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The Secret to Superhuman Strength

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From the author of Fun Home, a profound graphic memoir of Bechdel's lifelong love affair with exercise, set against a hilarious chronicle of fitness fads in our times

Comics and cultural superstar Alison Bechdel delivers a deeply layered story of her fascination, from childhood to adulthood, with every fitness craze to come down the pike: from Jack LaLanne in the 60s ("Outlandish jumpsuit! Cantaloupe-sized guns!") to the existential oddness of present-day spin class. Readers will see their athletic or semi-active pasts flash before their eyes through an ever-evolving panoply of running shoes, bicycles, skis, and sundry other gear. But the more Bechdel tries to improve herself, the more her self appears to be the thing in her way. She turns for enlightenment to Eastern philosophers and literary figures, including Beat writer Jack Kerouac, whose search for self-transcendence in the great outdoors appears in moving conversation with the author’s own. This gifted artist and not-getting-any-younger exerciser comes to a soulful conclusion. The secret to superhuman strength lies not in six-pack abs, but in something much less clearly defined: facing her own non-transcendent but all-important interdependence with others.

A heartrendingly comic chronicle for our times.

240 pages, Hardcover

First published May 4, 2021

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About the author

Alison Bechdel

45 books3,527 followers
Alison Bechdel is an American cartoonist. Originally best known for the long-running comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For, in 2006 she became a best-selling and critically acclaimed author with her graphic memoir Fun Home.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,391 reviews
Profile Image for Elyse Walters.
3,924 reviews35.4k followers
May 11, 2021
Alison Bechdel, is one of the few ‘rare-bird-anomalies’ that is a master-mind memoir genius.
Two other female memoir masters that come to mind is Dani Shapiro and Joyce Maynard …..
Each of these lovely female authors have written at least three memoirs each. Alison Bechdel and Dani Shapiro have written four.
All of these authors are around my age — each are youthful-healthy-looking > thin, strong, and beautiful.

One might find it amazing to simply write ‘one’ memoir about thyself — let alone three or four — [still a few years away from seventy years old].

What’s fascinating is that I, along with many other Alison, Dani, and Joyce fans — don’t tire reading about these women’s lives.
As long as they keep writing books about themselves, I’ll keep reading them.

“The Secret To Superhuman Strength” is Alison Bechdel’s most ambitious memoir — my personal favorite—the one I relate to most.

The ‘colorful’ graphics are a great addition to the comics.
The coloring collaboration comes from Alison’s partner: Holly Rae Taylor.

Physical, historical, literary, and spiritual …..
Alison explores the body-mind-spiritual consciousness connection.
I loved it -
It’s embarrassing to say - that other than being a lesbian— the rest of it parallels much of my own life.

I’ve shared before, that I am a late bloomer reader—[I sooooo admire the childhood readers-some of my favorite people in the world are reading-lifers from early childhood]….
I regret that I wasn’t one of them.
I was an child-teen-young adult physical girl - before fitness became a cultural phenomenon.
As a tree climbing, roller skating, skateboarding, water-everything girl, ( swimming, masters swim team, aqua yoga instructor, Watsu Water therapist, Water Dancing), tennis playing, balls of all kinds-( kick, toss, slam: badminton, and ping-pong champion in my day), competitor gymnast, (with enough ribbons and medals to fill a wall), Marathon runner, gym rat, High impact aerobic instructor, every type of yoga class imaginable ( resulting in two shoulder surgeries), downhill skiing (resulted in one spiral fracture & bionic ankle), hiking, rock climbing, Pilates, spin classes, weight training, kettle ball, hiking, biking, rope climbing, head standing, flexy-bendy-Physical Education teacher…..
yeah….I was part of the fitness frenzy….

But….a growing void was missing. My heart was longing for more quiet reflective introspective human-condition-authentic connections.
Remember EST? Now Landmark? - yeah— I did that too!
The characters in my books ( the ‘make-believe’ friends I carry in my head, fill me with a richness I was craving)

I still must move - I still must play outside - be in nature - but once reading got a hold of me, I never looked back.
I literally joined Goodreads months after it’s creation.
Things were so simple in the early days of Goodreads- so ‘few’ of us — compared to now > today it’s an International sensation.
And who knew reading could add to higher quality friendships—socialization—book discussions with other readers is a community benefit.

The biggest transformation-and haha—a joke in my family that nobody, including myself saw coming — was my new discovery of the wonderful world of reading.
I became a passionate reader- only in the last twenty years- (a transformation from the occasional spiritual, nutritional/health, self-growth-self, ‘read-to my children’ reading)….
over to the dark side: a new found love for storytelling- literary, historical, and contemporary fiction novels!
It’s a whole new world when one discovers books as an adult — needing them like the air we breathe.

So —as I’m the first to admit—I went from being an die-hard athlete to a reader in these later adulthood years.
After our daughters were old enough to fly away - I retired from my Physical Ed. teaching job-
I no longer spend six to eight hours a day doing yoga
or teaching kids soccer—etc.
No longer a tight-ass ‘strong- as-bull-body’—
but I’ve gained other types of strength through reading that I loss from no longer being a lean-mean-muscle-driving-meshuggah machine.
But ….I still love to move! Moderately balanced; obsessive-free.

So for me…this book hit very close to home.
A physical historical personal wonderful joy.
I equally loved this life journey story of fitness, self history, and literary enlightenment—
as I did the graphics.

The hardcopy is tactile aesthetically irresistible exquisite.
Profile Image for Dave Schaafsma.
Author 6 books31.3k followers
December 24, 2021
"Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, till you find your dream"--The Sound of Music

The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel was, as of the first of June, the best comics work I had read this year, and it held its position as my fave of the year. Oh, I “enjoyed” more the pulpy noir Friends of the Devil by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips and The Begging Chart by Keiler Roberts is a delight, but Alison Bechdel is also for me in this “greatest” category without question, and without any kind of pandering to the reader to get us to “like” her. She has enough of that adulation, as a MacArthur winner and winner of countless awards for four of the greatest comics works of all time: Fun Home (her “Dad book”); Are You My Mother? (her “Mom book”); 25+ years of her comics strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and now this fourth, great work, ostensibly about her life in comics and her obsession with exercise and physical health.

“But I’m not writing a book about fitness. I’m writing about fitness as a vehicle for me to get to something else. The feeling of my mind and body becoming one.”

This is a big and ambitious and impressive book, helping us see what comics can do in helping us see and understand ourselves and the world.

Bechdel is not warm and cuddly, in these comics, and I suspect--since most of her work is memoir, and mercilessly honest--her life. In all but the fictional Dykes she writes essentially about herself and her prickly family and warmer friends as just (part of) the occasion for self-obsession and anguish. The unexamined life is not worth living? Oh, she examines, as always. I had not wanted to read this book; why read about her lifelong obsession with exercise? And yet we can see from the ironic title that we know that superhuman strength is not the ultimate point of the reflection; it’s that striving for perfection behind the fitness work that she examines, and not just in her but in the culture of her lifetime, as she jumps from one activity (some of them fads) to the next. As many of us have done! (I’m checking my Fitbit watch as I write this! Gotta get in my 18-20K steps every day!)

This book covers Bechdel’s life until almost 60, the range of it all, including obsessive exercise/activities--running, biking, yoga, martial arts, spin, all of it to establish her independence from others; her relationships--generally sacrificed at the expense of her desire for personal isolation and professional success; the work itself, and reading/philosophy/spiritualism to frame all of which she experiences, to help her/us in her endless searching. One goal in her life is to achieve some kind of balance, to obliterate in some kind of Buddhist way the distinction between self and other--there is no self!--and yet all she does most of her life is obsess about herself--her work, her relationships, her intellectual commitments, her body, all viewed with some amusement and cool reserve. She’s looking at herself, but she is helping us see our own lives, our own drives, our own work and relationships.

Bechdel is out cross country skiing and as happens throughout her life from time to time, accomplishes a state of euphoria, of bliss:

“I sensed my whole life spooling out before me, far beyond the horizon of the Allegheny plateau. Little did I know that I would be spending it in an arduous quest to get back to the state I was in right now. And I’m not talking about Pennsylvania. Soon I would lose this immediate, unreflected grasp of reality. I would become nearly paralyzed with thoughts of achievement, thoughts of self. I would become my own worst obstacle.”

As with the Mom and Dad books she uses the frame of a central issue--in this case fitness--to look at herself and join her in looking at ourselves and the trajectory of our lives. And as with her other books, literature, ideas, infuse everything. Bechdel tries to understand herself in relation to the romantics such as Wordsworth and Coleridge; the transcendentalists Emerson and Margaret Fuller; the beats Gary Snyder and Jack Kerouac (note to self: re-read The Dharma Bums again!), Adrienne Rich, various Buddhist texts.

Oh, there’s some amusing focus on her obsession with Bean/Patagonia fashion to lighten all the potential heaviness. And I like the play about Maria climbing every mountain, as Kerouac climbs with Snyder, as Coleridge and Wordsworth climb, as Bechdel climbs, as all these folks go Back to Nature for recreation and spirituality. Me, too! Bechel's epigraph for the book is "First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is." Here's Donovan singing it in his song:


She’s lighter and funnier in places in this book than in her other two memoirs, but she still doesn’t smile or laugh much in this work. But I never put this book down for boredom or exasperation. I’m fascinated by it, admire it so much, as I too have been focused on accomplishments in my life and I too read to understand myself. I want to read everything she is reading!

And the artwork is of course amazing, as always, with some romantic, looser pages to let us know she is trying something more flowing, less confined and cramped than just panel work. But don’t let me dissuade you in any way from reading this by anything I've said. It’s one of the great works of comics in a career/life full of this excellence for Bechdel. You will learn as much about American culture and yourself as you do of Bechdel and her goal of fitness and “superhuman strength.” Must read!!! One of the comics greats of all time!
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,453 reviews12.8k followers
February 15, 2021
Alison Bechdel’s latest is - in theory - about her lifelong love of exercise. In theory. And it is about that. In part. But it’s mostly this rambly, vague, wishy-washy, truncated autobio with many pointless literary diversions that turns The Secret to Superhuman Strength, at nearly 250 laborious pages, into a test of the strength of the reader’s attention in making the superhuman effort to make it to the end. I hoped this was going to be another Fun Home rather than another Are You My Mother? but, in actuality, it turned out to be the latter unfortunately so I didn’t like this one very much.

The literary diversions include the Romantic poets Sammy Tee Coleridge, Billy and Dotty Wordsworth (as no one called them), the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Margaret Fuller, and alcoholic hippy and demented type-writist Jack Kerouac. Why? ‘Cos they was artists what liked the outdoors, like Alison Bechdel. So is she comparing herself to them as literary equals or summink?! Yeesh, you give someone a Macarthur Fellowship “Genius” Grant and suddenly they thinks they a genius! Either that anyway or this is all FILLER. Fuller filler.

Bechdel only slightly rehashes material from her two previous memoirs about her pa and ma, before filling us in on her experiences doing skiing, running, swimming, karate, yoga, cycling, and so on. She liked fitness clothes from a young age as well as Jack Lalanne and Charles Atlas. Ok… ? There’s some mild addiction issues and a relationship or two that hit the rocks as Bechdel hit the workahol, but, lordy lordy I was boredy!

When I read the blurb to this one I thought that it was a flimsy concept that was going to be tough to work well and Bechdel proved my initial impression right. Parts of it were occasionally interesting like the look behind the scenes at her creative process and, as irrelevant as I felt they were, the literary factoids on Margaret Fuller were enlightening as I knew nothing about her before this. I related to Bechdel’s experience getting back into running and its effects and the art throughout isn’t bad.

Still, The Secret to Superhuman Strength, unlike real exercise, is a lot of effort for very little in return. Often dull, rarely engaging, and very forgettable, all this book shows is that Bechdel’s out of material and things to say. Exercise = good. Agreed. And… ?

Superhuman shrug.
Profile Image for CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian.
1,118 reviews1,343 followers
December 2, 2021
On the surface this is a graphic memoir about fitness and exercise, told in decades of Bechdel's life and moving through different activities like skiing, running, biking, yoga, and martial arts.

But once you get into it, it's a deep meditation on the interwovenness of the body and mind, the search to escape the prison of your own ego, romanticism (the literary/aesthetic movement), and the profound power of nature. It's an interesting blend that I think readers expecting or wanting a more narrow focus on fitness and exercise might be disappointed in. I, however, loved it.The art is exquisite with detail, movement, and expression.
Profile Image for Julie Ehlers.
1,112 reviews1,384 followers
July 4, 2021
Alison Bechdel is a national treasure as far as I'm concerned; yet, I was reluctant to pick up the long-awaited The Secret to Superhuman Strength, because I thought it was a book about physical fitness, and... zzzzzz. Fortunately, my GR friend David's review convinced me to pick this up anyway, and I'm so glad. I should have known Bechdel wouldn't deliver anything less than stellar.

Bechdel is a devoted fitness buff, and this hefty graphic memoir does detail her various exercise regimes over the years, but in pursuit of much larger themes: the connection between mind and body, the connections between individuals, and most especially what it takes to become a better and more actualized person. As in Are You My Mother?, Bechdel employs other thinkers and writers in her explorations, in this case some of my own favorites: the Romantic poets, the American Transcendentalists, and the Beats of The Dharma Bums. As it happens, the fire lookout scenes, which I found the most affecting in The Dharma Bums, are also some of Bechdel's favorites, and her explication of them here was all that I could ask for in a book, and so beautifully illustrated.

Oh, that's the other thing about this book: perhaps not surprisingly, the illustrations are absolutely beautiful. And it's her first-ever book done in color (the coloring, in fact, was done by Bechdel's partner, Holly Rae Taylor), and some of the results are simply stunning. It's hard to believe Bechdel could top her earlier work, but I think she has. The Secret to Superhuman Strength was satisfying in just about every way.
Profile Image for Lisa.
1,422 reviews538 followers
February 20, 2022
I still don't know the secret to superhuman strength - but I am certainly in awe of Alison Bechdel's talent. This book is a meandering journey through a few decades of her life and her search for health and happiness. I related to many of her experiments and always appreciated her brutal honesty. And oh - her drawings are so detailed and exquisite! Intertwined with her own experiences, she references historical figures - overall I liked this, but sometimes it felt a little contrived and hampered the flow.
Profile Image for Anna Avian.
394 reviews50 followers
July 4, 2021
It really took superhuman strength and two weeks to finish this book. I like Alison Bechdel’s other graphic novels, especially the Dykes and Fun Home, but this one was a drag and a decline in quality in my opinion.
Even though it was supposed to be a memoir, it felt too impersonal, theoretical and vague. I couldn’t understand the meaning of the great many literary diversions, what was the link between all those people and the author? They all liked the outdoors? They were all on some quest for enlightenment? Or maybe Bechdel was seeking some kind of wisdom to combat the depression, anxiety and overthinking? That thread was lost on me.
The things that spiked my interest like Bechdel’s tricky relationship to alcohol, her tricky relationship to work, her flirtations with substance abuse, dabbling in Buddhism, polyamory and therapy, were all sort of mentioned and never got elaborated on.
Unlike her other books, I doubt that I’ll remember this one in a few months time.
Profile Image for Rod Brown.
5,143 reviews171 followers
June 8, 2021
A rambling but mostly engaging memoir of Bechdel's lifelong fetish for exercise equipment and a slow coming to terms with her mortality. She goes decade by decade from the 1960s (her teens) through the 2010s (her fifties), touching on what athletic fad du jour had caught her attention and what was happening with her family and in her inner life. Intertwined is an outline of her developing philosophy by way of biographical sketches from the lives of a small group of 18th century Romantics, 19th century Transcendentalists, 20th century Beats, and references to Buddhism and some other Eastern traditions.

It's a nostalgic trip for someone like me who is about the same age and read the same Charles Atlas comic strip advertisements in the same comic books and watched the same exercise crazes become popular and fade away. For fans of Fun Home there are plenty of references to the events of that book. She also dishes a bit on her various romantic relationships.

Things get a little meta and dull in the final chapter as Bechdel wallows about, talking about how production of this book is dragging out and how she is flailing around for an ending, but it is still an enjoyable browse.
Profile Image for Juan Naranjo.
Author 2 books2,254 followers
November 29, 2021
Alison Bechdel es una maestra de la escritura del yo. Hasta ahora se había empeñado en actuar como si sus libros tratasen sobre su padre, su madre o sus amigas, pero sus lectores somos perfectamente conscientes de que, en realidad, todo es una excusa para hablar de sí misma. Parece que, ya en su madurez, se ha dado cuenta de que no necesita disimular quién es la persona que más le interesa y, por fin, se ha dejado de excusas, ha abrazado la más completa egolatría y se ha decidido a hablar de sí misma sin remilgos ni disimulo.

«El secreto de la fuerza sobrehumana» es una narración lineal en la que Bechdel repasa toda su vida. Y lo hace desde la perspectiva de su propia relación con su cuerpo, aunque el recorrido vital a lo largo de su vínculo con la actividad física es solo una excusa para hablar de su salud mental, sus relaciones amorosas y familiares, su proceso de trabajo y sus frustraciones y preocupaciones más cotidianas. Este libro es la obra más Bechdel de Bechdel, el cómic en el que se muestra más desnuda, frágil y excéntrica.

Es un auténtico regalo para los fans: no solo porque es su obra más autorreferencial, ni tampoco porque sea la que tiene el dibujo más cuidado… lo es porque la autora tiene la generosidad de contarnos cómo era su vida mientras dibujaba los libros que nos han enamorado. Es maravilloso conocer detalladamente cómo era su tumultuosa vida cuando escribía la tira «Unas bollos de cuidado», cómo se sintió al abrirse en canal al contar la historia de su padre en «Fun home», cómo escribió «¿Eres mi madre?» mientras está se moría y ella aún no era capaz de digerir su inesperado éxito… e, incluso, ver cómo fue el proceso de años que le llevó a escribir este libro sobre su relación con su cuerpo, su entorno y su proceso creativo. Bechdel llega a la madurez confirmando que su voz es única y que sus obras narran las relaciones -con uno mismo, con los demás- con una personalidad inimitable.
Profile Image for Jessica Woodbury.
1,586 reviews1,989 followers
July 2, 2021
When I saw this I thought, "Well this will be one of those novels where I learn about people who are nothing like me," and I was right, but not in all the ways I expected. It is about exercise (I hate exercise!) but it's also about mysticism, Buddhism, and transcendentalism. Really I'd say it's about bodies, minds, and the ways we inhabit them.

I am not an exercise lover or a workaholic or someone interested in mysticism and religion. I have never experienced these sublime moments Bechdel refers to and never really wanted to, so I did enjoy getting to inhabit more fully the mind of someone who does. Bechdel is really willing to be self-aware and self-critical here. While she's written about her relationships with her parents, this book is about her relationship with herself, her mind, her body, her identity. She grounds her experience with others throughout time, Romantics, transcendentalists, and even Jack Kerouac, showing us how her struggles are struggles that have followed humans throughout time, particularly thinkers and writers and artists.

You don't have to be familiar with Bechdel's other work, even her other memoirs, to read this and appreciate it. I really enjoyed all the little details and asides along the way, helping us track where she is in time. Mostly you stay on a pretty clear arc here, following Bechdel's entire life, and while sports are the thread we follow, we get to see all along the way how the way she uses sports is a product of the times (so many trends!) but also of her own mental health and personal awareness.

At the end of the day I find transcendentalists and mysticism and such rather dull, so I wasn't as illuminated by the comparisons here as Bechdel is. But that's part of why it's interesting to me, to get to see the world through a totally different set of eyes.
Profile Image for Jenna &#x1f9f5;.
219 reviews77 followers
December 7, 2021
Wow, this book is “about” sports and fitness in kind of the same way as Moby Dick is “about” whales. It’s also about spirituality, the intersection of physical/mental health as well as soul and body, addiction, depression, anxiety, work, generativity vs. stagnation, human connection and disconnection… and so much more. It’s a lot going on here, but you have to admire the author for continuing to push boundaries of the autobiographical form into treacherously precarious Black Diamond territory. Bechdel could draw a children’s board game layout and it would end up with as many layers as Dante’s Inferno. Agree with so many reviewers that the brighter color used in this was a wonderful touch!
Profile Image for Roxana Chirilă.
987 reviews124 followers
August 27, 2021
It feels rude, in a way, to finish reading a memoir in a few hours. Hello, yes, I will consume your sixty years of life in scattered instances across a few days, and I will then... what?

"The Secret to Superhuman Strength" is that there is none. No secret, that is. It can't be done. Whether physical or mental, it's a never-ending quest of striving and becoming. And that is what the book is about, ultimately: Alison Bechdel trying throughout her life to achieve peaks of physical fitness (despite not having an athletic genetic makeup; but she does well enough) and to achieve a transcendental oneness with the world.

Her striving for that peak experience, that enlightenment that will change her self for the better forever is so very relatable to me, even if nearly nothing else of her life is. (What would she and I talk about if we were ever to meet? We wouldn't have in common sports, transcendentalism, drinking, drugs, meditation, Buddhism, or even similar tastes in literature. Perhaps the feeling that we need to overwork ourselves, we could talk about that, but even so.)

"The Secret to Superhuman Strength" pretends to be about workouts. Or maybe it even is. About getting into sports as a kid, picking up running, picking up cycling, picking up karate, picking up skiing, picking up hiking, and I'm sure I forgot a few. It would normally be tiring just to read about it; I'm not very much into sports myself. But Bechdel's talk of sport is almost refreshing; she's an enthusiast, not a preacher. She has exhilarating highs, but also lows. Injuries happen. Not everything goes well.

What the book is also about is the English Romantics, as well as Jack Kerouac - neither of which are my cuppa, but what can you do. Bechdel focuses on their enjoyment of exercise in nature, and the nature of their spiritual explorations, which didn't necessarily translate into happy or good lives. Nevertheless, she tries to follow in their footsteps, feel what they felt, and the feeling turns out to be elusive. Meanwhile, she herself is slipping, and you get the feeling that all those mistakes wear down.

Yet she tries to achieve a sense of... oneness, perhaps? As well as get answers to the larger question of life. And that's the real thread of the book: attempting to find oneself, and understand the world.

I'm not so sure she does provide answers. It seems to me the whole book is filled with the strength of the depressive, endlessly marching on in the face of life, refusing to give in, trying to tear a conclusion or a transcendental certainty out of the maw of the universe itself. If she had revelations, then I feel they are too personal to be properly conveyed here, although she seems to have slowed her relentless march a bit towards the end.

Nonetheless, it makes for an interesting read, though I wouldn't recommend it as much as I would "Fun Home".

(I wonder if she reads her Goodreads reviews; how odd it has to be to write a memoir and have people comment on your life. And, naturally, I assume there's a lot she hasn't shared through this book, so the review cannot but be a flawed interpretation of her real life, even if it reflects the actual book reflecting her life. What a game of mirrors.)
Profile Image for Adam.
502 reviews14 followers
July 14, 2021
It's hard to describe the frustration I felt from this book. It was simultaneously entertaining and boring thanks in part to being 1/4 to 1/3 too long. Once again I'm left wondering if Alison Bechdel had a more stringent editor if I would have enjoyed this more.

Much like Bechdel, I went through a Jack Kerouac phase, but I was younger and my admiration was very quickly blunted by learning more about his life and demise. A surprising portion of this book is devoted to him and others writers/luminaries with whom she feels some transcendental (pun intended) kinship. The title and lead premise here are so loosely held together that a strong breeze can pull this apart. If Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic was Bechdel examining her relationship with her father and Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama is an examination of her relationship with her mother, this feels like an examination of her relationship with herself... well, her aspirational self.

It's an overlong journey to find out that in her previous books she didn't resolve her issues and in this one she again wants to remind us she's athletic, well read and gay. All of these things are fine, but the moments I really enjoyed reading about were spread too far apart as she spent time looking at the lives of dead people who have nothing to do with her personal narrative. It was her personal narrative I showed up for and she spends so much time telling us about her struggle to embrace her own story/life that any catharsis she finds in small epiphanies is immediately undercut by how quickly she jumps away from these. Also this ends so abruptly, much like Fun Home, that it makes me wonder if anyone asked her "Are you sure you don't want to spend like... a page or two letting this land?"

I think this satisfied the curiosity about Bechdel the author/storyteller and now I don't know that I'll ever have the compulsion to read her work again. (fool me once, Fun Home, shame on you. Fool me twice, this book, shame on me)
Profile Image for Eilonwy.
814 reviews203 followers
July 20, 2021
This is a graphic memoir, tied together by the through-theme of Alison’s passion for working out. She’s been a runner, a cyclist, a black belt in karate, a yoga devotee, a weightlifter. She has zero desire to compete in any sport, but she passionately wants to be strong and high-endurance. The story starts from her birth and goes right up to 2020.

As someone who read Alison’s long-running serial comic Dykes to Watch Out For for years, and who used to reread the entire series every time a new collection came out, I was delighted to find myself immersed in her wry humor again. I’ve missed her characters so much since the strip ended, and this book was a way of revisiting the feel of hanging out with those women, even if indirectly. I also completely related to the quest for superhuman strength and endurance, as it’s shaped quite a lot of my life, as well. (And a good thing, too — I got the hardcover version of this book from my library, and it weighs a ton!) I’ve also read Fun Home, which I was a bit meh about at the time, but this book has made me want to revisit that one.

I do have slightly mixed feelings about the other through-theme in the book, which is English romantic poets, American transcendentalists, and Jack Kerouac, and their hiking and love of nature. It was definitely interesting, and like Alison, I suspect I would have enjoyed Samuel Coleridge’s poetry more in English classes had I known more about him as an actual human being, but at the same time, I’m not sure this added much to my appreciation of Alison’s story. And .

So, I can’t judge this book objectively at all. I loved every page, zoomed through it, and am thrilled to know all kinds of nosy details about Alison that I would never otherwise have discovered.

If you love Alison Bechdel’s other works, then this is obviously a must-read. But I have no idea how someone without any history with her will experience this book.
Profile Image for Liam O'Leary.
477 reviews114 followers
April 5, 2021
Video Review

This is my 5th advanced reader copy (ARC) review. This means I received this ebook for free, in exchange for this review by Netgalley. I'm not financially motivated, as I read library books, so I only read ARCs I actually think will be good enough for me to rate and review honestly.

This ARC review (as are all NetGalley Reviews for this title) is based solely on a sampler containing the first 10 pages of this graphic novel. For that reason any critical reader should probably add a pinch of salt to all ARC reviews for this title, because from 10 pages it's hard quite hard to judge a book. This is difficult for me even despite the fact I've read and enjoyed both 'Fun Home' and 'Are You My Mother?' by Alison Bechdel.

It's difficult and unappealing to be too critical of Alison Bechdel, because many of her comics are memoirs and are deservedly inspirational to the LGBT community, especially to representation in comics and media. Fun Home was a breakthrough for the indie comics scene and it was so, so great. However, I hate to admit that I feel that since Fun Home, we are receiving B-sides. Every book is a new angle of the author's life, but it seems like the books are becoming more impersonal with time which makes them less effective as memoirs and to a readership who are familiar with the other books. I really wish Alison Bechdel would write a fictional story. Try something completely new, because the content and format of these books often relies on tangential ideas or theories which makes them share too much in common. It feels like a continued conversation, perhaps one that should've ended or radically changed location by now. We see Bechdel return to comparing her parent's generation to her own in this 10-page sampler, and from that I see that there's too much familiarity already. If Bechdel must narrate and appear in their comics it'd be cool to see the author show up in a fictional story, from the outside for once. But alas, an author will and should write what they like and to whom they like so none of my opinions here might be relevant, I just suspect others might be feeling the same.

I guess to be critical on another angle, it's hard to be engaged by the story of someone's fitness journey when they are neither professionally good or bad at a sport. We live in a world where everyone wants to tell you to watch something or do something (the irony of writing this review is not lost on me), and so hearing someone's perspective on fitness just isn't that interesting to me. Everyone's talking about what is healthy, which is why I don't want to hear more of it from someone outside of my real life!

Writing this review was strange, because I just 4* and commended Bechdel's Foreword in another book. Truth is Bechdel can write good books and I'm sure many will like this, but I think her Fun Home crowd might be feeling a distance growing from their original interest.
Profile Image for Ashton.
147 reviews870 followers
August 3, 2021
4.5 — in a way that only Bechdel can, this book combines themes of exercise, relationships, growing up, and... transcendentalism! it’s introspective and tied together really elegantly. i’ve seen some critique that it’s rambling and disconnected, but it works for me, and very much reads like other work by Bechdel. i’m not even interested in exercise as like. a topic. but i do love literature and philosophy and lesbians and memoirs, and this book delivered!
Profile Image for Gretchen Rubin.
Author 43 books84.1k followers
August 20, 2021
Terrific graphic novel. I've read every book Bechdel has written.
Profile Image for Danika at The Lesbrary.
511 reviews1,262 followers
July 8, 2021
Aside from following the fitness fads Bechdel has participated in over the years, this is primarily a story about yearning, a striving for transcendence, for finding the secret to living well. It’s about not just physical strength, but also the emotional endurance necessary to be human. It’s about looking for the secret of how to best live–so there’s no real neat conclusion possible. This is a story still in progress.

I didn’t feel the same way about The Secret To Superhuman Strength as Fun Home, but that’s an impossible hurdle to clear. I did connect more to this than Are You My Mother?, despite being as far from a fitness fan as possible. I also appreciated being to able to get a wider scope of Bechdel’s life, including how the publication of her graphic memoirs (especially Fun Home) changed her everyday reality. It’s at times painful to read, because I feel so much sympathy for her, but that just shows how effective it is.

Full review at the Lesbrary.
Profile Image for Grace.
2,580 reviews111 followers
January 30, 2022
4.5 rounded up

I went into this one a bit hesitant, as the subject matter seemed rife with opportunity for anti-fat bias and healthism, but I thought it was all beautifully handled. For a book that has a decent focus on fitness crazes, it's really coming for a place of how Bechdel's relationship between physical exertion and Bechdel's mental state. I thought the concept was fascinating, the format worked beautifully, and I continue to be very impressed with her ability to really tell such moving autobiographic stories that also feel so broadly applicable and relatable. Really pleased I picked this one up.
Profile Image for Susie Dumond.
Author 2 books110 followers
January 28, 2021
In this graphic memoir, Alison Bechdel recounts her life through six decades of fitness fads. It's a fun and engaging way to approach her life story, but even more, Bechdel explores how various exercise methods served as a way for her to explore her mind-body connection and her place in the universe. It's a wonderful balance of humor, history, and philosophical musings, and I think it's one of the greatest examples of why Bechdel won a MacArthur Genius Grant. You can always look to her work for a fresh perspective that goes much deeper than you expect.

Thanks to NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the ARC in exchange for my honest review.
Profile Image for Laura.
2,656 reviews82 followers
January 9, 2021
Like those who say they knew bands before they were famous, that is the way I feel about Alison Bechdel. I knew her before Fun House, back when she first started Dykes to Watch Out For. It turns out she is just one year or so younger than I am, which might feel as though I have grown up with her and her stories.

The introduction to this book is a little long winded, about exercise fads, and I was feeling as though I was going to dread reading this, but when she went back to her childhood, and talked about exercising then, I found I was really getting into her story.

Like most of her books she has written, including Fun House, she brings up her own life experience to explain the things that are going on around her. Some of her stories are familiar, because of earlier books, but others have more information.

But it isn't just about exercise. It is also about being and non-being, about the consciousness of what we are, housed as we are within our bodies. She talks about poets and philosophers of days past, to show how their thoughts and feeling compare with todays.

A good deep read. I loved how when she showed painting of nature, she did an ink wash, and when she was talking about day to day life, it is done in the more cartoon like ink and color.

It is not Fun House. It is not Dykes to Watch Out For, but it is pure Alison Bechdel, and it is well worth reading.

Thanks to Netgalley for making this book available for an honest review.
Profile Image for S.
201 reviews15 followers
March 29, 2021
I’m a big fan of Fun Home and graphic novels in general so I was really happy to see that Bechdel had a new book coming up. Unfortunately The Secret to Superhuman Strength didn’t live up to my expectations and as I write this I haven’t actually managed to finish it - a rarity for me with a graphic novel.

Spanning the whole of her life, Bechdel explores the various exercise crazes she has attempted throughout her life. It’s a bit of a tenuous theme, but probably relevant in today’s society.

My inability to connect may be more down to me personally than anything else, but it’s full of historical references about literature, poetry and the like that mean very little to me, if anything and these interruptions into the narrative made it really difficult for me to keep track of what was being depicted.

I’m still giving this a star rating as I enjoyed the artwork in as far as I got - and I may end up picking this up in the future, but for now, it’s a disappointing read for me.

I received an e-ARC via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Kerry.
789 reviews93 followers
September 11, 2021
I've been meaning to read the author's book Fun House for the last year and never quite got to it, so when I saw this at the library I checked it out. Bechdel and I are of a similar age and I credit that with my immediate recognition of so much she writes and draws about in this book. From the early days of jogging to yoga to spin I was with her on every road and bike she was inclined to conquer not only in the guise of good health and strength but in the quest for a pure state of exercise endorphin bliss. It was a treat to learn about her life and challenges along the way. So, so good. I devoured it in two sittings. My first graphic novel and it was so much more. Great writing, excellent graphics completed a enchanting story of how exercise can enhance and hold hostage our lives.
Profile Image for Melody.
2,623 reviews254 followers
January 2, 2022
Oh, how I loved this one! So relatable, and so like coming home at the same time. I am an enormous DTWOF fangirl. I loved Fun Home. I hated the one about her mom and her therapy. I am so relieved to be back on firm ground here. Or ground I'm way more easy with.
Profile Image for Xandra.
296 reviews233 followers
May 24, 2021

This is Alison Bechdel's third graphic memoir. The first was about her father and the impact his suicide had on the family, the second explored the complicated relationship with her mother, and now the focus is on herself. The book is structured in chronological order, beginning with Alison's birth and ending in 2020, with the pandemic and the United States presidential election.

Bechdel's love for various forms of physical activity - running, cycling, skiing, karate, yoga, hiking - is on display here, but to say the book is only about that would be reductive. This is ultimately a memoir of a person grappling with mortality, self-worth and identity. It's a glimpse into the life of an artist with an obsessive work ethic, consumed by doubt and anxiety. Being familiar with both Fun Home and Are You My Mother?, it was fascinating to look at the creative struggles that went into writing those books. We even get to see her writing this one!

The author also explores various Buddhist concepts and makes constant references to Margaret Fuller, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Jack Kerouac that cleverly parallel her own life, so those looking for a light and fun book about exercise might not find it here.

In the end, this graphic memoir transcends its seemingly shallow premise and delivers a valuable message: that real strength lies in one's ability to accept the human condition.

Profile Image for Geoff.
963 reviews89 followers
June 11, 2021
This is a memoir of the author's psychological journey disguised as a memoir of her physical journey. A maybe it's a journey of how her years of trying to master her body allowed her finally to come to peace and understanding with her mind and heart (sort of)? Bechdel does a great job in connecting exercise fads, early spiritual feminist icons (and somewhat incongruously-but-it-somehowstill-works Jack Kerouac and The Sound of Music), and the events of her life and the cycles of fitness, alcohol abuse, creativity, insight, workaholism, and familial and personal triumphs and setbacks. This is about her (continuing) journey and it gave me a lot to think about where I fin myself on the wheel these days.

**Thanks to the author, publisher, and NetGalley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.
Profile Image for Nore.
729 reviews35 followers
March 8, 2021
A bit of a rambly autobiography tracing Bechdel's life through her interest in exercise and fitness (and Buddhism), paralleled throughout with details of other authors with an interest in the outdoors. I enjoyed it, as I usually enjoy Bechdel's work, though it was a bit unfocused at time and really works better if you know something about the authors she linked herself to. (I am, by choice, unfamiliar with Kerouac.)
Profile Image for Daniel Montague.
207 reviews15 followers
August 16, 2021
There was much to admire in this graphic novel. The illustration was top notch and thoughtful. The pop cultural references were astute. It was also an honest portrayal of a woman's ongoing struggle between the physical and mental. Even with all of these praiseworthy attributes, the further the work went the more annoyed I got at the author. She came across as melodramatic and quite recalcitrant in her actions. Her relationships, namely with her partners seemed one-sided and based on her convenience.

If I were to rate solely on illustration, this would be a 5 star novel. The ability to showcase movement and frenetic energy is amazing. Whether, Alison Bechdel is drawing herself in adolescence or a scene between William Wordsworth, his sister and Samuel Coleridge Taylor, her expertise is demonstrated. The various contortions and even the moments of gentle contemplations are shown with a passion. I gravitated towards the kinetic scenes but even the flashbacks were awe-inspiring.

The pop culture references as she navigates the various healthcare and self-improvement fads mostly worked. Whether it was describing the few options of footwear or sports available to women in her youth, my interest was piqued. It was clever the way she showed how each fad appealed to a particular decade. In the 60s', Jack Lalanne promoted a healthy lifestyle which relied on good nutrition and exercise along with showmanship that was geared to the "housewife" of the time. Towards the 70s and 80s, a more holistic approach which focused on the spiritual became in vogue. She is able to capture her experimentation with various forms of exercise and self-improvement with humor and affection.

An area where I felt an ambivalence was her constant tie-in to different time periods. While, I appreciate the ambition of tying in the Romantics, Transcendentalists and Beatniks with her ongoing transformations, it felt forced and frequently unconvincing. No doubt it sucked that Ralph Waldo Emerson did not treat his second wife with affection or Dorothy Wordsworth is largely forgotten but how they relate to a modern day woman cross-country skiing felt tenuous. She felt a bond between Jack Kerouac which is better explained as they shared a love of Buddhism and nature while both having issues with alcohol and anxiety.

My biggest gripe was the frustration I felt towards the author herself. The totality of the book is about the authors' personal growth and her constant desire to prove herself whether physically or mentally. She takes up all sorts of challenges and indulges in a slew of practices and activities to improve herself yet she oftentimes neglects her partners. To her credit she does go bike riding and skiing with her current wife, Holly but many of her previous relationships depicted her pursuing solitary activities simultaneously pushing away loved ones. The most glaring of the issues was her lack of compromise in domiciles. While, her partners including Holly advocated moving to a less desolate location she was adamant about staying put, even muttering, "she would die". I am far from an expert on Vermont's population density but moving from an area where your nearest neighbor is only 1 mile away instead of 3 miles does not seem very extreme. Another time was when she insisted that she must climb a mountain in Yosemite despite the strenuous protestations of her partner, Holly. Holly had previously lost her girlfriend, who was a cliff diver on a mountain that was similar to the one Alison was about to climb.

There is plenty to enjoy about this work but the hiccups gnawed on me. Whether it was the various explorations of previous eras or the sporadic references to her self-medication with pills or booze I felt a lack of coherence. While, the illustration and layout of the novel was superhuman the lack of a strong storyline proved it be its kryptonite.

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