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Archive for April, 2010

Review of Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams

This is the third book in the Otherland quartet and it’s much of a muchness with its two predecessors. The story continues, the main characters move to different simulated worlds within the Otherland network – and all converge on one particular simworld. The storytelling seems to have slowed down a little from the first two volumes – Paul Jonas, for example, only spends almost all his time in this book in the simulation he found himself in at the end of book two.

The climax of the story depends on the psycho killer Dread – but he is absent from that climax as a viewpoint character. The basic premise becomes a little more ridiculous as the villains of the piece, the Grail Brotherhood, move towards attaining their goal.

I noticed more flaws in Williams’s writing than I did in the previous volumes: the attenuation of the story – less happening, but taking up more space – the sameyness and lack of depth in his imagery:

Paul watched [the stars] pass through their slow dance above his head, so close it seemed he could reach up to them and freeze his fingers against their cold light, and vowed that if he ever found his way home he would never take the heavens for granted again.

the number of convenient things that happen to move the plot forward, and – perhaps most annoying of all – his constant use of ‘which’ when he should use ‘that’:

But the greatest difference of all was that the giant humanoid shape which had dominated the valley had disappeared[.]

I still enjoyed it though, still going to read book four.

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Categories: Literature, Reviews

saprophyte

sap·ro·phyte /ˈsæprəˌfaɪt/

–noun
any organism that lives on dead organic matter, as certain fungi and bacteria.

Also called saprobe.

Origin:
1870–75; sapro- + -phyte

—Related forms
sap·ro·phyt·ic  /ˌsæprəˈfɪtɪk/ Show Spelled, adjective
sap·ro·phyt·i·cal·ly,
adverb

Sellars dropped back into his system and called up his metaphorical Garden … A strange blight had overtaken the Garden. Whole plants were gone, entire sections of stored information corrupted or interdicted. Other information sources had taken on strange new shapes. The saprophytic growth that represented the mysterious operating system had mutated out of all recognition …
Source: Mountain of Black Glass by Tad Williams.
Categories: Lexicon, Literature, Quotations

Legality and other matters

A couple of weeks ago I returned to the Immigration office in western Seoul to pick up my passport and Alien Registration Card. Everything was in order. My registration number is the same as my previous one, which makes me think it might be the same one I got the first time I came to Korea all the way back in 2006.

I’ve been kept busy at work, but I finally managed to clear the backlog of proofreading that had built up in my absence. This allowed me to finish the first draft of the workbook I’d been writing. I’ve now got another pile of proofreading to do.

I don’t mind working while I’m at work, but, with effectively nine to seven working hours plus up to an hour and a half travel time every day, I do yearn for a bit of downtime.

My colleagues in the Learning Center at work had a meeting with our boss at the end of last week that left them feeling shitty. The boss told them that we shouldn’t ask for any more support for the Learning Center. The way my colleagues told me about it made it seem that the boss had just denigrated everything we were working for. In disgust at this attitude, they cancelled Friday’s classes, making up an excuse about the electrics being tested.

I don’t know what to think about this, really. I just want to do my job. The problem is that I have two jobs – one teaching, one on the Contents team, writing and editing. I don’t have enough time to do both fully, and the boss’s message seemed to make it clear that my primary concern should be the Contents work – and to hell with the teaching.

In other news, now that spring has sprung Habiba and I have been keeping ourselves busy at weekends with stuff. We went on a hike to Cheonggyesan with a couple of other people. Cheonggyesan is just south of Seoul near Seoul Grand Park. It was OK, but the mountain isn’t as interesting as others. The highlight was stopping at Cheonggyesa, the Buddhist temple, on the way down. There’s a massive sculpture of a sleeping Buddha made of smooth, head-sized rocks set into cement.

The next day we went to Yeouido, the ‘island’ where the National Assembly and the 63 Building are located (I say ‘island’ because its separated from the mainland only by a narrow stream). The road surrounding the Assembly building on the Han River side is lined with cherry trees, and they were in full bloom. The weather was grey, but it was still nice – apart from the huge crowds that were also there to take in the sight.

Yesterday, Habiba, I and Habiba’s friend Jessica went on a Korea Foundation Volunteer Network monthly culture class. We went to Bukchon, an area near the main palace – Gyeongbokgung – and the presidential residence – the Blue House, or Cheongwadae. This neighbourhood is full of traditional Korean houses called hanok, coffee and tea shops, fashion boutiques and a handful of museums.

Our first port of call was a small hanok compound preserved as a museum-cum-culture centre. There, we tie-dyed handkerchiefs in indigo dye. This was a lot of fun. We were each given a white handkerchief and a bunch of elastic bands. We bound the former with the latter and, wearing rubber gloves, dunked them into large bowls of fermented indigo. This dye was warm, green and stinky, although not too obnoxious. Once exposed to the air, the handkerchiefs started to turn blue. I screwed mine into a ball for a cloudy, marbley effect; Habiba made a check pattern; and Jessica’s was something else entirely.

After that we were separated into teams and we had lunch with the two Korean guys who we were grouped with. After that, we walked around Bukchon for a while. I imagine we’ll be heading there again so Habiba can drool over clothes and jewellery. Not literally. Probably.

Today, we have plans to go and see Kick Ass. Again. We saw it on Friday night with a bunch of Habiba’s colleagues. It was – well, it was kick ass. So good, in fact, that we made plans to see it again with a different group of friends.

Review of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco

I’d previously read two books by the Italian semanticist (Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose – his two most famous novels (the latter because of the film starring Sean Connery and Christian Slater)) and, compared to them, this was a disappointment. All three books focus on investigations. Foucault’s Pendulum is a modern day conspiracy theory-type story featuring a character who may or may not be the Count of St Germain. The Name of the Rose is a historical thriller about murders and heresy. The investigation in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is into the narrator’s own past.

The novel’s premise is promising. A man wakes up in hospital with no memories. A doctor asks him his name and the narrator replies, ‘My name is Arthur Gordon Pym’ (the opening line of a Poe story). Asked again, he says, ‘Call me Ishmael.’

He turns out to be a fifty-nine-year-old antiquarian bookseller named Giambattista Bodoni, or Yambo, as he finds he prefers to be known. A heart attack has wiped out all his specific memories; what is left is all his background knowledge. For instance, he can remember how to brush his teeth when he stands in the bathroom with the toothbrush in his hand, but he can’t remember ever having done so.

The other thing he is left with is literature. His preconscious mind continually throws up apposite quotations from books, comics, plays and films. As he recovers his health and days go by, he becomes more and more intent on researching his past in order to discover who he is, or at least who he was. This investigation takes him to the home he lived in as a boy, which stayed in his family and which has in its attic (conveniently enough for the story) boxes of books, comics, records, newspapers and magazines.

Lots of what he (re)discovers is quite interesting – dubious characters in pulp fiction, American comic books Italianised by the fascist authorities, newspaper articles that hint at wartime defeats. And, as interesting as all this stuff is, I constantly got the feeling that it was a kind of masturbatory ode to the author’s own youth.

Unfortunately, it takes a while to get to this part and the earlier part of the book seemed disjointed and didn’t flow well, or just didn’t have much force. Maybe this was because the main character is, while likeable, not that interesting. He finds out that he is something of a womaniser – he’s had a few affairs, he has a dazzling smile. Although he is initially wary of going to the country to continue relearning himself, he is never particularly challenged and all his acquaintances are friendly and helpful.

There is a major turning point at about two-thirds of the way through the book where Yambo suddenly remembers nearly everything that’s ever happened to him. This last segment of the story is a series of anecdotes. There is a little more narrative force here, but it still has a rather self-indulgent feel to it – a feeling that is in no way moderated by the hallucinatory conclusion to the novel.

Along with the text of the story itself, the pages of the book are peppered with pictures of magazine and novel covers, a few photographs, pages from comics and complete song lyrics. Although Eco can be commended for trying to utilise the novel format to its fullest, they all seemed like distractions to me – probably because, by the time they started to be introduced, I was already wearying of the book.

All in all this was an unsatisfying read. The concept was excellent – a man with no memories, an investigation into time, memory, history, culture – but the execution was flawed by the lack of much of a story, minimal character dynamics and that pervasive masturbatory quality.

Categories: Literature, Reviews

pulverulent

pul·ver·u·lent /pʌlˈvɛryələnt, -ˈvɛrələnt/

–adjective
1. consisting of dust or fine powder.
2. crumbling to dust or powder.
3. covered with dust or powder.

Origin:
1650–60; < L pulverulentus dusty, equiv. to pulver– (s. of pulvis) dust + –ulentus -ulent

—Related forms
pul·ver·u·lence, noun
pul·ver·u·lent·ly, adverb

Source: Dictionary.com.

[A]n attic promises a rather threadbare paradise, where the dead bodies appear in a pulverulent glow, a vegetal elixir that, in the absence of green, makes you feel  you are in a parched tropical forest, an artificial canebreak where you are immersed in a tepid sauna.
Source: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco.
Categories: Lexicon