Friday, August 19, 2016

Audiobook Review: Nine Lives by Dan Baum

Pub. Date:Aug. 9, 2016
Publisher:Tantor Audio
Narrator: Jonathan Yen
Length:14 hrs 24 min

Nine Lives is the gripping tale of forty odd years of life and death in New Orleans bracketed by two hurricanes - Hurricane Betsy in September 1965 and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. The story is told in a memoir narrative style, seeing life and death through the eyes of nine incredibly interesting New Orleanians. 

Ronald Lewis was born and raised in the Lower 9th Ward, saw both hurricanes, and became a champion for the rebirth of the Lower 9th following Hurricane Katrina. As a young man, he worked worked on the streetcar rails, later founded a social and pleasure club, and is well known for his backyard museum, the House of Dance and Feathers dedicated to some of the most interesting traditions in the city. 

Joyce Montana is widow of Tootie Montana, former Big Chief of Yellow Pocahontas of the Mardi Gras Indians. Joyce helped Tootie with his elaborate suits every year, which he implemented to steer the Mardi Gras Indian tradition away from fighting and bloodshed. With Tootie's influence, and Joyce's help, the violent culture was transformed into a culture of competition of arts and craftsmanship. The Indian suits that have followed this tradition are truly beautiful and time consuming works of art, many of which can be seen in Ronald Lewis' House of Dance and Feathers. Tootie and Joyce's son, Darryl Montana, is the current reigning Big Chief of Yellow Pocahontas.   

JoAnn Guidos is the transexual owner of Kajun's Pub on St. Claude Ave. In Nine Lives, we first meet a young John Guidos, a quiet football player who often experimented with his mother's clothing. As John ages, he truly has harrowing ups and downs in his life before he feels free to become JoAnn. With an ex-wife, children, and a failed business, his story was quite interesting - and he truly gave back to New Orleans during and after the storm. JoAnn kept Kajun's Pub open as a refuge and gathering place for the lost souls of her community, until she was forced to shut down by the military who were evacuating the city.

Wilbert Rawlins, Jr. current band director at LB Landry High School is a hero of the community when it comes to troubled high school students. Rawlins has been a father figure to countless troubled teens, offering tough love and respect in turn, and giving them an outlet through music. We watch Rawlins grow from a young man to this respected community member. Will had the utmost respect for his father, William Rawlings Sr., and continuously strove to live up to his name and make his father proud. I loved the relationship between these two, the strong stoic father who took such an active role in his son's life, and gave him the good example that Will, in turn, passed on to his students. 

Belinda Rawlins is 2nd wife of Wilbert Rawlins, Jr. We meet her as a smart young girl who loves books and only wanted to get an education and have a white picket fence life. Belinda's plans were derailed several times, but she persevered and never gave up. I have to admire her gumption in the face of the many trials and tribulations she faced and one of the best moments of her story was when she reconciled the meaning and importance of Will's work in the community.

Billy Grace is one of the prominent business leaders in the Uptown community, a residence of the Rex Mansion on St. Charles Street, and Carnival King in 2002. Billy didn't come from money, but married into it when he married Anne and moved into the home that had been in her family for the past century. Some of the more sad and disappointing aspects of New Orleans history came out through Billy's story - particularly the resistance to forced integration of New Orleans and its Mardi Gras krewes.

Timothy Bruneau began his law enforcement career in 1992 with the military, and became an NOPD Officer after his first enlistment was over. Tim's story was one of the most difficult, and not just from the events surrounding Katrina. We saw Tim fighting crime and corruption in a very violent city, suffer a near career-ending injury, and then suffer unimaginable horrors after the storm. I know that NOPD got a bad rap after Katrina, and that tends to overshadow the selfless and terrifying experiences of officers that were out trying to do good, like Tim Bruneau. Homeless, sleeping in his patrol car, yet still trying to help the city, I have total respect for this man and hope he is enjoying the retirement he has earned.

Anthony Wells was a small-time drug dealer living in the Lower 9th. He was in and out of Angola prison a few times, but rode out the storm in the Lower 9. After the mandatory evacuation, Anthony was sent as a refugee to Knoxville/Netwon, Tennessee. This part of his story highlighted the difficulty faced by displaced residents, some things that I was hearing for the first time. 

Frank Minyard was definitely a character. We first meet him as a wealthy gynecologist who gets involved with fighting drug addiction in the city through a methadone clinic. This led Frank to run for coroner, where he became know as Dr. Jazz, and was ultimately the longest standing civil servant in the state of Louisiana (maybe the country). Raised in the 9th Ward, Frank was often involved with people involved in the civil rights movement, and never shied away from patients no matter their race or social class. 

Frank Baum's reporting skills definitely shine through this book. He didn't pull punches, and he wasn't afraid to show the grimy underbelly of New Orleans. Baum brought the multi-layered city to life and showed that while it's not always pretty, it is real. New Orleans is made up of its people, and Baum demonstrated that its people have New Orleans in their blood. I hope I can meet some of these interesting individuals now that I'm a proud resident of the Crescent City.

I received an advanced copy of this audiobook from Tantor Audio in exchange for an honest review.