Thursday, July 5, 2007


These are two very different authors with two very different recent books.

Alison Bechdel’s book, FUN HOME, is another graphic novel loaned to me by my friend Lisa who thought I might dig it. I usually find graphic novels pretty boring. But this one kept my attention more than most.

Bill Zavatsky is a poet, whose latest book is X MARKS THE SPOT.

Bechdel wrote and drew FUN HOME, a memoir, which like many these days centers around a family secret that contributed to a family mystery that heightened the drama of Bechdel’s life.

I had sympathy for her growing up suspecting she was a lesbian, in a family in denial about that reality. But I also found the truth bent at times in ways easily documented just by going back and reading previous panels of the story. That kind of thing, when it goes unacknowledged by the author, leaves me a little bugged.

It also bothered me that among what seems like thousands of blurbs on both the front and back covers, and inside covers and pages, the first blurb on the top of the front cover claims FUN HOUSE was “TIME MAGAZINE’S #1 BOOK OF THE YEAR.”

I can imagine it being the #1 graphic book of the year, since I don’t know much about that genre. But I can’t imagine there weren’t better books among the thousands and thousands published over a year’s time. In fact, I could name a few that could have been my choice.

Zavatsky’s X MARKS THE SPOT, a slim collection of narrative poems, is mostly concerned with the poet’s past and how it interacts with the present, as well—a poetic memoir that will never be named “#1 BOOK OF THE YEAR” by TIME magazine. His life story would never be seen as dramatic or sensational enough, or as aligned with contemporary “memoir” publishing standards as Bechdel’s.

In his sixties, Zavatksy seems to have been humbled by life, and willing to humble himself on the page before the reader, if that helps him get closer to the truth of that life.

There are many poems in X MARKS THE SPOT I identified with (we’re both around the same age, stopped publishing poetry for a number of years after some early success, and both started out as jazz piano players, from ethnic Catholic backgrounds and working-class neighborhoods in the Northeast, etc.). But I believe they’re good enough that anyone of any age and experience could identify with them (as there are many areas where he and I had entirely different experiences in our lives and various careers, including those various careers, children, locations where we lived as adults, number of marriages, etc.).

I was touched by the humble sincerity in these poems, by the craft that went into their seeming simplicity. I felt like I had read a memoir, a very satisfying one that I wished there was a sequel to, and hopefully there will be. Zavatsky’s poems created the kind of connection with me, as a reader, that I look for, and long for, in books, that sense that I have entered the world of another human being, whose insights and observations make me feel not only less alone in the struggle to accept life’s inevitable struggles and sadness, but also in the capacity for creative engagement and joy even in the midst of those struggles and that sadness.

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