5.06.2012

"You must be very angry at your mother."

Are You My Mother? (Alison Bechdel)

Graphic memoir. Having branded Fun Home "Don't miss!" (related entry here), I wanted to read Bechdel's follow-up memoir on its release. Reviews have been mixed, though, even within one publication: the NYT and the NYT; Slate, Kirkus Reviews, and NPR.

And my own review is somewhat mixed, too. Intelligent, insightful, and abundantly gifted with both text and illustration, Bechdel blends personal history, including conversations with her therapists, with wisdom culled from her close reading of both Donald Winnicott and Virginia Woolf -- all in an effort to navigate what some have described as the most fraught relationship in the world: mother and daughter. Heady and universal stuff, right? So why am I not responding to it with the same degree of discovery and appreciation that  underscored my reading of Fun Home? I wondered. Then, the following exchange (pp. 200-203) between Bechdel and her mother helped me define my vague sense of frustration with parts of the work:
"The self has no place in good writing."

"Uhhh...Yeah, but don't you think that... That if you write minutely and rigorously enough about your own life... You can, you know, transcend your particular self?"

"Wallace Stevens wrote transcendent poetry, and he never used the word 'I.'"
I'm a fan of rigorous -- ruthless, even -- self-evaluation, but in some sections of Are You My Mother? writing "minutely and rigorously" resulted in the opposite of transcending "your particular self" -- and it was in those narrative weak spots that I grew restless.

That said, I do recommend this book, particularly to those who heeded my Fun Home recommendation.

5.04.2012

"Yes, indeed, I was still a child."

First Love (Ivan Turgenev)

Fiction. Robin of 52 Books 52 Weeks declared April "Read a Russian Author" month. I generally skip challenges, but two posts in my reader prompted me not to: this one and this from The Paris Review blog, each of which mentioned Turgenev's novella. What a heartbreaking, old-fashioned slip of a book. (Check out this review at Reading Matters.)

In grad school, someone pressed Fathers and Sons on me, but I resisted. For twenty years, I have resisted. I'm not even certain it is still on my shelves, but given how much I appreciated the deceptive simplicity of First Love, I must reconsider.

A complete list of books read in 2012 can be found here.

"I thought of everything I had given up for reading."

The Night Bookmobile (Audrey Niffenegger)

Graphic novel. The panel in which she describes reading as if she were eating for two made me wonder if Niffenegger were making a sly comment about why some people read what they read. In other words, do we choose to read, say, Middlemarch on the el train because we think we look clever -- or because we actually want to read Middlemarch? What happens when we read with an mental eye to what our personal librarian will think of us? What happens when we read for all the wrong reasons? What happens when reading supplants life utterly?

"Years passed."

Alexandra is a character not entirely dissimilar to Henry Bemis, who also read without much investment in the life going on about him. For that reason, the book reminded me of a "Twilight Zone" episode -- dark and ambiguous.

Postscript: I am not a fan of Niffenegger's novel The Time Traveler's Wife. At. All. But I found this book rather interesting thought-provoking and compelling, apparently, as it remains on my mind.

A complete list of books read in 2012 can be found here.