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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: Fun Home

On Monday, our group tried something new-- we read a graphic novel.  For many of my "mature" ladies, this was a new experience, one that they were a bit nervous about.  But I am happy to say not only did we all survive, but also we had had a great discussion.

Yes, I led a book discussion on Fun Home by Alison Bechdel with a group of mostly senior citizen women.  It was a great experience and really tested my skills as a facilitator.  I often can coast when I lead the group, but making them move out of their comfort zone, pushed me to leave mine too.  In the end I think we all appreciated it.

For the record, I love this book.  It made my best of the year reads in the first year I did one of those posts.  I also read the sequel in 2012, Are You My Mother?, and although I did not like it as much as Fun Home, when you read the sequel, you learn quite a bit about what went into the creation of Fun Home.  That made me appreciate Fun Home even more when I re-read it last week.

But enough intro, let's get to the normal book discussion report format which begins with the publisher summary:
In this groundbreaking, bestselling graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel charts her fraught relationship with her late father. In her hands, personal history becomes a work of amazing subtlety and power, written with controlled force and enlivened with humor, rich literary allusion, and heartbreaking detail. 
Distant and exacting, Bruce Bechdel was an English teacher and director of the town funeral home, which Alison and her family referred to as the "Fun Home." It was not until college that Alison, who had recently come out as a lesbian, discovered that her father was also gay. A few weeks after this revelation, he was dead, leaving a legacy of mystery for his daughter to resolve.
I have been asked recently why I always use the publisher's summary for my book discussion reports whereas in my reviews, I use my own words.  I do have a reason, and since I was asked, I will share the answer.  It is two-fold.  First, Kathy and I try to use the publisher's summary when we create our ballot for the groups to vote on the titles we will do for the 6 month planned period.  We do this so that we are not unconsciously swaying the vote by including an opinion, either our own or from a review.  I think it keeps the list more objective when it is presented for voting.  Stemming from that, second, I use the same words here so as not to color to insert too much of my opinion into these reports.  They are different from my What I Am Reading reviews.  Those are about my experience with a book.  These BPL Book Discussion reports are about the group, not me, so I use the publisher's description to emphasize that.

Now on to the discussion:
  • Come on, you know what is first.  We voted and I got 5 liked, 3 disliked, and 6 so-so.  As we discussed more, it turns out many of the so-sos were because they could not connect with Bechdel as a narrator.  Interestingly, this is a complaint I have heard about this book before.  I also want to note that one of the likes was a participant who is a fan of Bechdel's comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and she loved seeing Bechdel's personal story.  She said it helped her to appreciate the strip even more.  If you are interested in the strip, we do carry the collections at the BPL.
  • Of course, since this was our first experience reading a graphic novel as a group, I started by asking about the pictures.  Here are some of the comments:
    • I wasn't sure I would enjoy reading a memoir with pictures but it helped the story.
    • The pictures were memorable, detailed, and enhanced the story.  I especially liked how the pictures of the father working on the home and the garden showed how distant he really was.
    • The art is so powerful it magnifies the feeling of the story.  It really showed us how unhappy the family was.
    • It got me into the story more.
    • Bechdel's journals and her OCD tics that began appearing in them were more moving to see on the page rather than just have them described.
    • These were just the initial comments, they got more used to using the text and pictures in tandem to talk about the book as the discussion went on.  Keep reading for more on that.
  • I do want to mention that fairly early on in the conversation one lady raised her hand and wanted to ask about homosexuality in general.  She wanted to know "if they were born this way." First, I want to say I think she really wanted to know more, she was not trying to judge, but second, I also knew this was not the place or time to get into a conversation like this. Personally, I am an out spoken proponent of gay rights, but that was also not the point of the book.  I was on guard for this question coming up and said to that person, "We can have that discussion privately later and I can suggest some books for you on the topic, but since that is not what this book is about, I don't think it is appropriate for our discussion."
  • Which led to my next question: Why did Bechdel write this book?
    • To forgive herself. To forgive her dad
    • To come to terms with his death by understanding his life
    • It is about her assessing all of her losses in her life and trying to get down to a larger truth about herself and her dad.
    • It is memoir so it is the perception of her past from a perspective in the future.
    • Memoirs are spearheaded by emotion or something that is eating you up alive.  You have to get it out.  (A member who has written, but not published, a memoir)
    • I was troubled by the fact that she does all this soul searching but there is no huge cathartic moment.  However, another person added that she felt that was the point; Bechdel could try all she wanted, but she would never know if her coming out to her dad finally pushed him over the edge. She will never know if he killed himself or if it was an accident.  It is impossible.  So the book is more about the coming to terms process.
  • We talked about the fact that each family member was a talented artist and that as artists they were all self absorbed.  This made them more unhappy and alienated from each other.  One person had us all turn to the picture on page 134 (seen right above this text) and how it drove this point home more than pages of written words could.  The house becomes a reflection of the inner soul of the family life in this picture.
  • We talked about how the mom and dad in particular were self absorbed as a coping mechanism to deny the truth.  The dad focused on the house and making it perfect to hide his secret of being gay and to keep himself from cruising for young boys.  While the mom knew what was going on, but had her music and acting to distract and consume her.
  • While we are talking about specific drawings.  Another person pointed us to page 99 (seen above) because for her it illustrated the inner turmoil Allison and Bruce had with each other and with the true selves they were denying. This intricate layering is the crux of the entire memoir, yet it is hard to explain in words.  We talked about this page and how in 5 panels, she boils down the entire theme of the book.
  • Someone shared that she was amazed at how every single panel in the book connects in some way with her relationship with her father.  This was an amazing feat and held her in awe of Bechdel's talent.
  • As a book group, we loved the focus on books and reading throughout this work.  There are so many literary illusions.  Allison and her father's largest connection to each other was through their shared love of reading and analyzing literature. Books were also a way they could be honest with each other, and send each other messages they were not able to voice out loud.
  • We did tackle the question at the heart of why Bechdel started writing this book-- did her father die in an accident or did he kill himself?  We took turns sharing our opinions.  We went back and forth for awhile.  What I can share here is that like Bechdel, we have no idea.  I guess we came to the consensus that it was probably not a planned suicide for that moment, but with the divorce pending and Allison coming out, Bruce was probably tired of all the lies and might have slipped on purpose.  But again, who knows. The reason I had us talk about it was for us to see how frustrating it was for us to not know.  Then I said, "Imagine what it was like for her."  Again, this brought us back to a better understanding of the "why" Bechdel bared her soul in this book.
  • I moved us to talk about the color palate since it is so distinctive. Fun Home is done in what is called a single color technique.  She used black, white, and then shades of blue.  Here are comments about the color palate:
    • It underscored the somber tone
    • It made it easier to follow
    • The 1 color unified the work for me and made it flow better
    • The simplicity of using only carefully chosen words paired with intensely complex pictures added to the complexity of the emotions portrayed.  The 1 color enhanced that.  More would have been distracting and taken away from the beauty of the complexly detailed pictures.
    • It was like she, Bechdel, was living in a world that was all grey after the death of her father.  The book was written as she is waiting for the sunshine.  She is looking for the sunshine with the book, the bluish-gray tones underscored that.
  • We talked about the parents' marriage.  This came up throughout, but I combined it all here:
    • Why did the mother marry him? We felt like as an artistic, independent woman in the 1950s and 60s, Bruce presented freedom to her.  She knew he was gay, but she also knew he wouldn't come out.  She could have a family and an artistic life and still be free to do her own thing as long as she let him do his own thing too.
    • Why did Bruce not come out?  Bechdel struggles with this.  She does mention maybe he was not easily tagged as "gay." maybe he was bisexual, maybe he didn't know what he was.  It was a different time It was troubling that he might have been a pedophile though. Some thought the divorce stemmed from this.
    • Why stay in such a small town.  The mother seemed confined by it.  She thought they would stay in Europe, but the family business, The Fun Home (Funeral Home), brought them back.  We thought we learned more about Bruce by seeing how he lived the part of his life as a funeral director.
    • Why did the mom finally file for divorce? She was sick of him getting caught with young boys.  Allison coming out gave her the courage to take her life back.  She felt confined and couldn't take it anymore. 
  • I did ask about Bechdel as a narrator since it had come up earlier.  While no one found her warm and fuzzy, most thought she was very authentic.  Even those who did not "like" her as a narrator felt she was effective and reliable.  We appreciated her willingness to open up to the reader and let us in to her healing process.  
  • We were emotionally drained after this discussion but I pressed the group to give me words or phrases to sum up the book:
    • somber
    • cathartic
    • raw truth (I liked this one)
    • sad
    • healing
    • well written
    • drek (she did not like it and would not elaborate as to why) 
    • literary
    • literate
    • composite of emotions
    • expressive
    • confessional
  • For the record, I did use the questions in the right gutter of this blog as a guide for the discussion, but much of what we talked about came up organically as we discussed the book.
Readalikes:  Back when I first read Fun Home, I had readlaikes here.  And then last year when I read Bechdel's follow-up Are You My Mother?, I had more suggestions here, including The Glass Castle which is another memoir of a dysfunctional family that we also read in book club.

Two newer graphic novel memoirs that have a similar somber, raw truth, confessional tone that have also received intense critical acclaim are My Friend Dahmer by Derf Backderf and Stitches by David Small.  My Friend Dahmer is an interesting parallel because while Fun Home is all about Bechdel coming to terms with her possible role in father's death while Dahmer is the recollections of a childhood friend of the serial killer coming to terms with his own guilt.

Bechdel mentions the book And the Band Played On in Fun Home also. I would highly recommned this groupdbreaking work on the origins of the AIDS epidemic.

If you are looking for another critically acclaimed LGBT themed title, go to the Lambda Literary Foundation's website.  I personally really enjoy the work of David Leavitt. On NoveList, I wrote this about him and his style:
David Leavitt writes award-winning literary fiction, short stories, and nonfiction from the gay perspective. His empathetic characterizations make Leavitt's books popular with all audiences. Leavitt also edits collections by gay writers. He uses all his works to illustrate the daily difficulties of being gay in a dominantly homosexual world. Whether it is a fictional writer struggling to live openly, the biography of a brilliant mathematician, persecuted for his sexual orientation, or his own travels through Italy, Leavitt's work goes beyond the sensationalism of gay sex (although it is there), focusing more on the humanity of individuals and their relationships with the world. Start with: The Lost Language of Cranes (fiction) or The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing and the Invention of the Computer (nonfiction).
I think Leavitt and Bechdel have a similar feel, although it is important to note that some fans of Bechdel enjoy her work for its strong feminism, and they would not get this from Leavitt.

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