Archive for April, 2009

NecropheniaIt’s possible that this is Robert Rankin’s longest book – it’s about 400 pages long and there’s a lot of text on each page. Appropriately – even though Rankin’s books are generally epic, plot-wise – there is an especially epic story to go with this large word-count.

The story spans decades and continents and sees the narrator (in fact, the novel also spans narrators), Tyler, try his hand at being a rock star, being a private detective and saving mankind – with limited success, arguably on all counts. Tyler is your typical Rankin hero – big on ambition, small on ability, personality and luck. He starts off wanting to make it big in a ukelele band (because ukes are the only instrument left to his school’s music department); unfortunately, The Sumerian Kynges (for such is his band’s name) are upstaged by some group called The Rolling Stones. More than once, in fact.

Another major part of the plot involves the living dead (hence ‘Necrophenia‘). For instance, early on, Tyler has a lot of trouble with large transvestite zombies. Don’t we all? It takes a while for Tyler – and the reader – to figure out who is responsible for the burgeoning numbers of the undead. On the way there are asides and sublpots about, for instance, the man whose philosophy is that everything is where it should be, and therefore sets about preparing for the Second Coming by creating a lounge for Jesus. Or Captain Lynch’s plans to find the lost golden city of Begrem (and why it’s no coincidence that ‘orgy of Begrem’ is an anagram of ‘George Formby’).

Many of these threads come together at the end. Although the prevalence of transvestitism among the life-challenged remains a mystery. Two favourite recurring Rankin characters recur (what else would they do?) in Necrophenia: Lazlo Woodbine and Elvis Presley, and both are important parts of the plot.

Many of the now legendary Rankin running gags and catchphrases are present and correct, and it was a pleasure mentally ticking them off at the start of the novel. After the dark conclusion of the Rankin’s previous novel (The Da-Da-De-Da-Da Code), we are at least treated to a much more optimistic ending here, but the hero has to go through an awful lot of misery to get there – and it often doesn’t look as though he will get there (the novel is retold in retrospect, and Tyler often mentions how he ‘almost saved mankind’).

Necrophenia is certainly Robert Rankin’s most ambitious book, and as such is a lot to take in and it has more than its fair share of loose ends. It’s also not his funniest, but I think some of the writing surpasses anything he’s done before. There is, for example, a recurring motif of the tick tock tick tocking of time passing. And the aforementioned hints about Tyler’s impending failure. Ultimately, it’s a solidly entertaining book, and an interesting addition to Rankin’s generously proportioned oeuvre.

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The castle crumbles

I’ve been a little worried about E-Castle’s viability since last year. We went from five foreign teachers to three and from, I think, ten Koreans to seven. Students have been leaving to attend more well-known hagwons – a new branch of Avalon has been mentioned. By Yun-hye, in fact, who also suggested that student number at our place had gone down from 1,000 to 400 (although that sounds like an exaggeration).

It also seems, from what I’ve heard, that our director, Sharon (I have no idea of her Korean name), is no longer interested in running a hagwon since the birth of her child a few months ago (which I suppose is fair enough).

This week we learnt what our immediate future holds. English Castle Academy is to ‘merge’ with another hagwon called Midas Academy to become Genius Academy. When I say ‘merge’ I suspect that the truth is that all our students and staff are just being moved to Midas, which is then changing its name. From some point in June we’ll be working in a different building – one that’s directly opposite our apartment building. Midas is apparently a general education hagwon and has no native English-speaking teachers.

I still don’t know if I’m going to be re-signed come June. The way things are going I probably won’t know until June. Wonderful.

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Taking a hike

In a change to our usual routine (which involves me spending the night at Habiba’s on a couple of weekdays and on Saturday), I hosted Habiba at my place on Friday night. In preparation, I’d given my bedclothes their bi-annual wash (I’m not really joking about that), cleaned the bathroom, the kitchen area and swept up a pile of dust and hair.

On Saturday, we had a ‘brunch’ (still with inverted commas) of bagels and coffee at a bagel place nearby. Then we went to see the Woody Allen film Vicky Christina Barcelona. It was enjoyable, although I found the narration quite irritating, and ultimately I don’t think it amounted to much. After that we headed back to mine to collect some clothes so I could spend the night at Habiba’s. She showed me some Muppets and Flight of the Conchords songs on Youtube, both very good. I reciprocated with Shirley Bassey and Andre Previn’s appearances with Morcambe and Wise, and Bill Bailey’s classic ‘Insect Nation’.

Once we’d dropped my bags at her apartment (sans change of underwear, which I’d forgotten to pack), Habiba and I went to Itaewon. There, we were to meet my colleague Yu-jeong – Ally, flame-haired Valkyrie – for a birthday night out. Her birthday, in fact. Crossing the road above the subway station we were accosted by Jon – my erstwhile team-leader at work; he was with his annoying Korean wife, Sunny – my erstwhile boss. We chatted for a minute then I made our excuses. I didn’t say anything about meeting colleagues – I didn’t know if they’d been invited or not, or would be welcome or not.

We had dinner at the same Chinese restaurant that Travis had gone missing from on the occasion of the E-Castle Christmas meal. Also in attendance were Yun-hye and In-ju from work, Yun-hye’s friend Claire (didn’t get her Korean name) and my language exchange person, Ji-hyeon. During the meal someone had a call from Sunny – who of course told them we’d just met … and I hadn’t mentioned it.

Ji-hyeon tried to make me speak Korean, but I couldn’t think of anything to say. Coveniently, I started choking on some food – she left me alone after that. It was a strange experience, a mixing of two different worlds – work and friendship. Not that I dislike my colleagues, but I like to keep my friendships separate, and somehow special. And I don’t like sharing parts of my life with people I’m not that close to. It reminded me of the time (before the days of this blog) I had dinner with my parents and my friend Lawrence.

Unfortunately, Ji-hyeon had to leave after the meal – she was flying to London for the book fair the following day. (I don’t associate her with work and I’ve talked to her a lot more than to my colleagues, so I consider her part of the world of friendship.) We went to a place called 7 Bonji Bistro for cocktails. I was reluctant to have a cocktail – they are girls’ drinks, after all. I tried to compensate for this my having a manly drink entitled a James Bond Martini (which Habiba professed to find ‘cute’). It was very bitter. After that it was off to The Loft for more drinks and dancing. Women were entitled to free drinks; I was the only man in the party.

I dragged Habiba away before the rest were ready to leave – I had plans for the morrow. Habiba gave everyone a hug; I gave Ally a hug and wished her a happy birthday.

My plans for Sunday involved meeting Botond and some Koreans to go hiking on Ganghwado, a large island north-west of Seoul. And those plans were realised. I was fairly intoxicated and tired on Saturday night, but didn’t feel too bad the next morning. I (wearing yesterday’s underpants and socks) met the others at Hapjeong Station at 9:30, and from there we drove north in a many-seated people carrier. There were four middle-aged women and two men – one of the men slightly older, in fact. They didn’t speak much English, but we greeted each other and after that I mostly just talked to Bo.

The drive took an hour and a half or so and the following walk lasted over four hours. The area we ended up in was fairly rural area, a little more picturesque than, say, Odaemi village up near the Dee Em Zed. The land was more rolling, more complicated, even, than the usual perfect flatness punctuated by forested hills – although there was also exactly that kind of landscape around. As spring is now well under way, the trees and plants were all clothed with bright young leaves and/or flowers.

We hiked up a wooded hill and over a few hilltops. Shortly after one we stopped for lunch. My contribution was pretty paltry – some crisps and chocolate – and the Koreans didn’t seem very interested in Bo’s bananas and sandwiches. But they had plenty of food of their that they pressed on us. A little kimbap, some translucent noodles, kimchi, rice, tree shoots with red bean paste, bean curd, and some sweet grey-brown slop – amongst other things. Oh, and makkoli – a milky alcoholic drink which appears to be intrinsic to the Korean hiking experience.

Eventually we came to the main attraction: a hillside covered with pink, lilac, mauve and purple flowers. The flowers adorned bushes which had yet put out much in the way of foliage. This area was where most of the other hikers wanted to spend their time. Part of the hillside was roped off from the path; another part had a long wooden walkway built across it. Only one side of the hill had the flowering bushes – the other was wooded.

Pink Hillside

The Koreans stopped here for a few photos with their banner. I don’t know what their group is called, but they aim to climb 100 peaks in Korea. I don’t know how many they’ve done.

From here we walked down a road a little way and then through more woods on our way down. We stopped for a little while at a temple which was bedecked in lanterns for the upcoming Buddha’s birthday – 2nd of May this year.

Although we paused numerous times during the hike, apart from the lunchbreak they were only brief stops. The Koreans liked to keep moving; Bo and I, on the other hand, would have preferred to spend a bit more time taking photos and taking the view.

Towards the end of our hike we passed through a small village – or at least a number of houses in general proximity to one another. There was a dog farm there. I’m sure I heard a Korean hiker as he passed say with a laugh that dog meat was delicious.

Once we arrived at a main road, the guy who drove the car got a taxi back to where it was parked. The rest of us had to wait. As we looked at information board showing a large map of the hill, the other Koreans remarked that we’d walked 10.4km. I nodded off for a few minutes on the way back and came to when we made a stop to look at some vegetable stalls. I got out too and took a few shots of the nearby mudflats and islands. When I looked around everyone was getting into the car again. They picked me up as they were leaving the layby.

For much of the rest of the way I played a wordgame with Bo. It involves guessing the five-letter word that your opponent has in mind by saying other five-letter words and being told how many correct letters you have in the correct place. It’s the first time I’d played it in years. I won, but I had the unfair advantages that I’m a native English speaker and I know how to play the game. I want to get Habiba to play with me.

I stayed the night at Habiba’s; she washed my clothes (well, she put them in her fancy frontloader washing machine – she didn’t do them by hand) and told me about the two chaps she’d met during the day. That’s three nights in a row we spent together – although only one full day. Nice.

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The Weirdstone of BrisingamenI seem to remember that my mother encouraged me to read this when I was young (or maybe it was Elidor by the same author). And I just have. And I’m glad I did so.

There is a school of thought that one should write about what one knows – Alan Garner does this. Although The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a fantasy novel, it’s based in the solid reality of the Cheshire countryside. I’m a Cheshire boy myself (although I’m from the shitty part in the northern corner) and I recognise some of the placenames used, and indeed the character of the rural landscape (it brings back memories of hiking and camping with the Cubs and Scouts).

Colin and Susan are a brother and sister spending six months with their mother’s former nurse while their parents are abroad. This means going to live in a farmhouse with Bess and Gowther Massock. Susan has a crystal set in a bracelet that was given to her by her mother, and was given to her mother by the childless Bess, who received it from her mother and so on. The two children are stalked and chased by beings with untoward intentions – it turns out they are after the stone – the eponymous Weirdstone – which is an object of immense magical power. And so the pair get sucked into a struggle for their lives and for the fate of the entire world.

Despite this epic plot, the story is short, intimate and modest in scale. There are only a few characters and the book is a mere 236 pages in length. The writing is a nice mixture of young adult accessibility, old-fashioned eloquence, poetry and fantasy idiom:

In the middle of the cave the floor rose in the shape of a natural, tomb-like couch of stone; and here lay a knight comelier than his fellows. His head rested upon a helmet enriched with jewels and circlets of gold, and its crest was a dragon. By his side was placed a naked sword, and on the blade was the image of two serpents in gold, and so brightly did the blade gleam that it was as if two flames of fire started from the serpents’ heads.

And a fair amount of dialect, too, mostly from the mouth of Gowther:

You go and enjoy yourselves. But when you’re up on th’Edge see as you dunner venture down ony caves you might find, and keep an eye open for holes in the ground. Yon place is riddled with tunnels and shafts from the owd copper-mines. If you went down theer and got lost that’d be the end of you, for even if you missed falling down a hole you’d wander about in the dark until you upped and died.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is definitely post-Tolkien but pre-contemporary fantasy. It lacks the epic scale of either and is written in a more assured style than most (on either side, to be honest), but forms an interesting link between the two. I should look into this further (see here), but I was surprised to see the terms ‘svart alfar’ and ‘lios alfar’ used for goblin- and elf-like beings respectively. Surprised because Guy Gavriel Kay uses exactly those names in the wonderful The Fionavar Tapestry.

The only real disappointment in the novel was the ending, which was abrupt and depended on the characters surviving until the forces of evil had spent themselves, rather than actively triumphing over that evil. But apart from that, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is a charming example of the fantasy genre and a very good book.

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The DoorBotond bought this book for me. Having enjoyed another book he got me by another Hungarian author (Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb; both books were translated by Len Rix) I was looking forward to a good read.

The novel is a first person narrative – the narrator being Magda Szabó herself, or a fictionalised version thereof. The time period is never specified exactly, but, while in some places it feels like the early 20th century, it becomes clear that it’s set during the latter decades of Communist rule in Hungary. Politics and political figures feature peripherally in the story, but rarely with any specficity.

The story begins with the narrator in search of a housekeeper – she and her husband live a privileged middle-class life. She finds Emerence, an older and eccentric woman. Emerence is obsessed with hard work, doesn’t indulge in chitchat, refuses to accommodate anyone else’s ways of doing things, never lets anyone into her home … the list of her idiosyncrasies is long. She’s partly a fascinating character, partly exasperating.

The narrator, on the other hand, is less ambivalent – she is mostly exasperating: constantly hand-wringing and whining, she spends the book agonising over what she’s done to Emerence (which events are related at the end of the novel). The upshot is that The Door is potentially very moving, but it’s handicapped by its two annoying main characters.

There’s a part where the narrator is invited in February to speak at the library in Emerence’s hometown two months later. Emerence doesn’t go because her housekeeping work is too important. I quoted a passage from that chapter a while ago. February plus two months is April, if my calculations are correct. However, when she arrives at the town it’s high summer. It’s not the only instance of the text being self-contradictory or confusing.

In places, The Door is very good, but by the end I didn’t really care about the two protagonists’ mutual self-destruction.

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Father Ted Crilly effecting a rapprochement with Craggy Island’s Chinese community. Father Ted, series 3, episode 1 – ‘Are You Right There, Father Ted?’

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Things are going well with Habiba, thanks for asking. Our relationship happened so fast that there’s been a kind of relationship lag at work. I feel like our knowledge of each other, our ease with each other is just beginning to catch up with our outward, physical intimacy. And I hope we’ll continue to grow closer.

Unfortunately, all this wonderfulness has gone hand in hand with illness over the past couple of weeks. I had a hangover the Sunday I went to meet Ji-hyeon at Konkuk University subway station. Habiba started feeling unwell the same day, and was diagnosed with enteritis, which she doubted. I had diarrhoea that week.

And at the end of the week, as my bowels were starting to solidify (although not entirely – more on this later), I got a cold. This made itself known in the form of a bad sore throat. The sore throat has mostly gone now, except when it dries out over night, and I have, as I kept telling Habiba last night, a head full of snot (or ‘boogers’ as she would have it (pronounced ‘buggers’)). I’m also rather coughy and somewhat headachey.

On Sunday night my started to feel irritated like I had a bit of grit in there. The next day I woke up with my eye plastered shut with eye-gunk, which I am assured by Wikipedia is referred to as ‘gound’. My eye was noticeably bloodshot. I gradually realised that I had conjunctivis – aka pinkeye. This hasn’t been too bad an affliction, my eye is very slightly stingy and very slighty weepy. The main effect has been people’s reactions. Some of my students yesterday told me I had an evil eye.

Last night at Habiba’s I was introduced to the neti pot. This is a pipe- or Aladdin’s lamp-looking object that you fill with warm water, into which is dissolved some special salt. You then hold the narrow end to your nostril and lean the other way. The water courses up and down your sinuses to dribble out of your free nostril, loosening up snot as it goes. It works reasonably well. I could breathe well after using it, but it’s a shame the snot all grows back in fairly short order.

Today at work, my colleague Sandy, the 29-year-old American (not to be confused with Habiba, the 29-year-old American-Candian) gave me a couple of bottles of health drink made of quince that is supposedly good for the throat. It’s called Mok Seonsaeng – which could be translated as Throat Doctor or Throat Teacher.

Later on I went to talk to I Sabeomnim. She bought me some cold rememdies – some vitamin C tablets and another health drink. These drinks are very popular in Korea; they come in small glass bottle. This particular one is apparently a traditional Chinese thing; it tastes kind of tobacco-y.

The reason I wanted to talk to Master Lee is that the dojang’s wonjangnim works at Sanggye Paik Hospital and a while ago he tried to persuade me to stop going to Eulji Medical Center and go to his place instead. I haven’t had any treatment for my warts for some time and I thinking that I should have another bash at it – and at another hospital. Not that I think there was anything wrong with Eulji, but it can’t hurt to try something else. Unfortunately, effective wart treatment seems to be very painful, so I should say it can’t hurt any worse.

Finally, I might be experiencing a mild flare up of my colitis. February has always been the time when flare-ups occurred, so I’m kind of overdue – although I had no problems last year. Anyway, I’m going to the toilet more often than is good for one and passing a little mucus and a tiny bit of blood. (Don’t make a face, it’s just a fact.) My doctor today doubled my prescription of mesalazine. For the next month I’m to take four pills after meals. We’ll see how that goes.

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