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I spoke with Laura Lippman last Friday.  She was engaging and articulate and has that special gift some people have that they willingly offer to others, if they’ll but pay attention.  Luckily for me, I was paying very close attention.

We were brought together to discuss Lippman’s new book, “I’d Know You Anywhere,” which I reviewed here over the weekend.  First up, I remarked upon her Katrina analogy to the villain in “I’d Know You Anywhere.”  She said of it:

As more people should know, the Mississippi coast got hit by a hurricane. New Orleans suffered the human inadequacies of poorly built levees.  With Walter, you have on the one hand these hints that his family was not as warm and supportive as they might have been of him, but they’re not sadists, they’re not unnaturally cruel; they’re just not great parents. And of course lots of people rise above that situation and manage to go on and have lives that don’t involve raping and killing people.  On some level, he’s probably a natural disaster; there’s something that’s probably innate that’s been wrong in his brain chemistry from the day he was born. But on the other hand he’s also somewhat created by his circumstances.  It’s the collision of what was innate in him, what was natural, and what circumstances he has come into and how he interacts with those circumstances.  So, he’s a lot like Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans.  It was a storm that came into contact with human-made catastrophes waiting to happen.

I asked if when she was a newspaper reporter whether she reported on crimes.  She explained that although she was a full-time police reporter during her eight years in Texas, she was a feature writer for her twelve years at the Baltimore Sun.  She noted that although most of the crimes she writes about are based on true crimes, almost none of them are ones on which she ever reported.  She appreciates that one of the gifts she garnered from being a reporter is that she’s not shy about knowing how to find out things she needs to know for a story.  And this is not always a matter of calling a friend or contact.  “Sometimes you just have to go into things cold.  In one book, I needed to know a lot about the working life of a furrier.  And I certainly didn’t know any furriers, but having been a reporter, you know how to call people who know people.  And you sort of put word out ‘I’m looking for someone who knows this.’  And eventually someone says, ‘Well I know a guy.’ And you call this person up.  When you are a novelist trying to get stuff right, people are amazingly helpful and pretty good about some odd, cold phone calls.  Not so much when you are a journalist.”

So where does she draw inspiration about the crimes she writes if not from her days as a reporter?  From her past, as a “consumer of news, not a reporter of news.”  Generally, she is going back decades to pre-CNN/24 hour news days and to crimes that have stayed with her these many years later.  She prefers these generally unfamiliar crimes to provide her a good framework for the tale she will spin, the web she will weave, among the few facts she will retain from the true crime.

In asking her what drew her to write crime stories, I seemed to strike upon a topic about which Lippman had given a lot of thought (probably because she’s been asked the same question over and over). [Note to self: Don't ask crime writers why they write crimes stories.]  She concluded by telling me, “I came into it because it felt accessible and then I got there and realized I didn’t need to go anywhere.  I guess it would be akin to saying I came to live in New Orleans because my car broke down then I realized I was in a fabulous place.”  But in reaching that conclusion, Lippman had lots of advice to offer new writers.  Here’s what she had to say:

I had a friend say to me that for a lot of women who want to start writing, genre is often the avenue in because it seems less presumptuous.  You’re not saying, “I’m going to write the great American novel.”  You’re saying “I’m going to write just a mystery, just a romance, just a science fiction, just paranormal.”  And that was good advice; it really stuck with me.
One of the great things about the mystery genre for writers who are getting their feet wet is that there is framework.  There’s not a formula. There’s not a recipe.  There is no place where it is written down that you do this, this, this, and this.  But there is a framework that if you’ve been reading crime novels, you understand what the basic framework is.  There’s going to be a problem and your main character is going to solve it.
What’s different about genre fiction, and this is paraphrasing or fine-tuning something Raymond Chandler once said, is that mediocre genre fiction can still be successful in that there are lots of undiscerning readers who are perfectly happy with a book that takes them from Point A to Point C and does all the thing that the genre promises, whatever those things are, whether it’s a romance, mystery, science fiction, paranormal.  So very mediocre genre novels do get published. And what Chandler said and where I would disagree with him is he said you never read the ordinary or mediocre literary novel.  Well, I can’t speak for the times he lived in, I read mediocre literary novels all the time.  [I wondered at this point if she'd read my review of "The Story of Edgar Sawtelle."]
The mediocre literary novel is an out-and-out failure.  There’s nothing to recommend it except as a lesson in how not to do something.  The mediocre genre novel can be successful on its own terms because it does the very basic things that it set out to do.  Just because what is known as “literary fiction” doesn’t have the option of being mediocre and successful doesn’t mean that what is known as “genre fiction” doesn’t have the option of being as successful as a literary novel at its most successful.  There’s no ceiling on genre fiction.  It’s almost as if that when a crime novel, when a romance novel, when a science fiction novel is very, very, very good, then it has left the genre by definition of being good. I think that’s a fallacy.

There are great crime novels that are as good as most literary fiction.  I mean, in some ways I guess what I’m saying about why I came to crime fiction is because I thought I could execute at the low end of the scale. [Lippman laughed as she said this.]  “Well, I can write one of those mediocre books.” And then I got inside and saw that it’s open to the sky and I can go as high as I want and the only limit here is me. There’s not an inherit limit in the genre.

What are some of her favorite genre books, books she feels can “stand shoulder to shoulder with current literary novels”?  Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River” and Kate Atkinson‘s books about her private eye named Jackson Brodie readily came to her mind.  And although she wasn’t sure he is classified as a crime novelist (“I don’t how you’d classify him, just that’s he’s wonderful”), she also praised the works of Daniel Woodrell.

We returned again to “I’d Know You Anywhere,” focusing more on its central theme, how well people really know each other, or even themselves:

I’m really, really crazy about the short stories of Ellen Gilchrist, a fine southern writer.  One of her early stories has a character who is obsessed with her own reputation: What do people think of me? And I thought that was such a fabulous insight into the mind of a teenage girl.  I think teenage girls are fascinated with what is their reputation. How are they known? What are people saying about them? “Oh, God I hope people aren’t talking about me but what would be even worse is that no one is talking about me.”  Teenage girls in particular tend to be interested in famous people, and I think it’s natural that even as they are following and worshiping and thinking about some famous person they’ve never met, they can’t help wondering if people are thinking about them, following them, paying attention to them, asking themselves, “How am I known?”

She took care to explain that “the word ‘KNOW’ was a very deliberate choice in the title” of her new book: “it’s all about how we’re known and how we know others and what it means to know anybody.”

We may not really know each other and ourselves as much as we think we do, but what I do know is that I have thoroughly enjoyed the odyssey that has been the last six weeks beginning with my receipt of an email from Lippman’s publisher, the likes of which I usually ignore.  And regardless of whether “I’d Know You Anywhere” goes in the annals of fiction under “literary” or “genre,” it is very fine fiction.

Don’t forget, I have two hardbacks to give away of “I’d Know You Anywhere.”  For a chance to win one, just leave me a comment telling me some of your favorite mystery writers, private eye works, or other mystery genre books that were STILL with you long after you were done reading them.  Laura Lippman will be doing a reading at the Garden District Book Shop next Saturday, October 9th.  Get your comments in by tomorrow, September 30, so you’ll have her book in time to attend her reading and get her to sign it!

Laura Lippman’s “I’d Know You Anywhere,” opens on the tranquil domesticity of the Benedict family, Eliza and Peter, and their two children, Iso (short for Isobel, aged 13) and Albie (8).  But by the end of Chapter One, the first fissure of that sense of utter calm and peace is revealed: Eliza receives a handwritten letter from a woman writing on behalf of the man who kidnapped Eliza when she was 15.  Walter is now on Death Row with his execution date looming.  The letter says that Walter had seen Eliza’s picture in a magazine and that even after all these years, “[s]till, I’d know you anywhere.”  The letter goes on to explain that Walter feels he owes Eliza an apology and would “love to hear from [her].”

And so we are off.

This isn’t your typical Whodunit.  We know from the outset Walter did it, was caught, and was given a strong punishment.  We know early on that what he “did”  was rape and murder.  Young girls.  Only one of which survived: Eliza.

What we don’t know, what Eliza herself does not know, is WHY her.  What good did Walter see in her and not in the others to spare her life?  Or, from the 15 year old Elizabeth’s point of view, what didn’t he see in her?  What made her so different from the other girls way back then?

Much of the book swaps chapters from current day to 1985, when Eliza was 15 and still “Elizabeth.”  Coincidentally, the Summer of 1985 was also the summer that *I* was 15.  Elizabeth came from a good, middle class family; she was a touch shy.  She didn’t need nor seek to be the center of attention.  She liked that her older sister was the drama hog of the family because the energy always seemed focused off of Elizabeth and that was just fine.  And oddly, the same was quite true for me at 15 as well.  The Elizabeths of the world aren’t better or worse than other teenagers, but they just don’t KNOW exactly who they are yet and they’d prefer the spotlight not to be on them as they figure it out.

We follow Walter before he meets Elizabeth; as he kills his first victim.  We follow as Elizabeth takes a shortcut through the woods and crosses paths with Walter and is kidnapped.  We follow as Elizabeth’s hair is cut to disguise her look, and her clothes get worn day after day becoming soiled and unkempt.  We follow as Elizabeth struggles to work out who Walter is and how she can do things she believes will extend her time with Walter as a plan to extend the time when he will kill her.

Meanwhile, we watch in present day as Eliza struggles with not wanting to open further any line of communication with Walter.  Walter persists, however, and each unannounced missive from Walter shakes Eliza more: to whom else did Walter give her address? How far will he (they?) go to get her to hear him out?

Getting a letter from Walter was like some exiled citizen of New Orleans getting a telegram signed ‘Katrina.’ Hey, how are you?  Do you ever think of me? Those were some crazy times, huh?

Eliza decides to take his call, to hear his apology.  Why?  Because even these 20+ years later, Eliza still questions who she is, who she was, and how to allow herself to be okay with being “the lucky one.”  Well, that plus he promises he’ll tell her details of other girls so that other families can have peace.

But does Walter have yet another plan of manipulation of Eliza up his sleeve?  Will she unwittingly take his bait and play right into his hands?

Mystery aside, Lippman is a good writer.  Her characters are fully developed and evolving.  The relationships she describes are real.  So real, I wondered if Lippman was the mother of a teenage girl; if her parents were psychiatrists (as Eliza’s are).  Here’s a passage relating to Eliza’s father, Manny:

Manny was always careful to use the most neutral words possible–experienced not suffered, or even endured.  Not because he was inclined to euphemisms, but because Eliza’s parents didn’t want to define her life for her.  “You get to be the expert on yourself,” her father said frequently, and Eliza found it an enormously comforting saying, an unexpected gift from two parents who had knowledge, training, and history to be the expert on her, if they so chose.  They probably  did know her better than she knew herself in some ways, but they refused to claim this power.  Sometimes she wished they would, or at least drop a few hints.

Or this description of the woman who has befriended and is helping Walter:

Barbara knew from scared little mouses.  Mice.  She had been one, behind her cranky facade.  She had skittered to her car in the morning, worried it wouldn’t start, skittered into the school, tried to teach history to bored seventh and eighth graders, skittered out of the Pimlico neighborhood at day’s end, cooked dinner, fretted over calories and fat and cholesterol.  Graded papers in front of the television, usually falling asleep there.  Rinse, lather, repeat.

See? Not scary. Well, definitely scary but not macabre.  Bottom line, Lippman understands people.  She gets that we aren’t just “good” or “bad.”  That there are many shades of gray.  And the true gem of this story is NOT the crime or the mystery.  It is the artfulness that is Lippman’s insight and writing.  “I’d Know You Anywhere” is layered and goes deeper, more introspective, than others in its genre.  And to me, that is a beautiful thing.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about my conversation with Laura Lippman about her writing, Eliza and Walter, and other interesting topics.

As I posted yesterday, I have two hardbacks to give away of “I’d Know You Anywhere.”  And all you have to do for a chance to win is just leave me a comment telling me some of your favorite mystery writers, private eye works, or other books of intrigue that were STILL with you long after you were done reading them.  Laura Lippman will be doing a reading at the Garden District Book Shop on October 9th.  So this little giveaway ends Thursday, September 30, so that you’ll have her book in time to attend her reading and have her sign your new book!

Every so often, I get an email via this blog to receive a free copy of a book if I am interested in reading it and would consider writing a review of it.  I’ve always turned these offers down, mainly because each book’s description, for one reason or another, did not, well, blow my skirt up.  And I would feel bad if I got the free book then couldn’t bring myself to finish it or I did finish it and did not have anything positive to write about it, and how awkward that would be.  This email proved to be the exception:

Award winning author Laura Lippman is back with another gripping tale of suspense, her new stand-alone novel I’d Know You Anywhere, on sale 8/17. This is sure to be Lippman’s biggest hit yet, and a must-read for anyone who loves a good mystery and psychological suspense novel!

I love “gripping tales of suspense” and am a sucker for a “good mystery and psychological suspense novel.”  I did my research, found the author and publisher were legit, and asked for the book, which went on top of my night stand queue as I finished another novel.  Meanwhile, a co-worker mentioned the compilation “New Orleans Noir,” a new one to me, when I asked him to name some of his favorite NOLA fiction for my Top Ten NOLA Reads post.

Two weeks later, I had finally started reading “I’d Know You Anywhere,” and the next day my co-worker brought me his copy of “New Orleans Noir” to read.  I casually flipped through the pages and the name of one of the contributing author’s caught my eye: Laura Lippman. What the?  Was she from NOLA?  If so, how had I never heard of her? Hrmm.

That night, I continued reading her book, putting aside the oddity of her appearance in the Noir book.  “I’d Know You Anywhere” is about a woman, Eliza, who was kidnapped when she was fifteen by a man, Walter, now on Death Row for raping and killing other young girls.  Walter has extended contact to Eliza, and of course such a thing has Eliza rattled.  She discusses it all with her husband, Peter.  And then I read this passage:

Over time, of course, she had told him more, in greater detail.  Peter never wondered why she was the lucky one.  He took it for granted that she was, and he was glad for it.  “We don’t ponder why lightening strikes where it does,” he said once.  Later, after a London-based magazine had asked him to file dispatches from New Orleans on the first anniversary of Katrina, he had written beautiful passages about the levees, human-designed and maintained systems that had failed spectacularly.  He described how arbitrary water was, destroying one neighborhood, while leaving another relatively intact.  He never said as much, but Eliza believed he had written those words for her, that it was a sonnet of sorts, more proof that Peter understood.  Walter was a natural disaster made catastrophic by human failures.  She had been on one side of the levee, Holly on the other.  Don’t ask why.

Ok. SERIOUSLY. Who *IS* this Laura Lippman?  People don’t just toss out Katrina analogies, or at least not thoughtful, positive ones full of retrospection, without there being that love that NOLA evokes in people.  Knowing nothing more of Lippman at this point, it was clear she KNEW New Orleans, that she *got* the city and her denizens.

So, the researcher in me kicked into high gear and I dug around.  She started her writing career as a newspaper reporter.  She married her second husband several years ago.  Her husband has occasional business in New Orleans.  Consequently, they bought a second home here.

There it was. Her New Orleans connection.

Oh, and her husband? He’s another former news reporter (they both wrote for the Baltimore Sun) whose business in New Orleans happens to be making HBO’s “Treme.”  Yup, Ms. Lippman is Mrs. David Simon.

I swear this string of coincidences ala Six Degrees of Separation is so typical of New Orleans, I had to laugh.  How many times, HOW MANY TIMES, do you meet someone new and within a short period of talking about where you each went to high school and what part of town you each grew up in (THE New Orleans questions), do you realize that your older brother dated your new friend’s sister?  Or her aunt is your cousin’s wife?  Or she taught your nephew Freshman Social Studies?  Everyone in this damn town is connected to everyone else.  And usually in far less than six degrees.  And now the same is true of Ms. Lippman, who still feels new to the city.

I finished her book AND have had the opportunity to talk to her (!) about her book, her New Orleans, and much more.  I’ll tell you about all of that in the next couple of posts.

Do you find this intriguing?  A “gripping tale of suspense”? Does this sort of mystery get you excited? Well, “I’d Know You Anywhere” may well be the perfect read for you.  And I have TWO hardbacks to give away.  If you want a chance to win, just leave me a comment and tell me some of your favorite mystery writers.  Or private eye works.  Or other books of intrigue that were STILL with you long after you were done reading them.

Laura Lippman will be doing a reading at the Garden District Book Shop on October 9th.  So this little giveaway ends Thursday, September 30, so that you’ll have her book in time to attend her reading and have her sign your new book!

Really, this is grand book with a great mysterious NOLA connection. Once you read it, you’ll WANT to hear her read it.  I know I do.  So leave those comments and come to the reading!

A Tragedy for the Dogs

A lot of reading has been going on over here this summer.  The latest selection, however, warrants comment.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle,” by David Wroblewski came recommend via an odd route.  I have a friend in Colorado that sends me two books every year—one for my birthday, one for Christmas.  On the whole, I find the books she recommends readable but I truly only like about a third of what she gives me.  She knows this and takes it as a challenge.

I have another friend with whom I work, and his wife, we realized, loves all the same books my CO friend sends me.  Now if my CO friend sends me a book, the more I hate it, the more I *know* my worker-friend’s wife will LOVE it.  So far, these two who have never met have batted 100%.  Why I ever thought a book my worker friend or his wife would recommend would be something I’d like, I can’t explain.  But when my friend dropped “Sawtelle” on my desk, I was hungry to read it. And anxious to like it.

Thus I set out to read a story that from the book’s own description did not call to me.  It was about a boy and his dogs.  But it *was* a coming of age novel and I LOVE those.

The first hundred or so pages, it was slow going.  This unique breed of dog; their training; life on a farm. Nice enough writing.  A hint of a mystery.  I truly found the descriptions of training the dogs worthwhile.  Having a dog that knows one command (Sit!) but takes it more as a suggestion, I can appreciate that dog training is an art.  And not easy to write about and not be unreadable.  (See, that’s nice, right?)  At about the 150 page mark, something happened.  Finally.  But it took another 150 pages for something ELSE to happen.  So now at page 300, I am just in it to finish it.  Again, highly readable.  A nice paragraph here and there.

Then the climax is getting set up.  The end is near!  Loose ends will be tied!  Mysteries solved! Order restored!  I was never so happy to get to that end.

Until I got there.

And then the train came off the rails.

Seriously, the ending of this book MAKES NO SENSE.  I care not whether I spoil anyone on the ending, but I don’t care enough about the story to dredge it out here to ask you, dear reader, if the ending makes sense to you.  I asked my friend about the ending.  He admitted he’d forgotten how it ended.  If I had doubted his sincerity, he may be dead now.  But I believed him.

To try to make sense of this nonsense (and the twitter failing me), I googled reviews.  Seems this book was, ehm, similar to? apropos of? a poor adaptation of? Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” and “King Lear.”

Now, I am no Shakespearean expert, although I did take a college English course on just his works, and I am certain I read both plays.  But I have no real recollection of them.  The bottom line for me is, Story Is as Story Does.  You were inspired by Shakespeare.  Great.  Get in line, fella.  So were many other writers.  This story was ever so slow moving.  And the end did not fit.  What it DID fit was making sure it had a Shakespearean tragic ending.  But that isn’t enough.  A story, its beginning, middle and end, must stand alone, apart from its inspiration.  Shakespeare aside, this story should carry itself.  It didn’t.  And to say the ending needed to be as it was to be a truly Shakespearean tragedy is, well, tragic, and a disservice to Shakespeare.

And just for the record, I hate happy, puffy heart endings.  Sad, tragic endings? Bring it.  So it isn’t that I didn’t like the sad ending.  It’s that this particular ending left way too much unexplained (does Trudy ever learn Claude killed Gar?  That Edgar was suspicious of Claude and thus his behavior the night with Page Papinou?  Does Trudy even continue the kennel?  She and Edgar couldn’t handle just the two of them.  How was she to go it alone?  Do those records he died for serve ANY purpose after he’s dead?  What was the point of Forte???  Why do we follow Essay and the dogs into the woods but no further?  What becomes of Glen, an innocent that was manipulated by Claude and lost at least his vision as a result? For whom did Claude initially buy the poison?  Gar? Their father?  Was Claude “away” in the service or jail? If jail, for what?)  Following dogs into the woods to “make their own choice” in the midst of so much left unresolved is about the worst ending ever to a story.

Just PLEASE do not give this book to the makers of “Lost.”  Lest they turn it into a TV series and I lose ANOTHER five years of my life.

Since I DID find it readable, and since I DID finish it, and since it DID piss me off enough to stay on my mind for a day and get me to write about it, I won’t give it a turkey.  I’ll be generous and give it one AND A HALF stars.  Out of five.

If you have read this book, PLEASE leave me a comment!  Agreeing or not (especially if not!) so I can gnash my teeth in earnest about the ending without spoiling or boring those that haven’t read it.

I wrote a post in early 2008 listing my top ten favorite NOLA reads. Since that time, I’ve read more NOLA books, some excellent, some forgettable.  So I thought I’d update my list.  But wait. There’s more.  We want YOUR list too.  What NOLA books inspire you?  To make the playing field even, Yat Pundit divided this into fiction and non-fiction.  I LOVE that since it, well, gives me TWENTY books to include.

FICTION:

  1. “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. This is the quintessential NOLA read. If you did not read, or were not assigned to read, this book in college, go buy it now. No, really, I’ll wait… Got it? Good. I picked this up just the other day to re-read (for about the third time). It just gets better each read. I am all of 10 pages in and have laughed aloud numerous times. Toole was masterful at describing New Orleans and its denizens.
  2. “Lives of the Saints” by Nancy Lemann. This is a great little find. I read it years ago and still remember Lemann’s description of Claude, who broke the narrator’s heart “into a million pieces on the floor.” Lemann made me seek out several other “Voices of the South” authors. None disappointed.
  3. “A Streetcar Named Desire. ” I know this is a play, but really, what list of NOLA works would be complete without Tennessee Williams’ classic? And there’s good reason this is a classic. It’s haunting and alive and lusty and depraved, just like NOLA.
  4. “The Awakening” by Kate Chopin. This was written in 1899 and was scandalous. It deals with issues of race and sexuality and a woman finding herself and the tragedy that ensued. Because it was 1899. And Louisiana.
  5. “Interview with a Vampire.”  Yes, Anne Rice.  But I did not read this because of Anne Rice or even because of vampires.  I read it because of Sting.  Back in the early ’90s, I was a devout fan of his, and his “Moon Over Bourbon Street” intrigued me.  Back when albums had liner notes, Sting explained that this song was inspired by Rice’s novel. I loved Rice’s descriptions of the City; I always connected more with Louis than Lestat.  And never liked the other books in this series as much as the first.
  6. “The Moviegoer.”  I hadn’t read Walker Percy’s famous book by the time I was in law school.  But when my Mineral Rights professor used the story as his backdrop (oh, law school professors are an odd lot), it was a dare NOT to then read it.  And read it I did.  It is a short novel, but it was, for me, a slow read.  Not because it is boring but because it’s written as though reflecting our hot, simmering summers, where time moves more slowly.  How Percy was able to capture that tone is the genius of it.
  7. “Louisiana Power and Light,” by John Dufresne.  This is set more in the swamps outside of New Orleans, but is close enough.  I enjoyed the journey Dufresne took me on here.  And I especially like how the main character finds himself in Monroe, Louisiana to begin with.
  8. “The Sound of Building Coffins,” by Louis Maistros.  Ok, I am only a chapter into this one, so there’s your caveat.  But so far the writing is sharp and clear, and I’ve heard nothing but wonderful things about it.  And my grandfather tells of how, as a carpenter, he’d do side jobs of building coffins.  The coffins would line his front porch and his dining room as the days passed while they were built.  So I am piqued as to what IS the sound of a coffin being built.
  9. “Dinner at Antoine’s,” by Frances Parkinson Keyes.  A murder mystery set in New Orleans.  Dinner parties at Antoine’s.  Good stuff.
  10. “The Grandissimes.”  George Washington Cable wrote many fine and notable works of fiction peopled with Creoles.  This is one of them.

NON-FICTION:

  1. “Gumbo Ya-Ya: A Collection of Louisiana Folk Tales.” This is a must-have reference for anyone serious about Louisiana culture–it explains Creoles and Cajun; it discusses an unsolved NOLA serial killer; it talks about the history of Rex and Zulu. Plus, it’s got cool hexes and charms you can use to cure what ails ya!
  2. “Frenchmen, Desire, Good Children: And Other Streets of New Orleans.” Another oldie but goodie. This one gives the history behind the (often-changing) NOLA street names. Like Canal Street was supposed to be an actual canal. Or Berlin Street was changed to General Pershing during World War I because it was “too German.”
  3. “The Lost German Slave Girl: The Extraordinary True Story of the Slave Sally Miller and Her Fight for Freedom in Old New Orleans,” by John Bailey This is truly an amazing read. From the historical aspect of the history of slavery in the South to the immigration of Germans to New Orleans. A true courtroom drama that would not be believed as fiction.
  4. “Gawd, I love New Orleans,” by Frank Schneider. Gawd, I love this book.  This is Schneider’s recollections of his life in New Orleans.  They are thoughtful, funny, and feel oh, so familiar.
  5. “The Joy of Yat Catholicism,” by Earl J. Higgins.  This one explains it all. So many out of the City do not get that Catholicism in New Orleans is more cultural than religious.  From St. Joseph’s altars to Jews eating seafood on Friday’s during Lent, this joy of a book puts it all in perspective.
  6. “Gumbo Tales,” by Sara Roahen.  Roahen is a foodie.  And one of those folks that isn’t born and raised a New Orleanian but is hardwired as one nonetheless.  She seeks out every possible foodie excursion New Orleans has to offer, and that’s a lot, and describes her experiences.  This is a love letter to New Orleans.
  7. “Letters from New Orleans,” by Rob Walker.  This is another non-native writing about this weird, wonderful city he stumbled upon and fell in love with.  His love was the music and people.  Much of this was written before Katrina and is all the more precious as it was published just after.
  8. “House of Dance and Feathers.”  Ronald Lewis is the curator of the museum behind his house, The House of Dance and Feathers.  This is a book about the journey Lewis took to open the museum and then to rebuild it after Katrina.  The pictures alone are worth the price of this book.
  9. “Rising Tide.”  John Barry’s novel about the intentional blowing up of the levees flooding the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard in 1927 is chilling in its similarities to Katrina.  I read this before Katrina.  It is a fascinating read.  Even if Katrina had never happened.
  10. “Inventing New Orleans.” A collection of Lafcadio Hearn’s writings while in New Orleans.

Now, a little lagniappe.  My top ten favorite NOLA cookbooks:

  1. “The New Orleans Cookbook,” by Rima and Richard Collin.  To many, including me, the go-to NOLA cookbook. My bible.
  2. “Cooking Up a Storm.”  The Times Picayune’s collection of recipes lost and most requested post-Katrina.  This is already well worn.
  3. “Famous New Orleans Drinks & How to Make ‘Em,” by Stanley Clisby Arthur.  Traditional and time-withstood.
  4. Junior League of New Orleans’ “Jambalaya.”  Their recipe was the one I used to make my first gumbo. It was a success.
  5. “Who’s Your Mama, Are You Catholic, and Can You Make a Roux?” Marcelle Bienvenu’s delightfully-titled cookbook is not for the meek.  But it is spot-on for the tough dishes.  For example, this is the only recipe you’ll ever need for Crawfish Bisque.
  6. “From Woodstoves to Microwaves, Cooking with Entergy.”  These recipes were once given away on cards on the buses and streetcars.  They are all classic, and easy to prepare, NOLA eats.
  7. “Crescent City Farmers Market Cookbook.”  For the cook who wants to use all those tasty yet strange-named veggies from the Farmers Market.
  8. Susan Spicer’s “Crescent City Cooking.”  The only “famous chef” book on the list.  Because her recipes are not too intimidating for the home cook (meaning, me).
  9. “La Cuisine Creole.”  The collection of recipes compiled by Lafcadio Hearn.  I have a thing for him. Deal with it.
  10. “Picayune Creole Cookbook.”  I have a very old one from my grandmother.  It is still in print today.  Rock solid creole recipes and some background to explain how this style of cooking became so popular in New Orleans.

Now give us your lists!  Write a post on your blog and link it here for us to come visit you.  If no blog, leave your lists in the comment.

I’m done complaining about the oil spill.  It’s safe to read again and not roll your eyes.  Really, I mean it.

I’ve switched off of reading NOLA books and am now reading James Salter’s “A Sport and a Pastime.”  I’ve read Salter’s “Light Years,” and it is still one of my favorite books.  His writing is exactly what I love: no spare words; great images and feelings conveyed with wonderful words strung together.

Here’s a description he gives of having a cup of coffee in a Paris cafe:

It’s as quiet as a doctor’s office.  The tables have chairs still upturned on them.  Beyond the thin curtains, a splitting cold.  Perhaps it will snow.  I glance at the sky.  Heavy as wet rags.  France is herself only in the winter, her naked self, without manners.  In the fine weather, all the world can love her. . . .

Heavy as wet rags! Quiet as a doctor’s office! France as herself in winter without manners! Oh, my! How does he do it? It’s lyrical.

Then there’s this passage on how our memory works:

Certain things I remember exactly as they were.  They are merely discolored a bit by time, like coins in the pocket of a forgotten suit.  Most of the details, though, have long since been transformed or rearranged to bring others of them forward.  Some, in fact, are obviously counterfeit; they are no less important.  One alters the past to form the future.  But there is a real significance to the pattern which finally appears, which resists all further change.  In fact, there is the danger that if I continue to try, the whole concert of events will begin to fall apart in my hands like old newspaper, I can’t bear to think of that.  The myriad past, it enters us and disappears.  Except that within it, somewhere, like diamonds, exist the fragments that refuse to be consumed.  Sifting through, if one dares, and collecting them, one discovers the true design.

This kind of writing knocks my socks off.  It’s so lovely.  I want to savor it.  And so I find I can read only a few pages a day.  If I rush, I don’t catch all the flavors.  It’s like guzzling a fine wine: you can, but you lose more than you gain.

So I’m only on page 57.  And since there’s only 191, I will continue to read Salter in the way I best enjoy it: as a sport and a pastime.

Nothing to Lose

Bob Dylan once sang that “[W]hen you got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” Years later, he sang, “When you think you lost everything you find out you can always lose a little more.” Since they are both Dylan lyrics, the incongruity of these two lines has continued to have me scratching my head.

Dylan recorded “Like a Rolling Stone,” with the former lyric, in 1967. He was in his twenties when he wrote it. Dylan recorded “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” with the latter lyric, in 1997; he was over fifty.

When young, as Dylan was in the late ’60s, one’s got the world by the tail. Even when losing, one truly has nothing to lose because what one DOES have is time, time to try again and rebuild and re-establish. Whether it’s matters of business or matters of the heart.

But as one gets older, and has a mortgage and a marriage and a career, losing comes harder. Losing love is harder when children are involved; losing a house is harder than losing a lease on an apartment; losing a job, one’s reputation, is harder when one is older because there is less time to recover and more to overcome.

And I’ve realized, as I’ve aged, that there IS ALWAYS more to lose. Always. More. To lose. Things in my personal life are going very well. But I have full cognizance of just how much I have to lose, how much for which I have to be grateful.

But this question of losing, and of winning, has been on my mind lately. Probably because this weekend is BIG in New Orleans. HUGE. Saturday is the Mayor’s race. And Sunday, the Saints’ first Superbowl. Both will have a major impact on the city.

The city’s next mayor will have many challenges and is inheriting an office that’s been all but vacant for the last two plus years. The office has been plagued with scandals and malfeasance, and indictments are continuing to fly. Yet New Orleans is perched to move past the “Post-Katrina Era” of the past four-and-a-half years: to move away from the pain of the Storm and its aftermath and back to jazz and carnival and creole food and Cajun dancing. Yes, we will always have the scar of Katrina, and the change she’s made IN us, but we can be whole again without needing to explain Katrina as an everyday part of our OUTSIDE lives.

And the Saints’ hugely successful season has already meant a lot to the city. None of us will be less proud, could be less proud, of Our Boys no matter what the outcome this Sunday. Drew Brees and Sean Payton are the kings of our Carnival krewes this year; the team is the reason for a parade of their own next week. They unified the citizens of New Orleans in the way only natives CAN be united. We supported this team for SO MANY years, so many bad years, and many more WORSE years. But we always came back to them. Always loyal and optimistic. Even those Schwegmann’s bags were worn with a certain pride. We’re happy to admit now we were the Aint’s.

I always loved the Saints but never thought it was more than just a football team. But when that field goal was kicked in overtime, when Payton said that the win, the Superbowl game, was for the City of New Orleans and the fans, I felt something. And so did my neighbors, my friends, my family. We came together. Fireworks were heard throughout the city. We all joined in that moment and swelled with so much pride, it dripped like tears from our eyes.

And in the two weeks since that win, we’ve been a happier city. We laugh more; we talk to more people in line at the grocery, in elevators. We tailgate; offices celebrate. All over the city today, men, women and children were donned in black and gold. And a smile.

Because we know that come Sunday, we have nothing to lose.

Dream a Little Dream

Waaaay back in college, I watched Oprah.  And one day she had a guest on her show, Gayle Delaney, who was a dream interpreter.  Having always had vivid dreams, my interest was piqued.  Her theory, in general, is that your dreams are little movies that your unconscious mind produces especially for you.  Throw out those “dream dictionaries,” she advised; forget Freud.  For example, you dream about a horse.  Freud would say it’s sexually connected.  Delaney would ask you, “What’s a horse?  Pretend I am an alien and don’t know what one is.  Describe it to me.”  And if you answer, “a horse is a large animal, one that my family held in a stable when I was a child.  As a matter of fact, I once was thrown from a horse and was never so scared!” then your horse means something very different from someone whose only experience with a horse is the nag they’ve ridden at the zoo.

And so it’s all about YOU and what those dream images mean to you.

I REALLY dug her theory.  So I bought a couple of her books to help me keep a dream journal and interpret my dreams.  And it was cooool!

For example, she claims that your mind tries to pick things that are often things you are struggling with when wide awake.  Your brain uses other parts of itself to get a message to you that you otherwise can’t see wide awake.  And if that message is really important, it will repeat in your dreams and get more obvious.  And more obvious and more obvious as days pass and the message is not coming through.

So, that summer I needed to break up with my boyfriend and I struggled to cut loose a good man but not my ideal, my dreams got more and more blunt.  It started with one pool of water.  Contained emotions that needed to be released.  Before I accepted the message, I was dreaming of a house with 5 pools that was on a lake.  Yeah.  Lotsa water.  All contained.  All un-utilized and scary to me.  How does this connect to a boyfriend? Well, there were other elements to the dream that tied him in.  But what still stays with me were those growing number of pools.

Once I got into law, my dreams quieted down.  They got a lot more literal and didn’t need journaling to get.  Maybe my mind knew I had no time to deal with symbolism.

So now my dreams are just those things I see at night and forget after a few minutes of the morning have passed.

Except lately they are more.

Last week I dreamed I met Bob Dylan.  He was the man, not the legend, in my dream.  And it was so nice.  I woke up disappointed that I’d not really made that connection.

Then I dreamed about seeing something I shouldn’t have that was committed by a serial killer.  And as a result he was then after me.  And a co-worker came to save me.  And so did Brad Pitt. It felt so real. I woke up scared and shaken up.  And weirdly, I knew in the dream that my co-worker was really trying to help and that Brad was really there as an actor. I mean, I knew as I was dreaming part was a dream.

Delaney also gives guidance on dreaming about what issue you want resolved, and about returning to a dream once you’ve woken up.  I’m able to do both now.

In that serial killer dream, I woke up and against my will returned to that dream.  But at least when I returned I was more aware that I would not be killed.

I have NO idea what that dream is about!  Or the Bob Dylan dream.  And why am I dreaming about famous men I really like?

Maybe after all these years my unconscious has something good to tell me again.  Maybe I’ll dust off my dream journal.

Do you believe in your dreams?  Do you keep a dream journal?  Or do you just think I have repressed sexual energy to burn?

Sayonara

We had dinner tonight with two other couples.  One couple will be leaving Thursday for a big adventure: they are going to Japan for (at least) one year to teach English.  I had a friend do this after he graduated college (about the same age as these two now).  My friend sold or gave away almost everything he owned to go—it was the cheapest solution of what to do with the stuff he wasn’t bringing with him.  I ended up with a lot of his books (sssh, I’d hate for him to ask for them back these many years later).

That friend of mine also introduced me to classical Japanese writers, with Kawabata and Tanizaki (I love, love, love The Makioka Sisters) becoming my two favorites.  Tonight, we talked about these writers.  And about Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (it is now at the top of my list of books to read).  And about Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (I really, really don’t like classic Russian literature!), and even a word about Hemingway and Faulkner.

It was such a delightful meal.  I hadn’t thought of those Japanese writers in years.  Not like I thought of them tonight.  And those of us there not leaving for Japan in two days, we couldn’t help but feel the excitement, the anticipation, that the two leaving were feeling: its electric current danced around our table like another member of our party.  Oh, youth!  To be 23 with the world at one’s feet!  To have a lifetime of unknown tomorrows in unknown countries (they plan to return to America via India, China, and other Eastern Asian countries).  Ah!

It seemed a sign when my fortune cookie read, “You are a lover of words, someday you should write a book.”  But that sign proved not to be too auspicious when another at the table read us his fortune, “You are a lover of words, someday you should write a book.”

And so it was that we stepped into the damp evening air.  Thoughts ran through my head of the Japanese books I would recommend to our young friends as they begin their big Asian adventure.  Then I saw that I had spit-up cookies dried on my shirt from Sun drooling on me earlier in the day when she was convinced she could fit an entire box of cookies in her mouth (she cannot) and having a mouth too full to chew, her saliva dissolved said cookies out of her oozing mouth and onto me.

On Writing

If only the mastering of the keyboard, the typing of letters, were all there was to writing well.  I have ideas and thoughts that run through my mind when I am away from a computer (or even pen and paper).  And often, when I clear away everything and crack my knuckles and get serious about writing, I find I have nothing.

Tonight, I have turned off the TV, left all rooms that may distract me, and am focused on writing.  I am sitting in the dark on my back porch.  A mild breeze is blowing and the only sounds I hear are cicadas, distant trains, wind in the leaves, and the whir of air conditioners.

I read for the words—the stringing together of everyday words in a way that is beautiful and thoughtful and inspiring.  Sometimes I am overwhelmed with a writer’s ability to WRITE.  Some writers are good at storytelling, others are good at the stringing together of the words.  The genius is the one that can do both.

I am reading two books right now—Pat Conroy’s “Beach Music,” and Alan Moore’s “Watchmen.” To be fair, I just finished Conroy’s prologue and am further in to Watchmen.  Contrary to the fact that I LOVE attending the International Comic Convention every year and am somewhat well versed with comics (due to my hubby), I am not a huge comics fan.  The main reason is that I tend to prefer character development than action.  And a lot of the comics—at least the superhero genre—is action packed.

There are several graphic novels I have read that I consider some amazingly good reads, and not just for the comic crowd.  And Watchmen is quickly falling into that category, even with its hooded avengers.  And the reason for this is simple: The writing is strong and well crafted.  The story, although dated in that it involves the U.S.’s cold war with the Soviets, is timeless.  You could just as easily swap Iraq for the USSR and the story would be the same—our government will always have some political enemy that it behooves it to scare its people (you and me) by highlighting our differing cultures to make the other one ungodly and evil.

But I digress.

The writing.  Alan Moore‘s writing is pretty incredible.  And he’s written things you know and you just may not have ever thought of them as starting as comics—like “V for Vendetta” or “From Hell.”  But I am not here to write his biography or inform you of the great things he’s written.  I will leave you with one line from Watchmen, just one.  It is writing like this that inspires me.  It also unnerves me because I could never string everyday words together so beautifully as these.

The word “cancer” runs through the audience on a firecracker string of anxious whispers.

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