City Reads

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
And miss it each day and night?
I know I’m not wrong – this feeling’s gettin’ stronger
The longer I stay away.

Miss them moss-covered vines, the tall sugar pines
Where mockingbirds used to sing
And I’d like to see that lazy Mississippi
Hurryin’ into spring.

~ Louis Alter and Eddie DeLange

That first line, of a ballad performed by Louis Armstrong and sung by Billie Holiday in the movie New Orleans, serves as the title for the introduction to Andrei Codrescu’s essay collection, New Orleans, Mon Amour. The introduction was penned post-Katrina, and in spite of the author’s descriptions of the resilience and humor of New Orleans residents, one can certainly sense his broken heart over the devastation of the city and diaspora of its natives. It was indeed a heart-breaking and shameful tragedy for all Americans, whether or not one had spent any time in the Big Easy. I kept thinking of this strange faded sticker on a light pole in my New Orleans neighborhood: Pray the Rosary to Save New Orleans. I passed it on my daily walks or runs to Lake Pontchartrain, and it usually brought a brief godless smirk to my face. My old neighborhood was completely inundated in the aftermath of Katrina, and neither praying the rosary, nor the finger bones of some poor wee saint at a nearby church, could save it.

I’m currently savoring Codrescu’s essays, and the first dozen or so I’ve read are delightful, full of the weirdness, “mythifying”, and magical realism characteristic of life in New Orleans. He describes the 19th-century serial novel by Baron Ludwig von Reizenstein, entitled The Mysteries of New Orleans: “Readers complained about the graphic details (especially the sex) but couldn’t put it down.” Musicians, artists, writers, and chefs sheltered at Codrescu’s Baton Rouge home following Katrina, and one of them (justifying the preparation of elaborate gourmet meals) stated ” … it may be the end of the world, but that’s no reason to become uncivilized.” A chapter entitled Cookin’ includes recipe names from local cookbooks: Microwave-baked Juicy Swamp Rabbit, Smothered Doves (O Picasso, O Paloma!), Garfish en croute, Gator Meatballs, Stuffed Teals, Sally’s Armadillo. There are a couple of topics, namely ghosts and dreams, which, as a rational scientist, I should dismiss snappily, but I couldn’t dispel a sense of familiarity while reading Codrescu’s essays. Wrong Number, a hilarious account of how the city is famous for wrong numbers and has a “telephonic voodoo cult”, posits that telling the caller that the person they’re seeking has died is no solution, because “… often the calls are for dead people.”

In Se Habla Dreams, Codrescu writes that New Orleans is a “city that dreams stories.” He claims that ghosts and pirates inhabit the city, and the dead saunter by casually; such supernatural events cannot help but influence the work of a writer. The varied scents and odors of New Orleans evoke a sense of “rotting and generating”; I am in complete agreement with this olfactory assessment of the city. While living in New Orleans, I once sent a handmade book, wrapped in a plastic newspaper sleeve, to an old friend who lived, as I do now, in a semi-arid city that enforces a sort of comparative hyposmia. He remarked that he smelled a humid New Orleans spring day – river mud, musk, roasting coffee, jasmine, magnolia – when he took the book out of the wrapper. I’ve also had dream experiences similar to the ones that Codrescu relates, particularly about Lake Pontchartrain (though mine were typically more unsettling and sinister).

I’m starting a list of non-fiction books about cities, and of fictional works in which a particular city or cities figure prominently; maybe I’ll keep track of this project on my About page. In any case, please please PLEASE leave your suggestions for city reads in the comments. Below are books I’ve read recently or that are queued on my Kindle.

Non-fiction

London: The Biography, by Peter Ackroyd

The City of Falling Angels (Venice), by John Berendt

New Orleans, Mon Amour, by Andrei Codrescu

Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability, by David Owen

The Neighborhood Project: Using Evolution to Improve My City, One Block at a Time, by David Sloan Wilson

Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development, by Joan Fitzgerald

Soft City, by Jonathan Raban (via cromercrox)

Fiction

Kraken, by China Miéville. London figures prominently in this urban fantasy novel.

Un Lun Dun, by China Miéville. London and its nonsensical mirror version, UnLondon.

Perdido Street Station, by China Miéville. Set in the fantastical city of New Crobouzon (suggested by cromercrox)

The City and the City, by China Miéville. Mystery set in two cities in the same place that ignore each other (suggested by cromercrox)

The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell. Not set in Virginia (via cromercrox)

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster. Described by Wikipedia as “meta-detective fiction” (via cromercrox)

Ulysses, by James Joyce. Dublin is an integral component of this novel.

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6 Responses to City Reads

  1. cromercrox says:

    Two more books by China Miéville, who’s made something of a specialty in Urban Fantasy: Perdido Street Station, set in the fictional city of New Crobuzon, and The City and the City, a mystery set in two cities that are in the same place but which ignore each other. As for more literary fiction, there’s New York Stories by Paul Auster and the >i>Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell. Soft City by travel writer Jonathan Raban is interesting if a little dated.

    • KristiV says:

      New Crobuzon is laid out in exquisite detail in Perdido Street Station; I shall certainly include it. Thanks for the list additions!

      Oh my Eru, I forgot Ulysses ….

  2. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    What a great topic!

    Have you read any Kate Atkinson? Her absolutely fantastic debut novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, featured my home town, York, very prominently (I reviewed it briefly here) as well as touching on several other locations. I also loved Case Histories (Cambridge), although subsequent books in the series (e.g. One Good Turn (Edinburgh)) haven’t been as good, IMHO.

    Edward Rutherford’s books are more of a guilty pleasure, but definitely worth checking out. I’ve read London and Sarum; both books chronicle the history of the city via short stories from different eras, featuring characters from two or three different families whose fortunes change over time and whose members interact in different ways over the centuries, from pre-Roman through to modern times. It’s not exactly great literary fiction, but it’s very well done and definitely worth reading.

    I’m having a hard time thinking of any more examples, but I just know that a few will occur to me as soon as I hit “Post Comment”. I might go home and scan my book case and come back with a more comprehensive list later tonight or tomorrow!

  3. cromercrox says:

    ‘The End of Mr Y’ by Scarlett Thomas is set in Canterbury (though it doesn’t specifically say so). It’s probably the best SF/Fantasy I’ve read this year.

  4. cromercrox says:

    Detective stories are sometimes closely tied to location. One thinks of Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski novels set in Chicago, and Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse whodunits in Oxford. The best in this genre, if I say so myself, is Henry Gee’s Inspector Sheepwool mysteries set in Cromer. OK, so there’s only one of them (so far.)

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