Saturday, July 26, 2008

Fun Home (A Family Tragicomic)

I read a chapter of Alison Bechdel's Fun Home in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 (ed. Dave Eggers). Usually the Nonrequired books are filled with amazing things. The 2007 version was uneven, to say the least - but it had a couple of gems. The first is an essay by Conan O'Brien (a commencement address to a high school), which is worth the price of the book (or at least sitting down in your local bookstore for the 15 minutes it takes to read) and the second is that chapter that introduced me to Bechdel.

Fun Home is a memoir about Bechdel and her family. Her father was the director of a funeral home, and "fun home" was their nickname for the building. Bechdel's story-telling and artistry are really quite breathtaking. Fun Home chronicles her own awareness of her sexuality as a child and a young adult, and her growing understanding of her father's homosexuality, which was largely a shameful secret to him. Bechdel beautifully and honestly writes about her relationship with her father - a man who was not outwardly loving or affectionate, but intellectually challenging and in other ways, supportive.

Fun Home is one of those comic books that prove what a "high" art form they can be - Bechdel relates her story to James Joyce's Ulysses, and includes references to dozens of other books and influential works of literature. I found myself wanting to take notes to put together a hell of a reading list.

Bechdel also writes another strip - Dykes to Watch Out For - it looks like they're mostly online.

I'd recommend Fun Home to just about anyone - but especially comic book readers. It's a sensitive and amazing story, and I think she proves how useful the medium is for memoirs!

The Bean Trees

I was not very impressed by The Bean Trees, by Barbara Kingsolver (1988). I think her Poisonwood Bible is close to brilliant, and now I don't know whether or not to read Pigs in Heaven, which is sitting on my shelf (any opinions?)

The Bean Trees is about a young woman who, for no particular reason, decides to leave her hometown in Kentucky for parts unknown. On her journey, she congratulates herself for not getting pregnant in high school, changes her name, and is given a nameless child by strangers during a brief stop. She keeps her.

Her car breaks down in Arizona (where Kingsolver lives) and there she stays, getting by with the help of kindly locals who spill out homespun advice. I am not a fan of proffered hillbilly homilies given as if they were incredibly wise nuggets of truth. With about one per page, these statements made me gag again and again. "Everybody deserves her own piece of the pie", "If the truth was a snake, it would have bit me" and so on...

At times the book approaches a kind of Tales of the City sort of philosophy - in that what it's really "about" is people choosing less traditional lifestyles, raising their children in different ways, and creating a matriarchal society for themselves. But while Tales of the City is really interesting and compelling, I wasn't really interested in the characters of The Bean Trees.

Because there's essentially no plot, the book really drags through the middle, and I found myself turning more than one page at a time to make it through to the end. Quite disappointing.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Murder in the Dark

I just finished another book of short stories by Margaret Atwood called Murder in the Dark. These are short, short stories, and I finished the slim volume in a matter of hours all together, but it really took several days because after each story I had to close it and think about it for a while.

This 1983 book blew my mind kind of like her more recent Moral Disorder did. It's strongly feminist (natch), with a lot of rather virulent (but right on) reactions to patriarchy. "Simmering" is a story about men taking over the kitchens of the world (it begins, "It started in the backyards.") and then turning cooking into a masculine act and a type of supremacy. As if to say, it doesn't matter if we change the traditional gender roles, men will find a way to turn it into a power play.

Several stories, like "Women's Novels" and "Happy Endings" address books and the reading and writing of books. If the term chick lit had been invented then, it would have been in "Women's Novels", where Atwood brilliantly plays with simple language in a way that's both hilarious and insightful:
Men's novels are about men. Women's novels are about men too but from a different point of view. You can have a men's novel with no women in it except possibly the landlady or the horse, but you can't have a women's novel with no men in it. Sometimes men put women in men's novels but they leave out some of the parts: the heads, for instance, or the hands. Women's novels leave out parts of the men as well. Sometimes it's the stretch between the belly button and the knees, sometimes it's the sense of humour. It's hard to have a sense of humour in a cloak, in a high wind, on a moor.

When You are Engulfed in Flames

When You are Engulfed in Flames is the latest book of short stories/essays by David Sedaris. I'm a big Sedaris fan, so I broke down and bought the hardcover, which I usually don't do, but I couldn't wait. Possibly it is better to wait for the softcover, but it's a very enjoyable read. Not nearly as laugh-out-loud funny as Me Talk Pretty One Day, but not as mournful as ... oh, I forget which one... where he writes about his mother dying.

I'd already read several of the essays in various other publications - The New Yorker and GQ and so on. Because they were great stories, I was thrilled to read them again. The best is probably "Cry Baby" about his seatmate on a plane crying throughout his journey. And the last third or so of the book is about his three-month trip to Japan to quit smoking. It's beyond self-indulgent, but that's also partly the point.

My favorite essays were the ones that made me laugh and then surprised me at the end by turning the table toward seriousness, like "Cry Baby" or "All the Beauty You Will ever Need" which address a certain view of homosexuality:
It's astonishing the amount of time that certain straight people devote to gay sex - trying to determine what goes where and how often. They can't imagine any system outside their own, and seem obsessed with the idea of roles, both in bed and out of it. Who calls whom a bitch? Who cries harder when the cat dies? Which one spends more time in the bathroom? I guess they think that it's that cut-and-dried, though of course it's not. Hugh might do the cooking, and actually wear an apron while he's at it, but he also chops the firewood, repaires the hot-water heater, and could tear off my arm with not more effort than it takes to uproot a dandelion.

You know what I find most curious about this book? At the end there's an "About the Author" paragraph which reads:
David Sedaris's half-dozen books have been translated into twenty-five languages, including Estonian, Greek, and Bahasa. His essays appear frequently in The New Yorker and are heard on Public Radio International's This American Life.
I just find that so odd. Do you think he wrote that himself? Bahasa? What the hell is that?

BTW, the cover art is from a less-well known painting by van Gogh - so, you see, he did have a little sense of humor!