extemporally: (Default)
[personal profile] extemporally
Stopping for a Spell, by Diana Wynne Jones.

Kind of a short, fun read - DWJ's at her best when skewering the grown-up world of etiquette, and here she does it to great degree re: visitors. I read this in the library so can't really quote from it, but delightful! Not one of her best - and I don't know that she really excels at short stories as opposed to the full-length novels - but really really sharp and fun.

Right Ho, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse.

This is kind of embarrassing to admit - oh whatever - but I have to admit I am constitutionally incapable of telling Jeeves & Wooster plots apart. Intricate as they are - usually, idk. Wooster nearly gets married to Madeline Bassett? There's a piece of clothing Jeeves doesn't want Wooster to wear? Aunt Dahlia or Aunt Agatha come bursting in on Wooster? YOU SEE MY DIFFICULTY. So... this was a fun read, but not outstanding by any measure of the word!

Although this part was cute:

Cipher telegram signed by you has reached me here. Runs 'Lay off the sausages. Avoid the ham.' Wire key immediately. Fink-Nottle.

I replied:

Also Kidneys. Cheerio. Bertie.

Hahahaha!!! Aside from that, not much else to report.

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick.

If you read only one book on North Korea, better make it this one - Barbara Demick follows the lives of six North Korean citizens over fifteen years including the death of Kim Il-sung, the rise to power of Kim Jong-il, and the devastating famine that killed one-fifth of the population. Barbara Demick possesses a light touch in covering the atrocities of the Kim regime and the horrors of the 1990s famine (bits that I won't be quoting here) without obscuring the internal logic of the regime / citizens under it.

It's a sort of distance, for example, that lets her write things like this:

The night sky in North Korea is a sight to behold. It might be the most brilliant in Northeast Asia, the only place spared the coal dust, Gobi Desert sand, and carbon monoxide choking the rest of the continent. In the old days, North Korean factories contributed their share to the cloud cover, but no longer. No artificial lightning competes with the intensity of the stars etched into its sky.

The young couple would walk through the night, scattering gingko leaves in their wake. What did they talk about? Their families, their classmates, books they had read - whatever the topic, it was endlessly fascinating. Years later, when I asked the girl about the happiest memories of her life, she told me of those nights.

This is not the sort of thing that shows up in satellite photographs. Whether in CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, or in the East Asian studies department of a university, people usually analyse North Korea from afar. They don't stop to think that in the middle of this black hole, in this bleak, dark country where millions have died of starvation, there is also love.

Also with a light touch that she senses the readers' potential misconceptions and steers them away from it:

It has been said that people reared in communist countries cannot fend for themselves because they expect the government to take care of them. This was not true of many of the victims of the North Korean famine. People did not go passively to their deaths. When the public distribution system was cut off, they were forced to tap their deepest wells of creativity to feed themselves. They devised traps out of buckets and string to catch small animals in the field, draped nets over their balconies of snare sparrows. They educated themselves in the nutritive properties of plants. They reached back into their collective memory of famines past and recalled the survival tricks of their forefathers.

Actually, THIS is my favourite quote:

The vast majority of the vendors were women. Koreans accorded a low status to markets, so traditionally they were frequented only by women. This remained the case in the 1990s even as the markets expanded. Men had to stay with their work units, around which all life in North Korea revolved, but women were sufficiently expendable that they could wriggle out of their day jobs. Joo Sung-ha, a North Korean defector from Chongjin who became a journalist in Seaoul, told me he believed that Kim Jong-il had tacitly agreed to let women work privately to relieve the pressure on families. "If the ajummas [married women] hadn't been allowed to work, there would have been a revolution," he said.

The Asian trope of the power auntie at work~~

But also, for real, this book is so - I know that North Korea is a much, much wider issue, but it's still something I appreciate - clever about gender (and race), and the women in it were pretty much all BAMFs:

One day as the women were picking corn, the camp director came to deliver an impromptu lecture in the cornfield. It was the usual fodder. He urged them to arm themselves with the ideology of Kim Il-sung against the temptations of capitalism and to commit themselves to their nation.

Then he asked for a show of hands: Who could promise not to run away again to China? The women squatted in sullen silence. Oak-hee looked around. Not a single woman raised a hand.

After an uncomfortable silence, the prison director spoke up. "Well, if you go to China again, next time don't get caught."


After she left Hanawon, Mrs Song took a job as a housekeeper. She was used to working full-time in North Korea and felt she would be depressed if she stayed idle in her new life. She decided not to live with Oak-hee, but to get her own apartment, and rented a studio in Suwon, a city twenty miles to the south of Seoul where the rents were cheaper. By living frugally and continuing to work, she was soon able to afford to travel - something once beyond the reach of her dreams. She joined tour groups that catered to older women and explored every corner of South Korea. She even went back to China - this time as a tourist. She traveled to Poland with a group of fellow North Korean defectors who were speaking at a human rights conference. She made friends. She even dated a little. She loved going to the market to try new foods - mango, kiwi, papaya. She enjoyed eating out. She didn't develop a taste for pizza or hamburgers, but she came to love the South Korean style of cooking beef and pork and barbecuing it at the table.

Every six months or so Mrs. Song and I would get together for a meal. When I worked on articles about North Korea I found her to be a particularly reliable commentator. She was by no means an apologist for the North Korean regime - "That rotten bastard!" she once said of Kim Jong-il, the only time I ever heard her use profanity - but she was not as embittered as most defectors I'd met. There were things she missed about North Korea - the camaraderie among neighbours, the free health care before the system broke down. She was nostalgic for her life as a young married woman. Her eyes would mist and her round face would soften when she spoke of her late husband.

"When I see a good meal like this, it makes me cry," Mrs. Song apologised one night as we sat around a steaming pot of shabu-shabu, thinly sliced beef cooked in broth and dipped in a sesame sauce. "I can't help thinking of his last words, 'Let's go to a good restaurant and order a nice bottle of wine.'"

MRS SONG \o/ also, what I like about this passage is that it shows Barbara Demick doesn't just treat the people in the books as interviewees, they're actually friends.

So yeah, heartily recommended.

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves - and Why It Matters, by B.R. Myers.

Myers' argument is that there are two North Korean ideologies: the first, 'fake' one which the outside world sees: a 'reassuringly dull' state nationalism conceived along similar lines to Soviet and Chinese communist ideology; the second, 'real' one based on far-right fascist ideas of race purity, which feeds into North Koreans' self-concept as inherently naive and virtuous, and thus inherently exceptional in requiring a strong (to put it mildly) leader. Myers argues that this self-concept was developed to deal with the unfortunate historical contingent that whilst holding itself out as an 'exceptional' state full of ethnically pure people, North Korea has historically always been dependent on external aid - not just in terms of humanitarian aid, but military aid in WWII, etc. Which is fair enough, and I certainly don't feel confident enough to criticise the bigger implications of his argument, but he also writes shit like this:

Although South Koreans are glad that they compromised their nationalist principles for wealth and modernity, many of them feel a nagging sense of moral inferiority to their more orthodox brethren. They may disapprove of the North's actions, but rarely with indignation, often blaming America or Japan for having provoked them. Eager to assuage their guilt about not wanting re-unification, they prefer to see in the DPRK's lack of democracy and human rights only a benign difference in stages of development.

lol thanks for that insight into the psyche of the average South Korean, Myers. I... am not an expert on North or South Korea, but this sounds like crap.


In contrast, the DPRK's propaganda is notably averse to scenes of intellectual discipline. Because Koreans are born pure and selfless, they can and should heed their instincts. Often they are shown breaking out of intellectual constraints in a mad spree of violence against the foreign or land-owning enemy. This may well explain why, according to many refugees with whom I have spoken, North Koreans are so much more inclined than South Koreans to settle differences of opinion with fisticuffs.

:////////////// there are so many other potential reasons beyond the 'soft power' explanation of propaganda/ideology, and the failure to engage with those is A FAILING.

For all that, Myers is at his most convincing when talking about how his theory has implications for statecraft and relations with North Korea:

The DPRK is more likely to suffer a mass legitimation crisis if it is seen as failing on its own ideological terms. Such a perception could result from a humiliating retreat in regard to nuclear weapons, but the North Korean leadership is less likely than our own to make that kind of error. The chronic nature of the economic malaise poses a greater problem.

Actually, even then - just a paragraph or two above he argues that 'blue jeans will not bring down this dictatorship', suggesting that soft power cultural influences in the form of influxes of Chinese/South Korean DVDs and other forms of entertainment will only serve to strengthen North Koreans' sense of exceptionalism - that doesn't quite work, because when North Korean people watch South Korean soap operas, for example, they're not going to just stop taking it in when the values and lifestyle they see there are so different from their own. Aren't they going to notice that the socio-economic circumstances of South Korean people, as shown on TV, is very different from their economic malaise? Blue jeans may prove a stronger temptation when the choice is not between that and the North Korean trousers, but between that and nothing at all.

Long Road Home, by Kim Yong.

"memoir of growing up in a comfortable existence in North Korea, only to be thrown into one of the worst prison camps in that country - and then escape to write about it all."

This was jarring, awful, harrowing stuff - and I feel so much more educated for having read it - but I came away with the feeling that I didn't really like the writer much, because he had all these weird entitled ideas about the regime and women going into sex work 'to satisfy their desire to consume' which really squicked me out, and, well, yeah. /o\ :/

Finally - on the last day of the year I bring to you: the end of year book meme!

How many books read in 2011?

One hundred and thirty-three! The most I've read in a year since I started keeping track - Diana Wynne Jones, I blame you.

Fiction/Non-Fiction ratio?

110: 23

Male/Female authors?

36: 97

White/POC authors?

111: 22 - appalling.

Favourite books read?

Fiction: this was the year of discovering Diana Wynne Jones and vacuuming everything the public library had to offer up at top speed, and also reading many Agatha Christies (dear God, why???). This had the effect of exaggerating two trends: female authors outweighing male authors by the drastic ratio of nearly 3:1, and the white to POC author ratio - this is the first year I've kept track, but I suspect that in any case I would always have read more books by white authors. The best 'serious literary' novel I've read this year is in that sense an anomaly, being written by a male POC: My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk. (Honourable mention: Winter's Bone.)

Non-fiction: this was the year of reading some really brilliant non-fiction. Books about feminism: Angela Davis & bell hooks. Books about theory: the Foucault (Discipline & Punish, not Archaeology) and Edward Said. Nicola Lacey must win a special award for writing two of my favourite books arguably under different genres: Unspeakable Subjects (jurisprudence) and A Life of H.L.A. Hart (biography, though admittedly of a jurisprudential great). Finally, the fairly recent but no less epic additions of Postwar and Nothing to Envy.

Least favourite?

Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, by M.C. Beaton. Just boring and clumsy.

Oldest book?

Master Tung's Western Chamber Romance, trans. Li-li Ch'en. (sometime during the Yuan Dynasty, aka 1279 - 1368)

Newest book?

If I'm not wrong it's Alfian Sa'at's Malay Sketches.

Longest book title?

The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves - and Why It Matters



Most books read by one author this year?

Diana Wynne Jones - 13
Agatha Christie - 11

Any in translation?

The Insufferable Gaucho, by Roberto Bolano
Master Tung's Western Chamber Romance, trans. Li-li Ch'en
My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk
Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk

Book that most changed my perspective:

Embarrassingly enough - Foucault's Discipline & Punish. Not just for the symbolism of his approach, but because everyone in the criminological discipline works in his shadow. Postwar also had me thinking about the possibilities of epic history, so that was cool.

Favourite character:

Everyone in My Name is Red, or Fatma from Silent House.

Favourite scene:

... is it weird if I say 20th century European history?

Favourite quote:


What do you want to read in 2013?

This will probably change as I go along, but besides the boring and blindingly obvious answer of "all my uni things as I really need to study for finals", right now I have Tariq Ramadan's Islam and the Arab Awakening, and I'm a chapter into it. Highly recommended. Here's a fantastic excerpt. I'd like to revisit some Shakespeare plays, especially the Merchant of Venice, and after finals, I'd like to read an epic novel - Anna Karenina maybe?

Of course, these to-reads conflict highly with my other reading goal, which is to read more stuff by POC authors. We'll see how it goes!

To round off an extremely long LJ entry, here's the full list, in all its unformatted and chronological glory!

Bad Girls In Love, by Cynthia Voigt.
Go Jump In The Pool,
Beware The Fish,
The War With Mr Wizzle,
The Zucchini Warriors,
Macdonald Hall Goes Hollywood,
Something Fishy At Macdonald Hall
A Semester In The Life of A Garbage Bag,
Don't Care High,
I Want To Go Home,
Son of Interflux, &
Who Is Bugs Potter?, by Gordon Korman.
Izzy, Willy-Nilly, by Cynthia Voigt.
Ten Days In A Mad-House, by Nellie Bly.
The Insufferable Gaucho, by Roberto Bolano.
The Clocks, by Agatha Christie.
Beyond Black, by Hilary Mantel.
Feminism is for Everybody, by bell hooks.
A Life of H.L.A. Hart: The Nightmare and the Noble Dream, by Nicola Lacey.
Thirsty, by Dionne Brand.
The Real Me Is Thin, by Arabella Weir.
The Spanish Civil War: A Very Short Introduction, by Helen Graham.
Ways of Seeing, by John Berger.
Don't Tell Alfred, by Nancy Mitford.
Unspeakable Subjects: Feminist Essays in Legal & Social Theory, by Nicola Lacey.
Discipline & Punish, by Michel Foucault.
Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction, by Jonathan Culler.
Gather Together in My Name, by Maya Angelou.
Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas, by Maya Angelou.
Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins.
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins.
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins.
Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua.
Orientalism, by Edward Said.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath.
Master Tung's Western Chamber Romance, trans. Li-li Ch'en.
The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Empress: A Novel, by Shan Sa.
Rosemary's Baby, by Ira Levin.
Women, Culture, & Politics, by Angela Y Davis
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy.
O: The Intimate History of the Orgasm, by Jonathan Margolis.
The Namesake, by Jhumpa Lahiri.
Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death, by M.C. Beaton.
Whipping Girl, by Julia Serano.
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson.
Burning Bright, by Tracy Chevalier.
The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, by John Le Carre.
Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami.
Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers.
The Skating Rink, by Roberto Bolano.
Problems at Pollensa Bay, by Agatha Christie.
Endless Night, by Agatha Christie.
Five On A Treasure Island, by Enid Blyton.
Five Go Adventuring Again, by Enid Blyton.
The Witness for the Prosecution, and other stories, by Agatha Christie.
Letters From Burma, by Aung San Suu Kyi.
Songs of Innocence and of Experience, by William Blake.
Engine Empire, by Cathy Park Hong.
Malay Sketches, by Alfian Sa'at.
A Tale of Time City, by Diana Wynne Jones
Kitty Harris: The Spy With Seventeen Names, by Igor Damaskin.
The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling, &
The Hidden Gallery, by Maryrose Wood.
Bridget Jones's Diary, by Helen Fielding.
White Cat, by Holly Black.
Howl's Moving Castle, by Diana Wynne Jones
Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones
The Seven Dials Mystery, by Agatha Christie.
Dogsbody, by Diana Wynne Jones
The Merlin Conspiracy, by Diana Wynne Jones
Thrones, Dominations, by Dorothy L. Sayers & Jill Paton Walsh.
Matilda's England, by William Trevor.
Time of the Ghost, by Diana Wynne Jones
Earwig & the Witch, by Diana Wynne Jones
The Pinhoe Egg, by Diana Wynne Jones
Sense & Sensibility, by Jane Austen.
The Fairy Godmother, by Mercedes Lackey.
Let The Circle Be Unbroken, by Mildred D. Taylor.
Dealing With Dragons, by Patricia Wrede.
Julie & Romeo, by Jeanne Ray.
Calling Invisible Women, by Jeanne Ray.
The Magicians of Caprona, by Diana Wynne Jones
Witch Week, by Diana Wynne Jones
Is, by Joan Aiken.
Cold Shoulder Road, by Joan Aiken.
Fingersmith, by Sarah Waters.
Rubyfruit Jungle, by Rita Mae Brown.
My Name Is Red, by Orhan Pamuk.
The Burden, by Mary Westmacott.
Democratically Speaking, by Chee Soon Juan.
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, by Agatha Christie.
The Moving Finger, by Agatha Christie.
The Big Four, by Agatha Christie.
Partners in Crime, by Agatha Christie.
Poirot Investigates, by Agatha Christie.
House of Many Ways, by Diana Wynne Jones
They Do It With Mirrors, by Agatha Christie.
Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones
American Gods, by Neil Gaiman.
A People's History of the United States, by Howard Zinn.
The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Bronte.
Un Lun Dun, by China Mieville.
Possession, by A.S. Byatt.
The Archaeology of Knowledge, by Michel Foucault.
The Rule of Law, by Tom Bingham.
Silent House, by Orhan Pamuk.
Postwar, by Tony Judt.
Stopping for a Spell, by Diana Wynne Jones
Right Ho, Jeeves, by PG Wodehouse
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, by Barbara Demick.
The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves - and Why It Matters, by B.R. Myers.
Long Road Home, by Kim Yong.


extemporally: (Default)

July 2014

  1 2345

Most Popular Tags

Style Credit

Expand Cut Tags

No cut tags
Page generated Tuesday, 26 September 2017 10:57
Powered by Dreamwidth Studios