My Journey Through the Fun Home: A Review

Hi Friends,

I’m convinced that every theater kid has a show that is irrevocably linked to them. It may not be their favorite, but there’s something about it that seeps into their skin like a heroin needle to the vein. Destructive and compelling and dangerous.

My Fun Home journey began 85 years before my birth. If you’re a Denver native, you might know where I’m headed with this. In 1912, the Titanic sank. One woman, a Denver socialite, boarded the legendary ship as it was the fastest route to her dying grandson. When the Titanic struck an iceberg in the early morning hours, Miss Molly Brown jumped into action, assisting passenger after passenger into lifeboats. When she was finally forced into Lifeboat #6, she persuaded her lifeboat passengers to turn around and look for survivors. Years later, a musical would be made about her life, and, years after that, the show would return revitalized on one of the smaller stages in the Denver Center for the Performing Arts complex. Beth Malone, an old friend of my theater director, starred as Molly Brown.

My high school theater company went and met up with her after the show. Weeks later, during a performance of Lord of the Flies, our company recognized a familiar face in the private box across from ours. We met Mrs. Malone for a second time. We knew Unsinkable Molly Brown was closing and asked her what she would do after. She mentioned working on a show about a funeral home and a weird father/daughter relationship. Um… no thanks! Not for me!

A year later, some of our company, loosely guided by our director, ventured to New York to see 6 shows in four days. Our theater director made some calls and got us tickets to Beth’s show Fun Home. None of us were excited to see it, but accepted due to a talk back with Beth after the show. We barely made the showtime but scooted in as the house lights faded. The musical, played in the round, irrevocably changed my life.

It made me a better artist and storyteller, stimulating design ideas and plot construction. But it reached beyond that and forced me to face my own unconventional family, my own humiliation and family difficulties. My house was broken since the day I came out, words unspoken and lines crossed. Two years later, the tour came to Denver, and, being season ticket holders, my family had two tickets. I was still at school but I encouraged my mother and sister to go. They did and were devastated by the story line. I’d like to think that night softened their perspective.

It was because of my intimacy with Fun Home, the way it seemed to stare down into my naked soul, that I avoided reading Bechdel’s graphic memoir the musical was based on. Yesterday, as I was picking up a book I ordered from Barnes & Nobel, I found myself inexplicitly drawn to the history and biography section over and over again. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was supposed to pick something else up. And then, on my fifth time around the shelves, I spotted the shiny green spine. It was time.

I curled up on the couch and dug in. I love graphic novels. I love memoirs. Alison Bechdel’s graphic memoir seemed like a perfect fit. But as I turned each page, I felt a gnawing surprise. Fun Home has a depth and intelligence I’m unused to in the genre. This isn’t to say I think graphic novels are shallow or dumb. Tan’s The Arrival, Tomine’s Killing and Dying: Stories, even Collins’ The Gigantic Beard that Was Evil all exhibit great depth and knowledge. But Fun Home has such literary depth. It’s an elongated metaphor; it builds from literature’s greats; it’s artistic and beautiful and illuminating. It is wholly original, not just for the story, but for the storyteller’s wit, charm, and class in delivering her story.

On a product level, Bechdel’s book is almost perfect. The jacket design (unlisted) seems like it should be unsuccessful. The sheen green is an ugly color, and yet, for some reason, it’s wildly successful. The title font evokes a type writer, a common theme for the novel. The cartoon caption font is carried throughout the novel – from the copyright page to the acknowledgements – and makes the story seem well rounded and hyperrealistic – as though it exists outside the covers (which it obviously does).

Overall Fun Home is a life changing story in whatever form it takes. I’m glad I finally heard it in the original voice.


What art piece has linked itself to you? What did you think of Fun Home? Let me know in the comments!

You can follow Ben on TwitterTumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

 

Book Club Recommendations

Hi Friends,

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I’m an uncle again! Meet Steve! 

I’m asked by a lot of friends for book recommendations. More often than anything else, I’m approached by friends seeking help with their turn at book club selections. I’ve read a lot of good books this week, and two of them happened to strike me as perfect for a book club. One is a creepy car ride between soon-to-be ex-lovers. The other is a lonely expose on the end of the world.

Book One: I’m thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid

What It’s About

girl is on her way to her boyfriend’s parent’s house. The car ride from the city to their farm takes several hours. “I’m thinking of ending things,” the girl tells us, “Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks. It lingers. It dominates.” As the car rolls into the farmland, the girl contemplates her six week long relationship with Jake. Does she really like him? Actually? In the back of her mind, a sinking suspicion lurks – something is terribly wrong.

My Review 

It’s rare for me to finish a book and immediately need to leave my house. It’s incredibly rare for me to be out of breath, dizzy, and totally overwhelmed after finishing a book. Even for books I’ve reeeally enjoyed, it’s rare for them to stick with me. I don’t know why but it’s true. I’m Thinking of Ending Things left me with all of the above.

I love being scared. I love horror movies and suspenseful books. But I’ve never had to actually walk away in the middle of something just to decompress for a few moments. Reid’s short novel is so atmospherically dark, it was jarring to look up and see the noon sun high in the sky. If it were just dark and scary, it would be enough, but Reid’s novel is also deeply profound and lyrical. As often as I was scared, I was awed. His perspective on love and life were interesting and struck chords down inside me. His character building and prose really sealed this novel as a gut punchingly good read. I truly can’t gush enough about this book.

For those who liked The Girl on the Train because of it’s disorienting nature, or for those who liked In A Dark, Dark Wood because of it’s slow build up, pick this up.

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What Makes It A Good Book-Club Pick 

The ending to this short novel will split your brain in two. You’ll need to talk to someone about what happened, need someone who will understand. The version I purchased (linked below) will offer you some starter questions in its Reader’s Guide, but I doubt you’ll need them. After you come down from the high of the thrill, you’ll have enough questions of your own.

Book Two: Good Morning, Midnight by Lily Brooks-Dalton

What It’s About 

The outside world has fallen silent, marred by some unknown disaster. At the top of the world, Augustine, a 70 year old astronomer, having declined an opportunity to evacuate, sits in an empty research station.. All that’s left in the Arctic Circle is Augustine and a small child of unknown  origins. Millions of miles above them, six astronauts are on a long journey back home following their trip to Jupiter. Houston has stopped responding, but their comm. system seems functional. Each person, on Earth and in the sky, must grapple with a rocky future, and process a lifetime’s worth of regret.

My Review 

Lily Brooks-Dalton delivers a quiet novel that’s hard to accurately encompass, let alone encompass without ruining anything. It was interesting to read a book that uses the apocalypse as a theme rather than a plot point. This isn’t a traditional apocalypse book in that it isn’t really about how the world ended, or even really how it’s going to rebuild, but is rather about what it means to be lonely and afraid and human. It’s a book about regret and acceptance, love and desolation. It’s beautifully written and wonderfully engrossing. (Full Review)

What Makes It A Good Book Club Pick 

Similar to I’m Thinking of Ending Things the ending in this book leaves you with more questions than answers. It’s turns, themes of loneliness, and desolate tone and landscape, will no doubt provide endless questions and interesting discussions among you and your bookish friends. This book is a tear-jerker, and nothing breeds comradery like walking to the ends of the Earth together, and staring back into the void.

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You can buy I’m Thinking of Ending Things here, and Good Morning, Midnight here.


You can follow Ben on TwitterTumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

Storytellers In The Digital Age

As I was scrolling through Facebook tonight, I came across one of those text videos that featured a very beautiful story of a helicopter pilot in the Vietnam war who saved some 30 odd people when no one else was wiling. Right as I was on the verge of tears and appreciation, the video continued with “Bet you never heard this on the news. Funny how the media focuses on Lebron James, sham marriages, and media superstars when it could never mention this captain.” My mood soured and the tears I looked forward to never fell.

These kinds of stories always make me disappointed. Just yesterday, me and two other coworkers ran through torrential rain. We had taken a dinner break and were coming back for our evening show when the rain hit. One of my coworkers was behind me, one was ahead. The one in front opened the door and waited for me and the girl behind me to get in before he followed in. It would have taken us only a few extra seconds to open the door, but he sacrificed getting monumentally more wet to save us the hassle. He didn’t get a story on the news.

Three weeks ago I got a call that brought me to my knees. Our producer, and a dear friend, passed away. He was 32. He was one of the kindest, funniest, and most full of life people I’ve ever met. It sounds cliche – like the right words for someone who passes away, but it was true. There was no challenge he couldn’t face, and no thing he wouldn’t do for the people in his life. The night he died he covered for a sound technician whose dog ran away, despite not knowing the board. He stayed late to help a reporter finish a story. Up until his last moments, he was selfless and considerate. Yet I’ve yet to hear his name on the evening news.

When was it we decided the only merit to a person was their marketability on the news? It seems odd for that video to have chastised the “media” for catering to celebrities, and not recognizing hard-working, ordinary people doing extraordinary things. Through my eyes, the only difference between the two gentlemen I mentioned, and the ones the video critiqued was press coverage. If everyone were covered by the news, no one would have earned it. They would be unremarkable and ordinary, and feats of bravery, big and small, would become bland and uninteresting.

It seemed especially odd to encounter such a thought on Facebook. Never before has the ordinary person been given such a voice. With Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Youtube, WordPress, Goodreads, Snapchat, etc. I have access to hundreds of people at any one time. Every thought or musing I have, every book or zoo I encounter, I can share with hundreds of people at once. And all I need is an email address, a password, some sort of computer and some wi-fi.

Every person and page with a social media account has an opportunity to tell a story. The creator of the video I saw amassed almost 19 million views. 19 million! It was shared by three different friends on my timeline alone. In creating a simple text story, a person (or, perhaps, groups of people) was able to share the story of an incredible man. And yet, even after that accomplishment, felt the need to undermine it with a critique on the media. If you have a voice, use it. Don’t wait for someone else to. Imagine how much richer our view of history could be if everyone in Ancient Greece tweeted out their daily thoughts.

I‘m not advocating for total social media addiction. I’m not saying you should live tweet your stream of consciousness. But if you have tools in your arsenal, use them. If you see something beautiful, meet someone kind, know a hero, use your own voice and tell their story. You’ve been equipped with a platform, and you have a responsibility and privilege to use it to your advantage.

Being a storyteller in the digital age doesn’t have to mean buying expensive cameras and going live on NBC Tonight. Being a storyteller in the digital age can mean updating your status or creating a text post. Don’t sell yourselves short. A happy story on my timeline can warm me the same way a happy story on the news can. When you tell a story, trust yourself enough to get it right – don’t come after the media for not doing it better.


I’d love to hear your thoughts on this! How are you a storyteller? Drop a comment below and let me know!

You can follow Ben on TwitterTumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

An Open Letter to Lifeway Christian Stores

Dear Lifeway,

As your company is clearly aware, Eugene Peterson, Christian theologian and author, has found himself mired in controversy this week for seemingly coming out in support of gay marriage, before retracting and clarifying. Unfortunately, this debacle has not fared well for your company, at least in the eyes of this shopper. Christianity Today has revealed that your stores were standing by to pull Peterson’s books from shelves, one such book being the Message translation of the Bible. What this decision has revealed to me is the foundation upon which your theology is built. If the Message’s (or any of Peterson’s books’, or any merchandise you sell at all’s) credibility hinges upon the author’s spiritual fortitude, then you may as well shut your doors now.

Let me clue you in to a little secret found in the opening moments of the Bible: people are dirty, sinful creatures. If you truly want to exclude all authors who have sinned, Peterson should have been pulled from your shelves years ago, if he was allowed on them at all in the first place. Why? The man has told a lie. He has hated. He has sinned and repented only to sin again. He is a human – a dirty, horrible human whose only redemption is through the sanctified blood of Jesus Christ. If his product’s credibility hinges upon his personal credentials, then why carry anything of his at all?

And while this logic applies to all products you carry, there is a glaring alarm connected to The Message. Is your stance that The Message is only as true as Peterson is pure? If so, I demand you pull it from your shelves now, with or without controversy. Also pull your NIV Bibles, pull the KJV Bibles, pull the NLT Bibles. Pull every translation you have off the shelves. And if you have original texts, original scrolls and original tablets – break and burn those copies too. Why? Every text that a human hand has touched is tainted with sin. This is undeniable. Peter, Matthew, Paul, Abraham, Moses, Adam, Eve, Eugene – all sinners, all with tainted credibility, all mired with controversy and all but one unable to release a statement of retraction. So what is the point of any of it anyway?

Perhaps because even though the human hand has made the text dirty, the Spirit has made it clean. If you believe that the Spirit has affirmed The Message as a medium of which to convey the gospel message of Jesus Christ, then even if homosexuality is a sin and even if Eugene had contested that and even if there was public outcry, the Holy Spirit, a member of the trifold deity, will not, and cannot be overcome by the sins of one or a thousand men. Yes, the Spirit is more powerful than even that of the author of the text himself.

And, Lifeway, if you do not believe that the Holy Spirit has affirmed The Message regardless of Mr. Peterson’s mistakes or successes, then how does your store justify the heresy and idolatry you are committing by placing such a text on a shelf at all, let alone in the section of Bibles?

Upon what foundation is your store’s faith built on? If it is on Christ’s, then any one person cannot undermine it. But if it is on humankind, you cannot ever be a Christian store.

 

Goodbye, Vitamin: ARC Book Review

Hi friends,

At this point, you know how worthwhile my promises are so I won’t try and promise that I’ll be back more because it’s summer (though I hope I am). Regardless, here’s a book review for you all. Hopefully I’ll put up the past few months here in a bit!

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ARC cover – the final product may look differently

Ruth Young’s been dumped by her fiancé just in time for Christmas. She decides to spend the holiday with her parents, a first in several years. But things at home aren’t quite how she left it. Her father, esteemed history professor Howard Young, is grappling with the early stages of Alzheimer’s.  Her mother, whose neurotic enough on her own, only complicates issues further. Newly unattached, Ruth decides to move back in, just for the year, to help her dad and mom through the illness. Told in a series of diary/letter entries, Goodbye, Vitamin is a touching (and surprisingly comical) look at lives caught in the middle of a disastrous diagnosis.

Being that this is Khong’s debut novel (she’s written an encyclopedic cookbook on eggs), Goodbye, Vitamin is a bit messy. While the epistolary format is nice, it isn’t ever entirely sure what direction it wants to go in. First, it feels as though Ruth is writing to herself, a way to remember all that is happening before it’s gone. But as the novel progresses, she jarringly switches perspectives and seems to be conducting letters to her father. In the end, she switches back again to a more diary perspective. As a result, it was a bit hard to follow. Her characters, particularly in their infancy, feel a bit unsecured as well. As the novel progresses, they gain their footing, but by that point, it’s almost too little, too late. Ruth’s voice grew on me as well, but I could never shake the feeling that she was written too young. Ruth is a thirty year old, but, save for a few instances of cussing, feels like a schoolgirl. While Alzheimer’s, like any terminal diagnosis, is life-altering, it feels like Ruth’s reality has been too significantly altered, for she seems to have a hard time understanding much of life.

Yet Khong’s novel is still a treat. Her ability to weave humor effortlessly into a plot not made for it, without it coming off as overpowering, offensive, or unfunny, is a talent not overlooked by this reader. Her family portrait is beautiful too. The ways in which the Young clan struggle, and beautifully succeed, was an absolute delight to read. I was also surprised at the nuggets of brilliance laid throughout. Ruth, when she chooses to be, is wise narrator. Having just been through a breakup myself, my heart broke alongside hers, and, as she healed, was given permission to soar. The novel is currently slated for a 208 page release, making it the perfect length for a binge read. I, myself, read it in a glorious 4 hour sitting. Every time I tried to pull away, the early morning hours ticking by, my eyes wouldn’t let me leave. Whatever a novel’s faults might be, the one, overarching redeeming quality is if I actually find it addicting. In the scope of the novel, Khong’s shortfalls are dwarfed. Goodbye, Vitamin is a testament to the power of family, and a poignant tribute to the victims of Alzheimer’s (3 Stars).

Goodbye, Vitamin is currently slated for a July 11, 2017 release (subject to change) and can be added on Goodreads here and preordered on Barnes and Nobel here.

What new releases are you looking forward to? Drop a comment below!


You can follow Ben on Twitter, Tumblr, and read along with him on Goodreads.

* ARC provided by publisher through a Goodreads giveaway. This did not affect my review* 

 

Reconciling Skeletons

Hi Friends,

When I walked into my 12:50 abnormal psychology class, I didn’t expect to see a ghost. That’s the thing about being haunted: you never see it coming. On November 9th, 2009, my maternal grandfather finally died. He had been comatose for a while, after my mother found him unresponsive at his home. By the time we got his brain scans back, he had already been long gone – his lungs just preventing the flesh from decaying. But even in death, he was still finding ways to leave a tornado-like path of destruction through our lives.

He was, to be frank, a pathetic drunk. More correctly, though, he was a suffering alcoholic.

It wasn’t a secret growing up, though I never fully understood what it meant until after he had gone. I doubt there are many kids that don’t directly see the drinking who do understand it. I knew that Grandpa frequently went away to places called rehab; I knew he was rarely around, and when he was, he wasn’t around for long. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about the affair, the absenteeism as a father, and the drunk driving.

He wasn’t alone in the alcohol problems department. Several cousins, my father, uncles, and a host of others in my family all wrestled (or wrestle) with alcoholism. Cognitively, I know it’s possible to drink for fun – my sister and mom do, but every time I consider taking a sip, I remember feeling like a stranger at my grandfather’s funeral (a funeral which, by the way, my mother and aunt were both banned from due to my grandfather’s mistress-turned-wives deep-seeded hatred. My cousin and myself were the only representatives from our side that were there.), and, worse, hearing people on the pulpit bemoan his loss. Two boys from Seattle (1,500 miles away), grand-nephews or something, were devastated. He was such an important figure in their lives. The mom could not stop crying. I was thirty minutes away, yet had only a handful of memories. In that pew the seeds for the decision to never drink were planted.

In my psychology class today, we were asked to share our experiences with drugs and alcohol. Each time I’m asked, there’s a moment of hesitation. How do I represent myself as not being on a high horse, not being a prude, but also not detailing my long history, the things I’ve shared with you, and the things I haven’t? It’s a question I get often, and will get even more often after I’m 21. And I still don’t have an answer.

Each time I think of grandpa, holed up in heaven somewhere, asking for a beer. How do you reconcile with someone who isn’t here to say sorry, to someone who maybe never even wanted to? How do you answer these questions?

I don’t share this to shame alcoholics. I share it for the kids stuck at a high school party who can’t take a drink. I share it for the college students in classes on addiction, who could almost teach the course with their first hand experiences. I share it for the middle aged woman at her daughter’s wedding who turns down the glass of champagne.

For the people who still don’t know how to answer the question (and the few who do): I’m sorry you’re walking this road. I know it’s a long one. But it is not one you walk alone. When your table mates stare you down after detailing their drunken adventures, and hearing that you’ve never drank, know that I’m with you in spirit. I’m with you to stare back.


Note: Also, I owe you all an apology. Remember when I said I’d post on Tuesday, like four weeks ago? Well… whoops.   

I was in and out of doctor’s offices, ER’s, and Urgent Care facilities for most of April, and trying to catch up on school and work when I wasn’t in waiting rooms. Regardless, I’m sorry for my absence (and I’m also cognizant of the fact that I owe you all lots of book reviews). Hopefully I’ll be able to get caught up on this blog now that I’m feeling better! 

Sunday

I’m thinking today about a morning spent after a weekend of imaginable grief. I’m thinking about the friends huddled together in a house, staring blankly at walls wondering how it all went so wrong, how temporary and unfair and hard life can be after one ends. I’m thinking about the trauma and the horror it is to watch someone you love die, and, worse, how you just stood by watching, letting it happen for fear of losing your own life. I’m thinking about the mother who lost her child, who watched him slip away, the same child she nursed and laughed with and was frustrated by.

And I’m thinking about getting up three days into your grief, the sadness replaced by a whole-body numbness, and getting dressed, and preparing spices, and grabbing your friend and walking down to the graveyard, her, leaning on you, and you, leaning her, still trying to comprehend and accept and move on. And I’m thinking about getting there, finding nothing and being told that my friend, my son, my brother, is not there but lives again. That fear and that hope and that surreal heart-stopping unbelievable statement. And I picture you running back to tell your friends, to wonder and laugh and cry again with them. To have sense talked back into you, to know it was all some cruel joke. And then how it felt to see him, to touch his scars and to feel him. To believe in that unshakable, unfaltering, tangible way you do when you see it with your own two eyes, and yet to still not fully understand it, to question even that which your hands have felt and your eyes have seen. And that moment: to know him again and to get a second chance to say whatever it was that you didn’t get a chance to before he was killed, to laugh, to cry, to spit in the face of death and claim your ultimate victory, your last laugh, your final word.

And then I think about the leaving again, the change in plan, in understanding. How you thought this meant you would get more time together, more chances to laugh and to cry, eternity stretching out in front of you like an endless summer day. And watching him ascend back into the heavens, back away from you, and feeling that pit settle back inside of you of facing every single day with the loss of him, this real, human friend. And those questions you have, and the doubt.

But most importantly, the hope. The hope of going home, of belonging, of wrapping him up in your arms and hugging so tight you can feel his heartbeat next to yours. And doing it again and again and again for forever, for eternity, for a lifetime of lifetimes.

This is what the Easter season means to me. The hope beyond all hope. The ugly tears and the bubbling laughter. The victorious question – “where is it? Where, O Death, is your sting?” The promises and the second chances and, above all else, the unshakeable, undeniable, unfettering knowledge that I don’t deserve any of it. That I was the denier, the blood-coin exchanger, the stoner, the whipper, the nails and the thorny crown. Yet still, this hope is mine. And on this Easter Sunday, on a bus ride from Portland to Seattle, I take refuge in that hope. I take joy. And I feel the closest to truly thankful that I ever do.
Happy Easter, my dear friends. May you take this hope in both hands, dirty as they are, and rejoice.