Thursday, October 7, 2010

Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood by Martin Lemelman

Two Cents Plain: My Brooklyn Boyhood
by Martin Lemelman

Growing up in the 1950s and 60s, Martin Lemelman watched his Polish-Jewish family struggle with their new American lives running a candy shop in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Though the shop was legendary for its ice cream, egg creams and toys, the neighborhood itself was beginning its steep decline. Young Martin (or “Mattaleh,” as his parents called him) discovered his interest in art — particularly drawing — during this time, and has since made himself a career illustrating books. Two Cents Plain is his second graphic memoir, after Mendel’s Daughter, which gives a more detailed description of his parents’ childhood and escape from Nazi Poland.

Recounting his childhood and the events leading to it, Lemelman offers his own memories, the points-of-view from his family, and historical documents. His black-and-white drawings are richly detailed — almost as real as the photographs included on some pages. I really enjoyed the use of different mediums to tell the story, and I would recommend looking at the preview offered on the book’s Powell’s page to get a taste of the visuals.

The moment I pressed brush to paper... Time slowed down. Minutes turned into hours. As if by magic — a face appeared on my paper, a tree, a house, a bird, a Pepsi bottle, hands... The cracked walls, dusty floors, screaming parents, worries, faded away. All I saw and felt were the marks I made on the paper.

Naturally, as non-artist parents of artists are apt to do, his parents wish he’d chosen something more lucrative. “I will be happy to pay for you to go to pharmacy school,” his father says.

The tales aren’t all poverty and struggle — There are quite a few funny moments, including stories about their cat named Cat, who would attack any dog that was brought into the shop. “She always seemed to know when one was around,” he says.

There are little character sketches along the way of the other neighborhood workers — the fish man, the fruit man, etc. — and he writes his parents’ dialect well. The narrative itself isn’t perfect, but neither is memory. Lemelman gathers what he remembers most about growing up and assembles it thusly. To assemble more facts into the story when he did not personally feel any connection to them would feel inauthentic.

The only complaint I’d give is that the ending is a bit ... well, anti-climatic doesn’t feel like the right word. I suppose since the reader knows what is coming, it’s not as affecting as it could have been. I’m not exactly sure how it should be different; it’s hard to say. However, I enjoyed this book immensely, and I am now wanting to read Mendel’s Daughter. The artwork alone is worth the time.


Full disclosure: I won this book through a Bloomsbury Press GoodReads giveaway.

This review is part of Pajiba’s Cannonball Read challenge, in which participants attempt to read and review 52 books over the course of one year. The challenge ends October 31, 2010.

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