Thursday, July 27, 2006

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin
0618477942, $19.95

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic is the latest work from the highly skilled, insightful, neurotic and wry-humored pen of Alison Bechdel, best known for her "Dykes to Watch Out For" comic strip. (One of the longest-running queer comic strips, "Dykes to Watch Out For" is over 20 years old, has been syndicated in hundreds of papers, released in over 10 books, and is available online via the author's website.) Fun Home is Bechdel's graphically rendered account of growing up in rural Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 70s with a particular focus on influences of her father's life and death.

Beginning with some of Bechdel's earliest memories of her father, readers meet a man who was an intelligent, emotionally distant yet volatile, narcissistic perfectionist who struggled with secrets. Trapped in the town not only of his youth but that of his ancestors for several generations, Bechdel's father worked in the family business, a funeral home (known in the family as the "Fun Home") established by her great-grandfather in the 19th century. In addition to his interest in local history and historic preservation, Bechdel's father was a closeted gay (or bisexual) man who had a string of affairs, primarily with younger men, throughout his life.

Divided into seven chapters, each of which deals with particular themes in her childhood, Fun Home contains a strong emphasis on literary references. Chapters weave back and forth in time, revealing aspects of Bechdel's childhood and details of her father's death. Books and literature were an important influence in Bechdel's life growing up. Her father taught English Literature at the local high school while her mother studied theater and performed in community plays. The gothic revival home the family lived in (and which her father had restored) boasted a library. At one point Bechdel admits, "I employ these [literary] allusions … not only as descriptive devices, but because my parents are most real to me in fictional terms" (66). It becomes apparent that literary discussion was one of the primary modes of communication between herself and her father.

Bechdel came out to her parents via a letter in the spring of 1980. Her declaration prompted her mother to point out to Bechdel that her father had been having affairs with men for years. Initially, this information appears to have been news to Bechdel, who reflects, "I'd been upstaged, demoted from protagonist in my own drama to comic relief in my parents' tragedy" (58). This "upstaging" is revealed as a theme in Bechdel's life as childhood milestones, such as her menarche, were overshadowed by the family preoccupation with and response to her father facing charges of "contributing to the delinquency of a minor." Apparently, her father's extramarital activities added strain to the family. Her coming out was further upstaged when her father died in a questionable "accident" (it may have been suicide) just four months after her letter.

Bechdel spent years feeling shut down yet very guilty regarding her coming out and how it may have influenced her father's death. Fun Home details the results of Bechdel's intellectual and emotional processing of her father's death, and her relationship with this complex, intelligent, conflicted, and often remote man. A powerful example of her self awareness includes her admission, "[evidence that he was considering suicide months before Bechdel came out] would only confirm that his death was not my fault. That, in fact, it had nothing to do with me at all. And I'm reluctant to let go of that last, tenuous bond" (86).

Book-length graphic stories are not a mainstay of this reviewer's reading. However, Bechdel's clean, distinctive illustration style with its wry observations and amusing details is fun to read and examine, and drew this reader into her story quickly. Indeed, it's regrettable that this review can only include quotations and not excerpts of Bechdel's drawings. Several delightful and revealing images are included, such as her grandmother chasing a "piss-ant," her early identification with Wednesday Addams, the summer of the locusts, her teenaged diary entries, and several aspects of her own adolescent self-discoveries. One cannot help but identify with Bechdel. However, despite the pain and struggle Bechdel has had facing her father's life and death, the book is neither morose nor depressing. The author has found peace with herself in regard to her father, her childhood, and who she is today. As she says in the dedication (to her mother and brothers) " We did have a lot of fun, in spite of everything."

Fun Home is a wonderful graphic memoir that is engaging, heartrending, funny, and thoughtful. Readers will definitely want to stop by the Fun Home for this viewing.

-MJ Lowe

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Queer Quotes: On Coming Out and Culture, Love and Lust, Politics and Pride, and Much More

edited by Teresa Theophano
Beacon Press
0807079065 (cloth) $15.00

Queer Quotes: On Coming Out and Culture, Love and Lust, Politics and Pride, and Much More, edited by Teresa Theophano, is a delightful collection of GLBT-related quotations. Divided into 16 topics, including "All Things Queer," "Naming Ourselves," and "Queer History," with quotes range from the touching to the bitingly funny, with some healthy stops along that way that prompt a reader to think. However, all the quotes have a positive slant. Theophano in her introduction explains that she has "avoided including sound bites from homophobes. We already know what the Trent Lotts, Jerry Falwells, and Fred Phelps of the world think of GLBT issues. …Let's be utterly, joyously, and quotably queer!" (10).

On the currently timely topic of "Love and (Gay) Marriage," Liz Langley states "Gay marriage should be legal if just to raise the standard of dancing at receptions" (29).

Political issues are the focus of "Out of the Closets, Into the Streets" with this from Barbara Grier: "It is the closet that is our sin and our shame." (81) And a chilling quote from Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the US, reads, "If a bullet should enter my brain, let that bullet destroy every closet door" (77). Milk was assassinated in 1978.

In "the Arts" there are a number of humorous entries as well as two quotes for the queer bibliophiles from Dorothy Allison and Nancy Garden, respectively:

"If I'd taken up with a gospel band or rock and roll, I'd make a whole lot more sense to my family. But to write books. …I'd come home with books and they'd stare at me like I was crazy. That was the thing most queer about me" (37).

"[Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness] became my bible. I read it and reread it over and over again. And I vowed at that point that I was going to write a gay book that ended happily, a book about my people" (40). The author of dozens of award-winning children's and teens' books, Garden wrote Annie on my Mind, originally released in 1982, a groundbreaking novel concerning love been between two high school girls.

Theophano has included a biography section for the over 270 speakers quoted. This handy appendix provides brief biographical summaries, frequently listing best known titles if the person is an author, and an explanation of their notability. This section is particularly useful given the broad range of personalities quoted -- from Sophocles and Oscar Wilde to Melissa Etheridge and Calpernia Addams. Regretfully, not all these entries include a year of birth (or death). There appeared to be a few minor errors and the reader should cross-check the biographic information if using it for more than casual reference. (For example Rita Mae Brown's groundbreaking novel, Rubyfruit Jungle, is listed as originally released in 1983 rather than 1973). This reviewer would have liked the biographical data to have included the names of some long-term relationships, especially when the partners also appear in the volume as with Kate Clinton and Urvashi Vaid.

However, these shortcomings pale compared to the value of the section. Further, the editor has provided an index to the hundreds of quotes allowing the reader to find all quotes by a particular person. These last two sections result in a collection that is valuable to researchers as well as fun for the casual reader.

A well-organized, thoughtful, and fun little book, Queer Quotes is the most comprehensive title of its kind and would be useful for libraries and others who might use quote books, as well as being a size and format that make it a charming gift book.

-MJ Lowe

Sunday, July 2, 2006

18th & Castro

Karin Kallmaker
Bella Books
159493066X, $13.95

Karin Kallmaker's 18th & Castro is a trick-or-treat bag filled with yummy goodies for her readers. This charmingly romantic collection of erotic short stories is set on a Halloween night in the Castro District. It opens with Suze and Amy, two baby dykes in their early 20s, who have found a building rooftop from which to watch the night's festivities. The girls serve as the framework of the book, with their story broken into three parts throughout the night. They have a perfect view of a mythical three-story apartment building across the street. All of its residents are women-loving-women and a whole lot of fun is goin' on! As the two women watch the revelers, 13 stories unfold with most relating to one of the building's residents or an apartment at 18th & Castro, hence the numbers.

New love, or at least a fine start on healthy lust, unfolds in "Borrowed Plumage 1C" when a femme, Carmen, borrows her best friend's old leathers for a costume and meets a woman who finds those leathers very inspiring. In "Please 2A" "Chosen 1B," and "From Behind you Looked Like 1D" Kallmaker allows the fates (and a few resident matchmakers) to nudge long term friendships toward a path to something more intimate.

Several of the stories include long term couples who are nurturing a romantic sex life in the midst of day-to-day logistics and life pressures. These stories range from the tentatively sweet and hot to the amusing and power charged. In the "Brand New Woman 2C," a couple are alone for the first time since their eldest child was born. Brenda spends time exploring the woman that her partner and co-parent of two children, Nancy, has become in the years they've shared.

In "Human Female Pon Farr 3B," Jax is suffering a very bad day of hormones. Her partner, Tate, sets out help scratch that itch, but events take a farcical turn when a handcuff key goes missing. That comic tone carries across the hall to handcuff key provider and artist, Jonny, and her Aria, a highly demanded and overworked surgeon. Aria is in need of some in "Down Time 3A" but the two initially find it difficult to focus with the interruptions.

In "Avast! 3C" readers are treated to a bit of Halloween role playing as Renee and Jane indulge a fantasy on the high seas. The teasing negotiation and the grounding late night snack that open and close this story puts a loving face on a highly charged scene.

Kallmaker provides a touching glimpse at how one couple strives to maintain a mutually satisfying sexual expression of their relationship despite chronic health issues. In "Nine-Inch Nails 3D," the years of communication, caring affection and heated desire between Pete and Keri allow them to cultivate new expressions for their love that are arousing and validating. In "For the Last Time 2B" Terra and Jeneen invite the latter woman's ex-lover, Claire, over for a little sex demonstration. This bittersweet three-way provides a complex lesson for all involved.

The stories in 18th & Castro interweave as various characters interact with others, several women are going to the party hosted by Neenah and Ace in1A. Some conversations are repeated from different points of view. Others merely pass one another in the hall. All of which gives the reader the impression of a complex set of happenings occurring in a relatively short period of time. All the stories are erotic and include an intensity likely to keep the reader's interest; however, the details of encounters are as varied as the women who populate the stories. Some are earthy and urgent. Others are sweet and hazy. Many are also touching and romantic.

As already suggested, Kallmaker's signature humor is sprinkled throughout the stories, but it is especially present in the setting. Halloween in the heart of San Francisco has to be one of the country's biggest, gayest party events outside of Pride, and adds outrageous color and humor. Glimpses of the costumed crowd include not only Xenas and Gabs, Vampire Slayers, Pirates, Flappers with Gangsters, and Batmans and Robins but "Diana Ross and the Supremes, the secretary of state, flaky first daughters, Ethel Merman and Sweet Potato Queens --it was all [there] in the Castro"(116). There are impromptu chorus lines of Dorothys kicking up their ruby slippers, a quartet of Veronica Lakes, and Satanic Leprechauns. (This last group is a corps of dark cloaked mysterious figures wearing prominent, green dildos and marching in cadence.)

Likewise, the characters represent a range of ages, ethnicity and self-awareness from the spectator baby dykes on the roof to the elegant older lesbians of "Please." The preternatural even makes a couple of appearances. Perhaps the collection's most touching story is "Tick Tock 2D" wherein a woman finds solace and protection in her memories of love and perhaps an eerie little something more …

Readers can depend on Kallmaker for intelligent, witty stories that are well-written and charming, and peopled with interesting characters. She gives us books that are just down-right fun to read. A "Bella After Dark" title 18th & Castro is highly-charged, accessorized erotic fun, in the same vein as her All the Wrong Places. A few quirky surprises are there as well as one or two stories that prompted this reviewer to pause and think about the nature of power and love. In 18th & Castro, readers will find the mass-market candy of their treat bags has been replaced by fine handmade truffles. Pick up a copy of this bag of goodies because there is something "good to eat" here.

-MJ Lowe