Nov 14, 2016

Suffrage Is the Solution

Welcome to the post-U.S.-election world. The forecast calls for heavy rain with a chance of dystopia, so grab your umbrella and a box of MREs, but don’t lose hope yet. Things may seem bad now, but actually they’ve been bad for decades. How’s that for a silver lining?

Here’s the gist of our new reality: Donald Trump, with Mike Pence as his running mate, won the 2016 election. They are surrounding themselves with lobbyists, abusers, and the inexperienced. Moreover, the 115th United States Congress will be overwhelmingly Republican. (Didn’t I say a lot could happen in a few days?) Some people are happy or indifferent about these results, but far many others are unhappy, frustrated, and scared. That’s why there are protests and riots.

As mentioned in my last post, most Americans don’t like Trump. We don’t like Republicans, either. So how on earth did Trump become president and Congress go to the Republicans?

People have lots of opinions about that, as it turns out. White supremacists gave us these results, says The Nation. Eh, it’s just white women, says The Guardian. It’s more complicated, says Pew Research. Blame the DNC, says The Observer. And Facebook, says Fortune.

Some of what’s said may be true (or true-ish), but it is tangential, regardless. The biggest and simplest truth about this and every U.S. election is that many Americans fail themselves and each other by not voting. Whether you wanted President Clinton or President Trump or President Dear God, Someone Else, Please in 2016, the reality is only half of the citizenry ever participates in any election, meaning only a small percentage decides the fate of the nation. That’s a huge problem in a representative democracy, but it’s also solvable.

The 2016 Election: How Many People Voted (or Didn’t Vote)

Two hundred million** citizens were registered and legally able to vote in the 2016 election. That’s 61% of the current total population (about 325 million) and 89% of all citizens of voting age (about 226 million).

We’re still counting ballots from this election, but voter turnout appears to be low—possibly the lowest it’s been in 20 years for a presidential election. If this holds true by the final count, it’s further proof that we couldn’t stand either candidate.

  • As of November 14th, 121 million votes have been counted. At the time of my writing, there are 61,039,676 counted votes (47.81%) for Hillary Clinton, and 60,371,193 (47.28%) for Donald Trump. Another several million votes have gone to third-party candidates like the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson and the Green Party’s Jill Stein. There has also been an influx of write-in ballots, as seen in Virginia and Maryland, where write-ins nearly tripled.
  • This means about 61%, maybe 62%, of registered voters participated in the 2016 election. That number is depressing enough as it is, but it gets even worse when you pair it with all potentially-eligible citizens (i.e., those registered to vote and those not), or 226 million people, in which case 54% of citizens voted and 46% did not.

It’s easy to get hung up on demographics or the incongruent relationship between the popular vote and the electoral college. But, as much as I’m inclined to agree people sometimes vote for horrible reasons and that the electoral college needs major adjustments or to be thrown out entirely, none of these things tells the real story of not just the 2016 election, but all U.S. elections.

The real story is this:

60 million votes can decide who runs the world’s biggest superpower.

This is 30% of registered voters, 27% of citizens of voting age, and 19% of the total U.S. population. If you want to take it even further, it’s less than one percent of the world’s population.

Is it right or good that less than a third of the citizenry might decide the fate of a nation, one that, in many ways, decides the fate of the world?

This is not unique to the 2016 election. In U.S. elections, the few have always decided the fate of the many. Even when Obama pulled in big numbers in 2008, less than half of registered voters—and a mere 33% of all citizens of voting age—elected him.

Participation is even worse during midterm elections:

*All data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the United States Election Project, the World Bank, and Wikipedia.
**Voter registration stats from U.S. Census Bureau, with the exception of 2016’s, which comes from TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. Probably inaccurate, as it’s unlikely 47 million people registered in four years.

We must stop focusing on how people are voting because the truth is . . . many people aren’t voting, either because they don’t care to or because they can’t. Half of the country didn’t vote for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. They didn’t vote at all.

Drawing broad conclusions about Americans from this election—on anything other than our apathy—is pointless. We won’t ever know what Americans think or want or can become if more people don’t vote.

So Where Do We Go from Here?

We all desire to be seen and heard, and to be treated well. Most of us are good people who want that for each other, too. Plenty of research even suggests we have similar visions for society. We are less divided than it seems. But we have to prove that to each other.

Below, I have compiled a list of what might be achieved at local, state, and national levels to improve voter turnout and thus representation. It isn’t a small list, but it is actionable.

  1. If you are already registered to vote, you need to follow through:
    • on making sure your registration stays up to date.
      • In many states, there are deadlines for making changes to your registration details.
      • Registration purges may affect you if you don’t participate in every election. You may need to re-register. Yes, this is a form of voter suppression. Baby steps.
    • by participating in primaries and caucuses, so we get the candidates we want in our elections.
      • The 2016 primaries had a “high” turnout: 28.5%—that is, 15% of Republicans and 14% of Democrats. We can do better.
      • Primaries and caucuses are largely managed by the two main political parties, and a little less so by the states. This is because you are picking the candidates for the parties. Rules for these elections can, therefore, be very different from those set for more state-managed elections. You may need to temporarily align yourself with a political party to participate. Read more about open vs. closed primaries.
    • by voting on ballot measures, representatives, judges, sheriffs, etc., so the laws affecting us and the people serving us better reflect our beliefs.
      • Many laws start at the state level, where your vote counts the most. This is often a more effective and less controversial way to promote change over time. Stay involved locally.
      • Ballot measures work very differently between states, but there is a formal way to promote change and action in every place.
    • by voting in midterm elections.
      • In 2014, only 36% of eligible voters participated in the midterm election. This is tragic, considering Congress is just as important as the president, if not more so.
      • If you are left-leaning, note that left-leaning voters are notoriously bad about showing up for midterm elections.
    • by voting in presidential elections.
      • Vote early and/or by mail to avoid long poll lines. Most states have some form of early voting.
      • Registered, but not sure how to vote in a general election? Find your state among the videos in the How to Vote in Every State series.
    • Use sites like My Time to Vote and RealClearPolitics to find out when elections take place in your state. If you can’t participate for some reason, find out if you can submit an absentee ballot or a surrogate affidavit. Do this as early as possible so deadlines won’t catch you by surprise.
  2. We need to help each other vote.
    • The most commonly cited reasons for not voting are a conflicting schedule (28%), particularly among 25 to 44 year olds; not being interested in the election or candidates (16%), especially among younger and middle-aged voters; and being hindered by an illness or disability (11%), particularly among individuals 65 or older. As employers and employees, fellow citizens, and caretakers, we can find ways to increase voter participation.
    • Encourage early voting, absentee voting, and time off to vote. Be open to helping people get to the polls.
    • While it might be nice to persuade someone to support a candidate you like, we honestly need less arguing over candidates and more discussion about the process of voting. Make the election process approachable, not off-putting.
  3. More people need to register to vote.
    • The younger a person is, the less likely he or she is to be registered. It is the duty of anyone who lives or works with young people to make sure they know how to register to vote.
    • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asians and Hispanics (of any race) are much less likely to be registered to vote. This is partly because those communities have a high proportion of immigrants who are not yet citizens, but this is not always the case. If you are part of, or close to, either of these communities, make sure that everyone who can register is doing so.
    • Use or direct others to to begin.
    • Try to support legislation that would automatically register citizens to vote.
  4. The primary election process needs to be fairer and more streamlined.
    • Caucuses, while they can encourage discussion, need to be used in conjunction with primaries or abolished because they disenfranchise low-income workers, young people, the elderly, and the disabled.
    • All primaries either need to be open or have same-day political party registration. We need to stop disenfranchising the 40% of Americans who identify as political independents.
  5. The election process needs to be fairer and more streamlined.
    • Our main election day must be a public holiday and cannot be held on a day with religious significance. Making election day a public holiday would greatly increase voter turnout, given that the most common reason people cite for not voting is a conflicting schedule.
    • Alternatively, more states need Oregon, Washington, and Colorado’s vote-by-mail options.
    • Voting machines, which are buggy and easily tampered with, must be abolished in favor of paper ballots.
    • Paper ballots need to have an accessible, standardized design that doesn’t change from state to state.
    • We must restore voting rights for felons who have served their time.
  6. We should look for ways to decrease instability.
    • We need to consider “recalibrating” or abolishing the electoral college, which has caused great strife between Americans four times in U.S. history—twice in the last two decades. The idea behind the electoral college is to prevent tyranny of the majority (and foreign interference with our government), but it comes with many negative side effects, including unintentional voter suppression (e.g., Republicans in a heavily-Democratic state—or vice versa—may not bother voting because they feel their vote will not count).
    • Being forced to vote for one candidate alone means voters often have to choose who they feel is “the lesser of evils.” Instant run-off voting or some other ranked voting system can solve this problem.
    • It might not be a bad idea to have compulsory voting, as seen in places like Australia, Luxembourg, and Argentina.

Until the midterms in 2018, we should focus on our local governments and communities. It’s where we can do the most good.

Aug 1, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Book cover for THE FAULT IN OUR STARS by John Green
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In The Fault in Our Stars, Hazel Lancaster and Augustus Waters are two smart, sassy teenagers who have managed to stay one half-step ahead of the Grim Reaper. After meeting at a cancer support group, they quickly form a strong bond. Through each other, they experience a world beyond illness.

A Book About Teens (Who Don’t Act Like Teens) That Teens Will Like

If you don’t know who the Green brothers are, you’re missing out. Simply put, they’re good people who are trying to make the world a better place. I regularly direct young adults to the Crash Course channel on YouTube, where John and Hank Green make subjects like history, chemistry, and literature fun and accessible for the masses. I listen to their podcast. You could say I have a major nerd crush on the Greens and their efforts. Unfortunately, that’s problematic when it comes to reading John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars.

In my experience, it’s almost as difficult to read books by the people you like as it is to read books by the people you don’t like. I’ve avoided Green’s young adult novels for years now because I’ve always thought, “How could his writing not disappoint? I expect too much.” But I couldn’t ignore all the positive reviews and five-star ratings for The Fault in Our Stars. I gave in and read the book. I’m glad I did, if for no other reason than it was past time I tried one of Green’s novels. I would be lying, though, if I said I wasn’t a little disappointed, as I always feared I would be.

Don’t get me wrong. There are positive things I can say about this book. For one, Green manages to take on the heart and soul of a teenage girl to write her first-person perspective in a believable way, which is a difficult enough task for grown women, let alone grown men. (Hazel’s friend, Kaitlyn, doesn’t manage to escape stereotyping, though, which is probably why she disappears from the film adaptation of this book.) Then, considering The Fault in Our Stars is about young people with cancer, it can be surprisingly funny, at least if you enjoy dark humor.

Osteosarcoma sometimes takes a limb to check you out. Then, if it likes you, it takes the rest.

The plot isn’t full of surprises. It’s small and obvious enough that anything beyond a summary is likely to give away major plot points. And The Fault in Our Stars won’t be a thought-provoking commentary on death for most adults. However, the scope of the plot and its themes seem appropriate for Green’s intended teenage audience. I can imagine it’s helped some young people examine or even cope with cancer and death, which makes the book special and important in its own way.

As with all writing, though, The Fault in Our Stars has its flaws. Most of its issues are minor, probably a matter of opinion, but I struggled to accept the dialogue—a surprise, given that the dialogue was what I had assumed I would enjoy most from Green.

The problem lies in how Hazel and Augustus are meant to be more mature than average teenagers because of their experiences. It’s a reasonable enough notion, but how this is executed in dialogue doesn’t work for me. Both characters are prone to world-weary, existential, lengthy monologues that are awkward and contrived.

Teenagers, no matter how mature, do not sound like well-rehearsed Moth storytellers or TED Talk presenters—neither do adults, for that matter. No one is poetic on the fly. Sure, readers don’t want the “ums” and “uhs” and the disjointed mayhem of real speech, but it never feels right to read perfectly formed sentences, either.

Everything gets especially ridiculous when Hazel and Augustus interact with each other, as they do during much of the book. I’ll just leave this quote from Augustus here:

“I’m in love with you, and I’m not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I’m in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we’ll ever have, and I am in love with you.”

Prince is judging you.

I can almost taste the cheese.

Augustus comes with the additional flaw of being less “wise beyond his years” than self-aware to the point of absurdity.

“I’m just kidding, Dad. I like the freaking Encouragements. I really do. I just can’t admit it because I’m a teenager.”

“Hazel Grace, you are the only teenager in America who prefers reading poetry to writing it.”

Hashtag ThingsTeenagersWouldNeverSay.

Hazel manages to avoid the worst of the dialogue problems, but Augustus is full of this stuff, to the point that I disliked his character. I wish I could say otherwise.

The Fault in Our Stars is far from unreadable, and obviously many people adore it, but I don’t think it’s the best young adult book around, and I suspect John Green can and will produce better work in the future. For the time being, I’ll stick to watching and recommending his videos.

Buy The Fault in Our Stars from Amazon or iTunes
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Quotes from The Fault in Our Stars

Mom reached up to this shelf above my bed and grabbed Bluie, the blue stuffed bear I’d had since I was, like, one–back when it was socially acceptable to name one’s friends after their hue.

People talk about the courage of cancer patients, and I do not deny that courage. I had been poked and stabbed and poisoned for years, and still I trod on. But make no mistake: In that moment, I would have been very, very happy to die.

“Some tourists think Amsterdam is a city of sin, but in truth it is a city of freedom. And in freedom, most people find sin.”

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Book cover for THE RED TENT by Anita Diamant
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In the Bible, Dinah is a minor character, even though she is the sole daughter of Jacob, one of the most important patriarchal figures of the Old Testament. What little is written about Dinah is about how men perceived and used her. Like most biblical women, she is whittled down to her virginity and potential as a wife, and is given no voice of her own. The Red Tent is author Anita Diamant’s attempt to give Dinah, and the women in her life, a voice.

To Hear Women Speak

Few books explore the perspectives of biblical women. Those that do are often written by religious hard-liners, making for problematic and uncritical literature. I don’t know Anita Diamant’s religious stance, nor does it feel relevant, but The Red Tent aims to be a (somewhat) historically accurate telling of women from the time period, which sets it apart from so many other books that include biblical characters and claim to be similar.

The Red Tent also stands out because of its first-person narrator, Dinah herself. No one writes about Dinah, much less from her perspective. This might be because Dinah’s biblical story, what very little there is of one, is tragic and violent. If you don’t know the story and don’t mind a slight spoiler, you can find the relevant verses in Genesis 34.

Everyone writes about women like Ruth and Mother Mary, the clean, often subservient women who are important to the men. I’ve found such stories are about the same woman sporting a different name, the Good Woman who toes the line and knows her place. When a character like Jezebel or Western Christianity’s concept of Mary Magdalene gets trotted out, it’s usually to prove a point about disobedient behavior, be it toward God, men, or both. (The Bible does this itself with Lot’s wife and, of course, Eve.) Diamant takes the road less traveled by choosing to narrate through Dinah, and she doesn’t stop there. The women in The Red Tent are diverse and complex, ranging from holy to unholy, from submissive to domineering, from loving to cruel—and a little of everything in between.

Dinah begins with her mothers’ stories, as her biological mother, Leah, told them to her. There are stories for Jacob’s wives, Rachel and Leah, and for Rachel and Leah’s maidservants, Zilpah and Bilhah. Many of her mothers’ stories reflect women’s placement in this ancient world: about the daily work required of them, about being sold and bought and bedded, about birthing and raising children (hopefully sons, of course). It’s suggested that the only respite women get is in the red tent, the secluded place reserved for “unclean,” menstruating women. It’s where women can be themselves and where Dinah watches, learns, and grows.

These women are rarely, if ever, acknowledged or listened to by men, even the sons from their own bodies, but they find ways to cope with this unfairness. For example, while Jacob and his sons subscribe to a monotheistic religion of a One True God and expect the women to as well, the women still have idols dedicated to pagan and sometimes feminine deities hidden away. Some of the women believe in their old gods more than others do, but they all try to hold on to pieces of themselves in a culture that would sometimes rather they didn’t.

Diamant explores this most by changing a key part of Dinah’s biblical tale. With this change, she shines a light on the way in which women’s voices disappear from history, and the way in which the stories that remain might be twisted. It doesn’t matter whether readers believe Dinah ever existed or whether the biblical recording of her is at all accurate. Diamant, instead, draws attention to the fact that Dinah, like many women throughout time (fictional or nonfictional), did not get to tell her own story.

The Red Tent can be somewhat of a dry, laborious read at times, but there is value in its choice of narrator and story. The plot is sometimes slow and can be predictable if you’re familiar with the Bible, but the slowness allows Diamant to explore a lot of historical detail. If you’re searching for a work of fiction that manages to combine existing religion with subtle, feminist commentary, this is a good one to try.

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Quotes from The Red Tent

Years later, when his grandsons finally met the boy of the story, by then an old man, they were appalled to hear how Isaac stuttered, still frightened by his father’s knife.

After the applause died down, the sistrum-player began to sing, accompanied by her own instrument and a single drum. It was a long song, with many refrains. The story it told was unremarkable: a tale of love found and lost–the oldest story in the world. The only story.

Jul 1, 2013

Heft by Liz Moore

Book cover for HEFT by Liz Moore
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Liz Moore’s Heft is about weights both literal and figurative. It’s about people struggling to survive unfortunate circumstances and bad personal choices. What does one do when the weight of not fitting in, the weight of poverty, or the weight of loneliness sits too heavily? Heft explores how people try to hide pain from others, out of fear of rejection, and how sometimes—just sometimes—that fear isn’t necessary.

The Lies We Tell to Protect Ourselves

Heft is told from two first-person perspectives. There’s Arthur Opp, a former university teacher who, after years of emotional overeating, is morbidly obese and living in a depressing spiral of loneliness, clutter, and agoraphobia. Then there’s “Kel” Keller. Kel is a stressed out, poverty-stricken teenager who has drawn one of life’s shorter straws but hopes to make it big as a baseball player. Both Arthur and Kel are victims of circumstances beyond their control, sometimes as much as they are victims of their own bad choices. For a while, neither of them wants to face this reality. Life, of course, forces them to do so.

Arthur and Kel are connected by the tiny thread that is Charlene, Kel’s alcoholic mother and Arthur’s former student, long-time pen pal, and only love. Like Arthur, Charlene never quite “fits in” to life, and the two have always understood and loved each other through their awkward isolation. As the years pass, however, their relationship deteriorates until they are mere pen pals, safely lying to each other from a distance, even as their lives fall apart. Arthur lies about his employment and weight and spins tales about a busy social life. Charlene lies about her marriage and health and never mentions she has a son.

When the weight of illness becomes too much for Charlene, her lies are the first to unravel. As the truth comes out, Arthur is newly determined to take control of his life, even as Kel is just trying to hold on to the pieces of his.

Following Arthur and Kel as they discover Charlene’s secrets and learn how to cope with the truth—their own and hers—makes for a very good read. Nothing is easy in Heft. Each character is fighting his or her own fight, and you’re never quite sure if they’re going to come out on top. When they don’t, it’s heartbreaking.

The side characters of Heft are worthy of praise as well. Yolanda, the young woman who cleans Arthur’s house and becomes his one real-life friend, provides a nice side plot to the overall story that reveals a lot about Arthur’s personality. And Kel’s friend, the popular, pretty, and affluent Lindsay, is one of the best portrayals of a kindhearted teen girl I’ve seen in a while. (Popular, pretty girls are often portrayed as monsters in books.)

My sole complaint comes down to a matter of technique. Authors who write novels with two first-person perspectives are always taking a great risk. Unfortunately, both Arthur and Kel write ungrammatical, choppy fragments that sound awfully similar, and during the first few pages of Kel’s point of view, I was actually unaware that Moore had switched to a new character at all. The most obvious differences between the two characters’ narratives are in how Arthur, unlike Kel, rarely writes “and,” instead favoring ampersands (&), and how Kel has a tendency to curse, while Arthur does not. (Goodreads reviewer, Jill, has a great theory as to why this is.)

This technical flaw is a pity, as Moore does manage to juggle Arthur and Kel’s personalities—they are clearly two different characters with different ideas, hopes, fears, and so on—but I would have liked to have seen more than cosmetic differences their writing styles. It’s not something that will bother everyone, of course, and none of this is to say you shouldn’t read this book. You should.

Heft closes on a surprisingly positive note, begging for readers to believe in a brighter tomorrow for Arthur, Kel, and all others who believe they face uphill battles alone.

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Quotes from Heft

The whole thing smells like strawberries or the sick sweet plastic of a doll.

Normally I don’t skip ahead in my life but this is what Pells Landing does to a person: makes him dream of the future, of a huge rambling house and dogs named Angelo and Maxie and of having a baby boy and naming him after yourself. Of having a real job. Of richness, unbearable richness.

I have always loved aggrieved & unbeautiful women. I have always loved beautiful women too, but it is the unbeautiful ones that haunt me & find me & abide, whose images I see before me when I go to sleep.

Jun 1, 2013

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Book cover for FUN HOME by Alison Bechdel
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In her graphic novel and memoir, Alison Bechdel—of Bechdel test fame—relates the story of growing up in the confusing intensity of her dysfunctional childhood home—and in the family’s funeral (“fun”) business—in 1970s Pennsylvania. When her father, Bruce Bechdel, dies unexpectedly while she is away at college, Alison must face a series of unanswerable, existential questions. Why did her father make the life choices he did? How and why was her relationship with him always so strained? Fun Home is Bechdel’s journey toward accepting both her father and herself.

A Cathartic Journey Toward Acceptance

Fun Home is immediately relatable as Bechdel capitalizes on the things so many of us have experienced: the family member who obsesses, the secrets we sense swirling around us in childhood but never quite understand, the awkwardness of puberty, and the mundane moments that take place in our own back yards.

Weeding comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Bechdel alternates between stories from her childhood and early adulthood. Her childhood is all about confusion—the confusion caused by her parents’ distant, dysfunctional, and mysterious relationship, yes, but also just the simple confusion that comes from having a child’s understanding of the world.

Oven comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I could read and look at comics about Bechdel’s childhood all day. One after another, they are a delight.

Unfortunately, Bechdel’s reflections on her college years are not so neatly portrayed. It’s as though she were unable to distance herself from them in the same way—understandable, perhaps, but also less enjoyable. Whereas her reflections on her childhood are poignant and witty, her reflections on young adulthood are all about searching for an answer. Suddenly, what’s “nonlinear” seems more disjointed, as though Fun Home is less of a planned memoir than it is a cathartic personal project.

Lesbian comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

At nineteen, Alison Bechdel comes out as a lesbian to her parents. It’s a recent revelation, even for her, but one she knows has always been true. Her father, Bruce, is surprisingly accepting, while her mother is concerned and disappointed. Then a secret, the secret, is revealed: Alison’s father is gay, too. Bruce has tried “fixing” himself many times over the years but has always “failed.” All at once, so many things make sense—and so many others do not.

As if coming out and learning of her father’s deeply closeted status wouldn’t be enough to shake Alison, Bruce is killed in an accident a few months later. Chillingly, Alison and her mother wonder if it was an accident at all.

Suicide comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Alison’s story is interesting, but she does such a good job describing her father that I would have much preferred a book about him if I couldn’t have a book that was just about her childhood. You see, Bruce Bechdel is heartbreaking—and fascinating through that heartbreak. In his life story are all the people who’ve forced themselves to live a lie in order to survive the society around them.

Memoirs eventually require authors to come to conclusions about their experiences and themselves. These conclusions can fall flat or come out hackneyed and overly dramatic. In Alison’s case, she attempts to understand her father and her relationship with him through a filter of literature, the one interest they always shared. The result is sort of a pretentious mess, which usually seems to be the case when anyone tries to make life more profound by bringing up the classics.

Ulysses comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

Also, if one more writer uses The Great Gatsby to try to make sense of life, I just might to lose it.

Gatsby comic from Alison Bechdel's FUN HOME

I like the humor and candidness found in Fun Home, especially when Bechdel discusses her childhood—and I’m not about to suggest she’s come to the wrong conclusions about her own life, by the way—but her memoir doesn’t quite resonate with me by its (eloquent) end. Even so, Fun Home is well worth a read.

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