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August 19, 2008

Book Notes - Tom Piazza ("City of Refuge")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that is in some way relevant to their recently published books.

Tom Piazza's City of Refuge puts the Hurricane Katrina tragedy into a very human context. There's a good reason why the book's cover includes blurbs by Mary Gaitskill, Richard Ford, and Richard Russo... this another fine work by one of America's finest writers.

Ayelet Waldman wrote of the book:

"This book taught me so much about Katrina. It’s amazing how fiction manages to teach you something new, no matter how much news you read."

In his own words, here is Tom Piazza's Book Notes essay for his novel, City of Refuge:

City of Refuge is a novel about two New Orleans families – one black and one white – going through Hurricane Katrina, from about a week before the storm until the Mardi Gras six months later. Actually until the Ash Wednesday afterward, since the book closes on the day after Mardi Gras.

In City I drew as true a picture as I could of the human texture of that disaster and its aftermath, through the stories of the Williams and Donaldson families, who live in the Lower Ninth Ward and Uptown New Orleans, respectively. The novel follows the characters through the storm and their very different exiles to Missouri, Houston, upstate New York, and Chicago, and then through the difficult decisions each of them has to make about whether or not to move back to New Orleans. I live in New Orleans myself and faced many of the same experiences, questions and decisions.

The first part of the novel tries to give a sense of New Orleans as it was before the levees failed. The book opens at a street parade, lit up by New Orleans brass band music. Anything by the Rebirth Brass Band or the Soul Rebels should do just fine as a soundtrack. There’s also a scene showing a neighborhood crawfish boil uptown, and snatches of well known New Orleans classics like “Don’t You Just Know It?” by Huey ‘Piano’ Smith and the Clowns, and “New Orleans” by Big Boy Myles, drift through the evening.

The thing about the period after the storm, which I remember very well, was that before we were able to come back, it was almost unendurable to hear New Orleans music on the radio. It was too sad to think that you’d never hear it back home again. You would get ambushed at odd times and places; you’d walk into a Walgreen’s and hear Louis Armstrong coming over the speakers and start weeping and have to walk outside. Everyone I know reported the same experience.

But as time went by and people got more determined to come back and rebuild not just their homes but the city and their community and style of life, some powerful music started getting made to boost morale and strengthen people’s spirits. This is what music has always done in New Orleans, and it has really come through since the disaster. Here are some of the recordings that made a difference:

Our New Orleans (Nonesuch Records) – with newly recorded tracks by Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Allen Toussaint, Davell Crawford and others, this was the first and in some ways the best of the benefit albums that helped raise money for relief efforts.

Sippiana Hericane (Blue Note) – More a lament than a manifesto (he would get to that later, with City That Care Forgot), this Dr. John disc is full of sadness and shock and beauty and grief.

The River In Reverse (Verve Forecast) by Elvis Costello and Allen Tousaaint – Elvis teams up with the genius of New Orleans songwriting to deliver a scalding call-out of the current administration and its criminally inept handling of the disaster.

I Wanna Go Back To New Orleans (Orleans Records) – The Original Pin Stripe Brass Band tears it up on this funky and defiant anthem for all those who would not take no for an answer.

“What Is New Orleans,” from Kermit Ruffins/The Barbecue Swingers Live (Basin Street Records) – Trumpeter and singer Kermit Ruffins’ long, funny, down-home recitative, over a smoldering, walking-tempo rhythm section, about all the things that “are New Orleans,” is a great way to remind yourself what it’s all about, especially the section of variations on artery-clogging breakfasts. Half the time when you see Ruffins, he has his barbecue smoker going somewhere in the vicinity, getting ready to serve up some turkey necks or sausage in between sets. That is New Orleans.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (American Land Edition) (Sony) by Bruce Springsteen – It might sound like a strange choice, but Springsteen’s appearance at the first post-Katrina Jazzfest in 2006 electrified everyone, especially when he talked about touring the city on the morning of his performance and witnessing the devastation. When he unveiled his reworking of Blind Alfred Reed’s “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?” and dedicated it to “President Bystander,” he made a lot of new fans in New Orleans. The “American Land Edition” of this disc contains extra tracks, including his version of “How Can A Poor Man…” (not available on the original set).

City That Care Forgot (429 records) – Dr. John takes no prisoners and minces no words on this furious set of songs about the disaster, the mismanagement of the city, and the direction in which the country has been going these past eight years.

Plenty of other great recordings have come out in the three years since Katrina. Terence Blanchard, Dr. Michael White, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Kermit Ruffins, various Neville Brothers, and many others have made some of their best recordings since the disaster, and plenty more will keep coming, because New Orleans will not die. The spirit is too strong. It is strong because it has been earned, and I try to show some of what that is about in
City of Refuge, too.

If you want to hear the soundtrack in its natural habitat, come down to New Orleans and you will go home revived and reinvigorated. Or you might not go home; you might cut to the chase and decide to move here. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but a lot of people are doing it.

Tom Piazza and City of Refuge links:

the author's website
the author's book tour dates
the book's page at the publisher

Ayelet Waldman review
Times-Picayune review

Critical Mass interview with the author
HarperCollins essay about the book by the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for My Cold War
Octavia Books podcast about the book
Times-Picayune profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Previous Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
directors and actors discuss their film's soundtracks
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2008 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2007 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2006 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2005 Edition)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (2004 Edition)


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