Book Review: “Are You My Mother” by Alison Bechdel

Posting my GoodReads review:
Alison Bechdel’s, Are You My Mother, embodies the best of what memoir writing is – reflective, stark, unapologetic. The graphic novel format loans itself to memory, dreams, and literal framing of the past.

This book will be compared to Fun Home, her first memoir. Fun Home was excellent and juxtaposed Bechdel’s coming out process with the realization that her father was a closeted gay man. In “Are You My Mother” Bechdel interleaves Freudian psychoanalysis (with an outstanding discussion of the work by Donald Winnicott,) the plight of the woman artist via exploration of Virginia Woolfe’s work (a Room of One’s Own and To the Lighthouse) with her own struggles with art, serial monogamy, and the relationship she has with her emotionally distant mother.

These two books are starkly different; the teal color of Fun Home and the maroon color of Are You My Mother are a tip off that each work is on a different part of an emotional spectrum. Are You My Mother is more personal, more interior, and has less narrative structure though it follows a loose chronology.

Some reviewers may find this work self-indulgent and an extreme exercise in naval-gazing. I found it to be unflinchingly open without alienating the reader. The artwork is beautiful and the scholarship on Winnicott and Woolfe enjoyable.


Rand, Harris, and Graham – book reviews

Three books recently read:

Anthem by Ayn Rand:  The most succinct rendition of Rand’s philosophy.

Free Will by Sam Harris:  A forty page essay which states that Free Will is an illusion (and has caused a great debate between him and the philosopher (and his friend,) Daniel Dennett.

Hackers and Painters by Paul Graham
My review just posted on GoodReads:

Paul Graham is an early web innovator (creating the first online store company, ViaWeb, which was later sold to Yahoo!) He clearly foresees technology trends (the iPhone and Cloud Computing, for example) and is righteously opinionated – something important for creative, entrepreneurial people as he writes in one of the book’s earliest essays.

PG is a libertarian and sees the world through those lenses (it happens to be a lens I share to some degree, so it was a refreshing read.) If you dislike libertarian thought the book can be a challenge as that flavor permeates nearly every essay.

I am scientist but not a computer programmer (I last programmed in both Basic and IDLE in the 80s.) PG’s explanations of programming languages and the strength of LISP in particular were illuminating and enjoyable. It’s inspired me to take a programming class at a local university this summer.

Book review time.

Opinions, opinions.  You have been warned:

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami:  This is my first Murakami novel and I enjoyed it immensely. Fun, self-indulgent (think Irving) with tips of the hat to noir and dystopic SF. An immersion in beautiful writing and lovely ideas.

Convict Conditioning:   How to Bust Free of All Weakness — Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength by Paul Wade:

This may be the book with the longest and silliest subtitle.

Premise: Strength through progressive calisthenics using body weight as told by a former prison inmate.

Actuality: A body-weight approach to fitness. Very sound tips on injury, great explanation of forms (starting with very beginner (e.g. wall push-ups) to cross-fit games exercises (e.g. hand-stand push-ups.) The prison story? Likely fake given the following disclaimer “names, histories and circumstances have been changed partially or completely.”

Quick read, sound advice, and realistic work out schedules (emphasis on going slowly as joints, tendons, and ligaments do not strengthen as quickly as muscles.) For some reason the paper book is outrageously expensive on Amazon but the Kindle price was significantly less. Recommended to me by a Fitocracy pal in the UK. I love it.

(Note, I am 43, female, and a recovering couch potato.)

Unique featureDiscussion and photos of early 20th century strongmen. 6 pack abs before the invention of the “crunch”!

This is likely going to join the pantheon of fitness books that focus on body-weight exercises and/or non-gym training.

Ghost:  Confessions of a Counter-Terrorism Agent by Fred Burton:

Where to begin with this book?

Fascinating content, candid description of how a the US counter-terrorism portion of the diplomatic service originally had 3 overworked agent, 2 of them fresh out of training. Interesting anecdotes about the writer’s career.

However, two huge flaws:
(1) Cluttered writing
The author repeats himself ad nauseum – the type of warm jacket he wears, the car he drives, the fact that he sees the world as black and white and the nature of his work is shades of gray.

(2) No narrative
Counter-terrorism grows across agencies, his own organization blossoms, technology changes – but these are mere punctuation and not part of the story. Ugh.

What was truly interesting came in quick glimpses of a mere second or two –
How does one reconcile letting a killer go free (and be on the payroll) for information which may save lives in the future.  How does one balance family with vocation?

Book Review – December 2010

Some of this month’s reading list:
Note: Book links are to Amazon and if you buy a copy, I get 4%. I will use whatever revenue to buy coffee – full disclosure.

(1) The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Vintage)
by Leonard Mlodinow
Extremely enjoyable book – and definitely accessible for those who don’t enjoy or haven’t been exposed to math (those of us who have been marvel at how well Mlodinow explains these concepts.) An excellent discussion of randomness – why it is difficult to understand (probability theory is relatively recent work) and why we just aren’t good at recognizing it (our brains evolved to recognize patterns.) Nice historical review and excellent anecdotes. Very well written and a nice complement to The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable which is a bit more pithy.

(2) Bring Me the Rhinoceros: And Other Zen Koans That Will Save Your Life
by Jon Tarrant
If Zen Koans have been perplexing to you (they are for me,) this is an outstanding introduction using several well known Koans and how they may be used in daily life. Not just for Buddhists.

(3) Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t
by Jeffrey Pfeffer
Quick read with numerous examples on what skills work in organizational settings. Recommended. I’ve incorporated some of his suggestions in my work for positive effect.

(4) Rebel Buddha: On the Road to Freedom
currently reading – by Dzogchen Ponlop
Outstanding discussion of Buddhism and how to develop a non-Asian tradition in the West. So far, it’s great. If this is the first, or the hundredth, book on Buddhism you’ll read, it will be equally interesting and useful. Will revise if it heads downhill.