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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 have been reading a lot lately, and not really blogging about anything. Ugh. I know I should be writing more.  Baby steps. Here is a little bit about some of the graphic novels I’ve read lately.


Goliath by Tom Gauld
Aw, man. Real good, but also real sad. This is the story of Goliath, yes the Goliath of “The Bible” fame. I mean, I know how this story ends, I just definitely wish this one didn’t end like this. Tom Gauld’s style is so pared down and simple, it makes this very well known story very wrenching and sympathetic.  I always like stories that have a thoughtful and likable weirdo at the center, and this fits the bill very well. Basically I’ll read (and probably love) anything published by Drawn & Quarterly.


Daisy Kutter: The Last Train by Kazu Kibuishi
Recommended! I started reading The Amulet series (highly recommended, too) a while back and fell totally in love with it. After that I looked up all the comics by Kibuishi in the library catalog and read all of them. Daisy Kutter is earlier than the Amulet series, but you can see so much of Kibuishi’s sensibility building. There are robots and old-timey things alongside one another. It sounds sort of steampunk, and it is, but not in a lame way. It’s more like Firefly, which is a very apt comparison particularly because it’s also a western.

I really like how Kibuishi writes female characters. They are strong and awesome, but not flawless sexy martyrs. The book might be short (or shorter than a regular novel) but there are so many character-developing glances, movements, and affectations.

Also there’s a really bad ass robot gun.


Batman: Death by Design by Chip Kidd and Dave Taylor.
Very disappointing. I’ve been going through a bit of a Batman kick lately (the new movie, and episode of The Indoor Kids dedicated to all things Batman, and an episode of How Did This Get Made about Batman & Robin). I give it 2 stars instead of 1 solely because of the architectural details.

At first glance, the art looks really beautiful — moody, responsive, and atmospheric — But it really didn’t make sense when reading the comic. It took me a while to figure out why it looked so weird and then it hit me: most of the characters’ mouths were closed when they were talking. It looks so ridiculous. And the color palette is awful. It’s almost all a soft charcoal color, with some not-very-dark darks and some very strange pastel color accents. Gross.

There’s also just waaaay too much writing. It was so boring to plod through because there was too much to read with so little visual pay-off. I had no investment in the plot or the characters, and one of the characters is Batman!


Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
It had been a while since I read a true graphic novel, as most of the graphic stuff I read (at least in 2012) is non-fiction. This book is about two Jewish twin sisters living in New York in the early 20th century, and the different paths they take. Life was pretty rough and tumble in those days, and there aren’t very many sentimental frames in this book. It was a time of great possibility, but also of some very sharp and harsh differences in class and culture along those ethnic lines.

Corman really brings life to the pages through the Yiddish dialect and the bustle of the streets. She captures the excitement, difficulties, and clutter of the time period. Her drawing isn’t pristine (something I really like in my comics) but it is stylish. There’s room for outrageous expressions and comic portrayals as well as beautiful and careful renderings, and the story isn’t hampered or diverted by that.

The sisters end up in vastly different places than I expected, and the story was always shifting and growing with these fallible and very flawed women. All in all, a very successful book.


2012 Reading Challenge

2012 Reading Challenge
Allie has
completed her goal of reading 150 books in 2012!
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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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