Review: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

I read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel with my book club in our second meeting in June where the genre was LGBTQ+ authors. I have not heard or seen the musical and my knowledge of Bechdel was limited to her creation of The Bechdel Test.

Fun Home was a searing memoir about discovering yourself, discovering the truth, and trying to reconcile grief, disappointment, and empathy. It would be too simplistic to say that it’s a story of a woman recounting her journey into adulthood and discovering her sexual identity as a lesbian in the 80s. It is also too simplistic to say that it is about a woman discovering her father’s own closeted sexuality and how it shaped and informed her own relationship with homosexuality and herself. It’s hard for me to really put into words what this book does or communicates because it manages to share so much in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel overwhelmed, even while reading through the author feeling that way. There were aspects of the story that resonated for me and aspects that I could only appreciate from the outside looking in. This book didn’t feel like it was written for me, or for you, or for anyone. It felt like it was written for Bechdel as a way of processing her grief and confusion and pain and the reader is the lucky witness, all the luckier if there is something that they can share and feel seen by.

The graphic novel is visually captivating and the words and images matched in tone. There were references to literary works by Proust and Joyce and this also felt like a way in for the reader if they could connect with those works. I knew on a surface level about some of the themes and how they related to the overarching story but I’m sure it was just another aspect that would have hit home harder if I had a familiarity with them.

This is not a light read, though it was at times humorous. I remember distinctly that once I finished reading it I sat in silence for a moment, walked to the kitchen and squirted a bunch of reddiwhip in my mouth, and then continued sitting in silence for a bit longer. I want to read Bechdel’s sequel graphic novel about her mother, Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, but I decided to wait after reading this before taking that on one so I could read something lighter to space the two out. I think one of my reading goals for next year will be to read that one and we’ll see how it goes. In the end, I do recommend this book, but be aware that even if you don’t feel that you hit any of the traditional boxes to connect with or be deeply affected by this book, the themes of family secrets and fraught parent-child relationships are widely applicable so don’t go retraumatizing yourself willy nilly.

Review: The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’ve been planning on starting a book club since I was in undergrad and am so proud to announce that this year I finally jumped in and started one! I tried googling to find advice about how to run a book club but didn’t find much that was helpful so I ended up making something that has worked so far for us. Each month, going in alphabetical order, someone gets to choose the genre for the month and then everyone can submit choices of novels for us to read in that genre. We then vote for the book we want to read and whichever one wins, we read. The only set rule is that the books have to be no more than 300 pages to accommodate people’s schedules. It’s an imperfect system but we’re seven months in and it’s going ok! The genre for our first book club was Fantasy and the book we ended up reading was The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was the second of Ishiguro’s works I’ve read, having been introduced to him in undergrad when we read The Remains of the Day. This is a very different novel, however, and I think I ended up liking this one better than the other.

Though it is genuinely a fantasy novel it is not the typical dragons and swords book that comes to mind (though both a dragon and swords are in this novel). It is set post-Arthurian Britain and the main characters in the novel are Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple who find themselves losing their memories at an alarming rate and choose to try and go in search of their son who they can hardly remember and have been filling in the gaps with their own projected desires or beliefs. There is a mist that has spread throughout Britain complicating matters and we follow the couple as they journey to find answers and companions on their quest including a former Knight for King Arthur and a boy determined to find and save his mother.

This book left me feeling deeply, deeply, sad. But not in a bad way. In a reflective way that sort of feels good in its own strange, aching way. I related to Axl a great deal and his quest to make everything be ok and fight hard to refuse change. The novel also brings into question what being a hero is and who you can trust, including yourself, in times of chaos. I enjoyed the choice Ishiguro made to have the main characters be elderly because so often, especially in fantasy, the protagonists are in their prime and at the start of their journey, looking forward more than they look back.

Not everyone was affected by The Buried Giant in the same way I was though it still caused a good conversation and everyone took something away from it.

Review: Becoming A Counselor by Samuel T. Gladding

Alright you guys this is gonna be quick.

This is a series of vignettes by renowned Wake Forest University professor who has worked in the counseling field for years. In this book he recounts different events from his life and in the last two sentences relates it to counseling. Reading this book was like sitting through a holiday dinner with your grandfather who tells you meandering stories that he finds hilarious and poignant and you find a speed bump between dinner and going home. Except in this instance I had to pay $30 for it because it was required reading in a class for a university that already took enough of my money that it felt especially rude to make me buy one of their professor’s publications.

Review: Slouch Witch by Helen Harper

I chose this book because I needed something to fulfill the Because Witches category in the Heaving Bosoms Reading Embrace. Before this one I DNF’d Witches of East End by Melissa de la Cruz. In all honesty, I almost DNF’d this one and still read another witchy romance because I didn’t feel this could actually fulfill that category.

First of all, here’s the Amazon synopsis:

“Let’s get one thing straight – Ivy Wilde is not a heroine. In fact, she’s probably the last witch in the world who you’d call if you needed a magical helping hand. If it were down to Ivy, she’d spend all day every day on her sofa where she could watch TV, munch junk food and talk to her feline familiar to her heart’s content.

However, when a bureaucratic disaster ends up with Ivy as the victim of a case of mistaken identity, she’s yanked very unwillingly into Arcane Branch, the investigative department of the Hallowed Order of Magical Enlightenment. Her problems are quadrupled when a valuable object is stolen right from under the Order’s noses.

It doesn’t exactly help that she’s been magically bound to Adeptus Exemptus Raphael Winter. He might have piercing sapphire eyes and a body which a cover model would be proud of but, as far as Ivy’s concerned, he’s a walking advertisement for the joyless perils of too much witch-work.

And if he makes her go to the gym again, she’s definitely going to turn him into a frog.”

Here’s the thing, I had some misgivings right from the jump with this synopsis. Some HB’s had highly recommended it to me so I pushed past it but I got a real meh vibe from this summary. Whenever a character’s voice starts with “let’s get one thing straight” I have a knee jerk eye roll reaction. It just feels like that kind of high school not-like-other-girls tone that really irks me because I was 100% that girl. I could appreciate that she wants to relax and hang out with her cat because I am 100% that grown woman. Through reading the book I found the mystery compelling but the heroine and hero irritating in different ways. She gives too few fucks, he gives too many, and I understand they’re going for an opposites attract vibe but it didn’t play for me as it was supposed to. Also the romance felt thoroughly unnecessary and unrealistic. There were some side characters I felt they could have done more with and by the end of it I didn’t feel compelled to read further into the series. I think my biggest concern was that it felt sometimes like the author was trying too hard to impress upon the reader that this character was Too Above It All To Care and I can appreciate that in a character to an extent but it became a bit repetitive. The book was also written in first person so the author ended up telling more than showing which is a common problem I have with first person narration (both writing and reading).

Ultimately I don’t regret reading it but I don’t intend to keep going and as I said I did end up reading another witch-based book that was actually a romance to fulfill this category.

Review: Gmorning, Gnight by Lin-Manuel Miranda

This book was truly everything that I needed in a very busy week.

For anyone who doesn’t know, this book is a collection of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s good morning and good night tweets which he started to reach out and inspire his fans and himself in turn. Some people might consider some of them saccharine but I think we could all stand a little sweetness in our lives right now.

I wasn’t a huge fan of the illustrations but that’s just personal taste in art. I don’t deny the talent of the artist, it was just a little busy sometimes.

Nevertheless, the messages that Miranda shares are so incredibly simple but the simplicity does not diminish their impact. One of the reasons it resonated was because, as Miranda explains in the prologue poem, the messages he writes are just as much for himself as they are for the reader. When he writes about feeling lonely, it is because he was feeling lonely. Knowing that the words I read which are causing this emotional resonance is not just connecting to words but the emotions of the author made it feel personal despite knowing that he is an incredibly public figure.

I was recently set up in an office space for my practicum and the first thing I knew had to be on my desk was this and honestly that’s about the biggest compliment I can give a book. Definitely check it out, regardless of your feelings about Hamilton or any of Miranda’s other works.

Review: Tempest by Beverly Jenkins

Well guys, I goofed.

I had heard about Tempest for awhile and Beverly Jenkins is such a prominent figure in the romance community, so I just chose that one as my intro and jumped in. I did not realize at the time that this was the third and I believe final book in a series. I hate reading books out of order, especially when it becomes clear that references are being made to established characters, and the ending of the novel was essentially wasted on me. However, I never claimed to be a professional and all I can do is give you my impression of the books I read as I read them so let’s do that.

Tempest started strong with the heroine, Regan Carmichael, an african-american woman on her way to meet her husband (Dr. Colton Lee, stoic and swarthy as the day is long) and fulfill her role as mail order bride, shooting the aforementioned fiance. Right away, I was hooked. Obviously it was a case of mistaken identity (she thought he was part of the gang of robbers who had just attacked her carriage and caused the death of one of the drivers) but there’s still something wonderful about shooting your soulmate on sight. From there the pace of the book continued along pretty excellently with seamless introduction of some excellent side characters (looking at you Spring Lee) and realistic challenges (Does he want to marry a lady who shoots on sight? He just isn’t sure and I love him for it). The way Jenkins writes sex is interesting. It was at times incredibly poetic and then unexpectedly violent terms would be used. For example, the first time the heroine orgasms she describes it as “shattering” which took me out of it. That being said, their first sex scene together was the perfect blend of seduction and clear consent and led to complicated feelings for the hero who has only sought out a wife after losing his first wife and mother of his child in childbirth. He isn’t sure how he feels about not just engaging in sex but actively enjoying it with his new bride. And she isn’t sure how she feels about him not being sure how he feels about it. This is all very good and very understandable. After this point, however, I felt the tension slack and the pace did as well.

Essentially after both characters have accepted and realized they love each other (which also did not take as long as I expected), all the oomph went out of the book for me. There were still distinct challenges with someone trying to kill the heroine and the trial for the robbers and the heroine is openly rejected by her husband’s grandfather. But there were things that were written as working so seamlessly it just didn’t feel right. There is a large portrait of the late Adele Lee in the main room and Regan is completely comfortable with this and with her legacy surrounding her and running around in the form of Colton’s daughter Anna. She even goes so far as to talk with the deceased lady in the portrait as though they were old friends. There isn’t a moment of wondering how she would feel about her being there. Regan does worry that Colton, who openly declares at first that he does not intend or expect to love her, will never open his heart to her. But there is no awkwardness with the lady of the house still looming large. To be fair, this was a time in history where people could and did die often from many things, childbirth especially, and it is possible that Regan would truly feel entirely unconcerned by this. From my modern perspective it felt almost forced, as though the author were trying to just cut through any of those feelings by saying “Nope she’s fine let’s move on.” And you know what? That is her right. It just felt weird for me.

Another relationship that was oddly swift and without complication was Anna and Regan’s. Anna is at first a little shy and standoffish, though this is more due to the abuse of her aunt than any hesitation over a new mother coming to take over. I expected more hesitance on Anna’s part. True her mother died before she could know her but her presence has been maintained (see: large portrait) and with her father being too busy to spend time with her it would be normal for her to worry that this new woman would only usurp the very minimal attention she already receives from him. Regan is charming and clever and wonderful with her and their relationship flows without a single question or hiccup. And future hiccups are marched out somewhat quickly and factually and the line between character experience and author giving you a history lesson blends a little to the point where there was a part that I felt should have been a focal point of its own novel instead of being pocketed into this one.

All of that being said, Tempest was a story that I was able to devour in very little time and did keep my attention. It had interesting side characters, representation without denial of the ignorance of the time but also without denying these characters their own agency and happy ending, and though the ending and references to prior characters was lost on me I would be interested in going back and reading them.

Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

I’ve been trying to process and decide how I feel about this book and I don’t think I’m going to be able to without just hurling out all the thoughts and sorting along the way.

Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel which means it’s told through writing between characters e.g. diary entries, text conversations, and in this case letters. We only see writing from one character which was an interesting move for the author to make. In the past with my admittedly limited experience in reading epistolary works there are usually multiple people writing but in this book we only read the words of Jay Fitger, professor of english at the fictional Payne University.

Throughout the book which is fairly short we learn that Fitger has two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend (exes because of cheating and publishing a novel which blatantly documents at least one affair because he is a Class Act), is a tenured professor, had middling success as an author and bounces between self-deprecation and indignation because of this, and is tired of writing letters of recommendation but does not hesitate to do so if only to try and impress on the poor HR person destined to get them that he is Too Clever and Biting to put up with any Professionalism. He is also focused on aiding a post-grad in finding an editor for his work in progress which is a retelling of Bartleby the Scrivener (of course it’s Melville #straightwhitedead) and Fitger has proclaimed it the best goddamn thing to touch the written world since probably Hemingway.

I chose this book for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge because it’s epistolary, it’s incredibly short, and the tagline is “finally putting the pissed back into epistolary.” I expected to read a professor in his battle against the financial powers that be who pull money from english funding and put it towards other fields, in this case Economics which surprised me because I often think of STEM as the natural opponent to the Arts. In any case what I ended up reading was the ranting of a man so insufferable I nearly googled the closest Economics focused university to pledge a donation. I also began wondering about the value of literature in academia.

The fact that this book raises that question is really uncomfortable for me. I have always defended the arts and my bachelor’s in english. I do believe that the world needs art and literature and that these things can change the world. However, I also feel that the culture of Academia surrounding literature is not one that I would mourn losing. I would say that the elitism and pedantry of some in the Literary community is a defensive reaction to those who criticize or dismiss it, but there have been book snobs longer than there have been books. Does the world need a Bartleby the Scrivener retelling? Especially one that the protagonist later admits is not as genius as he’s been trying to proclaim but actually very rough, possibly even bad, but something he wanted to succeed so terribly because the boy himself was like a mirror to his younger years? Does wanting something to be important make it important in the long run?

I still don’t know. And I might be overthinking it because most of the reviews for this book reference its humor. I could see where it was supposed to be but I was so busy hating this character and wanting him to shut up it didn’t translate for me. And ultimately I don’t believe this book was written for me, someone who has long left behind literature in the academic context and now reads books for leisure. But that does not mean that this book was poorly written or that it might not be written for you. It’s one that I may revisit in the future but for now I’m very glad it’s done.

Trigger Warning: a character dies by suicide though it is not explicitly described