Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Title: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
Author: Alison Bechdel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print

I bought my copy of Fun Home at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival, a riotous celebration of the comic arts that happens at the Toronto Reference Library every May. This was around the same time that the book’s sequel, Are You My Mother? was published.

About the book: Alison Bechdel’s father Bruce was a high school English teacher, a funeral home operator, and a man who worked tirelessly to restore his Victorian-era home to its original glory. He was a husband and father of three children. On the outside, the Bechdels were a functional nuclear family. However, soon after Bechdel came out to her parents, she learned her father was also gay and that he had sexual relationships with his students.

Months after her announcement, her mother filed for divorce – and two weeks after that, her father got run over by a truck.

Was it an accident? Was it suicide? Bechdel thinks it was the latter, and in Fun Home, she analyzes her memories, books, and family letters in an attempt to understand who Bruce was and why he chose a life that dissatisfied him so deeply.

What I liked: Bechdel’s analysis of her and her father’s lives, and her ability to wed it to distinct visuals, was inventive and involving. I remember one page in particular where she mapped out the places where her father was born, lived, and died, and circumscribed the area within one tidy circle to reveal that all of these important things happened within one mile’s distance of each other. The narrative loops back and forth upon itself, and parcels out new information at a measured pace, showing the readers new facets of the same story as it progresses. I appreciated Bechdel’s depth of focus in both her writing and her visuals – nearly everything is in its right place. I admire how much effort went into writing and drawing something so emotionally painful, and how much more effort went into making it all look seamless.

What I disliked: I don’t know if this trait was also visible in her long-running comic strip “Dykes to Watch Out For” but Fun Home‘s authorial voice was depressingly distant. The language Bechdel used to describe her family, her thoughts, and her experiences was detached and clinical. I understand that this is supposed to reflect her own experience of growing up within such a singular household – indeed, Bechdel herself is quite aware of how distant she sounds – but it still left me uneasy. On top of that, all of the interwoven references to the canon of Western literature were so dense that without the author’s explanations on how these stories fit into her own life I would have been lost.

The verdict: Fun Home genuinely challenged me in a way unlike nearly any other book I’ve read so far in 2012. Part of me was grateful that my family was never that repressed and dysfunctional. Part of me couldn’t fathom how another person could feel so detached from their father’s death. But another part of me was acutely aware of how little I knew and understood about classical literature. I was intimidated when I read it, because it felt chock full of references both visual and textual that were extremely cultured and beyond my comprehension. This was the first book I read this year where I put it down feeling that I needed to read it over again to truly understand it.

Up next: Redemption in Indigo by Karen Lord

Correction, July 8th: I originally stated in my review that Alison Bechdel learned her dad was gay only after he died. However, she learned this soon after she came out to her parents, months before his death. The “About the book” section has been updated accordingly.

Book Review: The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey

Title: The Steel Seraglio
Author: Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Rating: 5 out of 5
Format: Print

I have to admit that I was a little shell-shocked after finally getting through The Terror, and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to read anything for a while because my brain had turned to mush. The Steel Seraglio happily disabused me of this notion.

Note: I am a personal acquaintance of the publicity assistant for this book’s publisher, ChiZine Publications.

About the book: The sultan Bokhari Al-Bokhari, ruler of the desert city of Bessa, has been deposed by the zealot Hakkim Mehdad. Mehdad, disdainful of the pleasures of the flesh, at first sentences the sultan’s 365 concubines to exile. However, when he learns that the seraglio harbours the sultan’s only remaining heir, he orders them to be executed instead. Now, these women must use their wits and the talents of their greatest members and allies – Gursoon, the dead sultan’s wisest counsellor; Zuleika, the assassin; Rem, the seer who weeps tears of ink; and Anwar Das, the crafty bandit – to become as strong as steel and reclaim their home.

What I liked: This book was a swift read, and skillfully written. I liked that this book passed the Bechdel Test with flying colours. For those of you who don’t know what the Bechdel Test is, this clip below provides a good summary:

 

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bLF6sAAMb4s

 

Most novels in the science fiction and fantasy canon feature white, straight, male protagonists, so it was a pleasure to read a book where the majority of the characters were women of colour, two of whom start up a lesbian relationship. Identity/gender politics aside though, the dialogue was true-to-life, and the characters were deftly drawn so that they each distinguished themselves in small ways – no mean feat in a book that features a cast of dozens. In particular, the scene where the desert bandit Anwar Das crafts a tall tale on the fly to save his neck had me giggling with delight. I also appreciated how the authors played with my expectations by introducing a particularly fractious and entitled concubine, and then having her become a key person in the seraglio’s survival, rather than the threat at its centre.

Finally, the the character Rem provided an interesting take on the concept of the omniscient narrator. Rem is a seer gifted with the knowledge of all people and things. (And when I say that, I really mean all things, as her knowledge extends to modern-day computing and classic literature; one of the book’s cleverest asides is when she tries to tell the story of Moby Dick to her uncomprehending peers in the desert.) However, her powers are limited in that she can’t predict the outcomes of the events that she herself takes part in. This is a clever workaround for the perennial problems surrounding the use of psychics/prophets in fiction.

What I disliked: Much more happens in the book than is revealed in the cover copy. At the risk of spoiling the plot, the seraglio’s war to retake Bessa occurs a little over halfway through the novel, and much more happens in the story after this point. Several events throughout the book are recounted quickly, only for it to be mentioned briefly that those events took place over the span of years rather than months.

The closing half of the book, after the seraglio returns to Bessa, takes place over several years, but exactly how many years is never explained. This lack of a sense of timeflow is my largest problem with the book, as it seemed that some people aged and died quickly, while others maintained peak physical form over the same period of time.

The verdict: The Steel Seraglio was a pageturner, and all the more delightful for its setting and depth of characterization. This was the first book in a while that I couldn’t stop thinking about once I put it down to return to my work, and I reached for it immediately during my commute. Hell, I even read it over the weekend, the time that I normally spend puttering around the house and working on blog posts. I inhaled this book over the course of three days, and for that I tip my hat to the Careys.

Up next: Returning My Sister’s Face, by Eugie Foster