Monday, August 24, 2009

Dan Baum: Nine Lives

This is the best book I've read in a long time. And not just because the books I've read lately have been pretty mediocre. Dan Baum's "Nine Lives" is a great book. Hurricane Katrina haunts me- I didn't visit New Orleans till December of last year, but the devestation from Katrina is still in a word, devestating. Saint Bernard Parish and the 9th Ward are still hollowed out with acres of open space where there used to be tightly packed housing. It would be a perfect place for urban exploring. Only, it's not. It's a perfect place for rebuilding and bringing people home. It's a perfect place to see government miscarried, and racial injustice at it's finest.

I watched Spike Lee's When The Levees Broke about two months ago, and I highly recommend watching that before reading this book. It's a more factual look at the events before and surrounding Katrina, including a discussion of the politicians involved, and Hurricane Betsy- Katrina's Grandma, if you will. Say what you will about Spike Lee, but he has a lot of the players in this documentary, and he lays it out pretty clearly. Hurricane Katrina was a failure of so many systems. It was a failure of foresight: Hurricane Betsy happened in 1965, and broke some of the same levees on Lake Pontchartrain. Both Lee and Baum quote people in the know who said "we knew we had to fix those levees" and "we knew this would happen again." What's that cliche about history- forget it and you're bound to live it again? Katrina was a failure of local and national government in the short run- how on earth did they leave people stranded in a city with no food, no water, no services, no hospitals for 10 days? And it was a failure of government in the long run- how on earth did they have a city that had no foresight- no PLAN for when the levees broke- and there were people so poor, and so unwilling to leave (can you blame them?) that there was no emergency plan? Shove them in a sporting facility? With no food, no water, no bathrooms, no security? No medical care? And then blame the victims? Right, they didn't get out. Oh, wait, they COULDN'T get out because they didn't have functioning vehicles, or better, anywhere to GO! And then, the failure of afterthought- oh, these refugees in their own country- scattered around the country away from the city that is more than a city but a network of families- oops, forgot about them, and their suffering. Epic fail.

So Spike Lee, and probably all the other articles that you've read and seen on TV, sets the stage for Baum's book. Dan Baum was a New Yorker writer who covered Katrina for the magazine and selected nine people for his book. He follows their stories, starting with Grandma Betsy, through Katrina and a little past (we're not much past- it's just coming up on the 5 year anniversary, and I'll tell you, based on my experience and the lives in the book, I'm not sure how much has changed). Baum has picked a wonderful "cast" and tells their lives in an extremely readable fashion. He has a cop, a rich white civic leader, a parish coroner, the wife of one of the Lower 9th Ward heroes of the Mardi Gras celebrations, a teacher of band (critical to New Orleans culture), a woman who grows up in the 9th Ward, a drifter who moves from LA to New Orleans, a trandsgendered person, and a black union leader. Some meet, some never know of the existance of the others. But they represent parts of New Orleans, and without being overtly political or laying out "this is Katrina", they tell the story. Half of the book is pre-Katrina, and I had to put it down as the section with Katrina happened. I liked the characters too much to deal with the next part. I was too humbled by their lives, and the United States' failure.

Read this book. Don't forget history. It repeats.

hbw- things fall down


Dan Baum said...

Thank you very much for your generous reviews. Readers who would like to know more about Nine Lives can visit
Again, many thanks!

Dognerd said...

I'll definitely check it out - thanks! I've been plowing through books because of vacation so I want to keep them lined up and stay in the habit.

thb said...

And, THB sez it is a great read as well, with the focus on the pre-Katrina lives (goes back many years) and the post-Katrina section impossible to put down. In its way, it is a feel good story, as some refuse to give up their town in what has to have been an avalanche (after the hurricane) running down the hill at the survivors non-stop for years.