Tag Archive | books 2014

June Books

I read a Henry Miller book this month. Afterwards to get the taste of Miller man-funk out of my system I made it a point to read more women. For July I plan on switching tracks again and reading only nonfiction. I realized how much I miss libraries. In the USA if I wanted to read a book about some topic I’d take it out from the library rather than buy it, but with no decent English language libraries nearby if I want to read a book about earthworms then I really, really, really better want to want read it, because I’ll be owning it. Now on to the books…

bird Bird by Bird – Anne Lamott

An enjoyable writing book that was thankfully light on the enthusiastic woo. Lamott does come across as a bit of a kook, but she’s a charming writer with an insightful eye for telling details. Yes, this book is geared towards realism rather than speculation, but all the same her advice and her reality checks are welcome. As is her personality – or at least the constructed personality that comes across in these pages. There’s something pleasant in reading a book by an author you know is a bundle of neurosis and prone to eating their own foot at time.s

doll Doll Bones – Holly Black

This book’s about three kids on the edge of adolescence going on an adventure at the behest of a ghost-possessed doll. It’s middle-grade horror with a straight-up quest in the middle of it. As someone well far beyond the target range of the book, it did take some intention on my part to give a damn, but overall an enjoyable read. The depictions of old American milltowns, in this case those in Pennsylvania and Ohio, rang true.

lud Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees

A “classic” fantasy novel from the 1920s the reads a bit like Tolkien’s Shire mashed up with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. The town of Lud-in-the-Mist once had regular communication with the Silent Folk (the fairies) beyond the western hills, but that was long ago in the bad old days of Duke Aubery. His days ended in revolution and the current people of Lud have banned all commerce with the fairy folk, yet the strange narcotic fairy fruit arrives in the town just the same. When the fruit wreaks havoc in the household of Mayor Nathaniel Chanticleer the good man decides to track it to its source, including a trek west to the land from which no one has ever returned. This book’s by turns twee and sinister, and sometimes in the span of the same sentence let alone paragraph. If you like Dunsany’s Elfland’s Daughter or Charwoman’s Shadow you should enjoy this.

taleA Tale of the Time Being – Ruth Ozeki

A woman finds a diary floating in the ocean. The diary belongs to a Japanese girl named Nao who’s the victim of intense bullying. She plans on killing herself, but needs to tell the story of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun, before she does it. Later the universe collapses into fragments and multiple realities, and people go on dream quests to solve all their problems. I enjoyed the ride despite the lack of closure, which might very well have been the point.

time The Time of the Assassins – Henry Miller

This book’s a long meditation/rant by Miller on the life and works of Arthur Rimbaud. It’s short. It’s dense. It’s ranty. It’s a Henry Miller book. And that’s good, as long as you can overlook the fact that he writes with his dink on the table.

PBB GRID.inddWhite Is For Witching – Helen Oyeyemi

There’s this part near the end of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House where the haunted house begins to possess Eleanor and alter her perceptions of reality. This book is like that chapter all the time. Miranda Silver is a young woman with an eating disorder living with her brother and father in a house haunted by four generations of women, and they have chosen Miranda to join them. This was a surprising book, and thinking about it now I feel as if there was a whole layer of commentary present in it regarding Britain’s history of ethnic persecution that I barely grasped. Not that you have to, really, as the book does hold up as a stylish haunted house story.

May Books

Here we go. For full effect read this post aloud in a halting monotone.

aliAli’s Smile – William S. Burroughs (1985)

Burroughs flirted with Scientology during the 50s and 60s only to end up disillusioned by it. Feeling some compulsion to set the record straight and to rectify whatever damage his support for the organization might have caused he set about writing a series of letters and articles attacking Scientology. This collects them all along with the titular story, but it’s not nearly as enjoyable as the non-fiction parts.

Here’s a link to the PDF.

Untitled-1Confessions of a Bangkok Private Eye: From the Case Files of Warren Olson – Steven Leather (2006)

I found this book in an ex-pat bar. It’s trashy and loathsome, but compulsively readable like a tabloid, and I suspect it or books like it might have influenced Lavie Tidhar’s Osama. There’s a certain type of Anglo-expat guy you meet in Asia that’s obsessed with which women are or aren’t sex workers. This book’s like spending 270 pages listening to that guy regale you with his adventures. In every way he’s a guy standing atop the smoldering wreckage of his life, but the captivating part is hearing how proud of it he is.

There’s also something fascinating about well done sensationalistic hackwork. I could picture the author shuffling up the pages of this book and reselling it under some other title like Bangkok Streets: One Man’s Journey. Hell, even from story to story whole passages and sentences get recycled. So like I said it’s trash, but intensely readable.

createCreate Dangerously – Edwidge Danticat (2010)

The corner of the Internet where I reside made much of that Salon piece on Junot Diaz’s writing class syllabus. The article’s here if you want to read it. As someone always eager to hear book recommendations I made notes, which is how I learned of Danticat. Part memoir, part essay collection Danticat explores her role as a Haitian immigrant artist residing in the USA. It’s a great read and definitely worth tracking down.

“One of the advantages of being an immigrant is that two very different countries are forced to merge within you. The language you were born speaking and the one you will probably die speaking have no choice but to find a common place in your brain and regularly merge there.”

immobilityImmobility – Brian Evenson (2013)

I’ve liked other Brian Evenson novel’s quite a bit and think he’s a great short story writer. Seriously, read the “Ex-Father”. This book however was a disappointment.

A man wakes up in the dark with amnesia. Mysterious assailants torture him. He is tasked with a vague secret mission and must journey across a post-apocalyptic landscape to the place where the plot happens and all his (our) questions will be answered, except they’re not. So he has to journey back to the assholes that tortured him at the start and instead of answering his questions they torture him some more until they put him back to sleep and tell him all this will start all over again. At which point the book ends. It’s also one of those stories where the character’s intelligence appears to be dictated by whether or not the plot requires him to do something stupid or smart. It’s not good when books remind me of bad slush stories. This combined two types: “Character wakes in darkness. They have no memory. The torture begins.” And, “Character receives cryptic mission or message. They must journey to the place where the story is waiting for them.”

KeepThe Keep – Jennifer Egan (2006)

A literary novel that reads like a popular novel while commenting on popular novels, I couldn’t help but think of Stephen King as I read this. Two cousins reunite in Europe twenty years after a childhood prank changed their lives. Meanwhile a prisoner in jail for murder takes a creative writing class. The Keep’s multi-layered and metafictional novel, but also a decently plotted thriller. It’s worth checking out.

lastLast Evening on Earth – Roberto Bolano (2007)

Holy shit! This collection knocked my socks off! Plotless short stories that hinge entirely on mood, meandering character studies, and short cruelly humorous vignettes about a lost generation of Chilean expats. Great stuff! One of my favorites was the short character study “Henri Simon Leprince” about a disreputable writer in 1940s France who couldn’t shake his reputation as a shitty writer even as he helped political dissidents escape the German occupation.

requiemRequiem – Graham Joyce (1996/2006)

A man-pained widower fucks his way into a nervous breakdown. He then fucks his way out. The Dead Sea Scrolls, Mary Magdalene, and djinn are also involved. As with the Evenson above, I read this without liking it. Joyce’s How to Make Friends With Demons, which shares some of the same concerns and tropes, is much better.

tideStations of the Tide – Michael Swanwick (1991/2001)

I bought this book on the merits of the cover. Look at that thing. It’s great. Distracted man in suit with futuristic briefcase dwarfed by alien landscape. I love it. You can expect a 1 Book, 4 Covers post on this book. Anyway this is a weird, kinky science fiction novel about a bureaucrat hunting a renegade wizard on a planet that’s preparing for its regularly scheduled apocalypse. The ending is a bit fragmentary and hallucinatory but the ride is where the fun is. It’s also interesting to me that this books was exactly 100 page shorter than most modern SFF novels that I feel default to being at least 100 pages too long.

I think there’s an argument to be made that the shorter a novel is the more subversive, perception-altering potential it has.

vacuum flowersVacuum Flowers – Michael Swanwick (1987)

I read this book when I was 15 or 16. It made absolutely no sense. It also had this weird yellow Jane Fonda David Bowie Rebel Rebel cover. On reread this month, it only made a more sense because I’m better seeped in science fiction tropes. This is grand tour SFF set in a post-singularity transhumanist solar system of plug-in personalities, unbraked AIs, colonized comets, and other crunchy bit. Overall bewildering but enjoyable.

writeIf You Want To Write – Brenda Ueland (1983)

A quick, enjoyable read. This book was first published in the 1930s and while it’s pretty light on particulars (it doesn’t offer any exercises) Ueland’s style is quite enjoyable. She’s a down-to-earth author with little concern for what is and isn’t literature. From her descriptions of students I don’t think Ueland taught in a university, but in a more informal capacity or in a community center. Anyway, not a bad writing book of the inspirational variety.

And last, I read Fritz Leiber’s novella Horrible Imaginings. This is one of those Leiber stories people don’t talk about, written when he was an old man living in a San Francisco rooming house. Any Leiber fan interested in his later work (especially if you like the amazing Our Lady of Darkness) should read this post by writer Marc Laidlaw. Anyway this is a pretty ugly story of the “porn-guilt” subgenre.

An old man, Ramsey Ryker, lives alone in a modern day San Francisco apartment building where he has recurring nightmares of being assaulted by hordes of monstrous miniature penises while immobilized in darkness. Later we learn he occasionally visits peep shows, and he’s become infatuated with a woman he’s glimpsed in his apartment building, a woman who may or may not be a ghost. The end let me down, but the creeping inevitable of all the rest of it made up for it, especially all the digressions on apartment trees and empty space.

Books April 2014

It’s the end of the month. Here’s what I read. Surprisingly I read some recent books. As always if you’ve got an opinion on any of them please share.

ancillary Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie (2013)

An enjoyable space opera about the sole remaining “zombie” soldier of a destroyed AI-controlled ship searching for revenge in a far-flung interstellar empire. Yeah. I had some issues with it, but they’re more or less fashion quibbles than any actual criticisms. At least any criticisms I have shouldn’t outweigh anyone’s desire to read this book. Maybe it’ll hit all your buttons where it only hit half a dozen or so of mine. That’s all right. Folks might enjoy the stuff I didn’t like the immersive world-building and slow boil plot.

annihilationAnnihilation – Jeff VanderMeer (2014)

One of my most anticipated reads this is the first book in the Southern Reach trilogy that should prove to be exciting and expectation defying. It’s a short, dense read, with a clinical prose style reminiscent of JG Ballard riffing on the Strugartsky Brother’s Roadside Picnic. The novel tells the story of the twelfth expedition into Area X, a strange wilderness that does not yield its secrets easily and place that has caused the deaths of nearly all the earlier expeditions that have traveled into it. The next book’s out in a week, and I’m looking forward to it.

beowulf Beowulf – Seamus Heaney, translator (2000)

I saw that JRR Tolkien’s translation’s soon to be published, and that reminded me that I had a copy of this sitting here at home on a shelf. In high school I read Grendel before Beowulf, so my allegiance is always with the monster, but one thing I forget is how much of this book deals with not-Beowulf stuff, like the intercine feuding between the Danes and all that. The left hand pages has the Old English, which if you read aloud sounds like black magic – at least that’s what my wife told me when she told me to stop. She didn’t like the way the cats were paying attention.

daring greatlyDaring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead – Brene Brown (2012)

Yeah, one of those inspirational self-help books, it left me ambivalent. I had to translate every other sentence into Grump and found Brown’s weird fixation on cool vs. uncool and the hurts of middle school to be off-putting (she tosses out the stale canard that people are only negative and cynical to be cool). Other than that it was okay. At least some of it was. The rest of it I still have to puzzle through. Not that I reject her premises, but I find them overly simplistic.

dazzle The Dazzle of Day – Molly Gloss (1992)

I read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams and that got me thinking about writers that evoke the landscape in their work, and that got me thinking about Molly Gloss. I loved Gloss’s Wild Life a few years back, and a friend had just given me this book on his recent trip to Seoul (thanks, Gord!) so I decided to give it a try. And I absolutely adored this book. It’s a science fiction novel about Quaker colonists on board a generation ship. The plot’s oblique and the big question’s whether or not to settle on a recently discovered habitable planet, but the true drama and conflict lies in the very real relationships between the characters (will she or won’t she patch things up with her ex-husband, will he or won’t he assist his ailing father) and the society they’ve made for themselves in the near 200 years they’ve been traveling on board the ship. Fans of Ursula K. LeGuin will enjoy. Others might find it too focused on mundane details, but I loved it. It’s richly detailed and naturalistic, while also being speculative. However if you’re looking for big idea SF you should probably look elsewhere.

freelance pallbearersThe Free-Lance Pallbearers – Ismael Reed (1966)

Imagine Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings mashed up with Sweet Sweetback’s Badasssss Song with a Sauron that’s a Polish used car-salesman turned Fascist dictator that rules HARRY SAM (the Mordor of this novel) from atop a toilet. It’s very much a 60s novel with the anarchic energy of a Looney Tunes cartoon. Folks might enjoy it – or think it’s utterly offensive and a piece of trash. I enjoyed it.

lost booksThe Lost Books of the Odyssey – Zachary Mason (2010)

This book takes the works of Homer and reimagines them in forty-four different ways. There’s the story of Odysseus the wizard who upon learning of Achilles’ death builds a golem to fight beside the Greeks beneath the walls of Troy; the story of Odysseus the deserter who travels for ten years as a bard telling stories of his heroism; another story depicts a strange Mr. O who sits in a sanatorium for aging soldiers; or a stranger one where it’s revealed that both the Iliad and the Odyssey are mistranslated depictions of ancient chess matches. Some are vignettes, some more elaborate, and not all of them focus on Odysseus. Overall this is a great little book, for lit and fantasy fans. It reminded me a lot of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial.

short stay in hellA Short Stay in Hell – Steven L. Peck (2012)

I read this book for our local wine & cheese book club (expats are seriously weird when it comes to making clubs). I hated it and thought it insipid. Basically it takes Borges’ “Library of Babel” story and depicts it in an as literal fashion as possible for a 100 or so pages. But I was keen to hear what other folks thought of it. Most of them liked it and the person who recommended it connected with the book in a way I didn’t – so that was cool to hear. It could be that this was someone’s Gateway Book and it’s always bad form to shit on someone’s Gateway Book. Still, I don’t recommend it.

LitanyLake of the Long Sun – Gene Wolfe (1993)

Gene Wolfe puzzles me. He’s an extremely unseductive author in a lot of ways. The plot of this book involves a lot of walking around and I feel like it relies too much on the fact that I was raised catholic for it to make sense. But I keep coming back to his work, because I believe there’s a lot there. It’s another generation ship novel, but one with a more baroque society than that shown in The Dazzle of Day. These books swing closer to the Fritz Leiber style, although they never quite embrace the madcap. But if you want dungeon-crawling science fantasy set aboard a star ship so large it contains warring cities, these might be your books.

the black spiderThe Black Spider – Jeremias Gotthelf (1842)

A Horror novella written by a conservative 19th century pastor. Some of it’s as you would expect: the evil is caused by willful women, and people are only safe so long as they think like their forefathers, but it’s also a pioneering horror novel about a doomed village. When the grisly stuff starts to happen and the Devil’s curse begins to enact itself Gotthelf pulls out the stops and provides some gross-out chills.

train dreamsTrain Dreams – Denis Johnson (2002)

Another novella, this one about a labourer living in the Pacific north-west in the first decades of the 20th century. It’s taut and moody, laced throughout with vivid depictions of the landscape but light on plot. If anything it’s a long extended character study of one man’s defeat and slow rebirth in the wake of personal tragedy. Whether one feels charitable or not towards the man is another matter. The last image in the novel is truly a great one. For western fans and fans of refined, gem-like prose.

And lastly here’s a fun blog-post by Rahul Kanakia about reading books as a replacement for doing the things you want to do in life.

The Books We Don’t Read

This isn’t going to be another Hugo post. But I won’t say that the Hugo announcement didn’t get me thinking more a bit about this. This stuff had been on my mind for a while now. For one reason I recently read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a book some folks are claiming is the best/most ground-breaking novel they’ve read in recent years. A claim I don’t at all agree with. My reaction’s similar to this one. In a nutshell I thought it bland. It would have been better if it had had 50 – 100 pages cut from it. This would have kept the descriptions from miring the plot’s impetus. This is my usual complaint with most contemporary genre novels. Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris is 225 pages. Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day is 256 pages. Personally I blame Iain M. Banks.

But… I read it, and that’s the thing.

The fact that I finish a book is a recommendation of that book. The fact that I’m compelled to critique it isn’t a reason not to read it. I might have issue with it, like I did with last month’s On Such A Full Sea or with Ancillary Justice now, but the critique doesn’t make the book not worth reading. Ancillary Justice is an entertaining Space Opera. I’ll blather more about it at the end of the month, as I will about Molly Gloss’s The Dazzle of Day (which I loved and think everyone should read, really).

The problem’s that the conversation’s going to be one-sided.

We’ll talk about the books we read. We’ll engage with them and pick them apart. This may be because we don’t like the book, or had issue with it. But we’re having a conversation with it. Read the book and let’s argue about it! What we can’t do is talk about books we don’t read. And for all sorts of reasons there are plenty of books I don’t read.

There’s the obvious time constraint for one, knowledge for another,  and a host of subjective reasons (I’m not the biggest fan of close reactive 1st person), but more importantly I’m not going to read works by authors I don’t respect or who I don’t think are particularly good writers. Nor am I really going to engage with many living writers whose politics are so much different than mine. So Ann Leckie’s on my radar because we’re both in that section of the genre ocean, but Larry Correia isn’t. I’ll dismiss Brad Torgerson as a bad writer, but by doing so I’m never going to engage with his work. And that silence there bothers me, because it’s willful on my part. It’s not that there’s no sound there. It’d that I’m choosing to reject it. That’s part of the problem.

Say there’s a disagreement between two people. One person you disagree with and reject outright as wrong. The other person you agree with, but wish spoke better, for whatever quality of better you want to apply. Now, when you ignore the person you disagree with because they’re wrong, but quibble with the person you do agree with, what purpose are you serving? Because what you might be doing is adding to the noise around the person you agree with without altering the message from the other side.

And those are some of the questions: Do you cheer louder for books you’re not enthusiastic about, simply to shout down the other side? Do you read books by authors you don’t like to prevent yourself from thinking there’s only silence on the other side? And then what about those hateful authors? Are you obligated to read them? Or is politicizing one’s reading time ultimately a waste of time? I don’t agree that’s true, but most people aren’t trying to read over a hundred books this year, and I’m not about to make any claims regarding how other people should spend their time.

I do my best to read widely. Not the easiest or cheapest thing to do outside the anglophone sphere when you’re a klutz and can’t seem to keep an e-reader from self-destructing, not to mention having a full-time job, writing my own stuff,  and pursuing a graduate degree. But I try. The question is should I try and read books I’m fairly confident I’m not going to like.

Anyway, that’s what’s on my mind.

Books March 2014

001 full sea  On Such A Full Sea – Chang-Rae Lee (2014)

Lit-author does dystopian SF about a future USA where Chinese migrants toil for privileged Charters and the young Chinese immigrant woman who begins to change this system. There are some brilliant flashes in the story, most dealing with social commentary and group/individual dynamics, but there’s a collapse at the end and that’s disappointing. Maybe it was meant to be post-modern or something like we can’t have nice things because nice things are a genre convention. When I described the novel’s ending to my wife she said it sounded “very 70s” and, yeah, that’s kind of it. The story spirals inward towards a conflict and then spirals outward without resolving anything, and all the tension simply dissipates. Then again I could be completely wrong and it was all some subtle commentary on The Hunger Games or something I didn’t get.

The Man With Six Senses – Muriel Jaeger (1927)   002 6 senses

I blathered about this book here.  Short version, a fun book, possibly funnier now than when it was originally written. I hope to track down more of these “Radium Age” reprints at some point.

003 big clock  The Big Clock – Kenneth Fearing (1946)

One of those noir thriller novels with a crazy convoluted plot that seems more a means to get the most jaded, cynical commentary as possible out of the characters. Magazine Editor starts an affair with his boss’s mistress. Boss kills mistress. Editor witnesses it, but isn’t seen by boss. The boss simply knows there was a witness, so he sets his publishing company the task of finding the witness (so the person can be killed). And who does he put in charge of the search? The Magazine Editor, of course.

Definitely a fun, fast read. It’s ugly in places and cynical in a hard-boiled way but certainly worth tracking down.

004 hyegyeongThe Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong – Lady Hyegyong (trans. Jahyun Kim Haboush) (1996)

You can read all about Lady Hyegyong’s sad life here. Sad, fascinating stuff. Even now a few weeks after finishing the book I’m still thinking about it. If your library has a copy, take it out.

005 bane Baneblade – Guy Haley (2013)

For a novel about a three-story tall tank battling space orks in a grimdark future, this novel was much better than it needed to be. Also as a media tie-in novel it fits in with my fascination for fan fiction.

006 long windedThe Long Winded Lady – Maeve Brennan (1997)

 Of all the books in this post this is the one that I most recommend. This book collects close to thirty years of Brennan’s New Yorker material. They’re like prose sketches of New York life made from lunch counters, bus stops, and restaurant windows. Brennan casts herself as the supreme observer, and these pieces are all close to amazing, by turns sad, perceptive, bitter, insightful, and comic. You won’t know what you’ll find until you start reading one. Like I said, of all these books this is the one I recommend the most.

“The Man With Six Senses” – Muriel Jaeger


A Radium Age reprint first published in 1927 by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, The Man With Six Senses was one of the first science fiction novels to explore ESP. It’s an enjoyable read, the characters frail and human enough to be recognizable, and as a mixed-up mutant story it predates Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John by about a decade.

The narrator, Ralph Standring, is an Edwardian gentleman whose hopes of marrying Hilda, his childhood sweetheart, are complicated when she becomes involved with Michael, the titular man with six senses. It’s a tragic story one where you feel as if you’re eavesdropping on a three-sided conversation where all the participants are equally misguided. But it’s also drily funny in places. The years since the book’s first publication have not been kind to the world’s Ralph Standrings. While I suspect that Jaeger meant for him to be somewhat satirical, he becomes an out and out caricature at times. Not everyone enjoys spending time with a snob, worse one that’s a whiny “nice guy”, but Ralph’s part of the story and he’ll tell it the way he’ll tell it. That he’s our POV character makes you want to reach into the narrative and slap him.  The fact that he’s so superior makes his sense of threat from Michael more acute, and when he finally realizes that Michael is indeed what he claims, Ralph’s reaction is utterly believable. That Hilda and Michael are presented through his eyes makes him somewhat unreliable as a narrator. But that’s part of the book’s charm. Its characters aren’t much more than what they are. They’re not stand ins for any particular philosophy. They’re complicated, misguided, and frail.

I don’t know how much attention these HiLo Books are getting. Granted some are likely available free online at places like Project Gutenberg. I bought this one on a whim, since I’d never heard of either book or author before. Folks that like a good helping of realism in their speculative fiction should track it down. It might surprise you.

Memoirs of Lady Hyegyong

hyegyeongThis is a fascinating book.

Lady Hyegyong was an 18th century Crown Princess in Korea’s Cho’son dynasty. Her husband was the “infamous” Prince Sado.

What’s known about Prince Sado is that he was put to death by his parents the King and Queen. Since no one could harm a royal person, Sado was ordered to climb into a rice chest, where he was locked until he suffocated after eight days. The reason given was because Sado was “mad” and considered a risk to the dynasty. In the 19th century there were rumors Sado was not “mad” but the victim of a conspiracy, and his father unjustly killed him. Lady Hyegyong, by now an old woman, decided to counter these rumors and set the record straight. That the late King, Sado’s father, had all mention of the incident removed from castle records, makes Lady Hyegyong’s account the definitive one. And like I said it’s a fascinating book. Lady Hyegyong gives a first hand account of what happened and details Sado’s “madness”.

But that’s not all that’s in this book. There are four memoirs here. In all of them Lady Hyegyong shows herself to be a perceptive judge of character and court life.

The first details Lady Hyegyong’s life from her childhood through her marriage at age nine to Prince Sado, her removal from her family home and her residency in the Royal Palace. From there she speaks briefly of Sado’s tragic life, the aftermath of his death, and her ultimate resolve to keep living and raise their son (who also happened to be the heir to the throne).

The second and third memoirs deal with her family members and their involvement in court intrigues. I recommend skipping these two, and going straight to the last.

The last memoir is a character study of Prince Sado, his illness, and his relationship with his father. It’s highly detailed as if Lady Hyegyong is trying to find the source and cause of Sado’s madness. Was it because he was separated from his parents at an early age, that his father failed to provide him with decent overseers, or something more sinister – such as the proximity of his palace to the ruined palace once belonging to a Queen who poisoned her competitors in the court? What is certain is that Sado’s episodes were often violent and he killed and/or raped many servants. The first Lady Hyegyong witnessed was the death of a eunuch and she speaks of his being the first severed head she had ever seen. Later Sado beat one of his consorts to death, and nearly knocked out one of Lady Hyegyong’s eyes after hitting her in the head with a chess board. These and other instances were what caused the royal family to fear Sado and led them to giving the order that he should be sealed in the rice chest.

Likely not much bigger than this. Seriously

Likely not much bigger than this. Seriously

As a modern reader it’s impossible not to try and diagnose Sado’s “madness”. That he was neurologically atypical is likely. Possibly he suffered from paranoid schizophrenia or a bipolar disorder. He also exhibited several phobias and obsessive compulsive disorders (Lady Hyegyong talks about a clothing phobia that would require a steady stream of fresh cloth, since Sado would destroy any clothes he found fault with), along with a murderous rage. Yet, Lady Hyegyeong is clear in stating that these were episodic and when he wasn’t in one of these phases Prince Sado could be a kind and gentle man, and often Sado comes across not as a monster but a victim. He suffers, even if he is a murderer.

Then there’s the weird stuff – the things that would make a good horror story. It’s like there’s a ghost story waiting right behind the actual tragedy.

Prince Sado was obsessed with Taoist magic, in particular one book of rites known as the Jade Spine Scriptures. He believed the God of Thunder was angry with him and was terrified by thunder storms (that one occurred on the 8th day after he was locked in the chest doesn’t go unnoticed by Lady Hyegyong). Often he would leave the palace dressed as a commoner and no one knew what he did during these times. And when he died, his father had his associates, a group including several shamans and a Buddhist nun, put to death.

It’s one thing to read about Caligula or some other ancient ruler known for being “mad”. It’s another to have a near modern account of a neurologically atypical ruler, one where the individual is painted so vividly that it’s like looking at an evolving portrait of their life. Lady Hyegyong provides that level of detail in her account, and as a book The Memoirs make for compelling reading. Maybe your library has a copy.

Prince Sado

Prince Sado