In Which I Read Three Books

I actually read three books this week. It has been more common in the past few years to read maybe one book in three months. I may have spent all my energy in reading them and have none left to write about them.

The first one was Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel. She is the originator of the Bechdel Test, which asks the question: do two women in a fictional work ever talk to each other about anything but a man or men, which is supposed to be a good starting point for discussing gender inequality or sexism within the work. The test definitely has its limits, because there are shows like Buffy which are full of strong and capable women who also talk a lot about guys and romance. Ms. Bechdel is also the author of the long-running comic Dykes to Watch Out For. Yes, she is a lesbian. I guess Fun Home would be considered a coming-of-age or family memoir, in comic form. It didn’t have the look of a graphic novel to me, which are usually too busy for my taste artistically and/or filled with too many unrealistically huge-breasted female characters who may or may not have conversations about archery or philosophy or other non-man subjects.

It’s not all that prominent a theme in the book, but the title comes from the fact that Ms. Bechdel’s father was a part-time mortician in his family’s funeral home (their family was way more dysfunctional than the Fishers on Six Feet Under). The main focus of the book is her father, who she eventually learned was a closeted homosexual who had/attempted to have inappropriate relationships with underage teenage boys. She never condones this fact about him, and in general presents him as a tyrannical figure in her family’s life. He died young and she believes his death was suicide, although it was officially determined to be accident. Her relationship with him became somewhat closer after she went to college and came out as a lesbian, although he was always mysterious and often communicated with her through esoteric passages in literature (he was an English teacher when he wasn’t embalming people).

This book has caused controversy because some students at Duke University refused to read it because it offended their Christian sensibilities. There are about 7 panels in the work which depict nudity, masturbation, and sexual acts. I’m all for people not reading things they don’t want to read, but why choose a secular university in 2015 if you are bound and determined not to encounter any shocking, offensive or immoral ideas? And as someone who had early and prolonged access to pretty hardcore pornography, I think that even most non-pornogrified adults are aware of the sexual act portrayed and have probably even engaged in it at some point. Even if you think gay relationships are wrong, how damaged can you be by a single black and white panel in a comic book? And is God really mortified if you see it?

I can’t say I really loved this book, but not because of the sexual themes. It was somewhat interesting but kinda slow, and it didn’t have any emotional punch for me. I didn’t develop affection for the narrator, Ms. Bechdel (not that I actively disliked her). But it did solidify my desire to draw comic memoir, which scares me. But I already have so much memoir-ish writing I could illustrate, including but not limited to my spiritual memoir that Christianity Today published. If I get up the guts I’ll make a few small comic memoir zines, to break it into manageable chunks. My new zine (which should be listed on etsy this weekend) has a two-page comic chronicling my early zinemaking history, so that’s a start.

Book Two was Jen Hatmaker’s new book For The Love. I had little love (perhaps a vague but fleeting affection) for this five-star favorite. There is no doubt that Ms. Hatmaker is funny. I think she might be more enjoyable as a stand-up comic. There are probably fewer upper-middle-class-yoga-pants-wearing Christian mothers on that circuit. Ms. Hatmaker seems to be wildly inspirational in her demographic, but like She Who Seems To Be Spiritual Godmother Of This Tribe, Ann Voskamp, her writing mostly depresses and annoys me (though I don’t think their writing is necessarily all that similar). On a literary level, I get tired of stuff being called A Thing. Or hearing that someone Just Can’t Even. I’m tired of Women (supposedly) Just Like Us for whom housekeepers and nannies are Things. I Just Can’t Even. Do (insert Thing) because I don’t have those amenities (though I acknowledge that many others probably can and do).  I also can’t imagine having a close knit group of couple friends to cook gourmet home-cooked meals for at our monthly Supper Club (even if my turn only comes once every three months) where we sip wine, have deep fellowship and cheer each other on in our ever-expanding repertoire of successful projects. I don’t exactly begrudge Ms. Hatmaker for having those things, but hearing about them makes me discouraged instead of inspired. I fully admit that this doesn’t demonstrate my deep generosity of spirit. It reminds me of how I felt years ago when I was reading the Mitford series of books, and I realized that the reason Father Tim and his wife Cynthia could be so productive and read so many good books was because they had a full-time cook and housekeeper who did everything necessary to their neat and well-fed existence.

I have to be clear also (because I’m not really bashing Ms. Hatmaker as a person or even as a writer) and say that in general I don’t like inspirational as a genre, and in fact my idea of inspirational may not be the norm. Whenever something degenerates into what seems like an affirmation, especially, I turn off. So while I appreciate, say, Brene Brown’s basic thesis about shame and vulnerability, I’ll start rolling my eyes when she says something like You Are Enough. I’m not necessarily saying that I don’t agree with that or other inspirational soundbites on a basic level, but it can just start sounding like an overly simplistic feel-good mantra or even like propaganda, and that turns me off. I have this same struggle in the art journaling world, which is full of often technically impressive pages which insist that we should “soar”, “bloom”, “connect”, “discover” or (insert inspirational mountain you can ascend if you can find just the right word).

In a peripheral way, my general dislike of some of these wildly popular “trends” (for lack of a better term) in books or art make me curious to know if my writing or creative pursuits could be categorized as “fitting in” with any other writer or visual creative.

Book Three was The Art of Memoir, by Mary Karr. I haven’t read any of her three memoirs yet, I just know about her from reading at Mockingbird. In addition to being a memoirist herself, Ms. Karr has taught memoir for years at the graduate level, something that still seems to surprise her a bit, considering that she came from a redneck family full of abuse, alcoholism and other dysfunction. This book contains her thoughts on the memoir writing process, the nature of truth in memory, as well as chapters dedicated to some of her favorite memoirs. I think I may be at some disadvantage as a memoirist because I am an only child and don’t have anyone my own age to compare memories with. She makes it a point to share her manuscripts with the people in her memoirs, even when the stories or memories are not pleasant or flattering. I have never done this with my mother. Not that I have written deeply about her as a person or about our relationship per se, but my childhood is such a volatile subject for both of us that I just don’t want to go there. After reading this book I wonder how much of that may be my avoiding the possibility of her challenging my memories, even though I don’t really think she would.

I find it ironic that so many people who like my writing say they are drawn to my honesty, but I don’t think I’ve ever been deeply honest in anything I have written. Even in my illegibly written journals. That makes me wonder how extremely guarded other people really are. I joke that telling the truth about my life is my spiritual gift, but that’s a lie. I’m still too afraid of my pain and my shame and am unwilling to unveil it all even to myself. And I do think about whether I want to name anyone in conjunction with it and tell their part in my suffering (even when it wasn’t their intention to hurt me or their fault in any real sense).

I need to read Mary Karr’s actual memoirs and see how she writes about her experiences of childhood sexual assault, a mother who was a serious drunk to the point where she sometimes brandished a gun in intoxicated anger, as well as her own drug use and alcoholism and her growing into her own sexuality.

I can tell that little by little, I am becoming more honest. With each zine I make I have a few more sentences or even paragraphs that say something real.

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