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Saturday, June 24, 2006


Several years ago, Savannah jumped to the top of my “must see” list as I finished John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Not only did I love the story, a kind of “reads like fiction but is really non-fiction,” I was intrigued by the eccentricities of the city, its history, and its inhabitants. In his newest book, City of Falling Angels, written in that same genre, he somehow enables the reader to pass through the touristy morass that is Venice and enter a peculiar world of curiously odd people living in a city unlike any other: ancient Venice, an architectural treasure trove where centuries’ old palaces are divided into condos and offices, a challenge to almost every aspect of modern life.

Berendt arrives in Venice in 1996, three days after a mysterious and very suspicious fire destroys the Fenice Opera House, the venue that premiered five of Verdi’s operas. Unraveling the mystery of how this tragedy occurred—accident, arson, or… leads him to a vast array of characters--to a master Venetian glassblower whose family feuds are destroying tradition, Ezra Pound’s mistress’ daughter and stolen heritage, American expatriates, and a host of other odd and uniquely Venetian characters.

My favorite is the Rat Man! He had cornered 30% of the world’s rat poison market by thinking like a rat. He concocts his poison recipes by incorporating the tastes of the country. In Italy, he adds a hint of pasta and olive oil. In the United States where we like french fries and hamburgers, there are vegetable oil and beef. Rats eat the way the country eats, and that is the secret. Not only that—his poison does not make the dead rats rot and smell. Rather, they mummify. Always adapting to new trends in diet, he is a very wealthy man thanks to rats. Why then does Venice have a never-ending rat problem? Simple. The government must award its contracts to the lowest bidder, and the Rat Man’s concoctions are a bit too expensive. Ah, the ironies of life!

Remember that song we sang in elementary school or played on our beginner instruments—“Carnival in Venice”? That’s what this book is.

As the mystery of the conflagration unfolds and we question motives, politicians, artists, and even a dead poet, we are steeped in the history, the canals, the people and the tidal rhythms of life in this strange city. We even question Venice’s future. Every level of society is involved. The costume masks that make Venice famous are not so far removed from the masks we all use as facades and as protection. It all makes for an interesting read.

Let me add that I had the opportunity to hear John Berendt when he appeared at our library’s book club discussion. He seems an interesting, soft-spoken gentleman who, despite a long and illustrious journalism career, is very modest about the success of his books. Perhaps hearing him speak of his own work made this book even more appealing.
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