Dear reader, life is too short for crap books.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Everything's Fine, But It's Not Fine: 1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose

1 Dead in Attic by Chris Rose (Aug. 2007)

I posted this review during the Blogathon, but since the post was only on top for 30 minutes, and since the book is astonishingly good, very important, and soon to be released, I thought I'd reprint it.

A reporter for the Times-Picayune since 1984, Rose has covered everything from the city's crime to its nightlife, and despite being a Yankee transplant, it's hard to imagine anyone with deeper pride in and love for New Orleans.

In the days immediately following Katrina, Rose and other reporters returned to the city to put out a paper, covering the news from their bicycles. By now, everyone has seen the images from the Lower Ninth Ward and the Superdome, and knows about the colossal, nightmarish tragedy of incompetence that followed on the heels of the storm. But what Rose writes about in his columns is a tragedy of a different sort.

After the Convention Center and the Superdome were evacuated, after the floodwaters subsided, the remaining population of New Orleans set about the task of putting their lives back together. The columns, published between 2005 and 2006, compiled in 1 Dead in Attic describe exactly what that process means, and the toll that it took on those who chose to rebuild in the face of civil unrest, civic inaction, and several kinds of bureaucratic hell. And to read Rose's columns is to watch a witty, intelligent, empathetic man slowly crack up under the burdens of stress, heartbreak, frustration, and loss.

In a straightforward and unapologetic voice, Rose writes about the "thousand yard stare" of survivors, the uncontrollable crying jags. The gamut of ugly, messy human emotion that rears its head after "the Thing" has range as well as teeth, and Rose's stories embody the gratitude, gallows humor, sadness, desperation, pettiness, and rage welling up in himself and those around him. Some of these stories are easier to get through than others.

In "Enough To Feed an Army," Rose describes finding a freezer-full of perfectly intact and gorgeous steaks a week after the storm, which he and friends cook up for the California National Guard to say thank you. It's a sincere, beautiful story, devoid of any schmaltziness. And there are other stories where Rose can't help but wonder at the wonder of it all. To be alive, to have hope, to go to Jazzfest is sometimes enough. Except when it isn't.

Despair peeks around the corners of a seemingly humorous column about going through airport security with a suitcase containing 15 naked Barbie dolls for his daughter while she and the rest of his family stay in Maryland with his parents. Later in the book, as post-traumatic stress and depression set in, Rose's humorous stories become scary-funny.

He accosts a random stranger he catches littering, participates in a passive-aggressive neighborhood refrigerator-dumping war, blacks out while covering a story and spends an afternoon on a sidewalk drifting in and out of consciousness. Rose milks these stories for laughs, and sometimes you catch yourself smiling even as a little voice in the back of your head says, "This isn't funny."

These stories culminate in Rose's widely syndicated essay on his decision to get help for depression, "Hell and Back." It's a remarkable piece of writing, and you can read it here.

The book is a must-read for those seeking to understand the aftermath of the storm, beyond FEMA trailers and the Superdome - the real day-to-day in a post-Katrina New Orleans. Tucked in there as well is a subtle message to the rest of the country about what New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast need today, almost two years after the storm.

In one column, Rose writes, "Tell them that New Orleans is still the best city in America. Tell them to come see for themselves, that we're happy, hopeful, joyful, and celebratory still. Then tell them this: New Orleans is a broken, suffering mess, weakened and scared... Got that? It's simple: Everything is fine here. But it's not fine."

More of Rose's column are available at

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