Category Archives: Hurricane Katrina

“A New Kind of Freedom” by Margaret Wilkinson Sexton— Endurance

Sexton, Margaret Wilkinson. “A New Kind of Freedom”, Counterpoint, 2017.

Endurance

Amos Lassen

Margaret Wilkinson Sexton’s “A Kind of Freedom” explores the legacy of racial disparity in the South and does so through a novel in which we meet a family and its history. For me, as a New Orleanian by birth and a person who was raised there and taught in the school system, this is a very meaningful book. We meet a Black family and stay with it for three generations as the members try to make the correct and best choices even though they are often held back “by constraint, peril and disappointment” and by living in a world in which learning is hard work and life is even harder. We have three different and alternating plot lines. The story begins in 1944, when we meet Evelyn, the daughter of a well-to-do family (her mother is Creole, her father a black doctor who has raised himself to respectability), and Renard, a young man from a poor Twelfth Ward neighborhood who works at a restaurant but aspires to study medicine. In their courtship, we see the strictures of a class- and color-driven society “that suffocates ambition and distorts desire”.

Then forty years later, we meet Evelyn’s daughter Jackie, a struggling single mother in the 1980s. She is on love with the father of her child but worries that he will become a drug addict. We then meet Jackie’s son, T.C., in 2010, and he is at a turning point in his life. It is through T.C.’s that we see post-Katrina New Orleans where there is fast cash on the streets and the chances of being arrested or shot are great. T.C., loves growing marijuana and sees doing so as a creative process. Released after a four-month stint for drug charges, T.C. decides to start over but then an old friend convinces him to stake his new beginning on one last deal.

Evelyn grew up with the reality of Jim Crow but now there are newer threats and dangers. The descriptions of New Orleans are wonderful and could be written by someone who grew up and remembers the corner grocery stores where for a nickel one could get a “baloney sandwich” or “make groceries”. She remembers the language that we spoke there and the crawfish boils, wooden markers on city buses requiring “colored riders” to sit behind them and going to the movies to sit in the second balcony, the “Negro balcony”, after going through a separate entrance on the side of the building.

Sexton’s characters face tremendous choices while hoping that is little to hope for. There are few options and coping with this is exhausting. The characters try to gloss over the hurts of the past and endure as best they can.

This is a portrait of a family and their sufferings and we soon are able to identify the character by the prose that describes each of them. For example, the stories of Evelyn and T.C.’s are written distinctly different and one cannot help but wonder if there is more than one author of this book. But then, we catch on and realize that the different prose forms emphasize the different characters. Each character is also vividly portrayed and we get to know them so well that they stay with us even after we have finished the book. We see the omnipresent forces of society that undermine and suppress the success of blacks in New Orleans. I often found myself emotionally exhausted as I read even though Sexton deals with some very important topics with great sensitivity. The fact that she captures seventy years of a family’s history in just 288 pages is a major achievement in itself but also to read about

each generation’s possibilities and deferred dreams coming to fruition is an amazing accomplishment. We see that hard work does not guarantee success and that progress never movies in the ways that we think.

Through the interconnected narratives of three generations of a New Orleans family, we get more that seventy years of history and we still want more. Here is an American family who is able to endure the challenges of an ever-changing society. I love that Sexton’s characters are who we are and their journeys are our journeys. When I taught in the Black schools of New Orleans way back when I learned a lot about New Orleans Black society having first taught in a school that was almost exclusively made up of those who were considered to be “high yellow” and then in a high school in what was then the Desire project and my students were far away from societal acceptance. But those twelve years of teaching in New Orleans were nothing compared to what I read here.

We see here that the choices that we make are our choices are influenced by our familial histories, whether we’re aware or not, and this is just one way of how the present connects to the past, especially with reference to the societal weight of race and class. Through the family narratives in this book, Sexton shows us the complexities of fate and that our desires might be the opposite of practical living and even a shot at upward mobility. When dealing with the emotion of love and the ability to survive, things change. Even with the best intentions, disappointment can follow. “Promise and possibility can sometimes yield to circumstances shaped by the limits to freedom.”

“Landfall” by Ellen Urbani— The Storm

landfall

Urbani, Ellen. “Landfall”, Forest Avenue Press, 2015.

The Storm

Amos Lassen

Has it already been ten years since Katrina? Time usually flies when you are having fun so quite naturally I find it hard to believe that time moved so quickly as I am still rebuilding after losing everything in the storm. But then again, had it not been for Katrina I might never have moved to Boston. I have tried to read everything that has been written about the hurricane, both fiction and nonfiction so I was very surprised to have missed Ellen Urbani’s “Landfall”.

The story is about two mothers and their teenage daughters, whose lives come together and collide in a fatal car crash. Set in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, eighteen-year-olds Rose and Rosebud have never met but “they share a birth year, a name, and a bloody pair of sneakers”. Rose is on a quest to atone for the accident that kills Rosebud, a young woman who was so much like herself aside from race. Rosebud has her own problem—she fights to survive in the terrible flooding in the Lower Ninth War of New Orleans as a result of Katrina and she needs to find help for her mother who is no longer stable. It is through these characters that show us that the dead are not gone forever and that what we think we know is not how something really is. Sometimes thinking causes blindness.

It is important to remember that the destruction caused Hurricane Katrina was not just physical. Families were torn asunder, lives were ruined, dreams were smashed and memories became difficult to deal with. I do not think that people have no idea of how terrible it was and those that do are the ones who were there what it happened. This is where writer Urbani’s wonderful and very careful research comes in. This was a difficult book for me emotionally because it brought so many memories that I had relegated to the back of my mind and suddenly I was reliving those terrible days but then again, had it not been for Katrina, who knows where I might have ended up.

The story comes to us from four different perspectives and moves back and forth over time. This was a wonderful choice by the author and although it sounds like this might lead to confusion, it does not. Almost right at the beginning we become aware of Rosy’s (Rosebud) tremendous courage and strength. She copes with her mother Cilla’s descent into manic depression and everything else that was going around her. When she goes to look for help and for her father’s family, the tragedy happens and everything changes.

Like Rosy, Rose shows strength especially when she is determined to find out whatever she can about Rosy. We have two girls with great similarities—they are the same age, share the same name and neither knew their father. However Rose is Caucasian while Rosy was African American. However, this not a novel about race and it is really only dealt with when we get to the makeshift shelter at the News Orleans Superdome and realize that the majority of the people were Black and these were those who did not have ways or means to evacuate. Urbani’s description of the Superdome is heartbreaking. Throughout the novel we read of the beauty of humanity as well as its ugliness. It is through Rosy that we learn about Katrina and I think that if I had to choose a single part of this book that really hit me, it would have to be reading about New Orleanians beginning to feel a sense of relief only to learn that the levees broke and the city was under water almost everywhere. It was at this point that Rosy and her mother began to look for shelter after having ridden out three days of rising water. It was then that they got to the Superdome and seeing the horror that was there. I must stress that regardless of what you might have seen on television, it comes to nowhere near the hell that was the Superdome. I was lucky enough not to get there but then I was stranded on the roof of my building for the National Guard to rescue me.

As I sit here and write this review I realize that as important a character as Hurricane Katrina is, this is not a book about the storm. Rather it is about the human spirit and the way we bounce back after terrible ordeals. We see that we really need to understand the world in which we live and make sense of it.

Let me give you a piece of advice. Before you begin to read “Landfall”, clear the rest of your day because this is not a book that reads well in sections but then again I doubt that anyone would read it that way. You will find it extremely difficult to stop reading once you have begun and what you read will stay with you for a long time after you close the covers. Urbani is a brave writer who does not hide from the issues and in this book she touches on them all—poverty, race, racism and the destruction of a great American city. She as also created unforgettable characters that come to a life in a plot that sweeps us away to another time and another place where good and evil coexisted side-by-side and the world watched helplessly from afar. Ellen Urbani really shows her skill in writing fiction that is based on fact and I feel honored to have read this amazing book.

The book also has a section with questions for discussion thus making it an ideal choice for book clubs. Just in case you want to read a bit more about the storm, there is a list of suggested readings.

Above  all else is the gorgeous prose of the author in a story that tells us not to forget to look for hope even on the darkest of days.

“The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken” by Wendell Pierce— Healing New Orleans

the wind in the reeds

Pierce, Wendell. “The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, A Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken”, Riverhead Books, 2015.

Healing New Orleans

Amos Lassen

Wendell Pierce is an actor by profession, a New Orleanian by birth and a man who was not about to let Hurricane Katrina define his city. In his book he looks at the transformative role theater played in healing New Orleans post-Katrina. He had a plan to put on Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” in New Orleans after the storm and to help bring back his old neighborhood. This is at the center of the book. The book is part memoir and part history lesson as it takes readers through Pierce’s own connection to the city and his “role of a lifetime” in the HBO series “Treme”. We feel his love for the city New Orleans on every page and I must admit, being a former New Orleanian myself, I got a little teary eyed more than once.

Pierce’s family came from Assumption Parish and he writes his own childhood there where his mother, a strong-willed person pushed him to excel. He did this as an actor but he has never forgotten whence he came. About Katrina, he says, “In the wake of tragedy, loss, and dislocation, it’s our art that will help us survive.”

I suppose I had been gone from New Orleans for too many years to know of Pierce but today his name and New Orleans go hand in hand. I knew of Pierce from “Treme” and from another movie I had seen but I never knew until this book was published that he was indeed a New Orleanian. And he is as good a storyteller as he is an actor.

He takes us back to August 29, 2005 (a day I will never forget having just returned to New Orleans a couple of days before). On that day Pierce’s family was in Pontchartrain Park in New Orleans East. From here we go back and forth in time and we hear the story of Pierce’s family— he is the fourth-generation grandson of a slave who became an important dramatic actor. We also read his reaction to the devastations of Katrina and how he became involved in the restoration.

Pierce’s work mixes memoir, social psychology, literary analysis, and political and religious philosophy together to bring us his story. Regarding Katrina, Pierce and his family were some of the lucky ones: They survived and were able to ride out the storm at a relative’s house 70 miles away. When they were finally allowed to return, they found their family home in tatters, their neighborhood empty. Pierce promised to help rebuild, and not just his family’s home, but also all of Pontchartrain Park.

“Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans” by Don Brown— Emotional Memories

drowned city

Brown, Don. “Drowned City: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans”, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2015.

Emotional Memories

Amos Lassen

It is hard to believe that it has been ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city of New Orleans. For those of us who are New Orleanians and were there for the storm, this is an emotional reminder. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina’s tremendous winds and raging water destroyed a great American city. Eighty percent of the city flooded, in some places under twenty feet of water. Property damages across the Gulf Coast topped $100 billion. One thousand eight hundred and thirty-three people lost their lives. I still have a hard time making any sense of it. On one hand it was one of the most horrific events of my life but on the other hand, I am happy in Boston today because of it. The story of Katrina is one of selfless and heroic people who have had the courage to stay and rebuild yet it is also the story of incompetence, racism, and criminality. The story of Katrina is a story of tragedy and triumph and in the same breath.

I have many memories of Katrina and have had many nightmares about it. I have been working on a presentation about the storm and as I have been thinking about it and reviewing written material, I still find it hard to believe what happened in New Orleans. I have seen hundreds of pictures that have reopened some of the wounds I felt as I watched from my window as New Orleans went under water. It is still hard to conceive of anything like this could have happened yet we all know that it.

Don Brown brings us a wonderful book about the storm for young readers and in it he captures both sides of Katrina and does so through art and through narrative. His graphic novel is totally accurate and as I read I relived the story. Every cartoon panel is based on a direct quotation from a victim of or participant in the storm.

I learned that 5,000 children were separated from their parents and that some rescuers had to deal with living, poisonous snakes and that family pets were helpless and lost their lives to drowning and/or starvation. The dog I have today, Sophie, a Jack Russell terrier was found by rescuers and I adopted her in Arkansas. I still see the fear she exhibits when she gets close to water.

Brown’s book is simple and beautiful with a strong message that we not forget Katrina.

“Drowned City” is both a somber and totally engrossing read about the events that led up to Katrina, what happened during Katrina and what has happened since Katrina.

“We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City” by Roberta Brandes Gratz— Hope in the Rubble

we're still here

Gratz, Roberta Brandes. “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City”, Nation Books, 2015.

Hope in the Rubble

Amos Lassen

Hurricane Katrina ushered in one of the darkest periods in American history. It brought with it destruction unparalleled in America along with “government neglect and socioeconomic inequality” yet among the rubble, there is hope. In “We’re Still Here Ya Bastards” we get a look at New Orleans’s revival in the years following the hurricane. Here are the stories of people who returned to their homes and have taken the rebuilding of their city into their own hands. New Orleans is recovering even with the governmental policies that actually cause the rise of

“disaster capitalism” instead of the public good. Writer Roberta Brandes Gratz looks at the most fiercely debated issues and challenges that face New Orleans and these a violent and corrupt prison system, the tragic closing of Charity Hospital, the future of public education, and the rise of gentrification. The stories we read here are not the ones we got in mainstream media. Instead of the usual same old, same old we read of the

strength and resilience of a community that continues to work to rebuild New Orleans and in doing so is revealed what Katrina was not able to and did not destroy: “the vibrant culture, epic history, and unwavering pride of one of the greatest cities in America”.

The book shows us the most shameful machinations of city government. We learn what really was responsible for the closing of the hospital and how neighborhood residents were railroaded.

We also read of citizens who are fighting the problems alone. There has been so many mistakes made and there has been so much neglect and apathy in the city, it is a wonder that anything is getting done but surprisingly it is. I was born and raised in New Orleans and I will always be a New Orleanian regardless of where I live and I have not lived there in many years. It hurts when someone has nasty things to say about New Orleans and the fact that so much went wrong that an American city was almost washed right off the map.

This book is an investigation and reportage of a city in trouble and it is a wonderful tribute to a wonderful city. We read of the ugly, the good and the bad and even though I found some historical mistakes as well as information that has since been contradicted by Congressional testimony, it is still a fascinating read. It would have been that much better if the dates were correct, I love the stories we have not heard before and I love seeing that the citizens really care about bringing the city back, It is just not the place I want to be at this point in my life yet I still love my hometown. It is possible to love a place and not live there. It hurts to see New Orleans today because it does jive with the memories I have.

We really have had so much written about Katrina that I am not sure that we need any more but in the case of this book, it provides what others have been not so fortunate in doing. Gratz writes about education, healthcare, urban development and environmental preservation and does so from the voices of the people. She shows us how the people of New Orleans are rebuilding their city. Those New Orleanians who are saving their city while big money and bad government try to do the opposite.

“Katrina: After the Flood” by Gary Rivlin— Ten Years Later

katrina

Rivlin, Gary. “Katrina: After the Flood”, Simon and Schuster, 2015.

Ten Years Later

Amos Lassen

On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in southeast Louisiana. That was ten years ago. Many have forgotten Katrina but I can guarantee you that those of us who experienced Katrina first hand will never ever forget what it was like. There is something magical about New Orleans especially to those who call it home. I am one of those who once called New Orleans home. It was I grew up and was educated, where my friends were and where I learned about life. But I left New Orleans for a very long time and had just come back right before Katrina hit. I had not been there in a very long time but instead of having the chance to reacquaint myself with the city, I got to attend something of her funeral. I did learn, as I had heard so many times from others, that a New Orleaninan remains one his entire life—New Orleans is the kind of city that it is impossible to forget. New Orleans is Mardi Gras, red beans and rice, jazz and jazz funerals, the French Quarter, Jazz Fest and the Saints and neutral grounds, “zinks” and banquettes. We make groceries on Thursdays, do laundry on Mondays and play all week. Katrina tried to change all that and almost did. She did for me any way. I left New Orleans and I am not going back but New Orleans is with me all the time.

In this book, journalist Gary Rivlin traces the storm’s immediate damage to New Orleans, the city’s efforts to rebuild itself, and the storm’s lasting affects not just on the city’s geography and infrastructure—but on the psychic, racial, and social fabric of one of this nation’s great cities.

I was evacuated out of New Orleans three days after the storm hit and the water continued to rise. I did not return to see what happened until almost five years later having settled in Little Rock, Arkansas. When writer Rivlin first saw the city after Katrina hit, she was still under water and as he traveled into the city proper there were soldiers in uniform and armed with assault rifles that stopped him. Water reached the eaves of houses for as far as the eye could see. He saw that four out of every five houses—eighty percent of the city’s housing stock—had been flooded and proportionally the same amount of schools and businesses were wrecked. The weight of the water on the streets cracked gas and water and sewer pipes all around town and the deluge had drowned almost every power substation and rendered unusable most of the city’s water and sewer system.

People who living in flooded areas of the city could not be expected to pay their property taxes for the foreseeable future. Nor would all those boarded-up businesses—21,000 of the city’s 22,000 businesses were still shuttered six months after the storm and they surely could not pay the taxes and other fees to the city. Some six weeks after the storm, the city unloaded half of its workforce at a time when so many people were turning to its government for help. What about the use of taxpayer dollars to rebuild a city that sat mostly below sea level and everyone wondered could the city possibly come back.

Rivlin looks at the stories of a variety of New Orleaninans—politicians and business owners, teachers and bus drivers, poor and wealthy, black and white as they deal with the aftermath of one of the great tragedies of our age and try to Bring New Orleans back by reconstructing and changing while others abandoned the city.

The questions seem to have never stopped— How is New Orleans doing? Is she back? What about the Lower Ninth Ward? It becomes hard to ask about people and places that were loved. We forget sometimes that New Orleans was not just a place but that there were people there. Trying to answer questions we hear that “New Orleans is doing terrifically and terribly. It’s back but different and currently undergoing a furious transformation. Much of the Lower Ninth Ward is not O.K”. But these are incomplete answers. These questions lead to those that really get to the issue. Those are the questions that Gary Rivlin asks.

Only now, ten years after the storm are we finally getting the story of the recovery of the city. But there is no recovery if we look at the definition of the word. What was lost is gone forever and no one knows what will tale its place. Rivlin shares the decisions that have brought us this far, and to identify those who made them.

To write about Katrina ten years later is impossible to do without going back to August 2005 when Katrina was heading for shore. It was a feeling that I had never experienced before; a kind of curiosity mixed with apprehension and fear. I did not believe it was going to hit on one hand and on the other I was sure we would not get out this safely.

Rivlin spent much of the first year after Katrina living in New Orleans and Baton Rouge on assignment for The New York Times. While much what was reported by the press then dealt with the faulty levees, the terrible conditions in the refugee camps and rumors of violence, Rivlin found himself more concerned with what was yet to happen to New Orleans and he wondered how the city with one of the nation’s highest rates of poverty and crime would recover from the most expensive natural disaster in American history? If the city was to have a future, who was going to make the calls? Where would the suffering take place and how much worse would the city’s low-income black population be made to suffer?

Rivlin then chose to concentrate on a cross-section of residents: “old-money millionaires, a middle-class black family in New Orleans East, white transplants turned political activists, and Lower Ninth Ward natives determined to rebuild their neighborhood despite deep opposition and deeper indifference”. Three local power brokers are the center of the story and these three allowed Rivlin to gain immediate access to them. We meet real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro, a personal friend of George W. Bush, who talks of “planning” a city, as if to say that there has been no New Orleans before Katrina; Alden McDonald, president of Liberty Bank, one of the nation’s largest African-American-owned financial institutions (The success of the bank and the success of the black neighborhoods go hand in hand); and the former mayor Ray Nagin, whose incompetence is totally visible here in detail. Rivlin compares him to Osama bin Laden, Richard Nixon and Willy Wonka.

It is amazing and heartbreaking to read about the “dysfunctional, tedious and often corrupt horse trading that dominated these early innings — the expert commissions and working groups and meetings” yet Rivlin does so and it seems surreal. “summits”. Here are some examples of what we read here. “Weeks after the flood, newspaper boxes on street corners still taunt residents with the Aug. 28 issue of The Times-Picayune, bearing the headline ‘Katrina Takes Aim’. Workers entering an elementary school near a levee breach discover dead fish on the second floor. A man goes to mow the lawn of his disabled 79-year-old aunt and finds only lawn; her painstakingly restored home has been demolished and hauled away, the victim of a clerical error at City Hall”.

Rivlin’s observations are sharp yet we see that he is a man of compassion even towards former mayor Nagin who is in jail for corruption at a federal prison in Texas. Rivlin writes with sensitivity about the absurd especially about race and economic injustice. He examines the theory of “Katrina cleansing” ( the city’s business elite were conspiring to repossess property and re-establish a white majority electorate). He was told by Lance Hill, a white political activist who serves as a mole, “It was impossible not to pick up on this sentiment that this was our chance to take back control of the city. There was virtually a near consensus among whites that authorities should not do anything to make it easy for poor African-Americans to come back.”

Looking at the Lower ninth Ward in comparison to Lakeview, an well-to-do white neighborhood that is actually more below sea level, Rivlin draws conclusions. Two months after Katrina, even as power and utilities were reactivated in Lakeview, armed soldiers blocked the bridges leading into the Lower Ninth. We see racial injustice that lasted longer than the flooding. Two years after the storm minority-owned businesses had claimed a small fraction of federal aid because of a decision by Congress and the administration to forego affirmative action rules in order so that recovery was speeded up. Black evacuees who went to other cities where they resettled were followed by the discrimination they thought that had been washed away with the storm— in Baton Rouge officers were ordered to “make life unpleasant . . . so that they will relocate elsewhere.”

Looking at class now we see that New Orleans East, a predominantly black middle class, returned much sooner than the Lower Ninth and many other “equally impoverished neighborhoods”. Homeowners benefited from the multibillion Road Home program (that had its own bureaucratic disasters), but renters a majority of the city’s residents, were excluded.

Then there was the big question about the scope of the rebuilding effort. What about those New Orleanians who had lived in lower-lying neighborhoods— should they be encouraged, or forced, to move to higher ground? What many do not know is that before Katrina there were about 70,000 more people lived in New Orleans than today yet the city had declined by about a third from its peak population.

What were referred to as “quicksand” neighborhoods contained 80 percent of the city’s black population. Rivlin points out that the irony here was that white conservatives like Canizaro proposed that the government assume a paternalistic role, deciding where people should resettle. On the other side was the largely Democratic population that advocated a “free-market, almost libertarian approach” meaning that residents should build wherever they want. Reducing the city’s size might make sense “from a planning standpoint,” as one member of the mayor’s city planning commission claimed. “But from a human standpoint, it made no sense at all.” Nagin gave in to public sentiment, as has his successor, Mitch Landrieu. “To shrink the city’s footprint,” Landrieu has said from the beginning, “is to shrink its destiny.”

The book also covers the major stories of the last five years and these include  the decline in public housing stock; the anxieties about gentrification and economic inequity; the take over of the public Charity Hospital to clear the way for an extensive new private hospital complex; the revelations of profound institutional rot in the police force and prison system, (both of these have been taken up by into federal consent decrees); the persistence of an alarming crime rate; and the continued deterioration of the coastal wetlands. We see that the most expensive levee system in the world is worthless without state funding the plan to rebuild the marsh. Unfortunately, New Orleans is never just “after the flood”; it is also always before the next flood.

What is so interesting is that the local economy is thriving, poverty rates are lower than before the storm, graduation rates are higher, and after a flirtation with bankruptcy the city has a surplus in the budget. New Orleans is now filled with young people, many of whom are rising to positions of influence in public life. Mayor Landrieu in his “State of the City” said, “We are not just rebuilding the city that we once were, but are creating the city that we always should have been.” “New Orleans has always been a place where utopian fantasies and dystopian realities mingle harmoniously. May New Orleans always remain so. Or at least may it always remain”.

What we can learn here is that every American has to demand reform before disasters strike.This is quite a read and while for me it made my eyes tear up several times, it showed me the truth about the city I still call home. To understand New Orleans, Katrina and what happened there in the last ten years, this is the book you want and need to read.

“Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!” by Big Freedia and Nicole Balin— What a Memoir!!!

big freedia

Big Freedia and Nicole Balin. “Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!”, Gallery Books, 2015.

What a Memoir

Amos Lassen

Big Freedia was born Freddie Ross and today she is a New Orleans hip-hop musician known for bringing “bounce” from the underground music scene to the forefront of the industry. “Known for her supreme star power and charismatic charm, Big Freedia has performed alongside such artists as pop duo Matt and Kim, Wiz Khalifa, and Snoop Dogg”. She has her own reality show “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce”. This is her first book. I suppose we can call it a memoir as it tells the story of this gay momma’s boy (as Big Freedia calls herself) who came onto the music scene where she found acceptance, healing, self-expression, and stardom! I am surprised that I am unacquainted with Big Freedia but I suppose our times in New Orleans have been different.

Bounce music, I understand, is based in New Orleans and Big Freedia is its “undisputed ambassador” and she is not afraid to twerk, wiggle, and shake her way to self-confidence, and encourages her fans to do the same. In this book she shares the inside story of her path to fame, “the peaks and valleys of her personal life, and the liberation that Bounce music brings to herself and every one of her fans who is searching for freedom”.

Big Freedia tells us that being a “twerking sissy” is not just a job, she says, but a salvation as she yanks us into her personal life and as she says her career as an artist. She finds solace and comfort in her work and because of it she has been able to

escape from the battles she faced growing up in the worst neighborhood in New Orleans. She has had to deal with losing loved ones to the violence on the streets, drug overdoses, and jail. She survived hurricane Katrina by living on her roof for two days with three adults and a child. Sometimes to truly enjoy living, we have to deal with difficulties.

I must be honest—I never heard of the Bounce music movement—I guess I have been gone from New Orleans for too long (but it is nice to read of someone from my home town making good). Big Freedia has made her mark and made some incredible friends, characters of all kinds. She has a lot of enthusiasm. We learn how she got to this

defining moment in music, and how Bounce ultimately has allowed her to become her own version of diva, “one booty-pop at a time”.

big freedia2

“Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans” by Gary Krist— Vice, Jazz and Crime—New Orleans

empire of sin

Krist, Gary. “Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans”, Crown, 2014

Vice, Jazz and Crime—New Orleans

Amos Lassen

New Orleans was once at war with herself and that war lasted some thirty years. The elite of the city were pitted against the powerful and long-entrenched underworld of vice, perversity, and crime. Tom Anderson ran the city—he was the czar of Storyville, the red light district in the middle of town and he fought hard to keep his empire going even while being attacked from all sides.

This early-20th-century battle centers on one man: Tom Anderson, the undisputed czar of the city’s Storyville vice district, who fights desperately to keep his empire intact as it faces onslaughts from all sides. He was surrounded by prostitutes, crusading moral reformers, dissolute jazzmen, ruthless Mafiosi, venal politicians, and one extremely violent serial killer, all of whom battled for primacy in a wild and wicked city. Yes, my friends this was once New Orleans. While author Krist writes of New Orleans’ vice wars as well as New Orleans’ soul and he celebrates New Orleans’ character. She is a city that has a history of defiance and resilience and as we saw after Hurricane Katrina she can return from almost total disaster. This is the story of New Orleans as she learned how to fight. The story chronicles the history of the city from 1890-1920 and it brings up the shadiest, sexiest and most shameful parts on the history of the city that care forgot. Actually what we read about here could still be going on today. Today there is police corruption, a mayor who promised to root out corruption and fix the police department and is now sitting in jail himself having been found guilty of corruption and that is what makes this book so interesting— the fight for New Orleans is still going on.

Author Krist takes on a big, corrupt city and profiles its most violent era— a time when grandchildren of former slaves are now reaching adulthood, and see an entire new world unlike that of their grandparents. There were intense race riots targeting innocent blacks that were egged on by the ruling whites.

 This narrative starts out with two murders. One victim is the brother of a popular prostitute, the other is the police chief himself. Italian “Dagos” are blamed for the murder, although no juror could prove without a doubt Justice is taken into the hands of Italian-hating mobs that storm the prison. With this f New Orleans police chief Tom Anderson, a man who seemed to foment racial hatred but who was no more a product of the times as the people he was sworn to protect, began his tenure. These early mob riots were the vanguard of the Black Hand over a decade later.

 The book is divided into four parts: from 1890-1891; mid 1890s to 1907; 1907-1917; 1917-1920. The stories in each may not relate directly to each other over the years, aside from police chief Anderson being in charge and instead of keeping the city safe, he and his friends between involved in corruption.

Anderson was a flawed man, and his madam friend Josie Arlington kept the part of New Orleans known as Storyville alive with a sexual liberty unknown in the rest of the country, and it is in Storyville that so many of the crimes described in this book play out. I remember that as I was growing up in New Orleans, there were still many Storyville tales to go around.

 While crime was on the rise so was jazz. It was considered to be the music of the untrained or uneducated and as we read the stories we hear the music in our heads. The city’s music and music makers were part of the action. This is how jazz and cornet player Buddy Bolden came to be born,(albeit with a short career) and jazz gets entwined with stories of crime and passion in a city that had in many ways been one of the more liberally sexual cities at the time. Jazz was played in the saloons where much of the violence originated, and therefore was at center stage.

The story moves on to the characters. By 1907 Sicilians came to New Orleans and they brought in the era of the Black Hand. While this is almost like reading a novel it is also, because of the tremendous research done, a biography of a city beset with racial and ethnic problems. The death of Anderson did not end crime in New Orleans, it only helped it spread across the bigger cities as the Sicilians gained financial support in the 1930s and beyond.

In 1918, Italian grocers Joseph and Catherine Maggio were murdered. This was the work of the infamous Axman and, in order to explain what led up to these events, we are then taken back to the beginning of 1890 when New Orleans was seen as distressingly exotic, morally corrupt and with intense racial divides. We follow the stories of certain characters, such as Josie Lobrano, a brothel owner who craved respectability and did all she could to shield her young niece Anna from discovering the reality of how she made her money, Tom Anderson the unofficial ‘mayor of Storyville,’ and musicians such as Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong. Through their stories, and many others, we learn of the battle with the mafia, kidnappings, racial segregation, vice and the beginnings of jazz. However, this is not a judgmental book in any way – we sympathize with those whose livelihood was reliant on the sinful side of the city, as well as the reformers.

 The book ends with the infamous spate of murders by the Axman, with families attacked as they slept and bringing fear to the city. This is quite a read and for me it brought many memories of my younger live in New Orleans where everything happened and no one cared.

“A Quarter Inch from My Heart: A Memoir” by Kevin Scott Hall— Katrina Was More Than a Storm

a quarter inch from my heart

Hall, Kevin Scott. “A Quarter Inch from My Heart: A Memoir”, Wisdom Moon Publishing, 2014.

Katrina Was More Than a Storm

Amos Lassen

I know the devastation of Hurricane Katrina first hand as I was stranded in my apartment in New Orleans for a full seven days after the storm hit. It is something that I will never forget and it certainly made me evaluate my life. Ultimately, as a result, I got to Boston after having spend seven awful years in Arkansas which is not the place for an out gay Jew. Because of my experiences in Katrina, I felt a kinship with the book before I even got into the story. In “A Quarter Inch from My Heart”, we meet the author, Kevin Scott Hall when he a stranger; Maurice, an evacuee from the storm contacts him and Hall invites him to stay for a while until he gets his life together again. Of course he does not get things together and during 2½ years together, a relationship develops between the two men. However, the more they are together the more Hall has questions about his “guest”. He goes back and forth between trust and suspicious thoughts, tough love and understanding and as time passes Hall begins to introspect about his own life. Yes, this is a love story but not one that we are familiar with.

Hall really knows how to tell a story. His descriptions are wonderful and he draws us into the story right away. This is a story of both love and courage and there is a great deal to be learned here. We can learn this by asking questions of ourselves.

As many of you know, I read a great deal and I can honestly say that it is not often that I stop to think while reading something. This is one of the books that has made me do so. The ideas are profound and when profundity is united with good writing, we, the readers, are blessed with something really good and believe me, author Hall does this beautifully. It is the brutal honesty with which this book is written that made me sit up several times as I read. Yet with that there is something very entertaining about this book. Hall’s journey is inspiring and for me especially at this time of year when Jews the world over atone for their sins it had a lot to say about self-forgiveness and self-celebration.

I do not want to dwell on a summary of the plot here and that is because I understood the plot to be just the conduit for the writer to convey his ideas about the struggle between love oneself and love for another. This is a complex story full of twists ands surprises just like life itself. Here we get a story of frustrated love and the compromises made that sustain a friendship that at times we see was not meant to be. In understand this, the reader is asked to do some introspection that can indeed cause him to become dismayed at what he discovers. The questions we ask ourselves have no cut and dry answers and we realize that questions lead to even more questions and only while experiencing life will we find answers. The lesson, for me, at least, is to continue questioning as we wend our way through the good and the bad that life has in store for us.

Having been a philosophy major in college, I could continue these ideas but I want readers to experience them themselves. Let me share a word about the prose—it is gorgeous and this is one of those books that you dare not stop reading once you begin. Hall weaves a story about spirituality, trust, homelessness, love and so much more and it deals with the complicated process of coming out that gay men have to deal with. Hall pulls us into his life and we share his dealing with emotions, specifically with those of love. He recreates the character of Maurice and we share his feelings for the man who changed his life. As Hall deals with the tragedies that come into his life, he takes them on and works with them without pretense. I doubt that I will ever be the same after having read, no, I mean after having experienced “A Quarter Inch from My Heart” but that is ok—we are meant to meet life head-on and I did so as I read this book.

 

 

 

“Salvage the Bones: A Novel” by Jessmyn West— HURRICANE!!!

salvage the bones

Ward, Jesmyn. “Salvage the Bones: A Novel”, Bloomsbury USA; Reprint edition, 2012.

HURRICANE!!!!

Amos Lassen

Esch and her three brothers are preparing for the oncoming hurricane by stocking food. Their costal town of Bois Sauvage is being threatened by the storm that is building in the Gulf of Mexico and Esch’s father is getting worried. He is a heavy drinker and absent a good deal from the home and cares for no one other than himself. Esch is fourteen years old and can’t keep food down which is probably a result of her pregnancy.

Her brother, Skeetah, is sneaking scraps for his prized pit bull’s new litter where the pups are dying one by one in the dirt. Brothers Randall and Junior try to stake their claim “in a family long on child’s play and short on parenting”.

The novel is set in just twelve days and we meet his family where there is no mother and the children sacrifice for one another as they can, protecting and nurturing where love is scarce.

Aside from the storm we are given a look at rural poverty and familial love. The characters are vibrantly alive— the dog, China,  the father (who is unable to deal with being and a widowed father of four) and the others. This is a story of poverty and strength, hope and love, climaxing Hurricane  Katrina sends the family into the waters and the wind to search for their own salvation from the storm.

 The days leading up to it were epic and filled with the little things that made life normal as well as preparation for the storm’s arrival. Just like reality, no one expected Katrina to deliver what it did. No one knew when the storm came that it was going to have the raw power it possessed. Caught in the attic, with the storm surge rising, the reality of potentially drowning in their own attic gets the family’s attention, and in a desperate bid to find safety, a hole is smashed through the roof, and their escape is planned. It is a risky plan and it comes with loss, but the family all make it to their temporary haven.

 This is a powerful story that ends in chaos after Katrina but there is grace and humanity here but it’s not a pretty story. The entire novel leads up to the explosion of Hurricane Katrina, but it focuses on two parallel story lines: Esch and China. Fourteen year-old Esch has been the woman of the house, caring for her alcoholic father and brood of brothers, since her mother’s death years before. She is also pregnant. Esch dreams of the baby’s father who is an older good-looking boy who is unattainable. Esch is sensitive but matter-of-fact and intelligent but foolish and impulsive like any teenager at that age. China is the snow-white pit bull whom Esch’s brother Skeetah treats as lovingly as his own child (even as he trains her to be a fierce fighting dog). China herself has just had puppies, and the novel explicitly links the fates of Esch and China.

The novel is honest and raw but as I read I found the characters became part of my life and that could be because I also went through Katrina. I found myself experiencing many different emotions ranging from joy to frustration.