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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.16.14
Book from: Borrowed from C.

Alison Bechdel opens her tragicomic memoir by casting her closeted gay father as Daedalus, artificer of the labyrinth that enclosed their family’s lives, and somehow complicit in her own, Icarian “downfall” – her eventual realization that she was a lesbian. The labyrinth was for me the ideal opening image: I found Fun Home hypnotically meandering, manically meticulous in its assemblage and arrangement of cryptic, resonant details. It’s claustrophobic yet internally expansive in its explorations of space, and meaning.

Most of all, I was in awe of how deep a reader Bechdel is of her own life. I had difficulty finding words to express how moved I was by the complexity and intensity of her vision, and the anguished detachment that keeps her in abeyance to this analytic lens. “Perhaps my cool aesthetic distance itself does more to convey the arctic climate of our family than any particular literary comparison.”

The last book that I read that wove together myth, history, and family with such complexity and vitality was Middlesex, which I found a thrilling read – but there’s a particularly sharp, human poignancy to Fun Home because you know that this is a real person looking back at painful, incomprehensible events – the core and substance of her own life – and making something rich, strange, and uncannily beautiful out of all of the intersections and patternings of father and daughter, family and art. It’s dark, spooky stuff – close reading as divination, intertextuality as invocation.

I identified so much with these elements of Alison’s personality: the recourse to narrative and archetype for “explanatory” patterns, the generally obsessive analytical bent. And, of course, the universal family dynamics – the struggle of a child to define herself against or around what her parents want, against what her parents represent. Here they’re shaped with particular sharpness by the fascinating inverted gender dynamics between her and her father. I’m haunted by the strangled potential of the one direct conversation that Alison had with her father, shortly after her coming out and only weeks before his death, about his homosexuality. He admits that he wanted to be a girl when he was little, that he wanted to dress up in girls’ clothes. And Alison leaps in to remind him how she always wanted boys’ clothes, hiking boots and short hair, when she was little. She does this with painful eagerness (how could he have forgotten?), hungry for the moment of identification and closeness, hungry to bring together their reflected selves to a rare point of convergence.

Artwise, I loved the often mordantly funny understatement of Bechdel’s illustrative style, its cool, reptilian composure a counterpoint to the American-Gothic perversity of the Bechdels’ lives. I did wish that the ink washes had darker darks, for more atmospheric drama in certain scenes – but obviously that’s a stylistic choice. It gives a ghostly, faded effect, appropriate to both the sense of imminent storm that never breaks, and to Bechdel’s curatorial reproductions of the numerous family artifacts that appear within. (I was so curious about all of the background details – like the fact that her brother is very specifically wearing a Frank Marshall t-shirt when the family gathers for their father’s funeral. How many of those details were recalled or researched from family photographs, and how many were invented or extrapolated based on more general period reference?)

By the end of the novel, I felt incredibly tender towards both Alison, and her father. As much damage as he did, his story is heartbreaking. I can’t help but hope that he would have found Fun Home a fitting tribute.

As my tribute to Fun Home, I’ve posted a full (and partially annotated) list of all of the books mentioned or read within its pages here.

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Alison Bechdel: bio and works reviewed

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Date Read: 6.27.10
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Malcolm Gladwell is a seasoned journalist and a staff writer for the The New Yorker, as evidenced by his tight, logical, and compelling writing. The Tipping Point explores the socioeconomic phenomenon of its namesake, “The Tipping Point,” or the point at which some product, behavior, or idea suddenly becomes a sweeping epidemic in a population. As demonstration, Gladwell explores a variety of fascinating and relatable social processes–   the teenage smoking epidemic, the sudden wildfire popularity of certain products, and the sudden decline in New York City crime– homing in on product, concept, and process development, marketing, and testing. He boils down the process for these phenomena to three common factors, linking together epidemics which we would have otherwise found unrelated.

Not being trained in any field of socioeconomics, I cannot offer insight or criticism into the technical elements of the book. All I can say is that this book provided an incredibly rigorous learning experience for me. Gladwell assumes a reasonably intelligent audience, and lays out his arguments and evidence concisely with appropriate depth. Gladwell lays out the “Law of 150”, a concept that proclaims that 150 is the maximum number of people that work and network together thoroughly and efficiently, and not only uses anecdotes and interviews to support his findings, but even digs a little deeper into anthropological studies on villages that support this law. It was refreshing to see an author work harder than usual to find his evidence and argue so fervently for a claim. And this is not the only case– he uses genetics and psychology to support his case study of teenage smoking, and specific, irrefutable examples of how predicting trends helped the Airwalk campaign.

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Date read: 3.20.10
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

book-lorenz-solomon

In the chimney the autumn wind sings the song of the elements, and the old firs before my study window wave excitedly with their arms and sing so loudly in chorus that I can hear their sighing melody through the double panes. Suddenly from above, a dozen black, streamlined projectiles shoot across the piece of clouded sky for which my window forms a frame. Heavily as stones they fall, fall to the tops of the firs where they suddenly sprout wings, become birds and then light feather rags that the storm seizes and whirls out of my line of vision, more rapidly than they were borne into it.

[…]

And look what they do with the wind! At first sight, you, poor human being, think that the storm is playing with the birds, like a cat with a mouse, but soon you see, with astonishment, that it is the fury of the elements that here plays the role of the mouse and that the jackdaws are treating the storm exactly as the cat its unfortunate victim. Nearly, but only nearly, do they give the storm its head, let it throw them high, high into the heavens, till they seem to fall upwards, then, with a casual flap of a wing, they turn themselves over, open their pinions for a fraction of a second from below against the wind, and dive – with an acceleration far greater than that of a falling stone – into the depths below. Another tiny jerk of the wing and they return to their normal position and, on close-reefed sails, shoot away with breathless speed into the teeth of the gale, hundreds of yards to the west: this all playfully and without effort, just to spite the stupid wind that tries to drive them towards the east. The sightless monster itself must perform the work of propelling the birds through the air at a rate of well over 80 miles an hour; the jackdaws do nothing to help beyond a few lazy adjustments of their black wings.

Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) was a Nobel-prize-winning Austrian ethologist (animal behaviorist) particularly famous for his work on imprinting, and is one of the loves of my life. He’s wonderful to read – wise, methodical, wondering, and wryly humorous. Being guided through his observations is like an act of meditation, and every chapter in King Solomon’s Ring (whose title refers to the mythical ring that allowed Solomon to speak with animals) bears multiple, slow re-reads.

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Date Read: 9.24.09
Book From: Neha
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Morris Schwartz, a professor of sociology at Brandeis, discovers he has ALS and begins his journey to death. Mitch Albom, the author, learns of his professor’s condition and begins to visit him regularly on Tuesdays for his “one last class”. Tuesdays with Morrie chronicles Morrie’s last days through the eyes of Albom and relates Morrie’s philosophies outlooks on life, love, and death.

Review

Morrie’s tale is touching and admirable; his philosophies are noteworthy and brave.Morrie taught the importance of relationships and love above all else in this world, and used his struggle with death to examine how one should approach and embrace the end. The edition I read claims that Tuesdays with Morrie has changed millions of lives and, well, I can certainly believe that many people have been impacted by this book. I feel like Morrie and I would get along because I share the same views as him and can only hope that when I reach his age, I will be able to be an example of my beliefs.

However, I found Tuesdays with Morrie very hard to enjoy. The writing was incredibly spare and simple to a fault, and all in all, incredibly dramatic. The prose (if you could call it that) reads like Dan Brown’s and the italicized entries are reminiscent of Lifetime programming. Morrie’s story is already beautiful and it does not need added dramatism or overstatements. I do not doubt that Albom is a great journalist because I can tell his writing style is great for that field, and especially for sports. It just felt like a cop out because each chapter was so clearly a simple transcription of audio tapes, and edited so as to push the reader’s emotional buttons. I wish Albom had added more literary meat and interpretation. Reading this novel devolved into a plodding journey and my enthusiasm was gradually buried by mediocrity.

I honestly tried really hard to read past the writing and into the content, but everytime I hit yet another cheesy and dramatic chapter-ender I would cringe a little and put the book down. I’m sure picky readers will encounter the same experience, in which case I would definitely not recommend reading Tuesdays with Morrie. But I suspect for the most part, people will enjoy this and people should read this, if not only to increase ALS awareness and for a mature prospective on life.

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Mitch Albom

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Date Read: 1.7.07
Book from: Boston Public Library
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Levitt and Dubner explore several unorthodox theories behind crime and parenthood using their own statistics.

Review

I started reading Freakonomics with *a lot* of expectation from all the hype and word of mouth. It was an incredibly short read, and in the end, I felt like I had just finished a really long newspaper article instead of an engrossing book. It was enjoyable, but I really wasn’t impressed. First of all, I expected the concepts and economics to be… deeper? I felt like there wasn’t enough “intellegence” or solid insight to the chapters. Most of the book read like a statistics report, and while statistics were certainly crucial, I felt like the book as a whole was a bit of a cop out, relying on filler reports and less on thoughtful extrapolation.

Freakonomics is often seen as a melding of pop culture and economics. And in support, Levitt and Dubner argued points like how Roe vs. Wade was responsible for the last decade’s decline in crime, that parents actually do not matter in child development, and discussed teaching methods in school using statistics as proof. Basically… it was all fine and dandy to read and enjoy but it was all rather vague and I felt like it was simply another sensationalist story “supported” by statistics which you can never be sure are accurate. I don’t know. Maybe it’s just the super skeptical mathematician within me speaking. But don’t get me wrong– it was still a fun read.

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Steven Levitt
Stephen Dubner

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