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Unterzakhnby Leela Corman
Synopses & Reviews
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.
"Set in New York City's Lower East Side in the early 20th century, this book follows the lives of two sisters, Fanya and Esther. The children of Russian Jewish immigrants, the girls take wildly divergent paths. Fanya goes to work for Bronia, a female doctor who quietly tries to dispense family planning material to her patients struggling to support the children they already have; Esther becomes a showgirl, after a stop in a brothel. Sex, then, is at the heart of both of their worlds, and Corman gracefully traces both young women's efforts to maintain control of their bodies in an unpredictable and at times violent world. Corman steeps her striking black and white artwork with period details, particularly in the clothes and the bustling street scenes. In a flashback scene set in Russia, especially, she echoes the swirling evocative style of Russian folk art. The sisters and their father are compelling, although some characters remain enigmas; a plot twist about the mother is hard to reconcile with the way the character is first introduced. Overall, though, the story of Fanya and Esther's struggles is beautifully drawn and hard to forget. (Apr.)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
"Lures you in with wittiness and sensuality . . . then bites you in the tuchus! Unterzakhn swirls with the energy of Almodovar and the depth of Dostoyevsky as it follows the fates of two charmingly complicated twin sister. I loved it." Craig Thompson, author of Habibi
"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 or Hubert and Kerascoet's Miss Don't Touch Me." Booklist
"Set in New York's Lower East Side in the early twentieth century, Unterzakhn follows the lives of two sisters, Fanya and Esther . . . Corman gracefully traces both young women's efforts to maintain control of their bodies in an unpredictable and at times violent world. She steeps her striking black-and-white artwork with period details, particularly in the clothes and the bustling street scenes and in a flashback scene set in Russia, especially, she echoes the swirling evocative style of Russian folk art . . . The story of Fanya and Esther's struggles is beautifully drawn and hard to forget .'Publishers Weekly
"Lures you in with wittiness and sensuality . . . then bites you in the tuchus! Unterzakhn swirls with the energy of Almodovar and the depth of Dostoyevsky as it follows the fates of two charmingly complicated twin sisters and I loved it." Craig Thompson, author of Habibi
“An incredible book about twin sisters growing up on New York’s Lower East Side in the early twentieth century. It’s about the experience and struggles of women, the immigrant experience, and it’s just brimming with life. . . . Wow.”
“Unterzakhn works on multiple levels (one notable one: the art work 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.”
“Corman’s caricatures are striking and distinctive, making the exaggerated characters come alive, and she provides a great, detailed view of the times. . . . She does an excellent job of dropping the reader into this particular time and place. Although a period piece, the underlying concerns, especially those related to a woman’s control of her own body, remain particularly timely.”
“In the footsteps of Art Spiegelman comes Leela Corman. Like the renowned creator of Maus, she employs the graphic novel form, but rather than address the Holocaust she is addressing the Jewish immigrant experience on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.”
—The Jewish Week (New York)
“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.”
“Corman has an ear for dialogue and a loose, curvilinear brush-line that makes reading her work a pleasure.”
—The Boston Phoenix
“Captivating. . . . A sweetly sad story, illustrating the difficulty of life in the early twentieth century as seen through the eye of a specific subculture. . . . Corman never shies away from harshness in either her story or her illustrations, but she handles it with grace. Unterzakhn is a quick read, but a meaningful one.”
—Baltimore City Paper
About the Author
Leela Corman has illustrated books on subjects ranging from urban gardening to the history of the skirt, and her work has also appeared in The New York Times, on WNET/Thirteen, and in The Boston Phoenix, Lilith, Bust, and Tikkun. She studied painting, printmaking, and illustration at Massachusetts College of Art. Leela is also a professional belly dancer. Her radio show, "Ecstacy to Frenzy" airs weekly on GROWRadio. She lives in Florida.
Visit Leela: http://www.leelacorman.com.
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