Bookworm: True stories and real problems

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Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, by Dan Baum

It happens every time: you’re busy, in a hurry, and somebody starts blah-blah-blahing, making a long story longer. You wonder if he’ll ever get to the point. Maybe you even say that: Get to the point. Everyone has a story.

In the new book “Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans,” by Dan Baum, you’ll read about nine people from the Crescent City; stories, bracketed by storms.

In 1965, Ronald Lewis found something more powerful than Mama: Hurricane Betsy. Betsy went through the Lower Ninth Ward like a hot spoon through a snow cone. Still, the neighborhood couldn’t be kept down by a storm, could it?

All his life, Anthony Wells had heard about New Orleans, but it seemed that life took him everywhere but there. He was in Vietnam, Los Angeles and later, he was bused to Tennessee.

John Guidos hid his secret from everyone, because he knew what they’d say: women’s clothes are for women. But, inside his mind, John was a woman, believing he was alone in his feelings. By the time John became JoAnn, he knew otherwise.

For the first years of her marriage, Joyce Montana slept restlessly before Mardi Gras. Tootie, her husband, was an Indian, meaning he would likely come home bloodied. But Tootie knew there was another way to fight: with splendor.

Billy Grace’s father wasn’t Uptown, so it was a surprise when Billy was enfolded into Society. Still, Billy wondered if he’d ever be fully accepted.

All Tim Bruneau dreamed of was being a cop. But it took an accident – and a storm – to show Tim what life was like for the people he arrested.

When gynecologist Frank Minyard wanted to help his city, he ran for the office of coroner. His new job meant he would be in charge of New Orleans’ dead, no matter how they expired.

Jazz jangled Wilbert Rawlins, Jr.’s bones, right alongside responsibility. Wilbert was passing that legacy to his band kids. He was the only family some of them had, and no storm would keep him from that.

All Belinda Carr ever wanted was to leave New Orleans, because she came up hard. When she married Wilbert Rawlins, Jr., she hoped life would be different. It took a storm to see the preciousness of what she had.

Can I say now that I loved this book?

“Nine Lives,” reads like a novel: it sucks you in with the first page, moving you along with short-short chapters, swaddling you in little dramas, making you gasp every now and then.

But it’s not a novel: It’s all true.

I loved how Baum unfolds each of his subjects’ stories, telling most of them at a just-right pace, allowing each one of them to blurt out his own tale. I loved the brutal honesty between the pages; I loved the uniquely New Orleans feel I got when I was reading. I just plain loved this book.

When you’re ready for good set of stories, don’t miss this one. “Nine Lives” is a book you should make a point to get.

The Mighty Queens of Freeville, by Amy Dickinson

You’re in a situation and you don’t know whom to turn to.

You can’t ask your sister; she’s one of the Major Forms of Communication. Your mother would have a heart attack if you asked her. Your best friend has her own problems. And, your neighbor? No.

It sounds silly, but you might write a letter to the advice columnist in your newspaper. For one thing, you can get this whole thing off your chest and onto paper. And besides, that lady seems so levelheaded, so reasonable. So human.

And she is, because she’s made her share of mistakes, too. In the new memoir “The Mighty Queens of Freeville,” by Amy Dickinson, you’ll meet her.

For 200 years, Dickinson says her family has called Freeville, New York, home. Her womenfolk have been strong: they’ve milked cows, tilled the land, built barns, renovated houses and raised children alone. That’s because their men don’t tend to stick around long.

Dickinson’s father disappeared one day. He walked away from his wife and children and his mortgaged-to-the-hilt farm and founded another family elsewhere. Dickinson’s two aunts raised their children without men around, as did her two sisters. When Dickinson’s husband decided he was done with their marriage, she too, had a child to raise alone.

Jobless and looking for a fresh start, Dickinson moved, with her daughter, into a Washington, D.C., apartment near where she lived during college. But, she says, she cried on the phone almost nightly to her mother and sisters. She missed Freeville, where her family all lived within a few blocks of one another and where everybody ate together at Toad’s restaurant at least once a week.

But, volunteering as a Sunday School teacher doesn’t pay the bills. Dickinson, who was a stay-at-home mom during her marriage, started freelancing. She wrote a few articles here and there, until an editor in Chicago invited her to try out for a slot as an advice columnist, to replace the recently deceased Ann Landers. And she got the job.

Dickinson loved Chicago, but the Windy City isn’t Freeville. Fortunately, she kept her fixer-upper back home, on a corner lot next to her aunt’s house. Luckily, she visits often. Promisingly, it’s where she found a happy ending to this story.

In her daily advice column, Dickinson seems so serious and straight-laced. Her book is almost the complete opposite.

“The Mighty Queens of Freeville” is a good-humored love story about a matriarchal family filled with support. It’s a book that abundantly displays the kind of hands-linked “safety net” that women construct for one another in bad times. Dickinson isn’t afraid to admit that she messes up now and again (paraphrasing one of her advice-column mottos), and she’s willing to make gentle fun of herself, which makes for a mighty satisfying tale.

If you’re looking for a quick-to-read, feel-good book, or if your book club is searching for its next selection, take my advice: “The Mighty Queens of Freeville” is a first-rate story and an excellent choice.

The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Terri has been reading since she was 3 years old and she never goes anywhere without a book. She lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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