“Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea” by Guy Delisle (Drawn and Quartely, 2007)

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This is another book — recommended to me — in a growing genre of what I guess can be called “illustrated journalism” or “illustrated memoirs”: writers telling their stories of real life through the medium of graphic novels. Of course, another big author in this genre is Marjane Satrapi, with her greatest achievement being Persepolis, and her story of living in Iran when the Shah was overthrown and the country went through some devastating times. She followed this with Persepolis 2 — which I have yet to read — a sequel of her going back to Iran, and most recently Embroideries, which I did read and while I found it interesting — a group of women meet for tea to discuss their lives as Iranian women and it seems much like one of the salons on the 1920’s, where they discuss in secrecy things that shouldn’t be talked about — I felt the book too short and didn’t go into enough depth.

Nevertheless, Satrapi and Delisle are two members of this growing genre and with the way graphic novels and comic books are continuing to increase every year in sales and support, I’m really happy that this nonfiction style is also continuing to grow because, much as you can say a lot with words and you can say a lot with pictures, uniting the true presents a whole new insight: not only do you hear the author through his or her words, but you see the emotion in the illustration and an empathic bond inevitably develops.

The author and artist of Pyongyang, Guy Delisle, works in animation and spends some time in North Korea where a part of animation has now been outsourced and there he works with a company, but the story isn’t about the animated movie he is working on, it is much more about his experience in living in this relatively unknown country. One cannot help but get the feel of entering a new and undiscovered country for the first time.

North Korea caters, naturally, to its visitors and especially its tourists, so we see a world where there are buildings, towns and structures everywhere, and yet most are run down and have no power. Yet, when the tourists arrive, all of a sudden an entire floor of the hotel is filled with light and life, as well as two of the restaurants on another floor. While the menus aren’t exactly five-star, they nevertheless have fresh goods and Delisle enjoys it, but after some weeks the quality goes down until the next group of tourists arrive, whereupon fresh melon is served once again! His most memorable description is of ordering French toast and being served with a slice of white bread on which has been sprinkled milk and warmed in the microwave.

But one really sees in this book the scary world that North Koreans are subjected to under the rule of their president Kim Jong-Il, and while this is a communist regime, one can’t help but see stark similarities with just about every ruler, president, and emperor in the history of civilization. For example, the North Korean government goes to extremes to portray Kim Jong-Il and his deceased father and predecessor Kim Il-Sung as almost looking identical and perfectly alive and healthy. All supporters of the government wear pins of one or the other, or a pin of the two, as well as showing constant voluntary support of their government in building shrines to one, the other, or both, and making paintings and erecting statues, and improving their country by painting a bridge or cleaning a street — it can be seen everyone, as Delisle travels around the country. The northeast part is off limits, government controlled and where, according to the rumors, are all the camps containing the prisoners and rebels. Each supporter constantly proclaims his blind faith to his president; on the radio are about three stations where songs are repetitively played that cry out the greatness of the government and the president, and the listeners are fully expected to sing along.

Tourists are not allowed to travel alone around North Korea and must be accompanied by an interpreter and staunch government supporter all the time (unless they are with the UN), who’s job it is to respect the tourists beliefs and yet to convert and enlighten him or her to the ways of their great president and supreme government. One of the most entertaining chapters of the book is when Delisle visits the great museum made for Kim Jon-Il, where everything within extols his greatness and reveals apocryphal facts about his life, such as his penning over 15,000 works before the age of twenty, and how many leaders around the world support his ideal and think him great. What’s funny is that Delisle, viewing these artifacts and gifts, is quick to point out how they are either inaccurate or not actually real. And yet the supporters believe without question and while they may listen to other ideas, never shirk their duty to constantly say good things about Mr. Jong-Il.

The book does fail somewhat in going into depth with this world, and it seems once the astonishment of this unknown land passes, Delisle tends to focus a little too much on his day to day machinations and trying to work with the North Korean people, which while interesting at first, tend to get repetitive when there is so much more to explore and see.

Near the end of the book, he focuses on how he makes paper airplanes out of scrap paper and throws them from his hotel window, hoping they will make it to the river and be free, which is the last image of the story, while a hulk of a building grows on the other side of the river where a movie theater will be built, and even though Delisle has explained this is what this is, the reader knows it’s not going to be used for Hollywood blockbusters, and had Delisle researched and investigated more, we would’ve been given further details of this mysterious country.

I will, however, add that since reading this, playing a new Xbox game called Mercenaries, where the point of the game is to make deals with all the different factions in the demilitarized zone of North Korea and capture all the wanted military of North Korea, it has at least opened my eyes and awareness of this oppressed and dark country.

It will be an interesting day, when the communist government either collapses, or is more likely overthrown, and the stories, experiences and information start pouring out about what life was like in North Korea during this time.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on August, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.

“The Halloween Tree” by Ray Bradbury (Knopf, 1972)

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I read this book every October because it’s the perfect Halloween book.  It’s taken me a couple of readings, but I now finally realize that The Halloween Tree is the equivalent for Halloween what A Christmas Carol is for Christmas: an enchanting journey into the history of Halloween where one leans much and is changed by it.

A group of eight boys are on their way out to trick or treat on Halloween, all in different costumes – skeleton, mummy, gargoyle, etc. – and head over to the final friend’s house, Pipkin.  Pipkin is sick, doesn’t look well at all, but is essentially the leader of the group and has never missed a Halloween, so he tells them to go on ahead to a specific house and he will catch up with them.

The house turns out to be the quintessential Halloween mansion, with many rooms and black windows.  Beside the mansion they find a great and ancient oak with many branches and hanging from those branches are many carved pumpkins, swinging in the breeze.  This is the Halloween tree, and as the boys watch, each of the pumpkins light up.  At the door they ask for trick or treat, and the man on the other side tells them not treat, but trick.  Terrifyingly, he appears from a pile of leaves.  He is tall.  He is skeletal.  He is Mr. Carapace Clavicle Moundshroud.

After the boys get over the initial terror, they are invited on a journey by Mr. Moundshroud.  They see Pipkin being taken into the past, weakened by his sickness, and it is up to Moundshroud and the boys to rescue Pipkin from time.  And so the boys begin their journey, forming the tail of a giant kite controlled by Moundshroud and they pass back through time and visit the Halloweens of history: Ancient Egypt, Rome, Greece, medieval Britain, Notre Dame, and El Dia de Los Muertos.

It is an incredible story where one learns the history of Halloween seen through the eyes of many different cultures, told in the unique style of Ray Bradbury.  Afterward you will feel as if you’ve actually experienced many different Halloweens and be all the more ready to experience your own on October 31st.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 12th 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

“World War Z” by Max Brooks (Crown, 2006)

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I’ve read two books about zombies this year: one I found fascinating, incredibly interesting, and decreed it the best book of the year!; the other was formulaic, predictable, kind of failed in its goal, and ended terrible – one of them was written by Stephen King, can you guess which one?  Being an avid King reader (yes, I’ve read them all!), you would expect the King zombie book to be the former, but alas.  Cell was not good; World War Z is the best book I’ve read in a long time.

The key to World War Z is in its execution not as a horror book – even though it’s about humanity’s struggling war against zombies, and even though it’s most likely categorized as horror in every bookstore – but as a piece of thrilling and thought-provoking and contemplative fiction.  Brooks’ greatness with this book is in using a quasi-journalistic format where the narrator is traveling around the world interviewing a variety of different people from different backgrounds and cultures on how they managed to survive the war with the zombies.  The book is set about a decade after World War Z, giving the reader the reassurance that we survived, and this book is about how.

Brooks’ first book, The Zombie Survival Guide, gave step by step preparedness for what to do when confronted by one or a host of zombies: it’s a humor book meant to make you laugh and snicker at this outlandish situation.  World War Z is not a funny book, but a deadly serious one.  It’s quite shocking to contemplate the extensive research Brooks must have done to find out crucial details not just about the thirty different countries the narrator visits, but to also find out specific slang and expressions to that country and culture, and to know how a member of the military would act as opposed to a ordinary person, or another specifically skilled member of society in that particular country.  He must have gained a wealth of knowledge about the different societies of the world in general.

Brooks then takes it one step further in coming out with different operations and game plans for the different countries: what the government did, what the military did, and what its citizens did, all pertaining to the current regime of the time.  The book is set no more than twenty years from the present time, so we are all familiar with the regimes and different governments of this world: from Bush’s conservative, military heavy America; to a clandestine and mysterious North Korea; to a potent and still racist South Africa.

World War Z is a book about zombies that changes the way you think about the world and its people.  It makes you think about how we’re all in this together, we’re all the same – regardless of the world-threatening devastation, be it zombies, terrorism, or a pandemic virus.  World War Z serves as a guide book to humanity, so that when the “big thing” – whatever it is – happens, we’ll be a little more caring of other people around the world, regardless of what god they believe in, or the color of their skin.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on October 29th, 2006 ©Alex C. Telander.