Thursday, March 15, 2012

The World that Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square; Ned Sublette (2008)

Reviewer: Elle Ewok
Rating: 4 Pierogies (ignoring the last two pages)

Review: I have always been rather taken by New Orleans. Its unique culture (French/American/African influences) - particularly its dark creepy undertones - appeal to my interests. That said, although I can name all sorts of unique attributes of New Orleans (jazz funerals, cemeteries, voodoo, mardi gras, creole, cajun, jazz, vampires, pirates, lasciviousness ect) I could never understood how they all fit together or why they are even attributes of New Orleans to begin with. On my most recent trip to New Orleans in February I stopped by Faulkner House books (as I always do when in NOLA) and asked for a recommendation on a general history of New Orleans. The lovely lady who works there (and I suspect is a part owner) recommended "The World that Made New Orleans" and explained that it is a comprehensive history of New Orleans told through the prism of musicality. Sounded interesting so I bought it.

"The World that Made New Orleans" is simply a very good, interesting and straight forward history book. If you are interested in history you will like this book. If not - you will be bored to tears. Proceed accordingly.

I love history and enjoyed reading this book very much. All my questions about how New Orleans' peculiar atmosphere and culture came to be were answered and I learned a great deal. This book is not simply a book about New Orleans. The history of New Orleans can only be understood by studying the context of its time and place in the world. As such "The World that Made New Orleans" is also a comprehensive history book about English, Spanish and French colonization in North America; American Revolutionary history; Caribbean colonization; the African slave trade; the American Civil War and the Haitian Revolution. Considering I have not studied any of these things since high school, it was an incredibly engaging and interesting history to read about.

Surprisingly the least successful part of the book was when it talked about music - which was supposed to be the "hook" of this book. I really appreciate what he was trying to do here, but the reality is, reading about music that you can't hear just is not that interesting. I studied music extensively for a very long time and I found it hard to follow and boring. I ended up using You Tube to hear some of the songs and styles the author was talking about and they sounded absolutely nothing like what I was expecting from what I read. This is just a mild criticism, however, and reading about the historical evolution of musical styles was interesting.

I really enjoyed this book and only have one gripe with it but it pissed me off enough to mention here. On the last two pages of the book the author, out of nowhere, states that the less-than perfect government response to Hurricane Katrina was a calculated effort on the part of the Republican Party to drive black Democratic voters out of Lousianna so that Louisianna would be an even redder state.

Um okay.

I really lost all respect for the author for saying such a ridiculous thing as a fact and it made me question the credibility of the entire book. The fact that he would make such an inflammatory accusation without feeling the need to produce any supporting proof whatsoever was offensive.  Look, I get that turning people with different political beliefs than you into evil caricatures is tempting - it is easy and allows you to feel morally superior in the process. In reality, however, most people are not hyper-partisans who are going to fall for it and you are just making yourself look like an idiot. The majority of Americans probably lean one way or the other politically, but have beliefs that cross party lines on occasion. Furthermore, most Americans have friends and family members of different policial persuasions that they love and respect and don't think of as supporters of evil. Gratuitiously accusing republicans of something so horrendous and evil may get you a high five from Kanye West and back slaps at Manhattan academia dinner parties but everyone else is going to look at you as a complete fart-sniffing a-hole (South Park reference FYI).

Let me posit an alternative theory Mr. Sublette: Perhaps the lackluster goverment response to Katrina was because the federal government (regardless of which party is in charge) was not prepared for such a crisis and is generally a big, bloated, slow, wasteful, and ineffective bureaucracy. It has never had to change or streamline its operations to become less bloated/slow because is immune from liability and can pay for its constant screw ups by taking tax money off the citizens that actually earned it. Not to mention that it hardly makes sense from a policitical perspective for Republicans to drive black democratic voters out of one red state (Louisianna) directly into another (Texas mainly). The whole thing was mean-spirited, groundless and stupid and it left a really really bad taste in my mouth.

Ignoring the last two pages, I would otherwise recommend this book to any history lover.

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