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Reader’s Den

Reader's Den in September: Unterzakhn by Leela Corman

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Reader's Den continues in September with an online book discussion of Leela Corman's graphic novel Unterzakhn! The narrative follows two sisters, Esther and Fanya, living on the Lower East Side of New York City from 1909 to 1923. Though the story is a work of fiction, Ms. Corman creates a world that feel authentic—almost like a personal diary of two sisters from the early 20th century.

Ms. Corman takes us on the adventure of Fanya and Esther as they are thrust into adulthood through early events in their life. They learn the different ways that life can be beautiful but also cruel, especially to women. She draws in heavy, dancing lines with black, white, and grey shading to present the events in Esther and Fanya's lives that lead them on very different paths during a tumultuous time in the history of New York City.

Unterzakhn is structured around the passage of time rather than chapters, so Ms. Corman has each section covering a chunk of time starting in 1909 and ending in 1923 with one flashback to 1895-1896. The passage of time and events creates a powerful narrative for the reader to better understand the juxtaposition of changes for the two sisters.

Reading schedule:
Week 1: 1909 & 1912, pages 9–80
Week 2: 1895 & 1896, pages 83–118
Week 3: 1917, pages 121–160
Week 4: 1923 & Epilogue, pages 161–204

If you need the book, you can borrow a copy from the NYPL by requesting it through the NYPL catalog. This edition is published by Schocken Books in New York City, 2012.

Questions to get you started for Week 1:

  1. How does the style of drawing contribute to the events in the narrative?
  2. How does the opening pages set the tone for Fanya's path in life?
  3. What happens to Esther that sets her path in motion?
  4. Do the events seem realistic for the era? And is it necessary that the events seem realistic?

Did you miss a Reader's Den Book Discussion? You can travel back in time and continue the conversations of previous discussions and learn about future books on the discussion schedule page.

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