07 August 2014

A Bintel Brief: Love and Longing in Old New York, by Liana Finck

This is so, so lovely. A lyrical reflection on immigration, assimilation, and how the second generation grapples with the history and passed-down memories of the old country. But also, or perhaps more so, a wonderful story about life, love, marital problems, troublesome neighbors...

A Bintel Brief is based on archival materials; an advice column in a Yiddish newspaper published in the early 20th century. The novel is framed around the encounter between Finck and the author of the responses to the letters (and maybe some of the letters themselves), Abraham Cahan. It might sound gimmicky but it works beautifully, a playful and subtle reflection on changing times and how we relate to the past. The real stars, of course, are the letters themselves, and their funny, slightly melancholic questions, which give you an astonishingly vibrant glimpse into the lives of their authors. It's a wonderful way of preserving and celebrating a slice of history and way of life that has been mostly lost.

The story is wonderful, and it is beautifully complemented by the gorgeous artwork. I do not always pay as much attention to the visual aspect of graphic novels as I should, because I am impatient to get on with the story, but this one I just sat and looked at, admiring the way that the images conveyed certain aspects or emotional undertones of the story. At one point the narrative pauses to give you a series of portraits based on photographs. Done in grayscale, looking like watercolor with ink detail, perhaps? they are the perfect intersection of realism and abstraction, wonderfully evocative and strangely touching. The book is just a brilliant mixture of image and word, history and invention, humor, sadness, and joy...

It is a wonderful book. Buy it.

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