This list spans June and the first half of July 2007.
- Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs.
Fascinating, disturbing, and surprising. It has the usual disclaimers from locals, but what I found unusual and particularly inspiring was her continuous reminders of the kind of horrific objectification that was forced on female slaves in America, on the downright moral and sexual depravity of white masters. What was striking was that she spoke less in abstract terms, instead slamming home her point with specific examples from her life, which were enough to turn my stomach. She wrote this just around the the time of the American Civil War, and I have to wonder why Frederick Douglass’s work, which was more circumspect in many ways, has even now more political and academic freight than this book. And I especially have to wonder how it came to be in an academic library in Korea.
- What Mad Universe? by Frederic Brown
This book was recommended to me by Vernor Vinge as something I should read as a point of comparison to a novella he gave me some feedback on. It was a bizarre novel, but quite fascinating, and hilarious in parts. It’s basically a what-if about a magazine editor who wakes up in an alternate universe where some of the wildest fantasies in his SF magazine are actually true: Venusians walking the streets, warlike conditions where cities are fogged-out at night to prevent attack from orbit… all kinds of neat stuff here. It was such a fun read that I am eager to check out some more of Brown’s stuff sometime in the future.
- A Plague Upon Humanity: The Secret Genocide of Axis Japan’s Germ Warfare Operation by Daniel Barenblatt
Unlike some of the books I’ve read lately, this one just made me angry, disgusted, and skeptical about power. It’s not just about the germ warfare and human medical experimentation that Japan performed (mostly) in Manchuria and China; it’s also about how, after the war, the US military helped to cover up these horrifying acts in order to have access to the results of those experiments, and to get informed, experienced input from Japanese scientists involved in these crimes against humanity for the construction of an American biowarfare program. It details how this aid helped Japanese war criminals guilty of atrocities end up in powerful academic positions in Japan after the war, and in great detail describes the kinds of experiments performed, and the disease outbreaks in China what followed some of the worst. But the real story is about the kind of amoral bargaining that happened after the war, where the Japanese crimes were considered less evil when performed on their neighbours. Finally, it offers some answers as to how some in Japan came to be in denial of Japanese crimes against humanity both before and during World War II, and how America’s military helped make this denial easier to promulgate.
- Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov
I brought the Foundation trilogy with me to Korea when I first came over, thinking that I would probably run short of English-language books and finally force myself to finish the trilogy, after forcing my wat through the first book, Foundation, with great disdain. I have to say, Foundation and Empire is a better book than I remember Foundation being. I still don’t think it’s a masterwork: maybe I’m just coming at it too late, but vast galactic empires collapsing like Rome, surrounded by space-barbarians, and secret-societies trying to keep man alive through the dark ages that follow… it just seems a little hackneyed to me. That said, I did find the Mule thing interesting. I saw it coming a mile away, but it did, at least, entertain me.
However, the fact that I didn’t dive into Second Foundation immediately also tells you my enthusiasm for Asimov’s early work remains lukewarm.
- The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
Frantz Fanon was a Martinique-born, French-trained psychiatrist who ended up in Algeria, working the local anti-colonial independence movement. This book is the second of his works that I have read, and I found it a hard read at points, but very much worth the effort. The main point of the book is discussing the process of decolonization. In one of his documentaries — I think it was in his 2007 BBC2 documentary The Trap – What Happened to our Dream of Freedom— Adam Curtis paraphrased Fanon as having claimed that violent revolution was necessary psychologically for the colonized man to demolish his colonial identity and rebuild himself. It’s true, in a sense, but Fanon was also expressing something about the emasculation of colonial identity, and his discussion of the relationship between colonized elites, colonial powers, and the mass people was fascinating.
It’s also interesting to apply the logic of the book to Korea, as an example. Quite a few things in Fanon’s discussion of a colonial power that had not used violence to cast off its occupier’s shackles, and quite a few things about the psychology of a culture stuck in the transition between colonial and independent modes, seemed to ring true to my experience here. The continual labeling of things as “Korean traditional” and attendant anxiety about modernity; the obsession with the past, and especially the intertwining of colonized elite with colonizer; the modes of relationships between elites and the common people, and even some of the specific points he makes about the way governance occurs after colonization all seem to ring somewhat true with how things happened in Korea. It’s not a perfect fit, but nonetheless it’s a fascinating comparison, one rich enough with both harmonies and with loud enough dissonances to be worth at least a paper, if not a dissertation, by someone. Probably not by me, though.
- Fantasy Magazine, #5 (December 2006)
This was a good read; I especially enjoyed “Bear Lake” by Margaret Ronald, “The Dead Girl’s Wedding March” by Cat Rambo, and “A Garden in Hell” by Richard Parks, but Fantasy has a consistently good standard of stories in its pages. I’m just wondering when I’m going to see something again. I heard the last issue went to press, but I haven’t gotten a copy yet. I do know that changes are afoot, since I have something forthcoming, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.
- The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Someone commented on the fact I had actually read an Oprah book. It’s actually my second, the first being Toni Morrison’s Beloved, though I think I read it before the novel was Oprah-ized. In any case, it was a gripping read, powerful and painful and different from other post-holocaust stuff I’d read since it takes place soon after a Total War, and presents what it, honestly, a big picture of hopelessness in which a small gleam of hope is kept alive by a man and his son. (The ending is a not a burst of hope, but really just the continuation of the glimmer, on a slightly bigger scale. The world is still totall shot, and nothing is about to change that.) I can see why people are raving about it. It’s a great book. Why aren’t more full-time SF writers writing books that, like this, are able to grab mainstream and so-called “literary” readers?
On the other hand, it also seems to bolster the mumblings I’ve heard lately that American SF and the American imaginary in general is dark, cloudy, and bleak, while all the visionary, hopeful, excitingly futuristic SF — the SF in which a real future is worth living in — is coming out of Britain.
- TheMa Rok Biographies by Seo Giwon, translated by Kevin O’Rourke
This book didn’t do much for me, and I think I mostly finished it because it was so short. If it had been long, I doubt I’d have persevered. I’m not sure whether it was the translation that caused my lack of interest, or whether a different translation might have gotten me more interested in the content, but I suspect it’s a combination of both. I also have a vague suspicion that the original was bitingly funny, or at least more bitingly funny than the version I read. But being unable to read the original, I’ll just have to say the text I read didn’t much excited me.
- Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty by Bradley K. Martin
This took me weeks to get through. Martin’s masterpiece, the distillation of a career of research and reporting on North Korea, it’s a powerful assault against all those voices telling us not to take seriously what North Korean defectors tell us about the regime they fled. Martin’s experiences in North Korea are interesting, but it’s his presentation of dozens of interviews with defectors — and his discussion of them as a whole — that really makes this book fascinating. As Martin points out, defectors in the past were rarer, and perhaps more prone to being coached into false statements by the South Korean security and intelligence organizations, which were, we can all agree, extremely paranoid during the dictatorships in South Korean. But since the famines in the North, the floew of defectors — and the general consistency of what they describe — paints a picture which we can no longer credibly, in good conscience, deny as the fabrications of Southern politicos and security officers.
This book is a powerful antidote to anyone — such the work of that major American Korea-scholar who shall remain nameless here — who thinks that sympathy for the North Korean system and defense of it against Western criticism is warranted or even sane. Generalized distrust of North Korean defectors and refugees is outdated, yet I hear it — all too often from foreigners here, who are all too quick to respond to criticism of North Korea with defense of the country and criticisms of America, a typical left-wing intellectual kneejerk reaction which, while I appreciate the sentiment, makes no sense when it amounts to defending the abomination that is North Korea.
- She Dreams in Red by Alexis Kienlen
The debut collection of poems by a one-time classmate of mine, She Dreams in Red is an enviable first book. Alexis unveils hidden worlds, one by one, section by section, poem by poem. The sections that spoke strongest to me were the poems about “Chinese Cafe,” which seemed to me to be about being of mixed background and living in Canada, and the sections about Indonesia and Mongolia, which recounted familiar experiences of being an expatriate, a foreigner and knowing oneself as a foreigner as well — a contrast to the halfway-foreigner feeling I know I grew up with living in pokey Saskatchewan with parents who not only didn’t share a culture of origin with the locals, but also didn’t even have a single culture of origin in common with one another.
As always, with poetry, it’s going to take another reading or two for me to really know how I feel about each poem, but I can say that parts of Indonesia made me laugh for all their familiarity, and parts of Mongolia hit me like a stone in the belly, and that’s what poems are supposed to do, if you ask me.
- Irma Vep
Meh. Maybe it was just too French for me, but it didn’t do much for me.
- 미녀는 괴로워 (200 Pounds (sic) Beauty)
This film struck me as weird because it amounts, basically, to a defense of a woman’s choice to have plastic surgery in order to have any chance at a real career and at love. Seriously: it’s wholehearted in its defense of a woman’s need to live up to society’s sexist, media-honed insistence that women do their best to look like supermodels. For all the disclaimers about how it’s what’s inside that counts, the film offered not one iota of crticism against that social environment, or the issue my students are often writing about, which is the insanity of the fact this actually does affect one’s job prospects. Also, the fat-girl-turned-beauty was so exaggeratedly fat that it was a strawman: most of the Korean women I’ve known who considered themselves “fat” weren’t even a third of the size of the fat woman in this film. All in all? I couldn’t help but scratch my head. Plastic surgery is rampant, and public opinion is pretty supportive of it in general. What’s with all the spirited defense of it?
Oh, and I wish SOMEONE in Chungmuro (the Korean version of Hollywood) would take a damn English class. 200 Pounds Beauty is embarrassingly awkward. Hell, I’ll consult on Konglish titles. For cheap!
- 알 ??트 (R-Point)
Third “meh” in a row: this one was a Korean ghost story set in Vietnam during the Vietnam war. It looked like a B-movie to me, and got tedious enough for me to watch the ending on half my computer screen while surfing the net on the other half.
- Three… Extremes
Three short horror films by three East-Asian directors. The Japanese film was just weird, and I don’t think I got it;’ “Dumplings,” the Chinese film, was excellent, but the Korean film was my favorite: it was harsh, wanton, insane, and bizarre, but also funny as hell.
- 그때 그사람들 (The President’s Last Bang)
Hm. There’s a reason the Korean right wing criticised this, what with the fact that the dictator who is mocked as a sexist, elitist, pro-Japanese pig and then shot to death onscreen is the father of a party high-up here. (Sigh.) I didn’t laugh much, but it was a fascinating film nonetheless.
- Schindler’s List
It is certainly Spielberg’s best. Some of my older misgivings didn’t survive another viewing, I’ll say that at least.The rest I’ll leave aside, as I’m not sure what to say about this film beyond that.
British libel law was (and maybe still is?) such that lawsuits are possible even when you speak the truth, as long as the subject of your claims wishes to contest it, on the grounds of damage to his or her reputation. When you are criticizing a company, this becomes a problem, because unlike average Joes who dare to speak out against companies, big businesses usually have piles of money to throw at lawsuits in order to scare people off or shut them up. Whereas, in libel cases in Britain, not even defense attorneys were provided.
A pair of anti-fast-food activists were targeted in this way by McDonald’s in Britain, and they managed not only to survive the case, but to get the EU to rule that British libel law was a violation of human rights. This film is their story.
- North Korea: A Day in the LifeOne of the best documentaries yet (that I’ve seen) about North Korea. It’s just a look at daily life, of course among a relatively elite family. Relatively elite meaning they’re working jobs, not eating tree bark and grass mixed with corn mush. Disturbing, nonetheless.
- Crossing the Line
This is even more disturbing: a look into the lives of a group of American defectors to North Korea, made with first-hand interviews with the one who is still living there. It’s very obviously, patently North Korea’s response to the claims made by Jenkins, but it’s also a portrait of how bizarre a person would have to be to choose to live in North Korea. The focus on James Dresnok’s physical health — his continued drinking and smoking despite doctors’ warnings that he should stop — are almost certainly included not to show how much the North cares for his health, but to show the man’s capacity for living in denial, and to the peril of his own health. As with body, so with mind: his claims are often odd, sometimes disturbing, and occasionally illuminating, if you read them intelligently.
- Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix
This was better than the last Harry Potter film I saw, and I think this was because there was a focus on a coherent, arcing story. Minor characters with interesting arcs, neat revelations, that sort of thing. In my opinion, the cracks in Rowling’s worldbuilding show through, of course, but I’ll save my comments: the story I’m writing right now addresses this better than I would directly.
Would everyone please stop making movies where just being in space turns people into psycho killers? I could have looked past the dunderheaded physics if the movie had been sane, but all this movie seemed to offer was nice visuals, married to a story line so stupid I was embarrassed by it being classed in the genre I love so much. Oh, and the scientist who lives the longest? He looks more like an emo rock kid than the most important physicist/engineer on board.
What they should have done was get a real SF writer to make a script, so all of the talent for visuals, and the acting, wouldn’t have been wasted on a story so stupid that even a science-illiterate teenager would go, “Yeah, right!”
- The West Wing, Seasons 4-6
It’s somewhat of an addiction, but at this point, I’ve got one season left, so I’m sticking with it. Good show. It gets weird somewhere along the way, but it seems to draw my interest along. I’m into season 7 now, but I’m trying to pace myself.
This is by no means an extensive discussion of the music I’ve listened to lately. It’s just a few of the CDs I’ve picked up lately and/or have been especially enjoying.
- Bluiett Baritone Saxophone Group: Live at the Knitting Factory
- Bluiett Baritone Nation: Libation for the Baritone Saxophone Nation
Bluiett and his fellow baritonists don’t mess around. This is some serious music-making with the baritone saxophone — four of them, in fact — at center stage. Fascinating stuff, well worth all the anticipation and well worth the cost of ordering them. These guys play out just as much as they play in, but then, fans of Bluiett’s work with the World Saxophone Quartet and his career as a headliner won’t be surprised at that.
- Hwang Sin Hae Band: Universe is a Jjambbong: Best of… (1997-2004)
Hwang Sin Hae Band — really just one guy — is the most interesting thing going in the Korea indie rock scene. It’s weird, it’s spacey, it’s funny, and just a tad insane. This is one performer I have to see live.
- UhUhBoo Project Band: Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance OST
My praise for Hwang Sin Hae Band is hedged by only one thing: the fact that Uh Uh Boo Project band, even though it’s my favorite Korean indie group, isn’t doing much these days. This soundtrack is apparently the last thing they put out (back in 2004), and besides the Tuna World EP, it’s about the only thing available right now. Think a Korean Tom Waits, but don’t think it too hard. These guys are weirder.
- Courtney Pine: Destiny’s Song + The Image of Pursuance
- Courtney Pine: The Vision’s Tale
- Courtney Pine: Closer to Home
I got these albums second han; I’m pretty sure the first two are totally unavailable otherwise. Before Courtney Pine rose to fame as a kind of hip-hop acid-jazz saxophonist, he played neo-bop, or re-bop, or whatever it was that they were calling it when, in the late 80s and early 90s, a bunch of seriously talented musicians started playing jazz that straddled bebop and slightly more “out” stuff. Courtney Pine was one of the young lions of the saxophone back then, and in my books, as a high schooler, he certainly stood in the shadow of John Coltrane, but in that shadow, he shone — alongside Branford Marsalis, another giant of the tenor saxophone from that time, and Joe Lovano, who seemed to have been doing it all along.
I saw Pine live once. He played like a monster… in Saskatoon. This was when really huge names were touring the jazz festivals in Canada, and the festivals could afford to attract more than a couple of big names to the shows. (Back when cigarette peddlers were allowed to sponsor festivals, even festivals in places like Saskatoon.) Pine played lots of familiar songs, talked about the music he heard when he traveled to Africa, had the audience clapping polyrhythmic accompaniment to one of his songs. But the thing that blew my mind, over and above his shocking virtuosity, was when he did a twenty-minute long ccadenza to “Misty,” I think it was. Almost the whole time, he was circular breathing, and while some guys, like Kang Tae Hwan, can do it for much longer on an alto, I can attest to the fact that tenor saxes take a lot more air and pressure. It was shocking to me that he could maintain it for two minutes, let alone twenty, but he did. That was the mind-exploding gimmick.
At the time, a saxophonist friend criticized Pine on the grounds that his albums sounded “rehearsed,” which is odd since, if you’ve heard some of the alternate takes from John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, you’ll know just how much of his solos there were rehearsed. Pine, live, did not disappoint, as I’m sure he still doesn’t. I have some of his more recent stuff, and I like it… and heck, I even applaud him breaking out of the silly cliquish boundaries that some people, led by Wynton Marsalis, tried to establish in the jazz world — where serious musicians, like politicians, wore suits, and never ever moonlighted in anything less “pure” like pop music. Pine’s music was never “pure,” but that’s part of the joy of it, a re-admixture of everything available, a heterogenous re-distillation of world culture.
Among the albums, the two former are mainstream jazz, with the former being stronger than the latter. Closer to Home I bought more out of nostalgia, since it was, in high school, a gift from a friend. It’s an odd album, somewhere between acid jazz and reggae, and the only one of its kind in Pine’s catalog — he soon moved to more straight acid-jazz hip-hop. It sounds like there’s maybe a smidgen of contemporaneous influence from Herb Alpert’s attempt at hip-hop fusion at the time, with almost too-melodic tunes mixed among more interesting stuff. But there are some great moments on the CD, especially in the last, live track where Pine reprised the tune that he did with Soul II Soul, “Courtney Blows.”