Mars reviews Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel cover

It’s hard to boil this one down. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is a complex portrait of a complex family. Let no one tell you that graphic novels cannot be intense reckonings of literature, especially not when they have become staples of the modern lesbian literary canon and have been reproduced as a very successful Tony-award winning Broadway production.

In a very basic sense, Fun Home is an autobiography of the author’s life, from a young tomboy to an out-and-proud lesbian, in the context of her father’s life right up until his maybe suicide, maybe accidental death only a few short months after she came out to her parents and in turn came to learn of her father’s own troubled sexuality. Bechdel paints a portrait of her father as a stern, intellectual figure who was clearly devoted to his family but struggled to reconcile his role within it with his apparent homosexuality. The backdrop of this story is the 1970s (the author recalls passing New York City’s Stonewall Inn as a girl shortly after the infamous riots), a time during which sexual or gender queerness was criminal. We must wonder that if Bechdel’s collegiate sexual awakening was radical, how can we understand her father’s own lifetime of repressed sexuality? This is among the key tensions that Bechdel is trying to work out here.

In Fun Home, her father Bruce is remembered as a high school English teacher and sometimes small-town mortician obsessed with classic literature and 19th century historical preservation. He is defined by his obsessions because, as the author notes, they are the clearest lenses through which she could understand him. Indeed, Bechdel uses an apt metaphor comparing her father to the Greek figure Daedalus and herself to his son Icarus, and wonders: “Was Daedalus really stricken with grief when Icarus fell into the sea? Or just disappointed by the design failure?”

As children become adults, there is a well-known phenomenon of disillusionment which occurs, whereby magical parental authority is stripped away and parents can be understood as the flawed, struggling humans who they actually are. That Bechdel didn’t have the opportunity to reach this stage with her father, who died while she was in college at the age of 44, is an explanation for his almost mythological status here. It’s also evident in the conflicting feelings of resentment and affection that Bechdel’s self-stylized character struggles with throughout the book.

As affectionately as Bechdel illustrates nights playing piano with her father, strutting around in his old suits, and borrowing books from his personal library upon recommendation, readers begin this story by seeing a violent, abusive, and overall terrifying father figure. Family secrets, comic and shameful, feature as important narrative points in this book. Although it is tucked away in the acknowledgements, I think the best summary of this story is this note from Bechdel to her remaining family: “Thanks to Helen, Christian, and John Bechdel for not trying to stop me from writing this book.”

This is not lighthearted reading. The author’s ambivalent narration of events as they are recalled from her often vague childhood journals are riddled with obsessive-compulsive inaccuracies can be jarring. On the scale of tragic versus comic, this life story does seem to lean more one way than another. As stated from the outset though, this is a complex portrait of a complex family. It is full of rich literary references, scenes of a childhood innocence preserved through childish ignorance, and the longing for a familial connection that never achieved its full potential.

For more info on Alison Bechdel and Fun Home, check out this interview she did with The Guardian.

Susan reviews My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi

Nagata Kabi’s My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness is an autobiographical manga about the creator’s life as a young queer Japanese woman with depression, who decides that the best way to resolve her difficulties connecting with people and her understanding of her own sexuality is to hire an escort.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneless is a a really fascinating look at the creator’s life, especially because the way she talks about her depression is extremely relatable. Some of the mental loops she describes and her resolutions (She talks about how she always treated herself and her accomplishments like crap because she couldn’t love herself, but once she started actually looking after herself the people around her started treating her better! And there is a panel of her yelling “If this is how it is, I’ve got nothing to lose! I’ll claw my way out of bed with my last dying breath!” which is how I feel about my mental health too!) are extremely familiar, but presented in a way that softens the blow. She makes me laugh even as I’m nodding along. She doesn’t shy away from talking about the problems she’s had, or how awkward she is, and it’s impressive.

(I found the sections where she spoke about her mother to be very strange, but in much the same way that I found the way Alison Bechdel spoke about hers in Are You My Mother? to be strange, so I don’t think that part of the book was ever going to work for me. Your mileage may vary!)

The art style is very minimal and sketchy, which works for the narrative of the book. It does so much of the heavy lifting to keep things on this side of funny and bearable, even when she’s talking about serious matters like her eating disorder. I found it especially effective for the scenes at the love hotel, because it’s not presented in a titillating way! I’m a fan of story about sex workers than manages to not centre the male gaze, and the fact that this story focuses on how awkward Nagata Kabi felt herself to be really works. I especially loved the follow-up comic where she talks to another escort from the agency, and the authorial comment that it’s much easier to speak to people who know her from her manga, because “it was like I’d submitted material about my personality in advance.”

Basically, this was an entertaining manga that speaks frankly about Nagata Kabi’s depression and recovery, and the way that hiring a sex worker changed how she thought about herself. It was really cool, and I enjoyed it a lot!

(The follow-up manga, My Solo Exchange Diary, has also been licensed and should be out this month!)

[Caution warning: depression, eating disorders]

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-winning media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Kalyanii reviews Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness by Cat Cora

 

cooking as fast as i can cat cora

For years, I’ve admired Cat Cora for her ability to take on the most notable male chefs of the day, all the while prepared with a quip in her Southern twang and sporting a smile that invariably brings me to my knees. Self-assured and deservedly so, Ms. Cora’s star had risen in the midst of Food Network’s extended heyday. Her commanding presence and newfound celebrity status offered an image of infallibility as well as culinary brilliance. Watching her throw down in Iron Chef’s Kitchen Stadium, there appeared not a chink in her armor.

When I opened to the first page of Cooking as Fast as I Can: A Chef’s Story of Family, Food, and Forgiveness, I expected a tidy yet endearing memoir, one that might recount a few challenges along the journey toward hard-earned culinary stardom. A work that would enhance her accessibility while painting a portrait of a woman who has let nothing get in her way. Yet, I was unprepared for the uncompromising honesty and no-holds-barred self-reflection that I encountered within its pages.

Born to an unwed teenage mother on April 3rd of 1967, Cat, initially named Melanie, landed in the Mississippi Children’s Home, where she was adopted by a loving couple one week later. Virginia Lee and Spiro Cora of Jackson, Mississippi provided her with a rather idyllic childhood, complete with strong familial bonds, Greek and Southern culinary histories and frequent family outings.

For the young Cat, however, some of the family’s travels were tainted by the sexual abuse perpetuated by AH, the son of a family friend, nine years older than herself, who had made a habit of molesting her from the time she was six years old, warning her not to tell her parents or they would hate her, stop loving her and think she’s “cheap trash.” Fortunately, or not so much, when Cat was ten or perhaps eleven years old, her father walked into the bathroom where AH had cornered and proceeded to have his way with her. Initially relieved that the secret was out, Cat grew heartbroken upon witnessing the disgust on her father’s face. Rather than having AH’s hide, Spiro Cora turned and walked out, leaving her alone with her perpetrator.

There is very little of the polite or demure within Ms. Cora’s narrative. She tells things as they were (and currently are) without sugar-coating or diminishing the gravity of any given situation. Her tone is intensely conversational throughout the book, bare-bones honest without a hint of the melodramatic. She even throws in an f-bomb or two, which I appreciated to no end. Within her memoir, there is no denying it, Cat Cora gets real.

Not once does Ms. Cora shy away from her appreciation for the ladies, the strength and vitality of her apparently impressive libido or an admission of the trysts enjoyed while in a steady relationship. Seemingly unconcerned with the potential of judgements passed, Ms. Cora tells it as she sees and, yes, lived it.

When it comes to present-day dynamics, Ms. Cora remains forthcoming in her remembrances regarding events that pertain to her life with her wife, Jennifer, and their four young boys. She tackles head-on the challenges of motherhood, the residue created by several jet-set years as a celebrity chef as well as the fallout from her excessive alcohol consumption, which is truly where the rubber meets the road and I found myself most astounded by her willingness to self-disclose.

Even in conclusion, Ms. Cora chooses not to flaunt her involvement in twelve-step meetings as resolution in her relationship with alcohol nor as a happy ending to her marriage nor, for that matter, any other aspect of her life. She simply invites us to meet her where she stands, preparing dinner for friends while her wife is away, practicing yoga, and the boys play underfoot.

Danika reviews Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha

dirty-river

I feel completely unqualified to talk about this book. After reading (and falling in love with) Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book of poetry Bodymap, I knew I had to read her memoir. The things I loved about Bodymap are present in Dirty River as well: Piepzna-Samarasinha’s strong voice, her sharp and precise words, and the deep dive into disability, queerness, poverty, abuse, and survival. Although this is prose, it’s clearly written by a poet: the imagery and language are evocative and precise.

This is a story that lays it all out on the table. It’s vulnerable and resilient. She explores what it means to survive. What constitutes healing or “getting out”. Dirty River tackles a lot, but it’s accessible and engrossing. I don’t have the words to contain Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s writing. Pick it up. These are the stories that nourish.

Danika reviews The Family Tooth by Ellis Avery

familytooth

As soon as I finished The Last Nude by Ellis Avery, I immediately added her to my mental list of favourite authors, despite the fact that it was the only thing I’d ever read by her. Some stories are like that. The Family Tooth is a very different book, but it definitely has helped secure her place on that list.

The Family Tooth is a memoir composed of linked essays. Some of these are available as Kindle singles, or the whole book is available zine-style in the author’s Etsy shop. At first glance, it can seem disconnected. The essays cover Avery’s grief over the death of her mother, as well as her journey through dealing with severe arthritis and later cancer, partly through radically restricting her diet. Because they do concentrate on different subjects, the essays can stand on their own, but I think they’re much more powerful when read in sequence.

In the introduction to this collection, Avery warns that part of this purpose of these essays is to detail her discoveries about treatment of her illness so that other people with similar symptoms can use her research to help in their own lives. She encourages the average reader to skip these dry medical passages. It’s a testament to Ellis Avery’s writing that I realized at the end of the book that I had totally forgotten this warning, and despite the detail given, I had never noticed any “dry” segments.

The book begins by discussing her mother’s death, and the complex relationship Ellis Avery had with her mother–an alcoholic and emotionally distant figure in her life. Later essays that are primarily concerned with Avery’s illness still bring in this processing, including thought-provoking parallels between her mother’s life and her own that recontextualize and complicate the initial impression we have of her.

It’s Avery’s writing that really makes these essays stand out. She knows just how to give a detail or mental image that elevates the whole narrative. She weaves in lines that link these disparate subjects together effortlessly. I found myself reading lines out loud to my roommate, and at one point we both paused after I read out a sentence and then said simultaneously “That’s such good writing.”

Grief memoirs and illness memoirs are not usually genres that I gravitate towards, but I will continue to read anything this author decides to write, and I would recommend you join me.

Danika reviews Kicking the Habit: A Lesbian Nun Story by Jeanne Cordova

kicking

I will admit, I find the idea of lesbian nuns fascinating. I love that there are multiple books on the subject. It actually makes total sense: historically, at least in the Western world, one of the few avenues that women had available to them if they didn’t want to get married to men and have children was to become a nun. Is it surprising that lesbians are over-represented in that number? In addition to this being a lesbian nun book, it’s also by an author I already enjoy. Cordova wrote a memoir about her activism titled When We Were Outlaws which I reviewed at the Lesbrary previously, so I knew that her writing style agree with me. It also ended up being an interesting prologue to When We Were Outlaws: I wouldn’t have guessed that passionate lesbian activist spent her childhood yearning to be a nun.

This isn’t as scandalous as the subtitle “A Lesbian Nun Story” would have you believe. In fact, it’s almost the opposite of that. Cordova as a postulant is hopelessly naive. The reader knows better, but young Jeanne wanders through training confused about why the church is so strict about “particular friendships” and what all the blushing and hand-holding is about between nuns she knows. More than a story about being a lesbian nun, Breaking the Habit is about Cordova’s disillusionment about convent life and about the plans she had been dreaming about since childhood. She describes wanting to be a nun as being in love with God, and primarily this is a story about falling out of love and about finding the world to be wider, darker, and also full of more possibility than she was aware of.

Overall, it’s a sweet story about coming out to yourself in an unusual setting. I think this works better as a prologue to When We Were Outlaws than as a standalone story, because it is fairly simple as a narrative. The writing is strong, though, and if you are intrigued by the premise, I don’t think it will disappoint.