graphic memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve likely heard a lot about Israel and the fighting that’s been going on. And odds are, you have an opinion on it, whatever that is. I’m not going to get into the many sides there are to this millennia-long story, but there are a lot of them. Israel and its history and politics are complex, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully understand it, but I can keep trying, and that’s how the graphic memoir How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less by Sarah Glidden (Vertigo, 2010) wound up on my TBR.

This graphic memoir chronicles Ms. Glidden’s Birthright Israel trip. (Jews under a certain age- I’m too old!- qualify for a free group trip to Israel, via this donor-funded group. I have a younger friend who just had his Birthright interview.) Ms. Glidden goes into the trip deeply conflicted about her feelings on Israel and its struggle with the Palestinians over territory. Isn’t how Israel treats the Palestinians wrong? Is this trip just going to brainwash her and be full of propaganda getting her to take Israel’s side without further introspection? She’s skeptical from the very start.

But traveling throughout the country and hearing multiple perspectives makes her realize the trip is a little more balanced than she had expected, and that the situation is indeed complicated, possibly even more than she had originally thought. And while she doesn’t come away from the trip with any concrete answers, it’s given her a lot to think about.

I really enjoyed this. The artwork is lovely, and I enjoyed the literary field trip the book took me on. I did learn a lot about the country and what a Birthright trip looks like, which was pretty awesome (because I’ve heard a lot about them, but nothing as in-depth as this). There’s a lot of history in here, and a lot of different perspectives on many of the issues that still divide opinions on Israel today. You’ll come away with a slightly more nuanced understanding of how complex the topic really is.

What you won’t come away with is answers. Ms. Glidden doesn’t preach or offer up set opinions on what you should think or feel; what she does offer, however, is confirmation that Israel’s problems are exactly as confusing as you think, and maybe there are no good solutions, but that there are definitely people working to better things and to create a more peaceful life for everyone who lives there. At one point, she attends a presentation put on by both Israeli and Palestinian parents who have lost children to the conflict; while this book was published in 2010, this organization is still working for peace, as I heard an interview with several parents from the group on NPR a few days ago. I’m glad they’re still out there; I’m sorry that they still have to be.

This graphic memoir is a lovely take on something that confuses the majority of us, and for which there truly may be no perfect solution that will work well for everyone. But it does encourage you to keep thinking about it, and that’s something I really appreciate.

Visit Sarah Glidden’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

graphic novel

Book Review: Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada

I needed a graphic novel for my parenting group’s reading challenge. My TBR list had a graphic novel on it. Coincidence? Nah. I like graphic novels; I just kind of tend to forget about them until I hear about one that sounds really awesome. Mostly because they’re tucked away in a corner of the library where I rarely have any reason to go. I do hope that when our new library is built next year (or, let’s be fair, combine Covid and the regular hassles of construction and I’m sure we’re looking at longer than that, but that’s okay with me, IT’S COMING!!!!), they’ll have a more accessible, more prominent place to display the graphic novels. Banned Book Club by Kim Hyun Sook, Ko Hyung-Ju, and Ryan Estrada (Iron Circus Comics, 2020) came to my list from either a book list or another blogger, and it was definitely worth the wait- there were quite a few people on the waiting list before me at my library!

It’s 1983, and all new South Korean college student Hyun Sook wants to do is bury herself in her studies. But almost immediately she gets pulled into an underground world at school, one full of fellow students who have been arrested, books and writings that the government has banned, and newfound information on things she never expected to be true about her own country. Her extracurricular activities extend to participating in the protests her mother warned her about, and Hyun Sook learns she’s smarter and stronger than she thought. Braver, too, as she finds the government has her and her friends in their sites.

This is a true story of what Hyun Sook experienced as a college freshman in Korea during those years. Truth be told, my ideas of South Korea have mostly been shaped by survivors who fled North Korea’s murderous regimes (to them, it was a glorious bastion of utopian freedom, and any criticism was left out of the commentary); it’s not a country I know much about on its own, so this was a surprise to read. I had no idea that South Korea had this kind of recent history of censorship, of heavy-handedness, hiding the truth and imprisoning its people for political reasons. Hyun Sook’s awakening to the reality of what’s happening around her kicks off a story centered on growth, change, bravery, friendship, and the courage to take a stand for what’s right.

The drawings are more of a manga style than I’m used to seeing in graphic novels, so if you’re a manga fan, this should definitely be on your list. I usually prefer the more cartoony-style of drawings, but it’s always nice to switch things up, right? Reading this did make me want to browse the shelf where the graphic novels are kept at our library, but I’m not doing a lot of shelf wandering these days, so that’ll have to wait.

Anyway. Banned Book Club is a really fascinating introduction to some modern South Korean history that I knew nothing about, and about which I realize I should know more. We’ve been lucky so far in the US; nothing has *really* been banned…yet…but like Hyun Sook and her friends, we’ll have to fight to keep it that way.

Follow Banned Book Club on Twitter.

graphic novel · memoir · nonfiction

Book Review: They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker

On my last trip to the library for books for me, I had grabbed all the books from my list, and then I turned around and caught sight of a display of books behind the teen hangout part of the library. And there in that stack of books was the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, Justin Eisinger, Steven Scott, and Harmony Becker (Top Shelf Productions, 2019). It was obvious that this book told of George Takei’s family’s unjust incarceration in the Japanese internment camps during World War II, and despite already clutching a stack of books, I added it to my pile. I knew I couldn’t miss this one.

George wasn’t even in kindergarten yet when his family was rounded up with all the other Americans of Japanese descent after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They were sent to live in an American concentration camp (remember, concentration camps and death camps aren’t the same thing; technically, the US did have its own concentration camps). You can see a map of these camps here; he and his family were first sent to Rohwer, then later Tule Lake. His parents worked hard to keep the horrors of the situation from affecting George and his siblings too much, but occasionally the racism, the food shortages, and the injustice of being incarcerated for simply having the wrong ethnic background crept in. George spent years processing the injustices visited upon his family and community and is still working today to right the wrongs the United States committed and speaking out about the atrocities the United States still continues to commit against Mexicans, South Americans, Muslims, and various other populations.

The art is simple, in black and white, which adds to the stark horror of the US incarcerating its own citizens (and those to whom they refused citizenship outright) because of their genetics. George has some fond memories of the time in the camps, simply because his parents worked so hard to make that true and also because children are remarkably adaptable and will find ways to be children even as their countries incarcerate them in concentration camps. His experiences are slightly less stark than those illustrated in Farewell to Manzanar: A True Story of Japanese American Experience During and After the World War II Internment by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston. Ms. Wakatsuki Houston goes into greater detail about the terrible conditions and lack of food in the camps she was forced into, and the terrible reality of leaving the camps- having nowhere to go, with former neighbors having stolen all of the possessions the family had been forced to leave behind. George Takei does go into the family’s post-camp experience; they were homeless for a time and had to rebuild their lives from absolutely nothing.

I’m glad this graphic novel exists. They Called Us Enemy and Farewell to Manzanar are the only two books I’ve read on the internment of Americans of Japanese descent, and I know I need to read more (I welcome your recommendations in the comments, as always). I wish this were better taught in schools- my school did a surprisingly good job when it came to teaching about things like race and injustice, but while these concentration camps were mentioned, the subject was kind of glossed over, and I feel like I wasn’t properly educated on this when I was younger. It’s something I’ll make sure that my daughter knows about more fully as she grows; it’s shameful and disgusting that this even happened, but it’s worse that we apparently learned nothing from it and continue to perpetuate similar horrors.

They Called Us Enemy is a quick read, but it’ll stay with you, and hopefully it’ll inspire you to speak out against injustice. We’re not obligated to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.

Visit George Takei’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

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.

Uncategorized

Burma Chronicles- Guy Delisle

Another book that’s been sitting on my shelf for a bit. I found this copy of Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle (Jonathan Cape, 2007) at a thrift store a few years ago. It had all sorts of paper clips marking different pages. I never did figure out what those clips were marking, but it intrigued me enough to pick the book up, leaf through it, and say, “A graphic novel for a quarter? Heck yeah!” I have major thrift store privilege; the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store near me has tons of books and their prices are amaaaaaaazing.

Guy Delisle followed his wife, a doctor with Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) to Burma/Myanmar (he covers the discrepancy between the names right away; if you’re interested, check out the Etymology section in the Wikipedia article on the country), along with their infant son. He chronicles his adventures in the country, pushing his son’s stroller along the streets, in markets, taking him to playgroups with other foreign parents, sending him to some sort of school, visiting a monastery, shopping for food, interacting with the locals and the local people they’ve hired to work for them. Occasionally Delisle and his wife travel within the country; he also writes of living within walking distance from Aung San Suu Kyi but, as she was on house arrest at the time, he was never able to approach her house.

Burma Chronicles is a graphic memoir and doesn’t have a plot or overarching structure to it; it’s a portrayal of one man’s experiences in the country in his time there. It’s not comprehensive enough to give the reader a good feel for the country, but it did whet my appetite to learn more (which is good, because I have another book on Myanmar on my TBR). His drawings are simple; it’s a style that meshes well with the complexities of the country and the difficulties his wife deals with at work, red tape for miles and miles and miles.

This is a bit difficult to review, since there’s no story to recount, no plot to pick apart, no characters to ponder, but I enjoyed the book. I was impressed by Mr. Delisle’s constant wanderings around town with his son; I’m pretty anxious and wouldn’t really feel comfortable pushing a stroller around an unfamiliar place where I didn’t speak the language (and most locals didn’t speak mine). That’s either serious courage or brash foolhardiness right there; I’m a little envious and wish I were more adventurous, although unfortunately, the stakes are probably a little different for me as a woman than they would be for Mr. Delisle.

I’m deeply curious about his other books, however. Guy Delisle has also written a book about the time he spent in Pyongyang, North Korea, appropriately titled Pyongyang, and I absolutely smashed the Want-to-Read button on that. He’s also lived in China and Jerusalem that I can see; what a fascinating life! If I can’t live in all those places, traveling there through books is the next best way, so I’m looking forward to more travels with Guy Delisle.

Do you have any graphic memoir recommendations for me? I love memoirs, so graphic memoirs are nice way to get my memoir on and add a little art into my life. 🙂

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