Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

“It was a laugh riot” is not something you expect to hear yourself say when referring to a book about North Korea. But Guy Delisle’s comic book account of working for two months as an animator in Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, is a delightful romp with appropriate bits of sadness and seriousness.

Only the privileged North Koreans who demonstrate their devotion to the Dear Leader by snitching on their neighbors get to live in Pyongyang. Guy Delisle notes the fear people live with on a daily basis. His hotel, which is eerily empty except for a few other foreigners, is on an island. Delisle is not permitted to speak to North Koreans or go anywhere without his guide, but when he bravely sneaks out to wander the streets, he is astonished by people’s indifference to his presence. They barely glance at him, perhaps out of fear that they will be corrupted by his western wickedness or that they might be accused of conspiring with the enemy.

Delisle brings his copy of 1984, which he loans to his guide just to see his response. His brazen rebelliousness is really shocking at times. He sings Bob Marley, makes sarcastic remarks about the Dear Leader, and does not condemn Americans during a discussion on how evil Americans are. He drags his feet through all the propaganda museums and museums dedicated to Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, and when he’s asked to write in the guest book about the wonders of one of the museums, he writes, “I’ve never walked down longer hallways in all my life.”

The scariest part is when Guy Delisle inquires about the absence of handicapped people and his guide responds that North Korea has no handicapped people. He balances these terrifying revelations with the ridiculous restrictions in North Korea, such as women being forbidden to ride bicycles because it would be “hazardous.” Therefore, women are only allowed to ride tricycles.

Humor is a gift and finding humor in depressing situations is a rare gift. I’m not sure how I feel about laughing at a book about North Korea. I feel slightly ashamed, but nevertheless, I highly recommend this book.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hungry. Anything Helps

Years ago, on a downtown street, I saw a wheelchair-bound man. The cardboard sign on his lap read, “Hungry. Anything helps.” Angling his apple with one hand and holding the sign with the other, he lost his grip. The apple fell and rolled in front of me. I picked it up. Dirt clung to the apple’s exposed flesh. “Do you still want it?” I asked him. The man’s lips quivered into a frown. “No, just throw it away.” He stared at the sidewalk. The hopelessness on his face was heartbreaking. That wasn't just an apple. It was a source of enjoyment and it was ruined. I tossed the half-eaten apple into a metal garbage can. “Do you want me to buy you lunch?” I asked. I pointed to a Mexican restaurant across the street. “Yes,” he answered in a flash. To my surprise, the man stood up and sprinted diagonally across the intersection. By the time walk signals permitted me to catch up with him, he had already ordered a meal at the counter and was waiting for me to pay. He smiled and said, “Next time. I’ll buy you lunch."

Thursday, October 13, 2011


This is a poem I illustrated for the poet Carl Adamshick. I dyed the paper in tea and used white watercolor and black micron pens to make the images pop off the page. I also made a coffee cup stain on the crossword puzzle. I really enjoyed collaborating with Carl on this project and I hope I get a chance to illustrate more poems in the future.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

It's Kind of a Funny Story

“It’s Kind of a Funny Story” is a modest title. This book is extremely funny. Ned Vizzini writes from the perspective of Craig, a 15-year-old who attends Executive Pre-Professional High School in Manhattan. Craig is average but he wants to be exceptional. He suffers from depression and anxiety. How Vizzini turns topics like depression and suicidal thoughts into comedy beats me. At the end of the book, Vizzini reveals that he spent a month in an adult psychiatric ward in Brooklyn and that he wrote this book between12/10/05 and 1/6/05. That tells me that Ned Vizzini is like Craig in more than one way. Apparently, the author is also an overachiever who likes to show off that he wrote a novel in less than one month.

This YA novel can be enjoyed by older readers as well as teenagers. The dialogue is spot on. Vizzini makes his characters funny without making fun of them. One thing I admire besides Vizzini’s strong voice and talent for writing humor is his ability to write lists. Take this passage for example:

The party was like a movie-it should have been a movie. It was the best movie I'd ever seen-where else did you get shattering glasses, a kid trying to break-dance in the living room, a dictionary being thrown at a roach, a kid holding his head in the freezer and saying it could get you high, orange vomit spread out in a semi-circle in the kitchen sink, people yelling out the windows that "school sucks," rap music declaring "I want to drink beers and smoke some shit," and one poor soul snorting a Pixie Stik, then hacking purple dust into the toilet . . .? Nowhere.

"It’s Kind of a Funny Story" was made into a movie, which I am going to watch one of these days, but after this book, the movie will be a tough act to follow.