“Fables, Vol. 3: Storybook Love” by Bill Willingham

Fables, Volume 3: Storybook Love

(Author: Bill Willingham) + (Year: 2004) + (Goodreads)


Review:

Now that I have read this volume, I could actually change the rating I gave to the first two, in comparison.

Storybook Love is a very good collection of stories – it includes all of the characters we know and like, who, while being the power that moves the story, are not the story, and all those that we don’t like, but might very soon.

I really enjoyed having a lot of the characters that weren’t shown nearly as much in the previous volumes, or even the ones, like Prince Charming, that I dislike, but I still like to read about. If the story is good, of course.

I think the “fable” from this volume that I liked the most was Bag O’ Bones, and it’s a perfect example of what I was trying to explain above: I could really care less about Jack Horner before reading this, but after I did, I felt a humorous liking toward his character.

The story about Sleeping Beauty was interesting in terms of how the author reimagined the curse, and how he implemented it into the story.

Obviously, the Snow and Bigby‘s story line was the main arc in the volume, however, to me, that was the least interesting one. First, I really, really disliked Goldilocks in every sense of the word, and second, for some reason, while I find him endearing at times, I can’t warm up to Bigby. He’s too dark and moody and aggressive for my tastes. And when he’s not aggressive, he is usually bragging about his dad, the wind.

I really liked the story about the Barleycorn brides. I would say that the flashbacks are one of the best parts of Fables as a whole. We are all aware that the main story is the one in the present, but considering that there are many different versions of all fables, many fable characters included in Fables, a lot happening all the time, and the readers needing background information about the impending war, it’s great that Willingham is actually providing that information… in the form of fables. It would be impossible to go through all existing fables included in the story, but every little bit adds greatly to the whole, in my opinion.

The only minor issue that I have with Fables is that considering how much action there is, a lot of the characters, especially ones that I like, occasionally fall off the grid. For me, as a reader who is not following the story in a straight line, but reading other books in between, it’s sometimes hard to recall what happened to someone last I saw them, because months might pass until the next time. And while it’s good to have a variety of interesting characters, it also presents a certain degree of a challenge.

The main point is, however, that I feel like Fables is becoming better and better with each volume, so I’m excited!

Advertisements

“The Refugees” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The Refugees(Author: Viet Thanh Nguyen) + (Year: 2017) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: Vietnam)


Review:

So what exactly went wrong with this book? As harsh as it might sound, to me, it meant nothing.

It’s like when you have that one friend who’s always trying to say something smart, but they end up speaking a lot, and saying nothing. This is how I felt while reading The Refugees.

At the time I decided to request it on NetGalley, because I was excited to see a book from Vietnamese author, I didn’t quite pay attention to the fact that half of the summary of The Refugees is actually a list of the author’s achievements with his other book, The Sympathizer. That would have been the first red light.

And although I know what the author wanted the readers to see in these stories, it’s one thing for the reader to know the purpose of the author, and another to actually experience the author’s ideas. What bothered me the most about The Refugees was the lack of depth to the characters in the stories, and what’s more, the discrepancy between the title and the actual stories in the book.

In order words, the word “refugees” shows this book in a very sensational way, all the while, telling stories which are usually only mildly connected to being a refugee. The difference in this situation is that the narratives of the majority of the characters in the book are those of immigrants. You can’t really take the story of a man with dementia who mistakes his wife’s name with that of his ex-girlfriend/lover, and put it in a book about refugees, because the lover used to be in a country which the characters left. Not only would this be irrational, but it also makes the stories of people who actually fled under a threat for their lives, both in the past, and in the present, seem a lot more trivial and unimportant.

There were maybe only two stories which I would categorize as ones which could properly be called refugee stories: the family which was “visited” by their dead relative, and the boy who arrived to the United States and went through a cultural shock, specifically with the two gay men he was living with. Those are narratives which do prove the clashes between the world of the people who live a normal, stable life, and the ones who are refugees; both from the point of cultural differences, and of ghosts from the past.

And don’t get me wrong, this entire review is not based on semantics. It’s based on the fact that the author wanted to give a perspective of the lives of the Vietnamese refugees, without having much to start with, and therefore, creating a book the point of which remains unclear.

This is specifically so because as much as I, as a reader, wanted to sympathize with the characters, I didn’t feel a part of their adventure. They were regular people who just happened to be out of their place. This can be applied both to the Vietnamese in America, and, say, the Vietnamese girl who went back to Vietnam for a vacation. And the characters didn’t just feel like puppets, because that would imply that they were a part of a story – they were just there, with not much else to give life and spirit to the story.

“The Girl with Seven Names” by Hyeonseo Lee

The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story(Author: Hyeonseo Lee) + (Year: 2015) + (Goodreads)

(Around the World: North Korea)


Review:

This is the second book that I have read, which tells the stories of North Korean defectors, the first being Nothing to Envy.

I debated with myself whether I need another book for my book world trip, but what set my mind was the idea, that while Nothing to Envy is a story told through a “middle man”, The Girl with Seven Names is an autobiography. Ultimately, now I can say that the difference between the two books is mostly in the way they view the subject. Hyeonseo Lee tells her own experiences, the life as she knew it, the world as she was taught to view it. However, Barbara Demick‘s book is more of a collection of stories, told through the prism of someone who knows the political situation well and could define the difference between what the defectors were experiencing, and what they knew about the world, versus what was actually happening. While this is mentioned in Lee’s narrative, she talks about it more in retrospect, as when certain political and historical situations were unfolding, she was oblivious to the facts, having been indoctrinated in the North Korean values.

For me, The Girl with Seven Names was a very valuable and interesting look into North Korea, and especially the way the people there view the world. But more so, as Hyeonseo Lee says so herself, she was not even from the lower classes of society, so she had it better than the rest. And “better” was not starving to death, not being sold as a bride in China, not being invited to serve and please the “leader”.

I think it’s really hard for any of us, even those, like me, who have lived in a communist, or post-communist country, to imagine the level of poverty, corruption and censure that people experience in a country like North Korea. I’ve witnessed firsthand only one somewhat similar country, that I’d rather not name, and it saddened me deeply how much people need to put up with to gain even their basic human rights, how much bribery is needed to not be falsely accused of a crime you didn’t commit, or how little you have, and yet learn to live with. That is not to say that I’m not seeing remains of this to this day in my own country. There was one particular sentence in The Girl with Seven Names, which reminded me of how Bulgarians can be, and which is something that I’ve heard even from foreigners who otherwise like or even love Bulgaria and the Bulgarian people:

“North Koreans have a gift for negativity towards others, the effect of a lifetime of compulsory criticism sessions.”

While to my knowledge, people haven’t had those criticism sessions here, I feel like pessimism and negativity are only two of many things that get born from regimes like the one in North Korea. So in many ways, the book was both very alien and unimaginable, but also very familiar, and close to home.

The fact which saddened my while reading both The Girl with Seven Names, and Nothing to Envy, is how North Koreans are treated while trying to defect. I would understand the unnecessary repercussions if North Koreans were not wanted in South Korea. But knowing that South Korea welcomes them, for all the countries around to stop the defectors, imprison them, or return them to North Korea to be punished or even executed, seems the highest level of inhumane.

While reading this book, I couldn’t stop thinking how lucky Hyeonseo Lee was in comparison to other defectors. At the very least, she managed to get out, and save her family, and even become a spokesperson about the rights of North Koreans. But what about all of those who were detained, killed, or maybe even worse…?

I think that books like this one are such which every person should read. Especially those who live happy little lives in a rich country in the West, and have no understanding of how the world works, or how bad some people have it. I’m sorry if it seems harsh, but the lack of empathy in some countries has reached levels which are so high that should be criminal. We’re all people, so we shouldn’t just accept that we deserve to have it better than others.

“Bad Monkeys” by Matt Ruff

Bad Monkeys(Author: Matt Ruff) + (Year: 2007) + (Goodreads)


Review:

Before starting the book, I skimmed through the Goodreads reviews. Also, my flatmate, who let me borrow the book, she shared the opinion of everyone on Goodreads.

So, I need only but confirm this: This book starts amazing and then falls flat on its sad, miserable face.

The story of Bad Monkeys might not have the most original concept ever, but the thing is, I really liked the basic idea. I wish that it had continued working on that, instead of developing into a weird sci-fi-wanna-be-karate-freakshow.

The story is as follows: Jane Charlotte has been arrested for murder. While she’s already in custody, she meets with a psychiatrist and starts retelling her story to him. Jane admits to being a member of the division Bad Monkeys of a secret organization, which deals with assassinating dangerous, evil people. Jane explains in detail her childhood, her integration into the organization, and what lead to her being in custody. While many of the things she says turn out to be the exact truth, many are proven wrong by the official facts her doctor manages to unearth in his investigation. Is Jane really part of an assassin organization? Is she simply crazy?

The thing which drew my attention was the idea behind the organization: it intervenes when a really evil person is set loose and is probably going to cause a lot of damage to society. The basic notion behind this, I would say, is the mistrust toward the justice system. If you asked me about it, I would say that I absolutely don’t believe that criminals get the deserved punishment. As there is no retribution, it’s really hard to believe in justice.

More so, Bad Monkeys puts a very simple question to its readers: If there was an ex-director of a Nazi concentration camp, who caused the death of half a million people, and who’s now 90 years old, and living hidden in the forests of South America, and a guy who has only killed one person, but he has found a lust for violence, and is fairly young, which one would you kill?

I’ll let you answer that for yourselves.

However, no matter how intriguing and thought-provoking this core idea was to me, the book came short on so much more. For starters, the main character, Jane, was so confusing. I, as a reader, had a hard time caring about her as a person, and cared only about her story. She herself was just some side noise around everything that was happening in the story itself. Also, the author made some valid points taken from religion and the Bible, but at some point, there was so much religion and religious remarks and comparisons, that I wasn’t sure where he was going. As a person, who on the surface seemed to lean more on atheism, than on religiousness, he definitely didn’t prove it but his use of Christian allegories.

And, last, but by far not least, the ending of the book was absolutely ludicrous. Somewhere around 1/3 in, the book started getting increasingly ridiculous and messed up. And not in a good way. From a slow, methodical thriller, it turned into a really bad acid trip, which to me was like “Why do I even care?”, which made me read with less and less interest.

I am stubborn. I read the book despite the warnings. Don’t be like me, save yourselves the time. Read something else.

“Watchmen” by Alan Moore

Watchmen(Author: Alan Moore) + (Year: 1987) + (Goodreads)


Review:

As this is most probably the most commented and admired comic books of all time, I think it makes sense that I would not be able to get through everything that makes it great.

In all honesty, Watchmen is quite frankly mesmerizing. Both the story and the art bring comic books on an entirely new level. If one would consider Watchmen just a comic book, then many “comic books” would not even have the right to try to claim that name.

Because Watchmen is, most of all, a philosophical novel. It juggles with many topics, among which most famously, the humanity of the characters. In a world where even humans struggle to be human – and I mean our own, – heroes are us. Because the Watchmen are not the likes of Captain America, Professor X, or Superman. They are humans who have taken the task of watching over the world. But who watches the Watchmen?

watchmen-ch1-pg1

If you have seen the Watchmen movie, you might have been left with the impression that Doctor Manhattan was the hero of this story. Having read the comic book, you might think that it was Rorschach. I would say that there is no hero in this story. It’s one full of disturbed, wounded, marginal people, who are trying their best to do what they can about the world they live in. Even the ones who choose to live in denial are not spared the reality of their lack of actions, or the consequences of it.

And as wrong as some of the characters might be, all of them are lively. Moore manages to breathe life into them, make them as real as we are, and just as flawed.

“The morality of my actions escapes me.” 

As deep and as intricate the entire book is, the one story that summarizes the whole, is Tales of the Black Freighter. It took me a while to catch on the story, because in the beginning some of the points it was making were still not connected to what was happening between the characters. But once we reached the end, I was mesmerized by the cleverness of this one, seemingly unconnected to the whole, plot line.

The one element of Watchmen that should never be overlooked is the fact that this book does not justify our world, or even us, the people in it. It doesn’t sugarcoat, and it doesn’t go into allegories which cannot be understood. What is special about Watchmen, in fact, is that it is a two-sided knife. There is much more to it than we can see, and it is still clear, if one has the right mindset. And the mindset is actually crucial to reading Watchmen, as this book is dedicated first and foremost, to us, our morality, and the justifications we give for our actions. Be it that we see life as too inconsequential to bother, or that we hate humanity to bits, and yet we’d sacrifice ourselves to save it, or even going beyond that, think that we love it so much that we justify our horrible deeds with other people’s well-being and future rewards.

I know that I am taking this review on a more philosophical level, rather than by analyzing the behaviour of the characters, but I rather think that Watchmen is not really its story, but what the story represents. While there are novels in which you have a beautiful narrative which could mean other things, but it is also important on its own, to me Watchmen is a different level if ingenuity, which should not be restricted between the panels of drawings.

And speaking of the art of Watchmen, it is, of course, beautiful, realistic, old-fashioned, ever so clever, and, I’d like to think, always valid. The symbolism, the creativity, the continuity, even, are undeniably shining bright and unlikely to be overshadowed by another piece of comic book art. I could even admit to not being too aware of Watchmen, until we discussed Alan Moore’s amazing descriptions while writing comic books, and how he’d go into details about every single part of the picture, to a point where the illustrator would have to but follow the instructions while drawing.

A real must-read!