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The Secret to Superhuman Strength by Alison Bechdel review – no pain, all gain

The author of Fun Home reflects on self-improvement, death and her lifelong obsession with exercise in an extraordinarily generous memoir

In her quietly astonishing new book, Alison Bechdel sets out to discover why she has devoted so many hours of her life – “very possibly as many as are actually recommended” – to exercise. On the surface of it, this sounds straightforward. She has been mad about muscles ever since she was a child and first saw Charles Atlas; running used to be the best way she knew of managing stress; as a younger woman, she was as susceptible to fads as she was to sportswear brands. But while The Secret to Superhuman Strength takes a keen interest in karate and spin classes, in Nordic skiing and road cycling, and manages to be slyly funny about all of them, its true subject is self-improvement in the biggest sense of that word. If this sounds off-putting – please, not another book about self-care – all I can tell you is that her thoughts on mortality, wonder and transcendence will do you a lot more good, at this point in the pandemic, than your next yoga class.

How on earth does she do it? The ingenious concision, the warmth of feeling, the fact that the reader never tires of her company (this is her third memoir, after all). In this book, Bechdel, who’s now 60, continues the deep personal excavations of Fun Home and its sequel Are You My Mother?, moving through her life one decade at a time as she looks steadily and bemusedly at her tendency to use, or to try to use, her regimes as a balm (in her 20s, for instance, when she was dealing with the emotional aftermath of her father’s suicide, she had a predilection for “feminist martial arts”). But exercise is like a computer game: how many levels does it have again? With age, even the strongest body weakens; the menopause wreaks its own havoc; a parent dies and suddenly there’s no one standing between you and the grave. Gradually, she comes to realise that there is more to escaping the anxious moment, let alone the abyss, than spending an hour on a rowing machine.

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W-3: A Memoir by Bette Howland review – postcard from the edge

The American writer’s account of her stay on a psychiatric ward is as dazzling and daring as when i...

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Stone Fruit by Lee Lai review – breaking up is hard to do

Lai’s debut graphic novel is a downbeat but moving exploration of the aftermath of a relationshipLe...

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Burning Man: The Ascent of DH Lawrence review – purgatory and paradise with a wild prophet

Frances Wilson’s book is as magnificently flawed as its subject – and a work of art in its own rig...

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The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne review – life and loves of a true original

Clever, funny and full of surprises, this true literary original leaps off the page in a wonderfully...

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My Autobiography of Carson McCullers review – identity parade

Jenn Shapland’s insistence on reducing Carson McCullers’s life story to a modish account of her se...

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Monica Jones, Philip Larkin and Me review – a woman under the influence

John Sutherland makes a brave attempt to rescue the reputation of Larkin’s longstanding lover and m...

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