‘Acrobat’ opens up window to into a universal calling

“The Ordinary Acrobat: A Journey into the Wondrous World of the Circus, Past and Present” by Duncan Wall. Knopf, 2013. $26.95

“Vive le cirque!”

Duncan Wall recounts his year at France’s national circus school, École Nationale des Arts du Cirque de Rosny-sous-Bois , where a student can “learn to act, flip, speak French, play an accordion, and paint a watercolor, all in one year.”

An ordinary kid from Wisconsin with no dreams of circus stardom, Wall became an ordinary acrobat and a lifelong circophile. He grounds his experiences within the rich cultural history of the circus: the violent Roman arenas, the elegant Parisian Belle Époque shows, the great American train circuses and the success of Cirque du Soleil.

Complete with eight pages of color photographs, the book offers a window into a mysterious, romantic world that is at once entirely exclusive and remarkably universal. Readers will be filled with an immense respect for the circus as an art form as well as an overwhelming desire to run off to circus school.

Where else can you learn that juggling is about the toss, clowning is about being open to failure, and the circus is about re-evaluating one’s realm of possibility?

Brittany Hart, New Orleans

“Spectacular Wickedness: Sex, Race, and Memory in Storyville, New Orleans” by Emily Epstein Landau. LSU Press, 2013. $39.95.

By the late 1800s, New Orleans was already known as the “Southern Babylon,” a city arguably as legendary for its rich cultural heritage as for its festive (and libidinous) atmosphere. In an effort to “clean up” and modernize the city, officials passed an ordinance in 1897 establishing the red-light district Storyville, designed to restrict vice to a clearly demarcated area away from the more civilized parts of town.

“Spectacular Wickedness” explores the history of Storyville from 1897 to 1917, offering liquor, gambling, jazz music, and, of course, the main attraction: sex. Landau touches on the racial history of New Orleans and then focuses on some of the major players of the era, in particular Lulu White, the so-called “Diamond Queen” of the demi-monde, Storyville’s most infamous madam who specialized in offering “octoroon” prostitutes at Mahogany Hall, her Basin Street bordello.

The seminal Supreme Court separate-but-equal decision Plessy v. Ferguson which legalized segregation in 1896 originated in New Orleans, a city with a long-standing three-tiered racial hierarchy and complicated system of cultural categories within the black community.

The fact that the madams of Storyville openly defied the segregation laws just a few short years later by advertising sex with mixed-race women to white customers (all the while barring black customers, interestingly enough) contributed to the district’s notoriety and Landau argues the brothels of Storyville provided venues for white males to assert their dominance in a time of social unrest.

Well-researched and informative, “Spectacular Wickedness” is a welcome addition to the ever-growing canon of New Orleans cultural history books.

Louise Hilton, Baton Rouge