John Berendt: TOP TEN BOOKS


Courtesy of Graziano Arici

John Berendt, a one-time editor of New York magazine, is the author of two books including 1994’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and 2005’s The City of Falling Angels — the former a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1995. The book also received acclaim from readers, spending a record-making 216 weeks atop the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Below are John Berendt’s favorite books, available to purchase as a set or individually.


Collected Stories

Tennessee Williams
Tennessee Williams’s short stories are eclipsed by his plays, but they are by no means outclassed. His ear for dialogue, his eye for character and his dramatic gifts are as powerful in his stories as they are in his plays. Like the plays, the stories are flavored with a connoisseur’s taste for the strange and bizarre, including cannibalism, incest, rape, castration, nymphomania, alcoholism and murder. My favorite among the stories is the fiendish “Desire and the Black Masseur,” but there are many, many runners-up.
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In Patagonia

Bruce Chatwin
This is travel writing at its best. As a boy, Chatwin was fascinated by a dried-up piece of skin and hair, said to be from a brontosaurus brought back from Patagonia by a distant cousin and and kept in a glass-fronted cabinet in his grandmother’s dining room. Chatwin’s musings about the brontosaurus eventually led to a trek through Patagonia described in ninety-seven brief chapters filled with sharp observations and crystal-clear prose, gem-like entries in a brilliant diary. The narrative meanders, just as Chatwin did on his journey. Passages describing the stark landscape are juxtaposed with profiles of people encountered, nuggets of historical lore, and the details of rugged overland travel. Readers who insist on a traditional narrative thread might be disappointed, even put off. But for me, Chatwin evokes a serene curiosity that I find ingratiating.
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The Complete Stories

Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor enshrines in each of her characters an unforgettable rendition of a basic human flaw: venality, bigotry, pent-up anger, stupidity, jealousy, greed, even innocence. Her dark humor is funniest when she is laying bare some horrible piece of human nastiness. And the writing! She can evoke more from the particulars of a person’s face than any other writer I know. For example: “His face behind the windshield was sour and froglike; it looked like it had a shout closed up in it, it looked like one of those closet doors in gangster pictures where there is somebody tied to a chair behind it with a towel in his mouth.” (“The Heart of the Park”) “She jumped back and looked as if she were going to swallow her face.” (“The Peeler”)
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William Gibson
This dark, fast-paced novel is a visionary masterpiece. It’s populated by hackers and cyberpunks, Gibson’s creations that have since become fixtures in the electronic matrix. I first read the book in the mid-1990s, when the Internet was beginning to wrap itself around all of us, and I read it with increasing excitement—but not without some difficulty. Gibson doesn’t bother to explain his terms or lead the reader by the hand through the puzzling dislocations of his futuristic landscape. Neuromancer is pulp fiction, but it’s guided by a hip wisdom about a baffling phenomenon that was only beginning to take shape.
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The Age of Innocence

Edith Wharton
The searing regret of having made the wrong decision in life and realizing it too late makes this book as heart-wrenching today as it was a century ago. Wharton’s writing style, too, is fresh and durable—surprisingly modern when compared with that of her friend and contemporary Henry James. Among the most memorable passages are her prose portraits. Her mocking 165-word description of the doyenne of New York society Mrs. Manson Mingott in chapter four is a hilarious classic of the genre.
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Where I’m Calling From

Raymond Carver
Carver’s spare, minimalist style serves as a writer’s manual for how to get more out of less. In a sentence, or even just a phrase, Carver establishes the mood, the nature of his characters and their predicament. He gives us clues instead of paragraphs of description or lengthy dialogue. I often put people onto Carver, especially when they’ve shown me something they’ve written that needs drastic paring down. Now and then I’ve found it a good corrective when my own writing gets out of hand. My copy of this collection (thirty stories arranged chronologically by the date they were written) is well worn. Carver had something original to show the rest of us, and his early death is a real tragedy.
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The Magic Christian

Terry Southern
I include this quirky novel in my list, because it is a satiric gem and one of the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. Terry Southern was a comic genius (Dr. Strangelove, Candy) who has never quite been given his due. The argument of The Magic Christian is a simple one, namely: There is no limit to what you can make people do, if you give them enough money. Everyone has his price. In this slim volume, Southern illustrates this point in a story that becomes increasingly outrageous and culminates in one of the most absurdly comic scenes in the American literary canon.
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The Alexandria Quartet

Lawrence Durrell
I read these four books in my late teens and early twenties, which may have had something to do with my having been swept away by them--by the sheer poetry of the writing, the sensuous atmosphere of Alexandria, the sexual tension, and above all the mystery and ambiguity.
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Exquisite Corpse

Poppy Z. Brite
Call it Extreme Southern Gothic, New Orleans division. The protagonists of this dark French Quarter novel are knee-deep in murder, torture, sex and cannibalism. The story is unabashedly grim (or as Brite himself puts it, “twisted, horrific”), but Brite’s prose is crystal clear, and his literate tone is sufficiently wry and ironic that it creates a sort of safety zone in which readers not normally drawn to this sort of stuff (myself included) can take refuge while they read. But even arm’s-length readers are apt to find themselves being drawn further and further into the story—seduced in spite of the themselves. Material that would be merely sick, disgusting, and unreadable in the hands of a lesser writer is, with Brite at the controls, surprisingly erotic and captivating. It’s a tour de force, in a literary category all by itself.
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The Earl of Louisiana

A.J. Liebling
Earl Long, younger brother of Huey Long and a two-time governor of Louisiana, was one of the most colorful politicians in the South. By the time A.J. Liebling came to Louisiana in 1960 to write a profile of him for The New Yorker, Long had compiled a truly tumultuous political career. His addiction to betting on the horses was legendary, his affair with the stripper Blaze Starr had been the stuff of gossip columns for years and, most notably, he had been committed to an insane asylum (by his wife, “Miz Blanche”) while he was the sitting governor. Realizing he still held the reins of power even though incarcerated, he fired the head of the state hospital system, discharged himself from the asylum, and simply walked out. As Liebling’s profile became a series of articles and then finally a book (which I treasure), his regard for Long evolved from one of bemused contempt to respectful admiration for a wily politician.
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