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THE GOOD EARTH

A finely rendered showcase for a classic tale.

Illustrator Bertozzi (Becoming Andy Warhol, 2016, etc.) adapts Buck’s (The Eternal Wonder, 2013, etc.) Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of a man’s fluctuating fortunes and existential crises in early-20th-century China.

For years, farmer Wang Lung has worked the soil, pulling forth bountiful harvests, and now the sale of his excess crops has funded a fateful purchase: a slave from the great house in town to be his wife. O-lan quickly proves invaluable: cooking fancy cakes like those she served to the local lord and lady, sewing clothes, and working the fields alongside her husband, stopping only to bear children. O-lan’s steady hand helps during high times, when Wang Lung purchases land from the great house, and during low, when famine drives the family south to a big city where they live as beggars and Wang Lung runs a rickshaw. On the streets, Wang Lung witnesses class tensions that boil over into a riot—during which O-lan manages to multiply their fortune. Once settled back on the land and having grown prosperous, the family faces the struggles of the nouveau riche: a son ashamed of their bumpkin roots, Wang Lung's discontent with his plebeian wife driving him to take a concubine, fears of good fortune being snatched away by jealous spirits (or family members). The half-dozen or so borderless panels per page propel the story along, flowing in brief scenes of survival, domesticity, society, and legacy. Bertozzi beautifully distills Buck’s text into poignant snippets, zeroing in on details such as the anguished clench of O-lan’s fingers as she bears the news that Wang Lung is pursuing another woman. The black-on-gray chiaroscuro lends the work an engraved look, perfectly capturing the story’s timeless subject matter while also underscoring the antiquity of the depicted world, where women are slaves. Even within this foreign worldview, Buck and Bertozzi convey rich moral complexity and universal concerns.

A finely rendered showcase for a classic tale.

Pub Date: July 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-5011-3276-6

Page Count: 144

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: April 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2017

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THE CANTERBURY TALES

A RETELLING

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

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 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2009

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HEART OF DARKNESS

Gorgeous and troubling.

Cartoonist Kuper (Kafkaesque, 2018, etc.) delivers a graphic-novel adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s literary classic exploring the horror at the center of colonial exploitation.

As a group of sailors floats on the River Thames in 1899, a particularly adventurous member notes that England was once “one of the dark places of the earth,” referring to the land before the arrival of the Romans. This well-connected vagabond then regales his friends with his boyhood obsession with the blank places on maps, which eventually led him to captain a steamboat up a great African river under the employ of a corporate empire dedicated to ripping the riches from foreign land. Marlow’s trip to what was known as the Dark Continent exposes him to the frustrations of bureaucracy, the inhumanity employed by Europeans on the local population, and the insanity plaguing those committed to turning a profit. In his introduction, Kuper outlines his approach to the original book, which featured extensive use of the n-word and worked from a general worldview that European males are the forgers of civilization (even if they suffered a “soul [that] had gone mad” for their efforts), explaining that “by choosing a different point of view to illustrate, otherwise faceless and undefined characters were brought to the fore without altering Conrad’s text.” There is a moment when a scene of indiscriminate shelling reveals the Africans fleeing, and there are some places where the positioning of the Africans within the panel gives them more prominence, but without new text added to fully frame the local people, it’s hard to feel that they have reached equal footing. Still, Kuper’s work admirably deletes the most offensive of Conrad’s language while presenting graphically the struggle of the native population in the face of foreign exploitation. Kuper is a master cartoonist, and his pages and panels are a feast for the eyes.

Gorgeous and troubling.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-393-63564-5

Page Count: 160

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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