Mystery House

Southern Reading Challenge: First Review

City of Refuge, by Tom Piazza.

Reading this book was a rather odd experience.  I enjoyed it.  I did, and yet, the entire time I had the nagging feeling that it could have been so much better.  It skims the surface of the characters and their stories, as if afraid to plunge in and dive down through the murk to discover what matters.  Now that I think about it, it’s almost like a first draft, and I enjoyed it the way I enjoy a good first draft:  knowing that the essential elements are all there, but recognizing that the author hasn’t played with them long enough to figure out what they really mean.  In other words, I read it knowing what it could be, wishing all the while for one more draft, a literary do-over.

City of Refuge book

My gut reaction is that Mr. Piazza wrote this too quickly.  Or perhaps he doesn’t have the literary chops; I don’t know.  But I never truly felt the power of the storm, the horror and confusion, the devastating loss.  It’s all there, but it’s summarized.  Like a TV news report.  Too neatly wrapped up.  No emotions that we aren’t told we’re supposed to have.  There are some good characters here, but we don’t really get to know them as we should, and we never truly see and feel the situation through their eyes.

I wanted to know them.  I wanted to be scared and stunned and blown away in a manner that went beyond what I saw on TV about hurricane Katrina.  I wasn’t.  And yet, at the same time, it’s a fast, entertaining book, and I’m glad I read it.  It’s full of intriguing little details about New Orleans (like the Zulu coconuts).  It was good enough that I didn’t put it down and walk away, as I have with quite a few books lately.  But not good enough for me to recommend to a friend with a gushing “You absolutely have to read this.” Uh uh.

I’m both surprised and not surprised that this book has gotten such tremendous acclaim (including reaching the final round in the Tournament of Books, head to head with Toni Morrison’s latest).  It’s exactly the sort of thing we’re all supposed to respond to, told with just enough skill to squeak by and keep the plot moving.  But overall, I’m sorry, it’s sloppy.  I’ve never been very good at doing things or responding the way I’m supposed to, and the fact that everybody else loves something doesn’t mean I will.  I kept rewriting sections of this book in my head as I read it, dreaming up imagery that might have been nice…..and that means I wasn’t in the story.  The writer should have worked harder to keep me in the story, in the moment, to make me worry about his characters.  I should have been a sodden mess when I finished it, and I regret to say that my eyes remained dry.

My verdict?  Read it if you’re intrigued with the subject.  But don’t believe the hype.  It just ain’t all that.

My Southern-ness rating:  5 out of 10


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  1. * Chris says:

    Oh, I hate books that leave me with that sensation…

    Posted 9 years, 1 month ago
  2. * Carrie K says:

    Most hyped books aren’t all that. It does sound like an interesting pretext, if not the execution.
    So. Finished your Circumnavigated Cardigan yet? bought more yarn/patterns?

    Posted 9 years, 1 month ago
  3. * yolanda says:

    I haven’t heard of this author . Where did you find out about him?

    Posted 9 years, 1 month ago
  4. * Guinifer says:

    Yep. I can be stubborn that way. Never did read the DaVinci Code.

    Posted 9 years, 1 month ago
  5. * maggie says:

    Sounds like you may have hit the nail on the head with, “Mr. Piazza wrote this too quickly.” He was one of the rush books after the storm with his “Why New Orleans Matters” and I spent an enjoyable afternoon listening to him and other Katrina writers in 2005 at ALA in Nawlins. Another panelist had just won a Pulitzer for newspaper team coverage of the event. But, they all said there was a rush to get books out there (spring 2005) because readers were eager to purchase. Possibly, he was approached (again) to get some fiction on the shelves prior to another September huricane date?
    Just the opposite has happened with the twin towers. Books were being held back because the buying public was not ready to revisit the terrorism. I also enjoyed another afternoon (ALA related) with writers who incorporated the twin towers in their fiction.

    Posted 9 years, 1 month ago

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