Thursday, August 27, 2015


On a recent trip to New York the only musical I had planned was to see Funhome, the award-winning musical adaptation of Alison Bechdel's graphic memoir by the same name. I'm not a huge fan of musicals, at least not the big showy kind, but I wanted to see this musical because I really loved the book when I read it a few years ago.


 Bechdel is the author of the excellent serialized comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, which I used to read in feminist magazines when I was in university. Her graphic memoir, Funhome: A Family Tragicomic, tells the story of Bechdel's relationship with her father. He was a high school English teacher who also ran the family funeral home (which his kids called The Funhome), and a deeply closeted gay man. The book chronicles Alison's struggle to come out to her parents as a lesbian and to understand her father's homosexuality. Bechdel attempts to talk to her father, to get him to respond to her coming out letter, but they are never able to connect and speak openly about their relationship or their sexuality.

Bechdel tells a remarkable story through captions and dialogue, but it's her drawing that makes me keep coming back to her story. The family lives in a gothic mansion that her father has lovingly and obsessively restored, often paying more attention to period furnishings than his children. It's an apt setting for this family story that is delves into emotional abuse and failure to connect.

 I admit being skeptical to Funhome as a musical, despite its strong visual component. Yet, I really loved the play. Told from three points in Alison's life, the music played into both the comic and the tragic elements of the story. A Jackson Five inspired song for a Funhome commercial that the younger cast members perform was very funny, as was the college age Alison's song about falling in love, "I'm Changing My Major (To Joan)." By far the most moving song in the show was "Telephone Wire" sung by the adult Alison and her father, about their failure to connect. The opening lines reminded me of some of Ani Difranco's songs, emotionally earnest and completely uncampy. I also loved the youngest Alison, Sydney Lucas, singing "Ring of Keys."


The other thing I loved about the play was how closely cast the actors were to the drawings in the book. I've always been annoyed by movie adaptations of books that don't match up to the picture in my head of a character. Because the musical had the comic drawings to draw from, the play was exactly what I had imagined.

The three Alison actors in Bechdel's Funhome

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Goldfinch


My favourite read so far this summer was Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the story of a young boy, Theo, caught in a terrorist attack in the Metropolitan Museum. While Theo’s mother is killed, Theo escapes from the museum unhurt, and with a famous and beautiful Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, intending to save it. The shock of losing his mother and the quick hand of social services quickly unravels Theo’s life. He lives first with the wealthy Barbour family on the Upper East Side until his reckless, gambling, conniving father returns to take him to live in the outer suburbs of Las Vegas, a subdivision so new the desert threatens to take it over, and so unlived in it’s not serviced by street lights or garbage removal.



The underlying sense of doom the father casts of the story, both physically in his gambling and poor character, and also as a hereditary shadow- the young Theo worries he’ll become like his father, make this book a tremendous page-turner. However, what really makes this book hard to put down, is the ill sense of danger of Theo’s need to keep the painting and his desire to return it without being incriminated for art theft. Like most secrets left to fester, the problem of the painting grows larger and larger until it explodes in Theo’s life.


Lest The Goldfinch sound like too much of a pot-boiler, Tartt also writes beautifully detailed prose, with characters I adore. My favourite, Boris, is Theo’s best friend in Las Vegas, a Russian emigrant who has lived all over the world with his hard-drinking, negligent and occasionally violent father. Boris is a great linguist, conniver and consumer of alcohol and drugs of all kinds. When he returns later in the story, with dramatic consequences for both Theo and The Goldfinch painting, I had to pause a moment and marvel at the architecture of the novel that was both so exhilarating and so satisfying.