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on 19 August 2015
Some years ago I read Berendt’s book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and I absolutely loved it. Wonderfully written, wonderful out of the ordinary people. When I saw that he followed up this book with a book about Venice, The City of Fallen Angels, I bought it and it has decorated by TBR shelves ever since.

Finally, I grabbed it and started reading. As with his other book you are drawn in to the history of the city. He manages to find all these interesting people that he contacts to get their story. As with the Midnight book, the main story is a legal one. The opera house in Venice burnt down while it was renovated. Now they are searching for the people responsible, either by arson or by accident. This leads us into the thorny area of Italian law, where for a foreigner, once your inside, there seems to be no way out!

The wonderful palazzos of Venice also hold a big part of the story. Family histories that goes back a long way, the difficulties of keeping up the palaces today. Henry James was here, which should be no surprise. He seems to have been in most of the lovely places in Europe. The Barbaro palace (during the writing of this book it was sold by the family who had inhabited it since the middle of 19th century) was the fictional Palazzo Leporelli in James’ The Wings of the Dove, and he was a frequent houseguest of the Curtis family. It seems that even today his description of the palace is recognisable. I have not read this one so it is now on my list to read (as if it was not long enough!).

“On his first visit as a house guest at Palazzo Barbaro, Henry James was met at the water entrance by white-gloved servants, who led him from his gondola on to the carpeted steps of the landing platform and up the courtyard stairs to the piano nobile. He was enchanted by all of it: the luxury, the polish, the reminders of the distant past ‘twinkling in the multitudinous candles’. But eve as he gazed at the Barbaro’s painted walls and sculpted ceilings, James had in mind a very different sort of palace.”

This different sort of palace was a derelict place inhabited by two lonely ladies. It was all fictional, and characters in his new novel The Aspern Papers (review here). A lovely book, like most of his books.

Other famous characters are Ezra Pound and his mistress Olga Rudge who lived in Venice for many years. Berendt gives us the story of their Venice life and the ‘menage a trois’ they lived in since Pound was married. Olga Rudge was a well known concert violinist and seems to have been an amazing character, full of life. She lived to be over 90 years old.

"Curious to have a look at the house where Ezra Pound and Olga Rudge had lived, I went to Rio Fornace, a tranquil canal in the quiet district of Dorsoduro. There, a few steps off the canal in a shady cul-de-sac, I found 252 Calle Querini, a narrow, three-storey cottage. A marble plaque mounted above the door bore the inscription ‘With unwavering love for Venice, Ezra Pound, titan of poetry, lived in this house for half a century.’"

Berendt takes us through many more events of Venice and it is a charming read. He choses a few people, famous or not, and gives us a glimpse of the life they live. He manages to make the city come alive with its characters that define the inhabitants of Venice. There are not only tourists there. I have been to Venice two times, and will go there again. This time I might bring John Berendt’s book with me, and follow him to see another part of Venice. As far as I can see, he has not written any more books, but I am eagerly waiting for the next one!
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on 11 June 2017
John Berendt, author of the bestselling “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (216 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers List), arrived in Venice in the winter of 1996, only a couple of weeks after a fire had destroyed the La Fenice opera house. The building had previously burned twice, in 1774 and 1836, and had been rebuilt both times.

What Berendt recognized was the fire was a story, an intriguing story, and it just might be the prism through which to tell the larger story of Venice. And so he stayed on, rented a room, and began to talk with people.

The opera house fire becomes a framework to write the story of Venice – its history, its politics, its maze of bureaucratic rules, its first families (how many doges do you have in your family line?), the expats who live and have lived there (especially Americans), the rivalries of the charitable organizations set up to save and restore city buildings, artwork, and icons. But it’s not only a story of rich people; Venice is also the story of artists and bakers, gondola drivers and electricians, and the crazy time that is Carnival.

City authorities initially investigated the fire as one of negligence, and there was plenty of ongoing negligence to go around before the fire – cans of solvents left open, blow torches left burning, improper ventilation. And then, in the way that really good stories do, the investigations focuses on arson.

With the story of the La Fenice fire comes the stories of a family of glassblowers, what happened to the papers of poet Ezra Pound, a wealthy American family that has lived in self-enforced exile since the late 19th century, and the battle of Save Venice vs. Venetian Heritage (the rich can be just as petty as the rest us, and perhaps more so). It’s an entertaining mix of fact and myth, perception and reality.

Berendt, a native of New York State, received his B.A. degree in English from Harvard University. He’s worked in publishing, writing for television talk show hosts (David Frost and Dick Cavett), and worked at New York Magazine and Esquire. His story of murder in Savannah, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” was virtually an overnight sensation when it was published in 1994.

“The City of Falling Angels” was published in 2005, the year after the rebuilt opera house was opened. And the story Berendt tells, a story of Venice, is a fascinating one.
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on 7 January 2007
"Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" was such a worthy contribution to the non-fiction genre presided over by Capote's "In Cold Blood" that I cannot now explain why I was so luke-warm about the news of Berendt's latest work.

I think I was put off because I thought "The City of Falling Angels" would be something of an art history of Venice. I was also wary about the fact it had been ten years' in production. The same is true of "Something Happened", Joseph Heller's second novel. And, in Heller's case, the fact that the book had been assembled so painstakingly letter-by-letter over such a long period really showed to the detriment of the prose.

I accept that, with such a low level of expectation, I was hardly likely to be disappointed, but I quickly realised that the book was just brilliant, evoking not only memories of "Midnight" but, more interestingly, the realisation that the Berendt style is unique amongst the many hundreds of different books read in the ten years between the two, being part travelogue, part social history, part biography and part non-fiction crime.

Berendt is capable of unearthing the scent of intrigue from the most innocuous of encounters. His unique talent thereafter is to follow that scent to a conclusion whether that be by way of his personal charm (very few seem to decline his requests for interview) or his considerable forensic powers of analysis. And, thanks to his narrative gifts, he is able to generate real suspense in the leads he has running.

In whatever context he meets the various characters of Venice he avoids any commentary letting the words (quoted faithfully) and actions of each speak for themselves and yet by his presentation of the evidence of such encounters he is able get his point across with subtlety.

And he meets famous characters from the past too: Ezra Pound spent a great deal of his own life in Venice. Berendt explores his connections with the city and comments on his literary legacy. He unearths a letter from Pound to his (then-teenage) daughter, Mary de Rachewiltz and, as it contains his advice on creative writing, sets it out in full (p196). Of course, Brendt's own prose measures up and it serves as yet another proof that the reader is in the hands of a real professional.

I accept there is some art history of Venice in there, but it is well-presented and I have to accept that it even enhanced his tales.
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VINE VOICETOP 1000 REVIEWERon 11 June 2015
This books starts well with excellent eyewitness descriptions of the fire that destroyed the famous Fenice opera house in January 1996, and this is followed up later by accounts of the long drawn-out investigation of the causes of the fire, with its oscillating conclusions, and the labyrinthine bureaucracy that surrounded reconstruction, and which contributed to long delay of seven years before the opera house was reopened. Both stories tell you much about what is wrong with Venice. These accounts do partly conform to the author's stated aim: to write a book not primarily about the art and architecture of Venice, but instead to tell the story of its inhabitants. But elsewhere this is far from true. Venetians do appear, but they are either a few eccentric characters, or the elite of the city, and they are outnumbered by foreigners, mainly expatriate American, again of a certain class. Thus, for example, much space is given over to the machinations surrounding the papers of Ezra Pound, and the intrigues and squabbles within the rich patrons of the Save Venice movement. These are subjects that are undoubtedly interesting, at least to some, but are remote to the lives of ordinary Venetians. Much of the book resembles material from Hello! magazine: who attended what party in what palace etc. It quickly becomes repetitive and boring and I found that I had little interest in what these people did or thought.
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VINE VOICEon 8 October 2010
"Did any people ever hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and live?" -- Deuteronomy 4:33 (NKJV)

If you have ever been to Venice, surely you've wondered what it's like to live in one of those palazzos and to be there when the city is under water in the winter. The native's Venice and the day tripper's Venice couldn't be further apart in perception and vantage point.

John Berendt managed to meet a lot of real Venetians and to spend extended time there. Gradually, some of the doors to what the tourists never see were gradually opened to him. Surprises waited inside.

His time there overlapped with the burning down of the Fenice Opera House and its difficult reconstruction. That's the main focus of the book, but there are rewarding side canal visits to subjects such as the Save Venice organization, maintaining the heritage of Ezra Pound, and playing a role in Venetian culture and society. While that combination may sound a little out of focus, realize that there's a mystery in the middle of riddle here. Who did what to whom in Venice? Who will take the blame? Who will steal the credit?

The three main stories are examples of a bigger theme, residents trading on interest in the glorious past of Venice to gain unearned benefits in the present. Normally, that would be unattractive, but Mr. Berendt manages to capture the "glamour" that the outsider sees that makes the fight over the remnants of Venice more interesting than the typical selfish squabble.

I recommend listening to Holter Graham's unabridged (no pun intended) reading as a way to capture the reverence for things Venetian that makes the events more interesting. Awe and caring are in his voice in a way that your own "mental" voice won't be. As a result, the story becomes more dramatic, grander, and decadent . . . at the same time.

Although the base story isn't as interesting as in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, there's plenty to attract here.

Some people may tell you that this book will add a lot to your enjoyment of going to Venice. I doubt that. In fact, it may reduce it. The topic is really human character, seen through the mirror of Venice from the native's point of view.
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on 11 December 2008
As a fan of "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" I probably am in the same class as most readers of both books in being disappointed by this second one. It has many similarities to the first: both are first person accounts of several years spent as the "outsider" observing the strange customs of an unknown foreign tribe, like an an early explorer in the wilds of who-knows-where. He brought that sense of awe and naivete more believably to us in "Midnight" where the people of Savannah, his fellow Americans, did come across as truly an unusual group with customs and ways new and different from the rest of us. Somehow, though Venice is an actual "foreign" city for most of us, it doesn't seem so strange; the author doesn't bring to the table the same sense of excitement, of being in a really new environment. And it shouldn't have been that way! There are certainly a large cast of characters; a possible murder that sort of fizzles out; the fire which destroys the old Fenece Opera house, a tragedy for Venetians and Opera lovers; but somehow I never FELT the loss myself...The only one of his little vignettes of which the book is made that I became emotionally involved in was the story of Ezra Pound, and his long-time partner Olga Rudge, their daughter and her family, and the attempts by a nefarious American woman to fleece Olga, then in her 90's, of not just money but more importantly the rights to the papers, and the memorabilia over 50+ years that she had from the late Pound. It is a sad story that if it took place here and now in the States now would fall under elder abuse laws, but there and then seemed to have been brushed off by the authorities, and even Ms Rudges' adult daughter and grandson seemed not to be overly concerned though they themselves took a financial loss. Berendt was perhaps prevented from pursuing further into this, but is was by far the most interesting and heart-tugging episode: Olga in her late 90's going by foot to the bank to get some of her papers from Pound and being told no, she couldn't have them, they now belonged to the "Ezra Pound Foundation" that is, the dummy foundation headed by the American woman and her attorney, and to whom Ms Olga Rudge had unwittingly signed over her control of everything she owned, even her house. That story just stops too. All the side stories seem to just end, with no real feeling of completeness. I know its non-fiction, and things don't neatly wrap themselves up, but in some of the cases, thing ends with a sort of flat thud. I also never got a clear visual of Venice, which is odd too; one would think the gondoliers, the palaces and St Marks Square would all be brought to life...It should have been but it was never clearly painted for me, I think it was assumed I knew it from photographs, but that should not be assumed by an author. Nor were the people he discussed well "painted " verbally. Overall-- though I stayed with it-- a disappointment.
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on 8 March 2015
This has the distinction of being the first book I haven't finished in years. I have spent a lot of time in Venice over the past 40 years and can never get enough of the place and its buildings. The atmosphere never fails to captivate me regardless of the time of year. Sadly this book added nothing to my feelings for the city.
At first I was captured by the whole tragedy of the fire at La Fenice and having visited the rebuilt opera house, I was prepared to be engrossed. With a few exceptions I quickly lost interest in the characters, many of whom seemed entranced by the sound of their own voices. When he did talk about real Venetians , there was a chance I would stick with it, but as petty squabble followed petty squabble , I realised I didn't care about these people. And that's the point. A good book about travel and cities will bring the inhabitants to life and make you engage with them. For me, he achieved neither if these things. Ultimately I gave up because I lost interest in what he had to say.
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on 31 January 2007
Author John Berendt hunts down some of the biggest social climbers on the lagoon. Arriving in Venice just as the Fenice opera house goes up in flames, Berendt creeps around the fringes of the event asking if it was the electricians or the Mafia that caused the historic old building to go up like so much tinder in February 1996.

Each year more and more Venetians move away from the island to make a home to find work away from the hordes of tourist that flush through the city's alleyways and squares in much the same way the waters of the lagoon sluice through the waterways. But Berendt does not want to speak about the struggles of the gondolier or the shopkeeper facing ever increasing rents as Disney and McDonalds flex their muscles. He has more highly gilded fish to fry.

He aims to dish the dirt on some big names and has a go at some dubious behaviour involving the missing papers of former Venice resident Ezra Pound trying to strike a resonnant chord with Henry Jame's 'Aspern Papers' as he does so. But his really big guns are aimed at a wealthy plastic surgeon and the heir to a US grocery chain called Piggly-Wiggly. Yes it really is called Piggly-Wiggly.

These two luminaries battle to head the embossed letter heading of Save Venice, another US organisation consisting of wealthy people who want to be seen in Venice as they save it. Or at least seen in the right places in Venice where they can talk about their generosity with other like minded souls.

For the Venice lover there are some names and places that will be recognised and some rather unastounding revelations about the bureaucratic tentacles that engulf Venice as much as they do the rest of Italy. The City of Falling Angels is an easy, light and ultimately unfulfilling read adding nothing to one's understanding of this most beautiful of all anachronisms. And certainly contains nothing that would make any Venetian choke over their morning coffee in Florian's.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 15 February 2013
This is the book I buy my friends when they plan a trip to the lagoon city. The Fire at the Fenice Opera House on the Monday evening, 29th January 1996 is at the heart of this wonderful account of post fire Venice. Was it arson, was it negligence? John Berendt trawls the evidence, meets some wonderful people as he trails the calli and campi of Venice, and traces bits of history with myth and memory interwoven into the fabric of his story - this is like a tapas of interwoven stories.
We meet the Curtis family, 4th generation Americans who came from Boston; the Volpe family who have been inextricably linked with the development of the city in more recent times. We meet the rat expert whose company has to deal with infestations, who enthuses about the discoveries he makes about rat eating habits (American rats love popcorn, Italian rats love Nutella, plastic (!) and Parmesan, Dutch ones love Salmon and cheese - but none will eat the food popular with the others).
We learn of Jane and Philip Rylands who allegedly insinuated themselves into the company of Ezra Pound's widow and appeared to take control of all his papers and memorabilia. Berendt tells the story of the two electricians finally charged with setting the fire at the Fenice, Carella and Marchetti; and of Gianni Agnelli (head of the Fiat Empire) who tendered for the rebuilding of the Fenice but didn't get it.
Eight years of rebuilding, shenanigans at every twist and turn, and the first opening concert after the rebuilding was held on the day that Saddam Hussein was discovered, 14th December 2003....
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VINE VOICEon 23 September 2008
I know what I expected from a new book by Berendt. I expected something better than the last. I realize now that it was a lot to expect.
The City of Falling Angels does not come up to the standard set by his previous novel. It's not that Venice does not compare to Savannah (I am in no position to tell not having visited the latter), it is just that The City doesn't have a decent story to keep the book together.
Similarities are quite striking - in both books the narrator arrives within days of a crime being commited. In The City it is the fire of the Fenice, Venice's opera. You're not thrilled? Well, it isn't exactly a crime in which the finding of the guilty would keep you reading through the night. The book traces the opera's reconstruction to the re-opening but again that also wasn't anything most people would need to hear about.
The narrator spends years in Venice (the book isn't too specific about it - my guess is he drops by every now and then rather than waits for the Fenice to be reconstructed) talking to people. By the way - it is quite striking how almost everyone in Venice has nothing better to do but to talk to him at length... We get a number of (allegedly) true stories, none of which, however, is thrilling. Actually, after a while they get mildly disgusting - petty rivalries in Save Venice, quarrels over the will of a suicidal local poet, fight over Ezra Pound's letters... There is usually some money involved (actually, there is usually big money involved) and it is the money that most often becomes (I would say against the author's wishes - he is quite desperate to present a cultural and literary context) the real issue.
In short - a long and nicely written book without a decent plot and/or conflict. If you haven't read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - buy it immediately. If you have - wait for another Berendt. You may well skip this one.
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