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Archive for September, 2010

Habiba’s brother, Vakil, flew into Korea just over a week ago and stayed with us until he left first thing on Monday morning. His visit coincided with Chuseok, the Korean thanksgiving holiday when Koreans travel to their hometowns to spend time with family and pay their respects at the graves of their ancestors. We were lucky this year in that the three national holiday days fell on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (if they’d been on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there would only have been one day off work). My employer gave everyone the Monday and Friday that week off, as well.

Habiba picked her brother up from the airport on Saturday afternoon, and, after having not been able to sleep on the flight, he unfortunately found himself unable to sleep that night, despite exhaustion. With nothing better to do, he went out in the early hours – and had an encounter with an old, drunk man who gave him makgeolli (rice wine) and ice cream at five in the morning. On the following nights he was generally able to sleep better, and he spent a few nights in a seedy but comfortable hotel next to our building (despite the fact that the hotel looked abandoned from the outside).

Over the following days, we endeavoured to show Vakil the sights, sounds and flavours of South Korea. We visited Insadong, Itaewon, Namsan Tower, Namsangol Folk Village, Deoksu Palace, Gyeongbok Palace, Bukchon and various places in and around Chungju. We ate Chicken galbi, beef galbi, spicy chicken soup (dalkdoritang), lots of gimbap, divers soups and stews, rice porridge (juk), savoury Korean pancake (pajeon) and a meal consisting of about a hundred side dishes. We pounded rice, saw a musical based on a traditional Korean tale, walked around an exhibition of with the theme of realism in Asian art, took part in an RPG session (sans Habiba), spent a couple of hours singing in a noraebang and spent a couple of days with Habiba’s friend Cybele in what is apparently the geographic centre of South Korea.

Last Monday, Vakil went into Habiba’s work with her to meet her students and see what she does for a living (Habiba’s very proud of her kids and she gets all her visitors to come in with her). I’d been there once before, but this time I was there on business. Zach had taken the Monday and Friday off in order to go to Tokyo and I filled in for him.

I taught his kindergarten class in the mornings and early afternoons and one of his elementary classes later in the afternoon after an hour and a half break. On the Monday I was nervous about following or not following the currculum at the correct times and asked Zach’s teaching assistant, Jasmine, for lots of help. I was more comfortable on the Friday. Both classes were down to about half because of people going away for the holiday, so it wasn’t too demanding in terms of crowd management.

The kids, by and large were very nice and accepted me and co-operated with me. One of the kindergarten activities involved making ‘Thanksgiving food’ out of clay, and one particularly small girl who looks like an old man who looks like a turtle made an extremely detailed sculpture of a table with mounds of rice cakes and a little chair and a person. On Friday, while doing a page from the elementary studetns’ science book on the subject of ‘What is Life?’ I had the opportunity to pose conundrums like, Are cars alive? What about viruses? And computer viruses? I’m sure the philosophical ramifications were somewhat over their heads, but they seemed to enjoy answering Yes! or No!

One of the most memorable parts of the week was going to Insadong on an extremely rainy Tuesday. The rainy season is usually more or less over by the start of September and fine weather is often assured for Chuseok. Not this year. We headed out early-ish and when we got there the rain was such that we decided to go to a café that also does fancy chocolates to wait it out. An hour or so later, still bucketing down outside, we decided on an early lunch and attempted to wait it out in the restaurant. An hour later there was still respite so we decided on travelling across town on the subway to go to COEX, a huge mall. After maybe a couple of hours there the heavens were still in full spate and we headed home.

I’ve never known such extensive and heavy rain and we felt like Vakil’s visit was doomed to be overshadowed by bad weather. The following day was grey and it spat occasionally, but it was mostly dry. From Thursday on, though the weather was exactly what one would have hoped for: sunny and not too hot.

Another downer was the fact that when we went for galbi for dinner on the Wednesday – the actual Chuseok day – they had no lettuce – an integral part of the meal – so we basically had to consume all that red meat with a bit of rice and jjigae.

After the urban jungle of Seoul it was extremely pleasant to get away this last weekend to visit Cybele in Chungju. Chungju is a small city, the limits of which are clearly demarcated by the main road encircling it: on one side of the road are high rise apartment buildings, on the other, apple orchards and tree-clothed mountains.

Cybele drove us to Jungangtap, a stone pagoda whose name means ‘central tower’. It is supposed to be the centre of the country and is set in a sculpture park some distance from the city and on the bank of a river. We saw lots of big black and yellow-orange spiders in the trees, some busily devouring unlucky dragonflies. We also went to the site of an old temple with a large buddha statue and to Seokjongsa, a large, exquistely decorated temple complex whose buildings were in mint condition – and some of them brand new. There were lots of dragonflies around, as well as plenty of praying mantises and scarily coloured spiders. We saw one big black spider (not tarantula-size, but big enough) spinning a web between two widely spaced trees.

Walking through the countryside near the old, ruined temple, we saw some Koreans doing something in a stream. They got back up on to the lane as we passed by and they stopped us and gave us freshly picked mushrooms and soju.

Cybele very kindly put us up in her new apartment, the ground floor of a house in the city (she used to live in the surrounding countryside) as well as being our chauffeuse. Over the weekend, Vakil started taking a deeper interest in the Korean alphabet, Hangul. By Sunday he was about as fluent as Habiba is after two years in the country.

I personally quite enjoyed the noraebang session. It’s not often that I get to do it, and especially with someone who shares my taste in songs. Vakil and I did a fair amount of Metallica together, as well as some Sex Pistols and Iron Maiden. Jessica even did ‘How You Remind Me’ with me – and here I thought all the trendy kids despised Nickleback.

After another sleepless night, Vakil left us at six o’clock on Monday morning. Habiba cried a little after he went and I held her for a while in the dawn light. She’s very close to her family and being away from them is hard for her. Most of the time she copes well enough, but moments like that, leavetakings, bring home how much she misses them.

Vakil’s visit, despite the best efforts of the dying rainy season, was a great success. Vakil is a very nice gentleman and I enjoyed getting to know him better; we both enjoyed tormenting Habiba with our sense of humour. Apart from that rain – and the fact that our original plans didn’t come to pass – there were no big problems. We spent lots of time together, did lots of fun activities, and all three of us got to see more of the Land of Morning Calm.

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Kristen Lamb posted a link on her latest blog post to what she described as the ‘formula to great writing’. It’s from another blog about writing, this one called Adventures in Children’s Publishing.

It advises making charts of the goals, motivation, conflict and tension relating to your characters. It explains that good characters have conflicting goals – internal and external ones, for example. Characters should also have conflicting goals – this leads to the greatest level of tension, which is what keeps people reading.

Read the full article here.

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Writing Diary

Last week I didn’t get much writing done. Well – I didn’t get any work done, really. My girlfriend’s brother came over to visit and we spent a very pleasant week sightseeing and travelling with him.

Yesterday, however, I finished the first draft of my story ‘Waking Up’; it’s around 9,000 words in total. I also submitted a critique to Critters. I have to choose another story and critique it before the end of Wednesday next week to keep my critiquing ratio at 100%. Then my own story, ‘The Green Marble’, will be up for review. I hope to have a good few critiques back by the following Wednesday.

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Several years ago, when I lived in St Helens shortly after finishing university and just before moving to London (where I started this blog and made the decision to come to Korea for the first time), I saw a dentist who told me that I’d been brushing in such a way as to abrade the softer enamel at the gumline. He gave me a few fillings, some at the juncture of some of my teeth and the gum and a couple of cavity fillings. Shortly afterwards, while eating a Tesco bakery cookie, a couple of those fillings between tooth and gum came out; I’m pretty sure I ate some of the filling material. I still had two lower fillings.

That was my last dentist visit until 2008, when I had one of the fillings that previous dentist had given me in the crown of a molar refilled at a dentist in Nowon. A couple of weeks ago I went to another dentist close to where I work for a check-up and to see about getting my abrasions filled again.

Two weeks ago I had a head X-ray and a heavy-duty cleaning. A few nights ago I returned for the abrasion fillings. The having the fillings done was a lot less intense than the cleaning.

The dentist I’ve been seeing is not the cheapest, I think – her clinic is in the wealthy Gangnam district, and I think she specialises in cosmetic dentistry. For instance, she offered to take out one of my lower incisors and re-align the rest. They are pretty crooked and a little too wide to fit the space between the canines, but they have never caused me any problems. I’m sure it would also be very expensive – and who wants three incisors? That would be weird.

Anyway, I had six fillings at 80,000 won a pop – that’s a total of 480,000 KRW (about £260). Although they felt pretty rough and out of place at first, they’ve started to feel a natural part of my mouth. Unlike the ones I got five years ago, it’s hard to even tell they’re there. The older ones aren’t completely flush with the surface of the tooth so they’ve gained a little outline stain over time. The new ones seem much more expertly done, and, although they were expensive, I think they’ll be better value in the long run. Bloody NHS dentist.

One of the nurses at the clinic instructed me on cleaning my teeth. Over the last few days I’ve been implementing a new tooth-brushing technique: rolling the bristles of the brush from gum to tooth, doing each jaw separately. It’s tricky and can be a strain on the forearm muscles, but it does the trick. Actually, my rear-most molars feel cleaner than they did previously after brushing with a simple up-and-down motion.

Shortly after I had my check-up and cleaning, Habiba also saw a dentist – one close to her work. She’s now got an extra filling and two gold crowns on her molars. Last week, the drilling and fitting of temporary crowns was very stressful for her, but this week, after some teething problems with one of the crowns, things have been much easier on her. She has her last appointment first thing tomorrow morning to have her second crown permanently cemented in place.

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Atheism

funny puns - Clearly, NOT a Sign from God
see more So Much Pun

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Today I didn’t do as much writing as I would have liked at lunchtime – a measly 127 words (as opposed to over 500 words on Monday and Tuesday). But I have been setting up various accounts with my name on them – Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, this blog. Actually, this blog was set up a while ago, but now I might just get into the habit of using it.

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I’ve never been into comics – strange, I know, but true. I read The Beano when I was a child, and, more recently, I discovered the wonderful What’s Michael? books (‘the Japanese Garfield‘). The recent Watchmen film with it striking visual style, bleakness and political content made me contemplate buying the graphic novel – but I never got round to it.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman books are highly regarded and were possibly first recommended to me by someone I knew at university. She also bought me a copy of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which I didn’t like for its paint-by-numbers imaginary world and its simplistic thesis of rich people = bad, poor people = good. On the other hand, I enjoyed Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Stardust.

More recently, Habiba, enthused by visiting the new What the Book? store in Itaewon, bought Preludes & Nocturnes, the first of the Sandman omnibuses, and recommended that I read it. So, as I always say, her wish is my command, and I complied.

In short, I didn’t really get much out of it. I’m not really sure if that’s because of its inherent merit (or lack thereof) or because I’m just not au fait with the medium.

The Sandman, aka Dream, is one of a group of immortal beings, personifications of aspects of human life, called the Endless. Others include Desire, Despair and Death. In the first chapter, the Sandman is trapped by an Aleister Crowley-type wizard in the early 20th century. After better part of a hundred years of patiently waiting silently in his cell, the Sandman finally has a chance to break free. The story of the graphic novel concerns his retrieval of his possessions and return to power.

As the introduction and afterword both suggest, as a whole, the graphic novel is a somewhat uneven. One subplot concerns a pre-existing character, Doctor Destiny; another sees Dream descend to Hell to challenge Hell’s triumvirate rulers; another has the Sandman team up with John Constantine. From what I’ve read, in later editions Gaiman follows his own inspiration more, without trying to shoehorn the Sandman into others’ worlds and mythoses. The graphical style also changes a lot throughout – the Sandman himself getting more good-looking towards the end.

I’d say I never particularly enjoyed any of the stories in Preludes & Nocturnes, the surprises didn’t surprise me, the horrors didn’t horrify me. This may be due to a prejudice against comics as a medium worthy of adults. It may also be that, after years of reading prose, my brain is simply wired to understand and appreciate that particular form. I can’t help think that, just like radio, the pictures are better in prose stories – one’s imagination isn’t limited by an artist’s interpretation of the story.

However, Habiba has already bought book two in the series, and it doesn’t take much effort to read, so I’m willing to give it another chance and see what develops in the next book.

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Card Sharks is the thirteenth book in the Wild Cards series and the first in ‘new cycle’ of three books.

For the uninitiated, the Wild Card virus was a disease genetically engineered by an alien race genetically identical to humans and tested on Earth in 1948. Its effects are to kill horribly the vast majority of its victims, to turn to mutants – ‘jokers’ – the majority of the rest, and, for the remaining minority of a minority, to bestow superpowers – these are the ‘aces’. The Wild Cards books are gritty, alternate history superhero stories, and, for the most part, quite entertaining. The series is the brainchild of George R R Martin (although he didn’t contribute, writing-wise, to this book) and some of his writing and roleplaying friends. Numerous authors have been involved in the project over the years.

Card Sharks wasn’t one of the most entertaining books in the sequence. The format of the books generally varies – the first book was a set of short stories detailing various episodes in the world of the Wild Card virus, others have been true collaborative, ‘mosaic’ novels, a couple have been written by single authors. This one takes the most common form: one longer, unified narrative broken up by shorter episodes penned by different writers. The difference here is that each of the episodes is a first person narrative of things that have happened in the past. The book is set in the early nineties and the stories within the story go back as far as the fifties.

The book works well enough as a prelude to things to come later in the three-book sequence, but the heavy reliance on these backward-looking stories robs the book of emotive and narrative force. In other words, everything the reader learns has already happened, is history.

The story running through the book, appropriately named ‘The Ashes of Memory’, sees a young female fire investigator looking into the deaths of hundreds of jokers in an arson attack on a church, by following leads and interviewing various jokers and aces, she learns far more than she bargained for about the background to the attack.

Basically, it appears to be the latest incident in a conspiracy that has lasted for forty years or more. The problem is that, with the reader (this reader, at any rate) having already read twelve books about the fall-out of that fateful day in 1948, it strains belief that this conspiracy is only now coming to light, that those who have witnessed it in action are only now speaking out, that the conspiracy is only now taking action to kill Wild Card victims on a large scale.

The episodes narrated by the investigators interviewees are generally interesting and readable. There’s an alternate history version of the early stages of the space race, a tale of a centaur doctor unknowingly being used to infect poor jokers in Kenya with AIDS, an private investigator and ace being hired by Orson Welles to look after Marylin Monroe and prevent the film they’re working on from being sabotaged.

This latter story provides the book’s highlight – the detective and Monroe have a relationship – she seems to have sex with any man she meets. Then Monroe betrays him to save her own life. And, because this is an alternate history universe, Marylin didn’t necessarily die like she did in reality.

Card Sharks was a bit of a disappointment, but that hasn’t been uncommon with the first books in Wild Cards‘s internal trilogies. It certainly won’t stop me reading on.

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I think the last time I tried to read 18th century literature was when I did (or was supposed to do) Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders at university. I found that book hard going, and nowhere near finished it. Gulliver’s Travels is a much more accessible and engaging book.

In it, Lemuel Gulliver, inveterate traveller (he keeps leaving his wife and family to go on hazardous voyages half-way around the world) journeys separately to four previously unknown civilisations: Lilliput, where all the inhabitants are a few inches tall, Brobdingnag, where the people are sixty feet tall, Laputa, where the men (not so much the women) are obsessed with science and philosophy, and the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent and noble horses.

The book was intended as a satire on society at the time and people in general. So, for instance, in Lilliput, human pettiness is highlighted: official Lilliputian doctrine states that eggs should be broken at the narrow end; the contrary ‘Big Endian’ practice is punishable by death. In Laputa (or one of the associated islands – I forget), scientists are paid to work on such projects as reconstituting food from excrement. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver offers to show the king the secret of gunpowder; when he explains what can be achieved with the black powder – muskets that fire lethal bullets, explosions that tear men to pieces etc – the king is horrified, just as a young child would be; Gulliver, however, can’t believe why the king would pass up a chance to gain dominance over neighbouring lands.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is populated not only with the sentient horses, but with the reprehensible Yahoos, creatures that are physiologically identical to humans, but without civilisation or anything but the basest rudiments of intelligence. Over the course of his stay in this land, Gulliver comes to despise and fear the Yahoos – probably more than the Houyhnhnms do – even though the only difference between him and them is his upbringing. Consequently, when he is forced to return home, he sees his fellow humans as similarly base and disgusting. After some years back home he is able to spend time with his wife in the same room, but not for very long and certainly not while she is eating.

The portrayal of human imperfection is probably not as amusing or as cutting as it was in Swift’s time, but it still works. Some of the ideas are pretty funny – and also thought-provoking. Is it right that humans should take pride in our military might? Or pleasure in our lumpy, blotchy flesh?

As a work of fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t work as a story – because it isn’t a story: it’s four stories. And even then, none of these four have much in the way of plot other than Gulliver arriving, learning about the culture and leaving. For me, fantasy is the use of story to explore issues about power and morality. In this book, though, this exploration happens more through the agency of setting. World-building is a vital part of any fantasy book and Swift’s – predating by a long time any of the early modern fantasies like William Morris’s novels (let alone Tolkien) – is pretty solid; except from a scientific standpoint, the various lands visited all make sense (kind of) and support the satirical purpose of the book (although how the Houyhnhnms hold things between their hoof and pastern is rather far-fetched). It’s also refreshing to read a fantasy that doesn’t focus on the stock, quasi-Medieval Europe of many, many novels.

Gulliver’s Travels seems to be seen as a children’s book, but, while there’s a lot in here that would certainly amuse children, the political content of the stories would go way over most children’s heads. The grammar, too, while not at all that difficult an adult to get to grips with, would prove heavy going for younger readers; it’s full of long sentences broken up with colons and semi-colons. I think the orginal text would prove to trying and dry for most children. And then there’s the scene where Gulliver becomes a plaything of some Brobdingnagian maids-in-waiting who naked in front of him; at one point he is sat on one of the girls’ nipples.

All in all, a surprisingly entertaining book – or maybe not that surprising when you take into account that it’s been in print for nearly three hundred years.

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It was a socially busy weekend.

On Friday night, Habiba and I went out with Mike, his sister Michelle, Eric and later Demond and Jairius – meeting the latter or the first time. The occasion was Michelle’s last night in the country having visited for a couple of weeks with the intention of finding work here; Seoul turned out not to be for her. We did a little drinking in Hongdae, then went to a noraebang – the big fancy one (whatever it’s called). We were singing for two and a half hours. It had been nearly ten by the time we met up after eating dinner at home and we ended up leaving Hongdae at about four in the morning; it was nearly five by the time we got to bed.

That was the latest either had been out for a long time. We didn’t actually do much drinking, either (I had one cocktail – at a redesigned BricxX – a ‘Naked Canadian’, and one beer), so there were no hangover problems.

On Saturday night, Demond had a leaving dinner and drinks – again at Hongdae. Demond is off to China to teachere for six months before coming back to go to university in Seoul. Habiba and I met him along with Eric, Buzz and a bunch of other people at an Indian restaurant called Agra. Beeb and I shared a tasty chicken vindaloo and a mediocre vegetable curry. Later, we walked to the small park that is a feature of many nights out in Hongdae.

The park is a strange place. It’s mostly paved, with one small area cordoned off by trees and bushes. It’s pretty dirty – it has to put up with hundreds of drunk Koreans and foreigners every night. It has some strange characters – like the makgeolli seller who joyfully gave everyone in our group a free paper cup of the white alcoholic drink beloved of middle-aged Korean hikers – even though we were all like, ‘No, I’m OK, thanks, no … oh, um, OK, then.’

It has a nice atmosphere, though. Especially on Saturday. There were a number of people – maybe twenty – drumming in the secluded side area. The noise made by the djembe drums was impressive and hypnotic. Demond joined in. We listened for maybe an hour. Shortly before, in the main part of the park, Habiba and a couple of the other women our group – including Mary, a South African we met paragliding last year (and who I completely didn’t remember) – danced to accompaniment by Demond and a Korean drummer.

On Sunday, we met Ksan for the first time in a few months, along with her boyfriend Jun-hong. Ksan was studying in Britain – in Durham, to be precise. And also travelling all over the place. Habiba and I went with them to an Uzbek restaurant near Dongdaemun History and Culture Park. The meal was very good – we had borscht and shish kebabs (the first lamb I’ve eaten in a very long time – Koreans don’t eat it) and sesame bread, among other things.

Then we went to a couple of exhibitions at the still unfinished History and Culture Park. Firstly – and accidentally, as Jun-hong led us to the wrong place in the pouring rain – a retrospective of world magazines from the last fifty years. Secondly, an exhibition of Korean posters of the last hundred years. Both displays were moderately interesting.

Which reminds me – the previous weekend, we went, with Jessica and June, to an exhibition of work by pop artist Keith Haring. That was a much more fulfilling experience, although waiting to watch the 15-minute documentary with terrible sound wasn’t much fun.

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