Like a lot of New Orleans bookworms, I lost almost all my books in the flood. Piling all of my ruined belongings on the street for the debris trucks gave me a quick and crazy quasi-Buddhist lesson in impermanence that I can't seem to learn from or shake. In the past, I was always in a battle with my book pile. I'd devised a solution that was part gifting milk crates of books to people and part bringing my basset hound to the French Quarter to trade books and hang out with Kaylie the Hungarian Vizsla
at Kaboom Books.
But then Kaboom moved to Houston after the storm. Now books are returning to dust and pile.
Here's a small and somewhat random sampling of books that I have or used to have that have contributed to my understanding of New Orleans:
The New Orleans of Lafcadio Hearn
by Delia Labarre
This collection of satirical writings and illustrations about New Orleans first published in the Daily City Item makes for some sad, yet hilarious, reading. Fired from a newspaper in Cincinnati for marrying a black woman, Hearn moved to New Orleans in the early 1880s before ultimately relocating to Japan. From Hearn's musings on the "bummer class" of "low ruffians and aristocratic rascals" to teeth gnashing for "the indignant dead" (the legions of unavenged Nola murder victims), I cannot even go into the million reasons why the subtitle of this artifact of New Orleans life from the 1880s should be And the Song Remains the Same. New Orleans readers in particular will be surprised (or not) to find that such current New Orleans problems as "the city does not pay police to kick and gouge and bite prisoners" were old topics even back then. "The Chinese opium-smokers have not departed from the city as we had fondly hoped," Hearn wrote. "They have simply established themselves in other streets." Um, yeah.
Gumbo Ya-Ya: Folk Tales of Louisiana
by Lyle Saxon
My father (not even a Cajun) and his hunting buddies scared me with tales of the swamp werewolf when I was a child. Now I know why.
A Confederacy of Dunces
by John Kennedy Toole
This comic novel is still a New Orleans classic. This was the first book I ever read that featured characters that spoke like some of my relatives. When I first read it, my mother told me that the man who wrote it had killed himself, and he had been nice, so that was a tragedy, and that a nun we knew had known him. That's how small Louisiana is.
Mafia Kingfish: Carlos Marcello and the Assassination of John F. Kennedy
by John H. Davis
A relative of Carlos Marcello controls a lot of properties in my neighborhood. While this isn't the best book of all time, it does provide a bit of history of the mystery.
Sandrine's Letter to Tomorrow
by Dedra Johnson
The tales of Catholic school girlhood in this novel set in New Orleans in the '70s resonated with me. This book made me remember both mean, old school nuns and younger, folksinging nuns from my childhood. It reminded me that school often provides a fleeting oasis of calm for children with troubled home lives.
I also like that New Orleans lives and breathes in this novel instead of just sitting there like a lump of overchewed beignet clichés. After a neighbor's Space Walk party turned to a brutal brawl in front of my house recently, I found myself thinking about how Sandrine, the little girl protagonist of this novel, feared some of her mother's parties. She got this vague feeling of dread when the mac-and-cheese or jambalaya fixings came out.
Whatever It Takes
by Paul Tough
The widespread flooding in New Orleans pushed the school system here to a tipping point. I walked away from Paul Tough's book with a better understanding of the daily challenges facing school reformers and a feel for how Geoffrey Canada is meeting (and not meeting) these challenges in Harlem. Barack Obama's interest in using Geoffery Canada's Harlem Children's Zone as a blueprint for school reform in urban areas ups the ante for New Orleans and other cities.
Raising Freedom's Child: Black Children and Visions of the Future after Slavery
by Mary Niall Mitchell
Mitchell uses letters, photographs, newspapers, novels, and legal documents to examine how the black child became a blank screen on which to project the country's hopes and fears of American life after slavery. I've met more than a few missionaries and reformers and never thought about them much in their historical context before. Mitchell's discussion of "northern civilizing efforts" in this book changed that. Since the flood, I've been listening to black and white New Orleanians joke and not-joke about "carpetbaggers" of every stripe.
Chord Changes on the Chalkboard: How Public School Teachers Shaped Jazz and the Music of New Orleans
by Al Kennedy, with a foreword by Ellis Marsalis, Jr.
Al Kennedy shaped my understanding of how jazz and culture and public education shape each other in New Orleans. I look at (and listen to) school marching bands and brass bands differently now as a result.