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Why New Orleans Matters

(April 27, 2006) Why New Orleans Matters may sound like it would be the topic of commentary on a cable news program or perhaps a dinner conversation that you had last fall in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It is Tom Piazza's heartfelt and impassioned salute to the culture and the spirit of the city he adopted and made his home in the late '90's.

The author is a respected writer and true music aficionado; he penned this tribute to and plea for New Orleans in October of 2005. "Music was my entry point into the world of world of this spirit," he writes. You will read about the origins of R&R and R&B in the jazz of New Orleans and accompany Piazza to its annual Jazz Fest. And you will read about other "entry points": culinary, social, historical, literary, and architectural. Piazza does not deny the seedier side of the New Orleans legend. He acknowledges the poverty, the corruption embedded in its politicians, "the culture of bad behavior among some of the police officers," but places it alongside the spontaneity, generosity, and joy of the city's population and gives everything a context. The author tells us "New Orleans is the most religious place I have ever been, even though much of the population is profoundly profane and pagan …The beauty -- human and physical -- of the city represents such a triumph of humanity."

Many Book-'Em members responded enthusiastically to this selection. "I thought it was a gem!" "I wish I had traveled to New Orleans before Katrina." Another member stated she had never had any desire to see the city until reading this book. Yet another commented "I loved his writing and his strong opinions. He obviously knows and loves the city with a passion." Even the less enchanted readers felt that since Why New Orleans Matters was so topical and a short, fast read, it was a worthwhile selection.

What you will not learn about in these pages is the geology of the area, the engineering and structural dilemmas of the levee system, and the logistics of the massive clean up and reconstruction now being undertaken. While many of us were interested in these aspects, they legitimately may not have a place in a work celebrating the "lessons" of New Orleans: "go with what is, use what happens." Piazza describes the city as "a cultural synthesis in which music is food and food is a kind of choreography and dance is a way of dramatizing that you are still alive for another year." This is a tribute to spirit, to living.

Much of our discussion revolved around experiences of members who have spent time in New Orleans. One related, "At first it seemed like an odd place. I didn't think we would like it. Then, the place just grows on you." Another added: "The sleaze factor is real. It's almost a city with a lost identity. All this culture, but it's the sleaze that draws people there." Inevitably, we found ourselves reviewing the disasters of the response to Katrina's destruction and talked about how, if and when New Orleans will be cleaned up. We also debated whether the city will see a cultural renaissance or be rebuilt around a casino and gambling industry. Will all of the displaced residents return?

Other groups might want to explore the statement "New Orleans inspires the kind of love that very few cities do" or attempt to characterize New York City or their own town in a manner similar to what the author has done for the Crescent City. If the lessons of New Orleans are to celebrate life, what are the lessons of Larchmont?

Why New Orleans Matters was a surprising success for the Book-'Em group. It affords a different way of looking at the city that continues to command headlines each day. It lends perspective to the insistence and the ability of New Orleans stalwarts who maintained their Mardi Gras tradition this year. It is worth considering as a selection for your group.

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