City of Refuge

City of Refuge is a passionate love letter to New Orleans. This story about how Hurricane Katrina affected two families—one white and middle class, one poor and black—is by turns heart- and gut-wrenching.

On a sweltering hot, late August day in New Orleans we meet SJ Williams, a widowed carpenter and Vietnam vet, who lives and works in the Lower Ninth Ward. Williams must care for his ailing sister Lucy and her troubled son Wesley. We also meet Craig Donaldson, a native of Michigan, who lives in a comfortable middle class neighborhood near Tulane with a wife and two children. These two families make radically different plans for getting through the coming storm. Williams opts to board his windows and tough it out at home. Donaldson and his family evacuate north across Lake Pontchartrain to Mississippi.

After the levees break and the flood waters rush in, SJ and his family are scattered to the Convention Center, the Superdome, and eventually across state lines. Do you remember being glued to the television that summer, observing with horror the plight suffered by thousands of New Orleanians? The Williams are those people. City of Refuge paints a much more intimate portrait of them than we saw on television.

Meanwhile, the Donaldson family manages to evacuate first to Mississippi, then to Chicago. Safe and sound thousands of miles from home, Craig and his wife must confront their rocky marriage and make the difficult decision of whether or not to return to their adopted hometown. Whereas the Williamses feel like composite characters based on thousands of victims and evacuees, Craig reads like an autobiographical character and it is clear that the author really relates to him.

Large chunks of City of Refuge read like narrative non-fiction: descriptions of the city, the levees, the damage, and media attention during the storm and its immediate aftermath, and diatribes about an ineffective and disorganized government response. Nevertheless, Piazza weaves his concerns about race and class through the contrasting experiences of the Williamses and the Donaldsons with great compassion and a compelling intensity.

If you enjoy other accounts of Katrina, such as Dave Eggers’s  Zeitoun or Treme give City of Refuge a try.


Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self

When my sister saw that I was reading Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self she worried about me. Relax! I’m not a danger to myself or others. This slim volume is realistic fiction, not self-help.

This is a collection of eight short stories about young African-American women—and some men—navigating the difficult terrain of race, class, sexuality and coming-of-age. As the title implies, the characters face challenging situations in which they are their own worst enemies. Evans has a sharp wit and fresh voice that give an original spin to some age-old themes.

“Snakes” is my favorite of the bunch. A biracial woman reflects back on the fateful summer she spent with her rich, white, racist grandmother and beloved white cousin. “Snakes” makes you consider what a lasting impact a child’s split-second decision can have. It may be worth reading twice.

“Harvest” is also haunting. One beautiful, intelligent, healthy white Columbia University student sells her eggs to pay for her wardrobe and lifestyle. Her college roommates—equally beautiful, intelligent and healthy—cannot do the same. They are black and, simply put, there is no market for their eggs.  The story of the ethics and economics of egg donation is complicated by an unwanted pregnancy. Evans deals gracefully with the stark contrast of one young woman being paid for her eggs while her friend considers paying for an abortion. The story’s ending is surprising and poignant.

Fans of women’s coming-of-age story collections like Nell Freudenberger’s Lucky Girls or Julie Orringer’s How to Breathe Underwater will find much to savor in this collection. Although each of Evans’ stories feature different characters, plotlines and dilemmas, the stories occasionally blur together thematically. What Evans’ collection lacks in breadth it more than makes up for in depth. Help yourself out and give Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self a try.


Bored at Work

If you sit in a cramped cubicle under bad fluorescent lights, push around Sisyphean stacks of papers and bide your time until retirement—only 9 years, 7 months, 2 weeks, 3 days, 3 hours and 12 minutes to go, but hey, who’s counting—it’s inevitable that you suffer from the occasional bout of modern office malaise. You are not alone. Boredom can and will strike even the most dedicated, toilsome office worker anytime, anywhere.

While there is no known cure for workplace-induced ennui, you may find some relief in these novels that take the languor and absurdity of office culture to a whole other level.

Something Happened by Joseph Heller

Joseph Heller’s second novel is a scathing satire on business life and American culture. It’s as inventive, but not nearly as well-known, as Catch-22. Something Happened takes readers inside the head of Bob Slocum, a man who has it all: a steady job, a beautiful wife, three children, a nice house, plenty of mistresses, and plenty more discontent…until something happens. Eavesdrop on Bob as he records the goings on in his life at home and at the office.

Microserfs by Douglas Coupland

Dan Underwood, a computer programmer at Microsoft, narrates this novel that follows six computer whizzes. These “microserfs” work at least 16 hours a day as cogs in the machine until they decide to strike out on their own to form a high-tech start up in Silicon Valley. This will touch a nerve with any worker who remembers fondly (or not so fondly) slaving away during the 1990s tech boom.

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

The employees of a Chicago advertising firm struggle to cope with a business downturn and multiple rounds of layoffs. Their solution? A rumor mill, covert romances, pranks, too many coffee breaks, and a fierce competition to score the best office furniture. If you’ve ever spent time hoarding Post-It notes in a cubicle, you’re sure to recognize someone you know among this large ensemble cast of quirky office workers.

Now stop reading this and get back to work. Or better yet, leave a comment and tell me about your favorite book set in an office. And then get back to work.


Vintage Chick Lit

Did you know that chick lit predates the Shopaholic, the diary-writing nannies or the Prada-wearing Devil? This is a literary genre so old it can trace its roots all the way back to Jane Austen. Chick lit comes in many forms, but it almost always involves some combination of smart-but-struggling single girls, dating disasters, career catastrophes, a glamorous big city and cute shoes.

My passion for 1950s and 1960s chick lit doesn’t hold a candle to Carrie Bradshaw’s obsession with Manolo Blahnik pumps. But still, I love this fluffy stuff from an earlier era.

Here are a few that are still very readable and enjoyable to this day:

The Group by Mary McCarthy follows eight graduates of Vassar College’s Class of 1933 for several years after graduation. These gals struggle to be modern and liberated, unlike their mothers. McCarthy tackles plenty of hot button issues head-on, like birth control, lesbianism, breastfeeding and Communism.

The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe centers on five working girls at a New York City publishing house in the early 1950s as they try to balance love and work. Surprisingly steamy and frank in parts, this book reads a bit like a novelization of Mad Men but with an emphasis on the office girls instead.

Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann chronicles the lives of three young women who move to New York to make it big in showbiz. Filled with plenty of sex, drugs and self-destruction, this is still a page-turner.

The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy is about the adventures (and misadventures) of an American girl living large in Paris in the 1950s. It’s romantic, funny, charming and British (not unlike our dear friend Bridget Jones).

For another take on the chick lit genre, read Kara’s post on “literary chick lit.”


State by State

State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America  is an anthology of 50 essays on 50 states by 50 writers, plus an interview with Washington D.C.’s Edward P. Jones. It’s a great choice for armchair travelers who want to meander casually from place to place.

One caveat: it’s inevitable that a book with so many contributors is bound to be a bit uneven. But discovering those essays that really speak to you makes State by State all the more satisfying.

For me, the essays that work best are those written by people who love, live, or have lived in the state they’re writing about. I found it much more satisfying to read about Joshua Ferris’s childhood vacations to Florida, say, than David Rakoff’s poorly researched weekend excursion to Utah. That style of travel journalism just can’t compare with the warm, proud, complex and conflicted reflections by the writers writing about home. But that’s just me. You’re sure to discover essays you love or hate too.

If you decide to read the entire book, I recommend not reading it cover to cover. The alphabetical journey from Alabama to Wyoming isn’t all that magical.

The editors might have thought of a more creative way to organize the essays, perhaps by admission to the Union (Delaware to Hawaii), by toothlessness rate (West Virginia to Hawaii) or roller coasters per capita (New Hampshire to Wyoming). Please note: the statistical tables in the back of the book are completely awesome.

I abandoned the alphabetical approach after getting bored in Arizona. Here’s how I ended up reading it. I highly recommend this more haphazard approach:

First, read about the states where you grew up and where you currently live. I found Carrie Brownstein’s Washington delightful. You may disagree.

Next, check out the authors you know and love, who may or may not be writing about states you know and love. This approach took me to Jhumpa Lahiri’s Rhode Island and Ann Patchett’s Tennessee early in my reading.

Try some authors who you don’t necessarily know or love but whose work you’re curious to sample. This led me to Ha Jin’s Georgia among others.

Still not finished? Try some states where you perhaps traveled briefly for a family vacation, drove through on your way to somewhere else, or have a great aunt whom you have never met. You may discover some real gems. Thanks, Alexander Payne, for making Nebraska seem hip (maybe), and Louise Erdrich, for making North Dakota seem kinda cool.


The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill

I’m really not a bird person. I’m not really much of a documentary person either, for that matter. But I checked out The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill on a whim after a brief trip to San Francisco. I was intrigued by the story I’d heard about a group of feral parrots living in the city.

Violence, romance, mystery, politics, heartbreak. This film—surprisingly enough—has it all.

The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill features one human, Mark Bittner, and many birds. Mark, a long-haired, scraggly-bearded, just-scraping-by musician forged a very unusual connection with a flock of wild parrots who found a home in the green spaces of his neighborhood. He became a feeder, friend and advocate for the birds. Mark and talented film maker Judy Irving are excellent guides to the world of wild parrot life.  

The birds themselves are colorful characters (quite literally), and they somehow manage to steal every single scene. Although watching how the parrots navigate the perils of urban living was interesting, their personalities and personal lives kept me watching. Each parrot has a name, unique personality and place in the social structure. My favorites were Picasso and Sophie, the inseparable lovers.

Who knew parrots had such meaningful social lives? Maybe I am a bird person after all.


Divas and Dancers

I have a singing voice so pleasant and mellifluous it’s regularly mistaken for a strangled kitten. Similarly, my dancing talents are as graceful as those of a lethargic hippopotamus. It’s safe to assess my occasional interest in novels about prima ballerinas and opera divas as a case of “opposites attract.”

Whether or not you have perfect pitch and poise, you can escape into an opulent world of opera and ballet and nobody will know the difference. Here are four novels as elegant, dramatic and intriguing as the dancers and singers who grace these pages.

book coverBel Canto by Ann Patchett
Attendees of a lavish party in an unnamed South American country are taken hostage. Several key figures are held captive for months.  These include Mr. Hosokawa, a powerful Japanese businessman and opera lover, and Roxane Coss, a famous American soprano. Despite language and cultural gaps, deep relationships and bonds are formed over the many months of captivity between hostages and even with the captors.

The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell
Erika is an opera singer trapped between her career and her marriage at the turn of the 20th century. Erika’s husband desperately wants a child. Despite Erika’s own ambivalence toward motherhood, the couple consults Dr. Ravell, a fertility expert. Mesmerized by Erika’s beauty and talent, Ravell vows to do anything—honest or deceitful—to help the couple conceive. Meanwhile, Erika secretly makes plans to leave her husband and pursue her career in Italy.

book coverThe Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew, travels to Paris to study architecture in the late 1930s. There he meets and falls in love with Klara, an older Hungarian ballet instructor with a troubled past. World War II and the Holocaust loom large, but themes of romance, art, architecture, theater and dance provide a hopeful balance against some of the inevitable devastation.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay
Nina Revkaya, a retired star of the Bolshoi Ballet now living in Boston, decides to auction her jewelry collection. The process evokes powerful memories of her life and work in Stalinist Russia and an act of betrayal that caused her to flee. Drew Brooks, an auction house employee, and Grigori Solodin, a Russian professor, explore the mysterious provenance of Nina’s jewels, along with a love letter, a poem and unanswered questions about themselves.