Fun Home, Alison Bechdel, 2006

Dad’s death was not a new catastrophe but an old one that had been unfolding very slowly for a long time. Alison Bechdel

SPOILERS

One of the instriguing aspects of the book challenge is that seemingly innocuous categories like “A book with a green spine”, which this book fits into, could have been anything. It’s such an arbitrary requirement that limits the book based on nothing more than aesthetics without placing any expectations on the content. It amazes me that I chose a work that was so affecting for no other reason that the color of the spine.

Not much about Alison Bechdel’s childhood was normal. Her educated, artistic parents settle in the small town of Beech Creek, PA (population 700) so her father, the local high school English teacher could also run the family funeral home (the titular Fun Home). They resided in a run-down gothic revival mansion though the family was not rich. Her father lived as a closeted gay man and Bechdel herself was on the verge of discovering/admitting that she was a lesbian.

Though it’s very much an autobiography, Bechdel’s groundbreaking work centers around the complicated relationship she had with her complicated father. He loomed as a shadowy figure rather than an actual living breathing human being. Though physically present, he remained emotionally detached as he grappled with conflicting forces: his repressed sexual urges and familial and social responsibilities. Trying to decipher her enigmatic father decades after his death, she recalls the good, the bad and the confounding parts of her journey from childhood to adulthood.

Bechdel is a complicated figure herself. Fascinated by images of masculinity and men’s fashion, she eschews anything girly or overtly feminine. In college, she comes out, a daunting yet liberating realization. Just months later, her father dies under mysterious circumstances. Though his death could easily have been tragic accident, she considers it suicide. It haunts Bechdel, leaving her to wonder if her announcement may have been a factor, if not the catalyst for his choice, a heavy burden for a young woman.

Each panel is highly detailed and dense with visual information, like still frames shot in deep focus. She doesn’t shy away from nudity or sexual situations which can be jarring—especially if you’re reading it in the waiting room of your kids’ orthodontist’s office. Being allowed so much access into someone’s life feels voyeuristic at times, mostly because Bechdel’s experience is so specific I couldn’t even pretend to relate though I certainly sympathize.

Overlaying her childhood on top of the literature that was so important to both her and her father she draws comparisons to tragic figures like Daedalus and Gatsby as well as authors like Camus and Joyce. It’s as if she’s analyzing him against the field of literature rather than psychology. Of course, with complicated questions and subjects, there’s never easy answers. Fun Home doesn’t pretend to offer any. Bechdel simply shares her thoughts, opinions and musings about her unique childhood.

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The Man Who Wasn’t There, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, 2001

But now, all the disconnected things seem to hook up.
Ethan Coen & Joel Coen

When I picked up my copy of the screenplay at the local used bookstore—The Open Book in Santa Clarita, CA— a few years ago, I was excited. The film is one of my favorites and I was delighted to find the script is a great read. Over the years I’ve culled my bookshelf but this one is a keeper and is one of the few that I already own that gets reread.

Ed Crane would be considered average if he wasn’t so forgettable.

In Northern California in 1949, he lives a quiet life as the second chair barber in his brother-in-law’s shop, resigned to the monotony of merely existing. His wife, Doris, has dreams. Achievable, realistic dreams. Her boss, Big Dave, has promised she can run a satellite of the department store he manages. He just needs capital to get it up and running.

The only problem is that Ed finds motivation of his own in the form of a possible opportunity/possible scheme involving an up-and-coming craze called dry cleaning. He just needs capital to become the silent partner while a man name Creighton Tolliver does the work.

Ed decides to blackmail Big Dave, since conveniently, he knows the two are carrying out an affair. Unfortunately, through a series of errors and bad luck, the plan falls apart.

The Man Who Wasn’t There examines how Ed, who prides himself on his simplicity, discovers and navigates his newfound complexities. After living life in a daze of apathy, Ed awakens and finds enjoyment in actually pursuing interests. He finally becomes motivated and driven which, sadly, leads to a rather Shakespearean end.

Perhaps one of the quietest and slowest films I’ve ever enjoyed, The Man Who Wasn’t There is a throwback to the golden age of film noir mysteries. Just a throwback. The story, filmed in black and white with deep contrasts between gloomy shadows and harsh light, simply unfolds before the viewer rather than keeping them guessing. Though far from predictable, there isn’t the obligatory twist at the end which only a handful of movies do well. Events don’t progress in the exact way you’d expect and, because it’s the Coen Brothers, there are some detours into surreal oddness along the way.

Reading the script is just as enjoyable as the film. It flows smoother than prose, without the clunky “said”s and multi-paragraph expositions. The dialogue is a study in how to develop character through what they say or, in laconic Ed’s case, don’t say. At least out loud. The text is lean and crisp, painting a picture in the reader’s mind without completely dictating every detail.

Admittedly, the script will mostly appeal to screenwriters or cinephiles. Screenwriting format may seem unreadable to those who’ve never read it before. If you are pursuing screenwriting, I would consider this a must read.

Embroideries, Marjane Satrapi, 2005


…Okay! I’m going to tell you this story. But you have to promise never to repeat it to anyone! Marjane Satrapi

In Persopolis, Satrapi shared her childhood with the reader. In Embroideries, she’s a young woman, sitting at the grown-up table with the women in her family as they share their stories about men, relationships and sex. Told in her irreverent voice and illustrated with her bold black and white strokes, Satrapi captures the casual conversations of these friends as they share secrets.

Through memories and insights revealed by Satrapi’s relatives and friends, the reader learns about a rarely considered topic, the sex lives of Iranian women. Each woman has her own story, ranging from humorous to heartbreaking, from predictable to scandalous. They talk about affairs and arranged marriages, human anatomy and reconstructive surgeries.

Some of the women have had fulfilling experiences, some not so much. One woman, Parvine, shares her horror story of being married at thirteen to a sixty-nine-year old general. Luckily, she escaped on her wedding night. Azzi, a desolate young woman, admits that her husband married her for the wedding gifts and asked for a divorce soon after consummating the marriage.

The conversation isn’t just about sex. The title is slang for hymenoplasty, a surgical procedure to “restore” virginity. This leads to other topics like Iran’s unfair obsession with female virginity or the expectation placed on women to keep themselves attractive even if it requires surgeries like butt lifts, breast augmentation, nose jobs and the titular embroidery.

Through it all the women retain their humor. There are serious differences between the way Iran and the west view and legislate sex.  That grown women could face serious social repercussions for being sexually active is ridiculous but that certainly isn’t unique to Iran. Even in the United States, virginity is considered a character trait rather than a temporary state. Women are shamed for engaging in sexual activities. Hell, women are shamed for rape by people who don’t understand consent. Yet, for Iranian women, there seems to be this looming entity, intangible and abstract. Sex comes with more serious repercussions. There’s a cost for sexuality that there isn’t here in the United States.

This review was difficult for me to write. The book itself is filled with brutal honesty and acerbic humor. It was a joy to hear from an oft-ignored demographic. I guess my hesitation comes from my ignorance about Iran and the social constructs in which these women live. I feel like the stupid American discovering a society that’s been there for centuries and staring slack-jawed at the realization that Iranian women are just like me in many ways. I’ll admit that they have more freedoms than I realized. They’ve found ways to retain their sense of selves in a system that tries to keep them invisible.

Chicken with Plums, Marjane Satrapi, 2006

Spoilers

You don’t remember me?
Marjane Satrapi

Marjane Satrapi’s work, honest and visceral, usually focuses on politics and society’s impact herself and those she loves. In the autobiographical Persepolis she reflects on the way the Islamic Revolution changed the course of her childhood. In Embroideries she studies the damaging repercussions unfair societal expectations have on Iranian women’s sexuality.

In Chicken with Plums, Satrapi steps away from the spotlight and shines it on her great uncle Nasser Ali Khan. Primarily, the last eight days of his life.

Tehran, 1958. In a fit of rage, Nasser’s wife, Nahid, destroys his beloved tar, a stringed musical instrument similar to a sitar. He fails to find one that fits him as well as his original. Realizing that his days of creating music are over, he takes to his bed and waits to die.

Of course, no one believes that a young healthy man could simply retire to bed and die. His friends and relatives visit, attempting to cheer him up, unaware of the seriousness of his mental state. As he lies in bed, he reflects on his past, his choices and his contributions to the world. Towards the end of his life he sees terrifying visions of the Angel of Death, but still longs to die.

On the surface, Nasser comes across as punitive and melodramatic. He rebukes Nahid’s apologetic offering of his favorite food, chicken with plums. He stubbornly rejects friends and family’s attempt to remind him of the good parts of his life. He seems like a sullen teenager sulking in his room. In fact, Chicken with Plums major weakness is the unlikable main character.

However, as one digs deeper and applies 2019 understanding to 1958 actions, we know this isn’t about the tar. From his early childhood, unhappiness has been like a heavy wool coat draped around Nasser’s shoulders. The final act that pushes him over the edge isn’t just a slight, it’s the belief that the happiest times of his life meant nothing to the person who means the most to him. It’s the death of any chance at happiness. Having withstood the initial crushing disappointment year earlier, Nasser’s life has been little more than biding his time until death.

Drawn in Satrapi’s signature harsh black and white and told in her cheeky voice, Chicken With Plums imagines Nasser’s final week as he makes peace with his choice. She doesn’t paint him as a saint or hero, just a man who had his reasons.

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., Charles Johnson and Bob Adelman, 2008

I’ve seen the promised land. And I may not get there with you.But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Black and white photos have a way of stopping time. Even when the subject moves, the picture has an eerie stillness that color photos don’t. There’s something elegant and regal about black and white that makes that moment seem paramount, even when it’s just one of many moments in an ordinary day.

Johnson and Adelman’s biography, Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr., captures hundreds of moments in Dr. King’s short life. A few from his childhood, a few with his family, but mostly Dr. King and his aides fighting for racial justice. Some show him getting arrested not only for his civil disobedience, but overblown violations like failing to switch his driver’s license to another state in a timely manner. Most of the pictures are of Dr. King as he speaks to crowds of varying sizes.

In prose that is powerful but never melodramatic, writer Johnson recounts the big moments of Dr. King’s life—Birmingham, Selma, the Nobel Prize—as well as the lesser known verities that showed his humanity. Complemented with pictures compiled by activist and photojournalist Bob Adelman, the book offers a fuller view into Dr. King’s committment and perseverance. In one disturbing photo, Dr. King calmly sits after being stabbed with a letter opener by mentally troubled black woman, the letter opener still sticking out of his chest. In the weeks following the incident, he begged authorities to treat her mercifully and get her the help she needed. In a happier photo,
he sits at a piano with his wife, Coretta, and their children joyfully belting out songs.

The book doesn’t presume to know Dr. King’s thoughts or feelings about the events contained on its pages. Certainly, a man as eloquent and vocal as
Dr. King didn’t need someone to articulate his emotions for him. It does however give context and history to those events which makes Dr. King’s work all the more remarkable. One can only imagine the physical exhaustion he felt not only from his non-stop traveling but also the mental stress of worrying about his family’s safety as well as his own.  One can only guess his deep disappointment when faced with the setbacks on what at times probably seemed an impossible journey.

At forty-four, I’m now five years older than Dr. King. To think of all he accomplished in such a short time with so many obstacles is staggering. I’m struck by the youthful energy that radiates from the photos, even those taken near the end of his life when he must have been so tired from the travel and the strain of his mission. Learning new information about Martin Luther King, Jr. gave me a new appreciation for him.

Remembering Martin Luther King, Jr. humanizes a man who’s taken on a mythic status in our society.

The Little Book of Feminist Saints, Julia Pierpont, 2018

Julia Pierpont, 2018

Though the name may be misleading to Catholics, The Little Book of Feminist Saints does not limit its subjects to (or even include) Catholic saints. The word Feminist in the title is a huge clue that this book isn’t going to sing the praises of St. Catherine or St. Bernadette.

Instead, it borrows the format from the Little Book of Saints. In those books there are usually 365 saints, each one given a day of the year as their ‘feast day’. They include a short passage about the saint, describing their early lives and what they did to become a saint.

Pierpont has compiled a list of ninety-nine accomplished women and given us a brief synopsis about them. These blurbs are paired with illustrations by Manjit Thapp.

Aside from the short biography, each entry includes the woman’s name, birth year and home country and what she is the matron saint of, (i.e. photographer Dorothea Lange is the Matron Saint of the self-taught, gay liberation activist Marsha P. Johnson is the Matron Saint of protest) The women are assigned “feast days”. Sometimes the day coincides with their birthdays, sometimes with their best-known accomplishment. However, the reason for the date is never given so if one wants to know why, for instance, Civil War surgeon Mary Edwards Walker’s feast day falls on August 12, one must scour the internet and discover that it was the day she was released as part of a prisoner exchange after being captured by Confederate troops.

Most entries are straightforward. A brief history and a paragraph or so about their claim to fame. Some entries are creative and clever. Maria Montessori’s blurb is interspersed with the Montessori school daily schedule. Mother and daughter politician Ann and Cecile Richards’ entry is comprised of feminist quotes by both women.

Though the idea is simple, the book is uneven, starting with the title. Aside from the word saint being a little misleading, the word “feminist” adds some confusion. When I read it, I thought the women in the book were feminists, actively promoting women’s rights in their corner of the world. Now I think feminist refers to the reader. These are women feminists would admire and be inspired by, even if the women themselves weren’t feminist.

Some entries are bizarre and don’t really honor the people. Anne Frank’s blurb is more about the tree outside her window than her. Congresswoman Barbara Jordan’s choppy write-up is unnecessarily written in second person.  Mother and daughter Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley must share a page. The tenuous connection between Wollstonecraft’s truly feminist “The Vindication of the Rights of Women” and Shelley’s gothic horror “Frankenstein” feels forced.

The choice of the women felt uneven as well though I sincerely applaud the inclusion of different ethnicities, religions, countries and eras (the times range from BC to the present).

Some are obvious choices. They’ve dedicated their lives to empowering women: Virginia Woolf, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Sanger

Some are obscure: Faith Spotted Eagle, Hypatia of Alexandria, Wangari Maathai, Bella Abzug

Some are accomplished but not necessarily feminist. They were simply the first or most prominent woman in their field: Marie Curie, Ada Lovelace, Amelia Earhart, Sally Ride

Some weren’t even women at all, but young girls thrown into situations beyond their control: Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges, Phyllis Wheatley, Malala Yousafzai

And some are like, yeah, I guess: Helen Hayes, Madonna, Emily Dickenson

And while I don’t begrudge any of the women in the book, there are some noticeable voids: Mae Jemison, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomeyer, Margaret Atwood, Coretta Scott King, Aung San Suu Kyi, Tori Amos, Sweden’s Queen Christina, Biddy Mason, etc.

All in all, it’s a quick read and a good starting point to delve deeper women’s contributions. Older kids (fifth grade and up) would do well to use it to find a topic for a report or presentation. Others might find the entries of interest as trivia but certainly not comprehensive.  I appreciate the spirit of the book. It’s a decent compilation of famous and not so famous women who have done great things.

Excuses, excuses

When I started this blog, I was using the book challenge to guide my choices. My intention was to read a book that fulfilled every challenge over the course of 52 weeks. Then life came along. So, I’ve missed a few months. But that’s okay. I’m not going to beat myself up over it.

What I was more concerned with was the feeling of dread that came creeping in when it came time to pick a book. As I whittled away the categories, clearing out the ones that excited me, I was left with the ones I was less enthusiastic about. It reminded me of my college days as an English major. I had an unrelenting professor who insisted we read an assigned book a week and write a page about it. By the end of the semester, which coincided with the end of my college career, I was so burned out on reading, I didn’t read another book for years.

Through no fault of the challenge, I began to feel that reading was a chore rather than a joy. Part of the problem is that I’m a path-of-least-resistance type, so as the challenges get less fun my instinct is to seek the easy way out. The book over 600 pages, a book that challenges my viewpoint, a book that makes me cry… these are all categories I’m dreading, but will conquer, nonetheless.

Another problem is that I get fanatical about things. When that happens, all I want to do is think about those things. My daughter and I recently watched a doc called She Makes Comics, that offers a history of women’s oft-ignored contributions to the world of comic books.  I’ve been sorta preoccupied with reading comics by women, even when they didn’t fit in to any of the categories.

So what I’m saying is, I’ll be updating soon, but not just books that fit the 52 week challenge. It’ll probably be a little comic heavy for a few weeks.