unterzakhnUnterzakhn (yiddish for ‘underthings’) by Leela Corman tells the story of Jewish twin sisters at the start of the 20th century in New York City.  Esther and Fanya’s stories are told in graphic novel form, spanning more than a decade from childhood through adulthood, with black and white illustrations reminiscent of Russian folk art. The sisters make decidedly different decisions in their lives, but they both chose career paths outside of community and family expectations of them and drift apart from one another (forcefully in one scene).

Fanya starts this story when she finds a woman bleeding in the street and is instructed to go find the “lady doctor”.  This encounter brings her to Bronia, a feminist obstetrician who performs illegal abortions, and convinces Fanya’s mother to let Bronia teach Fanya to read.  Fanya then begins to apprentice for Bronia, and adapts to the strident expectations of her teacher.  While her sister is learning to work as an obstetrician, Esther begins working at the local burlesque theater and brothel — running errands and cleaning up.  As she grows toward adulthood, her work changes and she loses her family in the process.

This is a quick, but in no way a light read.  The writing and the illustrations show a lot of darkness and pain.  The sisters always seem better when they’re together, showing the quick wit and love that seems to be reserved for each other. I had a difficult time putting this book down, because Corman made it easy to care about Fanya and Esther.  This is a good read for fans of David Small’s Stitches or anything by Charles Burns.

As you can reliably guess from the fact that I write for this blog, I am a librarian. So I knew I would love Among Others by Jo Walton as soon as I read the dedication page:

This is for all the libraries in the world, and the librarians who sit there day after day lending books to people.

among othersThis book is for me! Awesome!* And this Hugo & Nebula award-winning novel is a treat. Mori is a well read 15 year old who has already accomplished a lot: she overthrew her mother, an evil witch, in a magical battle that killed her twin and left Mori with a shattered hip. She’s read just about everything that’s ever been published in the SF genre (well, everything before 1979, when this novel is set), besides Philip K. Dick, whom she dislikes. In the Wales of Mori’s childhood, magic and fairies are very real, but they aren’t all-powerful. Magic isn’t even the focus of this story; what could have been a bombastic, typical tale of good triumphing over evil (at a great cost) in a climactic magical duel  is instead a bildungsroman, the story of a smart, confident, magical girl discovering her identity. Mori’s most important challenge is discovering the value in her life now that her deed is done and her twin is dead.

When you are the hero, when you’ve already saved the world, and you’re a teenager stuck at boarding school based on the whim of a father you’ve never known, where the other girls taunt you for your Welsh accent and your limp, and where both the fairies and the magic of your childhood and your twin – your other half – can never reach you, what is the point of living? On Halloween, Mori sees the ghostly remnant of her sister near a portal to the next world and is tempted to follow and join her in death, but:

…I was halfway through Babel 17, and if I went on I would never find out how it came out. There may be stranger reasons for being alive.

Her love of books, libraries, writing, and the other worlds of the SF genre buoy Mori through the turbulent year after her sister’s death and lead her to the path her adulthood will take, so though her tale may sound grim, it’s really effervescent and uplifting.

Among Others is a fantasy novel, but Mori’s engagement with the realm of science fiction is so cogent, meaningful, and pervasive in the novel that this is a must read for fans of both genres.


*I have to add, though, that we do a lot more than sit and lend books! Sometimes we stand and lend DVDs 🙂

It’s so lovely when a novel can turn a well-worn trope into a fresh, lively story. Just as she did with time travel in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger turns cliches into something more in Her Fearful Symmetry. The story follows 21 year old twins Julia and Valentina, who inherit their aunt Elspeth’s London flat and fortune on the condition that they live in the dwelling, without their parents or any other chaperone, for one year. The catch: Elspeth, mute and invisible, has clung to her flat and haunts it – and she’s getting stronger every day. Don’t groan! It sounds horribly cliched – identical twins; an inheritance contingent upon ridiculous demands; London; ghosts – but it’s so much more than it seems. Elspeth is the estranged twin sister of Julia and Valentina’s mother, Edie; the elder sisters have a history of secrets that Niffenegger unravels throughout the tale. Even more impressive is the host of delightful secondary characters: Martin, an obsessive-compulsive neighbor who writes crossword puzzles for a living, and his estranged wife Marijke (pronounced Mah-RYE-Kuh); Robert, a cemetery historian and Elspeth’s former lover; even the white kitten the twins adopt has personality and verve. They call him “The Little Kitten of Death.”

It’s a beautiful, unusual tale that unfolds slowly and doesn’t pander to the reader. Both of Niffenegger’s novels tell the stories of ordinary, although perhaps quite unusual, people who must find a way to navigate a frightening, supernatural situation. She tells the tale at the pace she wants, rather than dropping in action sequences and extra dialog where they don’t belong. If you liked the style of The Time Traveler’s Wife, you’ll be pulled in by this ghostly, ethereal tale. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it was excellent in that format; a perfect companion for rainy springtime commutes!