It starts like this:
I’m back home visiting the States and out and about as it’s generally when I have a social life. I try to cram in as much time as I can visiting everyone I know. Invariably I’ll meet someone I don’t know and it comes out in conversation that I live in South Korea at which point they’ll slip into a script where they mistake things they’ve heard about South Korea for knowing something about South Korea. It’s like they can’t help themselves, and they have to tell me right now about one of these four things:
1. North Korea and/or the Korean War. It’ll be about the war if it’s an older guy because that’s the war the guys my dad’s age remember from when they were kids. MacArthur will get mentioned. If it’s a younger person they’ll go on and on about North Korea cribbing from Vice documentaries.
2. Asian Sex Tourism. This is always a younger guy and he’s incapable of not sharing everything he knows about sex tourism. I find it best to back away from these people and leave them as quickly as possible.
3. Plastic Surgery. Mostly women bring this up. And they may or may not bring up foot-binding as well. This is what I term an obsession with an obsession. And you can generally throw a wrench in the works by asking them if they think getting braces is plastic surgery. At least with this one I can have a conversation.
4. Dog Eating. Not as common as the above three, but still on the list. As with the Korean War and sex tourism when someone starts down this road I can actually see their eyes gel over as the obsessional script-worm burrows through their psyche and erupts from their mouth.
Here’s my 9/11 post. It might explain why I don’t want to read yours.
I was at work in Greenwich Village when the first plane hit. I heard the crash and went outside where I saw people in apartments at their windows and on their balconies looking downtown, so I went up to the roof and saw the first tower on fire. At this point I was the only one in the building and since I didn’t have a cellphone, I needed to get to a phone so I could call Jin. She would have been coming into the city through the WTC path station and I wanted to call her before she left and tell her that “something was happening”.
No one at that time knew what was happening, and I was thinking about how I’d wanted to go to the WTC station that morning and go to the Borders Books on the first floor. Jin had reached the Journal Square path station and heard what was happening and come back home. We hung up. I went back to the roof, bumping into a few of my coworkers. We all went to the roof. We all had numbed, confused looks on our faces. The buildings burned.
Incongruous moment one: the buildings were on fire and burning and there was such a mix of this is happening, but we’re also at work and the day’s routine must be adhered to that my friend Rob and I had time to go to the deli, which had other people in it, and buy coffee. We took it back up to the roof and stood there drinking over-sweet coffee from blue paper cups with Greek urns on the sides while the buildings burned.
We saw black specks falling from the building and speculated about their nature. Rob had had a studio grant to paint in the WTC and did panoramic landscapes from there. Another acquaintance now had the same grant and, although we didn’t know it at the time, she was down there in one of the burning buildings. She escaped. One of only a small number to do so from that floor in that building. The first tower collapsed and there was this scream from all around us, this moan from everyone watching that just gave way to silence.
Incongruous moment two: that silence.
Jesus. That silence.
We were far enough away that we couldn’t hear anything. Later I’d meet people who weren’t in New York that would say something like “It was like watching a movie”. This was nothing like a movie. The first tower fell without any sound and after it fell this cloud of paper rose up in the sky. From where we were those pages sparkled in the sun. They were beautiful. I know. I know. There was nothing beautiful about any of this, but there it was incongruous moment three. Beauty – maybe the way sharks are beautiful.
I could not watch the rest. I could not see the second tower fall. I went downstairs to be alone.
But the day didn’t end there. The more I remember that day, the more incongruous events occur: the mad rush to give blood for the “survivors”, we’d go from hospital to hospital, lines everywhere, but nothing to be done, a cop car passing coated in white dust, the sight of an artist who I had worked for standing in the middle of University Place crying. She’d lived 6 blocks from the WTC. She was frozen with shock and her boyfriend and I got her moving again. Uptown. Always that long procession uptown.
And then there were the days and weeks after. The checking in with everyone you knew. The National Guard soldiers in Jersey City standing around the armory carrying baseball bats. The way the news had no script. No one had a narrative for the event. And weeks later when I woke up to the news of an engine falling off a plane in Queens – I couldn’t bring myself to get on the train and go under the river to get to work.
I’ve never watched the TV footage of 9/11. The moments when it shows up in a documentary – I am shocked to the point of tears by it. Even in movies. I can’t watch the destruction of New York in some action flick (like The Avengers) without getting at least some small whiff of a panic attack coming on.
I think I’m still waiting for those incongruous moments to end.
Here’s what I read over my vacation. It would have been twelve books, but I’m still reading The Orange Eats Creeps, but it’s okay since that book’s like prose no-wave. I sometimes kick myself for not putting up more content here, but other than a weekly writing status report, which I suspect no one wants to read, I can’t think of anything to write for regular content. So monthly book reports it is.
The Drowning Girl – Caitlin R. Kiernan (2012): An impressionistic ghost story that might not be a ghost story, but more along the lines of a Blackwood story where someone encounters something and the something is unfathomable. Here we have a schizophrenic young woman encountering the unknown in the person of another woman, who may be a ghost, or a mermaid, or a wolf dressed in the skin of a girl. Atmospheric and weird in the best way.
Smonk – Tom Franklin (2006): Violent over the top Southern-fried Western populated by mutant cartoon characters armed with guns and high explosives. If you like your violence tobacco-splattered and foul-mouthed, you’ll probably like this.
The Dinner – Herman Koch (2013): Two brothers and their wives get together for dinner and attempt to come to terms with the fact that their sons committed a horrible crime that’s been caught on camera and broadcast around the nation. As the man-hunt remains ongoing each family prepares to do all it can to protect itself, including murder. A somewhat enjoyable book with an unreliable narrator, but I couldn’t help but feel that Koch required pages to tell you what Simenon would only have needed a paragraph and a few ellipses to do.
Missing out: In Praise of the Unlived Life – Adam Phillips (2012): One problem I have with nonfiction is that too often it reads like it would have made for a better article than a book, and that’s the case here. Some nice nuggets buried throughout such as: “We know more about the experiences we haven’t had than about the experiences we have had.” And Phillips then goes on to critique this omniscience and poke holes in it, but often I found the conclusions drowned beneath the erudition.
Killing Rage: Ending Racism – bell hooks (1995): Essays and analysis on racism in America. A counter-point to the Terkel book I read last month. I started it right after that book, but its density slowed me down and I ended up reading it a bit at a time week by week. I’ve recommended it to friends since then. Most people should read this.
Junky – William S. Burroughs (1953): I forgot how great this book was. Yeah. Burroughs was a criminal psychopath. There’s no denying that. But when writing white-hot, as he is here, his prose throws sparks off the page.
Resume with Monsters – William Browning Spencer (1995): Protag works a series of dead-end jobs while trying to get back together with the woman who left him (for good reason) and battle Cthulhu and assorted other Old Ones hiding out behind the facade of corporate America. If you’ve ever worked a shit job and had to suffer through horrible HR presentations than you’ll be simpatico to this book.
The End of Everything – Megan Abbott (2011): This was an amazing book, part detective, part coming of age novel, all riveting, creepy, and startling. A girl’s best friend is kidnapped the summer before they’re both set to begin high school, and sets in motion events that can only lead to an end of innocence and childhood. The brilliant thing in this book is the way the jaded PI trope gets upended by a girl playing detective who’s a complete innocent encountering a wider world of adulthood mystery.
I Have The Right To Destroy Myself – Young-Ha Kim (2007): A Korean novel from the mid-90s where all the women exist to commit suicide and the guys make art and dream about cars. I don’t know what to make of this book. It’s narrator is a bit Holden Caulfield-esque – if Holden was a serial killer going around Seoul convincing alienated twenty-somethings to kill themselves. And that’s what the novel sort of exudes and revels in: twenty-somethingness that mistakes a shallow morbid lack of empathy for profundity.
Storm Kings – Lee Sandlin (2013): Two-fisted tales of meteorology! This is a fascinating account of the oft-contentious history of American meteorology and storm chasing from the Colonial Era (Ben Franklin and his kite) to the modern day. The chapter titled “The Finger of God” is worth reading, even if it’s just in the bookstore.
Jack Glass – Adam Roberts (2012): Fantomas of the spaceways that sometimes downgrades to fan fiction for equations. I preferred the former more than the latter.
Random Acts of Senseless Violence – Jack Womack (1993): The Diary of Anne Frank meets Clockwork Orange by way of Gossip Girl set in a dystopian USA that looks more familiar than it should. At the end you either feel sad for Lola, its protagonist, or glad that she’s adapted to her changing environment. Worth tracking down.
I wanted to make July all about reading nonfiction, but that didn’t happen. Some fiction squeaked in. Plus I started more books than I finished, because nonfiction, so now I’m reading nonfiction in between and around fiction. An essay here, an essay there.
On a similar note, August was supposed to be all about Epic Fantasy but I picked up the first 700+ page book in the pile and cracked; my resolve fled and I said, “Fuck no!” Instead August is going to be all about stand alone genre novels. That’s what I’m writing, so that’s what I’m reading. Fuck Epic Fantasy.
On to the books:
I can’t believe I hadn’t read Terkel until now. This book was great. I feel like Terkel should be our (USian) default historian, like most citizens should read his stuff and be familiar with it even if you don’t agree with it. And there’s lots here. The whole book is interviews about race relations in and around Chicago from the 50s on into the 80s. A document of lives lived through the death of Emmett Till, the housing protests, Affirmative Action, the closing of the steel mills, and the rise of the Nation of Islam. Like I said, agree or disagree with the speakers here but at least have the conversation to happen. Here’s the quote the book ends on from a mixed race man named Leo:
“I have faith we can mature. Stranger things have happened. Maybe America, maybe the world is in its adolescence. Maybe we’re driving home from the prom, drunk, and nobody knows whether we’re going to survive or not. Maybe we’ll survive and maybe we’ll be a pretty smart old person, well-adjusted and mellow.”
I did blather some about Eiseley before and this book is as good as any other to jump into his stuff with. The titular essay is probably his most famous. It’s about encountering a man on a beach that throws dying star fishes back into the sea. But the essay I loved was called “How Natural is ‘Natural’?”. That one read like pure Arthur Machen mixed with Edward Abbey or Henry Thoreau.
“I too am aware of the trunk that stretches loathsomely back of me along the floor. I too am a many-visaged thing that has climbed upward out of the dark of endless leaf falls, and has slunk, furred, through the glitter of blue glacial nights. I, the professor, trembling absurdly on the platform with my book and spectacles, am the single philosophical animal. I am the unfolding worm, and mud fish, the weird tree of Igdrasil shaping itself endlessly out of darkness toward the light.
I have said this is not an illusion. It is when one sees in this manner, or a sense of strangeness halts one on a busy street to verify the appearance of one’s fellows, that one knows a terrible new sense has opened a faint crack in the absolute.”
Cosmic vastnesses indeed!
So, yeah. This book was why I didn’t finish more nonfiction this month. I was part way through bell hooks’s Killing Rage and Adam Phillips’s Missing Out when this book came along in the mail and I said, oh hey, let me read one of these stories and see what they’re all about. And that led to me reading another one and another one and another one.
These stories are pretty damn f’n great y’all.
Okay, so the only other Japanese ghost stories I’ve read are by Lafcadio Hearn and his wife Koizumi Setsu (and when people talk about Hearn’s Japanese work I think they should mention how it was a team effort between him and his wife), and also the work of Edogawa Rampo.
Miyabe’s are different from both of those.
Hearn and Setsu’s were all about the Japaneseness of the stories, because Hearn’s readers wanted exoticism. Rampo’s work took Poe and the conte cruel and mashed them up with their Japanese equivalents to give you such creep fests as “The Human Chair” and other nutty stuff.
In comparison to those Miyabe’s stories are more grounded in the everyday and mundane. They’re all about the marketplace and the ties of association between merchants in 18th and 19th centuries Edo. Each involves either an apprentice or bonded servant entering a situation where they encounter a ghost or demon. Their stories are intersecting other stories and that sense of indebtedness from one person to another is carried over between the living and the dead. Yeah, there’s nothing here that’s going to make me have to get off a crowded train like reading Rampo’s “The Caterpillar” did, but that’s not a bad thing. For a collision of the mundane and the fantastic these stories are perfect. Check them out.
It finally happened.
For the longest time my friend and I wanted to run a D&D game of some iteration here in town. Finding players and finding time were all an issue.Well, with summer upon us we have done both. Although everyone we thought to ask said no, we still managed to find seven or eight players, including one of my grad school teachers. She’d never played before and upon starting had this to say:
“Holy shit! You’re making all this up. Cool!”
And she’s come back – and brought fresh baked fudge brownies with her too! So it’s all good.
For the grognards among you, we’re using Beyond the Wall as our skeleton system with skills being more story-gamish than crunchy. While everyone likes the BtW character gen mini-game it doesn’t quite suit the campaign, which is Ghostbusters of Lankhmar. Actually, maybe it does suit the campaign: young heroes go to the big city, where misfortune happens to them and no one cares that they were the village hero.
Anyway, since we’re all old and playing on work nights, my goal’s to have an adventure that we can get through and finish in three hours. This means rethinking some things.
1. No megadungeons. At most a dungeon will have 12 rooms or encounters.
2. No exploration phase. Kill me if I ever have to say or listen to, “you walk into an empty 10×10 room” again. Give the players a map, maybe not the exact map, but something where they have a general overview of where they’re going. And to hell with 10′ poles. I know we all grew up with this style of play, but nowadays it just brings me down.
3. Bonus XP. Your character drank three unmarked potions and survived. You said something funny. You drew a post-game picture. You brought rum-soaked dark chocolate cherries to the table. Bonus XP.
4. Adventure seeds. I give the players 5 adventure seeds (here’s what’s happening in town…), they tell me which one they want to follow up on. I make the adventure. Simple. Some remain from week to week. Some don’t.
5. Empty dungeons that “activate” once the party is in the middle of them. Getting in is easy. Getting out is hard.
And I wrote 5 more things but they were lame and obvious. You get the point. Overall the adventures have been fun and the players have come back from week to week and try to get their friends to come to, so that’s all cool.
“This book will be read and cherished in the year 2001. It will go to the MOON and MARS with future generations. Loren Eiseley’s work changed my life.”
That’s Ray Bradbury from the back of Eiseley’s The Star Thrower. Reading that quote made me wonder how many people I know (most of whom are readers) have actually heard of let alone read Loren Eiseley. I don’t even remember how I came about reading him. Maybe it was simply from romping around on wikipedia or maybe someone mentioned him. But when I asked friends if they had read him most people my age or younger hadn’t even heard of him. I guess his fame never made it past the 1980s (at least outside of his hometown), which is a shame because he’s amazing.
He’s a more humanist Carl Sagan. A nature essayist that writes like Thoreau by way of Weird Tales. An essay about foxes will start with a quote from Peter Beagle talking about magicians. It will end with Eiseley sleep deprived at dawn, chicken bone in his mouth, playing with a fox cub in the dunes. Maybe it’s the fate of science writers. Their work too tied to progress and the rate of technological advancement to be anything but doomed to oblivion. Maybe he straddled the line too much and wasn’t enough of a materialist. He spoke too often of miracles.
“Since boyhood I have been charmed by the unexpected and the beautiful. This was what had led me originally into science, but now I felt instinctively that something more was needed – though what I needed verged on a miracle. As a scientist, I did not believe in miracles, though I willingly granted the word broad latitudes of definition.”