As summertime approaches, most finally have the time to curl up with the books they have put off reading all year. Busy schedules, family life, and stress at work prevent us from finding time for ourselves, but reading is the one thing that allows me an escape from the daily chaos that is my life. My Mother instilled the value of reading in me, something we both treasure dearly. As summer approaches, and we prepare for vacations, I’d like to introduce some of my favorite books that for great summer reading. Not all are new releases, or even New York Times bestsellers, but I’ve read each of them and they are very much worth your time. So without further ado, my first recommendation is ‘Babylon Rolling’ by Amanda Boyden.
If you read the cover of ‘Babylon Rolling’ you’d rightfully assume it’s a story about a diverse neighborhood in New Orleans prior to Hurricane Katrina, but this book is so much more. It’s a book that provokes thought, and surprisingly I felt myself relating to the storyline because I too have lived in a time when I thought my little neighborhood was everything until some terrible event woke me up.
Let me start with an excerpt from the prologue of the book which immediately drew me in: If we decide to, we can tell you who New Orleans is. New Orleans is the old man who cannot read. Still, he buys the paper every day. He touches the face of murderers and commits them to memory. And New Orleans is the slack-jawed woman, too full of Sunday dinner to move from the table, staring at her haystacked pile of turkey neck bones. We love a place that cannot be saved by levees. We are brilliant losers. But, of course, those of us living Uptown on Orchid Street do not know this yet. Katrina is a year away.
I’ve never been to New Orleans, although through friends and family I’ve heard enough stories to gage an assumption on what the city is like. Living in Manhattan, I am used to diversity, change, unique situations, and chaos, so in ways New Orleans doesn’t sound unlike NYC. Horrific events, natural and unnatural, affect people in different ways as I learned in this book. What I didn’t expect to feel was such a personal connection to this story. The prologue immediately made me realize that if I had written a book prior to September 11, this is probably how it would start.
The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was to New Orleans what the tragedy of 9/11 was to NYC. I felt that association instantly as both cities were under siege, and defiance by the people who called it home helped others unite and salvage what was left of their great city. If I wrote a book post 9/11, it would read very differently than pre-9/11 because I am no longer the same person. I couldn’t help but feel like Amanda Boyden was speaking to me, both of us having been through such a personal and devastating loss. When I met Amanda Boyden I asked her when she decided to write Babylon Rolling and her response was just as I had suspected: post Katrina. Babylon Rolling is her love letter to her adopted city of New Orleans, which she now calls home, and she wanted to capture this magical place in all its glory. Boyden grew up in Chicago and St. Louis, so the fact that she decided to stay put in New Orleans shows her bravery. This is her home now and nothing was going to make her leave. I recalled how in the days after 9/11 people fled the city, moving back to their hometowns outside of New York. I commented to a friend, where do you go when this IS your hometown? Obviously, Boyden felt the same way.
Boyden began writing Babylon Rolling post-Katrina, after she and her husband, Joseph, had fled the city to Texas and then Canada. Amanda said how she and her husband watched news coverage for weeks on end from their safety zone in Toronto. They knew when it was time to return home, they just knew, and so they went. Returning home, she had no idea what to expect and no clue what would be left standing, but what she returned to was a city that was down but certainly not out with an energetic spirit that led the pathway to recovery. Like many New Orleanians, she says the word ‘home’ definitely, just like I did after 9/11. Nothing was going to stop me from returning to my home, my safe place and Amanda felt the same way. Reading her book, I realized we had both experienced pain and dislocation, but both proved triumphant when we gained the courage to face our fears and return.
The five protagonists in Babylon Rolling represent the five diverse and distinct families who reside on fictional Orchid Street in Uptown New Orleans: Cerise who is married to Roy, the elderly neighborhood couple who have live in New Orleans their entire lives and are the unofficial mayors of the block; Ariel and Ed, recent Minneapolis transplants whose marital role reversal features a sexually charged, hotel managing wife and Buddhist house-husband showcasing a racy new generation of family life; Prancie, a pretentious home-maker, and her cancer stricken husband Joe, who await his death while keeping up appearances that all is perfect on the exterior while the interior is anything but; Indira and Ganesh Gupta, the newest arrivals to the neighborhood whose exotic food and calming presence intrigues their neighbors; Fearious, a young African-American teen with gangsta ambitions who you come to both fear and pity. Set in 2004, the story takes you through Hurricane Ivan and ends with Katrina on the horizon. Without giving too much away, each of the neighbors the characters are incredibly complex and flawed, but each has positive attributes and redeeming qualities. As you peel away the layers to each person begin to see the depth of each persona, some you’ll grow to loath and dislike while at other times you feel conflicted with pity and compassion. Together, their stories unfold into a portrait of a city, neighborhood, and community unique as they come. A melting pot of cultures all residing on Orchid Street, that is what makes New Orleans truly unique and why Amanda Boyden calls it home.
So what about the next chapter? Amanda Boyden feels there is so much Katrina news out there that the country is in overload, so she was perfectly happy to leave the events of the horrific hurricane to the readers. But the point of the story is new beginnings, so I wonder if another New Orleans novel is in her future, possibly revisiting some of the characters on Orchid Street. I know I’d like to see what happens next.
Amanda Boyden’s novel Babylon Rolling can be purchased on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/Babylon-Rolling-Novel-Amanda-Boyden/dp/0375425330/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1242392739&sr=8-1
On a personal note, this book brought to the surface thoughts I had pushed into the back of my mind from that fateful September day and made me face them once again. Hearing the stories of Katrina, and 9/11, you realize the good in people is what helps you to overcome the most devastating situations. So I’d like to say to the ‘Usual Suspects’: Sean, Heather, Wende (with Juice at the time), Brian, Lindsay, and Thomas, that the night we all returned to NYC and reunited in my apartment was one of the most heartfelt experiences in my life. Tears of sadness flowed, happiness to see each others faces, desperate to find those missing, shock that Heather made it home from Barbados. Wine flowed and cigarettes were consumed while stories were told of survival: Wende escaped from the subway under the WTC, Brian and Juice stepped out for a smoke from the WTC and watched the attack from the sidewalk, I stood in shock on my deck as the towers imploded. During all the loss and pain, we still had each other and always will. I’ve never told you this, but that night is forever engrained in my heart and I will never forget it.