6 reading recommendations: Notable Louisiana nonfiction

By: - November 30, 2022 10:32 am
several stacks of books

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This short list of notable, Louisiana-focused nonfiction books might help folks with gift-giving this holiday season. I picked up most of the following books at the public library, so there’s a good chance you can find them at your local branch as well.

I do read novels, but for whatever reason, I have read a lot more nonfiction based in Louisiana over the past year. So this list focuses exclusively on nonfiction books – and it’s probably a little heavy on political content. I’m a political reporter, so that’s a special interest of mine.

“The Earl of Louisiana” By A.J. Liebling (LSU Press) 

This is not just one of my favorite books about Louisiana; it’s one of my favorite books – period.

Author A.J. Liebling chronicles the last several months of Gov. Earl Long’s colorful political career and life. Liebling shadowed Long in the summer of 1959 as Long considered another run for governor. 

The writing can be laugh-out-loud funny while also insightful about Louisiana culture. Liebling explores the eccentricities of Long, a larger-than-life character who used his gubernatorial powers to break himself out of a mental hospital. Political tension over the Black community’s right to vote is a thread throughout the book, which was published in 1961. 

Initially run as a series of articles for the New Yorker, this book is a short read at 250 pages.

“Solitary: Unbroken by Four Decades in Solitary Confinement” By Albert Woodfox (Grove Press)

Author Albert Woodfox, who died earlier this year, is said to have sent more time in solitary confinement than anyone else. He was released from prison six years ago, after spending more than four decades at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

This autobiography is an exhaustive telling of Woodfox’s life, from his childhood in New Orleans to his decades confined in a small cell. Much of it is an unflinching portrayal of life inside Louisiana’s large maximum security prison, which Woodfox describes as violent and degrading.

While serving time for another crime, Woodfox was accused of killing an Angola prison guard. The alleged offense eventually led him to be placed in solitary confinement. Woodfox always insisted he didn’t kill the guard. He said prison staff had targeted him because of his political activities with Black Panther Party. When he was eventually released through a plea deal, it was, in part, because the evidence linking the guard’s murder to Woodfox was thin.   

The book is not just about suffering, though it contains a good bit of it. It’s also about friendship. Woodfox forged relationships with the other two men accused of conspiring to kill the guard that spanned decades, despite years of separation from each other.

This autobiography was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the National Book Award for general nonfiction in 2019. 

Diary of a Misfit: A Memoir and a Mystery” By Casey Parks (Knopf)

This local memoir is the rare one that isn’t set in south Louisiana. Instead, Casey Park spends much of her time in north Louisiana, particularly Monroe and the small town of Delhi. 

The book has been marketed as a mystery centered around a person who may have been transgender and lived in a small Louisiana town, but the heart of it is really Parks’ relationship with her mother.

Parks and her mother struggle through the book to relate to one another, particularly after Parks comes out as an LGBTQIA person. The economic depression of northeastern Louisiana, where Parks’ family lives for much of her life, is a backdrop. The author’s family is poor and struggles to get by during much of her childhood. Most of Parks’ family members only start to thrive once they leave Louisiana and move to another part of the country with more opportunities.

This book should interest LGBTQIA people and those who grew up in north Louisiana. They might recognize the challenges Parks describes around family dysfunction and small town life.

“You Ought to Do a Story About Me” By Ted Jackson (HarperCollins)

Author Ted Jackson’s unlikely friendship with aging football star Jackie Wallace started with a photo assignment for The Times-Picayune. Jackson was sent to take photos of homeless encampments in New Orleans when he encountered Wallace, who was living under a bridge.

“You ought to do a story about me,” Wallace told Jackson. “Because I’ve played in three Super Bowls.”

That meeting kicked off a decades-long friendship between Jackson and Wallace. In his book, Jackson traces Wallace’s stunning high school, college and professional football careers. He also follows Wallace’s descent into drug addiction, periods of sobriety and relapses.

Jackson’s writing is vulnerable and honest. His friendship with Wallace has been frustrating at times, which Jackson doesn’t attempt to hide, but Wallace’s life has been remarkable. The book is frequently inspirational without being saccharine.

Disclosure: Jackson and I worked together at The Times-Picayune.  

“Huey Long” By T. Harry Williams (Knopf)

If you are like me, you might be wary of cracking open a biography that runs over 900 pages. So I have a suggestion: Get the audiobook. I, too, was intimidated by the length and density of this book, but the audio version made it easy for me to consume in more manageable chunks. I found it available through my local library.

There’s not much that can be said about this book that hasn’t already been said. Williams won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award for it. It is the definitive book about the definitive personality in Louisiana politics.

I found the beginning of the book to be its weakest section. At points, aspects of Huey Long’s childhood came across like the origin story of a superhero. The writing really starts to take off when Long’s political career gets underway. It’s an incredible study in unchecked political power. 

This is thought to be a sympathetic portrait of Long, but it includes a fair amount of events that left me with the impression that Long, while fascinating, was also a selfish bully. 

This work could be a relevant read in the current political moment. Louisiana is newly refocused on the Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the state. Long cut his political teeth as a member of the PSC, and a good portion of the book is dedicated to how he used that body to leverage political power. 

“Long Shot: A Soldier, a Senator, a Serious Sin, an Epic Louisiana Election” By Jeremy Alford and Tyler Bridges (The Lisburn Press)

There’s no better way to get ready for the 2023 election season than by reading the definitive work on last open race for governor. This book focuses on the campaigns of John Bel Edwards and former U.S. Sen. David Vitter as they competed to become Louisiana’s next governor in 2015.

I covered this campaign, and even I have to remind myself how unlikely it seemed that Edwards would win this race. Vitter was a sitting U.S. senator and a powerful force in the Louisiana Republican Party. He had all of the money in the race, and even though he had been the subject of prostitution scandal, he had won statewide office since that news broke.

By comparison, Edwards was a Democrat from a small town in a rural part of the state that had never produced a governor. He came from a long line of sheriffs, but I wasn’t convinced Louisiana’s conservative law enforcement community was ready to back a Democrat for statewide office.

The two authors are local journalists, and they do a great job of setting up the twists and turns of this race. Remember when Vitter’s campaign got caught spying on his local sheriff at a Jefferson Parish coffee shop? What about when the head of the Louisiana Democratic Party tried to convince Edwards to drop out of the governor’s race that he eventually won?

Like I said, this should be a fun read ahead of the 2023 political season. 

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Julie O'Donoghue
Julie O'Donoghue

Julie O’Donoghue is a senior reporter for the Louisiana Illuminator and producer of the Louisiana Illuminator podcast. She’s received awards from the Virginia Press Association and Louisiana-Mississippi Associated Press. Julie covered state government and politics for NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune for six years. She’s also covered government and politics in Missouri, Virginia and Washington D.C. Julie is a proud D.C. native and Washington Capitals hockey fan. She and her partner, Jed, live in Baton Rouge. She has two stepchildren, Quinn and Steven.