George Orwell's Down and Out is an interesting and factual book about living in poverty in two major Western European capitals probably around the 192...moreGeorge Orwell's Down and Out is an interesting and factual book about living in poverty in two major Western European capitals probably around the 1920s-1930s. The book's topic and style bring it close to Lao She's Rickshaw (The Novel); Orwell's book however comes with a political message, and with more writing panache. While I disliked most of the former---and the spoon-feeding of it at the end of each of the book's two parts---and some of the occasional anti-semitic side stories, I found the book interesting and self-standing in the works of Orwell, which is for me no mean feat. [I would also like to thank the friend who gave me this book, it made for a nice read.](less)
Vladimir Voinovich's Chonkin is a good foray into the Russian muzhik's (commoner's) psyche. Born and raised a farmer in Stalin's time, Ivan gets calle...moreVladimir Voinovich's Chonkin is a good foray into the Russian muzhik's (commoner's) psyche. Born and raised a farmer in Stalin's time, Ivan gets called to the army, where he embarks first unbeknowingly then unwillingly into an adventure that will change (spoiler: and end) his life. Chronicling this journey, the author gets to talk about the "joys" of real-Communism: indoctrination of simple people who can barely speak (not to mention write), formation of cliques for sharing the little local power, propagation of meaningless orders from the top, the "wireless phone"---lossy or faulty transmission of messages through human chains---, obliteration of personal opinion, etc. Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Voinovich adopts a cynical, tragicomical tone; thus, this story can be seen as a Russian take on Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk and His Fortunes in the World War. Poorly educated and easily dumbfounded, Chonkin is perhaps a less lovable character than Svejk; it is perhaps because of this that Voinovich makes his story take surreal and oneiric turns. What I disliked about this work is the rather thin story---much thinner than in Moscow 2042, by the same author---, the lack of powerful characters---a characteristic of Voinovich's work, as far as I can tell---, and the often rough wording---Voinovich is no Russian classic. Overall, a nice read but overall not inspiring. (less)
There. I've read this one. Finally. It was a difficult read. Slow. Tedious writing at times. Fabricated characters that don't stand up left alone. Dreadful storyline. But such a brilliant idea! In the aforementioned trilogy of thought, Huxley's is the only fair take on the subject: this ambivalent book points in turn(s) to the pros and cons of each of the One State/We and the General State/I.
(Huxley strikes me as one of the most untalented writers that have something to say; he's a bit of an antithesis to Ian McEwan and Alice Munro.)
Overall, read at your own risk, unless you really like dystopian books. (less)
I read this book in just a few hours. It was my first 'serious' comics book, so it took me a while to adapt to its story-telling style, and perhaps th...moreI read this book in just a few hours. It was my first 'serious' comics book, so it took me a while to adapt to its story-telling style, and perhaps this is why I glided over more than enjoying its beginning. Maybe it is that with comics there is little space for text, many things are fixed by being draw rather then described (I guess these are common critiques comic books receive when compared with text-only lit). Or perhaps it was just the fact that the style changes as the main character grows-up, and it was just that my thinking could not relate that well with a five years old. Anyway, after that the story started flowing. By the end, I could appreciate the dramatic story of the self-conscious Iranian girl struggling to mix in between two cultures (add Europe) and find what to do with her life. And thought that the evolution of the story style was adding to the appeal of the book, after all.
Pretty good stuff, 4 stars (and probably less in a different reading format).(less)
(A brief historical background is needed to understand this book and perhaps my review.) "Lost Boys" is an American term defining the group of over 20,000 children of Dinka and Nuer ethnicity who were forced to flee their family and land as a consequence of the Second Sudanese Civil War (1980s to around 2005). Motivated in part by the sharia law imposed by the (Northern) Sudanese government in Khartoum---the South is predominantly animist or Christian--- and in part by the discovery of oil-rich terrain in the South, this war may have taken over 2,000,000 lives and surely displaced several million people. Southern Sudan became independent after a referendum in January 2011.
What is the What is the story of Valentino Achak Deng, a Lost Boy from the village of Marial Bai, a large village close to Aweil, in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Dave Eggers takes an interesting approach: in his story, Achak is again in mortal danger, this time in his adoptive country, and from his dialogue with his perceived wrong-doers the story is born. In this story, Achak narrates about his early life, his crossing of Sudan to escape the outset of the war, his life in refugee camps (first in Ethiopia, then in Kenya), his first months in the US, and his current life there. The writing is fresh, tragi-comic, alternating between knowledgeable and naive. I enjoyed the story and empathized with the character. On the negative side, the factoids about war are introduced abruptly, for example as a mot-a-mot mental record of the young Achak (under seven years of age), made from the words of an SPLA officer.
What struck me as truly negative is how this story matches, point for point, the story of the earlier memoir They Poured Fire on Us from the Sky: The True Story of Three Lost Boys from Sudan. The same perils. The same situations. The same nasty Anyuak villagers. The same life in the camp, with the same problems. The same historical events, down to the color of the river Gilo when escaping Panyido. The same strong impression from the visit of high officials, including the highest SPLA commander. The same, the same, the same. The new part is about life in the US, but that was for this reviewer the least interesting, regardless of the narrator's achievement.
This is a comic book about boudoir talk in Iran, no more, no less. In the about half an hour it took me to read, there was some hearty laughter but mo...moreThis is a comic book about boudoir talk in Iran, no more, no less. In the about half an hour it took me to read, there was some hearty laughter but mostly a feeling of boredom--Marjane seems to be holding back quite a bit. I thought that Persepolis was more detailed, more comprehensive, and overall much more mature; but then, I wouldn't have found out what the embroidery is for an Iranian woman, would I? Hihihi. (less)
This is the (cartoon) story of an animation specialist working for a few months in North Korea. Guy Delisle depiction of a modern North Korea reveals...moreThis is the (cartoon) story of an animation specialist working for a few months in North Korea. Guy Delisle depiction of a modern North Korea reveals an astute observer that goes over the obstacles of a closed-off regime. A people subject to terror and mind-washing propaganda, a pyramid game benefiting only the country's potentates, a cult of personality that leads to the first communist hereditary tyranny, all lead to "from here, China looks like a heaven of liberty." If you consider reading this, but are scared that you'll get too much "truth", you may look for Voinovich's Moscow 2042.
I felt strongly about this book, as many of the things described in this book relate to my first-hand experience in other countries that have been subject to similar regimes, such as Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, and Romania. I also felt that this makes for a good companion to George Orwell's 1984 (I'm reversing here the pun from inside [book;Pyongyang:]).
The Aquariums of Pyongyang is a first-hand account of a survivor of the North Korean labor camps. This is the story of a wealthy Korean family who, lu...moreThe Aquariums of Pyongyang is a first-hand account of a survivor of the North Korean labor camps. This is the story of a wealthy Korean family who, lured by the promises of the Kim Il-sung's party, found themselves trapped in the North's visible and invisible prisons (the aquariums). In tone and writing focus, Kang Chol-Hwan sets himself as a North Korean Solzhenitsyn (author of the Gulag Archipelago account of the Russian labor camps).
Kang Chol-hwan covers in his account his life as a child ("it would be bad grace to deny I had a happy childhood, but my family was better off than most"), the sudden fall from grace, the life of his entire in the Yodok labor camp (only few made it through the first year, but those who did were likely to survive the full sentence), the release and decoupling from the family, the escape to China and then South Korea, and the return to Japan. Many of the things described are plausible, including the hardships in the labor camp (the hunger, the vicious guards, the incompetent professors, the by-heart learning of the Juche doctrine); others are perhaps less believable (the work quotas seem absurdly at odds with the physical capabilities of humans); yet others are seemingly introduced for the Western sensibility (for example, the details about eating snake, salamander, and rat.) The important material is, perhaps, just the account of the life in the labor camp, not far from the description of the Gulag by Solzhenitsyn.
The book is well written and easy to read (not counting the subject). Parts of the writing tell short, funny stories of "beating" the guards, which lightens the overall story to a palatable level for everyone. I would skip over the parts describing the run from China, dithered probably to protect the identity of the real helpers.
Overall, this is a good, solid account of an atrocity that should be stopped as soon as possible. Must-read for the interested in the evolution and downfall of real-world Communism. (less)
I don't have much to say about Guy Delisle's Shenzhen. It's a travelogue set in China's special (artificial) economic zone, Shenzhen. Based on my own...moreI don't have much to say about Guy Delisle's Shenzhen. It's a travelogue set in China's special (artificial) economic zone, Shenzhen. Based on my own experience, I'd say it's also rather dated, depicting a 1997 society in a country that evolved in the past decade faster than any other country in world history.
Overall, I'd instead recommend reading Pyongyang for your dose of delisle-tful humor. (The latter is also rebellious with a cause, whereas Shenzhen falls rather flat.)
The graphical assortment is in typical Delisle style, simplistic but rich in local flavor. We get samples from Shenzhen, Canton, Hong Kong, and a few of the seedier places around the world; the latter are a product of Guy's desire to leave Shenzhen.
There is also the usual assortment of quirks and funny local situations, but much less targeted and enthusiastic than in Pyongyang. Delisle seems to feel the locals are rather well off when compared with other Chinese, and definitely vs North Koreans, so he places Shenzhen at most as the second wrung from Heaven (in a humorous parallel with Dante's descent to Hell, see p.38). The workers are eager to please but culturally inept, willing to work but technically poor, and interesting as much as clones can be (Delisle has visited China before). There's little interaction with the locals as English is a scarce commodity in one of the most business-like corners of China (again, it's 1997). The rest seems chaff.
My main issue with this book is it's snarky depiction of a society that perhaps does not exist anymore. From my own work- and leisure-related trips to China, which include Beijing and Shanghai, and from my daily interaction with Chinese Ph.D. students, I have seen another culture taking shape in international cities in China: more Westernized (although claiming more strongly a national identity), more English-speaking, more professional. Less Delisle's North Korean and more our daily Seattle, WA, US and even Paris, FR. I may be wrong here. (less)
Palestine focuses on a topic that invites more to flaming than to commentary: the struggles of the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to coexist, sum...morePalestine focuses on a topic that invites more to flaming than to commentary: the struggles of the Israeli and the Palestinian peoples to coexist, summarized as "they want this land, we want this land" towards the end of the book. Palestine is strangely factual for its topic: using pictorial interviews, Sacco presents--by his own account--a biased, cynical, and dirt-digging view of the dire conditions of the Palestinians living in and around Israel at the beginning of the 1990s; there is however little reference to the political question of legitimacy the states, the religious dichotomy, the cultural divide, etc. Contrasting the approach, that is, even admitting that the book focuses on the most dreadful of cases and that the interviews have been polished for effect, the resulting book is touching and the reality it depicts is heart-breaking. (In this reader's opinion, due to important bias Palestine should not be the only read on the topic; Elie Wiesel's Dawn and Amos Oz's In the land of Israel are good complements.) Overall, an outstanding work of activism in an exceptional medium.(less)
Death and the Penguin is part of the new wave of satirical, semi-political books that aim to characterize the emerging culture of former Soviet and ot...moreDeath and the Penguin is part of the new wave of satirical, semi-political books that aim to characterize the emerging culture of former Soviet and other corruption-ridden countries. Like many of the others, this book is about corruption, underground and political power, and communist culture (albeit, former communist). Viktor, the writer without real talent, is hired by a reputable newspaper to write obituaries of people who are not only high up in the new Ukrainian society, but also still alive. It turns out that none of these people is clean, most having been involved in mob-like activities, some only in abuses of power or political ethics; when they start to die in violent circumstances, Viktor finds himself a well-respected messenger of death. As for the penguin, it helps keeping up the absurd, ludic description of life in modern Ukraine, and plays an interesting role in what is a memorable ending (hint: what is Viktor pushed to do, to live normally?) Being set in Ukraine, Kurkov's work can best be compared with Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan, but Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle and Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao should also be close in target. Unfortunately, Death and the Penguin falls short of these in ability to cover its subject, in writing quality, and, in this reviewer's eyes, in creativity.
In this allegory of the workings of internal police in authoritarian states, Ismail Kadare introduces many of the notions that can be found in the lit...moreIn this allegory of the workings of internal police in authoritarian states, Ismail Kadare introduces many of the notions that can be found in the literature from behind the Iron Curtain: the power of the state's internal police, the ruthlessness of reporting, the torture of the folk, the tragic destiny of the "burgeoisie", the waking up of the innocent. The hero, Mark-Alem, is a young man from an once powerful family in the Osmanian Sultanate who is set to land a safe job in the powerful internal police (aptly named here the Palace of Dreams). As he traverses the Palace purgatory -- the Selection of Dreams, the Interpretation of Dreams, the Big Dreams Dept., and the Directorate -- our hero gains more understanding of how the internal police operates as the most important power in the state, trampling on lives and manipulating the Sultan. In the end, Mark-Alem reaches through Palace intrigue the top of the Palace of Dreams institution, and sees himself becoming without a say against an accomplice to causing suffering and death. The story is well-written, as demonstrated by the following excerpt: "The questioning of the greengrocer continued in the isolation room. His file was by now over eight hundred pages long and there were still more to come. [...:] Everything was in there, without exception [...:] discussions, gossips, everything, beginning with the beginning and seemingly without an end, ever." Overall, fantastic prose on the Iron Curtain reality. (less)