An entertaining intellect wrapped in ill-fitting clothes.

LENA FINKLE'S MAGIC BARREL

Ulinich (Petropolis, 2007) follows her debut with a graphic novel chronicling a young immigrant writer’s adventures through family, friendship and sex.

It’s fitting that Ulinich’s protagonist shares a first name with the creator of Girls. Besides a self-aware comparison to Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture within the text, the book also shares terrain with the Dunham verse, being the story of a creative young woman’s emotional fallout from sexual exploits in neobohemia. Having emigrated from Russia with her family as a teenager, married young in Arizona (to gain a green card) and lost her virginity behind an arcade game, then settled in Park Slope, Brooklyn, as a 20-something, twice-married mother of two, our narrator is unable to grasp the touchstones of any single culture. She lays herself bare as she works through a reconnection with the possible soul mate she left behind in St. Petersburg (she sleeps with him during a cultural ambassadorship to the motherland as a successful novelist), a safari through the wilds of online dating (beware the vampire of Bensonhurst), and an explosive affair with a sensitive, damaged, miserly trust-fund artist known simply as the Orphan. While Lena's confessions occasionally clog this supposedly graphic novel with pages of nearly solid text, in other spots, it’s engagingly expressed as short, comic strip–like vignettes that juxtapose a simplistic, juvenile visual style against mature subject matter, bringing to mind the work of David Heatley. Ulinich tells the bulk of the tale in black-and-white chiaroscuro drawings that generally land somewhere between Michael Kupperman and an art school sketchbook. The inconsistency in the illustrations is maddening, with full-page, richly detailed close-ups of characters radiating pathos, while other panels are flat, stiff, workmanlike affairs that simply carry along the accompanying humorous observations. Yet for all the extended introspection, an ultimate reveal about the Orphan is elided, the omission waved off in the interest of a vague personal truth.

An entertaining intellect wrapped in ill-fitting clothes.

Pub Date: July 29, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-14-312524-2

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Penguin

Review Posted Online: May 21, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2014

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Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.

A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT

Design veteran Chwast delivers another streamlined, graphic adaptation of classic literature, this time Mark Twain’s caustic, inventive satire of feudal England.

Chwast (Tall City, Wide Country, 2013, etc.) has made hay anachronistically adapting classic texts, whether adding motorcycles to The Canterbury Tales (2011) or rocket ships to The Odyssey (2012), so Twain’s tale of a modern-day (well, 19th-century) engineer dominating medieval times via technology—besting Merlin with blasting powder—is a fastball down the center. (The source material already had knights riding bicycles!) In Chwast’s rendering, bespectacled hero Hank Morgan looks irresistible, plated in armor everywhere except from his bow tie to the top of his bowler hat, sword cocked behind head and pipe clenched in square jaw. Inexplicably sent to sixth-century England by a crowbar to the head, Morgan quickly ascends nothing less than the court of Camelot, initially by drawing on an uncanny knowledge of historical eclipses to present himself as a powerful magician. Knowing the exact date of a celestial event from more than a millennium ago is a stretch, but the charm of Chwast’s minimalistic adaption is that there are soon much better things to dwell on, such as the going views on the church, politics and society, expressed as a chart of literal back-stabbing and including a note that while the upper class may murder without consequence, it’s kill and be killed for commoners and slaves. Morgan uses his new station as “The Boss” to better the primitive populous via telegraph lines, newspapers and steamboats, but it’s the deplorably savage civility of the status quo that he can’t overcome, even with land mines, Gatling guns and an electric fence. The subject of class manipulation—and the power of passion over reason—is achingly relevant, and Chwast’s simple, expressive illustrations resonate with a childlike earnestness, while his brief, pointed annotations add a sly acerbity. His playful mixing of perspectives within single panels gives the work an aesthetic somewhere between medieval tapestry and Colorforms.

Chwast and Twain are a match made in heaven.

Pub Date: Feb. 18, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-60819-961-7

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Nov. 3, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2013

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A not-very-illuminating updating of Chaucer’s Tales.

THE CANTERBURY TALES

A RETELLING

Continuing his apparent mission to refract the whole of English culture and history through his personal lens, Ackroyd (Thames: The Biography, 2008, etc.) offers an all-prose rendering of Chaucer’s mixed-media masterpiece.

While Burton Raffel’s modern English version of The Canterbury Tales (2008) was unabridged, Ackroyd omits both “The Tale of Melibee” and “The Parson’s Tale” on the undoubtedly correct assumption that these “standard narratives of pious exposition” hold little interest for contemporary readers. Dialing down the piety, the author dials up the raunch, freely tossing about the F-bomb and Anglo-Saxon words for various body parts that Chaucer prudently described in Latin. Since “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” and “The Miller’s Tale,” for example, are both decidedly earthy in Middle English, the interpolated obscenities seem unnecessary as well as jarringly anachronistic. And it’s anyone’s guess why Ackroyd feels obliged redundantly to include the original titles (“Here bigynneth the Squieres Tales,” etc.) directly underneath the new ones (“The Squires Tale,” etc.); these one-line blasts of antique spelling and diction remind us what we’re missing without adding anything in the way of comprehension. The author’s other peculiar choice is to occasionally interject first-person comments by the narrator where none exist in the original, such as, “He asked me about myself then—where I had come from, where I had been—but I quickly turned the conversation to another course.” There seems to be no reason for these arbitrary elaborations, which muffle the impact of those rare times in the original when Chaucer directly addresses the reader. Such quibbles would perhaps be unfair if Ackroyd were retelling some obscure gem of Old English, but they loom larger with Chaucer because there are many modern versions of The Canterbury Tales. Raffel’s rendering captured a lot more of the poetry, while doing as good a job as Ackroyd with the vigorous prose.

A not-very-illuminating updating of Chaucer’s Tales.

Pub Date: Nov. 16, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-670-02122-2

Page Count: 436

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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