three graphic novels and two pyramids

Have I mentioned that I am the San Francisco Public Library’s helpless fangirl? I moved my whole Amazon wishlist over there about six months ago, read everything on it, now routinely borrow whatever is well-reviewed in Bookslut and Defective Yeti and other blogs of wit and discrimination and enjoy myself beyond the singing of it. The intersection of public libraries with the Internet, like effective contraception and antibiotics, make now the best of all times for a bookish woman to be alive and raising her iron-willed little girls.

La Perdida is the story of a Mexican American woman from Chicago who spends a year in Mexico City. The book’s greatest achievement, I think, is its evocation of place. There’s a lovely panel where the protagonist is looking up into the minimally-rendered leaves and flowers of jacaranda trees; you can almost feel the dappled sunlight on your face. There’s some terrific character work, too – in particular one argument where both parties are making excellent points about colonialism and the privileged distance of the expatriate. As Michael Frayn puts it: “In a good play, everyone is right.” The denouement felt a bit – not exactly forced, to me, but telegraphed and not entirely satisfying. Didn’t stop me devouring the whole thing in a day.

I expected to like Epileptic more than I did. Its reputation precedes it and my sister has epilepsy, although hers is nothing like as severe as that of David B’s brother. I don’t think the problem is in the book – the drawings are brilliant and beautiful and the writing is subtle – but in the anxieties I brought to it as a reader. The mother haring off down dead-end after dead-end in search of a cure for her incurable son, the fever-dream pictures that reminded me of how epileptics describe their aura, the repetition without resolution – practically everything in the book was calculated to upset me. It’s a work of genius, but a depressing one.

Pyongyang is another masterpiece and it may be even darker than Epileptic. How could it not be? It’s about the worst place on earth. Yet I found Guy Delisle’s memoir of his two months in North Korea the least self-conscious and the most effective of these books. Delisle’s sketch of that foul regime is at once spare and unsparing; the calm accumulation of precise detail adds up to an implacable condemnation of the Kims and their puppets. For all its clean lines and quiet voice, Pyongyang is righteously angry, exposing the cynical economic complicity of the West (and the Middle East, for that matter) in the soul-annihilating cruelty of the state.

North Korea is the USA’s shadow self. It is utterly isolated where the USA is rampantly global; hypocritically communist where the USA is hypocritically capitalist; starving where the USA is obese; totalitarian where the USA encourages lively debate and independent thinking; sabre-rattling where the USA is a meek diplomat and stalwart supporter of the United Nations. Okay, maybe my dichotomy got a little decalibrated there at the end. I will leave you with the nightmare image of the Ryugyong Hotel, the world’s seventh largest building, an empty shell without power or windows and perhaps especially disturbing to San Franciscans as a Dantean alternate-universe doppelganger of our beloved Transamerica.

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