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Category Archives: book review

Burma Chronicles

Burma-ChroniclesAnother graphic memoir by Guy Delisle, Burma Chronicles presents the stories of what Delisle experienced when living for a year in Myanmar a.k.a. Burma while his wife was stationed there for Médecines sans Frontier.  He melts in the humidity, tries to see Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s home, drinks too much at expat parties, visits historic temples, gets lost and confused, which is a normal part of living overseas.

Like his previous work Pyongyang, I got caught up in his stories and appreciated his self-deprecating, wry humor. His illustrations captured the place while expressing his style. When his air conditioning broke, I felt like sweating. When none of his animation students had done their homework, I nodded in complete understanding.19_burmacomic_1_lg

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Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

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I highly recommend animator Guy Delisle’s graphic memoir Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea. Deslisle, a French Canadian, had to go to North Korea for two months to supervise the animators his French employer contracted (for their ultra-cheap rates). As you might expect the landscape and city are dreary, dark at night save a lit up portrait of the Supreme Leader. He recounts his dull, ever-present translator and guide. The food is bland and the restaurants dirty. Foreigners are separated from the People. So Delisle’s only companionship is a go-between at work, and other foreigners at the hotel or in the NGO compound, which has parties on the weekend.

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It was interesting to read about the approved responses Capt. Sin, Delise’s handler would give to his queries about the country and to learn of the pervasive propaganda. One “high” point was a visit to the Museum of American Oppression, which was two stories of images (three photos and many paintings) of Americans doing atrocious things to the North Koreans. There are paintings of US soldiers forcing motor oil down the throats of children and other forms of torture including the use of the rack, which seem quite dubious even if you acknowledge that yes, unfortunately, and shamefully, sometimes American military has resorted to torture. Capt. Sin was very disappointed that Delise didn’t react as he’d expected to the museum trip.

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delisle_guy_pyongyangThere are plenty of anecdote’s of the usual the translator isn’t around when Delisle needs him so rather than wait for hours Delisle goes out on his own through the streets of Pyongyang in search of a gift for his godson. “What’s to buy in the DPRK?” you might ask. Delisle did return empty handed as he couldn’t even find a cheap kitsch. Poor North Korea, indeed. Delisle made me feel like a friend he was sharing his tales of North Korea with. I felt his treatment was fair and thorough. I sure wouldn’t want to stay in Pyongyang a minute past two months. If you do have to go, even for a weekend, Bring food. What they offer seems dreadful.

Based on this book, I’m planning to read his books on Shenzhen and Jerusalem. The later I’ve already ordered from the library.

 
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Posted by on June 11, 2018 in book review, contemporary, fiction, graphic memoir, postaweek, Travel Writing

 

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Parisian Charm School

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In Parisian Charm School Jamie Cat Callan provides an orientation to the uninitiated to the to élan of Paris. Her lessons on fashion, color, use of voice, flirtation and such explain why the French have such elegance and poise. In addition, she gives the names of tour guides and teachers with businesses that give unique experiences to English speakers.

The book is a fun read, that gives a romantic look at all things French. It’s far from a complete or sociological look at the City of Lights. I thoroughly enjoyed Callan’s writing, but realize that like any country France has its pros and cons and that a lot of the tours or experiences would be pricey. So remove your rose-colored glasses before you sell your house and move to Paris in search of amour.

 
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Posted by on May 16, 2018 in book review, non-fiction, Travel Writing

 

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Economix

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Michael Goodwin and Dan Burr’s Economix (2012) is a graphic nonfiction book that explains economic principles in an accessible way. The book uses the narrative of a guy trying to learn more about economics to engage the reader. Organized chronologically, Economix begins just at the 17th century, though the author notes that economics pre-dates that era, but people didn’t know how to analyze it.

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The book was most helpful to me when it explained new concepts or elucidated ideas like “supply and demand” which have more complexity under certain situations. I liked learning about economists I hadn’t heard of such as David Ricardo.

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N.B. Neither Economix authors agree with Malthus

I appreciated learning that world and national economies are often so multifaceted that it’s (practically) impossible to predict or understand them. That assertion seems honest and I hadn’t heard that before that I can recall.

Towards current era, the authors state that the book will be more aligned with the Democrats and appreciated that admission. It’s unmistakable, but their statement made me trust their final chapters more. I do think the book would be better if it wasn’t so connected to American history and used more examples from all over the world, however, I guess they authors didn’t think their audience was very cosmopolitan.

All in all, Economix is a good introduction to economics, dark science that I’m trying to learn more about.

 
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Posted by on April 10, 2018 in book review, non-fiction, postaweek

 

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Germinal

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Part of Émile Zola’s Rougon-Marquart series, Germinal is set in a mining town in 19th century France. The title comes from the new Republic’s calendar, it’s the name of month in spring when things start sprouting. Whatever you might imagine the life of a miner to be like, it was far worse in France. At times I had to put the book down, because it was just too heart-breaking to read about the suffering people endured.

The hero is Étienne Lantier who arrives in town seeking work. Trained as a mechanic, Étienne accepts the only work available, working in the mines. Pay’s low so he moves in with a mining family and shares a room with Catherine, their teenage daughter to whom he’s attracted. But love is not in the offing. Catherine’s jus 14 and her poor diet has stunted her maturation, but she’s involved with Chaval, a boy, who also works in the mine. Brutish and abusive, Chaval is a product of the mines, not the sort of boyfriend who can respect a girl. Respect though is a luxury item, just like a good meal. Like all their peers, Chaval and Catherine work all day in a back-breaking environment and spend their nights having sex in a kind of quarry. The young and old’s spirits have been crushed and there’s no hope, romance or joy. Life offers few choices so if you’re pregnant and your boyfriend beats you, you put up with it. Life’s about survival.

The work and environment is described in acute detail. Work was arduous in the sweltering mines. Pay was so low that children had to work. Encouraged by Étienne and a couple others who’ve read up on socialism and labor rights, the miners go on strike. Then the oppression reaches new lows. They’re tough and dedicated, but are soon starving as their pooled savings run out. As you’d expect the workers’ pay gets reduced and their expected output increased. The owners are far off in Paris. The mine’s run by managers who’re well paid, but have no power. Miners and their families start to die. Some return to work and violence ensues. Just as things appear to improve more disaster, disaster based on a true event, strikes.

Each day I looked forward to reading more of this gripping story, but then would have to put it down as the hardship was unbearable, worse than other stories of coal mingling like King Coal by Upton Sinclair. I appreciated Zola’s descriptions and how he portrayed his era with such clarity. (Though when people were moving through the mines it was hard to grasp how extensive they were.)

To his credit, Zola doesn’t glorify the miner’s and vilify the managers and elite. There’s plenty of realism and fairness to go round. I appreciated Zola’s prose and his complex characters.  I read that Zola researched Germinal painstakingly and even went into the mines to see the conditions.

 
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Posted by on April 8, 2018 in 19th Century, book review, fiction, French Lit

 

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12 Rules for Life

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I can’t say I’ve finished Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos because as I read it I soon realized it’s a book I’ll read again and again. It’s a book that I’ll return to as a source of wisdom and a touchstone to see how I’m going.

Peterson’s style is straightforward and clear, but it contains complexity. His rules may be simple, such as Tell the Truth — or at Least Don’t Lie, but are tough to put into practice once you realize that telling the truth means living the truth. He points out that Adler, the psychologist, noted that “life-lies” are a kind of dishonesty. So whenever you deviate from the truth by saying whatever will help you socially, will give you status though its and exaggeration, or by staying quiet so that you protect your job or curry the favor of someone you deem significant and let lies continue unchecked because you’d rather reap a reward of whatever sort or you figure someone else will speak up or should, then you’re living a lie. So how authentic am I? I won’t be finished with this book till I am completely authentic and transparent with myself and others. Seems like there’s a long road ahead.

Peterson uses literature, myth, well researched psychological insights, and personal stories to illuminate each rule. I came away with a sturdier foundation for courageously getting through and flourishing when life gets tough as it’s bound to.

He looks rather angry in the photo above, but if you’ve seen his videos or television appearances, you’ll see that he’s quite personable. The video’s just over a minute and it outlines the book’s objective.

The rules seem simple, e.g. Stand Up Straight with Your Shoulders Back or Make Friends with People Who Want the Best for You. If you just read the rule and don’t read the chapter you may think these ideas are old school and just optional. However, after reading chapter one about standing up straight, I’ve learned that posture for people or animals deeply relates to status and confidence. Yes, this echoes Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk on body language. The two prove the same idea using different evidence.

I was surprised to learn things like the fact that people treat their pets better than they treat themselves. When a pet is sick, most people will administer their medicine as directed, while when they’re sick they slack off. Curious, eh? I think we can all do with an injunction to take proper care of ourselves.

I really appreciated how Peterson integrates the wisdom from earlier thinkers and family or personal experiences intelligently. His analysis of the Bible, myth, literature and research convinced me of his points. He also helped me view the wisdom of Genesis, the Old Testament and other scripture anew. I’m not surprised this book is flying off the shelves (virtual and real).

If you’ve read 12 Rules for Life, what did you think?

 

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2018 in book review, fiction, non-fiction, postaweek

 

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Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography

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Zena Alkayat and Nina Cosford collaborated on a cute illustrated biography of Jane Austen. The text consists of the basic information on Jane’s life, but there’s nothing that you probably couldn’t get from Wikipedia.

The water color illustrations are charming and fit with Jane Austen’s tone and era.

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It’s a quick, enjoyable read, but Austen fans won’t learn much that’s new. I realize that not that much is known about Austen, but this book doesn’t do much than offer some highlights. For more details, I suggest Carol Shield’s Jane Austen: A Life. 

I think Alkayat and Cosford’s Jane Austen: An Illustrated Biography is a good book to check out from your library rather than something you need to purchase.

 
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Posted by on March 28, 2018 in book review, British literature

 

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