July/August Books

My last stretch of comments on books was really, really long. 5,400-odd words long, if I recall right. So I’m going to try for shorter and pithier this time. Should be easier, since I read less than I’d hoped I would, but even so… shorter. Pithier.

Also: I have been feeling like I have been reading too few books by women, so I did something about it. At least on the fiction side I achieved parity—three female authors and three male ones—but I’m not so concerned about the nonfiction/research books, since you don’t get to choose who writes research books pertinent to your work in progress. Still, I’ve read less than I’d hoped.

I guess I read less this summer than I’d hoped, but, well… it’s been busy. On top of the two intensive courses I taught from mid June to mid-July, I also got my Korean driver’s license (an experience that definitely deserves a post) and some other stuff happened too… it was hectic, a bit stressful, and then there’s all the baby-prep stuff on top of that. Not that it was a bad summer overall, necessarily… but it wasn’t a great summer for reading.

But here’s what I did get around to reading…


Liss-CoffeeThe Coffee Trader by David Liss is kind of about Jewish merchants in Europe in the 18th-century, kind of about the beginning of the coffee industry, kind of about the roots of the modern economic system, and kind of about the wonders of new drugs. The drug in this case is caffeine, but the “drug high” scenes read as if they’re penned by someone knowingly winking at Philip K. Dick. I first heard about Liss in an interview with Claude Lalumière over at The Big Click, and am so glad I followed up on the lead. Either it lagged in the middle, or my intensive course load in the summer semester killed my attention span, but it does pick up toward the end. Good fun, and I think if you’re a faster reader than me it’d be an extremely quick lull to get past. One word that comes to mind is polyphony: we hear lots of characters with contradictory viewpoints speak. Funny, irreverent, and if perhaps a bit tidy in the end, all good fun. I’m looking forward to his A Conspiracy of Papers, which deals with the lead-up to the South Sea Bubble, and not just because the Bubble figures into my own ongoing writing project.

futurologicalThe Futurological Congress is Stanislaw Lem in comedic mode, but more satirical than in The Cyberiad. He plays a lot of fun games with language here (some of which perhaps flew over my head a little, since I was listening to an audiobook of the text), but the thrust of it is basically the alienation of people from the world and their increasing ensconcement in virtual realities. Despite the fact Lem’s characters get into those virtual worlds through neurochemical stimulation and hallucination, the book is surprisingly prophetic about a great deal of what has become normal in our lives today… except we achieve our virtualization online instead.

HairSide-MarshallHelen Marshall’s Hair Side, Flesh Side is a collection of bizarre, disturbing little short stories, each wonderful in its way, that was published by Chizine Publications a few years. Since it’s a short story collection, it’s a bit of a challenge to really sum things up in a useful way, except that say the book represents the intersection of what I suppose is called bio-horror—horror rooted in physicality and the body—and the weirdness of textuality in itself. Marshall seems particularly interested in how textuality rhymes with sexuality (in more than one way), and she explores it in a host of fascinating ways. Standout stories, for me, include “Sandition” (where a woman discovers she has the full text of Jane Austen’s unfinished novel under her skin), “Lines of Affection” (which is a disturbing story about the effects of parental divorce and reuniting on a young child), “Dead White Men” (about a woman with the most peculiar of sexual predliections), and “Eternal Things” (which I can’t talk about without spoiling it). Marshall’s work shows clear signs of her literary and academic interests (she is also a poet and a scholar of medieval literature), in ways that are both unmistakable and very appealing, without a single story being set in the Middle Ages: as with the influence of her poetical interests, it’s more about the themes and bizarre textual/physical conceits of the stories, and the general sensibility she brings to the game. Highly recommended.

doorintooceanA Door Into Ocean isn’t the first book by Joan Slonczewski that I’ve read; years ago, I plowed through The Children Star (the third book of this series: A Door Into Ocean is the first) and enjoyed it so much I actually ripped off elements of it and injected them into the PBeM role-playing game I was running at the time, Stellar Region. A Door Into Ocean is a much earlier novel, published in 1986, and it shows: the Sharers of Shora remind me of some of the somewhat unhinged (albeit rightly angry) Brit radical feminist separatist communities discussed in the documentary “Angry Wimmin.” Her feminist separatist plane isn’t a utopia: the Sharer society is flawed and has plenty of jerks and problems (though it’s not as flawed as the Galactic patriarchy). Some of the mustache-twirling on the Patriarchy’s side got a bit tiresome, but it was interesting to read the book not only as a commentary on issues in our world generally (I’ve read Vietnam was part of the inspiration, but I feel certain the changing face of feminism in the 70s and 80s was too), but also as a commentary on SF as a literary genre. Added bonus: Slonczewski’s a microbiologist and it shows in the thoughtfulness of her worldbuilding. (Both in this book and in The Children Star, from what I rememeber of the latter).

incrementalistsThe Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White isn’t the book you think it’ll be. And yet, it’s pretty interesting, if you like weird, off-kilter stories. However, it’s way more about a love story than it is about the eponymous Incrementalist organization that forms most of its cast. It’s also, simultaneously, a kind of noir story, albeit with all the noirish stuff mapped onto a bizarre, millennia-old supergroup of individuals who meddle with the unfolding of human history. The group sounds interesting, but that neato idea is more background, sort of like Los Angeles is mostly just background in a Raymond Chandler novel. That’s a fine choice, I guess, but I found myself more curious about the group than the heist-like plot to subvert it—much less the foregrounded romance plot(s).

I listened to the audiobook, but I think I’d have preferred to read it on the page, somehow—there are two readers, and they each do a fine job but their renditions of specific characters’ accents were so different from one another that it kind of bothered me. 1 There’s something about the predictability and canned-style of how Phil explains things, especially—the way his voice is constructed to sound like a cool, sly Hollywood voiceover, I guess—that bugs me. I don’t know how to explain it except thathe sort of sounds like he wants to seem cool all the time, but actually seems kind of… plastic, or artificial. (A bit like how sometimes in a film, all the characters are talking about how someone is good-looking and you don’t see it, I guess?)

No, that can’t be right: sometimes I don’t mind heavily stylized characters or voices. Hm. Maybe Phil just fits into the textual version of the Uncanny Valley… at least, my brain’s version of that. And yet I liked the book and most of the characters  (including Phil) anyway. Hm. I don’t know if this is a Brust thing, but I do know I put down the Brust & Bull novel Freedom and Necessity when we moved to Korea, and haven’t yet picked it up again. (That, I suspect, I would like better as an audiobook.)


SeijongTheGreatKing Seijong The Great is… well, the title kind of says it all, even if “The Great” is an attempt to render “Daewang” (“Great King”). (Also, that there’s no specific author, just a memorial society that put the book out… which I’m starting to take as a bad sign, given that it’s been two bad memorial society books in a row.) In any case, this is a book that’s pretty much about what the title suggests… how freakin’ great King Sejong was. I have looked for a decent, balanced biography—or even a reasonable fictional treatment of—the life of Korea’s favorite historical king, but I haven’t turned up much. There’s plenty in Korean, of course, including an apparent craze regarding the subject back in 2008... but in English there are far fewer options, so I went with this book from the 1970s. Oh, the regrets. Well, it only took a couple of hours to plow through, which is fast for me. It was execrable, though. Anxious, dorky hagiography is one thing, but anxious, dorky hagiography that also shoots itself in the foot with illogic when it’s not boring you to tears? That’s something else. This book apparently got an update in the 90s, but I haven’t seen the revised edition. I’m thinking of trying to get the novel about Sejong’s life (by Park Chongwha, translated by Junghyo Ahn), which is available through another branch of the library at work… though weirdly, the multi-volume Korean original is presented as a single-volume book in English. Maybe all the volumes that don’t even have Sejong in them got cut? (One reviewer complained about how so few of them did, so it would make sense.)

Comrades&StrangersMichael Harrold’s Comrades and Strangers is a bizarre memoir of seven years of life in Pyongyang, and I’m not just talking about the bizarreness of North Korean society and government, either: it’s a bewildering look at how a Briton could end up basically flopping into Pyongyang, and get sucked into the system so deeply he contemplates staying on semi-permanently. Harrold does end up seeing the light, sort of, once he is dragged into a fistfight with a xenophobic ajeoshi, bilked out of money, and essentially fired and banished… but all of that just sort of made it read a bit like a single long post on the North Korean equivalent of the expat rant forums at Dave’s ESL Cafe. 2 The most interesting things in the story all happen in ellipsis: both the budding romance that falls apart, and the transformation from willing aide to the Pyongyang regime to disgruntled expat who can’t wait to get the hell out of dodge. On some level it was a bit like watching someone sitting in a chair in a dingy cell, beating himself in the face with a hammer, then joking about it at length, then turning his attention back to the hammer.

That said, what struck me about this book—as with B.R. Myers’ The Cleanest Race, though Harrold’s much more so—is how noticeable the parallels are between his experiences up North and the typical expat experience down South: the insane employer-employee relationship, the xenophobic kneejerk reactions one sees sometimes in institutional responses to individual behavior, the sympathy commingled with frustration at how willingly people accept corruption and stupidity in their leadership… even the encounter with the bizarre old “lifer” expats from the West who’ve been trapped in North Korea for decades read a lot like encounters I’ve had with bizarre old lifers here in the South.

WomenInThe18thCThe reader Women in the Eighteenth Century: Constructions of Femininity, edited by Vivien Jones, is precisely the sort of book you’d expect—specifically, the kind of book you’d expect Routledge to publish bearing that title. That’s not really a criticism, though: it covers five major areas (Conduct, Sexuality, Education, Writing, and “Feminism,” though the last is, as the editor notes, an anachronistic term when speaking of the 18th century) by sampling from representative work that illuminates a range of attitudes and beliefs on each subject. It’s quite well-put-together and even someone who’s read a fair bit of stuff about the period will find the odd thing that is new and surprising, but it’s also a bit of a slog because, well, the 18th century was a pretty horrible time to be a woman. That said, it’s interesting to see how much of the crap one sees spouted by bigots today today—like the crud that David Futurelle tacks and mocks on We Hunted the Mammoth.

I guess the lesson here is that hateful bullshit, like poverty and stupidity, endures. But it’s also a bit inspiring, just how far we’ve come. MRA-like attitudes weren’t just mainstream: they were the dominant paradigm to the point where most of their female critics seemed nonetheless to have internalized them, at the time. We’ve come a long, long way. Well, some of us. There’s a great passage in the last part, where one Mary Robinson (under the penname “Anne Frances Randall”) dreams the then apparently-impossible dream of starting a women’s university, and says that within a half-century there’d be enough graduates for an all-female faculty. That women have gone beyond that—now they’re deemed fit to teach male students, by golly—only underlines how right she was: righter than she could apparently could’ve realized.

ParacelsusIf you go in knowing that the complexities of alchemical theory were dry, involved, and somewhat subtle, then you could do worse than Walter Pagel‘s 2nd edition of Paracelsus: An Introduction to Philosophical Medicine in the Era of the Renaissance as a guide to that most controversial of alchemists, Paracelsus. Despite the book’s stated focus on the medical side of things, for Paracelsus the medical side of things—and every side of things—was inextricably tied to the alchemical side of things. Sometimes the structure of the text and the explanations could have been a little more straightforward, and there are bits that, the more you read, the less you feel you understand what Pagel is getting at… but overall, it’s a pretty good guide to a bewildering worldview.

I took extensive notes of the first part—the bit about Paracelsus’ specific contributions to medical theory—and I’ll post them here eventually, but as a fun preview: did you know Paracelsus thought every organ in the human body had its own “stomach” by which to extract nutriments from the food we eat? Not only that: the stomach could be external to the organ itself. Your brain’s stomach, according to Paracelsus, was located in your nose, which explained how mucus ended up in your nose: for ol’ Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (which was P’s real name), snot was really brain dung.

alchemyancient&modernThat said, Pagel does a good job of discussing alchemical medicine in its historical and philosophical context, unlike H. Stanley Redgrove, whose snarky (or, well, whatever snarky was called in the 1920s) Alchemy: Ancient and Modern reads not so much as a history of alchemy as it does an ignorant take-down by someone who failed to realize the ancients (whom Redgrove laughably holds up as eminently more reasonable and sensible than the alchemists) were just as guilty of wacky kook theories of medicine and nature—and the alchemists were radically countercultural because, while they did mix hands-on experimentation with imagining, they also bothered with hands-on experimentation at all. Redgrove’s book is a testament to how the fashionable disdain of the time can blind someone to the bloody facts of history. Or, well, maybe he reins it in and turns sensible somewhere after the 20% mark, where I gave up on the book, but I didn’t have the patience to follow him there. Knowing what I now know of the intellectual and philosophical environment in which the alchemists worked and lived, Redgrove’s criticisms feel about as clever as a Beavis & Butthead dialog, and I have my doubts that he rectified this sloppiness further on. But if you do have the patience to find out, the book’s available on Project Gutenberg, as well as in various reprints.

Pregnancy/Parenting Books:

EatingExpectantlyEating Expectantly by Bridget Swinney is a general book on dietary issues for pregnancy. It’s also a terrifying book to read in Korea, because it’s aimed at a US audience where… well, I know there are occasional recalls on food products in the US, but here in South Korea it sometimes feels like hardly a week passes where something isn’t recalled for being toxic, non-food-safe, or otherwise unfit for human consumption. 3

In any case, I read a lot of this book a while back, and then forgot bits of it that I probably shouldn’t have forgotten… we’ve had the occasional, “Honey did you eat _____? Okay, well… you shouldn’t do that again, because…” moments. Only a few, luckily, but it’s still a bit worrisome. Still, most of the time now I just end up googling things when I’m not sure, so the book has been less handy than I expected—I mostly check specific things in Swinney’s book when standards seem to differ for unclear reasons between different countries, or when other books sources seem to contradict. That said, it’s good to give the book a once-over to make sure you understand the kinds of nutritional demands pregnancy puts on someone physically.

And there we are: a couple of months’ worth of reading, summed up in… ~3,000 words? Yikes. But I guess it’s shorter than last time.

Onward and upward!

  1. Yeah, yeah, the accents are filtered through two different characters’ consciousness, but when I’m listening, I find having to consider that explanation distracting from the story.

  2. From what I remember. The only thing I’ve looked on that site for many years has been the job listings.

  3. I’ll never forget when it was “discovered” that certain Vitamin drinks contained benzene (a serious carcinogen) but the newsmedia was “not allowed” to state which drinks contained it. Recall, sure… but, uh, aren’t citizens supposed to be able to sue companies that put cancer drops in their food and drink? Keeping the information quiet hurts the consumer, but it’s great for the companies that did the offense… while unnecessarily harming the companies that didn’t.

    I’ve also noticed a lot of foreign products showing up in Korean department store “foreign foods” sections, priced to sell like they’re luxury products… but bearing mysterious stickers blanking out parts of the box copy. I often peel off the sticker to see what’s beneath, and sometimes it’s just the word “Organic” that’s being covered up, but not always. Those little stickers ought to set off alarm bells for anyone seeing them, but the product nonetheless does seem to sell here… even when the enigmatic stickers are plastered across the front of the box.

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