Thursday, December 29, 2005

Review: "My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters and Lovers"

The contributors' list for "My New Orleans: Ballads to the Big Easy by Her Sons, Daughters and Lovers" ($13, Touchstone Books) is an impressive one. It ranges from writers such as Poppy Z. Brite, Christopher Rice and Rick Bragg, to famous chefs, such as Paul Prudhomme and Leah Chase, to musicians like Wynton Marsalis.

The wide variety of celebrities share some of their personal memories of time spent in the city and what the city means to them. Being a lover of New Orleans myself, I was looking for essays that connected with me, something that made me smile or feel something about the city - the kind of stories you might tell over a beer with a group of friends. While some do that, others sound almost like the kind of essay you'd write in school.

Many of the essays, such as Wynton Marsalis' "Soul Model for America," are calls to action to rebuild the city. While his words, if spoken, might be a powerful rallying cry, they don't translate to that in print. Others fare better, such as Walter Isaacson's "How to Bring the Magic Back," which does evoke some of the sights, sounds and scents of the city.

One of the most effective of the call to action pieces is Randy Fertel's "Bring Back the Clowns," in which he pokes a bit of fun at his dad, the Gorilla Man of the 1969 mayoral campaign. He campaigned in a safari outfit on the platform that the Audubon Zoo needed a gorilla. It's a light-hearted reminder of the kind of characters the city has spawned and what makes it special. Balanced with Fertel's more melancholy thoughts on returning following Hurricane Katrina, it's a strong piece.

The best bits here are when the writers bring it down to a personal level instead of trying to make a broad statement about the city. Brite talks about discovering a love of bird-watching in Audubon Park. (She also scores points with me for her reference to Bobby Hebert taking over for the late Buddy Diliberto, as I've sat by the radio several Sundays this year, shaking my head and saying, "He's no Buddy D.")

Rick Bragg's "This Isn't the Last Dance" is perhaps the perfect example of what I was expecting, as he talks about strolls through the city and memories of his visits. In the essay, he voices the words said by many lovers of the Big Easy the night Katrina came bearing down, as his wife says, "I'm glad you took me there. Before."

The essays in "My New Orleans" may not all pull at the heartstrings and make you misty-eyed like you'd expect, but there are some powerful moments among the words of the city's sons, daughters and lovers. It's well worth the read for anyone who knows what it means to miss New Orleans.