181 of 190 people found the following review helpful
on July 27, 2006
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 closet was not entirely secret and his 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.
88 of 96 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2006
Wow. I've been trying to figure out how to start this review, but every opening sounds like it's belittling: "Proving that she can do more than her comic strip ..." or "Moving beyond her "Dykes"..." does a great disservice to Bechdel and the comic strip world she has been superbly chronicling for the past twenty-odd years. Bechdel isn't moving beyond anything here; she's just done something different.
It shouldn't come as any surprise that Bechdel is capable of producing such a great work -- she has proved time and again in both her comic strip and other media (her hilarious and much missed wall calendars from the 90s) that she can blend words, drama and humor as sharply as any. The surprise to me here is just how deeply Bechdel allows us to glimpse into her life.
"Fun Home" is no easy narrative: the story of Bechdel's family and especially her difficult father bends, buckles and then turns to reveal more truth as each chapter goes by. The art and detail are so well done that I didn't feel as though I was looking at pen and ink drawings but real photos reminiscent of Italian "fumetti" comics. When the book ended, I felt the need to go over it again and put the pieces together like a puzzle.
I first discovered Bechdel when I was a junior in college 15 years ago and I've been following her work ever since. Part of me wants to selfishly keep her as one of my own, somebody that I discovered before the mainstream and after I died, friends and family would find her books among my collection and think, "This is brilliant, if only we'd read her years ago!"
I'll probably spend the next few months saying, "You liked 'Fun Home'? Amateur! *I've* been reading Bechdel since 1991." But this book (and Bechdel's work in general) deserves a wide audience and all the success it gets.
Bravo Alison, bravo.
34 of 39 people found the following review helpful
From Alison Bechdel, author of the comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," comes a memoir of coming out and coming to terms with both the life and death of her closeted father. The funny "gay" memoir seems to be the latest trend, and I'll admit that I approached this book with more than a little trepidation. However, "Fun Home" has proven a happy surprise, a unique and first rate comic work by a truly serious artist.
It took me awhile to set down and attempt to put into words what I found so special about this book. First, this is a graphic book (a "comic" book if you will), and one that is equal parts graphic and comic in its depiction of a very real American family. Being raised in a funeral home in small town America could prove a challenge for anyone. Being an adolescent girl awakening to her own lesbianism with a closet case father who is both your High School English teacher and the local funeral director, is the stuff of great literature.
The author has an acute sense of the absurd, and an unparralleld ability to communicate life's little ironies. Without ever losing affection for her emotionally remote parents, Bechdel cuts to the heart of the matter and draws them warts and all. "Fun Home" is a genuine marvel, a truly tragicomic memoir and one of the highlights of the publishing year thus far. Don't miss it.
53 of 65 people found the following review helpful
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
I'm somewhat impressed that I somehow managed to read one of the New York Times' Notable Books of 2006 while it's still 2006, and before they named it as a notable book. Completely unlike me. But there it is. My closet trendiness is finally leaking out.
And as tempting as it is to use that paragraph as a segue into a review of Fun Home, I can't figure out a way to do it that isn't monstrously cheesy, so I'll leave it where it stands.
As sick of the whole memoir thing as I am, there are still a few that generate enough buzz from the trustworthy to merit picking up while they're still somewhat fresh. Fun Home has been one of them since months before it came out, and for the most part, the buzz seems warranted. (The part that's not "most" is because, well, it's a memoir, and in today's climate, where everyone from the Bush's pet dog to the janitor of the local brothel is publishing a memoir, publishing a memoir in and of itself is cause for skepticism.) Bechdel takes her childhood journal and reworks it with an adult sensibility, but doesn't throw out the awkward, painful bits. Or, if she did, she left enough of them in to make it scan.
At its heart, Fun Home is the story of the conflict between Bechdel and her father, both of whom were struggling with sexuality issues during Bechdel's adolescence; she eventually came out, while her father stayed closeted until his death (whether accident or suicide, a question unanswered to this day). Bechdel picks at the relationship, worries it like a dog at a neighbor's welcome mat, piecing her father together from a tapestry of memories and journal entries, telling the story of the rest of her somewhat dysfunctional family (yes, only somewhat; no Augusten Burroughs or David Sedaris here, thankfully) in the process. And while she was doing so, I kind of wondered where it was all going, as I usually do with memoirs-- whether it would resolve, or whether it would just end. Because life is not well known for its resolutions.
Bechdel, however, should be. The final, page-sized frame of Fun Home is both a surprise and the only correct ending to the book, and it moves the book from "okay, decent memoir" to "wow, that works." She does what she does, and she does it well. Well enough that sometimes it sneaks up on you. ***
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 20, 2006
I suppose it's difficult enough to reveal one's life on the page, but it must be quite another to then augment the dissertation with personal graphic illustrations that might carry the danger of simultaneously adding dimension while subtracting imagination from the reader's experience. But Alison Bechdel has achieved a triumphant balance with startling fecundity in FUN HOME, her autobiography that's both an explanation of her coming of age and of her father's coming out, sort of. The "fun" is in the observations of life with father as we romp through her pre-pubescent diary and consider the axioms she posits regarding the nature of her burgeoning sexuality.
Ms. Bechdel flits from one year, back to another, forward to another, yet offers the reader a soft landing each time. Within one chapter we find Alison as a young, cut-off wearing child eager to gain favor from her distant father by vacuuming the Fun Home and without warning, boom, she's in her college library, thumbing through lesbian literature. The flippant chronology somehow works to the advantage of the unfolding story, and she displays fabulous, tight literary prose, although I could do without rushing to the dictionary every fourth page to learn the meaning of "welter" or "tautology." She didn't propose that one medium explain the other: the graphics, composed with a brilliant eye for the emotional range of the characters in her life, primarily her father and herself, feed on the written narrative and our imagination, a task made tougher by the intimate subject matter that translated to the comic while stepping along the borders of pathos. It's like Rembrandt adding masturbatory commentary to his muddy self-portraits. The result is a magnificent, if fractured fairy tale.
The only rub was the liberal use of literary analogy to explain her innermost discoveries as she grapples with her father's nature and demise. Even she battled her English professors' propensities for drawing far reaching parallels from simple narratives, which tickled me. She's a smart cookie, and Fun Home is a brave, new work, but I might have thought that her observations of a father who spent the bulk of his free time flowering his garden, reading Fitzgerald and Joyce, decorating his library and ignoring her mother, all while she made a hobby of studying other men in her life might have led her to an inescapable conclusion, but then rationalization is a powerful process. Look at Zelda, for Chrissakes.
14 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on May 20, 2006
This is a sharp, literate, excruciating, and mature piece of autobiography, which should with any justice nudge Alison Bechdel from cult favorite to widespread critical recognition.
Her always appealing and humane art is given emotional depth and shadow with a layer of ink wash, which Houghton Mifflin has thankfully payed out to print in faded royal blue.
In terms of content, Bechdel ably and appropriately includes themes from Proust, Joyce, Homer, and F.Scott Fitzgerald as she strip-mines the contorted relationship between her younger self and her English teacher father.
This is a work of real emotional honesty, paired with a professional execution. It's also a welcome change from the relentless brand of masculine self-loathing dished out by R.Crumb and Harvey Pekar, and more mature than the delicate, achingly self-aware recent works by Craig Thompson.
The overall quality and insight of the work brings it beyond being just a female, feminist, or queer genre piece (all of which Bechdel has done with great aplomb in the past); with any luck it should make itself felt across the demographic bar chart.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on June 11, 2006
Quiz time: Name three things that Alison Bechdel (author/cartoonist behind the fabulous "Dykes To Watch Out For") had in common with Claire, the daughter on "Six Feet Under". Answer: They both had two brothers, their fathers were killed by being hit by a large motor vehicle, and both grew up living in the family funeral home.
In Alison's case, the kids shortened the name of the latter to the "Fun Home", which she had made the title of her beautifully illustrated autobiographical work. It deals mostly with her relationship with her father, a fastidious and seemingly cold and distant man who inherited the family funderal business, although he also worked as a high school English teacher. His main passion, however, was restoring and decorating period buildings in their small Pennsylvania town, first the town museum and later a big gothic mansion in which he moved his family during the renovations. Alison's mother was also emotionally distant, and the family members rarely showed any affection toward each other, a burden that Alison dealt with throughout her life. It wasn't until was in college and discovered her lesbianism, and wrote home to tell her parents about it, that she was clued in on a secret his parents had been trying to hide all those years: her father was also gay, and the changing cast of students and other young men he had around him as "helpers" for the renovations were really his lovers. This revelation triggers a new attempt to get closer to him, and she does manage that to an extent, right before his accident, which she believes was really a premeditated act of suicide.
A heartfelt and emotionally powerful story, told with great feeling and honesty by a talented author. I had some doubts about dealing with a self-described "tragicomic" (the book is fully illustrated with six panels per each of the 232 pages), but the author is apparently so comfortable with that medium that it allows her to tell her story to its best, and provides amazing detail and clarity to the events she relates. Five stars out of five.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on May 24, 2006
How a graphic novel should be- once you finish your first reading, your relationship with it has just begun. It's after all a 'picture book' you can devour it in one night if you receive it in the mail by six pm and finish at three am, especially if you have a dictionary handy, ideally one that is large and musty. The book is like a poem you could read quickly, a painting you might stop flat to admire and then walk by, but closer examination reveals layers of complexity and enjoyment. Its richness is in the explication. I would think about this book on the subway and open it back up to revisit parts when I got home; now I carry it. Parts of it are oblique on the first reading; I got the distinct idea that Bechdel, whose parents were English teachers, wants her audience to experience the frustration followed by satisfaction of having to look up big words. (You know how people liked the Da Vinci code because it makes you feel vicariously cultured?) It's also fitting that this book is a candid explication of her youth, going back to revisit darker things she didn't understand at the time; it's admirable and troubling, and raises thoughts about the relationship between talent and adversity. And it is so aesthetically pleasing. Bechdel's characters' faces are perfectly expressive and she is particularly talented at portraying kids- cuteness approaching Japanese levels, but genuine and unsaccharine and with a clear memory of the demons of childhood. If you want to see the great short story comic that started this book, you have to pick up "The Indelible Alison Bechdel". It's very cool to see how that coming-out story is refined and progressed in Fun Home's less cartoony version that is still humorous in its pathos.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on July 10, 2014
I'm not sure what to make of this book. On one hand, there are some really interesting characters and heartfelt scenes that present their relationship. The graphics really emphasize the emotions in interactions between Alison Bechdel and her father. Although Bechdel does repeat sections of her past, she builds on them each time with expanded visual elements to provide new perspectives on ideas presented only briefly earlier on in the book. Those are the strengths of the book. On the other hand, Bechdel spends a lot of time comparing her family members to literary figures, which makes the characters seem much less interesting. I was familiar with the references she made, but I think it would be hard for someone who wasn't familiar with Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Proust to understand large chunks of the book. There were also some semi-graphic sex scenes that I didn't think added to the story; they seemed to be included just for a little shock value rather than literary value. When Bechdel wasn't elucidating on literary characters, the story was really intriguing and the visuals just added levels of meaning to the story, but other times the story just fell flat.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
People used to say about Ginger Rogers, "She did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels." In a way, too, so did Alison Bechdel: Not only did she write an absorbing, genuine family story, but she magnificently illustrated it too. The result? Best book I've read this summer. One I'll read again and again, and one I'll give as a gift. "Fun Home" shouldn't be pigeonholed as a "graphic novel," or of "gay/lesbian interest" only. This book is for anyone. Especially those of us who don't really know our parents, since Bechdel's narrative encompasses her ongoing attempts from early girlhood to learn and understand their stories as well.
Bechdel's parents were English teachers, and her father also ran his family's funeral home ("fun home" is their shorthand for the place) part time. Her mother was a gifted pianist and actress in local productions of dramatic classics. So it's natural that Alison communicated with her parents, and came to understand them, at least in part, in literary terms. When Alison is at college and writes home to her father, for example, that she's reading James Joyce's "Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man," he snaps back (by mail), "You'd better relate to every d**n page."
When Alison, yet to have actual sex with anyone, comes out as a lesbian to her parents--by letter, of course--her father's reply is flippant, her mother's opaque and ambivalent. Shortly thereafter, she learns from her mother that her father had had sex with a number of young men, including the family babysitter. Her father's premature death--accident or suicide?--presents another mystery. Perhaps Bechdel will continue this story; I would love to know more about how Helen Bechdel, seen here as a lovely but frustrated and frustratingly introspective wife and mother, continued her life in widowhood.
Alison Bechdel also has published numerous volumes comprising the ongoing adventures of "Dykes to Watch Out For," a comic strip with a running rainbow cast of characters. If you finished "Fun Home" with your reading jones roaring MORE MORE MORE BECHDEL, I recommend DTWOF and "The Complete Alison Bechdel."