Speaking of pestilence: I had hoped to finish writing about one or both of two New Orleans/Katrina books that I’ve read “recently” in something approaching a timely manner. The one year anniversary of the storm seemed like a good target date. So did the Saints v. Falcons/re-opening of the Super Dome (eat it Falcons!). Then, I mentioned in a post a few weeks back that I would get around to it in a few days. Better late than never I suppose.
In order to not drag this out any longer, I’ve decided to tackle both books at once. The books are The Great Deluge by Douglas Brinkley and Why New Orleans Matters by Tom Piazza. For books with the same basic subject matter, they couldn’t be more different.
The Great Deluge
The Great Deluge is almost an encyclopedic catalog of the human suffering that occurred in New Orleans and Coastal Mississippi in the week following Hurricane Katrina. The book gives a short account of the world before the storm, but it seems that just about everything that happened in that one week is mentioned in great detail. Here are some stats from the book:
More than 200,000 homes were destroyed while another 45,000 were deemed unlivable…15,000 apartments washed away… Both St. Bernard Parish and Plaquemines Parish were 90% obliterated…
Our correspondent, Dr J, an authority on these things, loathes Brinkley as a hack historian. Those feelings are borne out in parts of the book. There are passages that feel overly political, including screeds against the Mayor, the Governor, the President, that come off as partisan attacks. Some of those people are in different political parties, so I’m not sure what the goal of these attacks are.
There are also some errors in the book that are obvious to even the most casual reader. The most embarrassing error has to be when Brinkley refers to Trent Lott as a former Louisiana Senator. Brinkley lives in Louisiana. How did no one proofing the book pick that up?
For all its faults, The Great Deluge is a gripping read and me become the definitive book on the subject. It’s certainly the biggest.
Why New Orleans Matters
Why New Orleans Matters, on the other hand, is a very personal book. I was expecting a book length dispassionate argument about why the City deserves to be rebuilt better, stronger, faster, etc. Instead, Piazza hits all of the things that he loves about New Orleans, his adopted home town.
On Jazz Fest: “…the subtext, as it always is in New Orleans, is that we’re all still alive and we might not be tomorrow.”
That’s true. This book came out well before the love fest that was the post-Katrina 2006 Jazz Fest. I never got around to posting on my ’06 Jazz Fest adventures. The passage was so prescient of the shared experience of survival and hope that it is spooky.
But Piazza also gives a fair appraisal of what’s not OK with New Orleans: “Sooner or later New Orleans will test any love that you bring to it”. Too true. If it was all rainbows and unicorns, I’d live there instead of here.
Piazza also provides the best first person account of what life was like for the people who went back to see what was left of their lives. He offers the following thought experiment. Begin by drawing a line three feet or higher around all of the walls or your house. Now imagine that everything below the line has been completely ruined. This Included all of your books and pictures, which have been knocked over onto the floor. If you’re having trouble imagining what your books now look like, submerge your favorite book in the kitchen sink for a week and then leave it out for another week to mold over.
If it is still difficult to imagine, take all of your books, place them in your bathtub and immerse them in a mixture of water, urine, spoiled food, feces, weed killer from the garage, and perhaps your beloved cat, preferably drowned and bloated. Make sure to turn all the lights off and to leave the house as nearly as possible sealed to the fresh air…
Yikes. As it turns out, having read many of the big Katrina books, a consensus is emerging that the best Katrina book may be Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City by Jed Horne. Which I haven’t read yet. Dammit. I don’t know that I’ve got another one of these in me. Another Katrina Book that I’ve heard good things about (but have not read) is The Storm by Ivor van Heerden, which provides more of a science and engineering approach to the subject matter.
If you’ve got a minute, there are two recent articles from the New Orleans’ Times-Picayune that are worth your while.
The first is an article by columnist Chris Rose defending the spectacle that was the Saints/Falcons game. Apparently some felt that it was unseemly for people to listen to Green Day/U2 while others were still homeless. His response is outstanding.
The second is an article by the same columnist, Chris Rose, about how the crushing weight of what the disaster almost drove him to suicide. It’s a moving piece and it gives some hint at the amazing depth of the trauma that is being felt by everyone who has survived (Another Times-Picayune employee, a photographer, tried to kill himself by running over a cop (the idea, apparently, was that the cop would shoot him – shockingly, he didn’t).
And lastly: My daughter dropped and cracked her cheap New Orleans snow globe. Her second. After putting it on a table and watching the water leak out of it, I was struck by the metaphor-iness of it all. See for yourself. Deep, man.