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Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans

New Yorker reporter Dan Baum offers a vivid portrait of New Orleans from hurricane Betsy up through Katrina.

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“By almost any metric,” writes New Yorker correspondent Dan Baum, New Orleans is “the worst city in the United States.” It has “the deepest poverty, the most murders, the worst schools, the sickest economy, the most corrupt and brutal cops.”

And yet, when asked in a poll (taken shortly before hurricane Katrina), more New Orleanians said they were “extremely satisfied” with their lives than residents of any other American city.

Or, in the words of Big Easy resident Anthony Lewis (shortly after Katrina), “Always been [messed] up here, but it’s home.”

Lewis is just one of nine New Orlean­ians that Baum tracks in Nine Lives: Death and Life in New Orleans, a wonderful, deeply textured story of a metropolis so alien to the country in which it resides that it seems “a city-sized act of civil disobedience.” Through the eyes of his nine subjects, Baum follows the jaunty, chaotic flow of life in New Orleans from 1965 (just after the ruinous hurricane Betsy) up through and just beyond the devastation of Katrina in 2005.

Baum met his subjects while reporting on Katrina and its aftermath for the New Yorker. They are a remarkably disparate group – and definitely a body that could be assembled only in New Orleans.

They include a wealthy carnival king who lives in a Garden District mansion, a retired streetcar repairman with deep roots in the Lower Ninth Ward, and a transsexual pub owner. Some are local celebrities of greater or lesser proportion (the aristocratic jazz-playing parish coroner and the widow of a Mardi Gras Indian famed for his costumes). Others seem to simply blur into the fabric the city’s daily life (a white cop from Lakeview and a black convict from the Goose).

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