Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

This biography of the city (352 pages) was published in February of 2009 by Spiegel & Grau. The book takes you to New Orleans. David read Nine Lives and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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Nine Lives

Death and Life in New Orleans

Dan Baum

Prepare to meet nine unforgettable, real-life characters in this haunting biography of New Orleans and the people who call it home. Bookended by two deadly storms — 1960’s Hurricane Betsy and 2005’s Hurricane Katrina — this story is moving and absorbing on an intimate level.

Author Dan Baum was a staff writer for The New Yorker, assigned to write the story of Katrina in New Orleans. He arrived two days after the levees broke and learned about the post-storm mess the city was in. But he also came to realize that the people of New Orleans are not like people anywhere else. They love their city with an unmatched ferocity. Despite deep poverty, a high murder rate, terrible schools, an ailing economy, and corrupt, brutal cops, New Orleanians — regardless of their age, race, or wealth — were ‘extremely satisfied with their lives.’

To understand the why and how, Baum moved to New Orleans and invested hundreds of hours interviewing and observing its people. And in this book, he tells the story of nine of those lives.

Among his characters are a high school band leader and a millionaire who’s also the king of the carnival, a transsexual bar owner, a trumpet-playing coroner, a cop, and a convict. With these multiple viewpoints — and by starting in the 1960s — he shows us the cultural richness of New Orleans and the power the community derives from its blend of people.

Before the narrative even gets to the fateful days of Hurricane Katrina, Baum has presented a layer cake of New Orleans, exploring racism, sexism, gay rights, civil rights, the rise of container shipping, urban corruption, the parade culture, the music culture, and the crack epidemic.

When Katrina strikes the city, and the levees break, the stories Baum tells take on an even greater weight. There are devastating stories of the impossible choices people were forced to make — and there are conversations about whether they should evacuate or leave for good? And because, as readers, we know their histories, our understanding of their conflicting emotions is deep.

This is powerful, readable reportage that will make you wish every city has a book like this one — a way into knowing its streets and its inhabitants this deeply.

Life in New Orleans is all about making the present — this moment, right now — as pleasant as possible. So New Orleanians, by and large, aren’t tortured by the frenzy to achieve, acquire, and manage the unmanageable future. Their days are built around the things that other Americans have pushed out of their lives by incessant work: art, music, elaborate cooking, and — most of all — plenty of relaxed time with family and friends. Their jobs are really just the things they do to earn a little money; they’re not the organizing principle of life. While this isn’t a worldview particularly conducive to getting things done, getting things done isn’t the most important thing in New Orleans. Living life is. Once you’ve tasted that, and especially if it’s how you grew up, life everywhere else feels thin indeed. — Dan Baum

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