Watched/Read/Listened: July 16th to August 13th

First off, I’m writing this in pieces, as I complete each book, so that my comments about each aren’t based on hazy recollections of a month past or more.

BOOKS:

  1. Blameless in Abaddon by James Morrow I’ve been a fan of James Morrow’s writing for years now, since I read, by chance, his novel Only Begotten Daughter back in my undergrad days. Since then, I’ve read Bible Stories for Adults, This is the Way the World Ends, and Towing Jehovah, the latter of which is the book to which Blameless in Abaddon is the sequel. Morrow’s made a name for himself as a theological satirist, with the main approach in his novels and short stories being mostly based on sympathetic yet unswerving skewering of religious beliefs. It’s a razor’s edge he walks, making fun of the way humans worship Jehovah (and other beings, and in fact other things, like their own righteousness, or their money, or whatever) while also giving giving that which he mocks — Jehovah and the whole Judeo-Christian belief system itself — a voice in his own work, a chance to defend itself. Blameless in Abaddon is a story that re-approaches the question of the theodicy in a new and amusing way: a class action suit filed against God in the Hague for Crimes Against Humanity. Yes, Elie Wiesel did it first, elsewhere. I may even get around to reading Wiesel’s version, but it’s no strike against Morrow’s since, as Morrow says, it’d been done long before Wiesel got to it: it’s really also the story of Job. Except, of course, that things turn out pretty different in Morrow’s version… funnier, really.In any case, it’s a ridiculously quick, extremely intelligent, and very funny read. Of course, I’d say one should read Towing Jehovah first, but the fact is, the novel could stand alone; I read Towing Jehovah several years ago and I still feel like I got everything out of the Morrow that I was meant to.
  2. Three Poets of Modern Korea: Yi Sang, Hahm Dong-seon and Choi Young-mi, translated by Yu Jung-yul and James Kimbrell The warning offered to me by Charles holds true: Yi Sang is bizarre and somewhat frustrating to read, at least in English translation. The poems of his in this collection are not the weirdest poems I’ve ever seen, but then, I declined to purchase Christian Bök’s Eunoia (some kind of digitized version of it is available here, but there aren’t the most annoying bits of the book) despite the recommendation of many friends who thought I’d dig it.While there are forms of art in which I think the avant-garde works, there are kinds of avant-garde that just bore or annoy me, within each form of art. Music that sounds like household appliances on the fritz, poetry that looks like wordsalad, these are not the same as the music of, say, Steve Reich or Webern, or the poetry of Pound or Cummings.Anuyway, I wasn’t quite annoyed by Yi Sang’s work — I can never speak badly of the author of 날개 — but they mostly perplexed me and felt like, well, something a little more on the “experimental and didn’t quite work out” side of things. Who knows, though: in Korean, they may be the cat’s pajamas.Hahm Dong-seon was hard to dislike, but I get the feeling that I wouldn’t want to read his whole ouevre, not because so much of it feels, in my memory, so thoroughly bleak, but rather because there’s some very difficult to pin down distance within his voice, or at least, in the voice the translators fashioned for him. There’s an allure to a poet whose voice carries a tint of withholding, but this is different: he paints stunning images, but one never feels as if one is any closer to Hahm for reading his work. Lovely, lovely, enviable phrases and words, but in the end, he felt so distant. Maybe more of his work would draw forth a deeper sense of intimacy with the voice.Another thing I was wary of was that there is a presence in many of his poems of the Korean War. Of course, some would say that it is an inevitable presence, given that he actually experienced it. There are haunting ghosts n some of the poems, such as of the brother who was dragged to the North, but I’m always a little leery of the mainstream literary establishment, and when I arrived in Korea in 2002, I read an article in one or another newspaper about how younger authors were getting bashed by older ones for “not writing enough about the Korean War.” Hahm perhaps had nothing to do with that bashing, but there’s a sense in which I feel more interested in writers who are tackling things closer to a later zeitgeist, the things that puzzle those reaching middle age now.That’s perhaps why I found the writing of Choi Young-mi so much more interesting. She does some amazing things with the simplest of materials. Her poems have street scenes, flashes of love, longing, sex, and heartbreak — especially heartbreak — as well as old ladies nodding off on the train, and preachers waking them with their hollers. I especially found her viewpoint looking back on more recent events in history — on the student anti-government movements from the 60s through the 80s — quite interesting. Hands down, the best title among her poems in this book (and the title of one of her collections, published in Korea) was At Thirty, the Party was Over, which I think gives one a pretty good idea of the kind of wry, funny, yet also gloomy sensibility of this poet’s voice and approach.All in all a worthwhile book. One general complaint is that it could have done with a little better proofreading. I noticed at least a couple of typos on my way through the book, though I don’t recall where they were except for the misspelling of Kwangju in Choi’s bio.
  3. After the Quake by Haruki Murakami was given to me by Lime in — I think — November 2006. At least, I think that’s the date on the bus ticket that’s tucked into it. I finally got around to it and I have to say, it’s a pretty damned good collection of short stories. These tales have a very crafted quality about them, and there are enough interconnections in the book for me to get a chuckle out of the resonances he sets up between a few of the stories, though thank heaven he doesn’t write these semi-pretentious “mosaic novels” that fly neither as individual stories nor as novels. He’s got this great sense about where to start a story, and where to end it. The other thing is that there’s a very kindly quality abuot these stories. I heard that this was the next book Murakami wrote after he finished with all those interviews he did with the Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack victims (and perpetrators/cult members). If that’s the case, I am unsurprised at the eagerness for a certain kind of kindness, gentleness, and tederness that runs through all of these stories — even “super-frog saves tokyo” — as it’s such a contrast to the kind of thing he’d have been dealing with at the time. I’m not a Murakami devotee — I’m so-so on Hard-Boiled Wonderland… and didn’t really get into him until The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle — but these short stories are good.
  4. Superman — Sunday Classics: 1939-1943 by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster It’s perhaps strange for me to read these comics with such fascination, since the majority of the comics I read as a kid were not Superman comics. I read a few, to be sure, but I was more into Asterix & Obelix, mainly because they were in the library, and thus free, and Archie comics because they just seemed to be around a lot, and, a little further back, random non-series horror and mystery comics because serial stuff was too frustrating — I’d miss some, in the little northern town I lived in, and never pick up the thread again — and again because it was what the library had.I was never really that into comics, actually. I’m still not that into them, though I enjoy a good, well-drawn and well-written graphic novel as well as the next person. But for me, these Superman strips have been a kind of educational experience. I’d read about the scatteredness of Superman’s roles, not just as a protector of law and order, but also as a hero of justice and a champion of the underdog, which latter roles were later conflated by Superman’s deputization as a kind of meta-law enforcement official, a kind of mega-cop. But in these comics, Superman is more spastic than that — sometimes he’d busting crooked industrial saboteurs, sometimes catching Nazis trying to mess up the War Bond effort (in 1942), and very often dashing about saving Lois Lane’s butt.I have another book of reprints – much thicker, the daily strips — in which more is likely to come clear for me on this count, but it seems to me that Superman is a bit like jazz music: highly adaptable to situation, highly mongrel, and not quite as neatly definable at any point in his history as anyone would like.
  5. It’s Superman!, by Tom De Haven. This was a really well-written novel , which told a very interesting — I think because very period-accurate (or so it seemed to me) world for Superman and his supporting characters to run around in. Lois Lane’s great, and it’s very interesting to see Clark Kent still young enough to be trying to figure out who he is when he’s Superman. Lex Luthor’s pretty fun to see, too, and again, he feels like someone who lives in the late 1930s. I also really liked how the De Haven worked with so many different character POVs. It was very deftly handled. Even the smallest characters have a life of their own in this novel. Very worthwhile.
  6. Toast by Charles Stross. I’m going to keep this simple: God-DAMN! This is a crackerjack collection of stories. I get the sense sometimes reading Stross is a good way to get a kind of haz-clear picture of the world we’re heading into. Not so much in Accelerando — at least, I thought the timing was too optimistic there — but the futures in his stories were dark and weird and effing cool. Never mind William Gibson’s comment, “I have become convinced that it is silly to try to imagine futures these days.” [Which, to be fair, he said about his own work.] There are all kinds of completely nutty futures to be imagined, I think, just perhaps by someone younger and closer to the bleeding, gushing, stinging edge. Stross knows technology, and seems to know a considerable amount of science, too. It’s heady stuff, and when he’s playing hard, you have to forget your hat and hold onto your head. With both hands.
  7. Ghost Country by Steve Noyes. My reaction to the majority of these poems, set in China and written by a Canadian who lived and worked there for what seems like more than a year, is that it’s very well-written, and a lot of it sort-of rings true for me, but I’m also a little distrustful. All of that “How Different!”-ness of it has the air of someone who lived in China for a year and Figured It All Out. Not that Noyes comes off as arrogant: he’s a sympathetic, compassionate poet, and he is definitely skilled. I just distrust his choice of subject somewhat, because it’s so very hard on China in some ways. I think it’s worthwhile to have read, and there are a few poems I’d say deserve to be anthologized, but I’m not sure it’ll go into my long-term collection. However, it’s better than a great deal of stuff I’ve tried to read while working at rekindling my interest in verse.

MOVIES:

  1. Transformers was one of the dumbest films I’ve ever seen. Then again, I didn’t expect much from a film telling the story of a line of toys I got bored with after a few hours, back when I was a kid. I was impressed that CGI is as advanced as it was in this film, but that was about it. It could have been worse; the more the “Transformers” talk, the worse it woudl have been. Oh, and learning a whole planet’s dominant language from their Internet alone is, or at least should now be, forbidden from the SF canon.Whoops, wait, I had some aliens do it in my story “Jing the Quae”… but then, those aliens are us, and the language isn’t that far descended from English, so…
  2. 서편제 (Sopyonje) was an outstanding fil, one of a caliber that only comes along once in a while in Korean movies about the past. No mealy-minded nationalism here: it was gripping, heart-wrenching, and beautiful. The plot summary on IMDB, after a strange first line, is good:

    The specifically Korean tradition that is reclaimed in Sopyonje is the type of folk-song known as pansori, described as a musical sublimation of South-West Korea’s collective grief and suffering – in other words, a kind of blues. The film’s three central characters are itinerant pansori singers in the 1950s, a time when many aspects of Korean culture came under siege from Japanese and western influences. The story unfolds through flashbacks. A man named Dong-ho is roaming the rural hinterlands, ostensibly to find rare herbal medicines for his sick son back in Seoul, but actually in search of Song-hwa, the woman he grew up with. Orphans, they were both apprenticed to the pansori master Yu-bong (played by the film’s writer, Kim Myung-gon) who pressured them to sacrifice everything for the art. Dong-ho rebelled and ran away, to become the man he is now. Song-hwa stayed, lost her sight, and outlived Yu-bong. Rumor has it that she is still travelling and still singing pansori… The tale has one truly shocking twist, but the overall one is plaintive, elegiac and serenely beautiful.

    There are many ways in which pansori can be compared to blues music, of course, and this film shows us all of them, except one: the fact that audiences, even today, still yell out encouragements and grunt and moan loudly during the concert, making sounds you’d probably never hear the same people make in any other context. Attending a pansori concert really is a lot like being at a jazz or blues concert. In any case, the way that the art form is depicted — both in itself, but also as part of a tradition that was already being forgotten at the end of World War II, wiped out first by Japanese “enka” and then by American pop music — makes this film more than just the tale of an what is essentially a reunion between people who are essentially brother and sister (again, I suspect, a reunification metaphor expressed as loving and painful reunion); it is, on top of that, an elegy to an artform which seems in Korean to be suffering a fate close to the one imposed on jazz: as a revered museum art form, one regarded as important but also regarded as part of the past, and all too rarely heard in live performance.

  3. Nurse Betty is a film I saw years ago, and enjoyed at the time, and it’s aged well. Nothing to serious, but some fun storytelling. Morgan Freeman was hilarious in this, and I loved the fact about his character’s relationship with Chris Rock’s character that only came out in the end. Certainly not a brilliant film, but sweet and funny and strange all the same.
  4. Fuck was a documentary about — what else — the F word itself. Irreverent, intelligent, cleverly edited to give both sides of the culture war — and yet, to allow language puritanicals just enough footage to hang themselves — it was truly entertaining, as well as a beautiful reminder to me that the fundamental question is not which words one chooses to use, but rather that one is absolutely free to choose them for oneself, and — most importantly — free from the meddling of prigs who think they have the right to dictate to others what is acceptable and is not. I really wish I could tie a certain born-again couple I used to work with to chairs and force them to watch this film, so they could see how bloody silly they look doing exactly that.
  5. 여우비 (Yobi the Five Tailed Fox) is, yes, just an animation for kids, but a funny, cute, and sweet one. I liked it a lot, and I’m man enough to say the ending was enough to get me teary — a fulfilled dream and an unfulfilled one at the same time. I did not, however, understand what the flying washbucket sidekick was there for. She really was not necessary. But Detective Shadow was excellent, and Yeoubi was like the coolest kid ever.
  6. 화려한 휴가 (May 18) is a big Korean blockbuster that’s supposed to cover the horror of the Kwangju Massacre that happened on May 18th, 1980. Let’s see:
    • On one level, I was happy to see only one foreigner in the whole film, who was a photographer in the background at a funeral ceremony for some victims of military violence prior to May 18th. I was worried the mythology of American involvement would be used to make it look like the US had somehow been behind it all, just like how it’s Americans who polluted the Han River in 괴물. There is none of that in the film.
    • On another level, I felt like I was watching the media equivalent of a medieval peasant revolt. You know, the kind where they blame the advisors and never quite get around to saying, “The king’s a piece of crap, let’s kill him!” In this film, they never showed Chun Doo Hwan — the dictator who is universally understood as the instigator of the incident, and who is alive and apparently quite well off in Seoul now, having magically escaped the death sentence he was rightly given by a judge — and, worse, they depicted the soldiers mostly as bloodthirsty madmen. Not that they weren’t, but they were also 20 year old kids who were minimally trained, decieved by their commanders (they thought they were quelling a Communist insurgency), and encouraged into extreme brutality. What the hell was supposed to happen? And this film was an opportunity to crucify Chun Doo Hwan — and maybe even indict him further in public opinion — for the use of “anti-communism” to suppress a democratic uprising.Lee Chang Dong’s Peppermint Candy, which I’ll mention next, handles this much more interestingly and satisfactorily, if more heartbreakingly.
    • That said, once the protesters stole military weapons, what else could happen? The logic of the ending was a bit muddled, since it looks like an all out choice of suicidal standoff. Was it? If so, why? I don’t know why they didn’t just TNT the city hall and then go home. And then do it again. And again. But I’m arguing, perhaps, with history, not with the film, here.
    • I could have done without all the sweetness and cuteness, or at least, with less of it. Or, hell, one scene on the scale of that first seven (wasn’t it?) minutes of Saving Private Ryan. Actually, that brutal, horrifying scene should have come at the end. Instead we got heroics, character interaction to the bitter end, and an admittedly sad, haunting ending emphasizing what people were robbed of — but not quite showing the scope of what actually happened.
  7. Lee Chang-Dong’s 박하사탕 (Peppermint Candy) is, in many ways, what 화려한 휴가 (May 18, mentioned above) left out. It’s just an amazing film, telling the story of a young man with his life ahead of him, destroyed on the night of May 18th in Kwangju, and all that happens to him afterward. It’s amazingly made, beautiful, heartrending, and a film about horror. It’s much more horrifying than anything else I’ve seen in ages, actually, but also art. Probably the best film I’ve seen this year. Lime wanted to watch it with me, after seeing May 18. The one thing is, it doesn’t give any sense at all of the scope of the Kwangju Massacre, which may not matter for Korean viewers, who, even if they believe the lies that it was a Communist uprising — some still do, after all — know the scope of the thing. But for foreign viewers, the absolutely central significance of the young man’s innocence, beauty, and gentleness being completely lost on the night of May 18th, 1980 — a date that to most foreign viewers means little, and certainly isn’t immediately linked to a massacre of pro-democracy activists by a lying dictator using anti-Communism as a screen to retain power — may be lost somewhat. Of course, the film is made for Koreans. But I can see how most non-Korean viewers would not get it all completely. But now you know, so if you haven’t yet seen it, go and do so. Now.
  8. Altered. The comparisons that have been made between this film and Primer aren’t really fair. Though they’re both low-budget, independent SF, Primer was a demoniacally clever, a puzzle box game of a movie that is probably the closest I’ve seen to the kind of written SF I find most interesting, except done in a way that was only possible in film. Altered is altogether different: it’s more of a hillbilly bughunt, the kind of story a good GM might have cooked up for an SF RPG group that wanted to have a night of good fun. (And it would have been really good fun as an RPG scenario!) It’s not that it’s a bad movie — it’s just that it’s not a triumph of cinema.
    I had a lot of fun watching it, though, so that’s why, in the end, I think that the comparisons are just unfair to Altered. (Though the dialogue needs a little work. The cussing, especially, didn’t carry through well, and some of the lines themselves were too stuffy to be delivered with any real conviction.)
  9. Blood & Chocolate. I remember the days when I was renting a lot of films, back in Edmonton and Saskatoon, and I had gone through all the SF, fantasy, and horror movies and all that was left was the really cheesy B-flicks, including a company I cannot seem to find any information on, online — though I know it’s out there, I found it once before. You know the kind of company I mean: they make cheap horror films in places like Romania, pretending (quite unconvincingly) that it’s New York, or, better, simply noting it really is Romania. This film reminded me of those. It’s not a low in production value, though the werewolf transformations look a little silly to me, but the mood and location of the place is the same as in those old films.As for the film itself, it was alright. Probably there were better things to spend my time on, but I felt like seeing a werewolf story, and it was okay. I wouldn’t spend much money on it if I were you, though.

TV (on DVD or otherwise)

  1. The West Wing (Season 7): As I said elsewhere on this blog, somewhere around Season 3, the West Wing got a little weird. Things began to change on the show, and I was inclined to wonder whether it had something to do with 9-11 having happened in real life — as the first episode in Season 3 reminds us — or whether it was a plot development. I am guessing that perhaps it was at first the former, though it ended up being folded into the latter. All I can say is that somewhere, I became addicted to the show, watching two or three episodes in a row, wondering how things were going to turn out for this character and that character.Some people said it was never quite the same show after Aaron Sorkin left. I’m not sure I totally agree, but I do think some subtle change happened on the show. Certainly, seasons 3 and 4 were a little wobbly, in my opinion, but I liked them anyway. Good art is good even with flaws, and I think The West Wing approaches and aspires to being art, even if, perhaps, it doesn’t quite attain it.In any case, it’s a damed sight better than the vast majority of what’s been on TV in the last decade. (Not having had a TV for about half of the last decade, and not having had cable in the last 9 years, I haven’t sampled everything, one could disagree with me, but I’ve sampled TV occasionally at friends’ houses, and during visits to Canada and the US. I know enough to know something like The West Wing is a rarity.)
  2. Heroes, Season 1: Someone back in Jeonju commented to me in an email that Heroes had usurped Lost as the new big thing among foreigners who download TV shows from back home and watch/circulate them — which is the only way anyone keeps up to date with pop culture back home. I have to say I think everyone gave up on Lost for reasons which, whether or not they were understandable, certainly must not have been applied to the first half of Season 1 of Heroes. I heard that the series creator bragged about his not having read any comic books in his life, and well, it kind of shows. The first half of the season, especially, was really clumsy, and while I find it compelling, I do so mostly in a half-hearted way that still doesn’t really measure up to my continued interest in Lost, (post-season 3).That said, the show does pick up some momentum and by about the middle of the season it built itself up to being semi-reasonable. Of course, nothing extraodrinary, mind you — I imagine that more than one Aberrant RPG campaign played back in the heyday of superhero RPGing followed pretty much a similar track, and that probably more than a few outshone this show in inventiveness. But as genre TV shows go, it’s not bad. Good enough to watch to the end, anyway. I’m halfway through Season 1 and the remainder’s on my portable hard drive.

I watched The West Wing right to the end of the series, so now I am casting about for something else to get addicted to. I suppose I could finally return to Carnivale, since Lime and I were watching it but she lost interest (which boggles my mind) at around the fourth episode of Season 2. However, since Season 2 is the final season for that show — like so many other good, interesting TV, it got canceled after the second season — I’d be casting about for something else rather soon after. I wish stores in my neighborhood were stocking seasons 2, 3, 4, and so on of The Sopranos. Then again, a friend passed me a couple of DVDs containing the first few seasons of Deadwood a long time ago, and there’s always Heroes, which I’m told gets better after the first few episodes, which is all I’ve seen so far. Maybe I’ll dig into those.

MUSIC

  1. Jah Wobble: Molam DubThis has been invaluable for me while drafting my story, “A Killing in Burma.” Dub versions of Laotian popular music may not exactly sound like the music that people will be listening to in Burma 50 years from now, but it sure provides an effective, spacey soundtrack for my weird, cartoony, future-gloom technopolitical explosion in a suburb of Mandalay.
  2. Radio Pyongyang, and
  3. Radio Phnom Penh are fascinating albums made entirely from radio samples (some remixed, some not) from those two cities. It’s a chance hear some really trippy music from place that I’d actually prefer not to live. I don’t know why the idea is so amusing — it feels a little darkly exploitative, but the CDs are actually good, so what can I say? Interestingly, it’s a case where copyright law, whether it’s in place or not, seems not to matter so very much.

7 thoughts on “Watched/Read/Listened: July 16th to August 13th

  1. I saw Peppermint Candy the week before I saw 꽃잎, another film set against the backdrop of the Kwangju Massacre. 꽃잎 is equally horrifying but on the whole was more difficult for me to watch.

    Having said that, after seeing Peppermint Candy I finally realized the significance of that event in recent Korean history. I don’t know why it took me so long, as it was still fresh in the minds of my first students. (I’ll blame it on my youth.)

    If you’re ever looking for a good English-language account of those days, I recommend Lee Jae-Eui’s Kwangju Diary: Beyond Death, Beyond the Darkness of the Age.

  2. Alexis,

    I’ve heard others reacted pretty negatively to Blood & Chocolate too. I think I will give the book a pass.

    Kangmi,

    I haven’t seen 꽃잎 yet… another film I haven’t even heard of. But I will look for it!

    I’ll also add that book you mentioned to my list, right now. Er, or I would have, if it weren’t a ridiculous price! Gaa!

    Ben,

    Towing Jehovah is well worth the time. I have a copy of the third book in the trilogy awaiting my return to Korea.

  3. I don’t know what your usual book source is, but try half.com. There are a couple of options there, and if they don’t ship internationally, let me know, and I can help make it happen.

  4. Kangmi,

    Half.com, huh? I’ll give it a look. I usually use Abebooks.com, but some things are just ridiculously priced there.

    Thanks, I’ll let you know if I need a hand!

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