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CultureWatch, Page Three

NINE LIVES, Death and Life in New Orleans
By Dan Baum © 2009
Published by Speigel and Grau; Hardcover, 335 pp.

Baum's long experience as a staff writer for the prestigious New Yorker stands him in good stead in this unassuming, but immensely difficult project. Just the number of individuals whose stories he wanted to tell would have made a lesser writer pause.

The structure of the book is a little confusing due to the number of the lives it covers. Since each chapter deals with one, and a loose chronology, the reader has to occasionally look back to a previous chapter to keep up with which person the reader is with at a given moment.

Holding these stories together like the thread on which beads are strung is the Mardi Gras. Those readers who know little or nothing of the traditions associated with this festival will find a fascinating education in these pages. The work involved, the competitive emotions, the adherence to former practices and honored legends, and the dedications of lives and fortunes to this one annual event are nothing less than astonishing.

While it seems clear from the title that hurricane Katrina will figure prominently, it develops that the storm was only one of the many endured by the people whose lives are shown. It is largely the relationships revealed in Mardi Gras history that are embedded in the city's own history. New Orleans comes gradually before the reader's eyes as a site as fantastic in some ways as Xanadu.

Its uniqueness among municipalities stands out as do the people whose lives are shown in sympathetic close-ups. The sum of preventable loss for its inhabitants, the amount of habitual indifference of officials, the quantity of carelessness (utter lack of caring) are disheartening. One must hope that in those failings the city is one of a kind in spite of the richness of its history.

A reporter's eye is expected to be without warped focus. Baum maintains that tradition without sacrificing his sympathy. He lets the reader into the feelings of those he has interviewed. The reader is never left with questions about why things turned out as they did. Baum does take liberties by inserting dialogue that he might not always be able to quote from hearing it, despite his many personal interviews.

In short, the denizens of the infamous Ninth Ward, the Carnival tribes, old New Orleans money and prestige, new entrepreneurs and politicians are all treated with extraordinary even handedness. This is the kind of book that makes students of history salivate. It may be nonfiction, but Baum makes his nine lives as affecting as any novelist could.

Joan L. Cannon

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©2009 Joan L. Cannon

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