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Review: Unfathomable City 

Katie Walenter digs into a beautifully rendered "contemporary atlas" of New Orleans

New Orleans is a city of memory, swamp, mystery, immigrants and industry. Trying to describe it is a vast endeavor and those who love it continually attempt to understand and explain New Orleans as if were a character in their lives.

  The nature of this character is mercurial and often mirrors the perspective of wherever one happens to be. Seeing New Orleans or any city with fresh eyes is possible, but sometimes a shift in vision is usefully rendered with outside assistance.

  San Francisco author Rebecca Solnit visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and observed, documented and interpreted New Orleans. What she found here — the city's deep reverence for ritual, community, living history and celebration — surprised her.

  During that visit, Solnit met native New Orleanian and filmmaker Rebecca Snedeker (By Invitation Only) and found an insightful host in those early post-Katrina days. When she thought of making an atlas for New Orleans — as she had done for San Francisco with Infinite City — she took on Snedeker as a co-editor. They curated an elegant and fascinating volume of maps, essays and artwork in Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (University of California Press).

  In Greek mythology, Atlas was a Titan condemned by Zeus to carry the weight of the celestial sphere on his shoulders. Early creators of atlases took his name, and the term also references the difficulty of their task.

  Early atlases were more than utilitarian collections of maps, charts and illustrations used to describe a particular place or subject. They represented and interpreted the world, and contained whimsical works of art and ornamental flourishes.

  Unfathomable City is a contemporary atlas that follows in this tradition while seeking to classify, interpret and describe some of the elements that constitute New Orleans' character. The atlas is not comprehensive, but it is the beginning of a conversation, a mapping of a beguiling and atmospheric city.

  The book features 22 essays along with maps detailing the intersection of the city's history, culture and geography by employing the personal, historical, scientific and philosophical — sometimes all in one essay — in refreshing ways.

  Contributing authors include Tulane University geographer Richard Campanella, who outlines the origins and expansion of the city's physical environs. Former Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie reflects on the many ways New Orleanians mingle with each other and define themselves. Novelist Nathaniel Rich discusses burying and moving the dead. Eve Abrams writes about live oak corridors and parade routes. Lawyer and author Billy Sothern details his personal landmarks and wanderings, and Shirley Thompson explores the relationship between sugar and slavery in the city.

  Other essays consider seafood, sex, levees, prisons, bounce music, housing projects, coastal communities and the oil industry.

  The atlas often makes connections between seemingly unrelated cultural phenomena and explores how they coexist, often creating new interpretations of the city's varied life, how it changes and yet stays the same.

  Contributing artists include Bunny Matthews, Deborah Luster, Brandan Odums, Hannah Chalew, Jacqueline Bishop and Alison Pebworth. Cartographers Shizue Seigel, Jakob Rosenzweig, Molly Roy, Ben Pease and Campanella created maps that expand on the ideas in the essays.

  The result is intelligent, often beautiful prose and compelling maps in an exciting exploration of the idiosyncratic details, gestures and rituals that determine how people inhabit, love and perceive this elusive and entrancing city.

  The structure of the atlas allows readers to open to any page and delve into a different facet of the city. The text is rich and allows room for one's own memories and contemplations. Solnit and Snedeker created Unfathomable City with the hope that what was left out — what they refer to as a "shadow atlas" — becomes an invitation for readers to continue the project by mapping more of the complex, amorphous nature of New Orleans.


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