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Just in time for Hanukkah: Four new intriguing works of Jewish graphic literature

“A Bintel Brief” by Liana Finck. (HarperCollins, 2014.)

“Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir” by Roz Chast. (Bloomsbury, 2014.)

“Lena Finkles’s Magic Barrel” by Anya Ulinich. (Penguin, 2014.)

“El Iluminado” by Ilan Stavans and Steve Sheinkin. (Basic books, 2012.)

 

All four of these new works of graphic literature feature the author/illustrator as the central character. Yet each one is utterly different from the others and all of them are examples of the talent Jewish graphic artists bring to the genre.

 

In a “Bintel Brief” (Yiddish for a bundle of letters), artist Liana Finck illustrates 11 iconic letters received by the Jewish Forward newspaper in 1906 and 1907. The letters were all answered by the Forward’s editor Abe Cahan. Questions about whether or not a childless couple should adopt an unwanted child, how to deal with the loss of a loved one in the Triangle Fire, or whether an honest police detective should prosecute a poor man for illegally selling whiskey were typical of those in the Forward. Cahan’s answers and Finck’s very charming illustrations — not to mention the ghost of Cahan appearing in Finck’s apartment to advise her — all combine to make this book a whimsical view of the life of early 20th century New York’s Jewish immigrant population.

“Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant” will find everyone who has dealt with an aging parent’s relocation to a safer place nodding his or her head. Chast, a highly regarded artist for the New Yorker, recounts her wrenching experiences as her father develops dementia, her mother won’t stop climbing ladders and then falling, their refusal to move to assisted living, and how she eventually moved them. Then the reader follows her through the aftermath of cleaning out an apartment in which they had lived in all their married life, the memories, the anger, and finally the mourning. While her parents’ personalities may not be the personalities of a particular reader’s parents, the various events Chast describes are all of our experiences. And for the most part despite the difficult topic, she manages to write and draw with her trademark wry sense of humor.

Anya Ulinich’s graphic novel, “Lena Finkles’s Magic Barrel,” about a single mother looking for romance in New York, is very different from the previous two titles. Like Ulinich, Lena Finkle is a Russian Jewish émigré. As she trolls internet dating services, meets men on buses, and can’t refuse any man, Lena is unable to complete her current novel, struggling to support herself and her two daughters, and very unsettled about her place in America. This novel is lightly based on Bernard Malamud’s short story, “The Magic Barrel.” Although it is partially based on the author/illustrator’s personal experience, the book is somewhat like a comi-tragic romance novel where nothing works out for the heroine.  

Finally “El Iluminado” is a murder mystery and also an historical mystery. Are the Hispanic-Americans of New Mexico descended from the Jewish-Conversos who fled Spain to avoid the Inquisition? Rolando Perez, a young New Mexican man has fallen off a cliff. Was he pushed? Did he have papers to prove his family were descendants of Luis de Carvajal, a 16th century Conversos martyr? Stavans is in Santa Fe to attend the opera and present a talk. He becomes caught up in the questions about the death of Rolando and his theoretical relationship to Carvajal. Illustrated by Steve Sheinkin, the author/illustrator of the Rabbi Harvey books, this very funny book pokes fun at academics, explores Santa Fe’s shops, restaurants and churches, and very seriously investigates the claims of many New Mexicans about their relationship to the Jewish people.

In sum, there’s a book for everyone here. From Will Eisner to Art Spiegelman Jewish author/illustrators have been telling our stories. These four books are excellent additions to the Jewish graphic literature oeuvre.

 

 Andrea Kempf is a retired librarian who speaks throughout the community on various topics related to books and reading.