Reading lists

Book your holiday: New Orleans

From Dave Eggers to John Kennedy Toole, Louisiana's "Crescent City" has inspired many great writers to evoke its mysterious allure. Here are five books to read before you go.

New Orleans. Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

The Crescent City, The Paris of America, The Metropolis of the South... New Orleans is a city of many names, and many faces. It's the birthplace of jazz, voodoo magic and Ellen DeGeneres. It's holds the largest annual Mardi Gras street festival in the world, contains some of the most beautiful (and oldest) architecture in America, and is home to some of the continent's finest food – from Creole seafood gumbo to sugar-dusted beignets. But it's also where, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina battered the basin city to within an inch of its life, leaving a trail of destruction whose shadow still looms over the city today.

You could say a lot of things about New Orleans, but the one thing nobody ever calls it is boring. Its literature, at the very least, is testament to that. So, with the smell of spicy Cajun po boy hot in our mind's nose, here are some books to get you on your way.

A Kind of Freedom by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton (2017)

This steaming stew of a saga tells the story of three generations of a black New Orleans family, from 1940s wartime when the US military was still racially segregated to the horrific aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

It starts with Evelyn, the daughter of a wealthy Creole family who falls for Renard, a poor restaurant skivvy who dreams of becoming a doctor. Only, at a time when cinemas still had “negro balconies”, dreams don't mean squat if you're black and poor. So Evelyn must choose between love for her man and loyalty to her roots.

Fastforward 30 years, and her daughter, Jackie, is a strained single mum toiling against an on-off relationship with her heroin-addicted husband. And finally, there's Jackie's son T. C. whose hopes of making something of his life are upended by Hurricane Katrina, and the lure of quick-cash street dealing threatens to drag him into a life of vice.

Sexton is one hell of a storyteller and her characters are so vivid that you are drawn instantly into her world. But it is the way she evokes New Orleans that really hooks you by the gills: the turn of a Creole phrase, the smell of boiling crawfish, the sound of “all the Seventh Ward girls [congregating] after school outside Dufon’s Oyster Shop, the best Negro-owned restaurant in the city.”

New Orleans has always been a spicy gumbo of culture, diversity and music – the product of the centuries-long tug-of-war between three mighty empires: France, Spain, and England. A musician and musicologist himself, Sublette argues that slavery may be the darkest stain on American history, but without it New Orleans wouldn't have its music.

Ever since the first African slaves were shipped to the region in 1719, African Americans have gathered in what's now called Congo Square, in the southern corner of Armstrong Park, to celebrate their heritage and culture. From that jump off, Sublette examines how music from different regions of Africa – from Kongo drumming to Senegambian banjo playing – melded to forge the musical culture for which the city is famed today (as the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis once said, “Every strand of American music comes directly from Congo Square.”

This is the book that brings New Orleans' musical history to life – and you'd be hard pushed to find a more detailed, exciting and eye-opening portrait of the city's extraordinary past than this.

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