Monday, March 31, 2008

March Wrap-Up

Looks like 5 books this month. I'm down a bit from 12 in January and 11 in February, but it averages out to 9.3 a month so far this year. If I have any hope of getting to 100 books this year, I seriously need to rally during this next quarter of the year. Yeah, I know. Worrying about the numbers is bullshit, right? Well, let's take a moment and don our boots and go a-wading, because I can't help it: Just once during my lifetime, I'd like to post triple digits; READING IS MY DAMN SPORT!

[My Tough & Cool Inner Bookworm is advising me to make my mind calm. And quit my job. Piss off, T&CIB.]

Anyway, here's what I read during March:

1. Suite Francaise - Irene Nemirovsky. The drafts of these two novels, which remained unpublished for 64 years, following Nemirovsky's murder at Auschwitz, are prime examples of beautiful, luminous writing. The writing is so superior, it's hard to remember that they were drafts. Given the tragic outcome of Nemirovsky's own story, it's incredible that she was able and willing to make the characters of the young German soldiers occupying the small French farm town human and, in some cases, likable. I want to read more of her work, particularly Fire In The Blood, also recently published. The translator wrote that Nemirovsky was influenced by Turgenev. Her stunning literary achievement makes me want to check out his work as well.
2. Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography - David Michaelis. An entertaining and informative biography of the famous cartoonist. In addition to thorough research and numerous interviews with cooperative family and friends, Michaelis uses Peanuts strips to literally illustrate how closely Charles M. Schulz and his characters were linked. In one of the saddest but most fitting footnotes in recent American celebrity, Schulz died merely hours before his very last strip was being delivered in morning newspapers around the country. After reading about the life of this quirky and complex individual, I miss him all over again.
3. Korea Bug: The Best Of The Zine That Infected A Nation - J. Scott Burgeson. "...traveling to another country and experiencing a culture different than one's own is a profoundly existential proposition that naturally entails some difficulty, bewilderment and alienation, and as far as I'm concerned, that's where the real fun lies." -J. Scott Burgeson
I hope J. Scott Burgeson is a sturdy and stalwart kind of guy because he's officially on double-duty starting...NOW! He's my Expat Hero and my Zine Hero. In Korea Bug, he shows both sides of his heroism to perfection. As the inside flap of this compilation notes, "This is cultural criticism at its best, served up with a punk attitude." I spent most of the 1990s reading (and trying to produce) zines, and I've never seen one as well-executed as Korea Bug. And I even had a subscription to Factsheet Five!
Korea Bug is cool, the very definition of that word. It's not a touristy kind of zine that lists in paint-by-numbers fashion all the places that one should visit in Korea with a duly placed photo of each landmark. It's not a typical whiny expat zine that details the weird things that happen when you bump up against a whole nother culture on a daily basis.
Burgeson bypasses all the above mentioned and goes for the offbeat and truly interesting things about Korea. He goes out and interviews people from various walks of life. He uncovers the diversity in Korea -- no mean feat in a homogeneous culture where it's cool to be just like everyone else. These interviews, done with the help of a translator, are transcribed just as they are, so it's Koreans discussing Korea without an intrusive overlay of foreign commentary.
Here are a few of the interviews: The last real gisaeng (similar to geisha), shortly before she died; a shaman; Russian "hostesses" in Busan; the owners of a bbondeghi (silkworm larvae, a popular snack in Korea) plant, complete with tips on how to fully enjoy the experience of eating them; a tailor in Itaewon with the improbable (but real) name of U.S. Kim, who made suits for Ronald Reagan and Norman Schwartzkopf; a Taekkyon master; a fortuneteller; a Korean-Japanese guy working as a DJ in Seoul discussing his feelings of alienation; Yim Soon-Rye, one of the few women directors in Korea and also one of the few directors here willing to examine Korean society with an unflinching eye (if you can, check out her 1996 movie Sechingu/3 Friends); and many more.
The preface of the book contains a lovingly exhaustive history of all the expat zines --good and bad --that have been published in the last 100+ years in Korea. There's also an essay that explores 5 of the strangest books ever written about Korea. These include a book by a Victorian woman who never even clapped eyes on Korea, and just made up a bunch of stuff; a book by a 19th-century businessman/religious fanatic who was convinced that Koreans were one of the lost tribes of Israel; a 1956 book by a Russian-American engineer who was equally convinced that Koreans Are White, and also descendants of the ancient Greeks; a 500 page book by an American scholar who was masterfully manipulated by the Japanese into writing an official apologia regarding their occupation of Korea -- the idiot was so brainwashed, he makes it sound like the Japanese were doing Korea a favor by colonizing them and violently suppressing their culture; and a science fiction novel that never mentions Korea, but whose setting is obvious to even the most diffident expat.
Finally, in the last section of Korea Bug titled "Oeguk" (Korean for "foreigner", or more exactly, "outside country person") there's a thoughtful exchange between several foreigners about the role of the oeguk in Korea and whether it's our duty to assimilate and if so, how much?
I can't hope to convey how much fun I had reading Korea Bug, and how much I learned. Sometime in the next month or so, I'm going to buy another copy and do a drawing here on my blog-- I think Korea Bug has only been published in Korea, and it might be difficult to find elsewhere. Meanwhile, J. Scott Burgeson, if you should read this, please accept a well-deserved standing ovation from The Blue-Hearted Bookworm.
...If You Lived In Colonial Times - Ann McGovern. A lively book in question-and-answer format that explains how life was different during colonial times. The book explores all the aspects of daily life, (except the one kids really want to know about -- going to the bathroom). Targeted at the elementary school audience, some middle and even high schoolers might find this an interesting read as well.
Truth & Beauty - Ann Patchett. I think I would have been better off reading Lucy Grealy's Autobiography Of A Face and stopping there. Novelist Ann Patchett's memoir of her friendship with Lucy doesn't portray either of them in the best light. Lucy, who survived a rare form of cancer as a child and lost her lower jaw to the disease is portrayed as vulnerable, irresponsible, depressed, whiny, needy and finally, in her last year or so, heroin-dependent, as a result of her dependence on the painkiller OxyContin, prescribed after her final reconstructive surgery.
Patchett writes repeatedly that people are drawn to Lucy's personality, but that personality doesn't come across to the readers. She does an admirable job of recounting the horrific details of Lucy's ongoing battle with her reconstructive surgeries that seem to melt away after a couple of years, but again, I would've gotten a lot of that from reading Lucy's book.
Ann Patchett takes great pains to let the reader know just how far she went for Lucy and exactly how much she did for her. There's a distinctly martyred tone present in the narrative. Written less than 2 years after Lucy died of an accidental overdose, Patchett understandably seems to still be working through anger, guilt, and resentment. This memoir might have been better served if Patchett had waited a few more years to write it. Her unflattering depiction of Lucy and her frank discussion of Lucy's drug abuse could only have compounded the grief and loss of Lucy's family.
On a lesser note, when Patchett is describing her own life, she does a lot of literary name-dropping. Usually, I find this enjoyable, but here, it was jarring and distracting. Ordinarily, I like memoirs, but Truth & Beauty left me with a bad taste. I plan to go back and read Lucy Grealy's book. I'd rather listen to the voice of the one who can't speak for herself anymore.


jenclair said...

The biography of David Schultz sounds interesting. I have to agree with you about Truth & Beauty - neither Lucy nor Ann appeared all that appealing.

Eva said...

Korea Bug sounds sooo neat! And if you read 9.3 books a month, you should break 100: that's 111.6 (I love that computers come with calculators). So you're right on track. :)

Sycorax Pine said...

I too loved "Suite Francaise" when I read it last year, and I am glad to hear that you enjoyed "Schulz and Peanuts," because I have been not-too-subtly booklusting after it since beginning to read the first volume of "The Collected Peanuts" (which I somehow never expected to enjoy).

Meanwhile "Reading is my Damn Sport!" is a bumpersticker I would love to own!