The Secret To Superhuman Strength

by Alison Bechdel

Other authorsAlison Bechdel (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 2021




Mariner Books (2021), 240 pages


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

Media reviews

[...] 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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member villemezbrown
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member magicians_nephew
Having a great time with The Secret to Superhuman Strength Alison Bechdel's new graphic novel cum memoir of her lifelong journey towards physical strength and perhaps something more.

You may remember Bechdel as the one who wrote Fun Home and Dykes to Watch out for and other thoughtful and funny
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cartoon based runimations.

She started out as a kid with her family running and riding her bike up the local "bike Hill' in New England. Riding meant freedom. Riding meant independence.

From there we see her exploring running and yoga and judo and meditation, with side trips into the life stories of female (and male) philosophers and others.

(Emerson could have a baby and hand it off to his wife and go on lecturing - women philosophers and thinkers sometimes had to go on doing the dishes and milking the cows. But they persisted.)

People who read comic books might remember those "Charles Atlas" ads in the back that promised "superhuman strength" and the ability to smack the bully on the beach right in the kisser. Guess what? Women read them too.

There's a "Where's Waldo" tone to the book that is charming and engaging. Our heroine realizes in the end that when you pump your way to the top of the mountain, what you may see before you is the NEXT mountain you are going to want to climb - some day.

Highly recommended. Enjoy it. I did.
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LibraryThing member EBT1002
Alison Bechdel and I were born within about three weeks of one another. I have been a fan for so many years -- when I came out in the mid 1980s her comic strip "Dykes to Watch Out For" was a significant cultural mirror. I knew those characters. I knew those internal battles. I certainly knew those
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cultural referents. The Secret to Superhuman Strength may resonate for me especially because our lives have been so parallel. Don't get me wrong: our lives have been different in SO many ways! But her 20s were my 20s; her 40s were my 40s. This graphic memoir is sold as an exploration of the role of exercise in her life but it is so much more than that. It is a memoir about the search for inner peace, the desire for both autonomy and intimacy, and how, for her, exercise has been a central element of coming to terms with these fraught human strivings. I've also been a runner for my entire adult life (until last August's knee replacement) and Bechdel's descriptions of the numbing and exhilarating effects of vigorous cardio exercise spoke to me in a visceral and sweet way.

Her drawings are, as always, a joy. I love her inclusion of background images that center each story firmly in its place and time (picture George W. Bush on the television in the background while she and her girlfriend are arguing over whether Alison should take a vacation). I also love her inclusion of her pets over the years; there is almost always a cat -- and occasionally a dog -- in her drawings of home.

I also appreciate that Bechdel does her research. She is an intellectual and a historian. The detours about Wordsworth, Emerson, Coleridge, Margaret Fuller, and Kerouac were delightful if a bit hard sometimes to keep straight (no pun intended). Her notice of themes in their lives and how they are mirrored in her own were a compelling element in the universality of her introspection.

My sister had this book sitting on the bedside table when I arrived for my first visit in 21 months (damn pandemic). It's not quite as good as the five-star *Fun Home* but it's a wonderful read. I'll probably purchase a copy to place on my shelves next to *Fun Home*, *Are You My Mother?*, and *The Essential Dykes to Watch Out For*.
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LibraryThing member AmyMacEvilly
Really interesting how Bechdel ties her own personal journey to the Romantics and the Transcendentalists.
LibraryThing member AmphipodGirl
3.5 stars. This is an odd combination of memoir, modern social history, intellectual history, and musings on the meaning of self. It shed some int3eresting light on Dykes to Watch Out For and was interesting and enjoyable in itself. I did sometimes mix up the different figures from the 18th and
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19th century, but all in all, well worth reading.
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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
With The Secret to Superhuman Strength, Allison Bechdel has managed to write yet another successful graphic novel memoir — this one revolves around her lifelong passion for exercise. Using side stories of famous writers and figures like Joseph Campbell, Coleridge, Margaret Fuller, Emerson,
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Buddha, and Kerouac, Bechdel compares her quest for self-identity and understanding to theirs. As always, the writing is excellent, the content profound, and the drawings are her usual artistry. The Secret to Superhuman Strength is a wonderful and raw examination of Bechdel’s obsessive routines and attempts at finding herself through exercise, therapy, and relationships.
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LibraryThing member akblanchard
Alison Bechdel's The Secret to Superhuman Strength may have started out as a lighthearted look at exercise fads throughout the cartoonist's lifetime, but it evolved into much more than that. In this work of graphic nonfiction, Bechdel deals with not only her various exercise obsessions, but also
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her conflicted relationships, alcohol and other substance abuse issues, and her insecurities related to her creative process. She manages to work in digressions about Margaret Fuller, William Wordsworth, and Jack Kerouac as well. On top of all this, there's also healthy dose of Buddhist-inspired teaching, as well as political commentary and plugs for LL Bean and Patagonia outdoor gear. Despite all these disparate elements, the book works, in large measure due to the expressiveness of Bechdel's illustrations. Recommended.
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LibraryThing member mpho3
I love it when essayists are able to weave together seemingly disparate strands of thoughts in way that makes you wonder why you didn't make the connection yourself. Sometimes it's because you're being introduced to knowledge new to you, sometimes it's because you can't see the nose in front of
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your face, and sometimes it's because they don't fit together at all, like a musical mashup that doesn't truly work but sounds interesting on its own. The Secret to Superhuman Strength is kind of like that. Though I'm about a decade younger than she is, my age cohort is close enough that I found much of it relatable. Girls of my time had few outlets for athletic prowess other than the playground or gym class and that was true for everything. Band? Clarinet or flute. Home Ec yes, shop class no. Driver's ed yes, but only automatic, not manual. As someone who revels in fitness endeavors but is never as fit as I’d like to be, I enjoyed Bechdel’s observations about how the drive for physical transcendence is really a desire for more other worldly experience, a different kind of transcendence. Each fitness fad arrives in its in own zeitgeist, a reflection of the times in which it is born, embraced, and fades away. This also mimics the life experience: peaks eventually become valleys and subsequent peaks may not be as high. So too the book: Bechdel’s memoir eventually reaches 2020, a year that for many is still hard to reconcile. Also at this point, Bechdel has lived well over half a century. She admits to not knowing how to wrap up the endeavor that is this book. Knowing your limits is a strength all its own.
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LibraryThing member msf59
I am a huge fan of Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home and she delivers another absolute gem with this one. It looks at her life and her obsession with fitness, through the decades. It also covers her relationships and her fixation on Jack Kerouac and his for search for self-transcendence. This will
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probably be my favorite graphic novel of the year.
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LibraryThing member capewood
2021 book #76. 2021. Cartoonist and author Alison Bechdel produces another cartoon memoir, this time about her life long attempt to balance her quest for inner peace, her work life, her love of physical activity, and her personal relationships. A good thoughtful read.
LibraryThing member mdoris
I have read Bechdel's other books and quite intrigued with them. I do however struggle with the memoir format and I did struggle with this one. It is maybe a tad SELF FOCUSED! It is nonetheless quite an accomplishment to tell your story pains takingly in pictures, to relate to historical figures
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who have struggled with the same challenges and to put your heart on your sleeve. felt more like therapy for the author than enlightenment for the reader.
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LibraryThing member RandyMetcalfe
There are lots of useful quotes in these pages from people important the the Romantic movement. There are tidbits from the Wordsworths and Cooleridge, from Jack Kerouac and Margaret Fuller, from Emerson and Thoreau, and Jack LaLanne, and even a fair number from texts on Buddhism. So you might pick
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up something of use here without even really trying. Which might be just what you need if you are ever on Jeopardy. There’s also a running potted history of the late-20th and early 21st centuries. But those are mostly just signposts as to when in Alison Bechdel’s life this personal history is taking place. The rest is the relentless desire to change one’s life, even if that only means changing one’s fitness regime. Inevitably all this comes across as slight, despite the mountains that get climbed. Walden’s Pond is over 100 feet deep, but if you don’t seriously plumb the depths, you’re just skimming the surface.

This is a book with a great deal of potential. I think there is something interesting to be thought and written about the fitness movement in America. Perhaps it needs more time or less borrowing from others. Or just less self regard and a bit more regard of and for others. But it’s churlish to review the book you wish had been written. And on the surface, this is an enjoyable read. However, I can only slightly recommend it.
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LibraryThing member ccayne
This was a really fun read - exercise, coming of age, drinking, cats, writing, moving, meditation, obsession and the endless struggle with ones self.
LibraryThing member dono421846
Although I generally hate to assign any work a five-star rating, in this case I can't think of a single thing that could be improved upon. She is telling her own story (after telling her father's and mother's in her two earlier books). It feels honest and, if not complete, at least narratively
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cohesive. I have to wonder how she remembers such details; so much of my own life is a blank. High school? what was that?
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LibraryThing member questbird
A memoir in which Alison Bechdel explores her obsessions with outdoor sports, Buddhist insight, workaholism and alcoholism and their effects on her relationships.
LibraryThing member fionaanne
So I think Bechdel's ability to narrate through comics shows improvement since Fun Home but I feel like her life isn't actually interesting enough to propel said narrative, and there isn't enough historical content to warrant my reading when I have so many other books soon due back at the library.
LibraryThing member bell7
Alison Bechdel has always been fascinated with various forms of exercise and fitness. She recounts her journey from a child learning to ski, through phases of running, cycling, yoga, and more. Throughout, however, she's also trying to come to terms with her place in the world and her own mortality,
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since her body can't always do what she asks of it.

Interspersed in her personal account, Alison includes Buddhist teaching and Transcendalists, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Fuller, and more. It's about exercise, yes, but it's really about finding herself, using exercise to deal with difficult things and anxiety, but also how nature was an integral part of her well-being. A thoughtful graphic novel memoir I'd recommend widely.
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