Archive for July, 2009

The Judging Eye

The traveller glanced up to where the gorge walls pinched the sky into a wandering slot.

This quote is from the prologue of The Judging Eye (the first book in The Aspect-Emperor, the sequel trilogy to The Prince of Nothing (consisting of The Darkness That Comes Before, The Warrior-Prophet and The Thousandfold Thought)). I think it demonstrates very well the strength of Bakker’s writing – particularly when it comes to visual imagery. The words Bakker uses – and creates – are certainly his unique selling point. The intensity of his language reminds me a great (or)deal of Stephen Donaldson.

Which isn’t to say that it’s perfect. Sometimes he verges into purple over-writing; there were also a few distressing moments when characters in The Judging Eye used the anachronism ‘okay’. But I forgive him (whilst hoping he doesn’t continue the practice in future volumes).

Another aspect(-emperor) of the way Bakker writes is how he uses names to give his world-building an authoritative and unique feel. And a major part of this is his use of circumflex accents and diaereses; they also lend his names a very Tolkienesque character. Examples include Eärwa, Kûniüri and Dûnyain.

As to the story, it starts twenty years after the conclusion of the previous book, during which time Anasûrimbor Kellhus, having made himself the new aspect-emperor, has conquered or Finlandised pretty much the whole known world, while his erstwhile friend and tutor, Drusas Achamian has become a recluse (complete with rickety old tower) searching his retro-prophetic dreams for clues to how he might achieve the Kellhus’s downfall. Both of them set off on a journey into the frigid north: Kellhus at the heart of the Great Ordeal – a gigantic army intent on preventing the Second Apocalypse – and Drusas with a band of Scalpoi (men who collect the scalps of sranc (think of skinny orcs) for the bounty) looking for Ishuäl, Kellhus’s home.

This book isn’t as long as its predecessors, and it feels like a more focused narrative, less epic in scope. Achamian remains the hero, and as an old man now, is even less suited to that role. The other main viewpoint characters are the Empress, Achamian’s former lover, Esmenet; Esmenet and Kellhus’s young child, Kelmomas, a boy who has inherited his father’s preternatural perceptiveness; Sorweel, a prince who is orphaned (and made king) by the Great Ordeal’s attack on his home; Psatma Nannaferi, Mother-Supreme of the Cult of Yatwer; and Mimara, Esmenet’s daughter from long before she met Kellhus, who wants to become a magic-user and seeks Achamian’s tuition.

Absent from the page for most of the time is the central, fascinating figure of Anasûrimbor Kellhus – his ability to read the minutiae of expression and voice, and to control his own, have led almost everyone he’s met to render themselves unto him heart and soul. To have focused on this godlike character in the second trilogy would probably have resulted in tedium, so I’m not complaining.

Despite the relative focus of the story, there was something less than totally satisfying about The Judging Eye. There was a bit too much mystery in it – exactly what power does the Cult of Yatwer have? What exactly is the Judging Eye and what’s its significance? What is monstrous little Kelmomas up to (if anything)? Why are Mimara’s sections written in present tense? – and little was given away at the end. It had the feel of a prologue for the remaining two books in this trilogy (and, indeed, the trilogy that will come after).

I enjoyed it, though, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next volume, The White-Luck Warrior.

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On Saturday, Habiba and I along with Habiba’s friend Charlie went to a one-off pottery class organised by the Korea Foundation Volunteer Network. I’d previously been on just one of their monthly events – a walk up Inwangsan, a small mountain near the president’s residence (the Blue House). I’d gone with Bo and So-young and we’d hooked up with one of the volunteers, Sugyung to see a film afterwards. She and I subsequently went to see Quantum of Solace together, but I hadn’t seen her after that – until I bumped into her at Boryeong the previous weekend.

All the attendees met at Indeogwon Station, south of Seoul (I used to pass through the area on the blue subway line when I lived in Ansan). From there, we were ferried by car to the pottery studio, Clay House. We had to hang around for a while waiting for everyone to arrive; we looked at the various pieces on display, on sale or simply being stored.

Habiba and Charlie

Once everyone was there, we gathered in a large tent behind the building and sat at chunky wooden tables. One of the potters gave us instructions in Korean, which were then translated into broken English by a male volunteer. He was a little embarrassed at his ability to render the directions into English – but it was a good-natured moment with laughter all round.

The Master Craftsman with the Shiny Nose

At our table were the three of us along with a Korean girl, Eun-yeong, and a Turkish guy Dursun (he and his wonderfully-named friend, Saruhan, are studying Korean here). Charlie and Dursun flirted a little, and they and I practiced our Korean with Eun-yeong.


I made a large mug, which I decorated with leaf-shapes, Habiba made a bowl, Charlie also did a mug, Eun-yeong made a couple of bowls for liquor, while Dursun, I think, made a bowl and a gravy boat. While Habiba was away trying her hand at a pottery wheel, I also made a cat.

It was a lot of fun – a very engaging challenge. The various mugs, bowls, vases and ornaments need time to dry and be fired; we can pick them up next month.

Afterwards, Habiba, Charlie and I headed back up to Habiba’s neck of the woods to eat and then meet a couple of her colleagues – Zack and June – to see Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (more pottering – see?). I think we all enjoyed it – it was certainly the best of the three I’ve seen so far.

After that, June went home and the rest us of had ice cream then played Boggle in a bar.

It was a very pleasant day.

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The White PlagueThis book has been on my non-literal to-read list for quite some time, and, to be honest, I’m a little disappointed. Frank Herbert is, of course, one of the most important sf authors of the twentieth century, and Dune and the series it begat stands monolithic above everything else he wrote. But many of those other works are just as interesting – The Dragon in the Sea – his first novel – comes to mind. Others aren’t as interesting – The Green Brain was pretty crap, for instance.

In quality terms, The White Plague falls between those two extremes.

The opening chapter is probably the best part of the novel and sets the scene for the whole story (which was written in the early eighties). John O’Neill, an American molecular biologist doing research in Ireland for six months, sees his wife and two children killed in an IRA bombing. Devastated, he returns home and and starts working on a plan to deprive the Irish, British and Libyans (who, of course, supplied the IRA) of their women and children – he creates a virulent disease that is fatal to any woman who contracts it.

Before long, the plague – released initially in his target countries – spreads around the world, provoking drastic actions from mortally scared governments – whole swathes of land – and thousands of people – are bombed and put to the flame in order to create firewalls against the virus’s spread.

The novel has a large cast – there is O’Neill himself, an Irish biologist and his girlfriend who fortuitously manage to secure themselves in a pressure tank, there are a range of specialists assigned by nations to work on solutions, the American president, the Provo who set off the bomb, a broken priest, a psychotic Irish security chief … etc, etc. The chapters are generally very short and often time and events pass between the chapters, lending the story a certain disjointedness. I feel the story could easily have been a large trilogy instead of one large volume.

O’Neill’s trauma triggers the breakdown of his psyche – and it’s actually another part of his personality that does all the work for his revenge. Later in the story, he spends a long time in Ireland, travelling, unwittingly, with the man who killed his family. There’s a fair amount of the psychological exigencies and intricacies that characterise Herbert’s books, but somehow the effect here is diluted – perhaps because of the scale of the narrative and its condensed telling.

Overall, The White Plague is not without interest, but it’s not a highlight of Frank Herbert’s output.

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The Neverending StoryI’ve read one other book by this German author – Momo. That was back in 2007, I think – the previous time I was in South Korea. I liked it, and, although it was fairly low down on my reading list, I wanted to check out The Neverending Story as well. I was given the opportunity by my girlfriend; we watched the film together and then she lent me the book.

I would have prefered to have read the book first, actually. I find it increasingly annoying that films inevitably influence one’s visualisation of the books one reads. I had seen it before, but way back in the eighties and I’d mostly forgotten it. But anyway.

The first part of the book is the story told in the film – Bastian steals The Neverending Story from the bookshop and reads about Atreyu’s quest to find a cure for the Childlike Empress. The sections in the ‘real’ world, Bastian’s world, are printed in italics and are interspersed throughout the larger narrative of Atreyu’s journey. Occasionally, I found these Bastian-clips annoying – both in terms of the distraction and Bastian’s internal commentary.

The second, larger part of the story concerns Bastian (now transformed into a handsome demigod) becoming part of the story he’s been reading and making/remaking/discovering the land of Fantastica. This three-way ambiguity about Bastian’s role is an interesting metaphor for what happens when people read stories – do we simply discover what the author has given us, or do we create something unique in our own minds – or is it a bit of both? It also contains a warning about losing oneself in a fantasy world – just like Bastian.

Although the initial section of this latter half of the novel is a little boring (Bastian seems to spend a lot of time enjoying the wonders of Fantastica), once some conflict is introduced it quickly becomes the most interesting part of the book. The more Bastian exercises his godlike powers to create the world he is exploring, the more arrogant he becomes and the more he forgets the life of the shy, chubby schoolboy he used to have. Ultimately, Bastian must rediscover himself before he loses himself completely.

The Neverending Story is excellently written – it has that sense of childlike wonder and vitality that marks The Lord of the Rings, but it’s more sophisticated than Tolkien’s masterwork. While the first part of the book was, for me, an exercise in spotting the differences between film and novel, the second part was much more engaging. Bastian’s physical journey and, more importantly, his psychological journey are both fascinating and moving.

There’s little doubt that The Neverending Story is a masterpiece of children’s and fantasy literature – especially if it can enthuse two people as different in tastes as me and my girlfriend.

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Mud birthday

Last weekend, Habiba and I, and four other friends, went to Boryeong Mud Festival. The weekend was also special because it was Habiba’s birthday on Sunday – she was 30.

Having spent a few weeks wondering what on Earth I could buy her as a present, on Monday – taking advantage of a random day off work – I went to Insadong (an area of craft and souvenir shops) to look for inspiration. And inspiration came – if rather timidly. On Thursday I went back to buy what I wanted. Unfortunately, the rainy season is now upon us here in the Korean penninsula – and on Thursday it was bucketing down. I walked along the street, sodden from the knees down, getting depressed for reasons that are difficult to explain. I had some tea and chocolate in a Starbucks and went back home to change and go to work.

I ended up getting Habiba three presents – bought over two subsequent trips to Insadong. Three because I wanted to make it special, and because the central gift I had mind also gave me some doubts.

On Saturday morning I dropped the least portable of my gifts – a large bowl matching some other ceramics Habiba has – at her place and then headed off to meet her at Yongsan Station. From there we took the train to Boryeong (or to Daecheon, at least) – which was a trip of nearly three hours.

Although the weather had been decent in Seoul in the morning, by the time we reached Boryeong mid to late afternoon it was decidedly grey and showery. Things weren’t helped by the fact that the room we were shown to at our guesthouse wasn’t what our friend Ksan had reserved. Ksan is Canadian, but has been in Korea for several years and speaks the language very well. There was a long argument between her and the landlady; the landlord also joined in (although I’m not entirely sure on what side).

We ended up staying at another place – thereby losing half the cost of the other room. Ksan – extremely generously – paid the extra cost for us. The second guesthouse was closer to the beach, and similarly over-priced. Under-specced, too: we had two rooms, one for Habiba and me, one for Ksan, her boyfriend Jun-hong, Charlie and her ‘friend’ Ju (Charlie and Ju have a pretty fraught relationship); we had to ask for more towels and toilet roll, there was no drinking water, no toiletries other than soap, no futon-style mattresses, just sheets and pillows. It was by far the worst-value place I’ve stayed at in Korea.

I was obliged to buy some shorts and flip-flops at the convenience store on the ground floor – having not prepared for a beach holiday at all, having not done that sort of thing since I was a child. While freshening up in our room, I picked up a small Listerine bottle that Habiba had brought with her and mouthed a swig … only to realise it wasn’t mouthwash at all, but liquid soap. Bleurch.

In our beach get-up and in the grey weather we headed to the restaurant next door where we had a seafood barbecue – lots of clams and mussels. Ju told us that the Korean for clam, jogae, also refers to the female pudenda; he seemed to think it was a good pun to use in chat-up lines.

After that we walked down the beach to a stage constructed over the sand opposite the mudbath area. There were lots of foreigners wandering round – the Mud Festival is one of those things that English teachers have to go and do during their year or so here. We went swimming. It wasn’t freezing, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant, either. Habiba had fun doing underwater somersaults and handstands; I tried one and got water up my nose. The walk back to our accommodation seemed to take much longer than the walk out – especially being wet and cold.

Afterwards, we hooked up with Ksan’s boyfriend, Jun-hong and accompanied him to another restaurant so he could eat meat. It was dark by this time, and at some time after nine a fireworks display began. Everybody ran to the door out to the first floor balcony; I had a reasonable view from my seat, so I stayed where I was while the meat overcooked on the grill beside me. The fireworks were pretty impressive, actually – there were some huge ones that looked like exploding universes, others that formed peachy-red hearts or stars.

We bought a couple of carrier bags full of snacks from a convenience store. Inside I bumped into Su-Gyung, the woman I met on the hike to Inwangsan and subsequently had a date with. I’ll probably see her again this Saturday when I go on my second Korean Foundation Volunteer Network event – a pottery class.

We took our goodies back to the guesthouse and ate and played cards. When it turned midnight we sang happy birthday for Habiba and gave her presents. Earlier on, I’d already given her a pretty slate- or teal-coloured fabric bookmark (so she has no excuse not to fold pages in books). Now, I gave her a stamp with her name in Roman and Hangul lettering (which looks like 하비바). It was made out of some blonde wood and the handle was carved into a ram – being born in 1979, she’s year of the sheep. As I understand it, all Koreans have one of these stamps to use on official documents. Although I was worried it might be kind of a pointless gift, I also think it makes a nice keepsake for someone who’s lived in Korea.

Afterwards we went swimming naked in the sea. Charlie, having already done so (we left her and Ju behind to tend to a paralytic Londoner we found lying on the ground as we walked back to the guesthouse), kindly remained on the beach to take photos of us.

When we woke in the morning there was pretty much a full-on storm going on outside. However, by the time we’d got ready to go out (putting on our wet beach clothes from the previous day), the rain had died off leaving only the warm gale-force wind. We walked up the beach back to the mudbath area by the stage (we’d been too late to get muddy on Saturday); where the sand was dry enough we got sandblasted.

The mud facilities (all free) were limited to just three (or two, really), no doubt because of the bad weather. There was a mud prison cage, a mudbath and a pool for rinsing off. We went in the cage first. This was maybe three or four by two metres; people climbed in through the flexible bars front and back and were then pelted with buckets of mud. The mudbath was of a similar size and was filled to a depth of a foot or so with thick but smooth warm grey mud. As you can imagine, it was weird, but fun and quite satisfying. There were lots of people walking around looking like prehistoric relics.

We went swimming (or, more precisely, wading – there was a line of lifeguards posted in the water to prevent anyone going further than about thigh-deep into the crashing surf), then into the mud again before heading back to our accommodation to wash, change and check out. The wind was still blowing fiercely and I was really cold. I ended up wearing my England shirt and the long-sleeved top I’d lent to Habiba – both got rather dirty.

At the guesthouse, we snook in and snook out again hoping to avoid a confrontation with the landlady, who undoubtedly would have wanted more money because we checked out so late. Then it was off to the train station. We had a late lunch at a restaurant across the road from the station, petted the cute but nervous-looking little dog and tried to play cards (not such a clever idea when you have food to eat and a train to catch).

On the journey back, I told Habiba I loved her. That’s the first time I’ve ever said that to anyone. After what seems like a lifetime of loneliness I think it’s difficult for me to really appreciate what that means – it’s surprising and a little scary, but it makes me incredibly happy that I can say it – and mean it. Habiba’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me.

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Smile love party

About a month ago my friend Botond and his wife So-young moved into a new flat. On Saturday, they had a party to celebrate this fact.

Habiba and I made our way from Habiba’s place. I annoyed Habiba by spending some time on the internet just before we left. (I hadn’t had much chance to get on the internet earlier: I’d had to get up early and go to my first private class. I’m giving a reading class to the boss of my language exchange partner. The class went very well, I think – I challenged her to think and talk about the book in a way she’d have been unlikely to do by herself. The book we’re doing is a children’s book about a newspaper editor mouse called Geronimo Stilton, I’m Too Fond of My Fur. After meeting my student (and being paid ₩160,000 for four weeks’ classes), I had to go and meet Ji-hyeon for our language exchange.)

Then I continued to irritate Habiba by not calling Bo from the taxi, when it started to become clear the driver didn’t know the address I’d given him (and, unusually, he didn’t appear to have a navigation gadget). He got out to ask for directions. When he came back, he dropped us off a few dozen yards down the street, and there we were at Miso Ae Apateu – Smile Love Apartments.

Although Bo and So-young’s new place is considerably bigger than their old place, it was very crowded, certainly while we were eating, as there were twelve guests in the livingroom/kitchen area. There were a number of So-young’s friends, a couple of whom I’d met a few times before; there was another Hungarian guy and his Korean girlfriend, Bo’s Congolese French language exchange friend, and a Scottish friend from his cycling group.

Bo had asked me to bring something for desert, so when I put this to Habiba she suggested rice pudding. By the time I came back from my language duties that morning she had nearly finished a panful. It was very different from any tinned rice pudding I’d had before (the last time must have been at primary school, I think) – it was much classier and less sloppy, and contained cinnamon, coconut, raisins, maple syrup. For my part, I bought a few packs of chocolate cookies that turned out to be very rich.

So we ate – I stayed away from the salad, having been advised by my doctor not to eat high fibre food. The food seemed to be very good all round, and there was lots of chat around and across the dinner table. As the evening progressed people left to go home. After the meal had been cleared away – and a projector had been set up – we watched a Hungarian film about the childhood and adult life of a gymnast. It was quite spare and understated, but engagingly grim and realistic. Everyone enjoyed it.

At the end of the evening, the half a dozen or so people who remained played a game that was a cross between Chinese whispers and consequences. One person writes a sentence at the top of a piece of paper. The next person then draws a picture of that sentence and folds over the sentence. The following player, not being able to see the first sentence, then has to write a sentence describing the picture. And so on. It was fun – there were a number of strange logical leaps – like how some geometrical shapes turned into Houston Space Center.

It was a good night and it was good to see Botond and So-young and meet some new people. I hope Bo and So-young (Bo-young) are happy in their new place.

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A genius idea

Last week was the very last week of English Castle Academy. On Thursday we prepared for classes on Monday and packed up our office things ready for them to be moved to the new building. There were no classes. (To recap, E-Castle is being merged with Midas, and the whole is to become Ginius Acdemy.)

For a while we were joined by Philip, who is Travis’s replacement (Travis having left left this week after what seemed like an unhappy couple of months). He’s a young American, outgoing and pleasant, and he looks a bit like Tobey McGuire. Despite the fact that my Korean colleagues had said there were no foreign teachers at Midas Academy, Philip was exactly that – he said he’s been working there for the better part of a year.

Later in the day we went over to the new building, which is directly opposite my apartment, to have a look around and be introduced to the management there. In preparation for the advent of the new hagwon, Ginius, the old Midas place was in the process of being completely renovated. The parts that were finished were very pleasant. It was all quite contemporary, lots of pastel shades, the occasional inspirational quotation on the walls. A stark contrast to the tired, graffiti-marked E-Castle.

We were put in a meeting room where a couple of men from Midas/Ginius talked – in Korean. At a couple of points I, along with everyone else, was asked a question. My responses weren’t exactly sparkling, and being tired and sick and utterly bored with the proceedings didn’t do much to help. ‘How do you feel about teaching in Korea?’ ‘It’s OK.’ ‘What are your goals for the next year?’ ‘… I don’t know what to say.’

There was no work on Friday, but we were supposed to go in at 9am on Monday, which I did today, although I resented it. Once I got there, Jason told me to go home and rest until the normal time. I’d given him a letter from my doctor about my illness last week (which he didn’t see until Thursday because he wasn’t around). Then shortly before I was about to leave again I had a text from my colleague Sandy telling me classes had been cancelled (despite the fact that we’d already prepared all the paperwork for them) and I didn’t need to go in at all.

So tomorrow, Tuesday, will be my first day at the new hagwon, albeit with (as far as I’m aware) all the same classes. I’m looking forward to seeing our students’ reactions to the new environment.

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My bowels having been getting very slowly worse since January or February. I had been seeing a doctor at an internal medicine clinic near where I work, but I gradually lost confidence in him. There were two doctors at the clinic – one cardiac specialist, one gastroenterologist – and, apart from my colonoscopy last year, I never saw the GI doctor. The heart specialist kept on prescribing the same thing, then eventually gave me some steroids, but none of it seemed to arrest the decline in my condition.

About ten days ago I saw a lower GI specialist at Eulji Medical Center, the place where I’d been having treament for my warts (which are all gone now, with just a tiny, but persistent scab on the joint of my big toe). She had me come back the following week for a sigmoidoscopy (an examination of the lower segment of the large intestine), which showed that I had a bad case of ulcerated colitis once again.

That week I was decidedly under the weather – I was going to the bathroom every five minutes (figuratively speaking … but that’s not too far from the literal truth), feeling low on energy – although my appetite was still OK, in contrast to 2007.

My new doctor gave me a prescription of steroids – six pills to be taken once a day, along with a bunch of other stuff – on Friday. It’s only been two days since then, but I’m already feeling much better. Hopefully, I’ll return to full health soon.

It seems to be an even chance whether I’ll get a bad flare-up of colitis in any given year. I had a fairly bad attack in 2005 during my last year at university, then 2006’s illness was very mild; in 2007 I had my worst flare-up, then in 2008, nothing; and now this – maybe I only get sick in odd-numbered years. I suppose I should attribute my colitis-free 2008 to a combination of medication (2007 was the first time I’d been swiftly and correctly diagnosed) and the fact that I was neither working nor at university.

I can’t help thinking that the change of medicine from sulfasalazine to mesalazine last year factored into this year’s flare-up. But being in work must also have been a factor. Even my relationship with Habiba could have contributed, having given me lots more to do with my free time – not that I mind any of that, of course.

I’m going to be in Korea teaching English for the next year, so I wonder whether I’ll become ill again next year. Did I skimp on my medication a bit too much earlier this year? Should I make sure I take the full six pills a day? Or should I ask for an ongoing course of sulfasalazine, the old orange pills that made my urine turn orange? Should I make permanent changes to my diet? Should I find ways to deal with the stress that rarely bothers me consciously but is undoubtedly always there?

I suppose I can only concentrate on getting better for now.

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