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Customer Review

29 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars More narrative than magic., March 6, 2009
This review is from: Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans (Hardcover)
This is a good book, and I found it an easy and quick read. But it is also very lean, even meager. One of the reviewers noted that you don't hear Baum's voice again after the introduction; this is true. In place of an author's voice you get a very stripped narrative of 8 lives, about thirty pages per person spread out over forty years. Given those restraints, Baum does an admirable job, but there's not all that much magic. You get the sense that the real spirit of New Orleans had to be shunted aside to get the tale told. There's one glorious exception, which is the "life" of Anthony Wells, told by himself (he is the only one who was allowed to speak for himself this way). He is all zest and glory, and it makes you realize how much the experience of New Orleans can only be rendered in the first person. The Wells portions, all in italics, are worth reading straight through all on their own. He is like a New Orleanian Neal Cassady.
One way of putting this is that Baum put together in schematic form a kind of Canterbury Tales for New Orleans, but you really can't manage that kind of thing without more first-person narrative. It's the flavor of perspective that really drives the whole.
One more thing. Since Baum was writing nonfiction about living people he would presumably like to remain friends with, there is little that is incisive here. At times you wish you could tell him you're shutting the tape recorder off to get his real opinion on his subjects. I suppose this is why authors turn to fiction - they can put down their real thoughts about people, as long as they change the names. Baum does not appear to be operating with the same freedom.
The overall result is good narrative with surprisingly little color. The book certainly leaves you with an appetite for more, though. The indications you get of complete government collapse (no morgue for dead bodies, no jail to put looters in, all unexplained) certainly make me want to understand why none of our three layers of government were able to respond to hurricane Katrina. That said, this book is not primarily about Katrina.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Mar 28, 2012 3:16:50 PM PDT
SWM says:
I have to disagree with a couple of points you make. First, there are nine stories, not eight. This may seem like a quibble, but the the book is called, after all, "Nine Lives." If you missed that you have wonder what else you may have missed.
Well, I'll tell you one equally big thing: You say "in place of an author's voice you get a very stripped narrative...." While it is true the stories (except Wells') were not told in the first person, they are clearly told from the perspective of each main character. The grammar and syntax ("voice") of each is distinctly different, and the author tells each narrative just as he must have been told it by that character and a few supporting characters. This is why all the other stories are not written in the first person-- because supplemental information was gleaned elsewhere, just as the author explains in the "About this Book" section. Also, to have nine first person stories would give the book an entirely different-- to me less effective-- style.
So making that distinction gives one a completely different reaction to Baum's narrative choice: Baum lets each character, clearly oblivious to how it must sound, tell his own story. Baum lets the characters tell what they did and why they did it and offers no judgments-- the actions and thoughts of the characters "trumpet" for themselves. Hence, you hear the voice of the coroner tell stories about himself that show what a complete and utter idiot the man was. Another character sounds perfectly reasonable when he talks about administering corporal punishment to his students with a PINE BOARD. These characters are not black or white, bad or good. As a New Orleanian and a discriminating reader, I was relieved that the author didn't hit me over the head with his own opinions-- it's all right there for the reader to discern, right out of the horse's mouth. Now THAT'S magic. This book is fascinating! I beg to differ with you-- the color is all there--jaw-dropping Technicolor, no less. Maybe the author's style is too subtle for some. For that reason, this would make a good book club selection.

In reply to an earlier post on Jun 28, 2012 3:05:42 PM PDT
Nine lives, but only eight narratives. The ninth is a recorded monologue. I didn't miss anything, I'm just being precise! As for the second point, if you like it you like it, obviously. I think there's a reason why authors don't typically attempt to portray forty years in the lives of nine separate people - you end up having to do too much too quickly.
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