The littlest library…

During the hottest part of the day, I found myself strolling carefully through my neighborhood on an errand that couldn’t wait. It seemed like I was the only person alive wandering about outside. Everything was very still, even the birds were too hot to sing, and the only sign of life were buzzing insects hovering over wilting flowers and the constant chug of air-conditioning units battling against the oppressive heat.

Busy watching my feet while traversing a tricky patch of old, cobble stone sidewalk on Dante Street, I was slow to see this small, wooden cabinet rear up till I was almost upon it. Surrounded by ivy, this Little Free Library urged me to “take a book and return a book” and when my eyes ran over some cherished Edward Eager titles, I was tempted to accept the offer.

Standing there in the sweltering sun staring at the small, simple hutch, it came to me why I struggle with the digital revolution, especially when it comes to books. I already recognized I would miss the musty smell and the feel of the pages between my fingertips. But what I realized is that with Kindles and Nooks, we may be able to store thousands of works for oh-so-much convenience to those who could afford such devices, but we will no longer be able to share them…and wouldn’t that be a pity? The words would no longer be free.

Milton H. Latter Memorial Library: A bibliophile’s refuge

The first month I spent in New Orleans was lonely, empty and frustrating. After spending almost four days on the road together, my sister and I had a huge fight that culminated in her earlier-than-expected departure and my subsequent depression. Yes, I had finally made it to the city of my dreams, but now I was alone (just me and my shih-tzu Pippin), nervous, a little scared, living in an empty apartment and clinging to the desperate hope that the rest of my belongings would soon arrive. The movers were scheduled to come only three days after I reached the city, but they didn’t actually show until almost a month had passed.

Yep. For an entire month it was me, Pippin, my trusty air mattress, about a week’s worth of clothes and dust bunnies that rolled across the hardwood floors like tumbleweeds. Though my dog and I enjoyed long walks through the Garden District and playing in Audubon Park, those outings only took up small parts of each day. Sure I went to the grocery store, meandered through the shops on Magazine Street and even dined alone at some wonderful neighborhood restaurants, yet I still became incredibly anxious to begin my new life. I mean, I had to get a job, didn’t I? After only a few days I started missing my friends in California, missing my family, missing the familiarity of my old life… and I really missed my books.

You see, I love books. I love getting lost in a great story, love the feel of the pages in my hand, love the musty smell of a well-read tome. Friends keep telling me these days about the wonders of owning a Kindle and though I can see the appeal, I just can’t bring myself to walk away from my beloved, burdensome, bulky, beautiful books. As geeky or lame as it may sound, books have been dear friends to me almost all of my life, from the day I could pick one up and read for myself, I have been enraptured by books. They have been there for me when “real friends” have faded away. Believe it or not, books have helped me weather some of the most difficult times in my life.

So, after a few days of wallowing in emptiness, I searched through the telephone book for the nearest library branch and it happened to be a gorgeous former mansion, the Milton H. Latter Memorial Library.

In the next several weeks, I spent a good part of every day at the library. I used the computers upstairs to check my email, re-crafted my resume and sent it out to potential employers. I browsed the library’s modest collection of fiction and local authors, checked out several books that were returned in only a few short days after devouring them in the seemingly endless evening hours while rain poured from the sky during that muggy, wet June.

When the movers finally arrived, I took a break from the library to get my apartment on Harmony Street in order, but I still found time at least once a week to  return the books I had read and check out new ones. These days, I don’t get to the library very often anymore, but I can’t help but smile when I drive past it on St. Charles Avenue. I will never forget how that wonderful refuge got me through those first weeks in a strange, new town.

I do, however, try to make it for the weekly book sales put on by the Friends of the New Orleans Public Library that take place behind the library in the carriage house every Wednesday and Saturday from 10 am to 2 pm. In fact, just this past Saturday, I went to the book sale and purchased 17 different titles, ranging from trade paper to hard cover and all in good condition, for a grand total of $18! In fact, I am planning on returning for the 5th anniversary of the FNOPL’s weekly book sale happening Saturday, March 19th and Wednesday, March 23rd when everything will be an additional 50% off!

Does anyone have a wagon I can borrow?

I don’t speak Cajun!

Recently, I sent some gifts with a distinctly local flair to my 5-year-old niece and laughed uproariously when my brother-in-law called back screaming “How am I supposed to read this to her? I don’t speak Cajun!”

I’m sure he’ll figure it out. If not, I’m positive my incredibly intelligent niece Arissa will teach him:

“I don’ know fo’ sure if dat story is true,
But down where de Cajuns live on de bayou,
When dey tell dem stories, dey shore like to talk
About dat boy Jacques and his magic beanstalk.”
    ~Jacques and de Beanstalk by Mike Artell

Books: The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish

In the premiere episode of HBO’s Treme, there is a scene where John Goodman’s character is ranting about the levee failures to a British television crew.  At one point, the journalist questions the reality behind the rumors that  local city officials blew up part of the levees in an attempt to drastically eliminate the poor neighborhoods on the edge of town and save New Orleans from the majority of the flooding.  Aside from hilarity that ensues (Goodman’s character tries to throw the video camera into the river), the reporter actually made a really valid point.  In the flooding of 1927, blowing up the levees and flooding an entire parish is EXACTLY what local government did in a vain effort to save the city.  Why wouldn’t people believe they might be capable of doing it again?

Just recently, I finished reading The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish by Elise Blackwell, which was published in 2007, only two years after the Corps of Engineers’ most heinous failure.  At first, I thought to myself “Not another Katrina book!” In the past few years, I have been bombarded by them and I’m just not ready to relive that horror again.  But this was something quite different…

It begins with an old man by the name of Louis Proby who has been watching the news, tracking the incoming storm and is reminded of his youth when tragedy threatened his home town of Cypress Parish, the Great Flood of 1927.   

The story turns back to this time of innocence for young Louis and you follow his ascent to manhood alongside the rapidly rising river.  We get to watch Louis mature from worshiping his father and his first fumbling attempts at making love to drinking his first glass of champagne and his impression of women in short skirts…the ones his mother always warned him about.

This book is so simple, yet so full of vivid characters, scenery and plot.  It’s a story of generational differences, coming of age and natural disaster all rolled into one.  Along with Louis, you get to experience a multitude of different perspectives on life, even though you stay with him throughout the entire novel. His character is comparable to a sponge, soaking up what he likes and needs about other folk’s ideas and discarding the rest.

More than anything, I was glad that this particular novel wasn’t really about the 2005 flooding at all.  It was a unique, well-crafted story that offers a tiny glimpse of life along the Mississippi in 1927 and the struggles of one very special and very observant young man as he climbs his way into adulthood. 

Did I mention that this is the second time I’ve completed this novel?

Books: Historic Photos of Louisiana

This weekend on Saturday, May 15th, Dean Shapiro will be signing  his latest book, Historic Photos of Louisiana, at Blue Cypress Books on Oak Street.  For this particular edition, Shapiro put his vast historical knowledge and research capabilities to the test in order to properly caption each and every image in this amazing collection.

For someone like me who has been fascinated by this city for most of my life, but didn’t grow up here, this book is a valuable record of  historical events and locations that makes not only New Orleans, but the entire state of Louisiana what it is today.

In the preface, Shapiro explains how culturally divergent Louisiana is from the rest of the United States.  How varied influences and relative isolation enabled much of the state to retain its cultural distinctiveness, that “personality” is what draws visitors from all over the world to visit.

The photos in this particular tome range from Reconstruction in 1865 all the way to images of local livelihood in 1969.  For example, a photo from 1865 shows a statue of Henry Clay in the middle of Canal Street, the same statue that now sits in Lafayette Square.  Another depicts the flooded streets of Alsatia in East Carroll Parish in 1912, a record of how residents in rural areas struggled with flooding along the Mississippi River before levees were built.  Yet another from the 1969 Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival captures gamblers huddled around a table, betting on which crawfish will win the race.

Most of the photographs are astoundingly clear considering their age, allowing you to almost step inside and take a look around. Only slight touch ups were made to the photographs where imperfections developed over the passage of time and all of the images for the tome were supplied by government institutions like the State Library of Louisiana and the Library of Congress.

Turning the pages becomes akin to strolling through time, watching the cities and parishes of Louisiana develop as well as witnessing some as they disappear.  Historic Photos of Louisiana is an excellent, well made photographic journey through history that serves as an incredible volume that anyone who is enthralled with all things local would have to have as part of their collection.

Perhaps if you are able to stop by Blue Cypress Books this Saturday, you can pick up a copy of Historic Photos of Louisiana and get it signed by the author himself, I know I will!