Fun Home and Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel

This entry is part 20 of 21 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag. I read this book for a book club I’m now in, which is reading works from this list. (Of which some of the titles are definitely not among the best books of the century, but it’s a list to work with.)

Alison Bechdel’s a familiar name: indeed, the famous “Bechdel Test” for media is something I occasionally have brought up to my students over the years. I knew she was a cartoonist, and a few more secondhand details about her life, but that was the extent of it before I picked up this book (which I was lucky enough to get through the library at work). It’s an autobiographical comic about Bechdel’s relationship with her father, with everything hinging on Bechdel’s discovery of her father’s secret about his sexuality at almost precisely the same time she lost him to a suspected suicide, while also almost at the same time when she herself consciously realized that she was a lesbian.    

The title, Fun Home is an abbreviation of “funeral home,” which refers to the author’s father’s work as an undertaker, but it also refers to ironically to Bechdel’s childhood home and family. The book is a portrait of a family that has contorted itself around the father’s secrets about himself—secrets he kept so well that at points one wonders at the degree of self-trickery necessary—and how Bechdel’s departure from home made it possible for her to  awaken to her own truth and embrace her own sexuality. 

That title is ironic: there’s grief, loss, and shame throughout the story, and it’s in leaving home that Bechdel finds her salvation—and in the failure to leave home that her father fails to find his own. That said, Bechdel finds a way to bring things around to a satisfying (and not-completely-heartbreaking) conclusion. It’s definitely worth a read. 

The companion volume, Are You My Mother?, concerns Bechdel’s relationship with her mother, as well as the process of undergoing psychotherapy and the creative process—and how they’re all linked. It also discusses some of what was going on in the author’s life when she was writing Fun Home, which provides some interesting background to the former book.  

Bechdel uses psychoanalysis as a way of tying together many disparate strands in her life: her creative process, her relationship with her mother and her “mother wound,” and her relationships with various partners and psychoanalysts. Sometimes the “insights” feel a bit strained to me: for example Bechdel recounts walking into a tree branch and scratching her cornea, she later interprets this as self-punishment for “seeing the truth” about her family. I mean, I guess maybe, but sometimes, you walk into a branch that’s right in front of you because you were thinking about something that happened in therapy and you weren’t looking where you were going, right? But as a literary device, the psychoanalysis angle works well. I suppose it’s because psychoanalysis works by searching for (and sometimes creating) overt connections between seemingly disparate elements in one’s life, which is also how the structure of the narrative in Are You My Mother? works. 

For all that, I found the relationship between Bechdel and her mother compelling and at times painful—and I wonder whether that’s in part because of the similarity I found between Bechdel’s childhood experiences and my own. Bechdel is careful not to condemn her mother, but this story nonetheless is about how children come to terms with having been insufficiently or unhealthily parented. In relating this struggle, Bechdel is astonishingly honest and forthcoming about her own problems, flaws, and idiosyncractic habits, retelling episodes from her childhood, young adulthood, her dreams, and more. It adds up to a couple of fascinating and worthwhile volumes. 

For books from this booklist, I’m going to mark what I’ve read for the group, as well as what I’ve already read on my own in the past, as a matter of bookkeeping. You can see that listed on this page. 

Isle of Joy Kickstarter Concludes, “Soundtrack” in Progress

The Isle of Joy Kickstarter concluded last night, after a couple of really stellar days. I was impressed with how many people decided to back the project in those last days and hours, and I’m grateful to them all. People managed to unlock a lot of nice stretch goals—including colour maps!—and as was announced in the last announcement for the campaign, I’ll be making a collection of tracks titled Songs from Isle of Joy to release as a special bonus for all backers. (More about that below.) Anyway, I’m really excited for our backers to get their copies and I hope they really enjoy their time with the Isle as much as I’ve enjoyed the time I spent with it. 

As for that bonus collection of music tracks: 

I currently have about five tracks in roughly finalized format, one in slightly rougher shape, and am working up ideas for about four or five more tracks. In other words, the music should be done well before it’s time for fulfillment of the Kickstarter.

One sample track, “Walking the Highlands,” has been released:

For those interested, here’s a little background on the track, and how I’m putting together the “album.” Continue reading

Lessons from the Isle of Joy: Backstory

This post is, yes, me trying to convince you to check out my latest RPG project, the Isle of Joy over on Kickstarter right now. However, since I’m not used to selling my stuff, I am going wrap the sales pitch in bacon some short essays on actionable related to RPGs. Maybe they’ll be things most GMs have figured out for themselves, maybe not, but I’d like to share what I got from the experience of designing and playtesting the book. 

Today, I’m going to talk a little about backstory, especially the difficulties in establishing a mysterious backstory. 

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Monster Man: “My Favorite Monster”

For those who are interested, I appeared on James Holloway’s podcast Monster Man for a “My Favorite Monster” episode, and you can hear it here! Along with promoting Isle of Joy Kickstarter, I also talk a bit about why I love using spirits in RPGs, and a bit about what living in Korea did to my conception of spirits and how they could work in games. As always, James was erudite and thoughtful about the topic. 

For me, this was pretty wild: I’ve been listening to Monster Man since sometime late last year when a good friend recommended it to me, and—well, what can I say, my daily commute has been filled with musings on monsters to the point where I’m only a couple of episodes behind. That’s really saying something, since the latest episode is

Anyway, I had fun talking with James, and I hope people enjoy the conversation too. 


The Ice is Coming, The Dark Bright Water, and Journey Behind the Wind by Patricia Wrightson

This entry is part 20 of 21 in the series 2023 Reads

Like all the posts in my 2023 reads list, this comes at a lag, meaning I read this a while back—in this case, I’ve made my way through the trilogy in the past few months, and I finished the last volume not at all long ago. 

I read The Ice Is Coming as a kid, though I barely remembered it beyond that it had a protagonist named Wirrun, who was young member of Australia’s indigenous people. The cover I remember isn’t the one on the edition I have now: it looked like the one on the right. But that cover, and the book, have stuck in my mind for decades, and somehow, even without remembering much of the plot of that first novel, I knew I wanted to read the rest of the series someday. 

Wrightson is an author whose legacy is… well, complicated. When these books were published, she was praised generally—including by indigenous authors—and it was said that she’s approached the topic of Australian indigenous stories with respect and caution: for one thing, she’d supposedly avoided characters and beings from religious narratives, and focused on more common-folkloric figures. (Whether the separation is as simple as that, of course, I cannot really say, though I’ve seen comments that suggest she was oversimplifying things.)

Times have changed: now, Australia has laws governing how the work of non-indigenous authors handles such topics, and it’s generally the sort of thing that is frowned upon these days throughout the English-speaking world. I’m old enough, though, to remember when we differentiated between misappropriation and appropriation—the former, obviously disrespectful, wrong, abusive, or otherwise worthy of criticism, but the latter not necessarily so. 

And yet, from what little I’ve seen online, Wrightson’s remembered fondly, if awkwardly. I can understand this: she seems to approach indigenous culture with curiosity, respect, and an understanding that she is an outsider, and her indigenous characters (“The People”) are centered in the narrative; along with the “Inlanders” (white settlers, but people more in tune with the land than the city folk), they are less flighty and more aware than the “Happy People” (the country’s childlike, ignorant, mostly-white city dwellers).  

As for each book:

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