Review: Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

New Orleans is a city full of contradictions, a place out of context with the rest of America. It defies understanding, explanation, and most especially, classification. It’s a quality the residents hold onto, this testament of uniqueness, even as the city has teetered time and again on the brink of destruction.

I’ve lived near New Orleans for most of my life. I’m a frequent visitor there, and, like everyone else who comes, I’ve fallen in love with its decadent grandness, its welcoming, leisurely way of life. All manner of humanity calls New Orleans home, and the city embraces them all. It’s a unique place, out of step with the rest of America, and that is exactly why it is so important to save. This has never been truer than now, as the great lady teeters on her knees, still struggling, three years later, to rise from the devastation of Katrina.

Dan Baum, on assignment from The New Yorker after the storm, quickly learned all of these things. Along with his wife Margaret, he eventually moved to New Orleans in order to write a book, one which, using the timeframe between Betsy in 1965 and Katrina in 2005, captures perfectly what it means to love this city.

Baum chose nine people he got to know after the storm, conducting hundreds of hours of interviews, writing the story of the city through their eyes. They are from vastly different ends of the socio-political spectrum, ranging from the widow of a revered Mardi Gras Indian chief to the long-time coroner of Orleans parish, from a transsexual bar owner to a former king of Rex and pillar of the Uptown community. Their stories are unique, yet a common thread runs through them all – the deep, abiding love of this place, of the home New Orleans offers to each.

The author captures that love without being preachy or overly sentimental. New Orleans is far from a fairy-tale land of mutual respect, understanding, and tolerance. Poverty, desperation, and crime are huge, unending problems, and Baum acknowledges this by telling stories that are candid, real, and fraught with generations of loss and disappointment. They are also, however, stories of hope, of people who have risen, time and again, despite adversity after adversity.

Many people in the rest of the United States have questioned why we should rebuild such a place, crippled as it is by poverty and corruption. It takes spending time in New Orleans to learn its value, I suppose, to experience the unique magic that makes this city special. If you can’t visit, however, read this book. Dan Baum has clearly seen and understands. Five Stars.

28 January 2009

Review: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West by Dee Brown

Rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most people from my generation (X) take for granted that everyone is aware of the atrocities committed against the Native American peoples of the United States in the name of "Manifest Destiny". There was a time, however, not very long ago, when children still played games of cowboys and Indians, pitting the valiant U.S. Cavalry against bloodthirsty savages. This book, published in 1970, went a long way towards correcting 100 years of misinformation and ignorance concerning the plight of the people who lived in this land when the Europeans arrived.

Brown was remarkable because he was not a "trained" academic historian (whatever that means), amassing his wealth of information through years of personal research while a librarian at the University of Illinois. This book is hard to read, mainly because it contains story after story of the deliberate, systematic extermination of tribe after tribe. However, it should be required reading for anyone interested in American History. This book is, to put it plainly, the other side of the story.

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15 January 2009

Review: Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse

Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse by John Joseph Adams

Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love short stories, and themed anthologies like this one are a great way to cover a lot of authorial ground for your buck. This one, edited very capably by John Joseph Adams, had some true standouts - Elizabeth Bear's "And the Deep Blue Sea" is a clever, somewhat spooky tale,and David Grigg's "A Song Before Sunset" is a beautifully written and imaginative take on what the Apocalypse might mean to the cultural spirit of humanity. I can't say there were any stories I didn't like, but be warned - this is 300 pages of dark, mostly hopeless stories. Not a terribly cheerful read, but a good one.

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The cold has returned here, with a vengeance. Not forecasted to rise above 55 F or so all week. For some of you, I'm sure that's pitiful in terms of chill factors, but for us down here in the deep south, it's a regular ice box. Only Saturday we saw highs in the upper 70's. All of the plants here had begun to spout, and people were out in shorts. It's a bit jarring to go from that to 35 F in less than 24 hrs.

Winter here is interesting, in that it is less of a time of sleep and snow and more of a constant battle between the cold and the warm. We are on the front lines of the War of Seasons - an ongoing conflict that leaves us with yo-yoing temperatures and confused flora. In any case, I am happy for the Spring-like days, and I get through the cold ones with a nice fire and layers of warm fuzzy clothing.

I was thinking about these things yesterday, about the way the world looks and feels in winter versus summer. I've decided that the differences I feel viscerally are actually due to the quality of the light. In the summertime, the sunlight is warm, golden-colored, and covers the world in a rich, thick layer of heat. In the winter the sunlight is thinned, pale, a shimmer that skitters off the surface of things without really supplying any warmth. The blue sky in summer feels like an aquamarine tropical sea, but in winter it turns into hard blue plastic, unforgiving in its vastness.

I guess its obvious that I have a bias towards summer. I know that's true. I am a girl of the Southern climes, and though I sometimes think about what it would be like to live in a place where the politics are further left and the seasons are defined and specific, I imagine I will remain. It seems to suit me.

12 January 2009

Sex and the Undead

From I09:

Vampires are the sexpots of the undead. Zombies are usually too blood-dribbly and rotted to be players. And ghosts are, well, insubstantial. Which leaves us with vampires, who are permanently young, beautiful, and possess a fierce need to suck things. How could they not be the poster-children for weird sex after death?

Where did all this sexual rule-breaking come from? Certainly Bram Stoker's late-19th century bestseller Dracula helped. He took legends of blood-sucking beasts, mixed them with a little Transylvanian history, and created a mesmerizing creature who drained British ladies of their blood and turned them into wantons. Cinematic versions of Dracula have played up the erotic side of this story, casting gorgeous men and lovely ladies with blood-red lips and strange desires.

I've always found vampire myths to be interesting on numerous levels. It's a shame that most horror mags aren't very keen on publishing vampire stories, though I can understand their point. Every disaffected, book-loving goth college kid has gone through a love affair with blood suckers, and most I'll wager have written a cheese-riddled homage to their favorite tragic characters. Still, I think the possibilities for exploring the myths, and mythos, surrounding them are far from played out. It's one of those things that seems to come in and out of fashion in entertainment and art. There was a big resurgence in the early 90's, and now with the whole Twilight business, here we go again. It would be nice to see more substance than barely-concealed romance novels and gore flicks, however (though Let the Right One In looks very interesting).

Until then, I'll have to satisfy my interest in what's there, I suppose. Love-starved, under-sexed emos of the world, take heart!

09 January 2009

Resolutions for a New Year: 2009 Edition

Is it too late to post my resolutions for 2009? I never write them on January 1st - I like to think about them for a while, contemplate what it is I want to do with myself after all of the sound and fury of the holidays has died down a bit. This year's goals are mainly professional, though the ubiquitous health/fitness stuff is thrown in there as well.

Some people find it juvenile and a waste of time to make New Year's Resolutions. I say we should always have goals - we should always be striving to make ourselves better, to stretch our horizons, to force ourselves to go places we've never gone before, both personally and professionally. The best advice I ever heard from a self-help book/person/whatever (I don't remember the source) was this: Do something every day that scares the shit out of you.

Others deride New Year's Resolutions because they say you should make goals all of the time, that you shouldn't wait until a new year to challenge yourself. Now, I agree with this 100% -but it's important to note that a new year has psychological significance as well - it's a clear cut beginning, a line in the sand, a starting gate. The idea that I'm going to start fresh and ready to go in January helps me to relax during the holidays and not freak out that X,Y, & Z aren't getting done, that I'm slacking off to spend lots of luxurious time with my family. I know that come the beginning of the new year, when everyone goes back to school & work, I'm ready to go. Call it a mental crutch, whatever. We do what we must.

In any case, without further ado, here is the list:

1) Publish (not write, publish) 10 short stories.

2) Write a book. (Not publish, but write, polish, and send out to potential agents)

3) Read 55 books (Up from 50 last year - I ended up with 51, so I figure this is achieveable)

4) Lose 20 lbs (On everyone's list I know)

5) Run a 5K race. (Only about 3 miles - I can do this if I get consistent with my exercise routine)

So there you have it. I try to keep them within the realm of possibility. The 10 stories is ambitious, I know, since I have placed only 2 in the last year, but damnit, you gotta push hard sometimes. We'll see how it goes.

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