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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…!
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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

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I LOVE BIG BIRD

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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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)

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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)

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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.

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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.

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…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.

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Observations

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!

Star Trek Column: Subversive Lady Guest Stars

This month’s Comparative Geeks column has been one of my favorites to write so far: Spotlights on three strong female characters tucked away in the original Star Trek series. My argument, insofar as I have one and am not just fangirl-flailing, is once again that the show was deeply feminist, especially (but not only) for its time. I’d love to hear your thoughts and your own favorites!

Star Trek’s Subversive Lady Guest Stars

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Museum Mini-Visits (Charlotte and Durham, NC)

Heeeey sorry about that two-week absence there! Finishing up the summer semester and time just got away from me. If it helps, pretend I was on this trip I actually took at the end of June. I visited Duke University in North Carolina for a week to do some research in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library. More on that — the research and the library — in later posts. I didn’t have a lot of time to sight-see, but made a few whirlwind stops: The Levine Museum of the New South (Charlotte), the Pauli Murray House (work-in-progress in Durham), and the Nasher Museum of Art (Durham). Plus some shopping and whatnot. Took this post’s featured image on the street in Durham.

Levine Museum of the New South

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A post-it interactive in the Cotton Fields exhibit: “Does everyone have equal rights in the South today?”

The Levine currently offers four exhibits: Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers on the New South proper (aka history after the Civil War), Nuevolution! on LatinX culture in the modern south, and then two photo exhibits. I rushed through the first two only to find the other two are tiny and honestly offered me nothing — maybe if I had more background info? — so I should’ve spent twice as much time on the major exhibits. (Note one of the photography exhibits was cycled out and replaced with a new one in July, so I can’t speak to that).

I quite enjoyed those bigger features, rushed as I was. Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers seemed to do a solid job focusing on that “effects of the Civil War” theme, and I loved the way they created a series of small immersive experiences. The part about Billy Graham is in a mini-church. The explanation of department stores is in a mini-store. Sections on segregation take place at a lunch counter, and there’s a little living room and TV set up with the TV showing actual broadcasts about boycotts and riots.

Nuevolution brought me to the museum. I’d done some mock promotional work for it in a class last year because it’ll be coming to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute and the Atlanta History Center over the next few years. It’s really cool, very engaging with a lot of interactives, but also a lot of information and personal stories about LatinX immigrants and locals. I’d love to see some usage numbers, but it was impressive and I definitely saw others interacting as I went through. (Wish I’d taken more pictures, this was the point where I was feeling super rushed for no reason).

Pauli Murray House

Pauli Murray was a black queer woman deeply involved with the civil rights movement, who also became the first African American female Episcopalian priest. I met some people from the Pauli Murray Project at the National Council on Public History conference earlier this year, and had the opportunity to meet up with one of them for lunch and see the house while I was in town.

The house won’t open until 2020, but it was awesome to see it coming together and hear about the project’s approach. The house won’t be a house museum, but a Center for History and Social Justice, a kind of community center with a historic bent. The house reconstruction is only part of the overall Project — they also do basically anything with a thematic connection to Pauli Murray and her life. There was a mural project at some point, a kind of youth poetry/sermon slam, other stuff. Loving this whole thing, check it out!

Nasher Museum of Art

The Nasher is a smallish art museum operated by Duke. I heard about a tour on the representation of place and place-based identity in art, so I went. The tour was kinda boring, to be honest, and seemed to focus on several specific artists’ lives rather than the topic alone, but in fairness I was very tired by Thursday evening and the other tour-goers seemed engaged.

I was more impressed by the size of the museum. They manage to get a lot into their couple of galleries, from ancient pottery to contemporary photography, with descriptive labels so you can appreciate at least the general idea of a piece, you’re not abandoned to your own impressions. I also loved how vibrant and inclusive the place is, no stuffy definitions of high art. I’m told they’re doing a large show soon on the topic of Southern artistic identity and if such a thing exists, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for any web content/publications/traveling exhibits associated with that!

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Review: Blue Spider’s Attic (book subscription box)

I love subscription boxes. It’s like having a personal shopper and my birthday at the same time! I’ve never tried a book subscription box before, but Blue Spider Press offered to let me try their Blue Spider’s Attic program free in exchange for (honest) review, and here we are! The concept is really cool — “All the magic of a used book store, delivered.” In each box you get three gently-used books, a sample package of coffee, and assorted goodies. You have the option of subscribing month-to-month at $19.99 per box plus shipping, or you can get variously discounted rates for prepaying up to six months in advance.

I must say the box delivers on its promise, no pun intended. It is like a used book store by delivery. Mine came very well packaged, and I love that the books are individually wrapped too. It prolongs the giftlike excitement and kind of creates that sense of stumbling on books one at a time.

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Initial unboxing.
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Box contents. Cat belly not included.

I got the promised three books, a Fairwinds Coffee sample in chocolate raspberry, a bunch of cool stickers, a bookmark, some coupon codes, and a pretty beaded book spider that Mo (the cat) immediately tried to eat. Fortunately he failed. I’ve tried the coffee and it’s delicious — there’s meant to be enough for a full pot, but I use an espresso machine and it’ll last me four or five cups probably. I also super love the stickers, because that’s not something I see often and I’ll totally use them. I can’t wait to think of the perfect place for that zombie hand.

Of course,  you want to hear about the books. First up, The Ashes of Eden by William Shatner! Read it and love the series but didn’t own this one, so thrilled to get that. Next, Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. I’ve seen the movie, haven’t read the book, but I’ll have to decide just how strong my constitution is before I give it a go. Finally, Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes. It’s a classic from 1958, but I’ve randomly heard several people talking about it in the past couple weeks and am excited to read it myself. So, two super excited and one not-sure-but-can-always-toss-it-in-a-Halloween-gift-basket, I call that a win. All three were again nicely packaged and in excellent used condition.

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Deciding whether or not Blue Spider’s Attic is for you, it probably depends on your reading habits. Not even counting library stuff, I own several thousand books already, most of which I haven’t read. So, I don’t really see subscribing to a box like this because I really don’t need a random selection of books being added to that list every month. But, if I had the money and time to spend, I’d definitely say it’s worth it. Plus, if you don’t have a local used book store or if you’re not able to visit one for whatever reason, then this could be awesome for you!

Get more info or sign up here. Use code THINGSMATTER15 at checkout for a discount — doesn’t do anything for me, only does something for you!