Category Archives: ink & paper

Time and Space and Everything in Between

Okay, okay, you got me. Last week’s Friday Ephemera totally got derailed by my unexpectedly awesome and busy weekend. Really, it would make more sense to do, oh say, a Wednesday Ephemera feature, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But I’ve vowed to myself to get back on the wagon with them this week, and I think I’m going to write several at once this week so that I always have one handy in case unexpected photoshoots and epic bounce nights get in the way again.

But right now, since it’s Monday and not Friday, I want to talk about something different. This weekend I was preparing for one of the summer creative writing classes that I teach at CFTA. In the adult class this week, we’re going to be talking about the difference between setting and atmosphere, and how both of those elements factor into our writing. In Nikki’s Totally Made Up Fiction Writer’s Dictionary, those two terms are defined as:

SETTING: the actual time, place, time of day, and weather conditions in which a story takes place

ATMOSPHERE: the feelings and mood that the setting evokes

Practically speaking, the setting of [pretty much every] Edgar Allen Poe story is a foggy, stormy night in 19th century New England. The atmosphere suggested by that setting (and enhanced by the specific details given) is gloomy and ominous. Both the setting and the atmosphere work together to highlight the main character’s loneliness, madness, etc. and you get the feeling that it contributes to their ultimate decision to murder their aging relative or dismember their pet demon-cat. A well-rendered setting/atmosphere takes on a force of its own in the narrative; it digs its heels in and does enough heavy lifting to make it the unsung hero of many a novel. At some point you realize that the story couldn’t conceivably happen in any other time or place than the one described. It would be like removing the one deceptively-loose looking Jenga piece towards the bottom that sends the whole tower crashing to the ground.

Try to imagine The Great Gatsby without New York.

East of Eden without California.

Beloved without the Deep South.

Impossible, right?

One of the reasons I think rendering setting and atmosphere can be challenging is because it is so subtle and subliminal. We tend to take it for granted, and that got me thinking about the ways in which we interact with our real-life settings: the rooms, houses, neighborhoods, cities, countries, and hemispheres we inhabit. I realized that settings generate atmospheres in real life just like they do in fiction, and that very often I remain oblivious as to how the world around me is shaping my mood and outlook. But it is there, under the surface, subtle but powerful.

My fellow New Orleanians will back me up when I say that in the first year after Hurricane Katrina, the setting of flooded streets, destroyed homes, and deserted neighborhoods produced an atmosphere that was palpable. Sorrow pulsed like a heartbeat in my city, and you could see its effect on everyone’s faces. We were very aware then. But more years passed and the intensity of the feeling subsided…or maybe we just got used to it. Absorbed it somehow. Then along came 2010 and the Saints‘ first Superbowl appearance and win in NFL history. The atmosphere intensity was back, but this time it was way down on the other end of the emotional spectrum. Instead of sorrow, there was jubilation vibrating through the streets. Instead of hopelessness, there was optimism and rejuvenation. We felt it lifting our steps like a fall breeze, and it influenced everything from the fate of marriages to how you greeted the cashier at the grocery store.

Nowadays, I feel like my setting is a lot more balanced–there are pleasant details and ugly ones, places of promise and alleys still littered with ghosts. I can tend to get stuck deep in my own head much of the time, but I’ve been trying to step outside of myself long enough to take the pulse of my neighborhood. To see if I can read the barometer of this human atmosphere. How is Treme feeling today? How is New Orleans feeling? Louisiana? America?

As a Christian, this exercise helps me pray for my surroundings in a more sincere way. Kind of like finally shutting up in a conversation you’ve been dominating to discover that the other person has so much to say. As a writer, it teaches me to keep exploring the relationship between setting and atmosphere–to dissect it like a cadaver to learn as much as possible.

I guess this post wandered a little farther into the abstract than usual, but to me these are fun concepts to think about. Yes, I’m probably a weirdo. Yes, this is pretty much the only thing my English degree was good for.

And as long as I can write and teach and have nerdy conversations with my writer friends at Parkview, I think I’m okay with that.

- Nikki

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Bizarre Book Review #2: The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman

It’s always been funny me how often that, in the process of becoming a household name, a person’s actual life story fades into anonymity. In Houdini’s case, his name is now synonymous with the art of escape, and very often the actual word for used to describe it, i.e. “That girl at the bar last night was a total Houdini. After I told her about my third nipple, she vanished.” Most people, however, would struggle to tell you anything else about Houdini. Like most legends, the actuality of his life and career has been distilled down to an iconic image of a man emerging from a steamer trunk draped in opened shackles. It was this realization, plus my constant fascination with all things turn of the century, circus, and vaudeville, that prompted me to pick The Secret Life of Houdini off the shelf of the cruise ship library that Marc and I raided while on our honeymoon. I spent the next several days totally absorbed in the thing–it was the perfect distraction from all those ill-advised bikinis and wrinkled military tattoos on the lido deck.

To tell the truth, I was surprised that I enjoyed the book so much. I love memoirs, but I’m not at all a biography person. All too often I find the tone boring and the narrator too distant to really bring the person to life for me. This was not at all the case here, although I guess you can’t give Kalush and Sloman all the credit–they pretty much would have have to consciously try to make a life like Houdini’s sound boring. Even more than learning about Houdini’s development into the greatest magician of his day and the thrills and close calls of his escape acts, though, I enjoyed the intimate details of Houdini’s life and personality that are offered up. And maybe that’s got a lot to do with the fact that Houdini was nothing like the man I had been envisioning.

Instead of being a pompous and egotistical vaudeville diva, Houdini may well have been the nicest guy to ever walk the face of the earth. Seriously, this guy was like the golden retriever of show business. Despite the nature of his career as a manipulator of people’s perceptions and imaginations, he was widely known for his honesty and integrity in his personal affairs and business dealings, even to the point of getting taken advantage of. He was an intensely loyal person, both to his family (Hungarian Jewish immigrants whose money woes were well taken care of after Houdini’s success) and to his wife Bess, who he married as a very young  man, sticking by her through her pain over not being able to conceive and her lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. Possibly my favorite example of Houdini’s giant Care Bear heart, however, is contained in this excerpt from the book regarding Houdini’s remorse over a coincidentally correct prediction during his brief stint as a fake medium:

“Joe says he’s in a happy place. And he says ‘Don’t cry, Momma. There’ll be another one soon to take my place,'” Bess relayed.

The fact was Mrs. Osbourne was pregnant, a shrewd guess by Houdini since they were a young, grief-stricken couple. After the seance, an irate Harry Osbourne came backstage to give Houdini a thrashing.

“How could we know of your family circumstances if the medium was not clairvoyant?” Houdini asked him. Then he had Bess rattle off a number of other family secrets that had Osbourne mystified as he left the opera house. This incident made an indelible mark on Houdini. Twenty-six years later, Hallie Nichols, who had been in the opera house that night, went to see Houdini give a lecture on Spiritualism in Kansas City. Receiving a note that she had been in his audience in Garnett years earlier, Houdini asked her to come backstage after the show. She dined with Bess and Harry, and Houdini asked her if she was still in contact with the Osbournes. She said she was and gave Houdini their new California address. He eventually sent the Osbournes a long letter of abject apology for trifling with their emotions.

I mean, you just can’t help but like a guy like that, right? What supposedly sets The Secret Life of Houdini apart from other Houdini biographies are its conspiracy theory claims that Houdini worked as a spy for the British government and that he was eventually poisoned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s thug gang of Spiritualists, but for me those speculations came in a far second to its ability to paint an intimate and rich portrait of the man behind the handcuffs. Because, really, if after reading a biography I don’t feel like I’ve just sat at a coffee shop with the person and had them pour their soul out to me over croissants and lattes, I don’t see how you can call it a success.

The Secret Life of Houdini was exactly that, and if you’re looking for a delicious beach book this summer that also satisfies your inner steampunk, this is your ticket.

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Friday Ephemera: How Two Teenage Cousins from Cottingley Duped Sherlock Holmes

Okay, so technically they duped the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but I think that counts as besting him by proxy. In any case, allow me to set the scene for you: It’s 1920. Photography as we know it has only existed for 85 years, and has been in wide use as a part of the average person’s life for less than 60. There is no Photoshop. There is no “airbrushing.” You open the December edition of The Strand and see an article written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a famous Spiritualist in the John-Travolta-Scientology tradition, and you see these:

Frances Griffiths (left) and Elsie Wright, the teenage cousins who produced photographs that they claimed they took of the fairies they visited in the glen near their house in Cottingley

What would you think? In this Victorian version of the Bat Boyof Piggly Wiggly checkout lanes, would you accept the seemingly impossible? Or would you dismiss the images as a hoax, even if you couldn’t figure out how it would have been done?

The English public was divided over the photographs. Novelist and poet Maurice Hewlett joked that “knowing children, and knowing that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has legs, I have decided that the Miss Carpenters [Elsie and Frances's alias] have pulled one of them.” On the other hand, several photography experts gave the negatives their stamp of authenticity, with one saying “the two negatives are entirely genuine, unfaked photographs … [with] no trace whatsoever of studio work involving card or paper models.”

Of course, that expert was hired by Edward Gardner, a leading member of the Theosophical Society , who saw the Cottingley photographs as portending this rather 2012-ish line of thought, way before 2012 was cool: “The fact that two young girls had not only been able to see fairies, which others had done, but had actually for the first time ever been able to materialise them at a density sufficient for their images to be recorded on a photographic plate, meant that it was possible that the next cycle of evolution was underway.” It was Gardner’s interest and promotion of the photographs that led them to be seen by Doyle in a Spiritualist publication called, ironically given the nature of photography, Light.

Doyle arranged for Gardner to visit Elsie and Frances’s home, where he encouraged the girls to take more pictures, resulting in the second pair of mystical photographs:

Doyle’s response was ecstatic: “My heart was gladdened when out here in far Australia I had your note and the three wonderful pictures which are confirmatory of our published results. When our fairies are admitted other psychic phenomena will find a more ready acceptance … We have had continued messages at seances for some time that a visible sign was coming through.”

It wasn’t until 1983 that Elsie and Frances admitted publicly that the photos were fakes, using cardboard cut-outs from illustrations in a children’s book called Princess Mary’s Gift Book and propped up with hatpins. Interestingly enough, though, Frances maintained to her death that the fifth and final photograph was real:

In a television interview in 1985, Elsie said that it was their embarrassment over fooling such a brilliant man as Doyle that kept them from revealing the truth sooner. In the same interview, Frances gave a statement that I think is the most profound tidbit of this entire fascinating story, and says so much about human nature and imagination:

I never even thought of it as being a fraud – it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in. They wanted to be taken in.

Magically yours,

Nikki

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To learn more about Spiritualism, fairies, and fakery:

The Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Society on the Cottingley fairies

“The Secrets of Two Famous Hoaxers” in the New York Times

Photographing Fairies

The History of Spiritualism

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Bizarre Book Review: Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn

Here’s a little etymology tidbit that was news to me until I picked up this novel: we get our modern word “geek” from a circus term of the early 1900’s that referred to sideshow freaks. (Hence the phrase “freaks and geeks”…it’s all coming together for me, folks!)

Geek Love, then, both does and does not deliver what it promises in its title. Yes, it is about circus geeks, but it is more about the complex, tragically twisted hearts of main characters who end up reminding you more of yourself than you would ever admit out loud. Yes, it is about love, but it is more about how hate, jealousy, ambition, and selfishness vie for control in even our most intimate relationships.

The book opens up with Miss Olympia Binewski, albino hunch-backed dwarf and middle child, recounting her favorite childhood memory: her circus ring-leader father telling his children how special they are. They are special, we learn, because Lil and Al Binewski have spent years experimenting with a wide concoction of drugs in order to breed their own freak show. The results? Arturo the flipper-extremedied Aqua Boy, Iphegenia and Electra, Siamese twins, Olympia herself, and Chick, who is outwardly normal but possesses a powerful hidden talent.

As the Fabulon Circus traverses every backroad and farm town in America, the Binewski children must navigate their adolescence in a world that is both intensely isolated and horrifyingly gritty. For Oly, this means struggling to find her role as one of the “less useful” talents of the family and reconciling her intense love for her brother Arty with her knowledge that his manipulative tendencies are leading the entire family down a treacherous path, especially when a cult following–of people looking to “shed” their limbs and be more like The Great Arturo–begins to form.

Dunn explains in an interview with The A.V. Club that “There are really two primary preoccupations of mine involved in this book. One of course is this concept of the cult, and the how-come of that. And the other was the long debate of nature vs. nurture.” In my opinion, Dunn explores those topics voraciously in this novel, without holding back or editing out any of the ugly bits. The result is a narrative that is gripping, funny, scary, and familiar. One thing that surprised me when I went to research the book after reading it was the publication date: 1989. I had been guessing far more contemporary, which is in part due to Dunn’s intentional lack of decade-specific technology–the story could have taken place in 1950 or 1990–but also speaks to Dunn’s ability to latch onto themes that our culture has continued to be fascinated with over two decades later. Genetic manipulation? Total hot topic. Cult icon followings? All over the place. Dysfunctional families? Well…that’s kind of timeless. In any case, Geek Love has aged gracefully, without losing any of its relevance in the 21st century.

Following Dunn down the rabbit hole of this book, you will encounter telekinetic toddlers, Machiavellian circus performers, assassinations, an amputee cult, and more grotesque physical deformities than you can shake a stick at, but what saves this book from being a total gimmicky waste of time is that Dunn doesn’t rest the weight of her story on these surface elements; rather, she uses them as a colorful and haunting canvas on which to paint a very universal story. In the end, Geek Love is about family, desire, and the intricacies of morality–something resonates with all of us, freaks and norms alike.

Learn more about Geek Love and circus freaks:

Interview with Katherine Dunn

Geek Love on Amazon

Show History: a ridiculously large compendium of sideshow acts

 

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Holiday Finery

I thought I’d post a few of the photos Marc and I took on Christmas, showing off a few of the new additions to our wardrobe. Over the past year, we’ve developed a growing obsession with both vintage things (particularly Victorian era through the Great Depression) and old-fashioned craftsmanship. In an effort to both reduce our consumption and fill our home and closets with things that we truly enjoy, we’ve gotten rid of the vast majority of our poorly-made clothes from Target and Wal-Mart and have start replacing them with a few carefully chosen vintage or handmade articles of clothing that will actually stand the test of time and have the stitches disintegrate after the third wash.

Both the hats in these photos were purchased from Shushan’s Hat Shop in Jackson Square. I highly recommend this store–it’s family owned, and every hat Marc has bought from them has more than proved its value. The dress I got for Christmas from Modcloth.com, a good online source for kitschy and vintage women’s fashion. This is the first dress I’ve gotten from them, so I’m crossing my fingers that the handiwork is worth the somewhat hefty pricetag. So far the fabric feels sturdy and the stitching looks good…we’ll see how the report is after a little tough love tromping around the Quarter.

Speaking of craftsmanship, Marc got me the most AMAZING Christmas gift this year–he pre-ordered one of 1,800 limited edition copies of this book. My good friend Bryan lent me Little, Big by John Crowley a little over a year ago with the promise that it would rock my world, and it quickly became a formidable rival to Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger to be Nikki’s Favorite Book of All Time. If you’ve never heard of it (which is very likely, as it’s considered to be the most under-appreciated fantasy book of the 20th century), I highly recommend it. You don’t even need to like fairies to enjoy it, trust me. I used to think they were stupid.

Nikki

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