Empire of Sin

As a sophomore in college, I visited New Orleans for a week during Spring Break. Our church group went the year after Katrina to help with flood relief–which at that point meant tearing down moldy drywall, pulling up carpets…really breaking the sodden houses down to their studs so the families could rebuild. As a pretty sheltered white girl from small-town Indiana, it was a pretty eye-opening experience. Not only had I really never been to a city that big, I hadn’t ever seen devastation like that either.

But, day after day that week, we ripped apart people’s homes…and when we came out, they would hug us with gratitude, and there would be prayer circles and Creole (or Cajun, I apologize, my 19 year old self did not know the difference at the time) blessings. It was all so beautiful and unexpected. Everyone was so resilient and strong and lovely and I just fell in love with the city.

And then I got to the French Quarter, and found the food and the music and well…the rest is just history.

23736979

Since then I’ve added quite a bit of New Orleans-themed books to my TBR, and every once in awhile one will pop up. Recently, Blogging for Books had Empire of Sin as one of their choices, and I grabbed it.

Gary Kirst’s latest book is a history of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, right before Prohibition, when sex, jazz and alcohol fueled the town. There’s so much dark, fascinating stuff here, I don’t know where to start!

I guess, first off, let me be frank. This is a book about the south in the late 1800s. That means this is a book filled with racism. There’s just no way around it. To say I struggled with parts of it is to put it mildly. It’s not even just black racism either–though that is a huge part of it.

One of the major themes in Krist’s book is the civil war between the three peoples of New Orleans:  the white politicians/police, the blacks, and the Italians. There were constant battles between the groups, and often the blacks seemed to take a lot of the blame–with one of the riots ending with any black man out on the street being shot by a group of vigilantes.

Another theme we see repeated is the battle for power in Storyville–the prostitution district. I got a little confused over some of the politics in this area–who was on what side–but the fight for respectability was an interesting thing to read about, when I am so used to reading about prostitution as a negative profession.

Lastly, there was the music. And that was my favorite part of the book. I’ve been a fan of the blues for years (probably since I went to New Orleans, to be honest), so to hear about some of the old greats and how they got their start was fascinating. We get to hear about Little Louis Armstrong and Sidney Bechet, and all the struggles they went through to just play their hearts out.

New Orleans is one of those cities that you just have to touch. And when you do, it gets inside of you and never lets go. I can’t wait to go back someday, as an adult, when I can really appreciate it. Empire of Sin shows some of those dark corners that all cities have, but it also gives us the great things that comes out of those dark corners.

Oh, and if you pick this up, make sure you read past the bibliography and index in the back. Kirst has included both a pretty epic blues/jazz playlist with all the great albums and a New Orleans fiction list!

 

Blogging for Books provided this book for an unbiased review. Released on June 16th.

Five Night Stand

There are books. There is music. And sometimes there are books that read like music inside your head. You swear you are in one of those dark, smokey clubs. The ice might as well be clinking in your glass, and you get goosebumps on your arm as if the melody rose or someone’s suit jacket ran across your shoulder in the packed aisle. The upright bass thumps, the horns blow, and the piano, well, that piano just sings.

24778187

That is what reading Five Night Stand by Richard J. Alley is like. The entire book is an ode to old-timey jazz, as we watch the retirement of a jazz piano legend. Or maybe, I should say we listen. Because while we are reading words on the page, it sure doesn’t feel like it. The moment you put the book down, you feel empty, as if you have turned off a radio. The music has stopped.

There aren’t very many characters in this story, and there don’t really  need to be. It really is a very simple narrative. A few people meet in the span of five days, and their lives intertwine for a few moments. But every moment was lovely and interesting and beautiful.

This book is a big yes for me. I just fell in love with the whole thing. Every breath, every song, every moment. I wanted Oliver to keep on playing, I wanted Agnus to find her music again, I wanted Frank to get the stick out of his ass, and I wanted Pablo to get everything he ever wanted. You’re going to have to find out what all that means. The book comes out on May 12. Buy this book. Go find the music.

 

NetGalley provided this ARC for an unbiased review.

 

Favorite Mug

I have a lot of different mugs, from a lot of different places. Most of the time though, I just use our standard blue ones that we got for our wedding.

Strangely enough, my favorite mug isn’t even one I drink from.

wpid-img_20141119_092945.jpg

 

I got this mug on a missions trip to New Orleans, the year after Hurricane Katrina. I had had NOLA on my list of places to go for years, but suddenly, I was there under devastating circumstances. The city was nothing like I had expected it to be, and we spent the week in construction gear, tearing down mold-infested houses.

But we also spent that week holding hands in circles with neighborhood peoples, singing Cajun prayers to the sky. There was one woman who hugged every single one of us as we left her home, so grateful to us for helping her start over.

We had one day of relief in the middle of the week, and in the middle of all that darkness, the French Quarter was alive. The people had started to come back and open the city again–and some had never left. Amazingly, the Quarter hadn’t been touched by the storm, at least not like the parts drowned by the levy.

I had my first gumbo there…oh man I dream about that gumbo. And, of course, we all packed into Cafe Du Monde for the mountains of beignets. There’s just nothing like them.

The handle has fallen off the mug at some point, so I don’t use it for my coffee anymore. Instead, it sits on my desk to hold my favorite pens, reminding me every day of that week. I made some life long friendships during that trip, some amazing memories. Someday I’ll go back to that city that I fell in love with. There was so much life even after so much tragedy.