In the Presence of the Pulitzer Jurors

18 04 2013

Spring in New Orleans is nothing short of glorious. The weather’s perfect — warm but not yet too warm, low humidity… perfect for hanging out in City Park or walking the streets of the Quarter. Adventures abound.

Oh, and then there’s crawfish. We wait all year for crawfish (our reward for making it through another Carnival season alive) and spring produces the best of the lot. Around every corner, it seems, you’ll see those ubiquitous big metal pots, bubbling, a fire blazing underneath them. Friends are made fast around tables laden with crawfish, corn, onions, potatoes, and if you’re lucky, mushrooms, garlic, and even pineapple.

Spring also brings festival season. Nearly every weekend from here until summer’s heat hits hardest, there are festivals of all kinds, all over the city. Music festivals (this past weekend was the free little brother of Jazz Fest called French Quarter Fest), food festivals, neighborhood festivals, and my favorite, the Tennessee Williams Festival. (The festival was held a few weeks back, over a weekend towards the end of March.)

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Over a span of several days, scholars and literary fans from all over flock to the Hotel Monteleone to celebrate Tennessee Williams’ legacy and his influence on New Orleans and its culture. A Streetcar Named Desire is, of course, performed more than once, as are several other of his plays. There are intense panels discussing his work, and opportunities for writers to meet with agents and pitch their book ideas. The whole weekend culminates with a “Stella” shouting contest Sunday afternoon in Jackson Square, recreating that iconic moment when Marlon Brando bellows up to the apartment above for his wife.

In addition to the panels specifically about Tennessee Williams, there are lots of others about all kinds of literary topics. For $10 a panel, you can pick and choose which ones you want to attend, which is what I did. I went to one panel about the challenges of writing about New Orleans and another about the ideas of the exile and refuge in Southern literature (this panel included the scholar Frank Cha, who writes about and studies the representation of Asian Americans in Southern culture, which I found fascinating). I also went to a panel on creative nonfiction, which included John Jeremiah Sullivan, among others. They talked at length about the art of the essay and its place in modern literature, as well as how they interpret the “rules” of creative nonfiction. How creative can you get before it’s no longer nonfiction? (These panelists were largely in agreement that tactics like composite characters and time compression should be avoided. Otherwise, write fiction.)

All three of those panels were enlightening and entertaining, but the panel I was most looking forward to was the final one I attended, which was about reading in the digital age. More than the topic, though, I was excited about the panelists themselves: NPR’s Maureen Corrigan, novelist Michael Cunningham, New Orleans’ own Susan Larson, and New York Times book reviewer Dwight Garner. The first three in that list made up the Pulitzer Prize jury for fiction last year (in addition, of course, to their many other honors and responsibilities). And, you may remember, no prize for fiction was actually awarded in 2012.

From left to right: Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, Dwight Garner, Susan Larson

From left to right: Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, Dwight Garner, Susan Larson

Now, I was keenly interested in hearing the Pulitzer jurors talk about their experience. When I heard last spring that no prize for fiction was awarded, I set out to read the three nominees: Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson, Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell, and The Pale King, by David Foster Wallace. As I wrote about here, I didn’t love Swamplandia! like I thought I would, I didn’t even finish The Pale King (there it sits now, on my bedside table, looking at me reproachfully), and I loved Train Dreams (I’ve reread it once already since that post).

I’d also read Maureen Corrigan’s feisty take-down of the Pulitzer board, published last April in The Washington Post. That explained what I hadn’t, until that point, understood: the Pulitzer jurors read and choose the finalists, but the Pulitzer board (in other words, different people) chooses the final winner of the prize from those nominees. Given how strongly she felt about the whole process, I could only imagine the other two jurors had equally deep feelings, and I was interested in hearing how it all played out.

One digression, though — if you are a book lover, this was the panel for you. The panelists talked about their reading habits (digital or paper or both), and they all mentioned having various books stashed around their homes, and even their cars (what else to do in the carpool lane?). They talked about which books they’d grab if their houses were on fire (Michael Cunningham — Madame Bovary, Dwight Garner — Machine Dreams, Maureen Corrigan — first edition, signed copy of Sailors of the Night, Susan Larson — Jane Eyre, the first book she ever bought with her own money).

(I love conversations like this, and have been thinking about which book I’d grab if the house was on fire. It would probably be either my tattered and much beloved copy of A Wrinkle in Time, or my tattered, much beloved, and doodled in [I drew about 100 pictures of my grandmother inside of it -- random!] copy of Ramona Quimby, Age 8.)

But, eventually, yes, the dreaded Pulitzer came up. And boy, was I excited for it – I mean, honestly, when else am I going to be in the same room with the three people who read 300 books in a year, discussed them, and whittled the list down to three Pulitzer finalists for fiction? (And then got shafted when a winner wasn’t declared?)

They all three said that the process itself was a wonderful experience and the three of them really bonded over it. They loved the discussions they had on all of the books, and only once in the entire year did they meet in person. With Susan Larson here in New Orleans, and Maureen Corrigan in DC, and Michael Cunningham all over the place, this makes sense. It was all via email and a few phone calls. (I wish I had access to those emails!)

I especially enjoyed their discussion about owning up to their own biases when it comes to how they each define “good writing.” Michael Cunningham said he’s a “sentence queen,” which I thought was about the best thing ever. He said he’s a sucker for beautiful writing, lovely sentences, interesting constructions. That’s his bias, whereas Maureen Corrigan said hers was demanding a plot. She said she wished they taught “plot” in current MFA programs, that there’s just not enough of it happening in books today. Susan Larson fell somewhere in between. (I confess to being something of a “sentence queen” myself. I love it when writers string together words in a way that stops me and makes me re-read the sentence, marveling at the beauty of what they’ve done.)

They also said, however, that this whole situation scarred them and that it’s something they’ll never get it over. If you’ve not read Maureen Corrigan’s Washington Post article I mentioned earlier, I highly recommend it. Her feelings on the matter are clear.

Someone in the crowd asked, during Q&A, “What was the problem? Why couldn’t you all just agree on a book? Wasn’t your task to choose one?” Which made the three of them have to explain, probably for the millionth time, that it wasn’t up to them. That they did their job. That they did what was asked of them (so don’t blame them!). Imagine having to go around and talk about something like that, correcting that misperception again and again. One of them said (I believe it was Michael Cunningham) that he wanted to get a tattoo on his arm that just said, “It wasn’t my fault.”

I’d bought a copy of Maureen Corrigan’s book, Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading, which is a memoir of sorts about the reading life (I just started it and already am sucked in). I took it up once the panel was over to ask her to sign it, which she graciously did, and also to ask her the question I couldn’t NOT ask — “If you had been able to pick a book, which book would you have chosen?” I mean come on, wouldn’t you ask that? It was my one shot.

She didn’t bite, though, and demurred with a quiet smile, saying, “Oh, I can’t answer that. I just can’t answer that.” Her young daughter, standing behind her at that point said to me, “She won’t even tell me! Trust me, I’ve tried.” Alas. It was worth a shot. I should have known better.

I see a Pulitzer for fiction was awarded this year — The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson. It’s a book I’m not familiar with, but want to look into. However, one thing’s for certain — the members of the jury for this year must be breathing a big sigh of relief. And I suspect Maureen Corrigan, Michael Cunningham, and Susan Larson are doing their best to be happy for them.





“Beast it! Beast it!”

22 02 2013

I watched the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” (nominated for four Academy Awards this year, including Best Picture and Best Actress for its then-6-year-old star) last night for a second time. It doesn’t get any easier with further viewings. In fact, I think the film devastated me even more the second time around — but I mean “devastated” in a good way, honestly. I love movies that drive me to the very edge of discomfort and that get under my skin, but that also are so very filled through and through with humanity that I can’t look away. I’m drawn in completely, relating to every moment, feeling them alongside the characters, my heart breaking with theirs.

Don’t worry — if you haven’t seen the film, I won’t give anything away here. But, please, see it! It’s magical.

A loose description — the movie’s set in a fictionalized south Louisiana bayou community (the “Bathtub”) that’s outside New Orleans and outside the levees. The main characters are a little girl named Hushpuppy, and her father, Wink. The film’s about their unique life together, about the friends they surround themselves with, about their relationship to the land and to the water, and yes, about a hurricane barreling their way. There are elements of “magical realism” and whimsy here, just as there are hard truths and even harder scenes to watch and digest. This is not an easy film in many ways. But to me, those are always the best kind, the most representative of the world out there.

None of this is to say it’s not a beautiful movie, because it is. It’s full of life, and laughs, and love. There is an intangible quality to it, such a distinct feeling of people and place. It transports you.

I saw it first in a local movie theater here in New Orleans last summer, and after the movie was over, and the credits started to roll, not a soul in the crowded theater moved. No one dared break the spell. Every last person there stayed in their seats until the last name moved across the screen. (I’ve only had an experience in a theater like that one other time, and it’s a movie that affects me — still – in much the same way that this one did. That movie was the Italian WWII/Holocaust film, “Life is Beautiful.”)

That a 29-year-old director making his first feature film, and casting two non-actors in his lead roles, could achieve something like “Beasts” is just remarkable. I don’t know that they’ll beat out any of the Hollywood heavies at this year’s Oscars, but who cares. This movie deserves the press and attention it’s getting. It was locally already a big deal, even before it came out. Everyone I knew was so intrigued by it. I’m happy, now, that the rest of the country is catching on.

One nitpick I have with a review I saw from a major newspaper up North — the reviewer said she “had some problems” with the film, including the way it “glamorized poverty.” That that is what she took from this movie is so incredibly misguided to me, and so elitist, too. The people depicted in the movie aren’t rich in any conventional way, in any way that most of our country could identify. No, they aren’t saving for retirement in their 401(k)s. Their kids aren’t attending fancy private schools (the better to avoid those awful poor people in the cities). They aren’t driven by an acquisitive nature, on the prowl for the senseless stuff they’re going to buy next, despite the fact that they don’t need it.

The people depicted in “Beasts” are rich in experiences, though. In life. And yes, despite the cliché, in love. They are happy. Happy in themselves, happy with their lives, happy with their communities, and intimately tied to and happy with where they are from. They are one with the land under their feet, the sky above, and the water all around. That’s unusual in this day and age, when so much of our country looks like the same stupid strip mall ad nauseum.

The way many people live down here in New Orleans is just like this — and that’s part of why I love the city. Once you get out into those bayou communities, it’s even more pronounced. But just because it’s different, or you don’t live that way and don’t understand why someone would want to, that’s no reason to accuse the film makers of presenting something false. That was not their intention, I’m sure of it.

Many people down here understand how short and precious life is, and consequently, they’re going to enjoy it — every day — to the fullest. There’s an appreciation for the fact that you’ve got today, but aren’t guaranteed tomorrow (see: hurricanes, oil spills, plain old violence, you name it).

If that’s “glamorized poverty,” then sign me up. I like to think of it more as focusing on what matters: the people around you, the fact that you love them and they love you, and that you recognize and are grateful for all the little blessings bestowed upon you. This attitude should be celebrated, not dismissed.

I’ll be watching the Oscars this Sunday and rooting all the “Beasts of the Southern Wild” folks on. Here’s to hoping they’ve got the good juju!





Zulu 2013

12 02 2013

Happy Mardi Gras! I am worn out — days of parades will do that to you. But I’d never ever miss Zulu. Mardi Gras morning just wouldn’t be the same without it. I watch it on Basin Street, near the end of its route, so while it starts rolling at 8AM it doesn’t get down my way until about 10AM or so. I love Zulu’s pageantry and their sense of humor. They never disappoint. If you’ve never made it to Mardi Gras, Zulu alone would make it worth your while.

King Zulu:

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The Walking Warriors:

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The Big Shot:

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The Witch Doctor:

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The Ambassador:

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Me, with my Zulu coconut! Happy Mardi Gras!

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Throw me somethin’, ladies!

7 02 2013

It’s here! Muses Thursday. After drenching rains all throughout last night, the Carnival gods smiled on New Orleans this morning, giving us a perfectly clear blue-skied gorgeous sunny day. That means the ladies of the Krewe of Muses will have beautiful weather for their parade tonight, and I’ll be one of many New Orleanians making my way uptown later today to take it all in.

One of the most popular parades by far, Muses stands out as the first all-female krewe. Being all ladies, the shoe has naturally become their de facto symbol and catching one (or more accurately being handed one from a float) of these be-sparkled one-of-a-kind treasures is a goal everyone attending a Muses parade holds dear.

The ladies of Muses were inspired by Zulu and their glittery coconuts, and the shoes have become every bit as popular and as sought-after as those coconuts, displayed with pride in houses throughout New Orleans.

With the Superbowl blessedly behind us, the people of New Orleans can get back to the real business at hand – Mardi Gras! Here we go!

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15 Ways to Live Like a Local While Visiting New Orleans

31 01 2013

When you live in New Orleans, you get used to being asked for recommendations on where to eat, what to do, and what to avoid. I’ve got my list of recommendations down cold, having shared it repeatedly and, most recently, with some friends visiting for the Superbowl. I figure if it’s good enough for my friends, it’s good enough for the Interwebs.

A note — this is not meant to be an all-inclusive tour guide to the city. This represents the opinions, and the life, of someone actually living here. It’s informed by the restaurants I return to on a regular basis, and in part, by geography. I live in Treme, just outside the French Quarter, and I tend to keep mainly to Mid-City, the Marigny, the Bywater, the Quarter, and the CBD. Therefore, the list below is pretty “downtown” specific. Nothing at all against Uptown, I just don’t get, um, up that way very often. I’m recommending only the places I truly frequent and love. You’ll also notice that there’s nary a Besh or Brennan restaurant on this list. Nothing against them, either. I just don’t eat at any of their restaurants with regularity, though they produce some fine food.

With all that behind us, here’s my top 15 recommendations for anyone visiting New Orleans (I’ve included hyperlinks when there are available websites):

1. Cochon is a must. It’s my favorite restaurant in the entire city. It’s Cajun, but with a twist. I’ve never had one bad bite of food there. Just ridiculously good. Get a reservation. It’s in the warehouse district, near the Quarter. If Cochon is too hard to get into, they have a more casual off-shoot just behind them called Cochon Butcher, which is every bit as good. (For more, and for specific suggestions on what to order, see my recent post about lunch at Cochon Butcher.)

2. I know most people don’t come to New Orleans thinking “barbeque” and yet we have an excellent BBQ place here called The Joint. It’s been written up all over the place and featured on TV shows, and is just damn good. Plus, it’s run by two of the nicest people ever, my friends Pete and Jenny. It’s in the Bywater neighborhood, which is past the Marigny, so a little bit aways from the Quarter. The cab ride will be worth it, though. Leave room for the key lime pie.

3. Other good restaurants I can recommend are Coquette and Lilette – two great spots Uptown on Magazine Street that just do delicious food. Lilette is a little bit fancier, but not crazily so. We’re a pretty casual town! They’re both fantastic.

4. If you’re looking for the best po-boy in town, go straight to Parkway. It’s in the Bayou St. John neighborhood, so if you’re staying in the Quarter, you’ll need a cab to get there, but it’ll be worth it. The shrimp po-boy is perfect, as is the oyster, but it’s only available on Mondays now. They also do great gumbo here. (Whatever you do, do not — I repeat — do not, go to Mother’s. Make the effort to go to Parkway.)

5. A real hidden spot you should try to make time for is a place called Bacchanal, on Poland Avenue, down in the Bywater neighborhood. It’s just magical. It started as a little wine bar, but has expanded with food now, so you can eat dinner there (and the food’s actually really delicious and inventive). The real draw for me, though, is their courtyard and the nightly music they have. The place looks like a run-down old house with a backyard that has lights strung up everywhere and a little stage. It’s just an experience. Only go there only if it’s not raining, though. The key is to be able to be outside in the courtyard, listening to jazz, and sipping on some wine. Magic!

6. For music lovers, Frenchmen Street is a must. Club after club after club with local jazz and other music all times of the day and night. It’s fun to just stroll down it and see what catches your fancy. Lots of times there aren’t covers, if you’re down there early. I particularly like The Spotted Cat, the Apple Barrel, and d.b.a.

7. On Frenchmen is a great little restaurant named The Three Muses. It’s tiny and fills up fast, and they don’t take reservations, but keep an eye out for it. The food’s fantastic there, and you might just get lucky and get a seat.

8. Another place on Frenchmen I love is a Japanese restaurant called Yuki Izakaya. They don’t do sushi there, but instead do Japanese bar food, things like noodle bowls and skewers. Get a bowl of the ramen with pork belly. They have great music here, too, usually some variation of gypsy swing/jazz early in the night, and then later, a DJ takes over and the whole place transforms into some bizarro club scene. Oh, and they display old Japanese movies without sound up on the walls, too. It’s one of my favorite places to eat and to go. A Japanese restaurant, in New Orleans, with a man singing in French and playing his accordion, while Japanese movies play silently up on the wall. Tell me how that gets better.

9. Bar Tonique on Rampart at the edge of the French Quarter is a great place to grab a cocktail. Amazing atmosphere, and a focus on classic cocktails along with a few tweaks to old favorites. It’s one of my favorite places to get a drink, and sure, maybe that’s partly because it’s within walking distance of my house, but it’s also because it’s awesome. Try a Frenchmen’s Dark and Stormy. Good Pimm’s Cups, too.

10. Ride the street car up St. Charles and see the big oak trees and gorgeous old houses. Audubon Park is up that way and is nice to walk around in, too. If it’s summertime, you can hop off the streetcar, buy a snoball, and walk around Audubon Park.

11. City Park is our other big park, and is also worth exploring. The New Orleans Museum of Art is there, too. There’s an abundance of gorgeous old moss-draped oak trees in both City Park and Audubon Park. I never tire of looking at them.

12. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art is a great museum to check out.  It’s always got cool exhibits, and on Thursdays, there’s live music from 6-8.  And then, of course, The National WWII Museum is also amazing, and even has some tasty places to eat inside it.

13. Oh and yes, the beignets are Cafe Du Monde are actually really good and something even locals enjoy. I still get mine with chocolate milk, like I did when I was little.

14. And if you’re a raw oyster eater, head to either Felix’s or Bourbon House right across the street from Felix’s. You’ll see a giant line nearby for Acme. Go on and laugh at the people standing in that line. The oysters at Felix’s and Bourbon House are every bit as good and without the silly wait. Chat with the oyster shuckers, wherever you are. They’re always the nicest guys. Tip ‘em big.

15. Main piece of advice from me: Stay OFF Bourbon Street (except for Felix’s and Bourbon House for oysters). Obnoxious, lowest-common-denominator nonsense. Much better things happening elsewhere in this city.





24k, please

29 01 2013

She’s real, and she lives here in New Orleans!

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‘tit Rex redux

28 01 2013

The thing you quickly come to realize not long after you move to New Orleans is that this city has its own time-table, its own schedule, its own little meandering way of doing things, and you’re at the mercy of it. In other words, everything and everyone is always late. Everything starts late. Movies start late. I’m not even kidding.

And Mardi Gras parades? Oh my. The tractors pulling the floats break down all the time, leaving riders marooned in front of ravenous crowds, hungry for beads and doubloons and any shiny thing they can get their hands on. Tuba players in the high school bands, weary after carrying those beautiful but heavy horns for miles, gently take them off and put them on the ground beside them. The scantily clad girls in the many grown-up all-female dancing crews (with names like the Pussyfooters and the Muffalottas and the Cherry Bombs) stand and chitchat with each other and the people in the crowd. And they wait. And we wait. We all wait. Long stops in parades are inevitable. You just get used to it.

Sometimes things start off late from the get-go, though, putting a parade way way behind schedule. Such was the case with my adored ‘tit Rex parade of miniature floats this past Saturday night. The parade was slated to roll at 5PM, following a route through the Marigny (the next neighborhood over from the Quarter). I was stationed at The Orange Couch, a really cool coffee shop on Royal Street, not far from Elysian Fields. I walked over from my house in Treme, and that was the closest spot for me to be.

6PM rolled around and no tiny floats! Or tiny throws! Nothing. 6:30, nothing. After asking around a bit, it turned out that the police escort for ‘tit Rex neglected to show up. They waited, and we waited, and no one ever came. We are not known around here for letting a little thing like “rules” stop us, so ‘tit Rex eventually soldiered on, lead by a guy who projected authority by walking tall and carrying a bullhorn I don’t think he ever actually used.

In the end, the waiting was worth it, and I was so thrilled to see all the craftmanship that went into each and every tiny float. I love this parade, full stop. Unfortunately, it’s tough to get a clear photo of a tiny float being pulled by a string past you in the dark. But one did stop long enough for me to get a good picture. In truth, though, this is just the kind of thing you need to experience in person. The artists who made the tiny floats pull them while dressed up in nice suits and even some evening gowns. I love the tongue-in-cheek dignity of it all. And being handed tiny throws from these folks is a much more intimate experience than being thrown cheap plastic beads by a guy wearing a mask from the second floor of a giant float. Don’t get me wrong — I love that, too — but this is just a whole different thing.

Behold the float I did manage to get a photo of:

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And here’s my booty from this year — a tiny tamborine, a real flower, a tiny bracelet, a lollypop, and an itty bitty book, which said, “life always finds a way,” on the inside. It does indeed, and in New Orleans especially.

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