It’s been a busy month, but I’ve managed to do some reading and to watch a couple of movies. Deeper discussions of the books, less so on the movies.
Korea Bug: The Best of the Zine that Infected a Nation, by J. Scott Burgeson. I’ve finished it! Not that it was a ponderous read, but that I feel like I have achieved something here. It’s a really fascinating text, actually — all kinds of interviews with people in whom I would have been interested, if I’d thought to think of them. The last gisaeng (Korean geisha)… a shaman… interesting Korean filmmakers… the most famous suit-maker in Korea… musicians. Those are the heart and soul of the book for me. His analysis of various books on Korea was fun, as was his long discussion of the history of zines and zine-like publishing in Korea — and I think he’s onto something with this notion of Bethell’s Law — the idea that Korea simply cannot support an interesting independent publication (by and for foreigners) — that such publications alwaus either have to toe a safe line, or fall into oblivion (or worse). Burgeson himself is writing for Koreans more and more, since that audience is much more interested in what a foreigner has to say about Korea (and since the foreign audience is mostly not interested.) All of that was fascinating, but for my money, it was the interviews that blew me away. Burgeson talked with so many interesting people and, glancing through the issue of Bug 3 (one installment of the zine in which most of the book were originally published) that he gave me when I met him in early April, I can only imagine how many more such interviews are lost to us in the haze of ephemeral print publication. (Though, having Bug 3, I also know the joy of its ephemerality.)
Great book. Buy it. Read it.
Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling. Sometimes SF authors get into a rut talking about the same things. (I’m currently trying to avoid slipping into one while I’m behind, and trying to write about things other than Korea.)
Sterling shows no sign of this. For a long time, he was into SF itself, and Dead Media. Then he was full-on into green inactivism, with the Viridian Design group. He published books on the way law enforcement mounted something he called The Hacker Crackdown in the late 80s and early 90s. He’s written all kinds of fascinating articles in Wired magazine over the years. He reviews Bollywood films on his blog. And while his interest in design is far from new, his most recent nonfiction book, Shaping Things, is a brilliant manifesto about the future of our relationship with objects, and how it can and should change in the next few years.
Not only is it wonderfully written, and very intelligent… it’s a beautiful little object in its own right, fully designed as a textual object. It’s a joy to look at, and the arguments and the visual layout are inextricably connected. Excellent book.
F&SF, February 2007, March 2007.
I’m a few months behind, though not only because of my slow pace. I’ve been reading other things, it’s true, but I’ve slowed in part because I’d heard there was not much that would impress me in these two issues. As well, the fact that my May issue didn’t turn up — though it’s supposedly on the way now — and that the June issue was just barely on the way, accounted for my slowdown. But mostly, I was putting off the slog.
But I finally decided, no more slog. If the story’s not to my taste, I have no obligation to finish it. So I’m going to be nice and mostly stick to pointing out what I liked:
In the February ’07 issue, S.L. Gilbow’s “Red Card” was the most memorable piece, and “Brain Raid” by Alexander Jablokov amused me enough. I wasn’t absolutely crazy about William Browning Spencer’s “Stone” but I thought it was alright. Meanwhile, in the March ’07 issue, I basically found Robert Reed’s and M. Rickert’s stories good, while, with the rest, either I was left cold, or the story was left unfinished.
It’s not necessarily bad that I don’t like everything, mind: it might be a sign of genre health. But I’m not sure. Sometimes I’m left thinking it’s a difference in personal taste, but sometimes, as a friend recently put it, I’m left “scratching my head.”
This is the first issue of Interzone I received from a one-year subscription, and as my first impression of the magazine, it’s a stunningly beautiful mag. The artwork — there actually is artwork — is amazing, and puts American magazines in the genre to shame. The stories are SF, through and through, and I am impressed by the quality of them.
Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag by Kang Chol-Hwan and Pierre Rigoulot, translated by Yair Reiner.
I was recently discussing the introduction of this book with another foreigner. The point of discussion was Kang’s observation that the memoirs of North Korean “defectors” or “escapees” (whatever name we choose to give them) are quite routinely turned down by publishing houses in South Korea. He suggested to me that it’s because North Korean escapees are prone to exaggerating how bad it is up there, which left me aghast. “But what if it really is that bad up there? How would your average South Korean know it was exaggeration?” I asked him. As for my part, I argued that the very suggestion that the contents of such books is exaggerated — when interest in them is so low, after all — probably stems from a kind of nationwide state of denial. Such a state is natural: it’s the same state that allows one parent to claim denial when the other parent has been physically or sexually abusing their child for years on end under the same room. It’s the same state of denial that people slip into when it’s easier to turn on the music than to hear the violence in the enxt apartment over.
Interestingly, at the time, neither of us suggested that they might just be badly written, or boring. But that does not hold true for The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Despite a somewhat worrying bit of praise to George Bush in the introduction — and you know things are bad when Bush is more willing to listen to the experiences of a North Korean escapee than the President of South Korea, who conspicuously received no thanks in the introduction — the book is a chilling, fascinating read.
Inventory by Dionne Brand
A strong, beautiful, blistering attack on imperialism not as some remote, academic concern, but as something that has acted on, and is acting open, bodies and brains in this world. I don’t know what Brand thinks of speculative fiction as a literary genre, but I found a lot of intersections with it.
I personally take issue with what feels like a conflation of European colonialism and space colonization — I just find it kind of silly to jumble the two and ignore what will probably be vast differences between them — but, as I’ve been discussing with my public speaking class, it’s hard to absolutely reject her implicit arguments because her speech is so passionate, so forceful, and so emotionally ensnaring. I was moved by the moment in the text when she described the utopian wish thus:
if I say in this letter, I’m waiting
to step into another life,
will you come through and find me
without rivers, without hopes, without nails,
without anything we now know, without
bruises, without bullet-holed walls
will you come without news of confessions
of serial killers and lost brides?
let us forget all that, let us not act surprised
or make coy distnctions among mass
murderers, why ration nuclear weapons,
let us all celebrate death
when you come through we’ll listen
to Coltrane’s Stellar Regions, to water,
to rain, again, anywhere and to Betty Carter
to caterpillars gnawing at leaves,
to gira cooking in oi, to all the songs
I love and have forgotten like Smokey
Robinson’s “Ooh Baby Baby” and Roaring Lion’s
“Caroline,” we’ll just listen
the ear is so valuable, it is like sleep
This is moving, and one of the softer, more hopeful moments, yet also fraught with pain since, after all, it is a dream of stepping through, into that other world — or so it seems to me. I may not fully agree about the life Brand on her specifics, but I cannot just dismiss her words. She uses them too masterfully, to powerfully and beautifully, even as she writes of horror. She does not really soothe the blisters: “I have nothing soothing to tell you, / that’s not my job,” she says, just before the end of the poem. What she says is her job, is one she performs admirably, movingly. Inventory is a great book-length poem.
Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture by John Strausbaugh.
I picked up this book as research for a course I’ll likely be teaching again next semester, but also as a resource for a short story I was planning to write. This was my first step into researching the history of the blackface minstrel tradition in American and Western popular culture. I got a lot more than I bargained for. Strausbaugh’s analysis is something rare in that it’s both compassionate and critical. I imagine some readers will see this either was an apologist’s defense of blackface, but it doesn’t really strike me that way. Strausbaugh’s central claim seems to be not that blackface minstrelsy and all that came from it wasn’t and isn’t racist, but that “racism” is a much more complicated thing that we’re remembering today with our simplified binary of Black and White. And, in fact, what’s fascinating is how blackface minstrelsy is a part of how that binary got defined, as well as how it threatens that binary division at the same time as it reinforces it.
Strausbaugh looks at America’s tradition of interracial mockery and imitation — including, fascinatingly, the bemused mockery of the uptight, stick-up-the-butt gait and mannerisms of whites by black slaves living on plantations. (He even claims that the “cakewalk” dance was cooked up as a kind of mocking dance wholly mocking whites, who then ironically appropriated the dance from their black slaves.) Jewface, Italianface, Irishface, and Womanface were all also a part of the minstrel show tradition, yet, as he notes, Jews and Italians and Irish performers and spectators could, at least in theory, all go out and eat dinner together after the show, while black performers and audience members — yes, they did exist, even though segregated to a different set of seats — could not. However, he doesn’t shy away from the fact that blackface was the most elaborate, the most widespread, the most long-lasting, and the most neurotic of racist depictions in the minstrel show. (Still more neurotic by the massive numbers of blacks who eventually took up blackface — and its literary equivalent — as well.)
By analyzing the audience, he brings forward a very interesting contextualization of racism in the period: while never shying away from how repulsive the racist humor and entertainment is to our modern sense, and was to many at its time, he gives context about how this was a part of a more nuanced and widespread set of oppressions by class and economics, of both black and other people in the lower classes in nineteenth-century America, as well as how the minstrel-show was a kind of rebellious youth-culture that rejected upper-class norms and values — the rich folks’ sappy songs and sexual conservativism — by turning to another source for its rebellion and as a model for alternity, one that resonated with the lives of its earliest audiences, which were lower-class whites. (Just as many middle-class whites adopt gangsta styles and rap as a form of rebellion.)
A picture emerges of how race was not just black-and-white, but a jampacked, jostling, jumbling free-for-all between many groups who perceived one another as bizarre, ridiculous, and other… except that, as he reminds us again and again, it unfortunately wasn’t free for quite all. He doesn’t shy away from the monstrousness of that fact. I never felt I was alone in my discomfort at being face-to-face, or sometimes cheek-and-jowl, with history: Strausbaugh’s own discomfort is hard to miss in many points. And yet there’s more to it than that: there’s an amusement at recognizing the old stereotype character Zip Coon in recent music videos and asking why the character-type has such staying power. There’s utopianism, rebelliousness, admiration, and even sympathy existing side-by-side with unimaginably brutal racism. I am left with a feeling that, if nothing else, I have a lot more reading to do on this subject.
The book drives home one thing powerfully, which is that American culture is, centrally, a very weird experiment, and that the results at every step of the way have been more complex and weird than we tend to acknowledge now. I have to say that I like Strausbaugh’s thesis that American culture is truly a mutt culture — an interbred mongrel with elements from many places, but with a significant contribution from black Americans. (Darius James, in the afterword, suggests it might be perhaps a direct relationship between the amount of oppression of a people, and how much they rely on songs and creativity to survive, and that one reason white Americans leaned on black American culture was that it was a wellspring of spiritual strengh they discovered when they faced their own world-shattering dilemmas.) Why did white eyes turn to black Americans, imagined or real or somewhere in between? Hatred and disgust certainly is part of it, a belief of their being “naturally good at” dancing and entertaining — and the belittling that goes with it — is, Strausbaugh admits, part of it: but he also argues that it’s not the whole of the story. And it seems to me Strausbaugh’s final sense is that the best part of America’s joy, and beauty, and happiness, comes in a knowing acceptance and embrace of its own black roots, and not just its white Anglo-Saxon ones.
The Weight of Oranges/Miner’s Pond by Anne Michaels
This book got popular in Canada when I was just about to go to grad school, just when Michaels’ novel Fugitive Pieces was published. Suddenly everyone was talking about Anne Michaels. I have the novel somewhere, too, I think — in a box in my mother’s garage.
As for this book, which is a re-publication of two previous smaller books of verse, I have to say that almost a decade after it came out, I’m underwhelmed by it. Certainly, there are some good sections, but overall, the author seems overly fascinated with parallels between the artsforms of painting and poetry. She also seems to be overly fond of painters in a way I don’t particularly share, so her biographic sketches and many allusions don’t resonate for me at all. I get images of a bunch of deluded bohemian types traipsing about Europe, and it does little for me. That said, “What the Light Teaches” is an excellent piece of work, and there are a few other poems I enjoyed in the volume as well.
The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer
I found out this book was in the library collection where I work. Of course, it was listed as available, but wasn’t in the stacks. After a little investigation, it turned out that it was on the secret 5th-floor annex for books that haven’t been signed out in ages and ages. (I have to wonder what constitutes ages and ages, as some of the books I’ve signed out — such as Wolfram’s A New Kind of Science — seem to have been read by nobody before me.) Anyway, I got the thing home, and read it in a day and a half, and I have to say I’m not overly impressed. After being told I was giving Greer an unfair rap by saying that her argument was that men hate women, and secretly hate themselves, I decided to read the book and see for myself.
It’s not that the whole thing is bad. Her analysis of the history of marriage has some problems, and some holes in it, but that might be because of more recent scholarship that I’ve read to which she didn’t have access in 1970. The final couple of chapters have some interesting material, if you can hold your nose through her speaking of Valerie Solanas as anything other than an embarrassment and a nutter. And… well, there are other things you really have to hold your nose through, as well. She doesn’t have a particularly tolerant view of male homosexuals, referring to them almost exclusively as “faggots.” She seems, apparently because it was in vogue at the time, to believe that vaginal orgasms don’t exist. (Eppur si muove, I say, though, yes, their commonality in romance fiction is way over the bounds of credulity.) She also seems to be as hateful of women as she accuses men of being.
And she does explicitly state that men hate women. In fact, she starts a chapter with the statement that women barely know how much men hate them. My mistake was not giving her a bum rap in claiming she was arguing men do hate women: my mistake was not knowing that it was a starting assumption of her argument. As for the rest, there is altogether too much refried Freud to make the book tenable. It seems to presage the rest of feminism’s “triumphs” since the 70s — reinternalizing the most destructive values of consumer/capitalist patriarchy, the primacy of work out of the home, the preferability of “professional work” of even the most counterproductive, destructive kind to work in the home — and failing to insist on a total retasking of both men’s and women’s roles: things that, to some limited degree, Greer herself actually speaks to. But of course, she fails to speak to them in a way that can actually bring about change, for many reasons but not the least the fact that her own view is deeply skewed. It is skewed because she had, by 1970, deeply internalized Freud — bought into the man’s so-called “theories” and models of thought — even as she criticized him out of the corner of her mouth. Would that she had had access to more recent scholarship, of the kind that debunks Freud thoroughly. Would that she had more access to texts from the middle ages, such as Mary Frances Wack’s amazing discussion of the commentaries on the Viaticum and medieval (male) conceptions of lovesickness. (Despite some silly Freudian blather about milknurses and Freud in the back of that book, as well.) Actually, I have a lot to say about Greer’s notion of the changes that have happened to idea of love and to the structure of the famil, but I’ll save it for later.
Instead, I’ll note that Joanna Russ’ scathing criticisms of the feminist movement in the 70s in her book What Are We Fighting For? — of it being White Middle Class Feminism, hateful of lesbians, hateful of gays, wilfully ignorant of the problems of race and class and the global scope of the oppression of women — all come to mind.
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
This book is a step-by-step examination of what makes novels tick… and sell… by appealing to readers. Maass argues that we should forget all the talk of marketing, advertising, merchandising… that what basically sells books is their appeal, and word of mouth. (I’m not completely convinced of that, but it does comfort andf reassure me at moments when I decide to believe it.) Maass looks at things like character, setting, and plot-structure and offers hints at how to torque things up.
“Torque” is a term an old teacher of mine, the poet Tim Lilburn, used to use. He’d draw a little plus-sign with a three-quarter circle around it, an arrow on the end of one side, beside a word or phrase. That meant, More Tension or Pay Attention To Your Verbs Here or Use a Better Adjective or Add an Adjective or Is This the Best You Can Do? It was a great reminder that poerty ought to have a certain kind of power at its disposal. Maass’ book argues the same thing, but in the service of writing more compelling, powerful, and reader-lovable novels. Which means novels that will sell more.
But I have to say that some of the stories and novels I’ve loved best have been ones that don’t follow his suggestions. Many do, but not all. As always, I maintain that the work of art is often largely within a tradition, but with one leg , or an arm, or — often — its head and its heart — hanging out the window. The stuff in this book looks useful to me in a “master this first” kind of way, and it makes sense to pay attention to a tastemaker like Maass — for he sells books, and trends do follow from that — but I have a feeling, once I’ve internalized all the suggestions that make sense to me, other, much deeper lessons, will await.
That’s not a bad thing: it’s a very good one. It means that my instinctive fears about people following this pattern to closely are unfounded. Sometimes everyone will tell you, “Why didn’t you include any character development?” and sometimes people will be so blown away by everything else that they won’t notice its lack.
This Film is Not Yet Rated (documentary): Great fun, and somewhat angering to know how the MPAA actually works. I always wondered who the idiots were who were rating movies. Now I know who they are, some of them anyway. And that they are idiots.
Tristan & Isolde: This didn’t do much for me. I did find the idea of an Ireland oppressing England, after having been spared the worst of Roman conquest by its peripherality, quite interesting. But the treatment of Tristan & Isolde was boring.
Vanity Fair: I signed this out of the office. I should have signed it back in after half an hour. It’s a bad film, whatever one thinks of the book. (Not having read it, I have no opinion on the quality of the adaptation, but as a film, it bored me.
Spider Man 3: Quite a disappointment, really. It’s shot in a way that is more reminiscent of comic book depiction, but more than in any other superhero film before, the whole “superhero as deputy cop” thing — where superheroes have become a flunky of the man, the state, of the rich peoples’ definition of good and evil — has overtaken his ability to fight for the sake of the neglected, poor, and weak within his society. Spider Man here is not fighting for good at all: he’s just fighting for his girlfriend, and for order. Not justice, just order. When Spider Man takes revenge on a murderer, he’s supposedly evil, but when he disempowers a man from stealing money to help his sick child, he’s a hero? Besides, too many villains and too much in the way of easy moral turnarounds. This is nowhere near as good as the previous Spider Man movies. It has me thinking about the motivations and ethics of my own Korean superhero characters, even.
Children of Men: My word, what an amazing film. Not just the story, for which we can thank P.D. James. Not just the acting, from just about everyone. Even the cinematography is amazing, in a kind of “so good it’s transparent until it’s pointed out to you” kind of way. This is an amazing SF movie, and the movie you should hold up when people this silly mess Sunshine up as an example of crap SF cinema. (I haven’t seen it, but the premise is idiotic, is all.) I actually was re-watching Children of Men last night with Lime, but there was so much going on that it was still fascinating. If there’s one 2006 film you haven’t seen and must, it’s this one.