Archive for December, 2011

I finished work for the year on Friday.

Kindergarten finished with a ‘Christmas party’, which consisted of the teachers putting on a fairly cack-handed puppet show, having the children watch these ‘Elf Yourself’ videos in which dancers’ faces are replaced with photos you provide. The kids thought it was hilarious. Then each class was taken upstairs separately to get present from a Korean guy – maybe one of the ministers at the church – dressed as Santa Claus. He read each child a message in broken English. One of my kids, Diane, slipped on some foamy fake snow that was on the floor and fell. She didn’t hurt herself, but she cried and wasn’t in a good mood for the remainder of the gift-giving. I gave each of my students a gift of some stationery – a pencil, a pencil sharpener, an eraser and a ruler – and some sweets. Then the kids went home.

Saturday saw the first of a couple of parties at the weekend. Habiba prepared some mashed potato – sadly ruined by the addition of horseradish – and some eggnog. We each brought a gift for the secret Santa; I bought Orhan Pamuk’s My Name is Red, Habiba wrapped some old, unused toiletries. The party was OK – lots of food, conversation, games of mini-pool. The presents we ended up with were a candle (Habiba) and some bathroom stuff (me). We ended up leaving them behind.

On coming home that night, we gave each other our seasonal gifts. From me to her: a pair of earrings, some chocolates, a bag of Starbucks extra bold coffee beans, a copy of A Game of Thrones and an envelope of coupons entitling the holder to such things as a massage, free drink, bathroom cleaning etc. From her to me: a pair of underpants, a cap and a light, long-sleeved T-shirt, and no coupons – even though it was Habiba’s idea.

The following day we attended a similar party, except without the gifts and a lot closer to home – with Habiba’s colleagues, those of them who stayed in the country and weren’t Korean. Also a nice enough party. Both days I ended up getting extremely tired and not at all drunk – which latter is strange given the amount of alcohol on offer.

The tiredness is partly due to having a cold; partly also, I suspect, to a kind of jetlag – or joblag, if you like: I’m pretty used to going to bed and getting up early.

On Monday, we packed boxes to send home. I also packed my gifts for my family, which, by the time they arrive, will be more like Easter presents. I sent off a largish box of books, clothes and other random stuff; Habiba sent three. We spent much of the day going through our stuff (I even threw out all the receipts I’d carefully kept from the past three years). We packed all the things we’d picked out into a suitcase and backpack, took them to the post office and packed our boxes there.

On Tuesday, we went to Yongsan, the electronics district, and Habiba bought herself a mini notebook – which weighs a little more than a kilogram – for ₩330,000 (about £185). Unfortunately, when we got home, it appeared that it didn’t have a built-in microphone; as Skyping is one of the main purposes Habiba wants to put it to, that’s a pain in the arse. We also put in her headphones for repair at the Sony service centre, and bought a two-to-one headphone jack adapter so we can each use our own headphones on the same computer while on our travels.

Those travels will be commencing in two months.

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If you know nothing about this book – and I didn’t know much about it before reading it, other than the fact that it was famous – here’s the gist: published in 1960, A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo award for best novel in 1961. It’s a novel, but one made out of three short stories, each one set at different points in the future and each concerning the monks of a monastery in the desert of what is now the southern USA.

The first part, ‘Fiat Homo’, is set 600 years after a nuclear apocalypse has all but obliterated modern civilisation. What’s left resembles the Dark Ages of Europe, with only fragmentary knowledge remaining of the earlier time. The monastery is one founded by Beatus Leibowitz, a priest who, it turns out, was a Jewish scientist and who converted to Christianity in order to avoid the Simplification – the surge of destruction and murder of learning and the learned that followed the nuclear war. His monastery is a secret repository of knowledge. Helped by a mysterious pilgrim, the main character, a novice called Francis, discovers a fallout shelter (he believes that ‘Fallout’ was some kind of demon) containing holy relics – some notes and blueprints of once belonging to Leibowitz.

The second part, ‘Fiat Lux’, is set 600 years after that and sees the world having progressed somewhat, but not that much – the equivalent era of past history might be the Renaissance. Leibowitz has been made a saint and his fortified monastery (made from the ruins of the pre-Flame Deluge era) has become known as a repository of knowledge, attracting the attention of scholars and rulers.

The third part, ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’, is set a further 600 years after that and sees mankind having developed nuclear weapons and space-faring technology. With the prospect of a new all-out nuclear war looming, the monks of the monastery send a mission to one of Earth’s colonies in other solar systems in order to preserve the Apostolic succession should the Church be destroyed on Earth.

Each of these three parts started life as a short story, each published separately in magazines. Miller then rewrote them and glued them together to form this novel. This format works with mixed results. On the plus side, it gives you an idea of the grand procession of history and its depressingly cyclical nature. Each is linked not only by location, but by more subtle elements: each part of the book ends with violence, the magnitude of which escalates dramatically: the main character is murdered at the end of the first part, war sweeps across North America at the end of the second part and nuclear holocaust returns at the end of the final part; the abbot in the first part is called Arkos, while the abbot in the last part is called Zerchi, reminiscent of the Christian symbol of the Alpha and Omega and suggesting that the whole story represents everything important in human history.

On the other hand, these separate parts are separate narratives, meaning each one has to establish a new set of characters and a new plot, so the novel feels fractured and incomplete. They also diminish in quality: ‘Fiat Homo’, was the best – perhaps because it was so novel, but also because of its hapless hero; ‘Fiat Lux’ was also good and had an interesting interplay between the abbot and the scholar; ‘Fiat Voluntas Tua’ was OK; the return of high technology meant it didn’t have the same appeal as the earlier parts and it had some less interesting discussions – of the rights and wrongs of euthanasia, for instance.

The book contained a number of mysterious elements that were never explained. The prime example being a Jewish hermit who apparently turns up in all three parts and who may be the Wandering Jew or may be Leibowitz himself. A poet with a glass eye, which he takes out and sets on an upturned cup to watch over a meal after he leaves, may have been more than just an eccentric character. And the mutant extra head of a simple tomato-selling woman coming alive when the bombs go off was apparently a miracle, although a very bizarre one.

The writing was pretty good throughout. The novel opens with Francis spotting a wiggling dot in the distance – which turns out to be the mysterious Jew. This was great image, but really one of the few instances of especial poetry. There’s a lot of subtle humour in the book (for instance, Francis makes an illuminated copy of one of Leibowitz’s blueprints; everyone is amazed at the beauty of his work, so he’s sent to New Rome with both as a gift for the Pope; unfortunately he’s ambushed by a bandit who takes the copy believing it to be the original, while the ratty old blueprint is assumed to be Francis’s cack-handed copy), and it moves along at a fair pace – although a lot of what happens is conversation (for instance, while war engulfs the land or the world, the reader never sees it directly, but only through the speech and thoughts of the characters in the monastery).

A Canticle for Leibowitz appears to be a novel with a message – that message being the importance of religion as a preserver of knowledge, culture, tradition and morality. That’s not a message that appeals to me, but the book is undeniably evocative of the monastery as a lonely island of civilisation in a sea of barbarism (as I say, the final segment of the book lacks this feeling). Many of the obvious science fictional elements feel pretty dated – Abbot Zerchi has a translating machine that fills a cabinet, and he tries to fix it by fiddling with its wiring – another reason why the last part is the lesser of this particular trinity. The novel is also full of Latin – which gives it a unique feel of authenticity, but is not so easy to understand.

On the whole, though, definitely an interesting, entertaining and worthwhile read.

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This is, of course, the long-awaited fifth book in the epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire and it takes up the story of perhaps the three best characters: Jon Snow (not the newscaster), Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. These characters were conspicuous in their absence from the equally long-awaited fourth volume, A Feast for Crows; much of Dance is therefore contemporary with its predecessor; towards the end, however, the timelines of the two books merge and other characters, such as Jaime and Cersei Lannister and Arya Stark, make appearances.

It’s a long book – this is epic fantasy, after all – at a little under a thousand pages. You’d think that, after five years of writing it and such a bloated page count, a lot would happen in this fifth of a promised seven books. Stuff does happen of course, but nothing hugely momentous, really. Jon manages men on the Wall; Daenerys does much the same in Meereen; Tyrion has the most interesting narrative, but he doesn’t have much control over it, being passed from pillar to post. Theon Greyjoy also has a fairly prominent role, but he gets faded to the back of the mix as the book progresses; ditto Bran Stark.

Minor characters also crop up along with the aforementioned major players who rejoin the narrative near the end. Each has minor character that gets a viewpoint character necessitates several pages of exposition detailing their backstory; such infodump is, I find, acceptable at the start of a book, but, at the end, it just bogs things down and dilutes the sense of a rising climax. I wonder how necessary they are, as well, being fairly small links in an already mighty chain.

An important new character emerges in this book – another Targaryen, and yet another claimant to the Iron Throne of Westeros. Unlike Daenerys, he actually leads an initially successful invasion of the western continent, leading me to think he’s fulfilling Daenerys’s narrative purpose since the Mother of Dragons lost her way occupying the slave city of Meereen.

Most frustratingly of all, pretty much all of the plotlines end in cliffhangers that probably won’t be resolved for another five years.

Also most frustratingly – if you’ll grant me the contradiction – are some frequent problematic lexical choices. Firstly, Martin often uses the word ‘oft’; a word that is described in dictionaries as being ‘poetical’ or ‘literary’ – which basically means ‘pretentious’; it’s oft-used here, and grates consistently. Worse than this are two equally over-used words that are actually incorrect. ‘Wroth’ is an adjective that means ‘angry’ or ‘wrathful’; however, Martin uses it repeatedly to mean ‘wrath’, which is a noun. Presumably, he’s confused by the British pronunciation of ‘wrath’, which is ‘roth’ or ‘rawth’. He also uses the word ‘mayhaps’, the etymology of which Wiktionary defines as ‘A misconstruction of mayhap after maybe and perhaps.’ This particular lexeme isn’t even listed on Dictionary.com.

On the whole, then, it seems that I didn’t really enjoy this book. On the plus side, it’s quite readable. There are a couple of notable scenes where very striking events take place – particularly one involving Daenerys and a dragon – but they’re not really followed up in this volume. The titular dance with dragons is a ponderous affair, and the dragons themselves are sorely under-used – no doubt because of the quite logical problems one would have in dealing with a fire-breathing wild animal. This book is very much a chapter in the overall story. It’s not quite as pointless as Robert Jordan’s Crossroads of Twilight, but it does seem to highlight many similar issues that afflict writers, and, consequently, readers of epic fantasy – namely the risk of sinking in a morass of plotlines.

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Although this book is set in seventeenth century France, it’s easy to forget that it’s actually Victorian literature (and is actually based on a real-life d’Artagnan). Dumas wrote it as a weekly serial for a newspaper; the translation in the edtion I read – Wordsworth Classics – also dated from the nineteenth century.

At first, I found reading The Three Musketeers quite heavy going for the most part. It starts with d’Artagnan travelling up from his home town to Paris where he plans to join the musketeers; he has a letter of introduction from his father to M de Treville, the musketeers’ chief. On the way, at a place called Meung, he picks a fight with a stranger for no particularly good reason; also for no particularly good reason, the stranger takes his letter of introduction once he’s laid d’Artagnan out cold. This theft, however, proves to be of no great consequence, as he manages to get in with Treville with no problem – although he doesn’t have the experience to join the musketeers just yet.

The description above is pretty representative of an annoying randomness and pointlessness to some of the plot points. It’s also full of very long conversations (although none compare to the scene where Linden Avery resurrects Thomas Covenant at the end of Fatal Revenant and the resulting discussion that takes up the first five chapters of the following book, Against All Things Ending). Characters discuss their histories, go into excessive detail and ejaculate interjections such as ‘Plague!’ and ‘God’s blood!’

The mysterious man whom d’Artagnan fought at Meung seems to have been intended as a mysterious bad guy, but he doesn’t really play much of a part – although he does crop up regularly and becomes something of an ally at the end. He takes second fiddle to Lady de Winter, also known as Milady, who, at towards the end of the book, becomes the central character for several chapters. This episode is not uninteresting, but could have been left out.

The introduction to the book describes how Dumas banged out each chapter at a fair lick in order to meet his weekly deadline, and it shows. The plot is meandering, it can be excessively verbose and the characterisation is uneven – the hotheaded d’Artagnan of the early chapters is quickly replaced with a wise and wily fighter. As a novel, it could have done with a lot of rewriting. There is no great poetry of language in the text – indeed, one chapter near the end even begins, ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ – but it’s very direct: everything is either conversation or action (mostly conversation, though).

There are some dubious morals on display. Seemingly, if any musketeer sees a man of the cardinal and takes offence, the man’s life is fair game in a duel. D’Artagnan himself all but kills a man he encounters in order to take his papers so he can sail to England. The love interest is a married woman; her husband is a coward who works for the cardinal, so she, too, is fair game.

However, it wasn’t terrible, by any means. Although I stopped reading it for a couple of months, when I finally returned to it, I enjoyed it much more. There is a fair amount of humour in it – most notably Athos’s manservant, Grimaud, who is forbidden to speak. The language – while undeniably ersatz, being written two centuries after its setting – has a certain authenticity to it. I even felt a pang of emotion when d’Artagnan mourned his love near the climax.

Overall, it was an OK read – not the most classic of classic literature. The Three Musketeers is actually the first in a trilogy, the third book of which is extremely long and often published in three parts, one of which is The Man in the Iron Mask. I may check out Twenty Years After and The Vicomte de Bragelonne at some point.

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A couple of weekends ago, Habiba and I went on one of the Korea Foundation Volunteer Network’s ‘Culture Classes’. November’s event was making kimchi. Kimchi is fermented Chinese cabbage heavily seasoned with spices and red pepper and it’s supposed to take a long time to make – it’s left outside in pots for weeks.

This kimchi-making experience was at a kimchi museum near Insadong. The kimchi we made involved pre-fermented cabbage – a quarter of a head each. Wearing long, plastic gloves, we smeared spicy red paste between the leaves, put the kimchi in a plastic bottle and that was it. We also fried up some ddeokbokki – a cheap street food snack of rubbery rice flour sticks (not a great description; not an especially great food, either).

After that we took to the streets in teams and headed to a market to hunt down various items – the most Korean thing in the market, the cheapest thing and so on. One of the things was a stall that sold 마약 김밥 – drug kimbap, so-called for its addictiveness; which turned out to be the blandest kimbap ever, with no filling other than rice. This was followed by a brief meal at a pajeon (savoury pancake) restaurant. The whole event was quite nice.

The following day, we, along with one of Habiba’s colleagues, went to see the Body Worlds exhibition at the Korean War Memorial (which is actually a museum). Body Worlds is a display of plastinated human bodies and body parts – which means that they are real human bodies – taken from donors – that are treated to remove all the fluids and to prevent them from decomposing. This process was invented by Gunther von Hagens and has become quite famous in the last decade or so – I saw the TV programme where he autopsied bodies when I was at university.

The exhibition was divided into areas relating to certain parts of the body or bodily processes. The first part was the pre-natal body. There were various plastinated embryos – starting at a tiny, few-week-old thing smaller than a grain of rice – and foetuses, including a couple of well developed babies with hydrocephalus and anencephaly (the latter having an ugly  little lump of a head with no brain).

Thereafter, there were plastinated lungs and hearts and venous networks, and, of course, full bodies – except not full because they had been stripped of their skin and often a lot of their muscles, too. There were also salami slices of bodies affected with various conditions illustrating how, for instance, tumours can fragment, enter the bloodstream and take root in other parts of the body; there was a cross section of a pelvic area showing a presumably fatal case of constipation.

The bodies were gruesomely fascinating, but hard to take as real – even though I knew that they were: the dryness of the cadavers made them seem, appropriately enough, I suppose, made of plastic. They were often posed in playful positions.  A male and female couple posed as Leo and Kate in Titanic; one man had been divided in two and his left and right halves were playing chess with each other; another couple were having sex – the woman had also been split in two lengthwise, so you could see the position of the man’s penis inside her.

It was an interesting show and I’d recommend it if you’re not squeamish.

The weekend after that I did some gift-shopping for my family; at some point I’ll wrap and post the presents, too. Last weekend, I went down to visit my friend Peter, who lives in Daegu, a city in the south-east of South Korea.

Because he lives down south, I haven’t seen as much of Peter as I’d have liked since he returned to Korea with his Korean wife and daughter (who has now multiplied to become two daughters (that may not have been the exact process)).

It was good to see him and to have a long conversation without the distractions of gaming or other people. We went up a tower in Daegu that is much like the N-Seoul Tower at Namsan; it gave a good view of the city and its lights. Daegu is much smaller than Seoul and seems much like any other provincial city in Korea. We had dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. There are many Vietnamese noodle soup places in Korea; this place was cheap and dingy by comparison, but it was staffed by real Vietnamese people. Later we played a Space Hulk card game called Death Angel – it was fun and neither too complex nor too simple; we ended up beating the game fairly handily.

The following day, Peter made us breakfast and later drove me to the bus terminal to catch the coach home. We made plans for him to come over to dinner in the new year – which I’m looking forward to.

Last night, I met Josh and Zach and Matthew and we all went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. We went to the newly re-opened CineCity cinema close to where Habiba and I live; the whole building is pretty fancy now and sports a Tous les Jours (a Korean chain of bakeries) that has a range of bread and other stuff that look very classy and tasty (whereas you usually find little more than some halfway decent baguettes).

We saw the film in the ‘Beats by Dr Dre’ auditorium; the USP of this screening room was that you listened to the sound on headphones. This was initially a little strange, but you get used to it. It creates a kind of sonic cocoon that isolates you from random extraneous noises. It also highlights some bits of dialogue that seem to have been overdubbed after the scene was shot.

The film itself was an enjoyable action blockbuster crammed with great sequences like Tom Cruise climbing up the outside of the Burj Khalifa and the climactic scene in an automated car park tower. Afterwards we got some tofu kimchi and makgeolli at a restaurant/bar place and talked until about 3 am or later.

As I write this, we have plans to meet Zach and Josh for dinner and watching 50/50.

Next weekend is some sort of religious holiday, so we’re going to a couple of pot luck dinner/secret Santa things. Then I have week’s holiday – Habiba’s starts in the middle of this week and goes on until the new year.

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I take the 9407 express bus to work every weekday morning. It generally comes about every ten minutes or so (except Mondays, when it seems to take half an hour to arrive), so I’m usually not hanging around too long at the stop – which is good in this winter weather. Because of the traffic light intervals before and after my stop, whenever the bus stops there it immediately has to stop again at a pedestrian crossing a few metres away.

Today, as yesterday, just as I was getting to the bus stop, the 9407 was pulling away and immediately stopping, so I ran and got up to it just as the green pedestrian light came on. I knocked on the door. Unlike yesterday (when I didn’t even have to knock to get the driver’s attention before he let me on), the driver just lifted his hands in a shrug and didn’t open the door. The zebra crossing had plenty of time to run down, so I waited, making what the fuck? gestures.

A moment later, it was clear I was going to be boarding that bus, so I walked towards the stop and punched the side of the bus in frustration. I got dirty knuckles and a little bruise on my middle finger.

I had to wait at least five more minutes for the next bus and I was less early for work than I had hoped. Stupid bloody bus driver.

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