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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.


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!!


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!


Review: O Human Star by Blue Delliquanti


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!


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…!

Museum Visit: Center for Puppetry Arts (Atlanta, GA)

I never know what to expect when I walk into a museum. Who is the target audience, and will I be out of place? Is the topic too narrow or too wide, will I end up bored? The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA is the case in point: It sounds like it’s for kids, and it sounds like a weirdly narrow topic, but actually it’s perfect for anyone. I’m pretty sure it’s my new favorite museum, actually. Somehow because of the subject matter, “walk around and look at stuff” becomes the best afternoon ever.

Of course, good presentation is just as important, but I’ll get to that. The Center for Puppetry Arts has two main galleries: The Jim Henson Collection and the Global Collection.

The Jim Henson Collection


The Jim Henson galleries follow Henson’s career in a general chronological order, from his early puppet commercials through Sesame Street and The Muppet Show and eventually movies like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. There are original notes staged on corkboards, plenty of actual puppets, and perhaps most importantly video from the early productions. Every time I thought “Gee, I wish I could see that in action,” there’s a video. Fun fact: The concept behind Sesame Street was to “sell” basic education to kids using the same techniques Henson had used to sell products in his commercials.

I particularly loved the mock workroom with displays showing how Henson made his puppets. I learned a lot about not only the materials, but the ideas behind puppet styles and how they’re made more expressive. I actually felt like I learned a lot in this whole exhibit, and that holds true for the Global Collection as well, but it’s fully integrated into the fun museum experience. Hands-on elements are included as needed, again seamlessly enriching and educating at the same time. Additional fun fact: The puppets are made slightly cross-eyed, because that way it seems like they’re focusing on you/the camera.

Never fear, Fraggle Rock and some other projects get their fair share of attention too. There are only a few Labyrinth and items on display, but an entire exhibit about the movie opens this weekend, September 2… I love that the final wall, which instructs visitors to design their own puppets on post-it notes, has become an impromptu shrine to David Bowie.

Post-it notes with drawings and messages to David Bowie.

The Global Collection

The Global Collection looks at puppets all around the world, from the first “are these puppets?” stone artifacts, to regional puppet-theater styles, to modern movies and stage productions. The gallery is packed with stuff, but it’s perfectly balanced down a long, thin room. Every time you turn around there’s something awesome and new to explore, but you don’t feel overwhelmed or like you’re missing corners. Each section is fascinating in its own right, but you can also make links between different styles and appreciate a staggering diversity of approaches all at the same time.

Three Mamulengo puppets — a Brazilian style similar to Punch & Judy.

Just like with the Jim Henson Collection, I felt like I was playing, but walked out realizing I’d been spontaneously educated somewhere along the way. There’s history, cultural studies, art and performance, the technology of puppetry for the stage and the screen… Again, videos and interactives pop up every time it crosses your mind to want them. Try out some marionettes, feel some textures, watch traditional performers in action. One of the most effective is a video with a single knob, and as you turn it you can see claymation clips frame by frame. Speed it up, slow it down, go backwards… It’s so simple, but you don’t just see a sample and then forget it. You leave with an understanding, because you got to control it yourself.

My favorite: The Vietnamese Mua Roi Nuoc theater just fascinates me. It happens in a pool of waist-deep water, where performers stand behind a set and use underwater rods to manipulate floating puppets in front. IT’S SO COOL I CAN’T EVEN.

A reproduction in miniature.

I honestly had no idea how wide and rich a topic “puppets” would be, but the whole museum is a magical wonderland. I’d return again and again, because I’m quite sure I’d notice something new every time.

Extras & Coming Soon

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Take your picture on Jareth’s throne!

The brand-new Labyrinth exhibit opens this weekend, don’t miss it!

If you’re not in the Atlanta area, there are online collections!

The gift shop is well-appointed! I think I wanted some more unique you-can-only-get-it-here type stuff, but there are plenty of puppets, some Sesame Street merchandise items, and various other topic-appropriate things to take home.

And finally, it’s not just a museum, it’s a theater too. There are puppet shows for kids, puppet shows for adults, puppet-movie screenings, and more. Museum tickets start at $10.50, but there are various combos available that’ll include tours, workshops, events, etc., so check all that out to plan your best trip.

Verdict: Take your kids, take your friends, take yourself! It’s awesome!


3 Gay Actor Documentaries

Apparently I was in the mood for documentaries this weekend! Fortunately for me, Netflix is currently offering three movies (mostly) about gay actors, particularly interesting watched together: The Out List, To Be Takei, and Tab Hunter Confidential.

The Out List (2013)


This one’s not entirely about LGBT actors, I just thought it was. It’s a one-hour documentary about “some of the most influential voices in America’s LGBT community.” The advertising strongly features Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres. Turns out it’s actually more about public figures in general than celebrities, including a sheriff, some minor politicians, writers, that sort of thing. Fine, but misleading. That said, the film takes an interesting approach by showing one person at a time, giving about five minutes each for them to share their story and talk about what they want to see happen for the LGBT community. There’s no voiceover, and it’s not thematic or chronological, but it doesn’t get boring because each person is so different from the rest.

The selections are generally intersectional and inclusive, but not perfectly so — there’s only one trans person, and the one bi person spends most of her time explaining why she doesn’t like the word “bisexual.” I think I’d been hoping for a gateway documentary, something with recognizable actors talking about stuff that would be good for a total newbie. This isn’t quite that, but you can get a quick overview of current topics.

To Be Takei (2014)

To Be Takei

You may know George Takei as Star Trek‘s Mr. Sulu, as a gay-rights activist, or as “that guy with the funny Facebook page.” To Be Takei touches on all those things. It’s one and a half hours, with a gregarious feel to the editing, jumping from George and his husband goofing off to serious stories about George’s time in one of the US’s Japanese-American interment camps during WWII. The end result is something that doesn’t get super deep into his life, but actually kind of works as a whole, a snapshot of George.

My favorite bits were about Star Trek, which will surprise no one… We hear a lot about Uhura being an incredible symbol for African-American women, with good reason, but it was really cool to hear similar stories about Sulu as an Asian-American man. He also talks about taking horrible stereotyped roles early in his career and regretting it now, plus his decision to stay in the closet for the sake of his career early on.

Tab Hunter Confidential (2015)

Tab Hunter Confidential

This is most straightforward documentary type thing of the three, but turned out to be my favorite. It’s about the fifties, and a movie star we’ve probably never heard of, yet it stays interesting. You don’t need any prior knowledge, and it maintains a lively tone while clearly showing it wasn’t all milkshakes and smiles. Tab Hunter was an all-American Fifties heartthrob who stayed closeted until well after he stopped acting… The level of control the movie industry had over actors, let alone the pressure from all sides and the cultural impossibility of being out, really comes through here.

In this documentary you get the movie history, a rare look at an actor’s life after his career, and a perspective on navigating sexuality in the public eye. Tab’s experience is his own, but it fits into a very typical white-middle-class-male gay narrative, and aren’t we all in the public eye in some sense? That’s the whole point of “coming out,” that people are watching. On top of that there’s plenty of footage and photographs, the great advantage of doing a documentary about a movie star. This may be the most traditional of the three, but it still uses interesting editing techniques to grab and keep your attention, almost using those clips and photos as stand-ins for footage of his off-camera life, if that makes sense. It’s clever and it’s way more interesting than the usual “voice-over while showing a bunch of black-and-white pictures in sequence” approach. And hey, he dated Tony Perkins from Psycho! Highly recommended if you’re at all interested in any of the topics it covers.


White Lesbians on Race: Lillian Smith vs. Mab Segrest

Over the summer, I read several sets of books around the theme of Gender and Sexuality in the South as a directed readings course. The first pair were both specifically about feminist and queer theory, discussed here. This second pair — Killers of the Dream by Lillian Smith (1949/revised 1961) and Memoirs of a Race Traitor by Mab Segrest (1999) — are both memoirs about race, written by white Southern lesbians. It’s been a while now since I read these books, but I do want to highlight them here because they dialogue with each other in interesting ways and you may find you’d like to read one or both.

Lillian Smith and Commentary…

Killers of the Dream is part memoir of Lillian Smith’s early life, part social-political commentary and call to end segregation. Smith was one of the few white people actively working on this as early as the 40s, and I can only stand in awe of her bravery as an ostensibly-single white woman living on her own. (She was, by all modern appearances, lesbian and living with her partner, but she wasn’t out). She also talks about harmful religious attitudes toward masturbation and the female body, and how the ideas of “body is sinful and dirty” vs “white skin is your symbol of superiority” conflict with each other. Again, I have no idea how she managed to do all this, because her livelihood was a mountain camp for young girls in Georgia. Maybe scaremongering about “corrupting the children” is a more modern thing.

At any rate, it’s a remarkable book both historically and now. As a white Southern woman, I was totally right there with her, even 60 years later. I’m inclined to recommend this to outsiders as a way to understand some of our culture, but also not entirely sure it’ll make as much sense if you don’t already understand. I’d be happy to do more posts or some kind of discussion about this if there’s any demand, because I think it’s interesting.


…vs. Mab Segrest and Memoir

Mab Segrest is a more modern figure, a political activist (since moved on to research) and openly lesbian. Memoirs of a Race Traitor is aptly named, more memoir and personal history than the kind of commentary-memoir we got from Smith. She’s also from North Carolina, which is still the South, but is not the Deep South. She narrates her early life as well as her most prominent activist stuff, against far-right racist organizations in the 80s and 90s. It’s interesting, but probably more so if you’re researching that history specifically.

For me, I felt like Smith’s book really took apart race as a systemic problem of power. Segrest’s was more personal, trying to deal with her own white guilt. That just didn’t have much to offer me, because I’m a horrible person who doesn’t really care about other people’s life journeys. I also don’t think guilt and responsibility are the same thing, so I feel like Smith’s is more objectively useful in an activist sense, but which is most meaningful will just depend on you and your preferences. Segrest also has more to say about modern activist structures and lesbian-feminism, so there may be more-accessible material here for non-Southern modern folks looking for explanations.



Both books use history as a method of understanding, and as a potential push toward activism. In neither case would I be willing to say “Okay, I’ve read this book so I understand the Civil War,” but both shed light on how the war is perceived, which is the point when we’re talking modern Southern racism. They also both discuss how they were raised, their personal family histories, and how that affected their perceptions of racism.

A final point I found personally odd was the contrasts in identity — Smith didn’t identify as a lesbian when she basically was, I could put a “probably” but it’s really not necessary. Maybe she thought that would be the one thing her society couldn’t accept, or she was protecting her partner. Even so, they suffered threats and (as I recall) vandalism at the camp for their position on segregation. Then there’s Segrest, who talks at length about how she practically identifies as black, although not quite in such specific terms. These are just two drops in the ocean of identity politics, but they raised a lot of questions for me as a historian about how to parse an author’s identity and to what extent that affects the text.

In short, both these books come recommended, depending on what you want to get out of them. Smith’s was my favorite, but the two bring things out in each other that you wouldn’t get from one alone. Leave your thoughts in the comments as usual, and do let me know if I should be talking about Southern-ness more often!