Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea – Guy Delisle

It’s been six years since I read Guy Delisle’s Burma Chronicles and was ambivalent about it. When picking up a selection of graphic novels at the library recently, I decided it was time I gave him another chance and borrowed Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, since North Korea is interesting. I sort of regret it now, but I won’t give him the benefit of the doubt again. Because all the stuff that bothered me in the Burma Chronicles bothered me even more in Pyongyang, and it was joined by a casual racism (calling the performing children “savant monkeys”!) and blatant misogony that completely undermines any point Delisle may have had to make. I mean, who recounts a series of torture techniques in drawing and writing and then writes this down and thinks, “Yeah, that’s the vibe I’m going with”?

Delisle arrives in North Korea for a six week stay, supervising the production of cartoons his employer has outsourced for cheap labour. The sequences where Deslisle tries to explain why a scene needs to be redone affirms my impression that outsourcing creates so much more labour that you would be lucky to actually save any money, but that is not something Deslisle addresses (or: if addressing it was his intention, it gets lost along the way). He seems instead to use the examples purely to reinforce the image of the North Koreans as intellectually inferior, which permeats the whole narrative.

You’d think an intelligent man would consider whether the reason the North Koreans he talks to never criticise the regime they are living in is simple caution and life-preserving instinct, but instead he seems to think that they are… stupid? Brain-washed enough to actually believe the propaganda they feed him? And like in the Burma Chronicles he doesn’t seem to consider that he may be putting others at risk with his behaviour. He gives 1984 to one of his guides to read, for example, as if for a social experiment. Now, I have noe idea whether 1984 is a banned book in North Korea, but it wouldn’t exactly surprise me if it were, and what exactly happens to people caught with banned books in authoritarian regimes, again?

It’s a pity, too, because I still really like Delisle’s drawing style and there are definitely some great scenes in the book, too. He finds himself at a picnic on a trip to a museum:

The moment touches on something that is not only quite charming, but possibly quite profound, too. But it flickers out again and descends into “white tourist mode” again.

I could have saved myself the trouble had I bothered to read the reviews on Goodreads before starting the book, so if you’d like more examples, go have a nosey. I’m hardly the only one who’ve ended up wanting to throw the book across the room, it seems.

Boka har jeg lånt på biblioteket.


Twenty Chickens for a Saddle – Robyn Scott
Since I finished Beadle the Bard during the flight to Oslo for a course and I hadn’t brought another book (I wasn’t expecting any reading time, actually), I swooped down on the non-fiction shelves at Tanum at OSL, and managed to pick this up and pay for it and still run to catch an earlier flight that my colleague had just realised we were in time for. (Yay for run-on sentences!) I don’t normally pay much attention to the blurbs on the cover of books, but in this case they had me even before I’d read the book’s title. The top of the cover reads: “A wonderful memoir of an exotic childhood. – Alexander McCall Smith”. Sold! And he’s right, too. Robyn Scott grew up in Botswana with an, uhm, excentric collection of relatives and the book is full of wonderful detail and hilarious anecdotes, as well as some more serious topics, amongst them perfectly heartbreaking illumination of the emergence of HIV/AIDS in Botswana. One for your mnt tbr, dear reader.

Martha Jane & Me: A girlhood in Wales – Mavis Nicholson
I’ve never seen Mavis Nicholson on tv, as far as I know, and certainly had no idea who she was when I picked up this book second-hand on one of our pilgrimages to Britain. But then, this book does not really demand any prior knowledge of the writer, and though if you were a fan you’d find it an interesting read, I found it interesting enough in its own right. I’m not really a great one for biographies and memoirs as such, I’m not all that interested in how a great man or woman became great. What I am interested in is stories. That they happen to be non-fiction is fine with me, were they all fiction that would be fine, too.

Since the middle of February

The Tale of Desperaux – Di Collofello
Very sweet. Not exceptionally good, though, and with an underlying sort of morality which bothered me. Since I rather like rats I objected to the description of them being so nasty to look at and touch (especially in comparison with mice, which are, apparently, not nasty at all), but I can understand how it might be necessary for the story. However, I can’t quite excuse the idea that a rat is a rat and can never change his nature, it smacks – to me – a little of the I’m-trying-to-be-politically-correct-but-I’m-a-racist-really premise that all, say, negroes are lazy, but it’s in their nature and they can’t really help it. Balderdash.

Small Wars Permitting – Christina Lamb
Very interesting, highly readable. My father just finished this when I was trying to get through Sorting Out Billy (see below) and there was no competition, really, I jumped at the chance to read something else. Lamb manages to be both informative, profound and thought-provoking and at the same time laugh-out-loud funny in places. The book contains both newly written context material and quite a few of Lambs articles from various papers and both are equally readable and absorbing. Highly recommended.

Then, a bit of a Durrell reread going on – in between all the other stuff – if I find the time and energy I might write a more detailed post on Durrell, but for now, here’s a list:
The Bafut Beagles – Gerald Durrell
Fillets of Plaice – Gerald Durrell
The Stationary Ark – Gerald Durrell
A Zoo in my Luggage – Gerald Durrell
Catch me a Colobus – Gerald Durrell
The Dunken Forest – Gerald Durrell
Himself and Other Animals – David Hughes (biography)

Sorting Out Billy – Jo Brand
I read only the first half, or thereabouts and then gave it up in disgust. Abysmally bad, actually.

The Book of Lost Things – John Connolly
Entertaining, slightly scary in parts. Well worth the time.

Anybody Out There? – Marian Keyes
Excellent. I was a little worried, not being a great fan of spiritualism and trying to speak to the dead, however, Keyes managed the issue beautifully, I think, and I didn’t cringe even once.

Slam – Nick Hornby
Hornby’s first “young adult” novel, which probably should be compulsory reading for most British teenagers as a sort of literary contraception. Not Hornby’s best book – by far – from an adult point of view, but then that’s hardly the right point of view for judging it.

American Gods – Neil Gaiman

A Ramble Round the Globe – Thomas Dewar
Disappointingly unoccupied with whisky or with advertising, the two main reasons I am interested in Tommy Dewar, but a rather interesting read nonetheless.

The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid – Bill Bryson
Just what you’d expect from Bill Bryson: Very good.

Going Solo

I ended up rereading Going Solo because I had found it in a box (along with Waltzing through Flaws) and had given it to the husband with a “here you go, you need to read this” and he’d brought it to Vienna and was reading something else when I needed something to read and had put my own book (which I still haven’t finished) in the wrong bag. Uhm. Nice sentence, that.

Anyway. I’ve read Boy once, and as far as I can remember I found that pretty tedious. Going Solo, however, is charming and, amongst other things, leaves you wondering how on earth Hitler managed to get beaten by the allies, though I suppose someone in charge must have learned from their mistakes at some point after Dahl was invalided home. Or perhaps the allies were just more stubborn and won on the basis of sheer luck, which seems to be mainly what kept Dahl alive.

Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse

Diplomatic Baggage: The Adventures of a Trailing Spouse by Brigid Keenan was an impulse buy at a newsagent in town, and a pretty lucky one in one respect – Keenan’s husband “AW” gets posted to The Gambia in the late eighties, and since it’s hardly the country that pops up in books most often, it was a bit like an unexpected meeting with an old acquaintance*. The family arrives in the country just about a year after we left it, and the girls go to the same school my brother and I attended. That section alone made the book worth the price for me, but also the rest of the book is interesting and at times laugh-out-loud-funny, and Keenan manages to mix humour and seriousness in a way that makes the pages fly past.

* For those not in the know, my familiy spent a year in The Gambia in 1986/87.

Reading Lolita in Tehran

I’d been half-heartedly searching for Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran ever since I saw it at Malmö train station in May (didn’t buy it there because it was ridiculously priced and we already had too much luggage). Found it in Ottakars in Elgin (after we – on our tenth visit or so to the town – found that Elgin had an Ottakars completely by chance, but that’s another story), and of course had to begin it pretty promptly.

The main point of departure for the book is a reading group Nafisi started after she had to stop teaching at the university in Tehran following various changes introduced as a result of the revolution. She and her girls read novels that are forbidden, or at least frowned upon, by the regime and their discussions of and reaction to the novels and authors, provides an interesting contrast to the snippets of memoirs of the actual political situation and how it affects their lives. As regards the politics, Nafisi’s account is both critical and sympatetic at the same time, which makes it more interesting than the majority of the commentaries I’ve read before.

It’s pretty much as interesting as expected, with a few unlookedfor side-effects. Half-way through I had to find my post-it index tabs and start marking the places I’ll want to refer to later. I’ve been wanting to start seriously looking at my studies – most specifically this doctoral thesis I was planning to write at some point – again anyway, being in an academic atmosphere is catching obviously, but this book certainly provided fuel for that particular flame.

A book to be recommended if you are at all interested in the study of literature, and probably also if you’re just interested in an intellectual (dare I say: intelligent) view of the Iranian regime from “the inside”.