Evoking place

Two of the books I read over the summer this year evoked their place particularly strongly. This was no accident: both were written with the place as a strong character.

The first was Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, set in Savannah, GA. This is a fun read even though it ends up being a journalist's recounting of the investigation of a murder, and his interactions with many of the characters. He demands that you treat Savannah as the protagonist in the story, despite the other strong characters. Based on this book, Savannah scares me a little, but should chance take me there, I believe that having read the book will bring me some sense of familiarity with its mood.

The second book, Hillel Halkin's A Strange Death, is about Zichron Ya'akov in Israel. Zichron of the past (from its founding) is a strong presence in the book, and its more modern incarnation from the 1970s or 1980s also shows up, but with less impact. In this book, the founders of the town and their children are really the protagonists, but the feel of the place is well drawn. The story itself meanders around the strange deaths of four women after the first world war.

In both books the mystery remains a mystery. In the first, the strength of Savannah outweighs any need for a resolution. In the second, Zichron is overgrown with real and fictional memories the same way the old buildings are overgrown with weeds. We wish for a resolution but realize it has disappeared with the crumbling remains.

For those looking for recommendations. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a great read. A Strange Death is less compelling for me to recommend, but worth it if you are interested in a parochial history set in Israel exploring both the toil of pre-state settlement and the complex view of past memories from the present.

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