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In the Spirit of New Orleans

Debra Shriver

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Nov 29, 2012
Category: Travel

I was high on New Orleans when I finished Debra Shriver’s book, so I logged on to JetBlue and checked the fare from New York to New Orleans.

Would you believe it is as low as $197, one way, tax included?

Boy, I wish I did not know that.

If you lay your hands on a copy of “In the Spirit of New Orleans,” I hope you live far from an airport that has cheap flights to that city, for Debra Shriver’s book is so full of positivity they ought to build a shrine to her on Bourbon Street.

Part of the attraction of this book and this city is that, as a writer says in these pages, “This is possibly the least American town in the country.” I know we live in the greatest nation on God’s green earth, but have you looked out the window lately? Most of America is a giant strip mall. Not a bit of eye candy as far as the eye can see.

New Orleans, in contrast, gives you a glorious past. Okay, somewhat sanitized. Just as New York is an urban theme park, New Orleans gives you Dixieland strut and swagger without the brutality and racism. Its people are stunningly resilient — there are 300 new restaurants since Katrina. Across race and class, they seem to realize that they are all in show business, and they play their parts admirably. As does Debra Shriver. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here.]

Ms. Shriver works at the Hearst Tower in New York. (Disclosure: I occasionally write for Hearst.) But she and her husband have restored a house in New Orleans; she has recorded that story in her beguiling first book, Stealing Magnolias: Tales from a New Orleans Courtyard. If I had to lay down money, I’d say that she would much prefer to vote there. A twelth-generation Southerner, she writes with the verve of a native. And the imagination: You’ll find a recipe for a wicked seafood gumbo here — and also one for the city’s official cocktail, the Sazerac (bitters, rye whiskey, absinthe, sugar cube — yikes!).

A word on the photography: This photo editor will work again, ditto the designer. Here’s a two-page spread of a beautiful restored red-and-white paddle-wheeler. A few pages later, a spread of a giant oak tree, festooned with Spanish Moss. An old black-and-white cityscape has been drenched in red. There’s a picture of the domed vault at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church that makes you want to rush there and lay on your back. And a close-up of Fats Domino’s right hand, the pinky sporting a ring with a rhinestone-encrusted piano. And more. Much more.

Debra Shriver’s New Orleans is a dreamscape, heaven with a back beat. She doesn’t ignore Katrina, but she takes it as much as metaphor as reality. Avoiding a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward — still largely abandoned, with only a quarter of its pre-Katrina population — turns out to be good sense. A tourist bus that included that blighted zone on its tour of New Orleans was recently fined $150. Who knew that “disaster voyeurism” is a crime?

If you’ve got friend or family with a trip ahead, this is the ideal gift book. But don’t, for heaven’s sakes, crack it open if travel is not in your immediate future.