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Are You My Mother?
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on 12 January 2015
I'm starting a course on memory and narrative in fiction soon and Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" is on the reading list. As a result, when I stumbled across this in the library, I thought I'd give it a go. I really like the idea of graphic memoir and the illustrations are very good. However, I did have some issues with this text. The first thing is, it seems to me that the author is obsessing unnecessarily about her relationship with her mother. Now I haven't read "Fun Home" yet and therefore don't know the ins and outs of the relationship with her father, which was clearly problematic. But her relationship with her mother struck me as basically anyone's relationship with their mother. I don't know anyone who's mother doesn't refuse to ring first (because they don't want to interfere) and then, when you do talk to them on the telephone, all they ever do is go on about people you don't know. So what? I wondered if Bechdel was perhaps trying to describe a universal experience through her own personal experience and maybe that was the point of it - but that said, we could every single one of us write a book like this one and learn absolutely nothing from it, except that mothers are a species unto themselves (I'm a mum myself and fully expect to turn into my own mother very soon - what is it Oscar Wilde said: "Every woman will one day turn into her mother - that is her tragedy." The other problem I had with this book was the sexual element of it - I don't care that the author is a lesbian - what bothers me is that every homosexual female writer I've ever read unnaturally obsesses about their sexuality (Winterson is another case in point); and there's too much in it in this book. It adds nothing to the story - it just makes for uncomfortable reading(in my opinion). Not everything has to be about sex. In fact, when you reach my age, you'd rather not very much was about sex (but, again, maybe that's just me).

Anyway, I'm glad I've read it - it will probably inform the tutorial where we do "Fun Home" for the week's reading - but I did think it was all a bit unnecessary.
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on 21 June 2012
I was a big fan of Alison Bechdel's "Fun Home" when it came out 6 years ago, it was an interesting and insightful memoir about her growing up in a funeral home with a father who was secretly homosexual and would later commit suicide, and then discovering that she was gay as well. It was an excellent book that I would recommend to all comics fans but also readers in general, so I was looking forward to this follow-up, this time the focus supposedly being on her mother. What more revelations could there be? Not many as it turns out, and neither is the book particularly about Bechdel's mum.

The book gets off to an uneasy and rambling start with Bechdel bewailing a lack of clarity when writing this book. It begins with a kind of dream, then segues into the then-present (most of the mum-stuff in the "now" is set circa 2009) before going off on a tangent to Virginia Woolf and then back to her mum in the present. I waited for the book to settle down and expected Bechdel to begin telling her mother's story which she does, in part, in between scenes where she visits a series of therapists talking about her own neuroses, and talking - and quoting at length - psychoanalysts she's been reading.

This isn't really a memoir about her mum, it's only one part of the book. And if we were to look only at that, we wouldn't find much. Her mum went through spells of depression, and it can't have been easy married to a closet-homosexual with a horrible temper, but she just isn't as interesting a person to read about as Bechdel's dad was.

The rest of the book is mostly a mish-mash of anecdotes about psychology. Bechdel writes about various psychologists whose work has had an impact on her life, trying to get a better relationship with her mum and helping her through her tangled web of relationships with other lesbians and this part of the book, repeatedly returned to, is by far the most tedious to read. She doesn't write about them as much as she copies out entire passages from their books, highlighting sentences here and there. Unless you have an interest in psychology - and I don't - this part of the book is just dully academic to read.

She also writes about Virginia Woolf at length, quoting "To The Lighthouse" frequently, and I have to say after reading "Mrs Dalloway" a couple of years ago, I'm no fan of Woolf. I found when Bechdel began quoting Woolf at length, coupled with the psychology textbook copy and pasting, that I was becoming even more uninterested in this book.

So besides the psychobabble textbook quoting, the Woolf stuff, more psychobabble in the therapist scenes, and a look at her mother's fairly ordinary life, what's left? Not much I'm afraid. The structure is very wobbly, the scenes merging strangely with no real idea of what the whole is supposed to be. It's not much fun to read and boy is it long at nearly 300 pages, made longer with the extensive psychology passages. By the end I was just glad to get it over with.

Bechdel's art is great, but the writing needed some serious editing as it's meandering, tangential narrative is too unclear as to what it's supposed to be. It started out as a look at her mum's life and wound up being about Bechdel's own, frankly overblown (as Chris Rock calls them "white people problems") neurotic sensibilities and it's not much fun to read about her figuring them out. It doesn't feel like it's worth an entire book and "Are You My Mother?" is, in the end, a very weak follow-up to "Fun Home" containing far too much intellectual posturing and not enough substance. Not a great read though I'm sure psychology students will probably love it to bits.
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on 18 August 2012
'Are You My Mother?', which borrows its title from a Dr. Seuss book, is Alison Bechdel's second exploration of her family background, following on from the well-regarded 'Fun Home'. In that book, she concentrated on her father. Here, the focus changes to the relationship with her mother, from childhood through to the present, as Bechdel gradually establishes her independence, begins to earn a living and asserts her identity as a gay woman.

The subtitle is 'A Comic Drama'; but it has to be said immediately that there are few outright laughs here, and readers who come to the book from Bechdel's 'Dykes To Watch Out For' strips may find this heavy going. Bechdel appears to have spent most of her adult life in therapy, and she uses her experiences in therapy and her dream life as a way of structuring the book.

Bechdel's, and Bechdel's mother's interests are heavily literary, so it's no surprise to find that books make a strong appearance. Virginia Woolf is a constant presence, alongside the pioneering child psychologist Donald Winnicott, and Alice Miller, author of 'The Drama of the Gifted Child'. Bechdel weaves a complex - and sometimes confusing - structure in seven sections, moving backwards and forwards in time as the focus of her interest shifts from past to present, from one lover or therapist to another. The result is a collage of quotations and original writing enlivened and sometimes counterpointed by Bechdel's distinctive artwork.

One can't doubt Bechdel's seriousness, but for me this is ultimately a disappointing book that bears too much evidence of hard labour: a book that the author clearly had to write, but that seems to have little sense of audience. A great deal is likely to turn on how much patience the reader has with psychoanalytic psychology, with its deadening jargon and contorted reasoning. Bechdel takes a rather uncritical and very American view of the value of therapy. Her orientation is essentially Freudian, albeit in a version softened and humanised by the influence of Winnicott and feminist theory. She applies these ideas to her understanding of her relationship with her mother. The result is too often a self-absorbed, earnest and airless atmosphere - writing as self-therapy - that queries the relevance of the whole endeavour for anyone other than Bechdel herself. To be fair, Bechdel understands this; quoting her mother as insisting that "the self has no place in good writing". But irony only goes so far to deflect impatience. I read the book in sections; a little went a long way.

Although Bechdel's mother is in theory central to 'Are You My Mother?', the book is really about Bechdel, and Bechdel's need to reach some sort of accommodation with her mother in order to go forward in her own life. Although the author tries to broaden the significance of her material, there is a limit to how much her subject is likely to interest others. There are interesting things to consider after a reading of this book - about the unknowability of other people, about the dangers of self-absorption, about the limits of contemporary 'life-writing' as a substitute for fiction - but I suspect that they are not the things Bechdel intended.

Recommended to readers who are certain of their interest in the author. Others are advised to start with 'Dykes' or 'Fun Home'.
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on 19 January 2013
I read this before Fun Home and have an inconsistent relationship with this book because it was what drew me into reading both Fun Home and almost the entire series of Alison Bechdel's Dykes to Watch Out For. Its graphic presentation is fascinating. I sank into it when ill in bed. But it is obsessed with psychoanalysis and its language of parenting and child development, and self-obsessed.

This is her mother's story - complementing her father's story in Fun Home. And maybe her mother is obsessed with herself too. But we hear enough of her mother to realise that maybe she was being `good enough' coping with the emotional dessication of living with her father, managing three children, attempting to engage her own adult daughter at a full-on intellectual level. Her attempt to establish a basic distance from her daughter as a child, at a time when she herself was probably being neglected, is treated as a central abandonment - her mother stopping kissing her when she was seven. But maybe this is more a story of how spending a long time in therapy can make you very self-obsessed and less concerned with hearing the voice of the other.

We hear that it is difficult for her to impress her mother, but we do not hear enough that her mother may have had a point of view which from her perspective was valid. We do hear her finally accepting that her mother is incapable of giving her the kind of validation that she might want. Maybe that's life - and you cannot do everything to please your mother. I think her mother may have coped pretty well with having a book drawn about her - "At last, I have destroyed my mother, and she has survived my destruction."

In the end - as you look at the resurrection of detailed memories about how her mother engaged with Alison, and with her childhood obsessive compulsive diarising for instance, or her fantasies about being a crippled child - you wonder whose perspective is valid. And Bechdel's concluding tones allow you to make that judgement: "There was a certain thing I did not get from my mother - There is a lack, a gap, a void - But in its place, she has given me something else - Something, I would argue that is far more valuable - She has given me the way out."
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on 6 July 2012
Alison Bechdel is a author and autobiographer of two halves. On the one hand her `Dykes' cartoons give an insight into her life, and those of her friends, in a humane and humorous way. They show life from her own perspective in a way that it both humerous and also deeply reflective. It is this Bechdel that I enjoy reading.

The other Bechdel is the writer of (auto)biographical reflections on her father (`Fun Home') and now on her relationship with her mother. Her writing in these is far darker, far more psychological and far more reflective than that found in `Dykes' (in particular `The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For' which served as my introduction to her work); this latest one is particularly psychological as it delves into her time in therapy, as well as heavily referencing the life of Donald Winnicott (a psychologist who has dealt heavily with child psychology) amongst others. This makes for difficult reading at times, both in terms of outlining Winnicott's theory but also how it relates to Bechdel's own life, both in and out of therapy. This makes for difficult (and not always comfortable) reading as one really needs a good understanding of developmental psychology, psychoanalysis and the life and works of Virginia Woolf, amongst other things. In essence this isn't the book for me.

However, it still deserves 5 stars - Bechdel is a brilliant artist whose drawing captures the people she is referencing and her reflections are candid, painful and also strangely humerous at times. It would therefore be unfair of me to blame Bechdel for my own ignorance regarding Winnicott, psychoanalysis and indeed the life and works of Virginia Woolf! (I do have some developmental psychology under my belt!) Rather this is something I should perhaps go back and explore for myself.
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on 29 December 2013
Alison Bechdel considers a very big question: how much truth might there be in our dissatisfaction with our lives, the feeling that we are trapped in the 'wrong' place doing the 'wrong' things? (She is much too sensible to try and give a general answer to this question, but completely frank in laying out her own experiences and conclusions.)
She relates this feeling to our need to find acceptance and approval, and considers how this need begins and develops from our upbringing and perceptions of our parents. Did they somehow cause us to choose the 'wrong' life? Or do their lingering attitudes 'only' cause us to doubt ourselves excessively, & even to undermine our own lives? (Or neither?) Are we even aware of their continuing influence? Do we have any control over it?
This subject is treated in...a gripping comic book! All these abstractions arise from very concrete (& beautifully coordinated) depictions of scenes from her own and her mother's current and past lives (& from the life of a psychological authority whose ideas she introduces); we are guided very gently, never forced, to think about them. It should also be said that her attitude to her own parents is always kind: there is no interest in blame, and much stress laid on forgiveness.
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on 5 August 2013
The book was a gift from my daughter. I waited till I could dedicate all the time the book needed. The clear images are as informative as the text, neatly dovetailed into the message and import. I grew up in the era of comic books but had to go to a friend's house to read hers, because they were frowned upon by my very literate mother. I enjoyed and felt I was part of the action of a good vibrant drawing. I have read since I was small and have always loved language. The drawings are just that, another language. I am very familiar with the writers she talks about and find that not only has she carried their discussions faithful to their meaning, she has rounded out their concepts by describing the impact of the ideas on her life. This is what books should be doing, bringing new ideas and experiences to our being. This book should be kept and dipped into periodically. A quick peruse through her earlier book leads me to say that she has refined the graphic art element to keen perfection. The threads of thought and themes interweave gracefully. I loved the medium as much as the invitation to be with her during the exploration. The sincerity is startling and refreshing.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 10 March 2015
I was a big fan of "Fun Home" but deary, deary me did I find this hard going. It may be a graphic novel but it read like a tired and dry history book in large parts. There is still some nice art work and she has some interesting things to say but too often she over expands and loses focus and her theories grow woolly and unintelligible.

I think it's important to question yourself, your own decisions and your place in the world etc but there comes a point, especially if you are sharing with the world (and charging them) that unless you have something really profound, fascinating or incredibly original to reveal the weight of this self analysis, reflection and introspection becomes so heavy that it collapses into pure pretentious, overwhelmingly self indulgent and self obsessed garbage (to borrow an Americanism) and the author comes over as just another whining, bratty American who thinks the world owes her a living.
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on 9 August 2012
Alison Bechdel is a genius.

I have everything she's created, including her Calenders and everything is brilliant, but this and her other award-winning graphic novel 'Fun Home' are just on a whole other level. Her wit, her honesty, her compassion, her complexity of understanding and her simplicity and clarity make her the Joni Mitchell of cartoonists. I am not a dyke and I am utterly addicted. Trust me, you will treasure this book and all her work. I bought this for my best friend as a birthday present. He is as obsessed with it as I am. If you haven't read her work yet, I envy you. You have such a wonderful time ahead of you. If you can't afford to buy, then beg borrow or steal. Just please don't steal mine, you'll break my heart.
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on 26 November 2015
Great book but if you read Fun House first you may be slightly disappointed, it does have the feel of "ok, Fun House was well received so my editor told me to do something similar". If you're buying a graphic autobiography for groundbreaking style and story then buy Fun House. If you love Alison Bechdel and want an in depth book about her neurotic tendencies, love life and experiences in therapy then this is the book for you.
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