Readings, January-March 2015

A slow couple of months, really: the job-hunting and housing situation–staying in a small sublet apartment with no place to sit comfortably and read, and only noisy places outside–combined with moving to another city and adjusting to my new workplace, along with all kinds of other things that recently came up, all conspired to make it hard to get much reading done. But I did get around to these books:

0571211631.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Memories and Commentaries by Igor Stravinsky and Robert Craft (link)

I’m a Stravinsky junkie, and have been since, I think it was the end of high school or early in freshman year of university. Scratch that, it was Coltrane and Ornette and Wagner in high school: Stravinsky was  my freshman year, in many ways. I used to listen to LPs of The Rite of Spring over and over again, to the consternation of my poor family. So, well, this book entertained me in ways that it might not entertain a lot of people.

Still, if you’re interested in the self-presentation and memories of one of the greatest (if not the greatest of all) composers of the 20th century, is the one-volume edition that collects a lot of material over the years, and Craft’s involvement is crucial. Robert Craft was basically Stravinsky’s devoted protégé and is known mostly in that capacity… but when it comes to these interviews and essays, there’s apparently been some question about to what degree everything was filtered through Craft, and reflects his preoccupations, concerns, interests, and opinions, as opposed to those of Stravinsky himself.

That’s interesting because, at the same time, Stravinsky was a master of self-branding and self-promotion: he understood quite naturally that an artists’ fate in the canon, in posterity, could depend as much on the stories surrounding their work as the work itself. (The stories–revisionist to an extreme–that Stravinsky generated to explain and co-opt the riot triggered at the world premiére of The Rite of Spring is a relevant example.) I actually just finished this book off in 2015, but I’d read the bulk of it in 2014, in Saigon: I had about sixty pages left at the beginning of the year, so it wasn’t a big task.

1421571749.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Phantasm Japan: Fantasies Light and Dark, From and About Japan, edited by Nick Mamatas and Masumi Washington

I reviewed this for the Kyoto Journal, and most of my thoughts ended up in that piece, so this will be short, but I want to recommend the book and say a few things about it.

This is a really excellent collection of short fiction, with some truly spectacular pieces in it. The concept, as with The Future is Japanese, was a kind of mosaic juxtaposition of two kinds of stories: works by Japanese authors (translated into English) and works by authors working in English, engaging with Japan in some way. The juxtaposition was really, really interesting, especially in terms of how the Japanese authors departed from my expectations. Some of each group of stories (those by Japanese authors, and those by non-Japanese ones) really caught my attention.

I will say, here, though, that my favorites from the book were Quentin S. Crisp’s “A Packet of Tea” and (the late) Project Itoh’s “From the Nothing, With Love.” For those two stories alone, the price of admission would be worthwhile.

3ecb1e436bcf933596d4b376767444341587343Drifting House by Krys Lee (link)

Sometimes I wonder if the reason the mainstream fiction world is so uncomfortable with genre as a concept applying to mainstream fiction is because some of the subgenres of mainstream fiction are so overtly racially-ghettoizing. I’ve known a few authors who’ve struggled with the same kind of “identity-politicization” of their work that Elif Shafajk discusses in her TED talk on the politics of fiction: the pressure to write as representatives of their race, to write books featuring characters of their own race and sex, or to write for some specific racial subgenre matching their own ethnicity. That came to mind when, after I finished this book, I noticed it had been compared somewhere in the jacket copy to Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker, a novel that I’ve tried to read a few times, but found basically impossible to get into. It’s sort of like comparing, I don’t know, Chuck Palahniuk to Samuel Delany because, hey, they’re both gay. I’d say maybe a more apt comparison might be with a book I only know by reputation and a few excerpts, read long ago: Barbara Gowdy’s We So Seldom Look On Love.

One reason for this comparison is that there’s a strong and recurrent theme of sexual acting-out in the book, with all the short stories save the title story. Actually, I found that interesting: Lee’s characters aren’t saving the world or fighting to change it or struggling to master something (and, it goes without saying, characters without some super-tech or super-magic conceit to draw their focus). They’re just sort of muddling through without a user’s manual, and so they lead lives that only seem to get interesting when things go terribly wrong, when sorrow or loneliness or desperation get the better of them. When they act out in result, that acting out necessarily ends up being along sexual lines, because there aren’t really many other avenues for them to act out on… especially within Korean culture, or within the hothouse of Korean-American communities, let alone within the prisonhouse of North Korean life. With the right touch, it can be interesting to bear witness to schlubs muddling through their issues and tragedies and horrors and thwarted desires… at least, sometimes it is. Usually I care only to a limited degree about that kind of acting-out, but I’ve discovered–reading Lee, as much as reading Hanif Kureishi’s debut novel, which I discussed a few months ago–that it can be an interesting subject, at least for a while, perhaps because, as Kureishi points out, the sex is much less interesting than the love, the interactions, the sometimes elusive reasons a person becomes important to someone. But also, because Kureishi and Lee both have the skill at prose to back it up.

Almost all of the characters in Drifting House are Korean in some sense… but many times, it seems they were more interstitially so, more liminal, as in, “Korean, but…” or some kind of hyphenated Koreanness.

But somehow the book does feel at home within the Asian-American subgenre, for a different reason: the aspirational quality of the prose. I don’t mean that as a jab–Lee is a very good prose stylist–but simply to observe that there is, in the book, the trace of a desire to write something significant, poignant, moving, sorrowful, and powerful, in a way that perhaps is less fashionable in recent years over in the more general mainstream field. Drifting House definitely has the sublime meaningfulness cranked up to eleven… and yet, Lee also subverts this constantly, in ways that interest. The drooping angelic wings part to reveal a twisted phallus, a dripping vulva, a tongue on red lips, a heart or a womb neatly excised and sliced for display on a silver platter.

A recently-decried reviewer commented somewhere about how Western genre fiction authors so rarely write well about family; personally, I rather feel like that’s the point of genre fiction: to give us a break from the quotidian problems, and maybe tweak our attention towards something else–sometimes just for fun, or sometimes as a warning or advance heads-up, the self-defeating prophecy. It’s true, genre doesn’t often do family well, but that’s partly because genre fiction is a fiction of ideas, and family is the place where ideas get most muddled, become least workable, are most impossible to focus on. Not always, of course: Jack Womack’s Random Acts of Senseless Violencewhich I discussed here–is an exception, but it does seem  to prove the rule. Womack’s book came to mind as I read some of these stories, in fact, though I’m not quite sure why, except that Lee and Womack seem to be working along the same lines when it comes to human desperation.

Ultimately, I thought it was gorgeously-written, at times surprising or disturbing, filled with believable yet larger-than-life characters, and lots of emotion, and lots of weird, sexual attempts to grab hold of life’s steering wheel just as those characters’ lives begin to really skid out, or flip, or crash into a tree. It’s not a very happy book, but then I think books, like people, are rarely able to be both straightforwardly happy and worth spending time with. There’s an impressive, hard edge of beauty to all of these stories, and I’d like to think any reader–and not just one with an interest in Korea–would enjoy them.

A tiny note: I found the romanization of occasional Korean words odd in places, and couldn’t help but wonder whether it was on purpose–to help the Western reader puzzle out pronunciations–or just happenstance. But then, I often have complaints about the romanization of Korean in English-language fiction, and that won’t bother most people in the slightest.

nanjungilgiNanjung Ilgi: The War Diary of Yi Sun Shin (translated by Ha Tae-Hung, edited by Pow-key Sohn) (link)

This was sort of late, after-the-fact research for a story I worked on in February. (Because I stumbled on a copy of the book only after I’d finished and sent out the story.) Turns out the diary wouldn’t have been all that useful anyway. It’s actually pretty boring: Yi’s war experience involved a lot more sitting around drinking and doing archery practice — and ordering the execution of runaways — than anything else. There are bits that are interesting, like when he describes specific battles, and when he waxes hateful about his rival Won Kyun–who, you can tell, Yi really, really hated, but really, most of it is just skim-worthy. I don’t know if all the poetical majesty was lost in translation, or if it’s just silly hero-worship, but it’s the most boring book I’ve finished in years.

Probably, though, that’s in part due to editing. For the record, this is the 70s translation published by Yonsei, and I’m told by a friend that the original diary also includes Yi bragging about all kinds of sexual escapades — four girls a night, that kind of thing — which were expurgated for propriety’s sake. Maybe a retranslation including that stuff would make the book more palatable. As it is, I think the interesting stuff could probably be boiled down to a twenty page (or less) pamphlet of excerpts.

One uncomfortable question that arises, but which is probably unspeakable in terms of not-getting-murdered-by-nationalists-in-Korea, is whether the conflict between Yi and Won Kyun was mutual. Won Kyun clearly made attempts to sabotage Yi, but that was normal at the time, and I can’t help but wonder whether Yi wasn’t engaged in the same thing as well: covert plotting for the destruction of his rivals would have been fairly normal behaviour for the Korean military of Yi’s time, and it seems like exactly the sort of thing that, like the sexual escapades, would have been expurgated by later nationalist “scholars” for the sake of propriety. The expurgations leave a lot of questions open that wouldn’t be, if only people were willing to see Yi as a human being, rather than some kind of war-god.

Which is one reason–among many–why the recent film about the Battle at Myeongryang was also such a disappointment: it’s all nationalist hagiography and Yi isn’t humanized at all. He’s basically just a war-god in the film, and the things that could have humanized him either get sidelined (his torture and imprisonment gets about 20 seconds at the beginning of the film) or skipped altogether (like his womanizing and partying). All you’re left with is boring nationalism and confusing naval battle choreography.

What I want to see is the Yi Sun-Shin rethought in the way Sherlock Holmes was rethought in the recent films starring Robert Downey Jr. in the role: basically the House of Cards version of Yi Sun Shin. That would be interesting. (My own treatment of Yi in fictional form is also an attempt to subvert the sanitized, nationalist figure we’re been left with.)

singingneanderthalsThe Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body by Steven Mithen (link)

I’ve discussed some of the ideas in this book in recent posts (like this one, and this one), but I’ll just say it was really worthwhile, and I enjoyed it, even if I think Mithen’s conviction is, at times, perhaps misplaced, and that he skips steps in his argument where other explanations might bubble up regarding the mysteries he’s trying to clarify. (Also, the book is a bit dated now; his assertions about the specific nature of Neanderthal consciousness and proto-language would seem at least to be challenged by the fact that most Eurasians seem to have at least a little Neanderthal in them, something it’s my understanding we learned only after the book was published.) But I did learn a lot about how language and music relate to one another neurologically and evolutionarily, and that’s what I picked the book up for in the first place, so I enjoyed it.

954f0aa08d744f75967726e6a67444341587343Empire of the Undead by Ahimsa Kerp (link)

(Disclosure: Ahimsa’s a friend.)

Good fun. My elevator pitch for this book would be, it’s like HBO’s Rome meets The Walking Dead. (Except it’s set in the time of Domitian instead of Julius Caesar, which is nice.1) There’s a clear pulp aesthetic at work: spectacle and action, but also a certain set of character types, is recognizable as rooted in the pulp genre: the capable (Ro)man, the tough barbarian woman, the mad scientist (if alchemy could be considered a science, which it quite reasonably was in ancient times), and so on. The zombies are the familiar slow-walking zombies of Romero, except it’s not just humans who can catch the zombie plague: deer and elephants–and presumably other mammals–are also susceptible, to great effect in the book.

The focus here is action, and not the sort of action one sees in a costume drama so much as an action film, though the novel does sort of bring together those two genres, somehow: it’s Roman gladiatorial costume drama and the classic slow-horde zombie apocalypse rolled into one, and it’s mostly about people trying to survive when the world falls apart at the seams… and hacking their way through hordes of the undead because that’s what it takes. While one could make comparisons to the actual fall of the Roman Empire–which also happened mostly by slow-ish encroachment, from what I’ve read–the book avoids overweighting itself by attempting such metafictional commentary in a conscious way: rather, it sticks to the gory, wild adventure, and is probably the better for it.

While I’m as glad as anyone that the zombie craze has gone into remission at this point, I think this book is a good example of why that doesn’t mean people should stop writing zombie stories altogether: while Empire of the Undead is not without occasional missteps–the publisher, also, seems to have an approach that recalls the pulps–it was nonetheless a wild, fun ride.

LotuslandLotusland by David Joiner (link)

Another review for Kyoto Journal, this book falls pretty solidly into the subgenre I think of as “expat lit.” However, this is one of the books from the branch of expat lit that mainly targets an audience back home (which is another way of saying it sometimes explains things that people who’ve lived abroad, and especially in the Far East, wouldn’t need explained), or newbies looking for some kind of handle on their experience abroad so far.

I think this is a tricky balance to establish, and in a first novel perhaps the approach Joiner has taken is the wisest, at least in commercial terms, though it will perhaps leave expats who’ve been abroad longer perhaps just a little impatient. That said, in a number of ways Joiner seems to me to get Vietnam “right” in the book, at least from what I picked up during my brief, recent years there.

I’ll have more to say in my forthcoming review, though.

The stunning artwork by Vincent Chong also deserves mention. A beautiful book, as one expects from PS Publishing.

Dogs With Their Eyes Shut by Paul Meloy (link)

This book–it’s a novella published as a stand-alone book–is a follow-up of sorts to the linked-story series in Meloy’s Islington Crocodiles (which I reviewed a couple of months ago). It was published by PostScripts not long ago as a slender hardback of about 60 pages) that returns to the bizarre, haunting world of that series: Firmament Surgeons, Autoscopes, Gantries, and all. It’s a phenomenal piece of fiction, welding together bleak dystopian horror of interdimensional intruders and nightmarish horrors with something more bright and beautiful… both of which are contained in the puzzle box image suggested by the book’s title.

Seriously, if there’s any text I’ve read in the past year or two that seemed to beg me to give it insanely thorough analytical celebration–of the kind that Samuel Delany gave Disch’s “Angouleme” in The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch2it’s Dogs With Their Eyes Shut.

Meloy’s had a long relationship with TTA Press (hell, Black Static magazine nabbed its name from his BSFA-winning short story), so folks on the British SF scene knows about him… but his work deserves an audience far beyond those shores. It’s certainly the most exciting thing I’ve run across in a while, and I think Charlie Williams is right here:

We all have an imagination, but it’s about how purely you can tap it, and Meloy lays it down uncut. Temper that with his gift for cranking up the pace, and you have stories that have the effect of simultaneously snorting cocaine, tripping on acid, and experiencing a spiritual epiphany.

Do yourself a favour and go find copies of Dogs With Their Eyes Shut, and Islington Crocodiles, and anything else by Paul Meloy you can find.

  1. Though I can’t help but wonder what a zombie epidemic would look like seen through the eyes of Julian the Apostate, on his way back to Rome from Eleusis… hmmm.

  2. A book, I must admit, I know only by reputation… it was out of print for a long time, though now that there’s a new edition out, I may have to track down a copy.

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