The Non-Binary Book Club Reads Every Heart a Doorway

The Non-Binary Book Club’s latest pick is Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, a YA fantasy/horror novella featuring asexual and trans lead characters. Click through for discussion — the post also includes resources for ace, trans, or otherwise queer people who may need support.

(Note: I’m HG! Recommend your favorite mad science books over there, especially if they have lady scientists in them.)

The Lobster Dance

heart-featured Via Tor.com. [Image: cover of Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire. The cover shows an open wooden door in a doorframe in the middle of a forest.] What’s the Non-Binary Book Club?

While Book Club might have fallen a bit by the wayside as I (and many of the other participants in this group and in my blogging community) have spent the post-election weeks calling representatives, donating, and just reading, reading, reading everything about bills and political issues and the Electoral College and trying everything to get through to the people who are not concerned about marginalized groups because it’s easier to say “you’ll survive, don’t be a sore loser” than “you and your loved ones might be in danger and your fear is rational, what can we do to help each other? I am listening.”

Plus, Thanksgiving, that great “oh god please no one talk politics at the dinner table but…

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The Power Of Art: 5 Inclusive Picture Books

I’m on Eclectic Alli this week, recommending some diverse picture books for you and/or the children in your life! I hadn’t planned to do a post this week because I didn’t have words for what’s just happened in the US, but literature is still important. Teaching empathy and representing diversity are still important. This post is kicking off a monthly multi-contributor series called “The Power of Art” on Alli’s blog, so be sure to give her a follow, and as always leave more book recs in the comments.

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Welcome to my new series.

Art is such a beautiful expression, it can evoke emotions and speak to truths that can be hard to articulate.  It also can often serve as a powerful tool for change, for revolution, to spark people to stand up and make changes.

This series is going to explore the power of art, by looking at actual art.  Sometimes it may be written, or it may be visual (who knows, maybe I’ll convince someone to share auditory art with us as well).  This will run the third Wednesday of every month, for as long as I can keep it going! (Interested in contributing?  Let me know!)

I’m going to start with a type of art that I have long adored, the picture book.

Hannah, of The New Emma Jones Society, let me twist her arm… or, uhm, I mean… volunteered to kick us off…

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Star Trek Column: TNG First Impressions

Pleasantly surprised by “Encounter at Farpoint,” I take the opportunity to list all the things I thought about it, compared to Star Trek‘s past and with the rest of Star Trek: The Next Generation in mind. Also there’s a My Little Pony meme.

Star Trek: The Next Generation, First Impressions on Comparative Geeks

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Review: The Boxtrolls (2014)

Before The Boxtrolls came out in 2014, it was getting buzz for its creepy Burton-style animation and a same-sex couple shown in one of the trailers. Then it hit theaters and I heard, well, nothing. That kind of response doesn’t really mean anything except that people didn’t go see it in the first place, but I figured it was mediocre and forgot about it. Two years later, I suddenly got interested in puppetry and claymation, and I’ve revisited the movie.

None of the trailers accurately represent the movie’s tone or content, but here’s one for aesthetic (I couldn’t find the early one mentioned above):

A young orphaned boy raised by underground cave-dwelling trash collectors tries to save his friends from an evil exterminator.

The movie is based on the book Here be Monsters! by Alan Snow, a 550-page fantasy novel for young readers — quite a length, but that kind of mix-and-match target audience holds for the movie too. It’s got a rich,  gross, steampunk-esque aesthetic. The Boxtrolls’ design is very clever and will attract my fellow office-supply enthusiasts, and the animation is gorgeously expressive. I’d be disappointed with anything less from Laika, the same company behind Coraline, ParaNorman (which had a surprise gay character), and the more recent Kubo and the Two Strings.

The plot is at roughly a middle-grade level, more challenging than a typical animated movie but no surprises for an adult. The themes complicate the plot and give adults something to latch onto, though. There are elements of class struggle, family obligations, STEM, and more, but I was particularly interested in the gender issues. The main character is a young boy, but there’s a fantastic girl character too: Winnie Portley-Rind, with her fabulously ruddy cheeks, authentically girlish shape, pink dress, and obsession with “rivers of blood and mountains of bones.” Love her.

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Winnie Portley-Rind, voiced by Elle Fanning

More complicated — and SPOILER ALERT here — is the drag show. Madame Frou-Frou is a celebrity cabaret-style performer with a routine about how Boxtrolls definitely eat children. It’s later revealed, if you didn’t figure it out from the first performance, that Madame Frou-Frou is really Archibald Snatcher, the villain of the piece. He’s a slimy odious violent social climber in his public life, but transforms into a sexpot and is found attractive by several members of the town leadership for performances and parties. There’s some interesting gender commentary in that, especially given Snatcher’s repeated assertion that working his way up to the elite is “what a man does.”

None of that gets unpacked, though, and we’re not given any insight into why he decided drag was his best bet for winning the hearts and minds of the populace. And it’s inherently problematic, because he’s the villain and because the plot culminates with a traditional “You’re the REAL monster” statement, even though it’s not directly connected to his drag performance. I didn’t find it ragingly inappropriate, but not good combined with the widespread presentation of gender-variant people as monstrous in other media, and it’s at odds with the effort toward inclusivity seen in the trailer.

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Archibald Snatcher in Madame Frou-Frou persona, voiced by Ben Kingsley

The Boxtrolls seems meant for an older audience, and not just because it has a drag show. Sensitive children will probably be scared at various points, especially the beginning and the climax. (It’s also plenty gross with people eating bugs and getting thrown into buckets of leeches, but that’s probably more an issue for adults than kids). Watch ahead to decide if your kid will like it in the first place, and how you’ll deal with the villainous drag in the second.

There’s a lot to like, though, for these older audiences. The vaguely-steampunk and inventor-y atmosphere, the animation, the awesome little girl, the complex themes without a hard-and-fast “moral.” It’s not the usual “be yourself,” “stay true to your friends” stuff, although those takeaways can be great in other movies. The Boxtrolls is more about being willing to change when the path you’re on isn’t serving you anymore. It’s a slightly more sophisticated version of the “you choose who you want to be” idea, and I appreciate it.

 

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Review: Ireland by Frank Delaney

Ireland, by Frank Delaney, published in 2005. A 576-page novel about Ireland, oral traditions, family, and the texture of history. It doesn’t sound like my kind of thing, really, but it turned out to be incredible. Here’s the description:

ireland-frank-delaney-coverOne wintry evening in 1951, an itinerant storyteller — a Seanchai, the very last practitioner of a fabled tradition extending back hundreds of years — arrives unannounced at a house in the Irish countryside. In exchange for a bed and a warm meal, he invites his hosts and some of their neighbors to join him by the fireside, and begins to tell formative stories of Ireland’s history. One of his listeners, a nine-year-old boy, grows so entranced by the story-telling that, when the old man leaves abruptly under mysterious circumstances, the boy devotes himself to finding him again.

Ronan’s search for the Storyteller becomes both a journey of self-discovery and an immersion into the sometimes-conflicting histories of his native land. As the long-unspoken secrets of his own family begin to reveal themselves, he becomes increasingly single-minded in pursuit of the old man, who he fears may already be dead. But Ronan’s personal path also leads him deeper and deeper into the history and mythology of Ireland itself, in all its drama, intrigue, and heroism. Ireland travels through the centuries, interweaving Ronan’s quest for the Storyteller with a richly evocative unfolding of the great moments in Irish history, ranging from the savage grip of the Ice Age to the green and troubled land of tourist brochures and political unrest.

I listened to the audiobook. It’s long, 19.5 hours, and it took me about four months to listen to the whole thing, but it needs to be long. It’s read by the author, and since it’s a book about oral storytelling, that’s really the medium in which to encounter it. If it was shorter, or if the pace was any faster, it wouldn’t be as effective. Don’t think it’s too slow or cozy, though! Just when you think you’re getting settled, there’ll be a quick turn in the narrative where everything shifts and you have to reconsider all that came before. And that’s just the frame story, the stories included within that frame are excellent too. Some are openly myths, like Brendan the Navigator, or stories that can’t possibly be known, like the origin of Newgrange. Others are about the IRA or other recent events. They roughly follow the story of Ireland from its pre-history to the modern day, but each one is different in content and style, and I think that’s why I never got bored.

Taken all together, the novel is a layered examination of the relationship between history and myth, and how they can be the same thing. It’s the kind of history that settles deep into a place’s bones and stays there, the kind you trip over when you walk outside, and the kind that has nothing whatever to do with historians. People create meaning and community for themselves by sharing these myth/histories with others, developing a sense of region and nationality and family.

Several of the stories within the frame story are history lectures Ronan hears at school, and he even becomes a history teacher, yet historians as such are presented as people who don’t entirely get it. Maybe it makes me a traitor, but I kind of love the fact that historians are outside this history. They put themselves outside, after all. Facts are important, of course they are, but we should care a lot more than we do about the history that actually matters to people. I am never the one who wants to hear a personal story, but we still have to realize that history happened because of humans, and to humans, and it meant something to them. If it doesn’t still mean something to them, then there’s no point at all. Historians seem to feel like if they don’t strip the emotion out of it they won’t be taken seriously, or that if they appeal to the public they’re “dumbing down” history, but that ignores how engaged and invested people already are in history they feel to be their own.

All these themes interest me as a historian, but I am also a lover of stories in their own right, and this is a great novel. Realism isn’t even my preference, but these characters are like family to me now, with all their dysfunction. Be prepared to feel rage and sadness and loneliness and love and shock at the subtly horrible things some people are willing to do for no good reason at all. Most importantly, think of it as going to hear a storyteller spin yarns about Ireland. That’s what you’ll be getting, and it’s delightful.

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What I’m Up To

Hi all! It’s been a while since I did a chatty post, and I’m a bit short on time to write any of the long ones in my queue, so I thought it’d be a good time for a quick update!

First, I’m more active on other social media than I used to be, so here’s a list:

  • Goodreads — I read 200-300 books a year. Only a handful make it onto the blog in reviews or recommendation lists, but I rate all of them on Goodreads, and try to include a paragraph or two of commentary on each one. Comics, history, science, picture books, scifi/fantasy, romance… Basically this is a great way to follow me if you want to chat about all NEJS’s topics and then some.
  • Twitter — Less active here, but the chat tends more toward history/historian stuff if that’s your thing. The occasional movie livetweet.
  • Instagram (geekgirlhannah) — I tend to Instagram cat pictures and makeup on an intermittent basis, but I’ve been including more food/books/general stuff and posting more often lately. I’ve been posting my monthly Star Trek calendar… Any votes on a theme for next year?
  • Pinterest — A  little of everything, also intermittent.
  • Facebook — I mostly use Facebook for personal updates and posts about Star Trek. If I know your name I’ll probably accept the friend request, if not then introduce yourself on some other platform first.🙂
  • Snapchat (geekgirlhannah) — If you like blurry pictures of chubby cats and me commenting “same” on weird panels from old comic books, you’ve come to the right place!

And here are all the other things I’m doing:

Blogging: Still doing my best to keep up a weekly schedule around here until I graduate and have more time. I try to alternate history and pop-culture posts, but it’s really just whatever material I have on hand each weekend. Still doing monthly Star Trek posts on Comparative Geeks and love it!

School: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… “School” encompasses various projects, jobs, etc., but mostly I’m working on a public-history thesis project about Carl Corley, a gay pulp author and artist from the sixties. I’m in a long stretch of detail work at the moment correcting OCR and figuring out how to build a website. Yikes.

Volunteering: I’ve currently got 4-5 hours per week dedicated to volunteering. I’m helping a local archive process LGBT-related materials, and working on a separate-but-similar mapping project that I’ll share with y’all whensoever it might be ready. If only I had more time!

Writing: Still plugging away at my fiction, although it tends to take a backseat to other kinds of writing. I haven’t abandoned the queer sci-fi novel, but have also returned to an old (also queer) urban fantasy thing that I’m reworking. Pretty happy with the work on both, but again, just wish for more time…

TV/Movies: The Star Trek rewatch proceeds apace. I’ve just started TNG and am really enjoying it so far, such an interesting development on the original idea. Aside from that I occasionally binge other shows or big movie chunks. I watched the Constantine series a couple months ago (liked it), most of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last week while I had a cold (liked it), and Gotham season two at the moment (love it). Also super into puppet movies and documentaries since visiting the Center for Puppetry Arts, recs please! And I stay up to date on superhero movies, although I haven’t had enough thoughts about any of the recent ones to string a post together… High hopes for Doctor Strange!!

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8 Spooky Halloween Books for Kids

Is Halloween your favorite holiday? Do your kids like books? Do you want your kids to appreciate your aesthetic, without being traumatized for life? You’ve come to the right place! I’ve got eight spooky, scary, monster-themed book recommendations for Halloween, starting with an adorable picture book and working up to a legitimately scary middle-grade choice. And if you charming adults like spoopy kids’ books yourselves, all the better!

 

Goodreads links (from easiest to most-advanced reading):

Got a spooky kids’ book to recommend? Drop it in the comments, I’d love some titles to read before Halloween!

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Review: O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti

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Today I bring you the shortest of reviews. I won’t waste your time — you could be spending it reading this book, after all:

O Human Star is a comic which the creator, Blue Delliquanti, identifies as a “science fiction family drama.” It’s full of queer characters and robots. Some of the queer characters ARE robots. All of them are interesting and the main two are adults! Can you tell I’m really tired of realistic fiction about queer teens coming out? I mean seriously. Pretty sure I’ve been waiting all my life for a queer adult to build a flippin’ robot. If you feel the same way, O Human Star is for you! Plus the story is good, the art is vibrant, and the near-future world is cool too, strange but close enough to our own to be very believable. This series, I am about it. I am aaaaall about it.

Currently available free as a webcomic, in its fifth chapter. The first three chapters are also collected in a Volume 1, which you can buy as a PDF or a gorgeous printed volume. Check it out!

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Some Advice for Reading Rooms

As I mentioned in the post on North Carolina museum visits a while back, over the summer I traveled to Duke University for research purposes. I spent just-under 40 hours in the rare-books reading room, mostly scanning documents for my thesis project, which I haven’t discussed at length here but will eventually. In addition, I also spent most of the summer in my school’s special collections reading room researching for work, and another chunk of time in a museum-library reading room looking up stuff as part of my summer internship. All of these were rewarding experiences full of very nice librarians, but I’m here to tell you that as a person with anxiety, reading rooms are the literal worst. 

  1. There are lengthy and specific regulations, but these are largely conveyed verbally when you show up and as you’re handed items. So far I’ve never yet been able to get all the instructions before arriving. They’re generally the same as far as handling — gloves or no gloves for certain materials, etc. — but the actual procedures for getting in and using the room vary widely.
  2. Librarians are watching you the entire time, not to mention other researchers and sometimes security cameras. I don’t hold it against them, the whole point of the thing is to look at valuable documents and they’re going to take precautions to look after those documents, but still. You never know if you’re breaking a rule because of item #1, and you also sit there wondering how badly you’re being judged and for what reasons.
  3. You have to explain yourself over, and over, and over, and over, to every single librarian. These places rotate shifts as often as every two hours, in the big libraries. So you have to explain what you’re working on, and why, and how, and in what order, to every person who shows up. Some research is straightforward, you ask for your box and make notes and give it back and go off to write your paper or whatever, but many other projects are more complicated with different permissions and procedures. It wastes everyone’s time to keep rehashing those things, and it’s also deeply stressful if you have one of those more complicated projects and you never know if the librarian will understand or do things the way the first librarian did.
  4. No coffee, no water, no snacks, no talking. Again, entirely reasonable. This is one thing that definitely shouldn’t change, despite the fact that even the most interesting of topics gets boring if you have nothing to do but stare at papers all day. But it adds yet another layer of discomfort and uncertainty. Is it okay to eat in the lobby? Is it okay to leave and come back, or will I have to go through a registration process again? If I leave, will I return to yet another librarian who doesn’t know who I am or what I’m doing?

If the archives are a one-person operation, these things are less important because you can have a discussion with that person and establish everything from the beginning. If it’s a huge organization, that’s when these issues come into play. And the thing is, they’re all reasonable. Of course there are security cameras. Of course there’s no food allowed. But all this combined is an obstacle course — I’m a professional, and I know how it works at this point, but it’s still agonizing as a person with anxiety. Not only that, it makes the whole thing harder for those who have less experience in academia, either because they’re members of institutionally-disadvantaged groups or because they’re new students. If you’re part of the privileged academic class, you may not realize just how daunting and mysterious the process can be, but you should start thinking about it. As academics, we should all try to make our organizations as accessible as possible.

With that in mind, here are some respectful suggestions:

  1. Please create a list of policies and procedures. This should be available online to prepare visitors for the arrival and registration process. It’s not enough to say “You will be asked to register at the desk” or some such. Be clear. “When you enter the lobby, approach the desk first and provide XYZ. Then feel free to choose a locker and go into the reading room whenever you’re ready.” If there’s another desk in the reading room, say so, and say whether or not the lobby will inform them you’ve arrived. Use more detail than you think you need.
  2. The policies and procedures should also be available as a handout at the desk — as simple as a checklist of “when to ask the librarian for handling instructions” plus the rules for coming and going.
  3. Consider methods to keep coworkers informed about projects currently underway. Maybe a sheet with researchers’ names and any procedural notes. If you have enough staff or a workflow that allows it, you might even assign specific librarians as contact people for individual projects. Some kind of record-keeping here will save time for you as well as us.
  4. Heck, why not put a coffee machine in the lobby? Then instead of all sitting in judgmental silence, researchers could chat a bit as well as caffeinate. Imagine the interdisciplinarity…!