Sunday, July 10, 2005

Letters from New Orleans, by Rob Walker the review


Introduction: A while back I got an email from Rob Walker, asking me if I would review his book. He explained that because I had a link to his sight, he thought I might get a kick out of it. I said "yeah," and we were off to the races. For those of you not aware of Mr. Walker, he currently writes the Consumed column for the New York Times magazine, and has been a professional writer for a while. Other than that, I don't know diddly about Mr. Walker - although I would guess that from his writing he is a nice guy.

I decided that since his book was letters he had written to people while he was living in New Orleans, that my review should also be in the form of a letter. So here goes...

Dear Rob

I just finished reading Letters from New Orleans, and was quite struck by it for a number of reasons. The first thing that struck me was the obvious similarities between New Orleans and Montreal. The second thing that struck me was the lyrical style of your writing. And the third thing that struck me was the apparent ease with which you wrote the letters. Obviously there is something to being a professional writer. The book made me remember times when I would sit down in front of a typewriter and bang out five or six page letters to friends about what was happening in my life. Now with the advent of email, I find myself in a position of missing that. I rarely get the time, and the means to sit back and reflect upon the things that are happening to and around me.

To get down to the nitty-gritty; your description of Ernie K-Doe and his bar, not only lived up to what little I knew about Mr. Kador, but also served as a reminder of some of the larger than life personalities here in Montreal. People like the Great Antonio, Jean Drapeau, Maurice Richard, and others. Your descriptions of the talking K-Doe statue, his mother in law, and his funeral could easily be traded, over drinks, of course, for anecdotes of a French-Canadian nature. However, as I am not the professional writer, mine would merely be just that, anecdotes. Your stories, while rooted in specifics, are much more than just anecdotes.

As I mentioned earlier, your writing has a certain lyrical feeling to it. Since I have only read some of your columns in the New York Times, I can only assume that this lyric nature either came from your time in New Orleans or from spending so much time analyzing the song Saint James Infirmary. And while I can understand how obsessed you are with the song, and somewhat appreciate why it is in the book - to be brutally honest - it seemed to me to be the least successful part. I don't know if this was because it was one of the longer chapters, and I sorta dug the three to five page length of the stories. Or if it was because it only indirectly dealt with things N'awlins. Taking your research and turning it into something like The Annotated Saint James Infirmary (complete with DVD) sorta like those Martin Gardner books from the 60s would be very cool.

But, to be honest, that's the only thing I could find even vaguely wrong with your book. It made me want to get my butt down to New Orleans even more than I already want to, and reminded me of the need to stay off the beaten track. Your chapter about the Desire Line made me think about Pointe Saint Charles, here in Montreal. How both of them are, despite being piss-poor neighborhoods, very interesting places with a serious amount of history behind them that deserves to be heard more than it is. Similarly, while there is no specific place in Montreal that corresponds to Under the Freeway, when you write
We all know how a place can have a hold on us, how a patch of earth, a strip of land, a corner, a building, or the most arbitrarily bordered swath of territory you can imagine, can have a symbolic meaning. But surely even that meaning has its outer limits, right? If someone knocks down the building, or paves over the land, how can the significance of the place where something used to be hold on to its significance?

Often, I think, the answer is: It doesn't. But sometimes it does. This is not because Symbolic Importance comes bubbling up out of the ground like a hot a hot spring. In fact the meaning doesn't flow from places to people at all; it's actually the other way around. That's the only way the specialness of a place survives the most violent changes in its physical aspect. You can't impose this, but you can't thwart it, either. All you can do is admire it. And you should.
You nailed why I still hold cherished memories of and about the corner of rue de Lorimier and avenue Ontario even though it has been transformed about seventeen times from nowhere into something so foreign to my memories that most people look at me like I'm crazy or something when I try to explain why I think it is one of the best corners in the entire city.


Like any good letter, this one is being done in more than one part. It occurred to me that I had not written anything to you about your book for a couple of days. Sorry – there were some other pressing things that required my attention.

But, I’m listening to one of Harry Shearer's show (you remember him? One of the early writers at Saturday Night Live – seems to have landed on his feet and is doing good on some public radio station in your country.) And he's doing something about New Orleans. Which obviously reminded me that I still needed to write some more stuff to you about your book – but as he is playing some music, I remembered that I had recently had a conversation (via email – aren’t all conversations by email these days?) with John from the Fat Tuesday Brass Band who refer to themselves as "Canada's only New Orleans style Brass Funk Band."

So if you hadn’t gotten it the first time around there are tons of parallels between the Crescent City and Montreal, and your book made me think about them in all sorts of ways that I hadn’t before.

If you ever make it up here, some of the things that you’d want to check out would be the similarities and dissimilarities between the neighborhoods of Westmount and Outremont. (The west side of the mountain and the other side of the mountain, respectively), and I would also highly recommend that you dive into this thing called Quebecois Nationalism and the wonderful holiday that it produces called La Fete Saint Jean. And as you are a veteran of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival the whole culture of festivals that engrosses Montreal would be a very worthy topic for you to write about.

But I could go on and on, and on, but like pretty much every darn thing out there, this needs to come to a close. I really liked your book and I wish you well with it. While I recognize that it isn’t likely to go burning up the New York Times charts (or those of Amazon's either) I hope that your publisher keeps it in print for at least the next 15 years, and hooks up with the New Orleans tourist bureau so that it gets read by scads upon scads of people coming to N’awlins. (Man, I love to write that!)

It provides a view into the city that I don’t imagine is seen all that often, and what you’ve written deserves to be read by way more people. I hope I’ve done my bit, and if there is suddenly a bunch of Montrealers ordering it, then I expect to see you here at the gallery within the week.

Take care,

If you'd like to read other reviews/articles about the book, try Like It Matters, Gambit Weekly, and Quiet Bubble.

If you want details, try this:
Letters From New Orleans by Rob Walker
Published by Garrett County Press. $12.95 list,
ISBN: 1891053019, Nonfiction, 204 pages.

And if you want to purchase the book (something I think would be a really good idea) click here for the way to do it through Mr. Walker's website. Or click here, to do it through Garrett County Press' website, the publisher. Or if you prefer going the corporate route, click here to buy it from Amazon.com.

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