four-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
40-May-June-2009
By: 
Dan Baum
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0

Death and Life in New Orleans

A-Nine LivesNine Lives is expanded from a series of articles for the New Yorker by staff writer Dan Baum, who moved to New Orleans to cover the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Baum’s previous books include Citizen Coors: An American Dynasty, and Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure.

The Topic: New Orleans. A city wracked by the whims of Mother Nature and other ills, including crime, corruption, racism, and poverty. Two hurricanes more than four decades apart—Betsy, which stormed ashore in 1965, and the more recent Katrina—frame Nine Lives, a story told through the nine characters Dan Baum came to know in the wake of the recent destruction. There’s a jaded cop, a transsexual bar owner, the city’s reformed coroner, a high school band director, and a Mardi Gras "Rex," among others. Taken together, these unique, odd, and inspiring characters embody the striking and often painful contradictions in America’s only "city-sized act of civil disobedience."
Spiegel & Grau. 335 pages. $26. ISBN: 038552319X

Los Angeles Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"Despite its brevity, Nine Lives resembles a vast Victorian novel in its many-sided evocation of an entire world—worlds, actually, because the New Orleans that Baum lovingly conjures belongs to people rooted in neighborhoods with strong traditions, each one a universe in itself. … But this is not a book about calamity: It is a portrait of community, of people’s passionate attachment to home and kin and friends." Wendy Smith

New York Times 4.5 of 5 Stars
"By the final third of Nine Lives, as the water begins pouring into the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, I was weeping like an idiot in the coffee shop where I was reading. … Mr. Baum’s book clocks in at just a little over 300 pages, but it contains multitudes." Dwight Garner

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Baum also illustrates the profound cultural richness of New Orleans, showing us its powerful sense of community, its laid-back lifestyle, and its unique blending of rich and poor, black and white. … The richness of Baum’s research is everywhere on display." Chuck Leddy

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"What makes these people so compelling is not where they live, nor that you know what lies ahead for them. … [Baum] knows how to plumb the depths of emotions, bringing to the surface intimate dreams and secret fears to reveal them as being simply and absolutely human." Beatriz Terrazas

Minneapolis Star Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Baum takes readers on a journey through the intervening decades via dozens of short narratives tightly focused on nine characters. … [B]y the end of Nine Lives, readers are left with a fascinating read, rich in detail—and a clearer understanding of the city that care forgot." Pam Louwagie

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"With such a wide cast—including the wife of a Mardi Gras Indian, a high school band leader and a bar owner who makes the surgical shift from a ‘he’ to a ‘she’—Baum has rich material to dramatize his case that New Orleans is utterly unlike mainstream America. … He adroitly moves his subjects through parades, prison, divorces, sex changes, fancy balls and gun brawls—yes, the stuff of life here—showing New Orleans as a magnetic, enduring force." Jason Berry

USA Today 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Baum’s kaleidoscopic, quick-cut approach can be unwieldy at times (six lives would have been easier, though not as compelling), but overall his style evokes the best aspects of John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), Tracy Kidder (The Soul of a New Machine) and Studs Terkel. Though the characters represent archetypes to a certain extent, they aren’t clichés, and their heroic, grim, gut-wrenching and life-affirming stories ring true as the Saint Louis cathedral bells in Jackson Square." Jerry Shriver

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"Baum’s greatest skill lies in his detailed, descriptive writing of the characters who populate New Orleans. … The story becomes unnecessarily complicated as the author jumps quickly through the years and from person to person while unfolding the life and times of these New Orleans residents and their many associates." Verna Noel Jones

Critical Summary

Since 2005, Hurricane Katrina and its immediate effects on New Orleans have been documented in numerous books, such as Breach of Faith, 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2006, and The Great Deluge, 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2006. What Dan Baum accomplishes in Nine Lives, though, is more than a time line of events. Critics unanimously praised the author’s approach and style, and they compared Baum’s effort to the documentary work of Studs Terkel and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, even if, at times, his jumpy, snapshot approach breaks the narrative flow. Baum, who immersed himself in the lives and culture that form the heart of his book, digs deep in search of the Crescent City’s identity, coming as close as anyone has to defining the complexities of America’s most haunted—and, in many ways, its most elusive—city.