Fun Home: A Family Tragicomedy, Alison Bechdel

I’ve gotten away with reading some lighthearted books this month, and honestly, when I picked up Fun Home (a Christmas gift from my husband), my brain only processed the comedy half of “tragicomedy.” I was having trouble sleeping, and this seemed like the perfect remedy. It’s a graphic novel (although the style is composed in such a way that even my brain can process it), it’s been on my reading list for a while, and I tend to think of Bechdel as a comedic online presence, although that’s not strictly an accurate description of her body of work.

Bechdel is a deeply intellectual woman who, for almost thirty years, has been writing about the frustrations, limitations, and ridiculous incongruities of womanhood and sexuality, and while she does approach these topics (and others, like her family, the focus of this memoir), with a healthy sense of humor, her observations are razor-sharp and often devastating. Her writing and illustrations don’t skirt the inconvenient or uncomfortable truths she has encountered. Instead, she leans into the moments of drama, drawn from her own life experience, without attempting to spare herself or save face.

Reading Fun Home, I often found myself trying to skim over the hardest sections on her behalf. I thought about what it must be like for her family to have their lives shared in such a raw way; while she is far from the first artist to mine her own history for this kind of material, as a reader, I struggle with the sacrifices that come with such a choice. I wanted to spare her the uncertainty, the missed opportunities for family acceptance, the terrible secrets that were kept from her until adulthood. As ridiculous as it is to crave such a thing – to believe that averting my eyes from her confessions would ease some of the pain she’s had to endure – her presence as a writer draws out the most empathetic parts of me. Her vulnerability is truly a remarkable strength.

Her openness too though is a source of power. Society leans toward secrecy, toward hiding the less desirable parts of ourselves, but there is an incredible freedom in accepting the flaws and challenges that come from being human. Shaming those parts, or even politely declining to acknowledge them, is a misplaced attempt at perfection and uniformity. It brings no joy to deny the unique journey every person is on; in fact, it eats at the heart of the kind of power that brings a book like this to life. Really, it destroys the power that brings any number of books to life.

As readers, we crave authenticity, whether it be in memoir or in fiction, in three lines of poetry or in a thousand page fantasy. The human experience as viewed through a million imperfect lens is what fills library shelves and brings us closer to each other while feeding our enthusiasm and understanding of the wider world. A book like Fun Home, which blends the visually light style of a graphic novel with the emotionally challenging landscape of Bechdel’s youth is just one more lens we can peer through, accepting, hopefully, both the hard truth and her compassion on the other side.


For more about Alison Bechdel, go here.

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil, Stephen Collins

I have to admit, I bought this book entirely because of its title. I was looking for Christmas gifts for my brother, and he’s a beard guy. To be clear, he’s not sporting one of those handsome, carefully maintained beards, but rather, a look that shouts “I just wandered out of the deep backwoods.” (I’m positive I’ve seen small twigs and feathers stuck in it before.) We’re part Norwegian too, so although his hair is dark blonde, his beard is as red and thick and gnarly as a viking, and when I saw the illustration on the cover of Collins’ graphic novel, I knew I had to buy it.

Generally speaking, I’m not a huge fan of graphic novels. I have nothing against them except that I find the style challenging to read. The combination of art and text often gives me eye strain and a headache, so while I would like to pick up a series (like Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, for example), the impending migraine just isn’t worth it. Collins’ book, however, gave me no trouble at all. I don’t know whether it’s related to how he’s laid out the material or if it’s simply a side benefit of using black and white art instead of color, but I tore through it on the day after Christmas. (I wanted to steal it immediately after my brother opened it, but he selfishly wouldn’t let me, claiming he had rights to the first read. Brothers – so unreasonable!)

The title (and the first few pages I’d read when I purchased it) had led me to believe it would be a comedy, but in fact, I found the story painful and beautiful and sad. Collins is not only a gifted artist but an insightful storyteller, and I was completely captivated from start to finish. I also found myself constantly wondering about the direction he was taking the story. For me, it is a rare treasure to find a book with a relatively simple concept so deftly told that I couldn’t deduce the ending from the halfway point.

By the time I arrived at the end, I only wished to read more, to have a sequel to pick up that might unravel the story that clearly exists after the final page. It’s not that he needs one, but Collins has clearly imagined a whole world for his put-upon protagonist that the reader will never see, but I, for one, am desperate to know more about.


For more about Stephen Collins, head over to his beautiful website.

The Taming of the Shrew (Saddleback’s Illustrated Classics), William Shakespeare (adapted)

Oh, for those empty, unguided days of January! I wish for them well now that the year has really and truly begun! It seems as if all of my work projects and plans for travel have sprung to life at once, and where, even a week ago I felt completely undirected, I’m plenty busy now…

One of the writing projects I’m working on at the moment deals with the relationship between Katerina and Petruchio (the “shrew” and her suitor) in The Taming of the Shrew, so I’ve been reading all the copies I can get my hands on. This particular version, a graphic novel intended for middle school children, was lent to me by my father, a huge Shakespeare buff. He collects all sorts of strange versions of the plays, as well as histories, films, and modern interpretations; he’s been doing this for as long as I can remember. We read and watched many of Shakespeare’s plays together when I was a kid, and his ability to pick the ones most interesting to me at any given age is, I’m sure, a huge reason why I enjoyed them so much. The language was familiar to me from a young age, and after years of discussion, I intimately know the plots and cultural significance of much of Shakespeare’s oeuvre.

When he first started talking to me about this particular project, I was fascinated by the idea of looking at this play through a more modern lens, and with an eye to the idea of bullying that emerges upon careful reading. He and I started talking about it at Christmas, and I’ve been researching since then, but what I’ve discovered upon discussing the play with others, is that most people have no idea what I’m talking about. And I mean none. I’ve had blank looks just from sharing the title of the play, and these were from well-educated and knowledgable friends. Admittedly, I hang out with a lot of people whose strengths are rooted in the sciences, or who are musicians or engineers, but still! I was shocked. If they hadn’t even heard of the play, how could I expect to write something using the characters from The Taming of the Shrew that could be, in any way, comprehensible to students?!

It was an eye-opening experience, and one that I’m glad to have had early in the process. I realized I’ll have to go about this trusting a perspective other than my own; I will have to embrace the fact that readers may not immediately recognize the significance of this play within Shakespeare’s larger body of work. They may not know that although he was certainly a product of his time, the frightening misogyny in this play is not found in all of them…

I’m curious to know if any of my readers have used a resource like this to teach Shakespeare (or another author) to middle or high school students. It’s not exactly Cliff Note’s, but I did feel as though it robbed the story of any of its poetry and subtext. The play is broken down to its simplest parts, and the end result, to me, was a flat, uninspiring, and confusing story. I wonder though, if this were used in conjunction with the true text of the play – could it help to break down the language comprehension barrier? I wouldn’t want to use it alone; if anything could rob students of a latent love of the Bard, it’s this, but I certainly see how it could have its uses.