Two books by two journalists
Over the past couple of months, I’ve read two different books by newspaper columnists, just for fun.
The first, called “1 Dead in Attic: After Katrina,” collects stories written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina by Chris Rose, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Rose is a good writer, with a good eye for detail, and “1 Dead in Attic” captures the chaos and heartbreak of a city brought to its knees by natural disaster. The stories are heartbreaking, as well as hopeful, with a strain of gallows humor that makes the unfolding horror a little bit easier to bear. Occasionally Rose rants at the political establishment — at former city Mayor Ray Nagin, at the Bush administration — but the majority of his writing is personal or focused on the common man: on the everyday people who survived Katrina and were attempting to pick up the pieces. Taken as a whole, “1 Dead in Attic” is a pretty good chronicle of a city in a state of trauma, teetering on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The more I read, the more I worried about Rose’s mental state. He isn’t shy about describing his crying jags and fits of rage post-Katrina, but one column, in particular, gave me pause: In this piece, he recounts how he passed out while on the job, smacked into a tree and lay unconscious by the side of the road for the next few hours, unable to rouse himself. What’s disconcerting is that this little episode is recounted in the most humorous way possible, even though Rose is clearly describing something serious — something unhealthy and troubling and meriting, perhaps, a trip to the doctor.
Rose finally opens up about his struggles in a powerful and lengthy essay, titled “Hell and Back,” near the end of his book. In this column, he admits that he became deeply depressed after Katrina, uninterested in interacting with his family, his readers, friends or strangers. “I became one of those guys you see coming down the street and you cross over to get out of the way,” he writes. Of passing out by the side of the road, he writes, “You might think that would have been a wake-up call, but it wasn’t. Instead, like everything else happening to me, I wrote a column about it, trying to make it all sound so funny.” Finally, Rose saw a psychiatrist and began taking an anti-depressant that he credits with saving his life. What makes this essay so memorable is the candid and brutal self-appraisal, combined with an earnest desire to help others who might be in a similar situation: Where most reporters and columnists might choose to hold back, Rose opens up.
It is somewhat ironic that a book that purports to tell the story of New Orleans post-Katrina is really more about one man’s recovery and redemption. That doesn’t make it a bad book — “1 Dead in Attic” is a very good book. But those looking for a more definitive history might be disappointed.
I also read the 2002 book “No Ordinary Lives” by David Johnson, a columnist for the Lewiston Morning Tribune in Idaho. My friend Leigh Anne gave me this book quite some time ago, and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it, both for Johnson’s unique take on writing a column and his compelling descriptions of north central Idaho. Johnson writes a column called “Everyone Has a Story” in which he picks a name in the phone book, calls him or her, sets up an interview and writes about the person he met. His first column, about a Mexican immigrant named Marciano Prado, is interesting and moving, though it has a tragic coda: Five years later, Prado was hit by a car while walking, and killed.
Johnson has an upbeat personality, and enjoys telling positive stories. This means that his writing can lack a certain edge, and that his takes on family and life can seem a bit cliched and overly sunny. But I enjoyed getting to know him and learning about “Everyone Has a Story,” which is an interesting idea for a column, and one that seems to yield real insights into how people live and think.
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