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A tribute to a city & a way of life -- and an outstanding achievement,
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This review is from: Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans (Hardcover)
A doctor turned coroner, a band and music teacher, a transit system worker, an ambitious woman struggling to achieve a college education, a transexual bar owner and former college football player, a wealthy accountant... These are among the characters whose very disparate lives are woven together in this book that is about all of them and none of them; rather, it is about the city that they share, New Orleans.
"New Orleanians really want nothing more than for everything to stay the same," Dan Baum writes in his introduction to this compelling oral history of the city's misadventures over the last forty-plus years. As well all know, far from staying the same, everything in New Orleans underwent a seismic change in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blew in from the Gulf of Mexico and along with the floods that followed, transformed the city's geography in every conceivable way. Its citizens were scattered all over the country, the lower Ninth Ward -- home to some of those whom Baum profiles in his book -- was destroyed.
While Katrina's devastation is the raison d'etre for Baum's book, the events of those horrible days in August and September, 2005 are simply the climax of the lives of the New Orleanians he tells the story through. Or perhaps I should say that his nine characters choose him to tell their tales of the lives they lived in the city that they loved and sometimes hated but couldn't imagine living without. It's the story of a city and of the many ways of life that coexisted within it, of the unique 'live for the day' ethos that prevailed there and its strong sense of community.
Once past the introduction, the reader never hears Baum's authorial voice again; each step in the evolution of New Orleans from the cleanup after the devastation of Hurricane Betsy in 1965 to the last thoughts about Katrina's legacy decades later is seen through the eyes of one of the people he profiles. We see Wil Rawlins struggle to rescue some of the parentless children growing up in the city's housing projects by introducing them to the wonders of New Orleans's musical traditions -- in particular the high school marching band. Ronald Lewis battles for equal pay for the (African American) men who repair the St. Charles streetcar line; Joyce Montana watches her husband transform the African American Mardi Gras traditions. Meanwhile, 'uptown', accountant Billy Grace faces his own battles, such as the scornful attitude the city's elite has for his efforts to build a business and create wealth of his own.
The result is something that only the strongest of writers and journalists could produce. The deeply personal narratives -- small chapters, each revolving around events, small and large, in the life of one of Baum's characters -- are interwoven to the extent that events in their lives dictate. But Baum never makes the mistake of trying to develop some kind of master narrative to which his characters' lives become subordinated. Instead, they speak for themselves. It reads as if Baum has been living alongside them for the last 30 or 40 years, privy to all their triumphs and tragedies as they happen. Oral history is a tricky format to work within: the risk is that the book starts sounding like nothing more than a straightforward Q&A between subject and author. In this case, Baum has produced something remarkable; a work in which the author steps to the background and lets those profiled tell of their own lives, in their own way, without judgment or comment. We are part of the moment on the high school gridiron when band teacher Rawlins sees his motley crew of surly students playing dented instruments, get carried away by the music. "Every rest was crisp, every beat precise. Some of them had their eyes closed. All of them were lost, utterly lost, in the music."
Similarly, the reader is able to get completely lost in Baum's writing and the power of the story he is telling. Long before Katrina blows into the nine lives he profiles, you find it impossible to put this book down. And when the hurricane arrives, it's as if it is happening to people you know and love. Even then, Baum avoids the tried and true images and creates new ones that are able to jolt the reader back into seeing the horror with fresh eyes. Writing about coroner Frank Minyard's decision to ride out the storm, Baum tells of the doctor looking out a window to see his "big black bull and donkey (walk) calmly up the road together through the driving rain. He realized that they were evacuating, as he should have done. Now the roads were impassable." When the storm ends, Minyard heads for the coroner's office. Hitting the flooded area, he carefully saves his ostrich-skin cowboy boots -- then swims his way to work.
It's impossible to do justice to this book in a review. Equally, the lives of those who Baum writes about -- and in particular Rawlins and his crusade to save the children that no one else cares about -- deserve the widest possible readership. This may be the best book purchase that you make all year.
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Initial post: Jun 22, 2009 8:02:26 PM PDT
Texas Design says:
It is clear that the author of this review has never been to New Orleans for an extended period of time or else is just not very knowledgeable about it. Although the idea for the book was good, there are so many factual errors that those who have lived in the city, even for short periods of time, will be turned off by the many factual errors. It's irritating to read a book about a place you love that has so many basic factual errors. It is clear that no one with knowledge of the city had read it or edited it before its publication.
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