Review: The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee, Stewart Lee Allen

The description of Stewart Lee Allen’s book The Devil’s Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee would have prospective readers believe that Allen was on a quest to answer two big questions: “Did the advent of coffee give birth to an enlightened western civilization?” and “Is coffee, indeed, the substance that drives history?” I’m not really sure either question was answered, but I did learn a few things about coffee, and I was entertained.

Allen begins his journey in Harar, Ethiopia, said to be the birthplace of coffee.As he claims partway through the book, “Coffee and humanity both sprang from the same area in eastern Africa.” Next Allen treks through Yemen, Turkey, Austria, France, and from there to Brazil and finally across America on Route 66, following the course of coffee-loving mystics and adventurers and the coffee plant itself. It’s a little bit like what might happen if you put Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road in a blender. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was more a straight history of coffee, and though there was some history, it was equally Allen’s memoir of his trek around the world in search of coffee’s history.

However, I did learn a few things, such as why coffee dominates in America and tea in Britain (it really has a lot to do with the American Revolution and the Opium Wars), how coffee houses have fomented revolution, and about coffee’s origins among Sufi mystics. For a self-professed coffee fanatic, Allen holds some surprising views. For instance, he doesn’t rag on Starbucks like most coffee snobs I know. Instead he says:

Sure, they’re a megacorporation destroying hundreds of mom-and-pop cafés. But that’s just something large corporations do. The important thing is that they serve fine coffee. Their baristas are generally first-rate.

 

I actually really like Starbucks, but a lot of people don’t describe their coffee as “fine.” I realize that’s partly because it’s really uncool to like anything that’s popular. Hipsters seem bent on making everyone unhappy about liking anything. I am admittedly not a real coffee aficionado, so perhaps that explains why Starbucks and Dunkin and the like taste good to me. I am also not a hipster—not even close.

This was entertaining, quick read, and most of all, it was fun to read with a nice cup of coffee in the morning, but if you’re looking for the straight history that the book’s title suggests, look elsewhere.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book as the “object you might hunt for” for the Wild Goose Chase Challenge because, not only because Allen spends a lot of the book hunting for various types of coffee and stories about coffee’s history and travels, but also because I have sure spent time on a quest for a good cup of coffee on occasion, myself.

Related posts:

Review: Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, Chrissie Hynde

Before I discuss the contents of Chrissie Hynde’s memoir, Reckless: My Life as a Pretender, I need to get two things out of the way: 1) I am kind of a sucker for rock memoirs, which is something that started in my teens when I checked several books on the subject out of the library, and 2) I really like the Pretenders. I started really listening to them in college. I especially liked earlier records—their first two eponymously titled albums and Learning to Crawl. I once got a haircut I really hated, but then someone told it made me look like Chrissie Hynde, and I didn’t hate it anymore. Enjoying Chrissie Hynde’s music, however, didn’t mean I thought she walked on water. Quite the contrary. Before I picked up this book, I had certainly read enough about her and read enough of her interviews to know she isn’t someone I’d necessarily like very much. I don’t need to like someone’s personality to enjoy their art. I read an interview with Martin Freeman, for example, that left me scratching my head and wondering if he is truly a jerk or was just in bad mood. But I love him on film.

Hynde quite literally begins her memoir at the beginning, with her early years living in Akron. She loved listening to music, and living near Cleveland, which has always been a big rock and roll city, gave her easy access to the music she loved. She describes her misadventures attempting to please her parents and matriculate at Kent State—she knew one of the young men who was killed in 1970. She left Ohio for London just as the punk scene was starting and knew many of the major players, including Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood (she worked in their shop), the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and the Damned, among others. She seems to have spent most of her twenties focused on getting into a band and taking drugs. She does mention that the memoir would focus on her drug abuse, and it does. Caveat emptor for those looking to learn more about the Pretenders. Aside from the first two albums and the early years of the band, she does not tell that story in these pages. One wonders if something of her passion for the band and its music died with James Honeyman-Scott, the Pretenders’ first guitarist, in 1982. Neither of her spouses even gets a mention, and her relationship with Ray Davies rates only a few pages. Hynde waxes most lyrical at the end, when she discusses how “Jimmy’s” death affected her.

I can’t say I really disliked this book, but I didn’t like it, really, either. Hynde’s cast of characters was hard for me to keep straight, and I could have used a glossary of names or something. Hynde has certainly had some interesting experiences, and she is unflinching in her description, even if her story puts her in a bad light. She has said a couple of controversial things about possible rape (and certainly some kind of sexual assault) she experienced, namely, that she blames herself for getting into the situations in which she has been abused.

Now, let me assure you that, technically speaking, however you want to look at it, this was my doing and I take full responsibility. You can’t fuck around with people, especially people who wear “I Heart Rape” and “On Your Knees” badges. (119)

Hynde may indeed have been under the influence of drugs, and she may have made some poor decisions, but it makes me sad that she comes across as feeling like she somehow deserved to be assaulted because of these decisions. She was raised in an era when women were often blamed for their own rapes (Just how short was your skirt?), but she would, one hopes, be more enlightened now. Or maybe not. It would be nice if we lived in a world in which instead of minding ourselves and doing what we can to avoid being raped, men just didn’t, you know, rape people. Victim-blaming seems to be worst when it comes to these kinds of cases, though, and sometimes even the victims blame themselves. I have ready Hynde’s interviews on this topic, and she is quite heated, even insisting people don’t buy her book if they don’t want to read her story as she wants to tell it.

I can’t really figure her out. She comes off in interviews as brittle, and her frequent digs at people who choose not to be vegetarians are also off-putting. But I can’t deny she has swagger, and she did create some good music. I am glad she was able to stop taking drugs. I’m sad it took the deaths of two bandmates to determine she needed to get clean. I wish she had talked more about her experiences after 1982 as well. I also wish she didn’t feel the need to insult teachers every time it’s necessary to her memoir to mention teachers or education. I have read reviews calling this memoir “well-written.” I wouldn’t go that far. It’s not badly written. The prose is passable, with the exception of Hynde’s fondness for exclamation points. It’s also really not well organized. She flits around in time in a way that’s not easy to follow, and individual chapters can be anything from focused on a single event to wildly chaotic romps through years of time. If only she had paid a bit more attention to those teachers she finds it necessary to denigrate. Ah well. She didn’t need to, in the end, because she had a brilliant career in rock. I just wish I’d been able to read more about it. Unless you’re a big fan, I’d recommend skipping this book and listening to the Pretenders’ music instead. Even if you are a big fan, it’s still not too bad of an idea to skip this one in favor of of the music.

Rating: ★★½☆☆

Beat the BacklistI no longer remember how long this book’s been on my backlist, but it’s been a while. Maybe even when it first came out. I decided to count to for the Beat the Backlist Challenge.

I am also counting this one toward the Wild Goose Chase Challenge for the category of a book with a word or phrase relating to “wildness” in the title. You can’t pass up pairing “wild” with “reckless,” and one thing I can say for sure: Chrissie Hynde is wild.

Wild Goose Chase Reading Challenge 2017

Related posts:

Review: The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui

Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do was just released last week. Bui was born in Vietnam in the waning days of the Vietnam War. She was only a few months old on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell. She begins her narrative with the difficult birth of her son, then flashes back to her own mother’s difficult birth of her younger brother in a refugee camp in Malaysia. Bui’s family eventually settled in California, and with beautiful artwork on every page, Bui movingly details her family’s story, starting with her parents’ childhoods contrasted with her own. Unflinchingly honest, Bui’s memoir is a must-read.

I grew up hearing what Bui calls the “oversimplification and stereotypes in American versions of the Vietnam War.” My father was stationed at Cam Ranh Bay when I was born, but he was in the Air Force, and as far as I know (and I think he’d have told me), he didn’t engage in combat. It was some time before a body of literature about this war started to published, and I think most people are guilty of listening to and perhaps even believing what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie calls “the single story”—that incomplete story of a people based on few examples in literature.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

But at Bui says, we tend to forget—to our peril—that “[e]very casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover.” Many times in history, as we know too well, the voices of the casualties have been silenced. Their narrative has not been heard.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

And I think one big thing we forget is that the Vietnam War continued after America decided to stop fighting. America’s involvement was on the wane when my father served in 1971. America withdrew from the war in 1973, a full two years before the war ended.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

Bui is at her best in this memoir when she puzzles over contradictions and tries to make sense of her past and her family’s past, which is also how she explains why she needed to write this book.

Image from The Best We Could Do © Thi Bui, reproduced under fair use for critique

The Best We Could Do will surely draw comparisons to Maus and Persepolis. I also recently read Vietnamerica, and while GB Tran’s story is entirely different from Bui’s, reading both of them gave me more stories about what Vietnam and the Vietnam War were like through the eyes of a family who were just doing the best they could do. The arresting images coupled with the narrative make for a gut-wrenching read. The book is gorgeous, as well. The paper is high quality, and the dust cover is thick, heavy paper. I didn’t try to read the electronic version, but my gut tells me this book needs to be experienced in print to be enjoyed fully. A remarkable read.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

Music: True Love Lasts a Lifetime

music photo
Photo by Neo Love

I don’t write much about my story as a musician and music lover. I was doing that Facebook meme that’s going around with the top ten high school albums, and it made me feel all nostalgic, and nostalgic for more than just the albums themselves, but the cassettes and the sort of cruddy boom box I had in my room. I remember taping the radio. I think a lot of us did that. By the time I was a teenager, vinyl was on the way out, and in any case, I didn’t have a stereo with a turntable, though my dad did, and it was so much more convenient to listen to cassettes with Walkmans as ubiquitous back then as iPhones are today for listening. I remember going to bed listening to my Walkman, which wasn’t a real Sony kind (though I think most of us called those cassette players Walkmans, regardless of the brand, sort of like Kleenex). Mine had an auto-reverse feature, so I would have the music playing all night, and as long as the batteries held out, it would be playing in the morning when I woke up, too. I remember sometimes the players would try to eat the tapes, and the tape would crinkle up like an accordion. The only way to fix it was to gently pull the tape out and use a pencil or pen to wind it back around the cassette spools. Sometimes, the tape would break, and you could fix it with Scotch tape, but afterwards it would always have a place that would skip.

Once I went to college, I got a real CD player, and I used to go to downtown Athens, GA, where I went to college, and look for used CD’s I could add to my collection. There used to be two really good music stories downtown. I am not sure if they’re still there; I haven’t been to Athens in a long time. I was really trying to figure out who I was back in those days, and I listened to a lot of different kinds of music. I had a roommate who played bass, and I pilfered her music collection and combined it with my own by making mix tapes. I loved making mix tapes, and I was told more than once that I was pretty good at it. Composing the correct order of songs and stretching to the end of the tape was an art of sorts.

In those days, music seemed like it was everything, and I still listen to some of the things I listened to back then. When I was in high school, I started playing guitar and took guitar class. I loved picking up instruments and seeing if I could play them. My sister starting playing clarinet, and I picked it up and worked my way through beginner exercises in her lesson book. The neighbor boy picked up the violin, so I borrowed it and tried a few of the exercises in his lesson book as well. When I was in eighth grade, I found a French horn tucked away among the school instruments. My eighth grade band was pitifully small, so my director was glad to let me take it home and see if I could make it work. I did. I played it most of that year, along with the flute, which was my first instrument, and I even had a solo in one of our concerts. I botched it, unfortunately, out of nerves. I never really liked being on display as a musician, and it’s probably that feeling, as much as anything, that prevented me from ever making a real go of playing music. I liked to blend into a large band. Anytime I had a solo or had to play in a small enough group that my contributions would be noticed, I hated it. But there was still something in me that wanted to be a good musician, even if just for myself. I bought myself an electric guitar for Christmas last year. I had wanted one forever. I immediately signed up for a guitar course—which turned out to be a really great course—through Berklee College of Music on Coursera. I love taking the odd online course here and there. So much fun to learn. And most of the courses I have taken have been music courses. I took a two-part introduction to the History of Rock, a Beatles course, and a Rolling Stones course. The guitar course was the first course I took that involved actually playing, and it could be brutal. I had to record myself doing exercises set by the instructor, and I was graded by my peers. If what I turned in didn’t sound good enough, my peers didn’t pass me, and that did happen. I could re-record the lesson and try again, which I also did. I learned more about music theory and good musicianship in that course than I did in seven years of band classes and two years of guitar classes in school. The band instructor at the school where I teach is a fine guitarist himself and has offered me lessons. I need to take him up on it! He said he would give me enough material in a single lesson to keep me busy for a month.

Like a lot of people, I really found music an escape when I was in high school, and it was then that I really started listening to it a lot. Around my mid-thirties, I started realizing I was disconnected from what was happening in music at that time. I think that happens to most people, but most people are okay with it and continue to enjoy the music they liked in their formative years in high school and their twenties. I wasn’t having it, though. I made myself listen to the music that was out there, and I found a new connection to music that I had come pretty close to losing. I discovered artists I had missed out on, like Jeff Buckley. I rediscovered my old loves. I found new favorites, like Jack White and his work with the White Stripes and the Raconteurs.

I am really glad I did wake up, if that’s what you want to call it, and return to that love of music. I’d like to think I will be the kind of person who tries to keep an ear to the ground and listen for new artists. One line I just love from Love Actually is a response of Karen’s after her husband Harry asks her what she’s listening to and seems surprised she still listens to Joni Mitchell: “I love her. And true love lasts a lifetime.” Of course, perhaps neither of them realize that they are also sort of discussing their marriage. But I think Karen is right about true music love, too. I do have some true music loves. True loves that have lasted a lifetime.

Here is a randomized list of 100 of my favorite songs, and when I say random, I mean it. I used a randomizer website to shuffle the order. So not carefully ordered like my old mix tapes, but still something of the flavor of those carefully curated music collections. All of these songs mean something to me, and many are old favorites, going back to childhood.

Related posts:

Review: Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer

My first book of 2017 was Jon Krakauer’s harrowing account of his ascent of Mt. Everest in May 1996. There are several accounts of the disaster surrounding the May 10, 1996 Everest expeditions, but Krakauer’s Into Thin Air is arguably the most famous.

Krakauer climbed Everest at the behest of Outside magazine, mainly to cover the guided expeditions that were gaining popularity at that time. These expeditions were controversial because many in the climbing community felt that inexperienced and possibly unfit people were attempting the dangerous climb and putting their lives (and those of their guides and sherpas) in jeopardy. In addition, concerns had been raised about the commercialization of Everest. For instance, the mountain became littered with the debris of climbers, from discarded oxygen canisters to other belongings, and frankly, even the bodies of those who did not make it back. It’s an absolutely riveting book about the dangers of hubris in the face of what is still one of the most dangerous places in the world. Krakauer describes the events leading up to a storm that approached as the expedition teams led by Scott Fischer and Rob Hall summited the mountain, and before all the members of the expeditions were able to descend, they were embroiled in a dangerous blizzard and a fight for their lives.

Krakauer has been criticized for parts of his account, and he has included a postscript to address some of this criticism. I found he was remarkably fair, though I freely admit this is the only account I’ve read. The reason I think he is fair is that he admits he feels partly responsible for the deaths of two the members of his team, Adventure Consultants, which was led by Rob Hall. He is fairly open and critical of his own lapses in judgment. He might even be hard on himself, given he was suffering from the effects of the altitude and the storm. He states he wishes he had never climbed Everest, but he admits in his introduction that “attempting to climb Everest is an intrinsically irrational act—a triumph of desire over sensibility. Any person who would seriously consider it is almost by definition beyond the sway of reasoned argument” (xvii). He wrote the book in part to attempt to deal with the post-traumatic stress disorder and depression that resulted from his experience on the mountain. Whatever culpability he ultimately has (which is debatable), it’s clear he has examined the events from as many angles as he could, including interviewing other survivors about their memories. He has done as good a job as it is probably possible to do, given the way the altitude, which made clear thinking virtually impossible, as well as the trauma of the event. Establishing the truth was difficult.

If I had the slightest notion I ever wanted to try anything like climb Mount Everest (and I assure you I didn’t—I am nowhere near fit enough to try climbing any mountain, let alone that one), this book would have cured me of the desire. Once the mountain had been conquered in the 1950’s, perhaps it was easy to forget the dangers it still held. Over 280 people have died trying to climb the mountain. In fact, 1996 was not even the deadliest year. English Mountaineer George Mallory has famously been quoted as saying, after being asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest, “Because it’s there.” He perished in his attempt in 1924. His remains were found about three years after Jon Krakauer’s ill-fated summit of Everest.

This book has been on TBR list for a while. I actually accidentally bought two copies of it in my zeal to make sure I read it. I thought it was even better than Into the Wild, perhaps because of the personal nature of the story and very real anguish that Krakauer clearly feels. This book is personal. Krakauer is an excellent writer of narrative nonfiction.

Rating: ★★★★★

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017This book is my first selection for the Backlist Reader Challenge 2017. I can’t recall how long I’ve wanted to read it, but I put it on my Goodreads to-read list on December 14; I’m pretty sure I bought both copies I own before then (I am sending one back!). I know I had plans to read it sometime last year after a conversation with a fellow teacher who had read it, but I was being lazy about adding more books to Goodreads for a while. It was originally published in 1997.

Related posts:

Review: March: Book Three, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

John Lewis’s graphic memoir March was released in three parts. You can read my reviews of March: Book One and March: Book Two. March: Book Three was released just last month, and it concludes Lewis’s story of participating in the Civil Rights Movement, culminating in his involvement with the march from Selma to Montgomery, AL. and President Johnson’s signing of the Voting Rights Act. Woven through the story is also an account of John Lewis’s experiences on the day Barack Obama was inaugurated.

March: Book Three picks up Lewis’s story with the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Lewis recounts how violence escalated as the movement drew closer to its goal of achieving voting rights for all. He tells of the murders of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney, the subject of the film Mississippi Burning. He recalls visiting Africa and meeting Malcolm X. In addition, he recounts his own beating as he crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma.

One of the things I love about this series is it preserves an important episode in American history, told through the voice of one who lived it, in an accessible and engaging way. I personally think the series is indispensable for teaching the Civil Rights Movement to teenagers. The story is interesting enough on its own, but with the hook of the visuals of Nate Powell, which has almost the same immediacy as film, the story really comes alive. Lewis is often called the Conscience of the House. Few have forgotten how he led a sit-in this past summer to attempt to convince the House to vote on gun safety legislation. I can think of few living people I admire more than John Lewis. At the age of 76, he is still actively working—peacefully—to preserve human life and dignity. He is an amazing human being, and his tireless work on behalf of others—all of his life—is just about unparalleled in public service.

The entire March series is a must-read for everyone, especially in these times when some states are engaged in voter suppression tactics. Alabama, for example, recently began enforcing a voter ID law and promptly closed DMV offices in predominantly black communities, making it difficult for African-Americans to obtain the ID’s they need to vote. It’s amazing to read this memoir and think, “these things really happened.” What’s more amazing is that they still do. Black men still have every legitimate reason to fear they will be killed when they are pulled over for minor infractions. Meanwhile, young white men can be caught in the act of rape and get away with very little in the way of repercussions.

In the spirit of John Lewis’s struggle, you owe it to your country and your community to go vote this November. There is a lot at stake in this election. Maybe your first choice of candidate didn’t make it through the primaries. Go vote anyway. Too many people died for your right to vote and to have a say in the way your country is governed, no matter what your background is.

[rating;5/5]

Related posts:

Review: Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon

After Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore announced they were divorcing after about 30 years together, I remember reading a great deal of speculation about the subject online. How could this happen? And if Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore divorce, what does that mean for the rest of us? They were supposed to be the great success story, the one that proved a lifelong marriage was possible in rock.

A few years after the divorce, Kim Gordon published her memoir, Girl in a Band. Of course, it was dissected. She was very honest about every aspect of her life. It might be a bit less about being in Sonic Youth for 30 years than the reader might expect, but I actually found I liked that Gordon wrote a true memoir about her entire life, from childhood to the present. If I have one criticism, it’s that she does blow through the band history very fast. I felt as I was reading that perhaps she didn’t really want to write about it at all but had been told to do so by her publisher. She offers only the barest glimpse into the many albums and songs she recorded. As such, the title is a bit misleading as the focus isn’t really on what it was like to be a “girl” in band so much as about the world of music and art she inhabited and her relationships with family and friends.

Gordon is understandably not very charitable toward Thurston Moore, who, as far as I’ve read, hasn’t said anything negative in response (though I admit I didn’t dig very hard). She is equally not very magnanimous toward Courtney Love, but given the very public ways Love has displayed her crazy for everyone to see, I suppose it’s probably accurate. The one thread that runs through the entire book is how true it seems. It can’t have been easy for Gordon to write, to put herself out there in that way. She describes herself as someone who liked to fly under the radar, to keep the peace, to acquiesce. It sounds like she is working on it, from the tone of the memoir, but it struck me as fundamentally honest to share that side of herself.

One might accuse Kim Gordon of name-dropping a bit in the memoir, but the fact is that she did know all these people, and if anything, she downplays her own influence and importance to the Riot Grrl movement, fashion, and Third Wave Feminism. I can’t say I am particularly a fan of Sonic Youth. I have a couple of their songs in my iTunes library. I have always, however, thought that Kim Gordon exuded cool. She always gave off the impression that she was unapologetically being herself. Who knew that she struggled with the same insecurities and worries a lot of women do? And why shouldn’t she? Perhaps the more casual fan of the band—someone like me—might appreciate this memoir more than a super Sonic Youth fan might because they probably won’t get the book they are looking for.

One thing I found as I kept reading the book is that I liked Kim Gordon. I could see hanging out with her outside the guitar classroom, if she had gone to my high school. She seems fairly down-to-earth, no nonsense. She is a good writer, and I actually didn’t know that she had done so much writing prior to this book, either. She discusses some of the rock journalism she has done, as well as her other art, which I didn’t know anything about prior to reading this book.

Perhaps because Gordon was working through a great deal of emotional turmoil as she wrote this book, there is a great deal of distance, even though she strikes me as real and honest, between her and what she writes about in the book. She sounds almost detached. It feels like she is processing a great deal, and because she’s processing it, she is looking at it from arm’s length. It’s not a criticism because memoir is tricky. I would assume if you are writing a memoir, it has to be the memoir you really want to write in that moment. Otherwise, why bother?

Was it healthy to vent so much about Thurston Moore? Maybe, maybe not. It was her truth, though. Her anger is certainly understandable. However, if you plan to read it, you should know going in that this memoir is not so much about what it was like to be in Sonic Youth as what it was and is like to be Kim Gordon. That seems pretty fair to me.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Related posts:

Review: Are You My Mother?, Alison Bechdel

The day before yesterday, I posted my review of Alison Bechdel’s first memoir, Fun Home. That memoir focuses on Bechdel’s relationship with her father. Are You My Mother?, naturally, focuses on her relationship with her mother. I picked it up as soon as I finished Fun Home. Bechdel’s relationship with both parents is complicated. Bechdel’s mother in particular is a complicated individual. She’s talented and beautiful, but she lives in an age when it’s difficult for a woman to pursue much beyond being a wife and a mother, and it’s not clear that Bechdel’s mother wanted to be either a wife or a mother very much. Frequent allusions to the works of Virginia Woolf, in particular, A Room of One’s Own, underscore the ways in which Bechdel’s mother was held back by her times. Bechdel also weaves in her readings of the work of psychologist Donald Winnicott, and the memoir that emerges is part self-psychoanalysis. Bechdel frequently describes and interprets her dreams and weaves in memories of her therapy sessions.

Perhaps every woman’s relationship with her mother is somewhat fraught. I was particularly touched by a question Bechdel asks her mother near the end of the memoir: “What’s the main thing you learned from your mother?” I won’t give away her mother’s answer here, but it struck me that in some significant ways, women repeat the experiences they have had with their own mothers. We establish cycles. Our mothers socialize us to be women, and their ideas of what is acceptable for women are passed on to us. It took me a long time to grapple with some of these ideas. In some ways, it might be a kind of conditioning that we undergo. I’m not sure. I’m still thinking about it. I’m not sure if men experience the same things with their fathers or not.

I am definitely a fan of Bechdel’s work. I’ll read any future books she writes for sure. She’s a smart writer, and the way she connects ideas is fascinating. I envy her mind quite a lot. As an English teacher, I especially appreciate the way she looks for connections in literature. She strikes me as a person who truly sees literature as a way for us to understand ourselves. Reading her makes me want to ask her for a recommended reading list so I can immediately go out and read everything on it.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

Review: Fun Home, Alison Bechdel

I just returned from the annual National Council of Teachers of English conference. Alison Bechdel was a keynote speaker Friday morning, and she spoke about her two graphic memoirs, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama, as well as her other work in comics. Her parents had both been English teachers, and she had much to share with us about encouraging writers and the ways in which her own parents shaped her as a reader and a writer.

Fun Home centers on Bechdel’s relationship with her father, who likely committed suicide in 1980, right after Bechdel came out to her parents. Her father was a somewhat distant and arguably abusive man who was plagued by his own struggles with his sexual identity. Bechdel chronicles the family’s difficulties with her father, whose passion was restoration. His preoccupation with appearances profoundly affected Bechdel. She grew up in a very cold home.

Panel from Fun Home

But Bechdel’s father influenced her as a reader and writer.

Panel from Fun HomeFun Home is packed with literary allusions, from her own identification of Bechdel’s father and herself as Daedalus and Icarus to her connection of her father to F. Scott Fitzgerald to finding herself in the writing of Collette and other LGBT writers. There is a good interview with Bechdel on NPR you might want to check out if you want to learn more about her and also about the Broadway musical adapted from this book.

I truly enjoyed this book. I read it while waiting in the airport to return home from the conference and finished it on the plane. It’s a quick read, but an absorbing and very deep read. It’s a well-written memoir on top of being poignant. There are moments of levity, even in panels in which Bechdel is dealing with her father’s death.

Panel from Fun Home

If you are not familiar with Bechdel’s work, you probably have at least heard of the “Bechdel Test,” which is a criterion for determining whether a movie has some consideration of women as fully realized characters to the following extent:

  1. It has to have at least two women characters
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something other than a man

I was fortunate to be able to meet Alison Bechdel at the conference, and she signed my copy of this book.

Alison Bechdel and DanaIt was wonderful to meet her and hear her speak about her reading and writing life.

Rating: ★★★★★

Related posts:

Review: March: Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell

I read and reviewed the first volume of John Lewis’s civil rights graphic memoir March: Book One. It took me a little while to get around to reading Book Two, but I picked it up today.

March: Book Two picks up where Book One left off after successful sit-ins in Nashville. In this volume, Lewis becomes more involved with SNCC and becomes increasingly involved in the Civil Rights Movement. He describes participation in several protests, namely attempting to integrate a movie theater in Nashville and testing the Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court decision through participation the Freedom Rides. He rises to Chairman of the SNCC and describes his role in the March on Washington. He also mentions the Children’s Crusade in Birmingham as a pivotal moment that convinced Kennedy he needed to act (of course, he was assassinated before the Civil Rights Act could be passed). The book ends as the 16th Street Baptist Church is bombed.

Graphic memoir is the perfect medium for telling this story. As much as I have read about it and heard about it and even seen some pictures, these drawings of the frequent violence convey the danger and menace in ways that other media cannot. Cameras could not always go the same places as the soldiers on the frontline of the Civil Rights Movement went, but their memories can be brought to life through this artistic medium.

As with the first volume, this volume flashes back and forth between Barack Obama’s inauguration and Lewis’s memories of the Civil Rights Movement. If anything, the device works even better in this volume. It easy to see how the experiences Lewis had in the 1960’s would have been on his mind as he watched America’s first African-American president be sworn into office.

As in the previous volume, this volume taught me some things I didn’t realize. I didn’t know that Lewis knew Stokely Carmichael. I guess I should have known they knew each other because Lewis has talked about being sent to Parchman Farm with the Freedom Riders, and Carmichael was sent there for the same reason. I guess we tend to compartmentalize and organize people who participated in the Movement without the understanding that at first, they were working side by side (at least a little bit). Carmichael succeeded Lewis as chairman of SNCC. Like I said, I didn’t put it together somehow. I am also a bit embarrassed to admit that though I knew Lewis was there at the March on Washington and at Selma, I didn’t realize he was a Freedom Rider. Lewis has said that he wanted to write his memoir in this way to share his remembrances of the Civil Rights Movement because he thought children would learn from it. Not that this book is just for children or could necessarily be considered a children’s book. However, I think Lewis was on to something with this idea. Here are some tweets with images of Lewis at the San Diego Comic Con, dressed in cosplay as himself—as he dressed for the Selma March.

 

Yes, I think Lewis gets it about the way to tell his story.

Related posts: