Archive for the ‘Letters From New Orleans book’ Category

Sorry for the melodramatic headline. But “coupla stray notes” didn’t seem adequate.

First: Shortly after returning from our trip to N.O. in connection with the very enjoyable Hypothetical Development Organization opening, I was pleased to receive in the mail the book Louisiana Rambles: Exploring America’s Cajun and Creole Heartland, by Ian McNulty. I managed to sped a bit of time with it this weekend, and enjoyed what I read quite a bit. There’s a piece about the holiday bonfires upriver (also subject of an essay in LfNO), and a nice travelogue about the Angola rodeo — something we attended and I always wish I had written about… but I never did. There are also several pieces about exploring the musical culture of regions around N.O. that I haven’t yet read but am really looking forward to, because those are adventures we never quite found time for during our time in the area.

Anyway I intend to make more use of Mr. McNulty’s observations and explorations on our next trip to Louisiana.

Second note: Another essay in LfNO, which I’ve referred back to often, concerned Claiborne Avenue and I-10. I’ve mentioned there’s talk of somehow reverting this area to some sort of pre-Interstate version of itself (presumably by destroying the freeway, that’s my excuse for the “destruction” headline), but I see from this T-P article that the current state of things is that a study is still being planned. There’s something very New Orleans about that…

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This is pretty cool: Virtual Memories/Gil Roth names LfNO among his “favorite nonfiction books of the decade” just ended! The full list of fiction and nonfiction titles, with concise commentary, is here.


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Pic by Steve Witchbeam/WFMU blog; click it for more.

E told me several weeks ago she’d read that the Mother In Law Lounge (a setting explored in LfNO) was closing. There’s a nice batch of pictures of the exterior on the WFMU blog, here.  Steve Witchbeam writes:

Under the impression it was still a happening venue I headed over there with Crow Hill Gnostic Temple’s Sister Jillian to check it out Saturday afternoon. It was weird, even though the outside is covered with vibrant, beautiful and exquisite murals it seemed like the life was gone. We took some pics (below!), hung out and moved on. Sunday afternoon we happened to bump into a person featured on one of the murals, the world class puppet mistress Miss Pussycat, and she informed us we missed the last show there by just a week.

Mr. Witchbeam also points to this (brief) interview with Daniel Fuselier, the artist who painted the Lounge’s murals.

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Kal Spelletich, an artist who makes “machines and robots,” and a central figure in the “3% Theory” essay in Letters From New Orleans, is trying to raise money to bring his work from San Francisco to New York for a gallery show. He’s doing this through Kickstarter so there are premiums if you choose to donate, here.

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Turns out I have two more items bookmarked from the previously mentioned Sociological Images blog, so I’ll just quickly clear the decks here.

First: In this earlier post I mentioned the documentary about Mardi Gras beads (Mardi Gras: Made In China). This post on Sociological Images checks in on the subject of beads: The writer, though charmed by the glistening objects dripping from trees well past Carnival season, got curious about where they came from etc. In addition to citing the documentary, she quotes from a book called Authentic New Orleans: “Workers in China sew the plastic beads for $4.25 a day, or about $85 a month. Local krewes contract with U.S. bead distributors to order customized beads to sell to individual members,” etc.

Not exactly a huge revelation to anybody vaguely familiar with Mardi Gras, or, you know, the modern economy, that this is the underlying system. But still.

In a different post, the writer cites the same book in saying that “beads for boobs” began in the 1970s. You may recall this earlier post here summarizing Mardi Gras-related research said something similar and offered various theories of actual scholars on the the underlying “meanings” of this “ritual.”

As you may know, I have some thoughts about bead-mania (from the perspective of scrumming for beads as a parade-watcher, and being the target of bead-hungry onlookers while parading in Krewe du Vieux) in a chapter of Letters From New Orleans.

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Forgive me, if you will, for posting this comment about Letters From New Orleans from the blog “Where Y’at? The New Orleans Course.” I think you’ll see why I can’t resist:

A few years back, after I returned from my first post-Katrina visit to New Orleans, I picked up a slim book called Letters from New Orleans, by New York Times Magazine columnist Rob Walker. The book is a collection of e-mails that Walker wrote to friends after he relocated to New Orleans for several years prior to the great deluge.

I found it such a remarkable and succinct document for explaining such a bizarre and misunderstood place to the rest of America. Enough so, that when teaching about New Orleans, I have students read it right away; first week, first paper. It provides the uninitiated with the pegs of understanding upon which they can hang whatever content or concepts I throw at them afterwards.

Very nice!

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In several essays in Letters From New Orleans, I explored some of the distinct, yet interlocking, versions of Mardi Gras that unfold every year. So I know that Carnival is rich territory. But can it be addressed with academic rigor? Perhaps so.

The Miller-McCune website (I have no idea what that it is — it says “turning research into solutions,” whatever that means) offered up several summaries of actual scholarly Mardi Gras research recently. Specifically:

  1. Studying Drunken Promiscuity At Mardi Gras.” This studies reveals that men tend to overestimate the likelihood that they’ll hook up during Mardi Gras, and women tend to underestimate the degree to which they’ll do the same. Surprising? No. But this detail is noteworthy: “Almost one-quarter of the men reported having at least 16 drinks per sitting; 15 percent of women reported the same.” Wow.
  2. The History of Mardi Gras Beadwhores.” Scholar discover “female festivalgoers who expose their breasts and, in turn, have beads or other small gifts showered down upon them.” You don’t say. Anyway there is again one interesting detail: The practice “began in the late 1970s, but its occurrence sharply increased from 1987 to 1991.” What do you all think — is that right?
  3. The Evolution of Mardi Gras Rituals” is likely to seem more surprising, at least to people who are aware of Mardi Gras primarily via TV news clips of Bourbon Street. The scholars have apparently laid out the case that the day’s rituals revolve largely around affirming and performing class structures and societal norms: “Masked aristocrats, riding through thousands of people on raised platforms, casting beads, doubloons and other tokens into the crowd. In this allegory, the upper class — the hereditary elite of an agrarian social order — offers gifts to the shouting, scrambling peasants.” Actually … I think there’s some truth to this, and I sort of get at it in a different way in the book. That said, I also think this is just one layer of Mardi Gras, that is completely irrelevant to many participants. Also I think the researchers’ further assertion that the emergence of flashing for beads is a form of empowerment is ridiculous. “Participants gain control over the conditions of the exchange,” they write. C’mon. To the extent flashers gain “control,” they are taking it from other, non-flashing “peasants,” not from the “aristocrats,” who continue to perform their end of the transaction in precisely the same manner and on the same scale as before, but now receive even more affirmation of their own power. (I’m just addressing this stuff on the researchers’ own terms, you understand. And yes, I am very, very aware that only a small section of a typical parade route is likely to be the site of actual flashing, most of which involves people from other places, so really the whole aristocrats-and-peasants thing doesn’t really apply to this segment of the crowd at all, in my view.)
  4. Finally: “Unmasking Mardi Gras Deviants” puts Mardi Gras in the context of “sociologist Erving Goffman’s 1963 theory of ‘backspaces’ — places where people can escape the glare of judgmental neighbors and bring out hidden sides of their personalities.” The practice of masking underscores this behavior. I think that’s basically right, and in fact it’s kind of a theme of Letters From New Orleans, recurring in each of the essays related to Carnival, and pretty explicitly articulated in the closing chapter, “The Schloegel Findings.” But check this out: The scholar who wrote this paper “spent a total of 500 hours at seven New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations, attending every year from 1994 through 2000.” That was his research! Sheesh, maybe I should’ve gone to grad school after all!

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In one of the essays in Letters From New Orleans, I made passing mention of the origins of Mardi Gras beads — murky, made in China, and beyond that I didn’t want to know the details, if you know what I mean.

Well, someone else did want to know the details.

MARDI GRAS: MADE IN CHINA follows the story of four teenage workers who sew plastic beads together with needles and thread and also pull them from a machine. Each story provides insight into their economic realities, self-sacrifice, dreams of a better life, and the severe discipline imposed by living and working in a factory compound.

More here.

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We got to spend a few days in New Orleans recently, mostly in connection with stuff E was doing at PhotoNOLA. It’s amazing how far that event has come in just a couple of years — kudos to folks like Jennifer Shaw for their determination and success. Thanks to a busy schedule and some supremely bad weather, we didn’t get to see everyone I wanted to (in fact I didn’t even manage to find time to alert some people I wanted to see that I was in town!), but we did get to catch up with a few old friends and have a bit of a look around the city. Most notably, perhaps, we accidentally encountered the Brad Pitt-backed housing going up in a section of the Lower Ninth Ward. Pretty interesting. A few days later, I find I’m thinking about when I can go back. Ah well.

Anyway, a few New Orleans-related links:

  • Here’s a post and some videos of a little Treme second-lining. Pretty entertaining. One of the things that’s certainly palpable in New Orleans right now is Saints-mania. I caught the final few minutes of the win over Atlanta in a restaurant bar, and I’ve never heard so much “Who Dat”-ing. (This was before the current, um, losing streak.)
  • Speaking of the Saints, here’s a post about “the SuperSaints power of the Ernie & Antoinette K-Doe Sofa Pillow.” Letters from New Orleans readers will guess that I am inclined to believe in this.
  • Speaking of books about New Orleans, the mightymighty BoingBoing has given a coveted guest-blogger spot to Ned Sublette, whose book about New Orleans I mentioned the other day. (I still haven’t read it.) He’s posted some nice photos, here.
  • Oh, and I guess speaking of all of the above, a quick word of thanks to Jennifer Shaw for having copies of Letters from New Orleans given to various photo-world bigshots serving as reviewers at PhotoNOLA, and to G.K. Darby for providing said copies.

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Sassy’s, originally uploaded by R. Walker.

If you recall the recent post here about New Orleans sign-painter Lester Carey, you know I’m interested in hand-painted signs on local businesses — and Savannah also has its share. Here and there I’ve taken snapshots of a few, but most as part of my Savannah MLK set, gathered in connection with the MLK BLVD project (which like this site is a spinoff from LfNO). Examples above and below.

Walk-Ins Welcome, originally uploaded by R. Walker.

Anyway so I was disappointed to learn after the fact that there was a lecture on Savannah’s hand-painted, apparently buttressed by slides and some actual information about the artists. And we missed it! Thus I have no idea if the images above are good representations of what was discussed.

The local paper describes the lecture here; it was given by a SCAD prof named Susan Falls The most interesting thing to me was the mention of some of the artists’ names:

Falls also included an image of Sekka, a relatively new bicycle shop on Broughton Street, whose owners chose to have a sign hand-rendered by Leonard Miller, whose distinctive lettering and design can be seen at many local businesses. Marcus Polite and Jimmie Williams were among the other artists featured in the slideshow.

The mention of Marcus Polite particularly caught my attention. One of the other snaps I took on Savannah’s MLK is below, and in the Flickr description I speculated about who it is that paints this lettering style, so common in Savannah (one person? many?).  And another Flickr user (whom I later met; charming guy) assured me it was Mr. Marcus Polite. All I can say is that I hope Falls reprises her lecture, or puts some version of it online or maybe in a gallery setting.

Thrifty 350, originally uploaded by R. Walker.

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