Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

motherI am deeply impressed by Alison Bechdel: her self-awareness, her fraught journey through her life and her relationship with her mother, her psychoanalysis and her work in this book (and, I’ll wager, her earlier Fun Home, which I haven’t read but have heard lots of good things about. I’ve put it on the list). This is a memoir of her mother, at first glance; but it’s more self-involved than that, although I don’t mean that in a bad way. That’s just what this book is. It’s the story of her writing a book about her mother, and it’s that book; it’s really a book about herself, then.

It is also a graphic memoir, which is not a format I’ve spent much time on, as I find it a little exhausting to follow; I guess I’m a traditionalist when it comes to my reading matter! I prefer traditional fonts, and certainly hard-copy rather than electronic (well, there are the audiobooks…). I’ve read very few graphic works, and although I’ve enjoyed them all, I tend to find them a little more effortful. On the other hand, though, I sped through these 289 pages easily in an afternoon. Seeing Bechdel’s visual version of herself, her mother, and her other characters (a father, two brothers, two psychoanalysts, a few girlfriends) added to the experience; so, props on the format as well, as it turns out. (This is where I’ll note that Alison Bechdel is also the author of the esteemed comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and a whole pile of books of said comic.)

I feel the need to address a personal element of my reading this book. I have aspired for a handful of years now to write a book about my own mother. And it was my mother who gave me this book – I believe after she went to an author reading at a bookstore? – with a nudge toward writing my own version. This is funny to me now that I’ve read Are You My Mother?, because for one thing, Bechdel’s mom was less than pleased with her efforts (is there a joke in there, Mom?); also, the book I envision, hope, one day to write is not very much like this one. No criticism there, of course. I dream of something a little more like Haven Kimmel’s mother-book, She Got Up Off the Couch. That is, I want to tell my mother’s story (unavoidably mediated through the lens of being her daughter), because I think her life story needs telling. Bechdel’s need was admittedly a little more self-focused. She quotes Virginia Woolf more than once: about To the Lighthouse, “I suppose that I did for myself who psycho-analysts do for their patients. I expressed some very long felt and deeply felt emotion. And in expressing it I explained it and then laid it to rest.” And that is what Bechdel is working on doing through this memoir: psychoanalyze herself, and put her emotions to rest. At the end, it feels like she does, at least a little.

She is quite involved in the idea of psychoanalysis, and does quite a bit of her own research; in addition to relationships with two different analysts, she reads Freud and some lesser-knowns; her personal favorite is one Winnicott. She opens each chapter with a dream, then sets it in the timeline of her life and discusses what it might mean. It’s an interesting lens, and not one I’m familiar with. I’m not ready to go get analyzed, myself, but I came away respecting Bechdel’s process. Some of the papers she studies and quotes from are overly academic for what I was looking to get out of this book, but that’s okay; I let them flow over me and stayed on track with what Bechdel was up to, which was what I was looking for.

I found Bechdel funny, personable, sympathetic, and authentic. I’m glad for her in what she gained through this process. I expect to come back to this book for some thoughts on my own work, if/when I ever get that far; for now, it was a rewarding read. And I’ll be looking for Fun Home. For feminists, lesbians, mothers, daughters, or people with relationships to solve – I recommend this deftly drawn work of emotion and searching. Thank you, Alison.


Rating: 7 sessions.

The Book of Jezebel: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Lady Things by Anna Holmes

A colorful and clever reference guide to life as a woman that readers can enjoy straight through, cover to cover.

jezebel

The Book of Jezebel, edited by the creator of the popular feminist website with contributions from many of its writers, is an illustrated encyclopedia of “lady things.” The Jezebel definition of lady things includes body parts, clothing, historical and contemporary women in pop culture, literature and politics–and women’s issues related to feminism, reproductive rights and relationships. It also contains an “ode to female friendship,” (mostly) humorous attacks on certain public figures and plenty of photographs and illustrations that add to the book’s informational value and its hilarity.

Although often funny, The Book of Jezebel is serious in its underlying intent, aspiring to balance empowerment with femininity. It’s not just for women, but for men who love them as well.


This review originally ran in the November 29, 2013 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 steps.

Stretching by Bob Anderson, illustrated by Jean Anderson

I received my copy of Bob Anderson’s iconic Stretching on my 16th birthday, as you can see here:

stretch

That inscription reads, “Happy 16th Julie. May you always keep on stretching mind, body & soul – 7 years & beyond! Love, Dad.” You see I was Julie rather than Julia and he was Dad rather than Pops – it’s been a little while! (The 7-year part is a reference to my aunt (my father’s sister) Laura Kastner’s book, The Seven Year Stretch.) I was a young athlete and my father was a slightly older one, and he wanted to pass on the important lessons communicated here.

stretchingStretching was originally published in 1980, before I was born; my copy was printed in 1997, but this book has been through multiple editions since. I still see posters on the walls at gyms and the like with Jean Anderson’s recognizable illustrations, teaching Bob Anderson’s stretches. Paging through this book now, I am impressed at how well it stands up. We mostly still use the concepts outlined here. I showed it to my physical therapist’s intern (hi, Percy!) and he thought it still looked pretty solid.

The book opens with chapters on who should stretch (hint: he’s pretty inclusive), when to stretch, why to stretch, etc., and then begins on the stretches themselves, which are heavily illustrated. The illustrations, by the author’s wife, are perfect: simple line drawings that show the positions used, with cross-hatching to indicate where I should feel the stretch.

I hope the Anderson's won't mind my sharing of this one page (click to enlarge)

I hope the Anderson’s won’t mind my sharing of this one page

A good portion of the book is dedicated to these text-and-illustration teachings; and then come combinations of stretches, like stretching routines for times of day and while watching television, and for various sports. As a soccer player I wore out that two-page spread; as a cyclist I keep a photocopy of the corresponding two pages handy. Then there are exercises for developing strength; a note to teachers and coaches; and advice on nutrition, back care, and running and cycling techniques. The nutrition part is a little more apt to be dated – possibly outdated, depending on what you believe, but mostly dated in the sense that today a person could read copious volumes on any one of several dozen faddish, extreme dietary programs (yes, I’m looking at you, Paleo), and Anderson’s advice is old-fashionedly simple. Also charmingly dated is the bit on cycling technique; nothing I found in a quick skim is wrong, but as with nutrition, it’s a far cry from the laser-heavy methods of precision bike fitting we use today. Frankly, I miss Anderson’s matter-of-factness and simplicity, but there you are.

In a word, this is a great reference manual for anybody – literally – but possibly of special interest to athletes, because of the sport-specific advice offered. Although old, it’s still gold. Thanks, Pops! Still stretching!


Rating: 9 deep breaths.
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