Books on the Table in New Orleans

New Orleans is unlike any city in America. Its cultural diversity is woven into the food, the music, the architecture – even the local superstitions. It’s a sensory experience on all levels and there’s a story lurking around every corner.
Ruta Sepetys

2957291075_51fce98859Most American cities name their airports for politicians (Reagan, JFK) or military heroes (Logan, O’Hare). Not New Orleans. The New Orleans airport is named after one of the 20th century’s most beloved musicians, Louis Armstrong — which signals to visitors that the city has a unique character. Tennessee Williams reportedly said, “America only has three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

tennessee_williams_nywtsWe left the subzero weather behind in “Cleveland” (which in our case was Chicago) last weekend and spent three days in Tennessee Williams’s adopted city. During our food tour, which included six stops at New Orleans restaurants, we saw the house in the French Quarter where Williams wrote A Streetcar Named Desire. (I don’t think the eight miles we walked that day came even close to burning the calories we consumed!) Kenneth Holditch, Ph.D., longtime friend of Williams, co-editor of the Library of America’s editions of Williams’s works, and the author of Tennessee Williams and the South, told the New Orleans Times-Picayune that  “New Orleans was created by writers and visual artists . . . Sherwood Anderson once said this is a ‘city of imagination.’”

IMG_1838For me, no vacation is complete without at least one bookstore visit. On our first day, we stumbled upon Beckham’s Bookshop in the French Quarter , which was everything a used bookstore should be — quirky, dusty, and packed with treasures. There was even a resident cat. My favorite section in the store was “True Crime and Rascality”. Because I’m unable to walk out of a bookstore without buying something, I picked up a copy of The House on First Street: My New Orleans Story, by Julia Reed. Reed, a journalist, got married and moved to the Garden District of New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina struck. The New York Times critic, literary biographer Blake Bailey, gave the book a rave review despite his initial misgivings:

I really wanted to pan this book. First of all, with the exception of Walker Percy’s Moviegoer, I tend to dislike literature about New Orleans (oh the decadence! the quaintness!) . . . It’s also a Hurricane Katrina memoir. I’d considered writing my own Katrina memoir, and now I realize I probably never will.

Reed includes her “Favorite New Orleans Reads” at the back of the book.  She recommends, among others,  The Moviegoer (“it remains, even now, an accurate rendering of a certain subset of upper-class New Orleanians”); Bandits, by Elmore Leonard (“You can almost smell the inside of the Bourbon Street bars”); and The Feast of All Saints, by Anne Rice (“No vampires, just free people of color in pre-Civil War New Orleans”).

y648We rode the famous St. Charles streetcar to uptown New Orleans and visited a lovely independent bookstore, Octavia Books. I bought two more books: My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal, by Peter M. Wolf,and a signed copy of Why New Orleans Matters, by Tom Piazza. Piazza wrote his book in 2005, during “five agonizing weeks” following Hurricane Katrina. The updated edition, published in 2015, includes information about the city’s recovery. In the preface, Piazza says:

As long as New Orleans exists, it will attract the imaginative, the creative, the adventurous, and the soulful people of the world. Walking down almost any street and drinking in the cocktail of historical resonance, architectural whimsy, olfactory magic, savoring the peculiar mix of seriousness and play, of new possibilities, good and bad, around any corner, will remind you of why it is good to be alive.

IMG_1840Thousands of adventurous people were in evidence on Saturday afternoon during the memorial parade for David Bowie. The parade, led by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and Arcade Fire, was announced on social media just two days ahead of time but attracted Bowie fans and curiosity seekers from all over. Even though we didn’t have appropriate attire (space suits, tutus, gold lame), we jumped into the fray and followed the parade. At one point, we were just a few feet away from Win Butler of Arcade Fire, who was dressed in a hot pink suit and singing Bowie’s “Heroes”.

Poster for the American Library Association marketing campaign, 1987

Apparently David Bowie was a world-class reader. Geoffrey Marsh, who curated the Victoria & Albert Museum retrospective exhibit of Bowie’s life,  describes Bowie as “a voracious reader” who often read as much as “a book a day”. Bowie told Vanity Fair that reading was his idea of perfect happiness — and that the quality he most admires in a man is “the ability to return books”.  According to the London Telegraph, Bowie (“a remarkably well-read man”) brought hundreds of books with him when he went on tour: “I had these cabinets– it was a travelling library — and they were rather like the boxes that amplifiers get packed up in . . . I have an extraordinarily good collection of books.” Readers who are interested in Bowie’s  100 favorite books can check out the list here. The books, both fiction and nonfiction, cover an enormous range of territory; art, music, history, religion, psychology, and poetry. I haven’t read (or even heard of) many of them, but we do share one favorite: Fran Lebowitz’s Metropolitan Life.

0802130208John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, set in New Orleans, appears on Bowie’s list. I’ve never read this book, which is often referred to as a “cult classic” and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1981. Walker Percy said, “It is a great pity that John Kennedy Toole is not alive and well and writing. But he is not, and there is nothing we can do about it but make sure that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragi-comedy is at least made available to a world of readers.” If it weren’t for Percy, A Confederacy of Dunces would most likely never have been published. He was teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans when Toole’s mother brought him her late son’s novel. Percy championed the book, and Louisiana State University Press published it. The book was the first novel from an academic press to win a Pulitzer — beating  out Percy’s novel, The Second Coming.

Rhoda Faust, owner of Maple Street Bookshop in New Orleans, also helped Toole’s mother find a publisher. She told the Times-Picayune that the novel “captures New Orleans better than anything else on the face of the earth ever has”, but that it’s popular with readers everywhere: “Humor translates . . . the people within A Confederacy of Dunces are going through the same things other people and their families are going through.”

Susan Larson, author of The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans and host of the local NPR affiliate’s show on books, “This Reading Life”, says: “Few American cities have such a visible and inviting literary culture, played out on its streets every day.” Larson often reads two books a day — when she was a judge for the Pulitzer, she had to read 300 books in six months. That New Orleans reader could put the rest of us — including David Bowie — to shame!