71 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Having lived my entire life in southwestern Louisiana and having experienced and worked in the aftermath of my fair share of hurricanes, I picked up "The House On First Street" by Julia Reed hoping to get a firsthand account of Hurricane Katrina.
As expected, the bulk of the book is centered on the refurbishment of Reed's house pre- and post-Katrina in the beautiful Garden District of New Orleans. Through poor decisions and plain ol' dumb luck, Reed experiences trial after trial attempting to get her home to a liveable degree. Her complications are not unfamiliar to anybody who has ever attempted to refurbish an old home. Still, her writing style does make the whole experience fun to read.
She does an excellent job of describing the Crescent City. She gives vivid details on all of the typical tourist traps like Bourbon Street and Anne Rice's rather unique former home, but is at her best when giving descriptions of the food that can be found throughout the city. This is also where Reed's detachment from reality can be found.
It's obvious that Reed has plenty of money. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that. She doesn't even try to hide it (Marie Antoinette references and countless name-droppings to boot). However, the fact that she isn't lacking for funds gives this Katrina story an entirely different spin.
Many folks (including my brother who's lived close to twenty years in the Big Easy) were worried about their homes, missing family and friends, jobs and futures. Others were trying to establish their lives in new homes such as Dallas, Houston, or one of the countless other cities that graciously took in refugees (yes, I said refugees) from New Orleans.
Reed, on the other hand, wondered if her wine was still in good shape and whether or not she'd be able to get lump crabmeat from her regular place. When some reasonable amount of normalcy returns to the city, her biggest fear is not getting a beagle pup to complete her domestic experience. After a deserved bashing of local and state government officials, she gets upset when "idiot Baptists" in Denton, TX unwittingly hand over her homeless, drug-addicted helper to his "wife" who encourages his addiction. Those "idiots," along with a lot of other private and religious groups, were some of the first people to assist folks in New Orleans when the aforementioned public officals failed miserably.
In short, while I read this book I got the feeling that Reed is something of a snob who has her priorities mixed up. Granted, she did quite a bit to help the city get back on its feet such as hosting and helping organize the Rebirth New Orleans benefit. She also handed out food to the many wonderful National Guardsmen who were trying to establish order in a chaotic world, but I kept seeing a bit of arrogance throughout her writing. It's this arrogance that really killed my enjoyment of her book.
Her fairy tale experience of New Orleans is a fun read, but I'm sure the folks who survived Katrina in towns like Waveland, MS and St. Bernard, LA have much more interesting stories that the average reader can more closely identify with. I can't wait until one of them puts out a book.
89 of 101 people found the following review helpful
I lived in New Orleans for several years, luckily I managed to move far away a couple of years before Katrina, so I missed all of that. So when I learned about this book I thought it would be fascinating to read about someone else's experiences living there and dealing with contractors and construction (like I did) and going through all the horror of Katrina. In the end, the book was not fascinating, it was a bit tedious, sometimes infuriating, and occasionally interesting and maybe even a little entertaining.
I don't want readers out there to think, based on the author's experiences, that all the locals hang out at Galatoire's drinking vodka all day because no one expects you to come back to the office after lunch. I worked for a living, I owned a tour company and later I had office jobs. I assure you if I spent all day drinking my lunch at a super expensive landmark restaurant someone would definitely care and I would dearly pay for it. In fact, I never knew any locals who ever even went to Galatoire's, no one I knew could afford it, and Galatoire's is considered to be mostly for tourists anyway.
Julia Reed is obviously pretty wealthy, so it was hard to identify with her or commiserate with her when her fabulous 6,000 square foot Garden District millionaire's mansion had a leak in the sunroom. It's hard to care when she gets a checking account from daddy with $5000 in it after she evacuates from the storm when so many other people didn't have anything. It's hard to give a damn when sometimes it seemed like all she really cared about was getting her servants back after the storm. My New Orleans friends and I never had servants, my house was nowhere near the Garden District, I lived in the 9th ward, I owned my own business and worked hard as hell so I could eat at places like Louisiana Pizza Kitchen, Angeli, and Coop's Place---none of which are expensive or owned by John Besh and other star chefs/friends of Reed's. And that's not to say that she should be criticized for being wealthy and having a far cushier life in New Orleans than I did, it's just hard to care about her and her story when she has so much and when I was there I watched most people all around me suffer daily under crushing poverty and extreme crime.
What I found rather repugnant was her attitude towards the people who came from all over the country to rescue the stranded and starving pets. She seems to find great sport in making fun of them and belittling their efforts. When she sees an aviary rescue van she wonders what's the big deal about rescuing people's pet birds while New Orleans has some wild parakeets that fly around the city. Well, maybe because these pet birds are not wild and they're not flying around the city, they're trapped in cages unfed and unwatered alone and dying in hot or flooded houses crawling with mold, maybe that's why there were people out there trying to rescue them. I found her comments ridiculous and unfeeling, she was more worried about getting her house finished, her servants back, and her expensive restaurant hang outs reopened so she could hurry up and get back to her normal leisurely life.
On top of everything, the author's obsession with alcohol throughout the entire book, mentioning it in some way just about every 2 pages or so, gets very tedious. Very few people I knew living in New Orleans were this obsessed with drinking, and the ones that were desperately needed rehab. Tourists, of course, go to New Orleans in droves specifically to drink and stagger around the garbage piled streets of the French Quarter, but honestly, all the locals I knew and did business with and were friends with all around the city were far too busy to sit around drinking and obsessing about fine wines and expensive liquors all the time. Julia Reed's New Orleans is nothing like my New Orleans, and that's a shame because the New Orleans I experienced was a lot more realistic and gritty, as well as fascinating and entertaining.
31 of 33 people found the following review helpful
Julia Reed should have saved these New Orleans memoirs to use as cookbook filler and changed the name. There's more food, family, and friends mentioned in this book than there is storyline about the actual house on First Street and the Katrina aftermath. Reed was not really a victim of Katrina at all. Her house only suffered blown down trees and one broken window. She is, however, a victim of bad business decisions and the book suffers from poor editing.
The book starts off great with Reed telling back story about how she settled in New Orleans to report on governor Edwin Edwards, and lived in a quaint apartment off Bourbon. You really get a sense of the ambiance and decadence and drinks and food and people that make up the Big Easy. I was hooked right from the start!
At 42, she marries and buys her dream home in the garden district. But her husband has no voice in the novel. As a reader, you never get to know him. There is also an array of other friends and family members all over the map that just cloud the storyline because you can never keep any of them straight. It's like someone regurgitating a long phone conversation they just had with a distant relative and summarizing to get to the good parts.
The hurricane hits. Reed is tucked away safely at her parent's house and watching the chaos on television like everyone else. She uses her reporter status to get back into the city. After finding little damage done to her house, Reed spends the rest of the book telling you all the things she did for other people. Such as, she fed the Oklahoma National Guard on a daily basis and even ordered barbecue for 700 of them. Don't get me wrong, she definitely did some good things for people and I commend her for that. But maybe that could have been the focus of the book, instead of a house on First Street, which by now has long been forgotten back on page 20.
There are other tiny plot lines that offer up interest, but she never dives deep into them, such as "Here Lives Vera" or Ruthie the Duck Lady. So, the book ends up being a tangled grapevine of short stories and character sketches that leave you wanting more. The story of the self-appointed neighborhood watchman and his many "colorful" signs was the only Katrina survivor story which she spent a lot of worthwhile time on.
As for the house, Reed continues to shell out tons of money and put up with a bad contractor and poor workmanship. If I had to have someone repaint my bathroom three times or reinstall door knobs because they were upside down, I probably would have fired them. Instead, Reed even puts up with a homeless drugged-out workman who she is passionate about saving. She bails him out of jail and hires him a lawyer, and he still gets picked up for not paying his fines, leaving Reed to hold out money to pay his legal fees for him. Some people never learn...author included.
At 200 pages, this is a quick read and very humorous, but I often felt like a stranger at a party floating through a crowded room of people I don't know and only overhearing parts of their conversation, or like I was reading the diary of a food critic. Since Reed and the reader learn her house is okay very soon in the book, we spend most of the middle part of the book trying out all the restaurants as they begin to reopen. Po boys, watermelon pickles, lump crab, shrimp, grits, etouffee, bloody marys, oysters, remoulade, and meuniere clutter every page! I grew so tired of reading about all this food. All it did was make me hungry...for food and for structure to this book.
As for editing, by now you know this book is all over the place. At one point, Reed is planning a fundraiser, then spends a chapter telling you all about the political gossip of Edwards from 1991 out of nowhere (she'd already covered his storyline in the beginning), then it's Christmas and we are back in the house and bitching about leaks and stopped up sinks, then we're getting a dog. She spends all of 7 pages on Mardi Gras season, post-Katrina, and never really calls it that. She rides a float and hates the royalty balls. Too many story lines! Too many directions! Not enough focus! Did I mention that she bashes the mayor again and again, but never calls him by his name?? But has no qualms about naming the governor outright. I guess her editor was too busy snacking, as well, to catch these issues with this book.
I really really wanted to like this book and give it a generous 3 stars because Reed is indeed a good reporter and can make you laugh. However, I can only wonder what the original manuscript was like (it was on her laptop which was stolen when someone broke in). She should have taken that as here cue to just blog about New Orleans and her house, instead of publishing it.
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
This is the story of how Julia Reed found a husband and a house and a home in New Orleans, and what happened during and after Katrina. She is a fine writer, engaging and witty, and the subject matter should be compelling. So why didn't I like this book?
Perhaps it's a flaw in my character, but when someone has the regular services of a maid, and said maid's extended family when throwing cocktail parties for 100, and has a handyman (however drug-addicted) on call, when that person can buy a mansion in the Garden District that has a dining room which holds a table seating twenty-four and proceeds to renovate that mansion with extravagantly expensive materials, I find it difficult to summon up much sympathy when she complains about the costs she's incurring. Nor, when the house is left nearly unscathed by Katrina, can I empathize with her worries about her jewelry and whether her champagne will be ruined by the heat.
It's very odd, because Reed seems like a generous, warm-hearted, fun-loving person, the kind of woman I'd probably like to hang out with. But there's a disconnect that I can't quite fathom between that person and the one who has to keep bending over to pick up the names she's dropping. And that irritated me to the point where I simply could not enjoy her book.
16 of 18 people found the following review helpful
I had high hopes for this book especially after reading the first few pages. The writer has a casual yet engaging style that captivates the reader in the description of people and places...if the entire book was as good as the first chapter then it would have been a delightful diversion well worth the time to read. As it was, the book was irritating and tedious. The only reason I even finished it was because I was getting new tires and it was the only book I brought. Even so, I still finished the book before the tires were done.
The author obviously has talent - it appears sporadically throughout the book with just enough regularity to feel you have been saved from drowning in tedium. It was also refreshing to encounter someone who didn't view everyone as a "victim" and openly referred to the fraud being perpetuated by those unscrupulous enough to take advantage of a clearly bad situation. Finally, the book is short which is a mercy by the end of it.
Unfortunately the author doesn't invite the reader to "connect" in any real or personal way but rather narrates in a rather descriptive style. In some places it works but more often than note, it simply deteriorates into a tangent of little meaning. Anyone who has ever performed extensive remodeling of a home knows how frustrating and time consuming it can be (as well as expensive) but to create the better part of a book around the process is a less than enticing topic. Reading the book became like listening to the endless complaining of your mother-in-law who is having work done on the house....and it was just as "fun". Pure and simple...who care's? Not me and in all likelihood - not you either. Likewise, although I enjoy a good meal (especially authentic cuisine associated with New Orleans), by the end of the book the authors dining habits seemed to take on a life of their own while the personality of those involved faded into the sunset.
Yes, the author has a home in New Orleans and "lived through" Katrina...suffering a broken window in the process. One gets the distinct impression this is a quickly tossed together book designed to "ride the wave" of the aftermath of a crisis. The author seems dispassionately disconnected to the people, events and aftermath surrounding her and the reader fails to make a connectoin to anyone or anything throughout the entire book.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
I can't quite figure out where this book let me down, but it must have been with the random and numerous themes/subjects covered - home reconstruction, incompetent workers, historic New Orleans, crooked politicians, cooking and eating good food, and Katrina.
I have been to New Orleans few times, and have always been grateful that I never lived there! Didn't know much about levees breaking, or couldn't comprehend a "city below sea level", but it was the bugs/roaches that I hated. Hubby is from New Orleans and with my familiarity of the city in more recent years, I selected this book.
Although the writer is an accomplished writer and journalist, I gave it a good read, and was impressed with the writing. I lost interest after the home improvement fiasco. And the drama of the construction team did not grab me. None of the characters had their own voice!
Little was mentioned about the plight to escape Katrina, and I found no meaningful text for much about the return home ....so the fridge was saved! The outcome didn't match the buildup of the struggle to reconstruct the home. Thank God the home was spared, but maybe the Katrina bit didn't belong in this book, or vice versa.
Some readers take umbrage with the writer's wealth and low level of distress compared to the average Katrina victim. Her wealth does NOT deter my thoughts about the book, I just found too many random themes going on and not much resulted out of each. A reader needs to connect somehow with the book and FEEL with the book and author. When the reader doesn't care much, then you have lost them. ....Rizzo
33 of 41 people found the following review helpful
on August 30, 2008
I am utterly flabbergasted by the content and tone of Ms. Reed's book. I found it utterly distasteful, not the least bit charming, boring and shallow. She puts Marie Antoinette to shame. I expected to enjoy and love this memoir about New Orleans and Katrina, instead I felt throughout that it should more aptly have been named, "How I Managed to Eat Lavishly, Still Drink My Favorite Champagne and Decorate My New Mansion, as Katrina Wrecked Thousands of Lives Around Me." Ms. Reed's book, replete with recounts of all her grand, costly Katrina gestures (such as buying dinner for 700 National Guardsmen without bothering to ask what the bill would be), and after having her jewelry stolen, remarking that the good thing about having your "serious" jewelry stolen is that "inevitably", its been photographed at parties, so it makes it easier to trace and find it, is a primer for insensitivity, smug self-indulgence and not only bad writing, but bad taste. Even as the dead, bloated bodies floated by her, we are subjected in pitiless detail to her merry non-stop drinking tales and her utter relief at finding sensational restaurants open so that she can eat great meals. HELLO? Perhaps she experienced some other, different Katrina as she is surely not talking about the one we all know about now. Today, as Hurricane Gustav makes its way--possibly--to New Orleans, perhaps it's yet another excuse for Ms. Reed to pop open a cork on some champagne?
16 of 19 people found the following review helpful
இ Fuzzy Wuzzy's Summary:
ѾѾѾ Somewhat recommended, with reservations and only lukewarm fuzzies.
Like the author, Julia, I was also a non-native who had moved to New Orleans, having gotten my first job out of college there and living in New Orleans for almost ten years. Even after I moved from New Orleans, before Hurricane Katrina, I had never thought of reading books about New Orleans (not counting New Orleans and Cajun cookbooks, of course) until now, three years after Hurricane Katrina. Plenty of my New Orleans friends' and former co-workers' lives were indelibly altered by Katrina. To this day, a number of friends and businesses that I have known during my years in New Orleans no longer reside there. I have not yet been back to New Orleans since Katrina, but I am planning a trip there next year. So I was very enthusiastic about reading Julia's memoirs on both the pre- and post-Katrina years since we both lived in that city amidst the bizarre "Vote for the Crook. It's Important" bumper stickers during the re-election of former Louisiana governor Edwin Edwards.
I would rate the first four chapters of the book 5 stars; her writing conveys very well the quirks and eccentricities of the city, how she met her husband, and sets the stage for the fixer-upper house that they proceed to repair and renovate. Her experiences in seeing the post-Katrina damage, noting all of the "looters will be shot" signs, and helping to feed the Oklahoma National Guard gets 4 stars, as does her coverage of the re-election of Edwin Edwards as governor and discussion of Louisiana politics.
However, the 1991 governor's race between Edwin Edwards and ex-Klansman David Duke is discussed in chapter 12, inserted after the bulk of her chapters about the 2005 Katrina hurricane, before she veers back into talking about eating more food in chapter 13 with her post-Katrina return back to her house. This haphazard discontinuous chronology of events serves no purpose, and there are many herky-jerky switches of timing and location that disrupt the pacing of the entire book. The chapter 12 discussion of the 1991 governor election really should have been placed after chapter 4, before the onset of Katrina, instead of being abruptly inserted in the middle of her post-Katrina experiences.
As much as Julia frequently mentioned her "friend JoAnn Clevenger's Upperline" restaurant in New Orleans, there were a plethora of other iconic New Orleans restaurants that were never mentioned. Having myself lived in New Orleans for almost ten years, the music there was just as important and memorable as the food. New Orleans music landmarks like Tipitina's (which is no farther from her house than Upperline restaurant) and Mid-City Lanes Rock 'n Bowl (yes, great live music with bowling) are never mentioned in the book. Although the above-ground cemeteries are a major tourist attraction and also worthy of visits by the locals because of the beauty of their statues and mausoleums, and the history and stories behind many of the dead, this is never covered in the book.
In my personal, very subjective, opinion, the persona and tone of voice that is carried throughout Julia's entire book can best be summed up in the wording that she uses at the end of chapter 8 after she finds out that, except for one broken window and some tree damage, her house was spared by Hurricane Katrina, "We are bragging on our luck, boasting of our stamina..." In the wake of one of the country's worst disasters, I find it quite inappropriate to brag about one's "luck" that her house, life, and livelihood were not affected by Hurricane Katrina in the same way that one should not brag that they were lucky a tornado hit someone else's house instead of theirs, or that an earthquake damaged some other part of the city instead of theirs. At times, there is an air of snootiness and snobbery that reminds me of Marie Antoinette and Leona Helmsley. All of her friends and favorite restaurants were also spared by the hurricane, and her life mostly went on as usual for her after the hurricane except for a few minor inconveniences. My favorite Irish pub in New Orleans, O'Flaherty's Irish Channel in the French Quarter, has now been forever closed, one of the many losses and permanent relocations that I have seen after Katrina. Much of chapter 9 read like an odd mix of gratuitous post-Katrina observations mixed in with ongoing talk about lovely houses and favorite restaurants. I would have the same queasy feeling if someone visited a city torn apart by an earthquake or tornado and commented about her favorite restaurants within the same chapter.
In a similar vain vein, Julia's mention of her "boasting of our stamina" never connected with me in logic. She left town and stayed at her parents' house in Greenville, MS before the hurricane and returned to find that nearly all of her pre-Katrina life was still intact. Far more post-Katrina residents of New Orleans have exhibited far more thankfulness and stamina after having lost homes and businesses. To me, "stamina" in life is not yelling at your contractor "If you come over here, I swear to God, I will kill you". "Stamina" is not removing the paint contractor's sign from her iron fence, throwing it in the middle of First Street, and stomping on it repeatedly. During her post-Katrina first night back to see her house on First Street, she decided that it was "too hot" and "too dark" to stay there for the night and decided to head to Baton Rouge instead; this also is not "stamina". Overall, her only personal experience with flooding in the entire book was when her "sink backed up and almost a foot of water came flooding into the kitchen", due to the result of incompetent plumbing and not due to the hurricane; this was Julia's own "flood" in a city filled with people with far greater flood damage.
But, by far, the main reason why I rate this book only 3 stars is that it was very badly edited and just does not read very well in its quick 201-page length. It reminds me of someone who is quickly recounting her memories to her friends during a Girls' Night Out get-together, with lots of people and food names mentioned, but hardly any details provided: "And then we ate boudin, and later ate remoulade, my friend JoAnn Clevenger owns Upperline restaurant, my buddy Tenney Flynn owns ZydeQue, Jason is now a philosophy professor in St. Louis, oh by the way did I mention that I ate at Upperline yet again, etc, etc, etc..." Why would these recollections happen during a Girl's Night Out? Because while her husband, John, makes brief cameo appearances throughout the book, I also never get to know him either. One week after having finished reading this book, handyman Antoine and contractor Eddie are the only two people that actually feel human from her writings. Many of the other names of people and all of the food eaten are just one long blurry melange of names. FEMA and the governor Kathleen Blanco are cast in a deservedly bad light, but the mayor of New Orleans, for some very odd reason, is always mysteriously just referred to as "the mayor" and never by name (what is up with that?).
While I do not expect a memoir to only have emotional impact if the person has experienced great personal setbacks, failures, triumphs, and victories, from my very personal experiences hearing about what former friends and co-workers lost after Katrina, it was hard to relate to Julia's "New Orleans Story" since I certainly felt that it was only representative of a small part of New Orleans, the socioeconomic minority of the New Orleans population that reads Vogue and Town & Country magazines, gets the Neiman Marcus Christmas catalogue in the mail every year, and shops and dines at upscale establishments.
With a dearth of details to flesh out the people mentioned in the book and the fact that many people outside of Louisiana may not know what boudin and remoulade are, the book also could have used photos as accompaniment. The seemingly hastily written book that appeared to be totally lacking in editing could have used photos of her house, her home renovation work, her meals, and her Katrina experiences. On a sentence-by-sentence basis, the book is well written; Julia can write and she can sprinkle bits of humor in her stories. But the paragraphs and chapters just jump all over the place without fleshing out the details along the way, especially in regards to the rampant mentioning of food.
For a FAR MORE ENJOYABLE foodie tribute to the cuisine of New Orleans, I would heartily recommend that you read the book Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table In contrast to this book, the "Gumbo Tales" book is extremely well-written, and primarily focuses on New Orleans food, with some observations of the city before and after Katrina, but without jumping all over the place with constantly impatient gripes and anger management issues involving one's home renovation experiences.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
This book starts out strong, but loses focus after the drama of the storm. I found myself engaged by the descriptions of Reed's tribulations with her contractor -- "A Year in Provence"-ish. Anyone who's had remodeling done can empathize. But not everyone has had such colorful problems or the means with which to fix them. I never got the feeling that Reed's Katrina experience was any more than an inconvenience, not to downplay her compassion for those who didn't fare as well, but having read more incisive books about the subject recently, I found this one to suffer by comparison.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
I enjoy memoirs. I enjoy history as well as current events. I thought I would love this book. I wanted to love this book. But, it fell short in so many ways.
The beginning was promising-- before the storm. I enjoyed reading about Ms. Reed's trials and tribulations with her ne'er-do-well contractor. Having had my share of ne'er-do-well contractors parade through my own home, I found her descriptions of the experience and fury apt and hilarious.
The tone and scope of the narrative changed as Ms. Reed described the preparations for and aftermath of Katrina. I read, appalled by what I was reading. Appalled by the decimation and disregard for a people and a way of life.
I guess what I am getting at is this: As two separate books, the storyline may have worked better. I would have liked to have read more about all her house renovations and how it came together after the storm. However, that subject never reappeared in a major way. I would have liked to have read more about the storm and the community activism spurring on the clean-up. As I said, this book would have worked better as two separate books; I do not think it was well edited.
I will not be adding this book to my collection as one that I would want to read again or even recommend to others. I may, however, pick up the author's other titles at the library. I enjoyed the narrative but hated the editing and I don't want to risk the money on another potentially disappointing book.