She's Picking Up Good Vibrations: Lynn Comella, "Vibrator Nation" at Literati

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Lynn Comella, Vibrator Nation

Babes in toyland: Lynn Comella studied the feminist sex-toy industry for her new book, Vibrator Nation.

When it comes to other adults’ sexual choices, I’m very live and let live. And in my personal life, I’m very willing to make a joke or tell a story laden with sexual innuendo, and I’ve long ago accepted that I’m the person who will robustly fall face-first into a strange double-entendre, I found myself a bit shy at the bookstore when I purchased my copy of Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation in advance of attending her discussion of the book which took place on November 14th at Literati.

This book was based on more than 80 in-depth interviews with sex-toy shop owners, employees of said stores, and pornographers. Comella herself worked at Babeland in New York City, which provided her ethnographic access from both sides of the sales counter. Her book synthesizes this and examines the role of feminist sex-toy stores on the larger adult industry.

Why study sex-toy shops?

Comella knew to answer that question for the audience right away.

It turns out that this project began as a part of her graduate coursework. She had taken a field methods class in cultural studies and had an interest in sexual politics. The class required her to conduct a small-scale ethnographic project. She asked herself, "Where are the places that women can be sexual subjects as opposed to sexual objects?" As a part of her work, she spoke with Aileen Journey, the owner of a store called Intimacies, which had just opened in the town where she studied. The owner told Comella that she saw her store as a feminist way to empower women and that she had modeled her store after Good Vibrations, a store that had opened in the 1970s in San Francisco’s Mission District.

Good Vibrations shared the idea that sex education could be empowering and helped Journey on the road to establishing her own store. This help included selling a vendor list for a mere $50 -- such magnanimity is an anomaly in the business world. But it turns out that this, as Comella calls it, “non-competitive ethos” was a reason why some saw the businesses as activism.

In 2008, there was a shift in the adult store industry. According to Comella, before this point, the industry had catered to the perceived desires of stereotypical men. She argues that 2008 was a game-changer due to both the recession and also the proliferation of free Internet pornography. Suddenly, the women’s market became appealing, as it was a rare growth area in the industry. Comella, however, became interested in the history of this already growing market, which had been building since the early 1970s.

Comella read from a chapter in her book titled “Living the Mission,” where she talked about the lived experience of working at Babeland. Here, she says, “Every shift I worked at Babeland put me on the front lines of its mission, which was ‘to promote and celebrate sexual vitality by providing an honest, open and fun environment, encouraging personal empowerment, educating our community and supporting a more passionate world for all.’”

Feminism provided a healthy dose of friction inside of this passionate world. For example, early on, men weren’t allowed into some of these spaces. Joani Blank of Good Vibrations, however, recognized that not all men were comfortable in the more traditional shops and that her store was appealing to some men. These business owners, then, were forced to decide whether or how to include men. Feminism also complicated things, raising the question of how erotic videos fit into the equation. How does one respond to such a market demand when some of the feminist thought behind these shops was anti-pornography? How do shops adjust to the construction of feminism, how do they embrace intersectionality? How do they become trans-inclusive? How do these businesses remain responsive?

There was also the matter of what sort of bedfellows feminism and capitalism made. Some individuals felt that a store, a capitalist enterprise, was antithetical to feminism. Others feared that once the market for women-centered sex shops became viable it would be co-opted and would no longer be about empowerment, liberation, and education. Babeland faced this matter head-on. The store had sold shares to its employees, yet the management still felt like profits weren’t as important as the social work that they provided. The employees, now owners, disagreed.

Comella argues that it’s “easy to think about sexuality as something we own,” but larger forces that act upon sexuality, such as cultural norms and public policy, impact it.

In the Q&A portion of the evening, the audience’s questions pushed at the larger cultural forces. Economic class factored in, as Comella acknowledged. For instance, finding body-safe materials from ethical sources sometimes priced-out certain consumers. She also acknowledged that within the field that storeowners talk a great deal about gender equality and sexuality, but not as much about class or race. This presented her with a challenge; it’s difficult “to write about things people aren’t really talking about.”

In examining this segment of the adult industry, Comella answers many questions about the rise of the business and the circuitous paths that female and queer-friendly sex-positive sex-toy stores have taken. She also begs the question of what happens next within this dynamic trade.


Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.

Personal View of a National Tragedy: Alexandra Zapruder's "Twenty-Six Seconds"

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Alexandra Zapruder, Twenty-Six Seconds

In Twenty-Six Seconds, Alexandra Zapruder tells the tale of her grandfather Abraham's famous film of the President Kennedy assisination. Author photo by Linda Fittante.

“My grandfather came to America hell-bent on becoming an American.” --Alexandra Zapruder

Alexandra Zapruder’s Twenty-Six Seconds tells the story of the 26-second home video, recorded by her grandfather Abraham, that came to be known as the Zapruder film, the one video that showed President Kennedy’s assassination. On Wednesday, Nov. 7, Zapruder spoke at the Ann Arbor District Library about her book to an audience of about 80.

Zapruder never thought that she would write this book. She grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family that rarely talked about the film. She said that she is often asked whether the film was taboo or somehow a secret in her household. “It wasn’t that,” she said.

Fifth Avenue Press launches nine titles with a book release party

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Fifth Avenue Press logo

Fifth Avenue Press launches on Nov. 5 with a book-release party from 1-3 pm at the downtown branch of the Ann Arbor District Library.

"Publishing is a business," writes mega-selling author Nicholas Sparks (The Notebook) in the "Advice for Writers" section of his website. "Writing may be art, but publishing, when all is said and done, comes down to dollars."

Except with Fifth Avenue Press, the new publishing imprint of the Ann Arbor District Library.

Fifth Avenue helps local authors produce a print-ready book at no cost -- from copyediting to cover design -- and the writers retain all rights. In return, the library gets to distribute ebooks to its patrons without paying royalties, but authors can sell their books -- print, digital, or audio -- however they choose and keep all the proceeds.

Fifth Avenue launches on Sunday, Nov. 5, with a reception from 1-3 pm on the 3rd floor of AADL's downtown branch, featuring author readings from the imprint's first nine titles:

What Happened: Recapping Hillary Clinton's appearance at Hill

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Hillary Clinton evokes feelings.

I hadn’t fully understood the extent of this until I poked around online to get myself in the mood to attend her Oct. 25 talk at Hill Auditorium about her newest book, What Happened. I made the mistake of searching #hillaryclinton on Twitter. I almost injured my jaw as my mouth hung open while I glanced at the results.

Yeah, Hillary Clinton makes people feel things.

Cognitive Overload: NY Times' Charles Blow talked truth & Trump at Rackham

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Charles Blow

"A free, fearless, adversarial, in-your-face press is the best friend a democracy can have," said Charles Blow at U-M on Friday. Photo by Chad Batka for The New York Times.

Reading a long list of sponsors doesn’t usually prompt a standing ovation; but because celebrated New York Times op-ed columnist Charles M. Blow couldn’t hear, while backstage at Rackham Auditorium on Friday evening, what was being said while waiting to make his entrance, he gamely emerged before his official introduction had even gotten underway.

Not that the adoring, full-capacity crowd minded the miscue in the least. Presenting the keynote speech of a Humility in the Age of Self-Promotion Colloquium at U-M, Blow spoke for 40 minutes on the topic of Trump, arrogance, and democracy, and answered audience questions for an additional half hour.

Mythological Duty: "Welcome to Night Vale" creators visit Ann Arbor

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Jen Mann

It Devours is the new novel by Welcome to Night Vale podcast creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. Photo by Nina Subin.

One article about the popular, fiercely beloved Welcome to Night Vale podcast begins with the line, “Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard of” the show.

But until I’d received a copy of the novel It Devours! written by the podcast's creators, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, and researched Night Vale in preparation for a recent phone interview with Cranor, I’d been one such under-the-rock dweller.

Yet because the podcast could be described as the David Lynch version of A Prairie Home Companion -- focusing on a fictional desert town in the American Southwest, where all conspiracy theories are true -- I asked Cranor if any of Night Vale’s residents also live under rocks.

“No, but one of the characters is a rock -- the dean of the Night Vale Community College, Sarah Sultan,” said Cranor without missing a beat, referring to a character who communicates via telepathy.

Well, then. At least I might have some company.

Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor will be with artist and illustrator Jessica Hayworth at U-M's Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on October 23 at 7 pm, courtesy of Literati Bookstore. The three will be interviewed by Detroit writer, actor, comedienne, and The Moth Storyslam Ann Arbor host Satori Shakoor, followed by an audience Q&A and signing.

Cranor answered questions for Pulp about Welcome to Night Vale and It Devours!.

A Wilde Afterlife: Laura Lee, "Oscar’s Ghost" at AADL

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Bookbound open mic

Author Laura Lee dug deep into the mystery that helped shape Oscar Wilde's legacy. She'll discuss and sign Oscar’s Ghost at AADL's downtown branch on Tuesday, Oct. 17 at 7 pm.

Oscar Wilde said the truth is rarely pure and never simple. These words apply to many facets of his life, including the feud between Wilde’s lovers Lord Alfred Douglas and Robert Ross. Laura Lee set out to find the truth of what happened between these men after Wilde’s death in her new book, Oscar’s Ghost: The Battle for Oscar Wilde’s Legacy, which she'll discuss at AADL's downtown branch on Tuesday, Oct. 17.

Douglas and Ross each blamed the other for Wilde's downfall and early death as well the way the latter handled Wilde’s prison manuscript, De Profundis. Their feud escalated to include stalking, blackmail, witness tampering, prison, and lawsuits.

“When I first got a Kindle, I downloaded and read (Wilde’s) De Profundis," Lee says. "I discovered that this was actually an edited version of the book and that a longer version existed.”

To Not Be Me All the Time: Jeffrey Eugenides at the Michigan Union

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Jeffrey Eugenides

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jeffrey Eugenides told the Rogel Ballroom crowd, "I’ve never really gotten over being a teenager."

Michigan native Jeffrey Eugenides told the crowd at the Michigan Union's Rogel Ballroom on Sunday that he never set out to be a regionalist. His three novels, The Virgin Suicides, Middlesex, and The Marriage Plot, all revolve around characters from Detroit in their youth. Eugenides said that his time growing up in Detroit still makes up some of his most vivid memories, and that writing about something so innate to himself just “makes my job easier.”

Eugenides was joined by Claire Vaye Watkins, author of Gold Fame Citrus, to discuss his recently published first book of short stories, Fresh Complaint. The collection contains 10 stories, including two that relate to his previous novels. One is an outtake from Pulitzer Prize-winning Middlesex and another, “Airmail,” is made up of letters written by Mitchell, the main character in The Marriage Plot.

Survival in the Straits: Tiya Miles, "The Dawn of Detroit" at Literati

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Tiya Miles, Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits

Tiya Miles' The Dawn of Detroit is about the perseverance of enslaved indigenous and African people.

On Monday, Oct. 7, author and University of Michigan professor Tiya Miles visited Literati Bookstore to discuss her new book, The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits. This book is an examination of Detroit’s early days and seeks to discuss an element of the city’s history that isn’t often discussed. Miles’ work aims to locate people of color in Detroit’s history, adding them to a narrative that is often told chiefly as the stories of European settlers.

Protect Your Neck: Author, throat puncher Jen Mann hosts a moms' night out at AADL

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Jen Mann

Jen Mann's publishing career began when a blog post about Elf on the Shelf mania went viral.

When you put the wrong date in your calendar for an interview with Jen Mann, the blogger/author behind People I Want to Punch in the Throat, you kind of fear that you’ll be added to the list.

But Mann -- who will be coming to the downtown library for a moms’ night out event on Wednesday, October 11 at 7 pm, as part of a book tour to promote her latest humorous essay collection, Working with People I Want to Punch in the Throat -- couldn’t have been more understanding, despite her famously feisty, tell-it-like-it-is persona.