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.

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.