Unterzakhn by Leela Corman
A mesmerizing, heartbreaking graphic novel of immigrant life on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the twentieth century, as seen through the eyes of twin sisters whose lives take radically and tragically different paths.
For six-year-old Esther and Fanya, the teeming streets of New York’s Lower East Side circa 1910 are both a fascinating playground and a place where life’s lessons are learned quickly and often cruelly. In drawings that capture both the tumult and the telling details of that street life, Unterzakhn (Yiddish for “Underthings”) tells the story of these sisters: as wide-eyed little girls absorbing the sights and sounds of a neighborhood of struggling immigrants; as teenagers taking their own tentative steps into the wider world (Esther working for a woman who runs both a burlesque theater and a whorehouse, Fanya for an obstetrician who also performs illegal abortions); and, finally, as adults battling for their own piece of the “golden land,” where the difference between just barely surviving and triumphantly succeeding involves, for each of them, painful decisions that will have unavoidably tragic repercussions.
PARTY / OPENING at SAW on MARCH 30 for LEELA CORMAN’S UNTERZAKHN. JOIN US 7-10pm during Gainesville’s ArtWalk!
Publishers Weekly Preview: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/book-news/comics/article/50614-panel-mania-unterzakhn.html
Graphic Novel Review: http://www.graphicnovelreporter.com/content/unterzakhn-review
“Unterzakhn works on multiple levels (one notable one: the artwork is fantastic, particularly when Corman infuses any of her female characters with a snarl or a sneer, conveying a lifetime of pent-up emotion in a single panel), and as such, it’s highly recommended.”
Random House bookpage: http://www.randomhouse.com/book/32003/unterzakhn-by-leela-corman
From SFSite.com: http://www.sfsite.com/columns/graphica360.htm
“Corman produces an exceptional portrayal, deserving of much laudatory praise and acclaim, of immigrant and Jewish life on par with the works of Will Eisner and Art Spiegelman.”
“Historically informed and aesthetically compelling . . . . Heavily inked cartoons beautifully depict period details and the Hester Street gossips as times evolve and show how the two sisters’ similarities change into stark differences in appearance as they age. The text, salted with Yiddish, and the eloquently detailed images meld together to make this a good choice for readers who enjoyed Eleanor Widmer’s Up from Orchard Street (2005) or Hubert and Kerascoet’s Miss Don’t Touch Me (2009).” —Booklist, March 15, 2012
The Boston Phoenix:
In Leela Corman’s new graphic novel, Unterzakhn (Schocken, 208 pages, $24.95), the lives of her characters wind around each other, diverging and coming together in destructive or redemptive ways. In turn-of-the-century New York, two sisters grow up amid the cacophony of the tenements; a generation earlier, two young men escape the pogroms of Tzarist Russia. All of them are battered by anti-Semitism, and Esther and Fanya are each brutalized, in different ways, by the constraints of their gender. Corman (who comes to Brookline Booksmith April 4) has an ear for dialogue and a loose, curvilinear brushline which make reading her work a pleasure, though the book is haunted by a kind of despair.
The graphic novel as feminist parable, concerning twin sisters who learn the brutal facts of life, set in New York in the early 1900s.
Jewish daughters of a woman whose reputation makes her an object of scorn on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Esther and Fanya are identical twins and soul mates whose lives take very different turns. Yet they face a common problem in the world they’re poised to enter, and “the root of the problem lies in the overly sexual nature of the human male…It’s men’s drives, you see, that keep Woman reproducing constantly, like a breed cow. Sexual slavery awaits the woman who allows a man to entrap her, either in marriage or in a quick and ugly gutter union.” Such advice is given to Fanya by the female obstetrician she comes to assist in the frequent (but illegal) role as an abortionist. Meanwhile, Esther sees another side of man’s sexual drives, when she falls under the wing of a woman whose burlesque theater serves as a tease for the prostitution business upstairs, with nubile Esther becoming an attraction in first the former, soon the latter and finally something closer to the legitimate theater. (The graphic novel’s title is Yiddish for “Underthings.”) Yet these lines between the worlds of conventional morality and common indecency blur, as the maturing Esther attracts numerous customers who want to take her away and make an honest woman out of her, yet she sees no gain in exchanging the sort of sexual transaction to which she’s accustomed for a less lucrative and potentially more suffocating one. A climactic reunion leads to revelation for the sisters and the reader alike.
Both a work of social realism and a fable with a moral.
Unterzakhn Tour Schedule:
Tuesday, April 3—Brooklyn, NY
7:00 pm — WORD bookstore event. 126 Franklin Street.
Wednesday, April 4—Boston, MA
7:00 pm — Brookline Booksmith event. 279 Harvard St. Brookline.
Thursday, April 5—NYC
6:30 pm — Tenement Talks event at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, co-sponsored by the Center for Cultural Judaism. 103 Orchard Street (at Delancey). RSVP requested (email@example.com).
Monday, April 9—Portland, OR
7:30 pm — Powell’s Books event. 1005 W. Burnside.
Tuesday, April 10—Seattle, WA
7:00 pm — Elliott Bay Books event. 1521 10th Ave.
Wednesday, April 11— San Francisco, CA
5:00 pm — Comix Experience event. 305 Divisadero Street.
Thursday, April 12— San Francisco, CA
7:00 pm — Cartoon Art Museum of San Francisco event. 655 Mission Street.
Monday, April 16—Gainesville, FL
7:00 pm — B&N Gainesville (store #1972) event. 3910 S.W. Archer Road.
Thursday, April 26—Philadelphia, PA
7:30 pm — Philadelphia Free Library event with David Bezmozgis/Free World. 1901 Vine Street Logan Square.
Saturday, April 28 and Sunday, April 29—NYC
MoCCA Festival book signing.