By Nathan C. Martin
My bookshelf is full of books I’ve never read. Books are the only things I buy on impulse, and I rarely enter a bookstore I like without buying something. Not only that, but if I like a book I’ve read, I’ll often give it away to a friend. I also move all the time, and books are heavy, so every time I switch apartments I shed some books. I’ve moved six times in the past year, and lots of the books I got rid of were titles that I’d read. The constant acquisition of books and the purging of those I’ve finished has led to a bookshelf full of books I’ve never read.
So, you’ll excuse me if, in creating this gift guide composed of New Orleans- and Louisiana-related books culled from my own collection, I include some I’ve yet to thoroughly absorb. In this case, I’m not recommending them because they’re good to read, necessarily. They’re good to buy, good to own, and good to look forward to reading—these things, I know for certain. They’re good to handle and flip through, good to hear about from others who have read them, good to come home to and pull off the shelf, read the jacket copy, look at the author photo, and wonder when you’ll have the time to read them. These are things books are good for besides just plain old reading.
Hell, if you only want to read, why not just get on the internet?
You may have correctly come under the impression that this is not an exhaustive guide nor anywhere near a collection of books about New Orleans or by New Orleans authors that I would argue is “the best.” It’s just some books I pulled off my bookshelf that, in one way or another, relate to the place where we’re at, and I thought I might tell you something about them in case you’re looking for ideas for a gift.
Books not about New Orleans by writers living in New Orleans:
Harlem is Nowhere by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Big Class Number One: The Animals by a bunch of adorable schoolkids
The Posthuman Dada Guide by Andrei Codrescu
A Very Bad Wizard by Tamler Sommers
Fiction and poetry set in Louisiana
One D.O.A., One on the Way by Mary Robison
Tales of Desire by Tennessee Williams
Magic City by Yusef Komunyakaa
Fever Chart by Bill Cotters
Nonfiction about New Orleans and/or Louisiana:
The World that Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette
Bienville’s Dilemma by Richard Campanella
The Earl of Louisiana by A.J. Liebling
Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America
By Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Ever since my girlfriend moved back to New York I’ve been buying New York books. Not the New York books I bought before—punchy fiction by disciples of Gordon Lish, worshipped by Brooklyn transplants who intern at literary magazines like NOON—but books by James Baldwin and Jane Jacobs, Lorraine Hansberry and, yes, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts. It’s because my girlfriend’s a local, and even though, yeah, she’s lived in Green Point and she’s read Sam Lipsyte, the hip Brooklyn literary scene was never her thing. Most of the time I spent in New York before I met her was incredibly hip—in hip galleries or bookstores, watching hip bands and checking out hip art, hanging out with hip DJs in the park, marveling at all the young people sitting around on a Thursday afternoon when rents were so god-awfully high (shouldn’t they be at work?!). I was searching for vestiges of the early 2000s when bands like Liars and the Rapture and Black Dice put Williamsburg on my radar even though I was stuck in Utah. I really didn’t like New York that much, but since visiting my girlfriend, who lives in a great neighborhood in Queens, and having her open the rest of the city up to me, I’m starting to think New York is pretty great, and I want to know more about it. So, I’ve been buying New York books.
You might wonder: “What the hell do New York books have to do on a site of New Orleans Book and Literary News?” Well, a year or two ago, after finishing her Harlem book, Texas-born and Harvard-educated Pitts moved to New Orleans to work on a book about the slave rebellion upriver from here that took place two centuries ago this year, the largest slave revolt there ever was. You probably know about it. In fact, lots of books have been written about it, but lots of books have been written about Harlem, too—tons of them!—and that didn’t stop Pitts from producing a searching, personal, and thoughtful mediation that Zadie Smith initially didn’t much like until her friend recommended she actually go to Harlem to see how the neighborhood is a bit dreamy, just like Pitts’ prose. Admittedly, book one on my gift-guide list is one I haven’t read yet, but I took in the first 30 pages on a flight back from Thanksgiving in Denver and I’m excited to dig into the rest of it, and even more excited to have Pitts working in New Orleans. I look forward to reading her book and to reading her next.
Big Class Number One: The Animals
By a bunch of adorable New Orleans schoolkids
I’ve written about this little book before. It’s great. I understand that the subsequent issues of Big Class are coming out soon or have already come out, but unless you already have it, pick this one up first. It’s hilarious, even to a person whose initial reaction upon hearing of the project was, “You know what? Fuck the kids.”
The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square
By Ned Sublette
I’ve got a friend named Leyla who plays the cello. She plays it beautifully—classically trained, a Bach enthusiast, and some of her best recordings are of her riffing on Langston Hughes poems. She’s clearly a smart and artful lady, and like me a relatively recent addition to New Orleans, eager to learn as much as possible about the city. But still, I’m a dick, and when she told me about a really good book she was reading called The World that Made New Orleans I was like, “Oh cool!” but really I was thinking, “Yeah, that looks kind of dumb. Looks like a tourist book. Stick to your cello, Leyla. Let me lend you something I just picked up by Edwidge Danticat.” But then I was in the Community Book Center and Mama Jennifer, who’s read and remembers everything, recommended the same book to me. Then Zach Lazar did, too, and he had also read and enjoyed Sublette’s book on Havana. Then everywhere I looked the book came up, and everyone agreed that it was really great. So I bought it, and it’s on the list. And I bought it again for my mom for Christmas. Maybe you should buy it for your mom, too. Don’t be a dick like me.
One D.O.A., One on the Way
By Mary Robison
Before I moved to New Orleans I was working at a magazine in Chicago called Stop Smiling that hosted a lot of author events. The fall before the magazine folded we partnered with the local NPR affiliate to host the literary component of an event series they were putting together. It was really great, except the station insisted that we charge a $15 cover, and the readings we hosted were almost always free.
We figured we’d need a pretty strong incentive to get people to pay, so we recruited the best authors we could think of and put together gift bags for each attendee that included swag from the radio station and the magazine—and, what’s more, each bag included a free copy of one of the authors’ books! How did we get copies of all the authors’ books? We just asked. I emailed each publisher, explained the situation, and they just sent us free books. It was great. We stuffed the gift bags and packed the venue to way over capacity, made a crapload of money at the door, and as a thank-you to the publishers I sent the point people I had dealt with a package of free Stop Smiling magazines. One of those people was Adam at McSweeney’s, who is actually responsible for three books on this list. He later sent me a box of McSweeney’s stuff—a thank-you package for my thank-you package—that included Bill Cotter’s fantastic Fever Chart (see below), but before that, he told me, since he found out I was moving to New Orleans, to read One D.O.A., One on the Way.
I bought the book and read it, unemployed after the magazine folded and full of free time, in the sunny front room of an apartment where I was crashing with the girl who became my ex-girlfriend after we moved to New Orleans together. Those days, during winter in Chicago, when you wore big, thick socks and long underwear even indoors, I would get out of bed right after she left for work, cook myself eggs and position a comfortable chair in the rectangle of most intense sunlight. Say what you want about being unemployed—I racked up thousands of dollars of credit card debt—it gives you lots of time to read. I read lots of books about New Orleans. This is the only one on this list from that time, and it’s the darkest and most sinisterly graceful. It’s almost a cartoon-type of dark, but a cartoon that’s drawn really beautifully. It’s about a film location scout in New Orleans whose husband, Adam, has succumbed to a terrible illness and has moved back home into his parents’ Garden District mansion. Adam has an identical twin, Saunders. There, in the mansion, the decay sets in.
I loaned the book to a coworker after I arrived in New Orleans and she took nearly a year to give it back, even though it’s less than 200 pages. It’s a small book that looks almost menacing in that it’s nearly typical—the lines and hues of its cover art bear a striking resemblance, in fact to Robert Olen Butler’s A Small Hotel, which Oprah recommended—but it’s off just enough, like someone’s cousin you meet who seems normal for a fleeting second before you realize he’s totally deranged.
It’s written in short, numbered sections—what I’ve heard referred to as “crots.” Here’s one I just flipped to:
Saunders is here. He’s on a divan in the dark front parlor, alone, drinking straight from a bottle of rum.
I go in and sit beside him. I say, “Looks like you’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”
He puts his hand on my face. “I want to know where my wife is,” he says.
I haven’t quite finished the editing on what I’m going to tell him, and how to explain everything that has happened, briefly, and with most of what happened left out.
Saunders is moodier, more complicated than Adam. Sometimes, rather than get confused, he’ll become very literal, and very exacting about times and specifics. He’ll want to go back over and over a thing, back over the chronology, and the sequence in which things occurred.
This could trip me up.
I say, “Petal was ready to shoot you in the heart, so I seized her weapon and drove her to a psychiatric hospital to get treatment. That’s where she is at the moment.”
“Ha, ha. Very funny,” he says.
“No, baby,” I say.
“Then you mean for real.”
“Well, I do. Yes. It’s what we’re dealing with. The situation.”
“Is that right.” He drinks from the bottle, an amount that balloons his cheeks.
“Leave some for me,” I say. “Unless you’re too angry.”
He swallows and leans back, staring at me or through me, or at someone who’s not here, at what she’s done, or he’s done, or what we.
The Posthuman Dada Guide: Tzara & Lenin Play Chess
By Andrei Codrescu
“Please tell me it’s not Andrei Codrescu,” Daniel said. I had just met him. Having known virtually no one upon my arrival in New Orleans, a friend of mine who was a family friend of Daniel’s family had connected us, and he and his wife were having me over for dinner. I had mentioned something about being excited about a fiction writer in New Orleans. Daniel said that Codrescu was a perverted hack that the mediocre literati of New Orleans coveted for reasons beyond his comprehension. I assured him, no, it wasn’t Codrescu (I can’t even remember who I was talking about now—only Daniel’s anti-Codrescu sentiments), but I did say, in fact, that I had recently read The Posthuman Dada Guide and enjoyed it considerably. In fact, it might have been the best book on Dada I’ve read, and I own the original Dada Almanach! Daniel relented, admitting his belief that Condrescu could write a fine Dada book.
The Posthuman Dada Guide is a hodgepodge of intellectual history and poetic rumination, structured with intrareferential subheads but a linear progression, so one can jump around or read straight through. It’s conceit is, loosely, that Tristan Tzara, credited as something like Dada’s founder, is playing chess with Vladimir Lenin in a cafe in Zurich at a time when both were known to reside in that city, after the first World War. The argument Codrescu makes is that the surprise and flamboyance of Tzara’s dadas clearly succeeded in producing a lineage preferable to the gloom and Stalinism that followed Lenin. It’s a smart and entertaining book, at turns serious and sarcastic. I actually made a cut-up collage zine from one of my favorite passages called The Internet Doesn’t Love You. The cut up ends: “So on this is that the genuine work now would be the case. Religious guerrillas today are fighting in their popular expressions have nothing, but never have thought about it if he and animals hadn’t first. Not a thing about knowing members. Why happily? Because we are artists, and blood networker meets another virtually (if he isn’t already) just another (re) to return individuals to themselves with time are proliferating at the speed of light, literally possible? It certainly isn’t desirable from any. Take a dada to bed and see me in the morning.”
Now that I think of it, I read that one while I was unemployed, too.
A Very Bad Wizard: Morality Behind the Curtain
Nine Conversations by Tamler Sommers
This is book number two that Adam from McSweeney’s is responsible for on this list. Tamler Sommers is a philosopher who frequently interviews people for The Believer about, you know, the possibility of free will, evolutionary ethics, whether Catherine Zeta-Jones is objectively hotter than Drew Barrymore, and things like that. This book is a collection of his interviews, from The Believer and other places, and includes a conversation with, among others, Philip Zimbardo, who conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment. When I was a teenager, growing up in Wyoming, I was really into Rage Against the Machine. I remember seeing a picture of guitarist Tom Morello wearing a hat that said Stanford Prison Experiment and thinking, “What the fuck?” But then I found a used CD by a band called Stanford Prison Experiment and realized that’s what his hat was talking about. I bought the CD for five bucks and when I listened to it, it totally sucked.
Anyway, Sommers is living for New Orleans for a year on a fellowship to Tulane, and—you heard it here first, folks—one of my goals is to do an author event with him in the spring. Adam—who I finally randomly met in person when he came to the Jesus Angel Garcia reading while he was in town for a conference—said it would be interesting if I had Sommers interview someone in front of a live audience. But I’ve had trouble thinking up moral philosophers or psychologists who conducted controversial experiments with inmates or chimpanzees in town like those interviewed in A Very Bad Wizard. If you know of any, please let me know [nathan at press-street dot com].
Bienville’s Dilemma: A Historical Geography of New Orleans
By Richard Campanella
It’s getting to the point where including this book on a New Orleans-related gift guide list is like including A Confederacy of Dunces, but in case you’ve been living in a hole in which you don’t have wifi or 4G to order this contemporary-classic consideration of the intersection between New Orleans’ exuberant culture and the perilous physical space the city occupies, do yourself a favor (now that you clearly have online access) and order two copies—one for yourself, and one for someone else. The maps and charts in the midsection alone are worth the price of the book (well, almost; it’s a pretty expensive book), but Campanella’s exhaustively researched, utterly enjoyable essays are worth the cover price and more. This is the type of book you pick up and immediately begin to marvel at the brain that created it.
The Earl of Louisiana
By A.J. Liebling
Another classic. Though Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men will likely run the historical gamut longer than Earl, only the latter of the two books chronicling the rise and fall of notorious former Louisiana Governor Earl K. Long is written by my favorite boxing writer. Besides, I don’t even own a copy of Warren’s novel, and lately I’ve been more interested in nonfiction anyway. The copy I have of The Earl of Louisiana is gaudy and gold, with a photograph of old, wrinkled Earl looking grumpy and half-broken on the front, though he’s poised in front of a microphone in a tuxedo, and clearly still capable of some action. My copy looks like it’s been dipped in wine and water—the edges of its pages wave dramatically and clutch together, making the flip-through nearly impossible. I can only trust that if Liebling writes about governors half as well as he writes about boxers (see his outstanding collection The Sweet Science), I’m in for a treat once I finally get around to sitting down with this one.
Tales of Desire
By Tennessee Williams
The allure of this volume is its packaging, and the less-famous yet haunting and humorous stories it contains. Part of the New Directions “Pearl Series“—which also includes, among other great titles, In Search of Duende by Frederico Garcia Lorca and Everything and Nothing by Jorge Luis Borges—Tales of Desire is a slim and attractive book with clean design. It’s an elegant object to possess, and the lusty tales herein revolve around Williams’ statement that, “I cannot write any sort of story unless there is at least one character in it for whom I have physical desire.” In his charming introduction to the book, Gore Vidal writes: “There used to be two streetcars in New Orleans. One was named Desire and the other was called Cemeteries. To get where you were going, you changed from the first to the second. In these stories, Tennessee validated with his genius our common ticket to transfer.”
By Yusef Komunyakaa
Who would’ve thought someone could write a beautiful book about Bogalusa, chained as it is to its ridiculous name and reeking of chemicals from the paper mill. By far the best contemporary poet to come from Louisiana, Yusef Komunyakaa returns to his boyhood town after admirably grappling in verse with the horrors of Vietnam, having risen above the rubble of inadequate poetic responses to that war, showing himself as someone who perceives deep and subtle contours where lesser writers see only vaguely planed darkness. Bogalusa, which was built from nothing in less than a year, is nicknamed “The Magic City.” With the same steeled sensibilities from which he wrote of Hanoi Hannah taunting black GIs over radio waves with rhetorical questions about why they were dying for a country that treats them like dogs, Komunyakaa turns his eye toward the Bogalusan youth he recalls, full of bucolic scenes in the woods, an abusive carpenter father, and racial violence and young sex at times swirling and obscure in the imagery’s periphery, at others as stark and sharp as a stabbing.
From Magic City:
Squinting up at leafy sunlight, I stepped back
& shaded my eyes, but couldn’t see what she pointed to.
The courthouse lawn where the lone poplar stood
Was almost flat as a pool table. Twenty-five
Years earlier it had been a stage for half the town:
Cain & poor white trash. A picnic on saint augustine
Grass. No, I couldn’t see the piece of blonde rope.
I stepped closer to her, to where we were almost
In each other’s arms, & then spotted the flayed
Tassel of wind-whipped hemp knotted around a limb
Like a hank of hair, a weather-whitened bloom
In hungry light. That was where they prodded him
Up into the flatbed of a pickup.
We had coffee & chicory with lots of milk,
Hoecakes, bacon, & gooseberry jam. She told me
How a white woman in The Terrace
Said that she shot a man who tried to rape her,
How their car lights crawled sage fields
Midnight to daybreak, how a young black boxer
Was running & punching the air at sunrise,
How they tarred & feathered him & dragged the corpse
Behind a Model T through the Mill Quarters,
How they dumped the prizefighter on his mother’s doorstep,
How two days later three boys
Found a white man dead under the trestle
In blackface, the woman’s bullet
In his chest, his head on a clump of sedge.
When I stepped out on the back porch
The pick-up man from Bogalusa Dry Cleaners
Leaned against his van, with an armload
Of her Sunday dresses, telling her
Emmett Till had begged for it
With his damn wolf whistle.
She was looking at the lye-scoured floor,
White as his face. The hot words
Swarmed out of my mouth like African bees
& my fists were cocked,
Hammers in the air. He popped
The clutch when he turned the corner,
As she pulled me into her arms
& whispered, Son, you ain’t gonna live long.
By Bill Cotter
This novel, which the McSweeney’s editors pulled from its slush pile—take heart, aspiring writers!—is essentially the reason why Room 220 exists. I had read and was completely giddy about Bill Cotter’s hilarious and disturbing book when Adam (again!) notified me that Cotter would be coming to town for a reading at Maple Street to celebrate the launch of the Fever Chart paperback, and he asked if I was interested in interviewing Cotter for a local publication to promote the event. Well, of course! I loved Cotter’s tale of a troubled yet tender young man who escapes a mental facility in Boston and tries to start a new life in (pre-Katrina) New Orleans among a surly and varied cast of characters and strange adventures. Hemingway’s old schtick about how writing is easy because all one must do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed comes to mind when I read and re-read this novel—not only because of the bloody sap on the cover, or the numerous instances in which the protagonist requires a bandage to stem a sanguine flow, but because the utter range and depth of emotions the novel elicits suggests that its author composed it with something like bloodshed, with core elements of the entire scope of his humanness running out onto the pages.
As it were, when I looked around town for a publication to which I could pitch an interview with Cotter, I squinted and scanned the media landscape and came up with nothing. The Gambit was uninterested (it had featured an entire paragraph announcing an upcoming event at Tulane with Michael Ondaatje), I didn’t even ask the Times-Picayune (NolaVie hadn’t launched yet), Anti Gravity didn’t do anything with books that I could tell, and as I was new in town, those were basically the only places I could come up with (they still are, now that I think about it). Cotter eventually canceled the event for “personal reasons,” but that didn’t stop me from casually complaining to Anne Gisleson that there was nowhere in town to publish literary journalism, and she replied that Press Street had a spare page on its website, formerly dedicated to the Room 220 in Colton School, so why not I start writing about New Orleans book and literary news there? At that point, I was on a “say yes to everything” kick, which I sort of perpetually am, and nearly a year later, I’m cranking out a Room 220 holiday gift guide on a chilly Friday afternoon in December. So it goes.