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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 Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1981)

He may be a fat, flatulent, hot-dog guzzling slob, but Ignatius J. Reilly has become something of a literary poster boy for New Orleans since John Kennedy Toole immortalised him between the pages of his satirical masterpiece (tourists can even take Confederacy of Dunces walking tours to visit all Reilly's hangouts throughout the city).

The novel – which was released almost 20 years after Toole wrote it and more than 11 years after he killed himself, aged 31 – follows the hapless hero as he bumbles, blunders and insults his way through a 1960s New Orleans that keeps spitting him back out.

The novel became such an instant cult classic upon its release, that it earned Toole the rare honour of a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1981. The book is awash with references to the city's sights, sounds and smells (particularly the whiff of hotdog), and is one of the most famous novels ever written about the city.

Toole was a New Orleans native himself, and “Dunces” has also been hailed not just for its rich depiction of the Crescent City, but also for its bang-on ear for the city's Yat dialect, which he uses liberally and bamboozlingly (until you get used to it). 

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.”

Zeitoun by Dave Eggers (2009)

In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina raged into New Orleans, leaving in its wake a trail of unimaginable pain. More than 1,000 lives were lost, and many more livelihoods. As the flood walls collapsed and the waters rose, submerging most of the basin city, residents fled. But some remained.

One was Abdulrahman Zeitoun. After packing his wife and children off to a relative's home away from the disaster, the Syrian refugee spent the next few weeks saving stranded elderly people, feeding abandoned dogs and protecting his home and business – as well as those of many of his neighbours and friends. Until, that is, he is falsely arrested on terror charges and “disappeared” into a makeshift prison built in the storm's aftermath.

Dave Eggers' sublimely written account of Zeitoun's life inside the storm-ravaged city is both a beautifully crafted testimony to the bravery and resilience of those worst affected by the tragedy, and a stinging indictment of the US government's lacklustre response, tempered by its War on Terror. A must read for anyone visiting New Orleans and wants to understand the costliest storm in U.S. history, and a legacy that continues to rattle about the city today.

The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square by Ned Sublette (2009)

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.

Triksta: Life and Death of New Orleans Rap by Nik Cohn (2005)

By the age of 55, veteran British music journalist Nik Cohn was tired of rock music. To him, it had grown weary and anaemic with cliché. So he turned to hip hop. He knew New Orleans well, having first toured there with The Who. And he'd heard about the city's growing gangsta rap scene. He could be a rap impresario, he thought, and share it with the world. So he plunged himself into the dark heart of the hip hop dream.

Both hilarious and tragic, the book is a love letter to a side of the city that no tourist book has ever covered. He visits the city's clubs and projects, and meets a carousel of vivid wannabes, strivers and dreamers with names like Soulja Slim, Mystikal and Choppa.

As the pages turn, it becomes a heartwarming celebration of a city, its music and its people, while delicately probing wider questions about racial identity in modern America.

As he puts it: “It is a city I have loved and hated for 30 years, a moral and physical swamp, but forever fascinating. Its ramshackle beauty, its carelessness, its random violence, its perverse allure - New Orleans is the lover I should dump but can't do without. I think of my addiction to it as a sweet sickness.”

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