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It’s a very simple idea: a woman receives a notebook with newspaper clippings from the Bintel Brief, a long-running letter column in turn of the century Yiddish newspaper The Forward. When she opens this notebook, the ghost of Abraham Cahan springs to life and they read the columns as they interact in the present. This is the charming premise of Liana Finck’s graphic novel A Bintel: Love and Longing in Old New York.

Finck adapts 11 letters-to-the-editor, using a different style based on the content of the letter. The illustrations vary wildly from blocky and dark to spacious and delicate. The tone of the book is lovely and heartfelt, perhaps because she is a character in the narrative. As she reads The Bintel Brief, she gets to know centuries of New York immigrant Jews and she gets to know Cahan himself. It can also be difficult to interest younger people in 100 year old advice columns when there is so much else to read, see, and do. Especially when that advice was written in a Yiddish newspaper! Finck breathes new life into these columns. Plenty of life was there before, but I’m not sure they had an audience.

Every story in the book actually appeared in The Forward. These are real problems real people wrote in about. They are all a bit sad, but not in an outright weepy way. People sought advice about missing husbands, thieving neighbors, and embarrassing spouses; but at the core they’re all very respectful and earnest. Many people were haunted by the ghosts of the old world, which never seems to be far from their minds. The letters are borne from the everyday hardships of immigrant life, which is sometimes quite bleak but at the same time poignant and hopeful. These letters can tell you as much about peoples’ lives at that time than any article about working conditions, poverty, or immigration ever could.

You can read some excerpts from the book on Liana Fink’s website. If you read this book and you want more (as I did), you can read the original columns in A Bintel Brief: Sixty Years of Letters from the Lower East Side to the Jewish Daily Forward, edited by Isaac Metzger (libraries have it, but you can also buy it). The Forward also still hosts a Bintel Brief advice blog online.

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Cover image via Goodreads.

This post was originally on my library’s blog Read @ MPL and cross-posted at Happy Bodies.

Allie Brosh, author of the new book Hyperbole and a Half: unfortunate situations, flawed coping mechanisms, mayhem, and other things that happened, and I are soulmates. I am absolutely sure of this. Not just because both of our names are Allie (spelled correctly), but because she gets it. She gets pets, she gets depression, she gets cake, she gets procrastination, adulthood, and spider fear, and she gets me. This book gives me all of the feelings.

This book is a collection of her writings and drawings from her website Hyperbole and a Half that cover just about whatever she wants. Her drawings are some of the best things to come out of MS Paint since the programs invention. She represents herself as a stick-ish figure with a pink dress a tuft of yellow hair that kind of looks like a party hat. It’s not high art, but it is hilarious. There is a bunch of stuff in there about her dogs, who are quite dumb but very very sweet. She also tells a hysterical story about a childhood run-in with some cake. Her stories can be incredibly funny, but also tender and meaningful.

One of the best things she does is talk honestly about her depression. On her site she addresses how she used to post a lot more but slowed down because she was depressed. It’s not something she dealt with and now it’s gone, it’s something she deals with all the time. She told the Guardian, “It’s sort of like a thing that is maybe a tunnel, but also maybe a giant tube that just keeps going in a circle. And you can’t tell which one it is while you’re in it. There might be light, but there might just be more tube.” YES. She doesn’t gloss over it; she dives in and brings you with. But it’s not all sad, and there is some truly priceless comedy in those stories.

You can read an excerpt on NPR. Let it be known, I like this book alot.

2013 Reading Challenge

2013 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 182 books toward her goal of 200 books.
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I cannot imagine my brain without Lynda Barry.

In January I started reading Blabber Blabber Blabber Blabber: Everything Vol. 1 Collected and Uncollected Comics from Around 1978-1982 and I LOVED it! My absolute favorites were Rita and Evette, twin sisters who are so totally weird. It’s not just the weird comics, but also how she draws and how her comics started and where they are now. The characters are weird, but also the style is weird and imperfect. I see a lot of beautiful, pristine drawings and comics but what I really love is the weird stuff. The stuff that looks almost like it could be done by anyone, but not quite because there’s this magical sensibility that fits so perfectly and is so lovely and abnormal. Barry fills the backgrounds with patterns, my favorite is bobby pins. Now all I want is some fabric that has bobby pins all over it. I’d make bobby pin dresses and maybe a coat. Definitely some linens too.

The second book of hers I picked up was Picture This. Holy WOW!! It’s part comics and part autobiographical musings on drawing. The near-sighted monkey appears throughout, making a mess in the kitchen and smoking a lot of cigarettes. Arna and Marlys are also all over this one, goofing off and sketching, sometimes hanging out and sometimes antagonizing each other. The book is divided into seasons, my favorite (and the first one in the book – i.e. I fell in love before I knew it was divided by season) is winter. She makes observations that I recognize in myself but I’ve never given a name to before this. Like sometimes in winter you just have to paint everything blue. That happens to me! Not just in winter though. When I get sad, everything in my sketchbook turns blue, almost because it has to. I draw, yes, but my drawings aren’t necessarily governed by me or my conscious brain. This book is so sensitive and perfect. She talks about insecurities about her drawings and her life. She talks about keeping brush to paper because she needs to; maybe because the drawing is keeping her there or because if she’s not drawing then what’s she doing anyways?

100 Demons (also called One! Hundred! Demons!) is up next. OH MY GOD. First, this 100 demons drawing exercise is something I really want to do. My life is governed by a lot of demons, big and small. Lynda Barry said that at first it was really difficult and awful but it became good after a while. Her demons, from girlishness to dancing, were so poignant and relevant to my life. Maybe it’s because she’s a redhead too. She was (is?) a freak loner, I am a freak loner! She draws a lot, I draw a lot! Everything she shares in her books is so honest and raw. These are feelings and demons that might be 30-40 years old but they are still very fresh. While I was reading I thought a lot about how I was (still am sometimes) both bully and victim. Hurt people hurt people is a phrase I first heard in the movie Greenberg, but I think about it all the time. It’s a good summary of how I was raised, and something I have to constantly think about to keep me from continuing the cycle.

The most recent Lynda Barry book I’ve read is called What It Is. This one is about writing like Picture This was about drawing.  There are cluttered parts and clear parts, and so much terrific advice about writing and creativity.  It was definitely my least favorite of these, but seriously I still absolutely love it.  The parts I like best were the autobiographical parts, which were less numerous in this book. The great thing about this one is that there’s an activity portion! It’s at the end of the book and it is a bunch of exercises to help loosen you up and start thinking creatively again. I think every adult could use an activity book like that, be they an office drone or a CEO or a teacher or an artist!

I know I came a little late to the Lynda Barry table, but I can’t imagine my brain without her. Everything she says, everything she draws makes so much sense to me in a way that is indescribable. I am genuinely at a loss for words when talking about her to other people, because I can say all the good stuff I like about her work but the most beautiful perfect thing is stuck in my brain.

You should listen to this interview she did with Talk of the Nation in 2008: Genius At Work: Lynda Barry, AND an interview on Talk of the Nation from 2010 Doodle Your Way Out of Writer’s Block. And a Review, What It Is Plumbs the Depths of Creativity.

2012 Reading Challenge

2012 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 134 books toward her goal of 150 books.
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Highly Recommended.

I wish I could give Big Questions by Anders Nilsen so many more stars than five or ten or one million. It is an incredible read.

The main characters are mostly birds who talking to one another, goof off, and figure stuff out. It’s equal parts surreal/philosophical and birds-being-weird funny stuff. They all have names, so it’s not as hard as I thought it would be to tell the different finches apart.

Since the book is a compilation of the whole Big Questions series, it’s episodic but it has a cohesiveness that I feel many serialized comics lack. It’s funny though because each episode is made up of a bunch of weird vignettes, making the individual episodes perhaps a little scattered but keeps the entire work together.

The art is truly incredible. Nilsen goes from really simple to staggeringly detailed throughout. The line quality is so sensitive which results in incredibly nuanced drawings regardless of simplicity or complexity. Compositionally, he explores the comic form more often and more interestingly than most other graphic novels and graphic non-fiction I’ve read. There are boxed panels and unboxed panels, small framed close-ups inside larger scenes, characters progressing through a single wide view, etc.. In the afterward, he mentions how he was figuring it out as he went along — very much to the benefit of the reader.

There is so much ambiguity, but it’s really beautiful, productive, satisfying ambiguity.

I read another of his works, Monologues for the Coming Plague, and it definitely wasn’t as interesting or engaging as Big Questions. BUT Nilsen also has a blog, the Monologuist, where he posts a lot of images from his sketchbooks and that is top shelf. He also has an official website too.

2012 Reading Challenge

2012 Reading Challenge
Allie has
read 97 books toward her goal of 150 books.
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This is a memoir about breast cancer, drawn in simple cartoons by self-taught cartoonist Miriam Engelberg. She was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 43 and, sadly, died at the age of 48.

The good: I LOVED that she wore a blue wig, and that was the wig that was most “her” despite being nothing like how she looked before she had cancer. I loved her observations about  support groups and people’s varied and ridiculous reactions to her diagnosis. I love that she watched a lot of TV, did a lot of crosswords, and read a lot of tabloids. She seemed like a really rad lady.

The not so good: I really wanted to like this more, but so much about it fell flat. I really really support people drawing comics just because, even if you aren’t super good at it. But I also feel like the more you draw the better you get at it, even if it’s just a teeny tiny bit! You don’t even have to try! You draw a lot, you get better at what you’re doing, even if what you’re doing is speech bubbles or repeated patterns or aliens or oncologists. I love atypical drawing/cartooning styles (like Lauren RednissEsther Pearl Watson, and sometimes even Maira Kalman falls into that category); drawings that aren’t your typical comic style, nor are they necessarily realistic or strictly representational. I think it’s weird that Engelberg read a lot of comics (she referenced my favorite person, Lynda Barry!) and drew so often, and this is her final product.

There were parts that I liked because she is relatable, but when she tried for jokes it was a lot like watching a multicam sitcom with a laugh track (really asking for the laugh), except it’s a book and there’s no laugh track! I loved when she approached the subject with humor not with comedy. Those observations were poignant and interesting, not gunning for a laugh.

I was just generally disappointed with this book. I wanted to like it so much more, but it just didn’t quite do it for me.

 

2012 Reading Challenge

2012 Reading Challenge
Allie hasread 94 books toward her goal of 150 books.

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Panel from "Fun Home". Image from salon.com

I have been reading a lot lately.  This might not be unusual for most people, but it’s quite rare for me.  In addition to my Novel challenge (ha), I read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A family tragicomic.  I am most familiar with the Bechdel move test, where in order to pass the movie has to have 1. two named female charcters, 2. who talk to one another, and 3. about something other than men.  I am also acquainted with her series Dykes to watch out for.  We have a ton of the books in the GSC library.

After I finished it, I talked a little bit with Scott (known for his love of all things comic).  He said that he liked it, but thought it didn’t quite succeed as a graphic novel.  That you could have taken out all the pictures and it would have been just as successful.  I can’t say I disagree, though I think the subject matter is far more compelling than any other graphic novels I have read.  I found the book so affecting.  I love reading about how she finally put a name to her sexuality in her college library, and the insatiable desire to read all things queer after that.  She reads Collette, Rubyfruit Jungle, The Well of Loneliness, all books I read in the past four years, and all books in the GSC library that  I worked so hard to wrangle and organize.  I think I’ll donate my copy to the library, because we don’t as yet have one but I definitely think we should.

Father-daughter relationships are always interesting to me.  Bechdel’s experience with her father was so unlike my own, but there were aspects of that relationship that I identified with.  It is odd to think of our parents as people unto themselves, and she seems to have had some extreme revelations about who her father really was.  It is heartbreaking both that she only started to know who her father was so close to his death and that he had lived so much of his life in secret.

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