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Alison Bechdel books reading Wallace Stegner

Epically Myopic

There’s a reason why I’m legally blind and why, when I’m not wearing my glasses, I mistake the coat closet for my husband. Sure, there’s the whole genetics thing. And, okay, maybe I like hugging fleeces and puddle boots. I won’t even delve into the illicit dalliance I’ve been having with a pair of fingerless gloves. It’d make you blush.

However, the fact that my first lover was a book–and what a skanky pleasure-seeker I’ve become since that first!–is also responsible for my sketchy eyesight. Indeed, many of my best friends are books, to the point that I feel some of them owe me Hallmark cards imprinted with messages like, “Sorry We Sucked Away Your Eyesight and Good Posture, Sis.” In particular, I think GONE WITH THE WIND, which I read 26 times in the fifth grade, and THE GOOD EARTH, which I alternated with GWTW that year, owe me at least a lunch at Applebee’s (they can present their Hallmark envelopes to me over the Tequila Lime Chicken).

Interestingly, even with the fields of black dots that float around as a daily part of my vision (the optometrist says it’s something about snapped, er, filaments), I keep reading. Often, I read crap chick lit. Other times, I read really good chick lit. Interspersed is a wide variety of other genres. I’m an equal-access book whore.

Naturally, some books have separated themselves from the pack of dust-covered johns.

For at least fifteen years, there has been a book I’ve called my “favorite.” Doing this is specious, really, as I can’t possibly have a favorite book, when so many are so excellent and do so much so well. However, when people have asked for book recommendations, I’ve often coughed up the title ANGLE OF REPOSE. I love that book because I love Western stories, and I love books that don’t read like “litt-ra-choor” but rather like rousingly-good tales of human beings being human, and I love what Wallace Stegner does with words. In fact, ANGLE OF REPOSE stands out in my reading life because its pages marked the first time I ever wept while reading, wept from the sheer beauty of the prose. Stegner’s use of language awed and astonished me; he broke my heart open with it.

But.

Now.

I’m feeling a bit disloyal to the memory of one of America’s greatest-ever writers, this Stegner, because he’s just been edged out. First, he gets killed tragically in a car crash; then, fourteen years later, this novel of his, so long my favorite, finds itself getting slid over on my shelf…to make room for a newcomer.

Thanks to a gift from one of my best galpals, this last week of reading has caused me to fashion (down in my basement smithy) a new Golden Bookmark to plug into the pages of The Interloper: FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel.

Damn, people, but it’s a great book. It’s great so jarringly that I found myself complaining to Groom the other day, as he waited for his turn to read it, “I just don’t have the right words to tell you how richly and complexly this book is affecting me. I don’t know how to articulate my respect for what this Bechdel broad has done.” And seriously? I think we all know that even when I can’t figure out quite what I want to say, that rarely stops me.

This book has stopped me. I, em, not have way when it comes to analyzing its successes.

Certainly, it’s a memoir. And I do love me a life story.

But it’s so much more than that. For one, it’s a graphic novel.

And, honeychile?

I don’t like graphic novels.

I’m pretty sure, somewhere deep in my closet, I have a buried t-shirt that reads “Graphic Novels: How The Robotics Club Amuses Themselves When the Batteries Burn Out in Their Light-Sabers.”

Sweet Marmaduke, but I don’t even like to read the comics in the newspaper. Just give me some good words, and save your stinkin’ pictures.

Unless, of course, you’re Alison Bechdel, and your pictures enrich and support and elucidate the writing in ways I hadn’t thought possible. On each page, in this amazing book, I found myself reading the text and then diving into the accompanying picture panel for the next beat, urging the rhythm of the story to continue.

Plus, Bechdel manages to tell her story both in linear and circular fashion, coming back on the chronology several times, as she unfolds her realization that she is a lesbian and learns that her father, too, is homosexual.


In the midst of these fairly heavy life events, Bechdel dazzles with her vocabulary (I had to holler loudly one day as I read, “Thank you for using ‘prestidigitation,’ Smart Dyke Lady!”); her wryness (count how many times the can of Pledge appears in panels, as she hammers home her father’s neatnik issues); her unflinching approach (a few libraries in the South, finding their patrons unable to appreciate cartooning of masturbation and girl-on-girl, promptly yanked this book from their collections); her appreciation for how literature can inform understanding of life (for her continued lack of patience with college classes fueled by the pretension that is literary analysis, I kiss her Carhartts).

I’m not necessarily recommending that you gallivant out to the book store or library and grab this book. It might not be your style. Maybe you don’t read much. Maybe you have other priorities, like seeing which couples are “safe” on DANCING WITH THE STARS or, um, playing solo fooseball, racing back and forth from side to side to make the little men spin. Or maybe you do read, but you just like your Louis L’Amour.

So read it or not.

All I know is that I, a prodigious book-devourer, have had the enormous pleasure of apprehending, this past week, that my best reading isn’t behind me; that there are whole new ways to read that I’ve never before relished; that, at age 40, I am still plenty limber enough to kowtow before an author of greatness.

As I lay here on the floor before her, clutching her book to my bosom like a talisman–and wondering why I don’t bother myself to chase after the dust bunnies with a broom more often–I tell you this:

Alison Bechdel has left me humbled and breathless.

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