Rob Walker's LETTERS FROM NEW ORLEANS is part travelogue, part memoir with a little social commentary thrown in for good measure. According to the introduction, this book grew out of actual letters he began writing to friends after he and a girl friend identified only as "E" moved to New Orleans in early 2000. Four years later the couple left the city "for reasons that remain unclear." Since they at first were not meant for publication, perhaps that is why these meandering letters are so wondrously conversational and totally unself-conscious. To a letter, they are a delight to read and made me want to revisit this most European of U. S. cities.
Mr. Walker covers some of the subjects usuallly associated with New Orleans: Mardi Gras, jazz funerals, fine dining, the French Quarter and the relentless humidity. Although he obviously loves this city, he does not shy away from writing about the blight of public housing, urban decay and the fragile balance of race relations. The book is chock-full of both memorable characters and places. Whether they got that way on their own or were made that way by Mr. Walker's pen, it really doesn't matter. We meet Ernie K-Doe, the R & B singer who gave us the hit "Mother-in-Law," whose funeral Walker writes about. And Galatorie's, the restaurant that fired a popular waiter-- who apparently couldn't keep his hands off women diners-- and so incensed its clientele that the article covering the firing in THE TIMES-PICAYUNE generated more reader comments than any subject since September 11. Don't forget the part-time embalmer at the funeral home Over by Rhodes and fulltime cashier at the grocery store Save-A Center. Or the notorious Gennifer Flowers. I feel better knowing she wound up in a club in the French Quarter where she now occasionally holds court, sings a little and will be photographed with you for $6.00. It seems appropriate that her now club once was a bar with what the writer describes as a "high-end whorehouse" upstairs.
The author is nothing is not thorough. In one of the longest chapters in his book, he tells us everything we ever wanted to know-- and then some-- about the song "St. James Infirmary." Although I had never heard of the song before, I'm going to find the Harry Connick version and see what the fuss is all about. Mr. Walker is that good at making his case for this music.
One of the most intriguing things about the LETTERS is that Mr. Walker never tells the name of the woman who is living with him although he mentions her constantly. She is simply "E." Elvira, Emily, Evangeline? We do not have a clue as to what the "E" stands for. Since he tells us that she left a good job in New York City to move to New Orleans with him, we are probably safe in assuming that he is not guilty of transporting a minor across state lines. On the other hand, perhaps, as Garrison Keillor would say, E thought she could do better and insisted on remaining anonymous.
Finally, although there are many interesting photographs scattered throughout the book, we never see a picture of the author. Most readers want to see what a writer they like looks like-- and like Mr. Walker you will. LETTERS FROM NEW ORLEANS is a fascinating, informative read.
on December 26, 2005
I've collected dozens of books about New Orleans, all in an attempt to further my understanding of the mysterious love affair so many of us have with the Crescent City.
In "Letters From New Orleans," Walker examines his own love affair by crafting slice-of-life vignettes shot through with the kind of colors and detail that make the reader want to tumble right down the rabbit hole with him.
Walker gets gets off Bourbon Street and gets real. "Letters From New Orleans" is personal and yet has wonderful, broad appeal owing to Walker's skill as a writer and storyteller. One need not have lived there or even visited to enjoy this book, but those who have had the pleasure of New Orleans, will be further delighted (and educated). It left me wanting more. I've read it three times; I'll read it again.
As for books about New Orleans, this little gem is a huge must. It captures the wackiness, the peculiarities, the enchantment and the "je ne sais quoi" that makes this American city unlike all the others. Rob Walker is donating the proceeds to hurricane relief efforts, which makes reading it even sweeter.
on December 3, 2005
It may have taken a hurricane for Rob Walker's "Letters from New Orleans" to get the attention it deserves, but if anything uplifting came out of Katrina, it's this book. New Orleans, as he deftly observes, is a place that tosses tradition up in the air, lets it crash back to earth and institutionalizes the wreckage. Where else could wacky traditions like jazz funerals or house burnings along the levee as a Christmas Eve celebration come from? Walker digs beneath the banality of Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street and Girls Gone Wild to expose the city's heart -- its people, from fringe to establishment, with the fresh eye of a rapt outsider. It's the best book I've read about New Orleans in a long, long time -- and I live here.
on August 18, 2005
There are those kinds of fans of New Orleans (see review below) who lack the ability to see beyond the tourist-ridden cliches and preconceived ideas of stumbles through the French Quarter and the local hangover eats of their frat boy reminiscences. They cannot conceive of New Orleans as anything but a theme park with a 10 song Jazz soundtrack loop, populated by grinning, drunken, performing stereotypes, doing things that you're apt to see in a marketing video for the city. This book is not for them.
There is of course, nothing wrong with sucking crawfish heads or red beans and rice, or all the bars everybody already knows about. It's just that Walker realizes there's nothing new to say about these things, and chooses to look beyond the obvious.
This beautiful, thoughtful collection is produced by a writer with the imagination and intelligence to see past the prepackaged notions of a city that is so much richer, funkier and more interesting than a buggy ride through the French Quarter, funny costumes, and an appreciation for a few quirky local customs we're all familiar with by now.
Walker looks into the crevices, and behind the curtains of the typical tourist facade (sometimes perpetrated and beloved as often by locals as the tour books) to see what we didn't expect, what we haven't already heard a thousand times. New Orleans IS a special place, but one that is filled with real human beings, with lives and relationships that are shaped, complicated and sometimes warped by the realities of a very specific environment.
Yes there are colorful characters, see especially chapters about Ernie K-Doe and Gennifer Flowers, but in this book they are not just cardboard cutouts speaking with funny accents, part of the same backdrop as the pretty, antique architecture, but rather actual 3-dimensional human beings with real stories of their own. Yes, there is mention of parades and carnival balls, but it's not just mindless spectacle, it's an examination of the meaning of the customs to outsiders and insiders, and the structure of a pretty unusual social system.
This is not a book for those wanting to check items off of a list of what they already think they know. Yup, Cafe du Monde is charming, uh-huh, tap-dancing-little-boy with coke-bottle caps on shoes wants your money, right-o, hurricanes will get you loaded fast, check, people get naked and drunk at Mardi Gras, mm hmm, yup. It wasn't written to reassure you that what you believe is correct, to validate your fondness for the familiar.
This is not a book for those attached to looking at New Orleans through bleary, soft-focus lenses. It is for readers who want to see the city for its more complicated, uglier, stranger, fascinating and consequently more beautiful self.
on March 18, 2006
In my 65+ years, New Orleans is the place I have returned to most often, almost like a second home. This compilation of writings--done before Katrina--echo mine experiences so closely, I get the feeling that the "Spell" of this great city affects others like it did and does me.
I was in New Orleans when as Katrina approached and the Mayor urged visitors to leave. I was lucky to get three connecting flights home to California. "Letters from New Orleans" was like a balm which I needed to feel something other than sorrow.
on June 2, 2005
Through a series of essays, Rob Walker has captured elements of New Orleans that are rarely, if ever, written about. Walker shows what it is like to live in a city that steals your heart and breaks it at the same time. While one essay may be about Mardi Gras Indians, and another about Galatoire's Restaurant, what each essay is really about is the character of the people and the character of this unique city. New Orleans is not the city of television and movies. It is a poor, dying city selling itself as a carnival and barely hanging on. As Walker has captured in these essays, when you live in New Orleans, you feel so many emotions toward the city: love, excitement, anger, aggravation and, ultimately, sadness. I highly recommend this book as a way to see into the real New Orleans, the one where people live and work; the one that has nothing to do with Bourbon Street and drunken Frat boys.
Rob Walker may use his day job as a New York Times Magazine Columnist to support himself, but with the publication of LETTERS FROM NEW ORLEANS he clearly steps into the arena of fine writers whose messages stand solidly on their own. This collection of shared letters via email does not come across as yet another Blog site, but instead reveals a writer of sensitivity of observation, calm excitement of discovery, and an artist who can enter a space apparently foreign to him and make it not only his experience but also that of his reader.
This too short book covers a period of time when Walker moved to New Orleans and adapted to the idiosyncrasies of that magical city in daily exploration of its peculiar wonders. With his companion 'E' he attends a New Orleans church service (as the only white people present) and learns to appreciate the gospel singing, the attire and the unconditional love that pours from the congregation; he dresses for Carnivale and participates in the traditions of bead throwing and costuming that have only been images in films and photos; he takes us on a journey through the celebration of a New Orleans funeral - which is anything but morose - and teaches us about the 'cemeteries' of tombs above ground in this city below sea level; he ponders on the traditions of firing guns into the sky to celebrate most any event; he explores the famous 'St James Infirmary' of song fame, sharing the origins of the place and the myths; and he mixes with the people in this city of poverty of pocketbook but wealth of mind.
Reading Rob Walker could be experienced as a prelude (or postlude) to appreciating the art of Tennessee Williams and the Jazz Greats. His technique in writing is to keep it simple and observational, and in doing so he raises his writing to the level of poetry - succinct with themes and variations that always return us to the spirit of one of America's most treasured cities. Highly recommended reading. Grady Harp, February 08
If you've yet to visit New Orleans, the candid "snapshots" of Walker's letters will surely entice. If you're familiar with the city, you'll nod your head & sigh in remembrance - & hope for the future to be as sadly sweet & savory - & unsavory; yeah that, too, as the past. These "letters" capture the crazy ambience of the whole package perfectly.
I am curious about one small detail, why DID the author leave?
on November 28, 2005
This is real New Orleans. It's not a guide book. It's a take on the spirit of place that is the unique city of New Orleans. If you want a genuine feel for the city by someone who's lived there for a few years, buy it. More than ever, we all need to learn more about the fathomless Crescent City of the Moon.
I've never drunk and eaten my way through an hours' long lunch at Galatoire's. I don't own a white suit nor do I normally hang out in jazz clubs. Sleazy bars may possess charms, but I seldom indulge. I've never dug the Comus or Zulu krewes or jumped for mass-produced Chinese beads in the streets. This is all because I've never been to New Orleans. But I've done the next best thing---read Rob Walker's LETTERS FROM NEW ORLEANS. What I liked about Walker's emailed letters to his family and friends that later got collected into a slim volume is that they offer a view of the city that is far more sombre and penetrating than the one we used to get before Katrina turned the place into a bad news hub. Yeah, "The Big Easy" definitely had its downside even before floods killed hundreds and destroyed the low-lying sections. Murder in the projects was not unknown pre-Katrina, corruption, decay, and poverty ruled much of New Orleans behind the tourist glitz. Your quaint atmosphere of down-at-heel tradition rested on the stunted lives of a lot of black folks who were caught in an old web. I never had a great desire to visit the place, not thinking someone else's misfortune very picturesque. Still, reading Walker's letters, I felt that I got the feel of it---small details, a chance conversation that you might not have elsewhere, strange characters in electric blue suits, church music. He doesn't intrude much into his descriptions, yet you feel that he liked the place, he didn't judge it with the amused or jaundiced eye of many others. Small incidents reveal many facets of the city---the controversy over a fired waiter, explorations of a freeway ramp, attending a jazz funeral, a burning teddy bear at an annual bonfire. I liked the conclusions Walker drew--not sweeping, drastic ones, but more like collections of observations and questions left to the reader. The small black and white photographs that fill the book are strangely obtuse. They hint at things rather than illustrate them grandly and perhaps that sums up this charming little book.
P.S. If you ever wanted to know stuff about the song "St. James' Infirmary" but were afraid to ask, rest easy. It's all in here.