graphic novel · memoir

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea- Guy Delisle

Another one down for Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! I’m pleased that I’ve been able to continue progress on my reading challenges, even in captivity. *grin* The prompt here was to read a graphic memoir, which is actually a genre I love, so pretty much everything on the list of suggestions looked good to me. But I’m always trying to keep my TBR at a manageable level (*nervous laughter* let’s not discuss that right now…), so I went through my want-to-read list on Goodreads and found Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle (Drawn & Quarterly, 2003). I’d read and enjoyed Burma Chronicles by the same author (before mailing it off to a friend!), and I was fascinated to learn that he’d spent time in North Korea and had written another book about his experiences. Onto the list it went!

I had no idea before reading this that North Korea has an animation industry. At one point, it was apparently pretty bustling, although it seems to have slowed down a bit since then. But animator and graphic novelist Guy Delisle, who has a sense of adventure that I seem to be lacking, was invited to work there and jumped at the offer. Upon arrival, he confronts a bizarre country where everyone spouts the party line, shortages of everything are commonplace, pictures of the leaders plaster nearly every surface, and he’s rarely left alone.

North Korea really is the upside-down, even by 2020 bizarro-world standards, even in the capital city of Pyongyang which is meant to be shown off to foreigners. Mr. Delisle’s stripped-down illustration style lends well to the bleakness of the regime and the stark realities of life in a country where an admission of doubt of the President’s nearly supernatural status can get a resident killed, or thrown into a reeducation camp for life. Even the restaurants seem to fall well short of basic health and cleanliness standards, and the museums and ‘tourist’ destination he’s taken to are nothing more than state-created propaganda tools designed to further the myth of North Korean greatness and world domination. The entire experience is bizarre and creepy and leaves the reader with a both a sense of relief to know that Mr. Delisle survived his time in country and a deep feeling of sadness that what he showcased in this graphic memoir is the best it gets there.

I don’t know that this is the best Delisle book to start with. I got a better sense of who he is as a person in Burma Chronicles and I don’t think I would have necessarily been inspired to read more from him if this is where I started. Part of that is because of the stark nature of the subject, I think; a sojourn in such an oppressive regime doesn’t necessarily lend for warm and fuzzy feelings about much of anything. I’d start with another one of his books first. Nor do I think this is a great place to start if you’re looking to learn anything about North Korea. Pyongyang is their show city, and although it comes off as a run-down communist-era Soviet nightmare, it’s still far beyond anything else the country has to offer in terms of, say, their citizens not dying in the streets of starvation and lack of medical care. If you’re looking to learn more about the hideous wasteland that North Korea truly is, start with some personal memoirs of escapees, such as In Order to Live by Yeonmi Park or The Girl With Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee, or for a more journalistic account that covers both the history and the horrors of the country, I highly recommend Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick.

What Guy Delisle does offer here, though, is a fascinating perspective on a foreigner’s view of North Korea’s capital city. In the memoirs I’ve read, escapees have talked about the absolute splendor and privilege of a visit to Pyongyang, and to them, this city absolutely was the pinnacle of creation, leagues above and beyond what their daily lives offered. But to an outsider, it’s run-down, lacking in basics such as electricity and teeming with North Koreans doing forced ‘volunteer’ work. It’s absolutely worth your time if North Korea is a subject that fascinates you; it s a perspective that my reading has been lacking and I’m glad to have been able to ‘see’ Pyongyang from a non-North Korean’s viewpoint.

I’m in more than a bit in awe at Guy Delisle’s sense of adventure. Had I received the offer to work in or travel to North Korea, accepting wouldn’t even occur to me as a possibility. There’s no way I would ever feel comfortable traveling there, not as long as the country is in the state it is, with its leadership the way it is (*glances around, laughs nervously*). Its own citizens aren’t safe; I wouldn’t labor under the delusion that I’d be safe, either. But I’m grateful that Mr. Delisle has written and illustrated his experiences in this book. His story does beg the question of how his story would have differed had it been a woman traveling there for work, but it’s fascinating to see North Korea through an outsider’s eyes.

Visit Guy Delisle’s website here. (En français!)

Follow him on Twitter here.

nonfiction

In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream- Eric Dregni

There aren’t a whole lot of books out there about Norway, nor are there books set in modern-day Norway (other than Nordic crime fiction, and I’m not a huge fan of mysteries and crime fiction in general). I’ve looked. But my search, done years ago, did turn up In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream by Eric Dregni (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), and onto my want-to-read list it went. The author and I both come from Norwegian stock (shoutout to Ole and Alfa, my great-great-grandparents, who came here from north of Bergen somewhere around the 1890’s, and to the relatives in Norway now that pop up on 23 and Me), and it’s always fun to read something by an author who has as much interest in his family’s background as I do.

Eric Dregni won a Fullbright Fellowship to study in Norway for a year on the same day he learned his wife was expecting their first child. Their sense of adventure packed in between their warmest clothes, the two of them headed off to his ancestral homeland so he could learn, study, and eventually write a book about Norway. It’s a definite change, to be sure. The people aren’t as open or outgoing as they’re used to, the language is a challenge (fortunately for them, most Norwegians speak perfect English), the cost of living is astronomical, the food is much different than they’re used to (gas station sausages, lutefisk, and rakfisk, oh my!) and the weather is…well, it’s Norwegian weather, so dress accordingly, like with spikes on your shoes so you don’t slide off the sidewalk and into traffic. And then there’s the colicky baby…

But there’s also the beauty of the mountains and the fjords, the joy of meeting long-lost relatives and discovering the places his ancestors once lived, the complete acceptance of children in Norwegian culture (even at their worst!), and the friends they manage to make along the way. Slap your skis on your feet and join the Dregni family for a year abroad in a country you probably don’t know much about!

In Cod We Trust is fun and informative. I had to giggle a few times at his stories of how the language tripped him up; the first time I ever saw Norwegian, it looked bizarre and unlike anything I’d ever seen before and now even the words I’m unfamiliar with have a certain familiarity to them (except for the more dialect-y words, and outside of Oslo, it’s all basically dialect!). His descriptions of the Norwegian landscape are stunning, and his recountings of the various surprising meals he ate there are…less than entirely appetizing, to be honest. Norway isn’t exactly known for its cuisine (if it’s white and made of cod, potatoes, or flour, they’ll eat it), but Mr. Dregni should definitely be applauded for his willingness to put himself out there and slurp down rakfisk. (Fortunately, no mention of smalahove- look it up if you’re curious.)

His wife is a pretty good sport, I have to say. I’d love to spend a year abroad, though I’m not sure I’d be willing to do it while pregnant (I’m an utter wreck while pregnant with the vomiting and constant nausea all the way to the end. My son put me in the hospital twice. Not great for international travel, even to places with great medical systems!). She seemed to take most of it in stride, or, if she struggled, Mr. Dregni kindly left that out. I admire her for being willing to follow him on this journey.

Turns out I’ve also read Eric Dregni’s Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America, which I didn’t enjoy as much as this, though it was still okay. In Cod We Trust fits the bill for the PopSugar 2020 Reading Challenge prompt of a book with a pun in the title, so hurray for another one biting the dust there!

Have you ever read a book set in Norway? What about one set where your ancestors came from, if you know where? I’d love to hear about it!

I can’t find a website or Twitter for Eric Dregni, but if you’re aware of one, let me know and I’ll post it here! 🙂

autobiography · nonfiction

Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults- Paul Morantz with Hal Lancaster

Paul Morantz, author (along with Hal Lancaster) of Escape: My Lifelong War Against Cults, has led an intriguing life. A lawyer by trade, early on in his career, he became the go-to man when it came to litigation against cults and abusive, insular groups. This led to an attempt on his life by Synanon members, via a rattlesnake (de-rattled for stealthiness) placed in his mailbox.

Among the groups Morantz litigated against were the aforementioned Synanon (whom I had never heard of before I listened to the Let’s Talk About Sects podcast a few weeks ago; if you’re interested in cults, sects, and insular groups, this is a fabulous podcast. Synanon then showed up in this book, and, thumbing through the book I picked up from the library yesterday, it’s mentioned in there as well. Funny how that happens), the Center for Feeling Therapy, the Unification Church (more commonly referred to as the Moonies), Rajneeshpuram (another one I’d never heard of), Scientology, the creepy, rapey preacher-psychotherapist John Gottuso, and he was the lawyer for a father whose son had been kidnapped by (and was later murdered at) Jonestown . He helped to turn the tide for Patty Hearst‘s appeal, had a brief fling with a woman who practiced Nichiren Shoshu, and exchanged emails with members of Anonymous. His career has been jam-packed with death threats and forays into the depths of groups who engage in brainwashing as a primary tactic in order to entice people to join. A movie about his life definitely wouldn’t lack for drama.

I struggled a little reading this book, and I’m not certain as to why. The material is certainly fascinating, but something about the writing style just didn’t appeal to me. The end chapter edges into a slippery slope argument about some ACA legislation in regards to those boogeyman death panels that never materialized (I mean, more than they already exist in insurance companies that deny treatments), and which seemed a little out of place for the book in general- I feel like a better editor would have cleaned a lot of that up. Part of the blame might also be on me; it’s a difficult time of year to try to focus on a heavier read, so it may be that my brain just wasn’t cooperating like I wanted it to.

While reading through this book’s explanation of brainwashing techniques, its history, and how it’s used by these groups in order to control their members, I was struck by how similar some of the tactics are that I’ve seen used by multi-level marketing companies (and there’s even a bit in this Wikipedia article about how the use of cult-like tactics by MLM companies is a common complaint against them, so I’m not alone in thinking this). The constant scripted social media posts (chock-full of emoticons throughout!), the monthly or yearly conventions where the sellers are pushed harder to achieve the goals the organization has taught them to have (goals which will, of course, benefit the top of the organization more than they benefit the individual sellers), it fits right in with what Morantz writes about in this book. Yikes.

This is a worthy read if you’re into cults and insular groups, and I’ll be waiting for that movie about Mr. Morantz’s life!

Visit Paul Morantz’s website here.