25 June 2010

Book Review: Fun Home

Title:  Fun Home
Author: Alison Bechdel

Challenges: 100+ Reading Challenge, Reading Resolutions, Women UnBound, GLBT Challenge, Graphic Novels Challenge, Hogwarts Reading Challenge, Non-Fiction Five,

Buy  |  Borrow  |  Accept  |  Avoid

The Short and Sweet of It
Alison Bechdel recounts a childhood complicated by a father in the closet and a personal struggle with gender expectations and sexuality.  This is a case-in-point of why I love memoirs as graphic novels.

A Bit of a Ramble
Wandering around Barnes and Noble in The Villages, an infamous retirement community in Florida, in desperate search for Patrick Ness's The Ask and the Answer, I happened upon this graphic novel.  I had never heard of it before - despite the fact that everyone and their mother had already read it - but it sounded interesting.  I didn't want to buy it at the time because of the silly book buying ban (which I was clearly ready to violate for Ness), but I was so intrigued I actually made a voice recording on my phone to remind myself to buy it later (this has sense become a common practice).  When my birthday came around and I decided to go crazy, I finally bought it.  And now I've finally read it.

Wonderful.  This graphic novel is a powerful recounting of Bechdel's sexual awakening coupled with her dysfunctional relationship with her parents.  A large part of the novel concerns the dichotomy of appearance and reality.  Bechdel's family appears rather perfect: her parents are literary and artistic, the home beautiful, the family rather nuclear.  Yet in reality, the father is a closet homosexual, the mother is struggling to hold it all together, and the children are often times neglected - everyone lives rather solitary lives, removed from each other by secrets, personal obsessions, and disappointment:
And to top it all off, she relates it all to literary works, sometimes in direct references and other times through the titles of books various characters are reading. At times, books seem to be the primary way Bechdel and her father communicate, and this literary shorthand transferred into her writing.  I was particularly struck by two references:

At the very beginning, she compares her father to Daedalus, a man "indifferent to the human cost of his projects."  Bechdel's father obsessed over home restoration and decoration, pouring his creative energy into projects which he forced upon his kids, and he put more effort into home decor and gardening than he did into raising his children.  I had just finished reading Rick Riordan's The Battle of the Labyrinth, which - as "labyrinth" indicates - revolves around Daedalus. Two references to Daedalus in two days; what are the odds?  Outside of the strange coincidence, I also found the comparison quite apt.

The other reference that caught my eye was the continuous and prolonged comparison of Ulysses to Bechdel and her father's journey.  Ulysses is one of those books I've always wanted to read but pass over continuously for easier fare.

The artwork in Fun Home - as you can see - is deceptively simple in its subdued tones. At first glance, this lack of color suggests monotony, and yet the level of detail in the artwork is striking and adds great depth and import to the images. Speaking of the images, you should be aware that this is a graphic novel for mature audiences: sexual activities are explicitly portrayed. Don't worry; they're not displayed in the below frames.

And yes, that's a Spanish version. ; )

The Filmic Connection
Allison Bechdel, in her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, gave us a new way to think about women in film which is now called The Bechdel Test.  The test has viewers ask three questions while watching a film:
1. Are there two or more female characters with names?
2. Do they talk to each other?
3. If they do talk to each other, do they talk about something other than a man?
While these questions may seem trite, if you give it a whirl, you will probably be amazed at the answers. Certainly the worth of a film is not in the answers to these questions; but it does raise some important questions about the easy acceptance we have towards the unequal representation of women in film.

Here's the original comic strip:

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Question:  Why is it that memoirs as graphic novels are so enjoyable?

16 comments:

  1. Funny, I just reviewed this last week! I really enjoyed the book, and generally have been enjoying graphic novels because they make a big impact and can be read very quickly! I love the film application - I think she is on to something.

    Had to laugh that you were shopping in The Villages. What on earth were you doing up there? That place has an interesting reputation!

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  2. I haven't read this, but now it is definitely on my want list. Also, I LOVE that idea of how to test movies! Ridiculously awesomely crazy. Thinking about it... not many have all three do they. Sad and scary!

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  3. As you know, I really didn't like this book, but my reasons were complicated. Even over a year later, I struggle with it. I just don't like the implication that her father was a closet homosexual and that's why he became a pedophile and had affairs with those kids! I don't like when people association homosexuality with pedophelia, because they are two very different things. At the same time, I can't fault her for saying all that, because it's what she saw. So I hate that I disliked it, but I can't help but to continue disliking it.

    Yeah. Complicated.

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  4. This was the first graphic novel I read and I really enjoyed it. I totally understand Amanda's feelings above, but for me, it was much more about all the literary references and how high-level the writing was. It made me realize how complex a GN could be.

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  5. I agree with Amanda on disliking homosexuality being associated with pedophilia. I think it would be hard for me to get past that.

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  6. I read another review for this that said how great it was! The problem I seem to have is the very limited selection of graphic novels at most of the bookstores I've been to. I'll see maybe one of the graphic novels I have on my list if that... and I only have like 3-4 on my list at any given time, lol!

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  7. I loved this book so much. And I've just finished The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For, which was just as good!

    Also, and jumping in on the discussion, I think the story of Bechdel's father says a lot more about the culture of homophobia that leads to misery and repression than it does about any intrinsic relationship between homosexuality and paedophilia.

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  8. I love that you made a voice recording on your phone reminding you to buy this one! I am just as pad--I usually carry around a pen and a pad of paper at B&N.

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  9. You realize you're just giving me more of a reason to blow my own book buying ban! I've wanted to read this one for years, and for some reason I never spring for it. That needs to change!

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  10. I did not enjoy this book at all (even though I desperately wanted to) but it had nothing to do with the reasons that Amanda brought up. In fact, I never made the association that homosexuality led to pedophilia, or in the very least, that was what was being viewed by the author's young eyes. I suppose i could read it again to see if *I* think that is justified, but *shrug* I didn't care for it to begin with, so why bother, right? (Ahem, could I have enough commas in one sentence? LOL)

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  11. Rae - I think it's a good one to have on your wish list!

    Sandy - My grandparents live in Wildwood during the winter - a short jaunt from The Villages - and we were there for the Barnes and Noble. I've always joked that The Villages could be a soap opera, a dirty dirty but richie rich retirement community.

    Amy - I really the love the film application too! I'm definitely using it this fall in my intro to film class.

    Amanda - Understandable. I guess I just saw it differently because it was honest. See my response to Stephanie too. :) I kept thinking about this...

    Aarti - Exactly! I thought the story was very well-told.

    Stephanie - I don't necessarily think it was a matter of causation but I could be wrong about that; I'm too lazy to go double check in the book right now. :)

    I don't like it when ignorant people claim causation between pedophilia and homosexuality either, whether it's that homosexuality causes adults to abuse children or that being abused as a child causes homosexuality.

    But I'll read a book where a homosexual is a pedophile just like I will if a heterosexual is one. Sometimes a gay man likes little boys and its not about causation; it's about being an evil SOB. Homosexuals can be just as bad as straight people (and vice versa).

    I hope that makes sense. Sorry for the long winded answer, but I was really thinking about Amanda's comment too. :)

    Jenny - I have the same problem. My local B&N, the only real bookstore, has about 2 shelves of graphic novels/comics with a very limited number of choices. I do a lot of shopping online.

    Ana - I've been reading the Dykes to Watch Out for Blog, which has a great sense of humor and still a lot of thought to it. And see my response to Stephanie for more on the homosexuality-pedophilia issue in the book.

    Stephanie - I have always been too lazy for the pen/paper wrote. I either forget one or the other, or a I lose the list I made, etc. :)

    Andi - Yay! You guys make me break my non-book-buying vows all the time, so it's nice to hear I may have corrupted someone else.

    Christina - I loved the commas. Nicely done! And I agree that if you didn't enjoy it to begin with, there's no reason, no reason at all, to go back and read it again. Some commas for you. :)

    Stag - This is the only one you've read? You should read more GNs.

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  12. I love graphic memoirs too and this one looks like it's beautifully illustrated.

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  13. This looks so good! I'm a big fan of graphic novel memoirs. I hope the library has it, since I tend not to buy them myself (expensive, and I tend to read them so fast).

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  14. I think this will be my next attempt at a graphic novel.

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  15. Kathy - Graphic memoirs are just wonderful for some reason. I think I like seeing how the person envisions his/her life.

    Kim - See above comment. I always feel like that with graphic novels; the cost compared to the time spent reading is rather disparate.

    Jenners - I think it should be!

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