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.

Sanctum (Guards of the Shadowlands, Book One), Sarah Fine

Mercy is not a right. Mercy is a gift from one to another. It can’t be earned. (p 368).

Sometimes, a book is just perfect. I don’t mean in the “it’s a classic for the ages and every generation should read and analyze it,” but in the “this speaks to my soul” sort of way. Sanctum is one of those books. I came across the first chapter by chance on Amazon and decided to get it since it was on sale, and then the rest of the novel ended up being off-the-rails awesome.

Fine wove her story around redemption and friendship, depression, suicide, hell, history – all without losing her sense of humor (not an easy task considering some of the subject matter she took on). The book broke my heart a couple of times too, and when I was done with it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know who struggle with debilitating mental health issues. Novels that tackle the idea of teen suicide with such frank honesty gut me, and this one, despite being a fantasy novel instead of straight fiction, was right on point.

It was a book about healing, about using newfound strength to protect and to offer mercy, and about what it looks like not to be able to find that strength. No judgement there either, but rather an acceptance that healing is complicated, and messy, and sometimes incomplete. It’s a painful and  difficult idea for us to accept, and it’s rare for an author to capture the experience of living through it – from both the perspective of the person who feels hopeless and of the one who feels helpless – so well.

Fine also created a fantastical world that was horrifying while containing a kernel of truth that was inescapable. Her underworld felt like such a true place – a horrible, soul-sucking, and brilliant setting for this novel – that I’m almost disappointed that we might not get to see as much of it in the next book. That being said, she nailed the pacing and wrap-up of this first book in her series, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

For more about Sarah Fine, go here.

Veronika Decides to Die, Paulo Coehlo

I have long had a love affair with Paulo Coehlo’s writing. This very book, in fact, was first recommended to me years ago when I was in college by a high school friend who was living with me in Boston. Both of us were trying to navigate some emotionally charged situations at the time, and this story, based in part on Coehlo’s own experiences in a mental hospital as a young man, was a much-needed ray of sun in our otherwise stormy worlds.

I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you that this book is the story of a young woman in Slovenia who intentionally overdoses on sleeping pills and wakes up weeks later in a private mental hospital called Villete. The meat of the story comes after her attempted suicide, rather than in the time leading up to it.

Outside the barred window, the sky was thick with stars, and the moon, in its first quarter, was rising behind the mountains. Poets loved the full moon; they wrote thousands of poems about it, but it was the new moon that Veronika loved best because there was still room for it to grow, to expand, to fill the whole of its surface with light before its inevitable decline. (Kindle Loc 767)

Veronika is an ordinary, and in fact, extremely fortunate, twenty-four year old woman in most every respect. She has loving parents, a place to live, a job as a librarian; she herself admits that she is lovely enough that she could have almost any man she chose if she wanted to. Her life is stable, if dull. While she lays waiting for the sleeping pills to take effect, she muses on the fact that it’s best to end her life now, when she is still strong enough to do it. If she didn’t, she would just continue to stumble through life without feeling much of anything.

I think the reason that this book resonates with me as much now as it did a decade ago is that I have made a great study into the unnatural expectations we have for life. I have read about how the most unhappy people are often the most fortunate – those who have time to dwell on the fact that their lives are not what they hoped are the ones most likely to give up when the going gets tough. There is real suffering and need in the world, real disease – both physical and mental, real financial ruin, real fear…but Veronika suffers from none of that. She has not been abused, or suffered some great tragedy; she isn’t diagnosed with a mental illness or chemical imbalance. She’s just bored.

When I read this book at twenty-two, and again at twenty-five, I felt so close to Veronika. Her experiences, her romantic expectations about life were something I too had lived with. I was also just as anxious to play exactly the part assigned to me, and if I deviated from it, or drew attention to myself, I felt like I had failed.

Mari remembered what she had read in the young girl’s eyes the moment she had come into the refectory: fear. Fear. Veronika might feel insecurity, shyness, shame, constraint, but why fear? That was only justifiable when confronted by a real threat: ferocious animals, armed attackers, earthquakes, but not a group of people gathered in a refectory. But human beings are like that, she thought. We’ve replaced nearly all our emotions with fear. (Kindle loc 1333)

This third reading, though, right from the beginning, I couldn’t help but want to gently poke fun at this girl – so certain of herself, and yet so insecure. She reminded me of one of my five-year old students who told me on the first day of school, “You can’t teach me anything. I already know it all.” I think, very unprofessionally, I laughed in his face.

Because the thing about growing up, I’ve discovered, is that I know fewer and fewer answers every year that goes by, but rather than feel frightened by that, I’m happy to know I still have room to grow. I love life that much more ferociously, even on days when I’m so bored it scares me, than I ever did before.

Look at me; I was beginning to enjoy the sun again, the mountains, even life’s problems, I was beginning to accept that the meaninglessness of life was no one’s fault but mine. I wanted to see the main square in Ljubljana again, to feel hatred and love, despair and tedium—all those simple, foolish things that make up everyday life, but that give pleasure to your existence. If one day I could get out of here, I would allow myself to be crazy. Everyone is indeed crazy, but the craziest are the ones who don’t know they’re crazy; they just keep repeating what others tell them to. (Kindle loc 1160)

I don’t know why we’ve evolved into people who expect that life should constantly bend to our whims, or thrill us, or give us great meaning when throughout human history, the greatest goal was always simply to survive. I’m not above this – in fact, like many people in Gen Y, I’ve spent my entire adult life being defined by these desires. It’s been an uphill battle to find myself outside the norm – those “It Gets Better” commercials make me tear up a little every time because although it does certainly get better, it also gets harder. I still worry that other people might think I’m crazy, just not as much as I once did. For many years now, this has been one of my favorite poems on the subject:

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick the flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
-Jenny Joseph

What I love most about Coehlo though, is that he so cherishes the fragility of our flawed human nature that he makes the worst in us seem necessary to improvement. His most superficial, broken characters give me great hope, and that is something I will always choose to read.

More on Paulo Coehlo can be found at, including a blog and a link to his twitter and facebook feeds.

The Shattering, Karen Healey

I haven’t noticed that I do this as much as an adult, but when I was a kid, and reading a completely engrossing book, I would often find myself, at the end of a chapter, with my face pressed against the pages. It was like I was trying to physically force the words into my body as fast and as hard as was humanly possible. Although I’m sure it’s happened many times since then, I can only clearly remember two occasions in recent history – the first time I read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, and yesterday, when I read Karen Healey’s The Shattering.

This is another one of John Scalzi’s “Big Idea” recommended reads (, and it’s been on the kindle queue for at least two months. I’ve put off reading it because I knew it was a story about a girl whose older brother committed suicide – not exactly the light holiday reading I had been planning on. The protagonist, Keri, is an anxious child growing up to be an anxious woman dealing with a tragedy that she hasn’t figured out how to prepare for:

….it just seemed a good idea to be prepared. I hung a go-bag on my door in case of a fire or an earthquake and put a mini first-aid kit in my backpack, and I rehearsed possible disasters in my head, over and over, until I was sure I knew how to react.

I knew it sounded a little bit crazy, and I stopped telling anyone about it when Hemi Koroheke called me creepy and, with smug emphasis, neurotic, which was our Year Eight Word of the Day. But I did it anyway. I had plans for what eulogy to give if both my parents were hit by a car, how to escape or attract help if I were kidnapped, and how to survive if I were lost in the bush. It wasn’t as if I thought all these things were likely to happen. But I knew they could, and if they did, I wanted to be ready. In the end, it didn’t do me any good. Because I didn’t have a plan for what to do if my older brother put Dad’s shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toes. 

My mistake. (pg 2-3)

Seeing myself so clearly written across the page was disturbing. My older brother is alive and well, thank goodness, but I don’t know how many times I have done what Keri has – tried to beat back the absolute worst, most terrifying unknowns with careful planning.

Three years ago, at Christmas, I was shopping with my mother at Barnes and Noble. She was looking for a book for my sister-in-law, something with vampires, I believe, in the YA section. I was teaching preschool at the time and had wandered into the parenting section to browse. When my mother came to find me, I was reading the first chapter of a book called How to Raise Your Anxious Child, and I jokingly told her she should have read this before she had either of her children.

Honestly though, I was intrigued – others are out there, I thought, others with these hidden, irrational fears? Of course they are, because none of us are actually alone in our crazy. Each of our crazy is, if not universal, at least shared with some portion of the population. In The Shattering, Healey does a subtly wonderful job of taking my worst nightmare and turning it into a book I wanted to force into my skin.

This is a novel I wish had been written about fifteen years ago. I think I might have become a slightly different person if I had read it then – if I had been forcefully reminded that there’s no way to hold on so tight to the things you hope will never change. That there is no way to be good enough, polite enough, or strong enough to keep bad things from happening. The real story is in how you choose to handle the bad things when they inevitable come…

Check out Karen Healey’s blog and other books at