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Monday, December 14, 2009

BPL Book Discussion: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil


Today our book group gathered for our annual holiday party. We met from 12-4 and had a potluck lunch.  The library provided the sandwiches and everyone else brought a side or dessert. We always pick a book for which there is a movie.

As you can probably tell, the discussion takes second fiddle to the party, but that is the point. We are all so busy this time of year, but we still want to get together. By picking a book with a movie, there is no pressure to read the book. In fact, I tell them as much the month before. No one should feel burdened reading the December book.  We are meeting to celebrate and have fun.

So we read and watched Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (herein MitGoGaE) by John Berendt. First the book.  MitGoGaE is hard to describe.  It is considered a modern true crime classic. It has won awards as gay literature, it has been cited as the beginning of the current narrative nonfiction craze, and it has been credited as reviving the tourist industry in Savannah, GA.

John Berendt, a writer for New York Magazine, goes to Savannah, GA to write about the town and stumbles into a friendship with a con-man/jazz club owner, a drag queen, and a gay antiques dealer, Jim Williams, who, while Berendt is living in town, kills a volatile young man, Danny Hansford, who was his employee and sometimes lover.

Through four trials, over 8 years, Berendt follows Williams' story, but also introduces the reader to the colorful characters of 1980s Savannah.  We read about the squares, the beautiful mansions, the social strata, and the town politics; we see the town's underbelly, go into its cemetaries at midnight, and come to love, trust, and then lose trust in, many of its residents.  Savannah and its citizens are as important to the book as the trials.

The movie came out in 1997.  It was directed by Clint Eastwood and stars John Cusak and Kevin Spacey. It also features a very young Jude Law in the Danny Hansford part. Click here for some trivia about the movie too.

In terms of our discussion, it was brief, which again is the point at these less formal December meetings.  We began by talking about how Berendt chose to write MitGoGaE.  He made himself a character and rearranged the timeline in the name of narrative. We all agreed that the world Berendt is recreating for us was crazy. Many mentioned how if this was a fiction book, they would think it was too unbelievable.  This kept us turning the pages to see what would happen next, though.

We also talked at length about individual characters, the race issues, and the "good ole boy" American South. As Chicagoans, those of us who had not travelled extensively in the South were shocked by some of the revelations about the segregation and prejudices that were still in control of 1980s Savannah.


The discussion was short, but the movie was great, the patry a sucess, and another scessful year of book discussions at the BPL was completed.

Readalikes: As I mentioned above, MitGoGaE is considered a true crime modern classic.  It is most similar to In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.  Both are narrative nonfiction, true crime masterpieces; however, the criminals in Capote's book are less sympathetic.

Writers like Erik Larson, John Krakauer, and Mike Dash owe quite a bit to Berendt.  All three's best selling style can be traced back to MitGoGaE's success back in the early 1990s.

Also, don't forget books about Savannah, Georgia.

In terms of fiction, one participant mentioned John Grisham as a great readalike. She cited his use of the south and its traditions, racial issues, and colorful characters, as well as a focus on trials; I would agree. She thought that Grisham's newest, Ford County works especially well as a readalike.  With its connected stories, all taking place in one county, it reminded her of MitGoGaE.

Also, I would suggest any mystery with eccentric characters for fans of MitGoGaE.  I would even argue that it need not be in the south, although that wouldn't hurt.  You can use the wonderful resource, Stop You're Killing Me and their genre index for humorous mysteries or their location index for southern mysteries to find readlaikes that would fit your tastes.

Specifically, here I would suggest Cathy Pickens' Southern Fried Mysteries or The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall, which I read here.

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