but I highly recommend that you read it.
on March 1, 2004
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by Yvette Brink
The novel I chose to review was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt; published by Vintage Books, has 386 pages. I could not stop reading this non-fiction true crime murder mystery novel because of the way that John Berendt draws you into the lives of these Savannahians. Even casual readers will find themselves consumed by Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil because of its great detail and interesting characters.
What I found the most interesting about this novel is that it is based on true events and real characters from Savannah, Georgia. The story of how John Berendt became involved in these events seems to me, meant to be. In Chapter 2, Berendt describes how he ended up going to savannah. He writes:
I had seen it in a newspaper ad for supersaver airfares from New York to cities all across America. As I recall, the veal-and-radicchio entrée cost as much as a flight from New York to Louisville or any of six equidistant cities...A week later I passed up the veal and radicchio and flew to New Orleans...After that, every five or six weeks I took advantage of the newly deregulated airfares and flew out of New York in the company of a small group of friends interested in a change of scene. One of those weekend jaunts took us to Charleston, South Carolina...On Sunday, my traveling companions went back to New York, but I stayed on in Charleston. I had
decided to drive down to Savannah, spend the night and fly back to New York from there. (24-27)
Fortunately John stays on in Savannah for more than one night. He actually ends up staying in Savannah off and on for more than eight years following the characters and the specific event that involves one of Savannah's most prominent society figures.
John Berendt does an excellent job of introducing the characters of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Berendt splits the novel up into two parts. The first part consists of an introduction to the people of Savannah. The second part consists of a highly interesting murder mystery involving one of the main characters.
In the first part of the novel, each chapter reads as an individual story. 'A Walking Streak of Sex', 'The Sentimental Gentleman' and 'The Grand Empress of Savannah' are just an example of the interesting titles given to the stories of the unique characters of this novel. 'The Grand Empress of Savannah' is about Chablis, an African-American drag queen with lots of attitude. In 'A Walking Streak of Sex' you are introduced to Danny Hansford, a twenty-two year old who is a pothead who likes to live life a little dangerously by driving his Camaro recklessly.
The second part of Midnight revolves around the murder mystery that takes place between two characters while John Berendt is visiting Savannah. Berendt takes you along for the ride as you try to figure out if the death of one of the characters is a result of murder or self-defense. You sit in on the court case and witness the comically complex and political trial of the accused murderer.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is definitely worth your time. It is great entertainment and hard to put down. I recommend it all readers because it is so easy flowing and fast paced. I had my friend, who is not a big fan of reading anything but magazines, read it and he absolutely loved it. I could not find any other books written by John Berendt but I found out that he mainly does editing for New York magazine and is a columnist for Esquire. John Berendt does such a wonderful job portraying the events of this story that it would be a shame if he weren't in the works of another novel. With characters as interesting as those in Midnight, I don't see how you could not enjoy reading this novel.
on January 26, 2004
Everyone says that truth is stranger than fiction. This statement is certainly true in this book. The residents of Savanah provided fodder (whether they liked it or not) for this nonfiction story. Each chapter reads as a separate story, especially at first. I was not quite sure where Berendt was going with the various chapters on individuals, their idiosyncracies, their loves and dislikes even for each other, and the undercurrents of those tensions in this isolated city.
It only becomes apparent in the middle of the book that Berendt is setting the reader up for the main theme of the book that is actually about a murder that happened while the author was living among these very diverse group of inhabitants. Berendt actually met with both the suspect and the victim way before the murder occurred, and it is this information concerning the personalities and the backgrounds of the people involved (including the prosecutors and the defendant's lawyers) that provide such an interesting story.
I've always passed this book by, though I knew it was long on the bestsellers book, and I was always attracted by the jacket with the statue of the girl/woman holding two plates (which is kind of a virtual reminder of the statue of Justice who weighs good and evil). I suppose most little towns and cities like Savannah have good and evil sides. It should come of no surprise, especially since I read so much of Nazi Germany and bioethics and this information often involves the participation of entire towns in either assisting or ignoring what was happening to those with disabilities and differences under their very noses.
Berendt does an excellent job of portraying these people, and the snobberies. I'll bet this book did not sit well with the people of Savannah, but they should find comfort in the fact that though their city was used for exposing the underbelly of what happens, I am sure most other small towns and cities have equally strange characters, and crimes that occur that involve many and display the politics and other fiascos of our criminal system.
on December 15, 2003
I had an interesting experience with this book: I somehow did not realize until about halfway through it that it was nonfiction. It was fascinating to see how my expectations for it shifted.
What is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? Clearly, it extends past fact and fantasy. If this were fiction, it would feel sloppy; characters' storylines don't draw together like they're supposed to, there's no exciting twist near the end, and we don't ever find out what "really happened" that fateful night.
As nonfiction, all the characters don't have to come together by
the end. Lady Chablis and Joe Odom, two of the three primary characters in the first half of the book, don't have to have anything to do with each other or the third main character, Jim Williams, and his four murder trials. The four murder trials don't have to be markedly different; they are spectacular enough in that they actually happened at all.
Another difference. Early on in the book, the narrator introduces an intriguing enigma: Williams possesses a Nazi flag and several german pistols. If this were fiction, that would eventually, even inevitably, lead to some revelation of dark and bizaare Nazi history. As nonfiction, it simply stays enigma, and that's okay: the world is weird, and little things don't always lead to big things.
People like to say that truth is stranger than fiction, and I would imagine that some would cite the bizaare story in this book as evidence. However, what I'm learning is that we have very different expectationsof truth and fiction -- what makes a wonderful nonfiction account of truly bizaare people and events would, in all honesty, make pretty tepid and sloppy fiction.