This fall, Maryland author Gary Krist will take readers into a little-known chapter of New Orleans history with his new book Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder, and the Battle for Modern New Orleans. Krist brings to light the social and political struggles that New Orleans faced at the turn of the 20th century. Focusing on events from 1890 through 1920, Krist tells a tale of vice, politics, economic development, crime, jazz, racism and murder. The most shocking thing about this story is that it’s all true! This engrossing book is a must-read for anyone who enjoyed Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America.
Krist recently answered some questions about Empire of Sin for Between the Covers. Read on to learn more about the city’s politics, its remarkable residents and the Axman, a serial murderer who terrorized New Orleans for 18 months.
Between the Covers: Why New Orleans? Was it the story or the city that first captured your interest?
Gary Krist: It’s hard to separate story from city, but I’d say it was a desire to write about New Orleans that first attracted me. For an urban historian, New Orleans is a particularly attractive subject, primarily because of its unique history. As a place with French and Catholic roots, it has a culture very different from that of other American cities. (My favorite observation about New Orleans is that it was the first major American metropolis to build an opera house but the last to install a sewer system.) So it was fascinating for me to see how this unique place weathered the great transition to modernity in this era.
BTC: I suspect that many of our readers don’t know a lot about this chapter in New Orleans history. Will you describe the social and political climate of the city at the turn of the 20th century?
GK: The last decades of the 19th century were difficult for New Orleans. The city’s prosperous antebellum days were long past; years of civil war and reconstruction had been hard on the local economy, and the city had become hopelessly backward in terms of urban development (hence that much-delayed sewer system). Northern capital investment was desperately needed to modernize the city’s infrastructure, but Northern capitalists were reluctant to invest in a place with such a bad reputation for vice and crime. So the city’s “better half” decided that it was time to clean up New Orleans, which meant doing battle with the city’s long-entrenched underworlds of vice and crime. Basically, they wanted to make New Orleans “respectable”—and that was going to be quite a job.
BTC: During this time, a red-light district called Storyville was created in New Orleans. Tell us a little bit about its development.
GK: Interestingly, Storyville began as part of this clean-up campaign. Reformers knew that abolishing prostitution entirely would not be feasible in a city like New Orleans, so they tried instead to isolate and regulate the trade. An alderman named Sidney Story identified a particular 18-block neighborhood and wrote an ordinance making prostitution illegal everywhere EXCEPT in this one, out-of-the-way area. Reformers figured that this would be a good way of lowering the profile of vice in the city. But the plan backfired, and Storyville (as the district came to be called, much to Alderman Story’s annoyance) soon was making New Orleans world-famous as a virtual supermarket of sin. And when reformers decided that they needed to close the district after all, it turned out that Storyville was a lot harder to kill than it had been to create.
BTC: Another notable thread of the story is the Axman murders, a series of grisly murders that took place from 1918-1919 and remain unsolved. What impact did these events have on the city?
GK: The Axman appeared at a critical time, just when the champions of respectability thought they had won their battle for New Orleans. Storyville had finally been closed in 1917, and the city’s crime problem seemed to be under control at last. But then an anonymous murderer dramatically upended this sense of victory with a series of bloody nighttime ax attacks that terrorized the city for 18 months. With each succeeding murder, panicked New Orleanians became increasingly paranoid and irrational. Then an open letter—purportedly from the Axman himself—appeared in The Times-Picayune, claiming that the murderer was a devil from hell with a liking for the new jazz music. He threatened to kill again on St. Joseph’s Night, promising only to spare any household in which jazz was being played. And, well, I don’t want to reveal too much, but you can just imagine what a night of music and dancing took place in New Orleans that night.
BTC: Empire of Sin is filled with unbelievable characters, and the most amazing thing is that they were all real people. Do you have a favorite? Which person in this book will stick with the reader the longest?
GK: Oh, I could probably name a dozen—like Josie Arlington, the wealthy brothel madam who for decades kept her sinful life a secret from her beloved niece; or Buddy Bolden, the almost-legendary cornetist who is credited with being the inventor of jazz music; or Tom Anderson, the poor kid from the rough Irish Channel neighborhood who rose to become one of the most powerful (and strangely likeable) vice lords in the country. But my favorite character is probably Louis Armstrong, who grew up in the hardest and most degrading circumstances imaginable, but whose unfailing good-heartedness and matchless musical gift allowed him to rise above his harsh childhood to become one of the great artists of the century.
BTC: What is the most shocking thing that you learned in your research?
GK: Some of the beliefs of the so-called reformers shocked me. For instance, one of the leaders of the anti-Storyville campaign was a woman named Jean Gordon. She was firmly convinced that she was on the side of virtue, but as with many self-styled moral champions, her idea of “virtue” was often distorted by class and racial prejudice. So while she fought hard for female suffrage and child labor regulation, she also lent her support to the rise of Jim Crow discrimination and the disenfranchisement of African-Americans. Even worse, she held some astounding beliefs about eugenics, advocating for the forced sterilization of children who showed signs of a future in crime, prostitution or alcoholism. “Took Lucille Decoux to the Women’s Dispensary July 17 [for an appendectomy],” Jean once wrote in her diary. “This was an excellent opportunity to have her sterilized…and thus end any feeble-minded progeny coming from Lucille.”
BTC: What are you working on next?
GK: My fascination with cities in the early 20th century hasn’t gone away, so I’m working on a book about Los Angeles in roughly this same time period. The book will center on the Hollywood of the silent-film era and weave in a few other elements. But the idea is still taking shape in my mind, so it’s probably too early to talk about it.
Richard is going crazy. His 14-year-old cousin Malley doesn't want to go to boarding school. Now she has run off with some guy named Talbo Chock. Luckily for Richard, he crosses paths with Skink, the 72-year-old oddball protagonist in Carl Hiaasen's newest teen novel Skink: No Surrender. Skink has been around before. He is one of Hiaasen's most beloved characters first appearing in his adult novel Double Whammy over 25 years ago. Now he's back, just in time to dish out his own weed-whacking brand of integrity and justice.
Richard doesn't know what to make of Skink, the eccentric, one-eyed ex-governor of Florida. One minute Skink is burying himself in the sand waiting to catch Loggerhead turtle egg thieves, the next he's off to help Richard solve the mystery of Malley's disappearance. Richard and Skink’s swampy journey leads them into one white-knuckle situation after another, thankfully diluted with plenty of humor along the way. Road kill for dinner, anyone?
Hiaasen, a Florida native and columnist for the Miami Herald, has long been an advocate for the Everglades. This latest plot-driven adventure, told from Richard’s perspective, continues Hiaasen’s subtle brand of environmental awareness while skimming over the creepier aspect of the story: a teenage girl’s abduction by an older man. As with his previous books, nature — and man's disregard for it — pulse below the surface, as does the fact that imperfection is not, by itself, a bad thing. There's a place for even flawed superheroes, like Skink, when it comes to defending what's right. Marketed for teen readers, this latest effort, recently long-listed for the National Book Award, will appeal to the legion of Hiaasen fans who appreciate his popular brand of humor and zesty storytelling.
Wildlife is Australian author Fiona Wood’s first novel to be published in the United States. It tells the story of two high school girls on their wilderness term at an Australian high school. Sibylla and Lou’s elite school makes students spend one term at their outdoor education campus, living in cabins, going on solo hikes and learning to fend for themselves. Sib and Lou are thrown together in a cabin with a few other girls, and each have to deal with their respective relationship and friendship issues.
Sib has always been outside of the popular group, but a once-in-a-lifetime modeling gig puts her in the spotlight. Her newfound popularity catches the attention of the most attractive guy in her class, Ben. When the two start dating, Sib begins to worry about her inexperience in relationships because of pressure from her best friend Holly. The peer pressure leads her to question her relationship with Ben and eventually her existing friendships.
Lou, on the other hand, is a transfer student looking to start over after her boyfriend died in a car accident the previous school year. She keeps her distance from her fellow classmates, including Sib, until the situation between Sib and her friends escalates, and the two form a new friendship.
Ultimately a story about friendship, romance and growing up, Wildlife is a well-written novel that readers looking for a high school story with a twist will enjoy. Wood’s characters are highly relatable and fully realized — Sib, Lou and their fellow students all seem real, their issues ones many teens face.
What happens after happily ever after? Mystery author P. D. James reimagines the futures of the characters from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in Death Comes to Pemberley. Six years after Elizabeth and Darcy’s marriage, a shocking event rocks the residents of Pemberley. On the night before their annual ball, Elizabeth’s sister Lydia appears at Pemberley hysterically screaming that Mr. Wickham has been murdered. Upon investigation, it is actually Captain Denny who is dead, but in an even more shocking turn of events, the most logical suspect is none other than Wickham! Austen fans are well-acquainted with Wickham’s past misdeeds, but could he really be capable of murder?
Death Comes to Pemberley is a well-crafted mystery written in a tone similar to Austen’s own, making this a perfect companion to the classic novel. The audiobook read by Rosalyn Landor will whisk you away to the 19th century. James seeds the story with plausible suspects and a few red herrings, but in the end all questions are answered and readers are given a glimpse into the Darcys’ future.
The novel has been adapted into a miniseries that will soon air on PBS. The miniseries will begin on October 26 and will be released on DVD later that week.
Would you know a monster if you saw one? Are you sure? Sometimes these creatures are easy to recognize, such as a vampire, a harpy or even a kraken. Other times, they may look like high school students who play in a garage band that just so happen to also be demonic. Don’t forget the ones who appear to be ordinary people. To be on the safe side, you should read Monstrous Affections: An Anthology of Beastly Tales, edited by Kelly Link and Gavin J. Grant.
A collection of 15 short stories, each author explores what it is to be monstrous. Whether it is a story about an actual supernatural entity, a human harboring an evil within or the horrors that lurk in the deep recesses of our own minds, no two stories address the aspect of being a monster in the same way. Some of the stories seem to be a retelling of a fairy tale or fable, while others are a refreshing new take on a folkloric creature. Link and Grant, known for their award-winning anthology Steampunk!, did an excellent job at bringing these various authors together and compiled their works into one cohesive book of tales that will leave the reader haunted, yet entertained. While focused on teenaged protagonists, this book is sure to appeal to adults who enjoy teen fiction or a wickedly good monster story.
So check under your bed, in the closet and deep within the shadows. You never know what kind of scary creatures may be lurking there. Just remember, you have been warned. Often, the monsters within are the most terrifying of all.
Adam Selzer brings life (and undeath) to the suburban Midwest with his young adult books set in Cornersville Trace, a fictitious neighborhood in Des Moines, Iowa, where the fantastic is not quite impossible. Selzer’s latest novel Play Me Backwards is a story of reinvention through satanic machination, only in the Trace, Satan isn’t a horned demon; he’s a teenage burnout.
Before his girlfriend moved to England, Leon enjoyed his life as a quasi-intellectual, roguish guy wrapped in adolescent love. Four bleak years later, Leon is realizing he has come unraveled. His grades are so bad that he might not graduate, his girlfriend Paige is only with him because she hates being alone and his job at the Ice Cave sucks because the place is a den of teenage lechery and nobody should ever buy ice cream there. At least he gets to work with his lifelong best friend and fellow underachiever Stan, who it turns out might actually be Satan. His folks just dropped the first “A” so he could go to private school.
Stan gives Leon some otherworldly advice as a pick-me-up: Listen to Moby-Dick on audiobook, seek out an elusive flavor of frozen slushee called “White Grape” and do whatever else the Dark Lord may require. Leon and Paige spend their free time driving from convenience store to gas station buying frozen drinks and changing CDs, which turns out to be pretty fun. Stan’s infernal intervention gives Leon hope that he could shape up and make something of himself, but doing so means leaving the teenage debauchery, Satan-worshipping and his former self behind.
Shamelessly allegorical and unabashedly funny, Play Me Backwards is great for readers who enjoy young adult fiction or alternative culture. Leon also appears in Selzer’s 2007 debut novel How to Get Suspended and Influence People.
The aftermath of an energy crisis is explored in Edan Lepucki’s new novel California. Frida and Cal are on their own, living in a shack and facing the uncertain future that may include the birth of a baby. Frida knows she may need help with the birth, and the couple discover that there is a community of people nearby, surrounded by a foreboding fortress made of tall spikes and broken glass. But is the fortress meant to keep strangers and roving bands of pirates out, or keep the insular residents in? Desperate to find acceptance, Frida and Cal decide to play by the rules. But a charismatic leader emerges with an agenda of his own, and both Frida and Cal begin to wonder if this is the paradise for which they had hoped.
A remarkable work of dystopian literature, California stays fresh with interesting characters and a suspenseful storyline. Frida and Cal are sympathetic protagonists, and Lepucki examines elements of their past life and slowly reveals how the world before has led to a dramatic and difficult present.
Although set in the future, the novel stays grounded in reality and will appeal to readers who enjoy strong characters facing hard choices in a realistic way. This debut novel for Edan Lepucki proves her to be a writer to watch. The audiobook is narrated by Emma Galvin, who brings life to the text for an enjoyable listening experience. Readers who enjoy this novel may want to also read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel or The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber.
When he was a child, Bryan Stevenson’s grandmother would tell him, “You can’t understand the most important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.” That’s exactly what Stevenson does for all of us with his new book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. The book focuses on the case of Walter McMillian, a man who was wrongly convicted and sent to death row.
McMillian was arrested for the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, the 18-year-old daughter of a well-respected family in Monroeville, Alabama. Despite a lack of physical evidence and the existence of several witnesses who could place him miles away at the time of the crime, McMillian was convicted of capital murder. Stevenson took on his appeal while working for the Southern Prisoners Defense Committee in Atlanta. After a lengthy appeals process, McMillian was exonerated and released in 1993 after spending six years on death row.
Readers will be astonished that these events actually took place as the book reads like a legal thriller that would do John Grisham proud. The story has a unique literary connection as well. McMillian lived in Monroe County, Alabama, home of To Kill a Mockingbird-author Harper Lee. Just Mercy is a gripping and thought-provoking read that would also be a great choice for book clubs.
Stevenson is now a law professor and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to those who have been denied fair treatment in the legal system. His TED Talk on race and justice has been viewed over 1.25 million times, and it was named one of five essential TED Talks by The New Yorker. You can view it on BCPL’s Tumblr.
As the temperatures cool down and the days become shorter, a new season has arrived. With leaves falling and warm sweaters unpacked comes the desire for foods that exemplify warmth and coziness. Three recently published cookbooks express strong autumnal flavors that will surely bring pleasant aromas to your kitchen.
One style that always warms the heart and belly is Indian cuisine. Aarti Sequeira, winner of season six of Food Network Star, brings her winning personality and complex-tasting but simple-to-create spice blends to Aarti Paarti: An American Kitchen with an Indian Soul. After a short introduction discussing her background, she explains the many spices in the Indian pantry as well as a quick guide to lentils and the mystery of curry powder. Vegetarian dishes are well-represented, as well as Sequeira’s fondness for sweets and desserts. Her recipes incorporate exotic flavors into American favorites, creating intriguing concepts such as South Indian Tomato Soup, Bombay Sloppy Joes and Masala Shrimp ‘n’ Grits.
Averie Sunshine, the popular food blogger at AverieCooks.com, has her finger on the pulse of one of this decade’s hottest food trends in Cooking with Pumpkin: Recipes that Go beyond the Pie. She brings 50 of her favorite savory and sweet recipes together to create a group of mouthwatering fall dishes. From Parmesan and Cream Cheese Pumpkin Puff appetizers to Soft Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Cookies, this is a book for the pumpkin lover. She also has suggestions for perfectly roasted pumpkin seeds and a number of pumpkin beverages that surpass the tired spiced latte.
A well-known British chef and international culinary superstar is back with Jamie Oliver’s Comfort Food: The Ultimate Weekend Cookbook, a compendium of hearty-but-healthy recipes perfect for the home cook. Each recipe includes the preparation time and the caloric intake per serving, in addition to attractive photographs of the foods. Oliver states in the introduction that these recipes are intended for a leisurely experience, to celebrate and savor, and not simply for the everyday routine. Respected for his charge to improve school lunch menus worldwide, the chef returns to his roots with this cookbook to pore over and plan cold-weather weekend meals around.
It’s October, and that means it’s time to carve the pumpkins, get out the spooky decorations and get the candy ready for the trick-or-treaters. It’s also a time for great Halloween-themed picture books! Stories that feature our television friends are always popular with the kids, but Sesame Street: Happy Halloween!, written by Lillian Jaine and brightly illustrated by Ernie Kwiat, has an added treat for grown-ups. One by one, Elmo, Big Bird and the rest of the monsters from Sesame Street rap upon the Count’s castle door to visit him on Halloween. After all ten of the friends arrive, they hear another tap, tap, tapping. “Deep into that darkness peering, long they stood there wondering, fearing.” Who could it be? With literary elements from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” the lilting cadence of the text makes this a great story to read with your kids and discover the identity of the final guest coming to join in the spooky fun!
If your children enjoy songs as well as stories, then there are two great new picture books by Helen Ketteman to share! The Ghosts Go Haunting lends itself to be sung to the tune of “The Ants Go Marching.” At M.T. Tombs Elementary, things are getting a bit spooky as the ghosts go haunting one by one, black cats go hissing six by six and even the zombies are stumbling ten by ten looking for brains all over the school! With green faced witches and big eared goblins, Adam Records pictures are lively and fun. Ketteman’s other sing-along Halloween story is At the Old Haunted House, with darkly delightful illustrations by Nate Wragg. Anyone familiar with the children’s song “Over in the Meadow,” may find themselves singing the text of this story to your wee witchy one.