Armchair America: Louisiana through Books

December 8, 2015

I’ve picked up my project of reading around America with some books about Louisiana.  This was in preparation for a trip to New Orleans in December. Part of the joy of travel for me is the pre-trip planning, which is fed by research and reading. This dovetailed nicely with my Armchair America project.

I needed to remind myself that the purpose of my armchair reading is to get a taste of the state’s culture, people, landscape and history.  One of the reasons I’ve been remiss in keeping up the series (my last post was in March) is that all the “required” reading seemed daunting.  I tend to go overboard and try to read too exhaustively.  I’ve decided to pull back from attempting an in-depth review and return to the idea of savoring a few good books that represent things that are quintessential about the states.


I sent queries to two libraries in Louisiana asking for book recommendations, but I did not get a response.  So Here are the books I read about Louisiana or by Louisiana writers:

Adult Fiction:

The Moviegoer by Walker Percy.  Jack Bolling is a rather privileged man from a New Orleans family, but he has difficulty settling into the expected life of career and family.  His Aunt Em has plenty of advice for him:  “A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can.  In this world goodness is destined to be defeated.  But a man must go down fighting.  That is the victory.  To do anything less is to be less than a man.”  Jack does not want to disappoint his aunt, but he cannot pretend to be something that he is not.  “I would not change places with him if he discovered the cause and cure of cancer, for he is no more aware of the mystery which surrounds him than a fish is aware of the water it swims in.”

A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.  Walker Percy describes the main character of this novel, Ignatius Reilly, as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas rolled into one — who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age.”  I found him completely unlikable.  Reilly is a college grad who lives with his mother who cooks and cleans for him but is held in contempt.  Faced with paying damages from a car accident, Reilly is “forced” by his mother to get off his butt and get a job.  Reilly wreaks havoc where ever he goes.  I honestly could not see why this novel is held in acclaim.

A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines.  A white farmer, universally hated, is shot and killed by a black man.  About 18 elderly black men and one 18-year-old white woman, all gather together before the sheriff arrives.  Each one holds a gun that had been fired once, with shells that matched the bullet from the real murder weapon.  Each person claims to have been the killer.  The sheriff suspects he knows which of the men was actually the killer, but how will he prove it?  Someone will have to pay, and the threat of vigilante justice hangs over the situation.  With little to lose, this gathering of old men finally stands up to injustice after a lifetime of intimidation and violence. I liked this novel so much that I immediately reread two of Gaines’s others:  The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman and A Lesson Before Dying.

A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain  by Robert Olen Butler.  This collection of fifteen stories is told from the point of view of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants to Louisiana about twenty years after the American withdrawal from Vietnam.  Butler really seems to capture the inner lives of his characters in a totally believable way.

Dinner at Antoine’s by Francis Parkinson Keyes.  I didn’t know what to expect from this novel.  Certainly not a murder mystery, and one with a twist at the end.

Adult Nonfiction:

Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas by Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker.  This collection of 20-odd essays and eclectic maps describes the layered appeal of New Orleans.  A map of graveyards, another tracing the history of jazz hot spots, one highlighting spots of contemplation and delight — it’s an odd and inviting mix.  One of my favorite maps showed where one could find alleys of live oaks in the city.  I love reading anything Solnit writes, for she is a thinker, and I appreciate her take on things.  Another of her books, A Paradise Built in Hell, discusses how people have responded to great disasters.  Solnit believes in the strength and power of ground level, grass roots, spontaneous actions of ordinary people.  These actions far outshine any institutional or government response.  Much of what she says applies to post-Katrina New Orleans.

The House on First Street by Julia Reed.  Reed and her husband buy an old house in the Garden District of New Orleans.  What starts as a memoir about the vissisitudes of fixing up a ramshackle house becomes a first-hand account about surviving the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.  While her house was mostly spared, Reed joins the groundswell of locals who rally to provide food and help cleaning up their beloved city.

Vintage postcard of Louisiana

Vintage postcard of Louisiana

Juvenile Fiction:

Woof by Spencer Quinn.  This novel is told from the point of view of Bowser, a mutt who has just been adopted from a shelter by eleven-year-old Birdie.  As Bowser gets used to his new home near a Louisiana swamp, he and Birdie investigate the theft of a stuffed prized marlin from her Grandmother’s bait shop.  Could the marlin been hiding a hidden treasure map?  I could see how this story might be appealing to girls who like dogs.

My Louisiana Sky by Kimberly Willis Holt.  Tiger has just turned 12 before this summer of 1957.  She lives with her grandmother and parents in a small Louisiana town.  Tiger’s parents are “slow,” and Tiger feels she’s growing up past her parents.  She’s sometimes embarassed by their behavior and wishes she had a more normal family.  When Granny dies, Tiger has the opportunity to live in Baton Rouge with her aunt.  Will adventure and a new opportunity to fit in trump living in a loving home with her parents and taking care of them?



One Response to “Armchair America: Louisiana through Books”

  1. shoreacres Says:

    Of course, as with many states, the question is “Which Louisiana are you interested in?” From your selections, it appears you’re headed to NOLA, which is one aspect of the state, but only one.

    I would suggest adding some reading about Marie Laveau. Even if it’s too late for a book, there’s lots of good online material about her, and if you don’t have time to read, there’s always this great video for a taste. Her grave, in St. Louis cemetery No.1 in New Orleans, was vandalized, but has been restored and is ready for a visit.

    If you’re going to get south of NOLA, toward Barataria, etc., and you haven’t seen the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” you really need to do so. There are a lot of divisions lying beneath the surface of Louisiana, and their version of urban/rural is especially interesting.

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