Friday, January 20, 2023

On Shaping Poetry: Audre Lorde

Cover of Sister Outsider
Audre Lorde
Crossing Press, 1984
via Wikimedia Commons, Fair use

The American professor/essayist/poet/feminist Audre Lorde's useful advice about 'finding' a poem:
I was revising too much instead of writing new poems.

[...] poetry is not Play-Doh. You can’t take a poem and keep reforming it. It is itself, and you have to know how to cut it. And if there’s something else you want to say, that’s fine.
From an interview with Adrienne Rich, 1979, in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (audiobook, narrated by Robin Eller). Read in 2019.

Sunday, January 15, 2023

Spare: A Memoir of British Royalty and War

My godfather, knowing my penchant for gossip, offered to buy this bestseller for me; and I gratefully accepted. Yesterday he came over for coffee and cake, brought it along, and I began reading it.

The first thing that struck me was, from a literary perspective, that the prose was not good. There would be paragraphs of exposition, and then lapidary short sentences in americanized English, which (to do them too much honour) reminded me aside from the americanization of the 'bob and wheel' structure of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. "The sky was gray, but the tulips were popping" is not going to win any Nobel Prizes either.

Prince Harry is uncomfortable with expressing himself in writing — fair enough, but at least his ghostwriter could have found a better stylistic embodiment of a masculine, military-trained point of view, streaked with New Age touchy-feelyness. At its worst, it was something that E.L. James might write in the first person from the perspective of a U.S. Navy Seal. The editor, too, left "nonplussed" where 'nonchalant' was meant, and did not seem to realize that "running like a top" is a malapropism.

But it soon became clear why even literary critics, apart from John Crace in his pastiche in the Guardian, ignored these aspects.

The subject matter and emotion of Prince Harry's memoir — the story of his life, the self-irony, the sincere battle to overcome the experience of losing his mother, and his genuine-seeming empathy — are far more important. If you don't want to read the book but still are curious, try watching last week's interview with the American talk show host Stephen Colbert.

First and foremost, the memoir is about his grief. His brother William and he had famously enjoyed a close relationship with their mother in spite of royal conventions and her absences: the games their mother played with them, her child-appropriate vein of humour (burping contests etc.), her warm way of building relationships with employees as well as a large circle of friends, and her affection. At the same time, her sons knew her mercurial sides, too.

Losing her was an experience that, as a nine-year-old boy, Prince Harry could not handle well. He felt guilty for not crying more when she died, he refused to talk about her for years, and he had trouble remembering specific things about her.

(I don't know if it's in any way the same thing. But the memory loss reminded me of a personal experience: a bad year in school in Germany seemed to wipe out the memories of the four years of school I'd had in Canada before that.)

His 'magical thinking' that his mother was just hiding, living in peace until she felt ready to claim her sons again, rang a bell for me.

(I kept dreaming that the hospital was keeping my father in a basement for medical research, and that eventually he would be woken up out of general anaesthesia and sent back to us. I haven't mentioned this before as it was nutty. Anyway, it's comforting to read that others have delusions like these, too.)

Aside from that tragedy, the book explains things I'd wondered about as a child, one or two years younger than Harry: what it was like to be a prince.

He explains that he suffered at school from having not just his teachers and father, but also the whole world, know how terrible his grades were. When there was gossip about a haircut gone wrong, it wasn't only a whisper network of fellow pupils who'd know about it, but in fact every child and adult in his life, because it was reported in the press. It's clear that every child has pressures and embarrassments, but that these are heightened if the press has no ethical barrier to reporting about minors.

There are also heart-warming family details, for example: "My mother used to say that being around Granny was like standing on a moving carpet" because of her throng of corgis.

And I liked the wry humour when he said that a girlfriend first struck his fancy because she 'wasn't visibly fitting herself for a crown' when she met him.

The book also reveals how Prince Harry felt after going to a party in an SA uniform when he was older, in 2005. It's clear that he regrets it and he explains again why it was bad — paying tribute as he does so to the (unnamed) late Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. A later scandal was being photographed naked in Las Vegas, something I'd forgotten about and which is appropriately presented in the book as embarrassing but not morally questionable on his part.

Prince Harry's service in the military also, of course, forms a large part of his autobiography. To me, it's a part he hasn't fully processed. He hammers the point home that life with the British press was so unendurable that the military became a haven. There is nuance in what he describes — not writing Victorian-style jingoistic prose, but presenting both Afghan civilians and Taliban fighters as people, and expressing doubts about ethical aspects. To me, he did not 'boast' about his kills. I also greatly appreciated as a woman that he consistently mentioned women members of the military instead of defaulting to male.

But I still feel uncomfortable. The war zone is not just a tabloid-free godsend or a liberation from rigid socioeconomic hierarchies (he becomes a 'normal person' there: no class distinction). It is not just a place where soldiers become badly injured or traumatized or both, and then require organizations and events like the Invictus Games that Harry helped organize. It has other implications too. Also, on a more trivial level, I didn't like the idea of soldiers reading 'lad magazines' to pass the time either, but perhaps I'm too exacting.

I also feel uncomfortable, to a lesser degree, with the hunting lifestyle in which Prince Harry was immersed from childhood — he began to shoot squirrels and other small game at the age of twelve.

Lastly, to complete the chronology of his life so far, he describes his relationship with Meghan — as touchingly besotted with her in the book as he is in interviews and documentaries, live television coverage and photographs.

He describes their relationship's obstacles, although these chapters feel more perfunctory perhaps because a Netflix documentary already laid it all out. His and Meghan's press office was overwhelmed by answering journalists' requests and correcting press reports, and the tough working environment that was falsely laid at the door of his wife was in fact just a reflection of this influx, he explains. Her own workplace was at one point "on lockdown because someone, reacting to what they'd read, had made a credible threat."

For their picturesque wedding, the security personnel had set up snipers: "On the rooftops, amid the bunting, behind the waterfalls of streamers. Police told me it was unusual, but necessary. Due to the unprecedented number of threats they were picking up."

Their neighbours, friends, distant relatives of the bride, etc. were all subject to reporters' harassment. One case that he especially despised was that in the United States, the bride's mother job was helping people who were in palliative care, but

Paps scaled the walls and fences of many patients she visited. In other words, every day there was yet another person, like Mummy, whose last sound on earth ... would be a click.


After reading Spare, I don't agree that Harry was dragging down his father. In fact, like Diana and Sarah (Fergie), Charles is one of the figures in the book who are presented in a kindly, respectful light (I think) unlike tabloid coverage. Prince Harry writes of Charles's attempts to be a more engaged father after Diana dies, of his hard work ethic, of his intellectual rigour and far-ranging interests, and of his empathetic but also healthily critical-minded support during Harry's worst public gaffes.

After reading of Princess Diana as a loose cannon, a failure, and an embarrassment, for decades, it is also refreshing to see her differently: as a good mother who won the respect and love of her children, and a courageous person who against great odds at least tried to fight against the press instead of tamely submitting.

'Aunt Sarah' is the relative who made sure that Harry and William had locks of Diana's hair to remember her by, bringing these back from Paris in 1997. She helps Harry give Meghan Markle a crash course in royal etiquette when Meghan meets the Queen for the first time. Her daughter Eugenie (meanspiritedly caricatured in social media as an 'ugly stepsister' during William's and Kate's wedding) is one of Harry's and Meghan's best friends, giving warmth and support when these were needed.

Spare's passages on ex-girlfriends are also dignified: Chelsy Davy, Caroline Flack, Florence ?, and Cressida Bonas are presented to us kindly and thoughtfully. I felt it was also a tribute to Meghan that Harry was evidently free to include them in this way.

His affection for his sister-in-law Kate is also clear.

Unrelated to the Royal Family per se, what brightens the book and also speaks well for Prince Harry is the way he depicts the bodyguards and other employees whom he grows up with, as well as fellow soldiers.

Often bodyguards are depicted as unfeeling Big Brother figures who prevent celebrities from going and doing what they like, imprisoning them in a secure routine that takes the spontaneity and freedom from their lives. In Harry's book they become something analogous to childhood teachers whom we learned a lot from, like personally in spite of the professional barrier, and also keep in touch with later in life; and he also genuinely relies on their protection. This dynamic also explains why, for example, his wife describes in a documentary sobbing in the arms of a bodyguard when they decided to leave the UK.

Harry's empathy also comes across in how he describes the point of view of his entourage. One example: I liked how he considered the point of view of the chauffeur whom he asked to drive him through the tunnel where Princess Diana died.

Even the detail of the conflict-free diamond in the engagement ring that he arranges for his soon-to-be fiancé expresses a well-rounded view of his influence on the world around him.


That said, there were lapses into 'First World Problems.'

On a trivial level, I was annoyed by the suggestion that shopping for furniture from Ikea due to a lower budget is a humiliation. For my family, the fact that we don't need to go into deep debt for decent mattresses, bookshelves and kitchen shelves, a wardrobe, and bed frames, has been a godsend. If anything it would make sense to have concerns about forest stewardship, fair wages, and the survival of craftsmen.

Also, does the Palace need to release a statement saying that Meghan's wardrobe had been officially pre-approved, if a newspaper complains about her jeans at a public event? The tabloids are reflecting the petty preoccupations of minds at any socioeconomic level who, knowing no purer joy in life, just try to tear down others. If I hear someone calling someone else 'pudgy,' I generally sigh inwardly with exasperation at their lack of better priorities and move on.


Where the book's ethics falter on a personal level is in the depiction of Prince William. Here I think that Prince Harry's advisors should have intervened, or not egged him on.

In a charitable interpretation, Prince Harry is trying to break on William's behalf the ban on admitting that he is prey to human emotions, and trying to explain to his readers William's childhood trauma as well. He is expressing brotherly concern.

He also expressly defends William at times. For example he was annoyed that when William tried to protect his wife by restricting press access or said something that could be construed as anti-Brexit, the tabloid media (who was profiting both from the royal gossip and the pro-Brexit campaign) began to grind an axe.

But in the end, William's private life and feelings generally should have been William's own choice to share and describe. The more twisted these are, the more important it would have been to respect his privacy — for example, his drunken turmoil before his wedding, which also seems unfair to Kate.

In my view, it's fine for Harry to reveal that he drove through the tunnel in Paris where his mother died to try to understand if her death was accidental or not; but it's not for him to reveal if anyone else in his family did.

The most twisted scenes of the brothers' relationship in the book were not, to me, the one-sided physical fight that was leaked before publication. It was the argument of whether Prince Harry could wear a beard at his own wedding or not, which seemed emotionally abusive and also made me a little concerned on Kate's behalf. During his 'stag night' before the wedding to Meghan, Harry writes,

I also feared that if I got too [...] drunk and passed out, Willy and his mates would hold me down and shave me.

In fact Willy told me explicitly, in all seriousness, that this was his plan.

Less seriously, William's squabbles about who can monopolize which sphere of charity — whether it's wildlife or the entire (chronically overgeneralized — I rolled my eyes a lot here, as I'm not sure if either of the brothers ever set foot in, say, Egypt, or Algeria, or the Central African Republic) continent of Africa — also sound as ridiculous to me as they evidently did to Harry. And had neo-colonialist overtones.

But Prince Harry has apparently never been asked to fully see things from Prince William's point of view. It may not be a good point of view and as written above, elements of the elder brother's behaviour seem borderline abusive. But stray insights, like William feeling that he has been held to an "impossibly high standard," deserve consideration and could be delved into without betraying confidences.

The passages about Prince William generally suffer from bias due to sibling rivalry. For example I thought it was inappropriate to mention his impending baldness, a Samson-esque proxy for a power struggle between the two brothers. Such a power struggle is normal and happens within many families, I imagine — but writing about it publicly feeds into the cruelty of the press on the same subject, and is an unfair use of publicity leverage.

It is always difficult as an eldest child or younger child to define one's own role in the family. Who is trusted and given responsibility by the parents? who is given better and larger gifts? and so on and so forth. This is something that needs to be handled in private, or acknowledged with that context and perspective in public. It is not a singular persecution that only Prince Harry faces.

Animus tinged the representation of Thomas Markle, too. Anyone who cares to intrude on Meghan's father's privacy can find unflattering articles on the internet. It's not necessary to defend Meghan by treating him contemptuously. It still feels as if he was more victim than villain; I wondered if pressure from tabloid reporters triggered the heart attack before his daughter's wedding.


It is no surprise after watching Netflix's The Crown how manipulative the Royal Family's public relations teams and staff can be. I think this is one of the open ends of the book, no resolution being in sight yet unless perhaps the United Kingdom does decide to abolish the monarchy.

Family members want more press coverage for themselves, more favourable press coverage for themselves, and more press coverage for their charitable events. The Court Circular (i.e. annual public events calendar) becomes a horse race as each family member tries to achieve the most public engagements. Budgets are fought for. Christmas at Sandringham becomes an annual ordeal instead of an annual idyll.

Press officers with little sense of proportion or ethics encourage Royal family members to leak confidential information and plant unflattering articles about each other, to look good by comparison. Prince Harry also plausibly suggests that importing public relations personnel from politics into royal family members' offices has introduced a fiercer culture of backbiting.

But a happy ending is the legal victory in Hackergate, as well as the later legal victory regarding the publication of Meghan's letter to her father. Harry doesn't even need to mention much about how phone tapping by tabloid newspapers poisoned friendships and trust by making Royal Family members think that their circle was knowingly talking about confidential matters to the press. Or the fact that there was a tracking device on the car of his girlfriend, so the press could follow her everywhere. It's fortunately now known.

In the psychological effects of the preceding snooping and mind games, there are echoes of the 5th season of The Crown: to help procure an interview with Princess Diana, Martin Bashir presented spurious evidence to her that British intelligence services were monitoring her, exacerbating her "paranoia."

I'd like to think that now the media are far more inhibited in what they can do, if only due to their own self-interest. Perhaps also due to the lucrative new industry of minor celebrities' self-promotion, even more than legal precariousness.

Whether I'm contributing to the industry of nosy, harmful scrutiny of celebrities' private lives by reading the book and writing this review is, however, something I still need to finish thinking about.

[Update: An article in the Los Angeles Times gathers examples of factual errors in the book. The XBox gaming console being mentioned as existing in 1997 did strike me while reading.]

Friday, January 13, 2023

January 2023 in Books: What I'm Reading

In January my programme is tinged by research for a World War I story.

All Quiet on the Western Front is deservedly famous: deeply humane, descriptive, truthful-feeling, and philosophical. I believe it gained in mellowness from the fact that Erich Maria Remarque published it a decade after the war. It is also hard to understand its offensiveness to Fascist readers if one contrasts the truly bitter poetry and prose that was written by other veterans.

Diary of a nursing sister on the western front, 1914-1915 (1915) represents the perspective of an American nurse with the Red Cross who was already a graduate of the Boer War, embodying in its grim details the message in Remarque's trenchant verdict, "Erst das Lazarett zeigt, was Krieg ist" (roughly translated: The field hospital is the first thing that shows what war is.). It can be read at

Lindsey Fitzharris's Facemaker: One Surgeon's Battle to Mend the Disfigured Soldiers of World War I (Google Books) goes deeper by exploring the revolutionary skin grafting and cosmetic surgeries that were performed by Harold Gillies. Highly readable except insofar as the details of how the wounds were given and how the wounds were mitigated are equally gruesome, it explains the time before penicillin was used in battlefield surgery and before modern plastic surgery and its tools existed. (It is also important to note that the term 'disfigured' reflects the judgment of society, not the patients.) "Only the dead have seen the end of war," George Santayana writes, in one of the epigraphs that she inserts at the beginning of the book.

James Norman Hall's books Kitchener's Mob (1916) and High Adventure: A Narrative of Air Fighting in France (Project Gutenberg) (1918) would however probably never fall afoul of a censor. He, like the Red Cross nurse, is an American who volunteered to be involved in the bloodshed.

I especially liked his prose, lyrical and highly detailed, and his philosophical views about both sides of the conflict.

Then we learned the biscuit-tin-finder trick for locating snipers. It's only approximate, of course, but it gives a pretty good hint at the direction from which the shots come. It doesn't work in the daytime, for a sniper is too clever to fire at it. But a biscuit tin, set on the parapet at night in a badly sniped position, is almost certain to be hit. The angle from which the shots come is shown by the jagged edges of tin around the bullet holes. — Kitchener's Mob 

Fritz Kreisler also wrote a slender memoir, Four Weeks in the Trenches: The War Story of a Violinist ( (1915), of his time in the Austrian army. He was an officer, fighting Russians near eastern Austria at the outbreak of World War I. The book was printed in English in the United States, which was not yet aligned against Austria and Germany. The well-meaning naïveté of the emperor-worship and patriotism that the violinist faithfully describes in Vienna and in himself are striking, not dissimilar from the atmosphere in parts of the English population and for example Canada, and I think sad.


Photograph shows French Moroccan soldiers, between Villeroy and Neufmoutiers, France, caring for a wounded German soldier during World War I. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2011)
"French succoring wounded German"
Bain News Service, 1914
Library of Congress


World War I also inspired gripping poetry, of course. Siegfried Sassoon's "A Working Party" (1919),is  all dogged rhythm and onomatopoeia. But aside from this poem, a Rupert Brooke classic and another two from Wilfred Owens, and a little Edmund Blunden, I have not read much in the genre yet.


Cover of The Splendid and the Vile
via Penguin Random House

But one historical book I'm reading, a massive work on World War II from the perspective of Sir Winston Churchill's environment, is set later. In The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family and Defiance During the Blitz, Erik Larson demystifies how popular the war actually was. Churchill found himself in the perverse situation not of being a five-year-old child clapping his hands in a Peter Pan theatre performance to show he believes in fairies, but of demonstrating how much he believed in declaring war on Germany in spite of a reluctant public, reluctant politicians like Sir Neville Chamberlain and Lord Halifax, a reluctant American government, and even a reluctant King who preferred his predecessor.

Reading about World War I through the biography of an insider like John Maynard Keynes, through the lens of a half-sympathetic, half-skeptical biographer, gave the similar impression of an elite with bizarre priorities, unmoored from reality. (e.g. Keynes's interest in cadging art from continental Europe, presumably so the war wouldn't benefit nobody.)

Larson sprinkles in epistolary passages and diary entries from a British elite that was at times tremendously catty, or gushing, or silly. He lends more human details, too, to Churchill:

Often generals, ministers, and staff members would find themselves meeting with Churchill while he was in his bathtub, one of his favorite places to work. He also liked working in bed, and spent hours there each morning going through dispatches and reports, with a typist seated nearby.

Regardless of whether the topic is political, historical, or social, Larson's prose is equally readable.

I only noticed one or two factual errors that might be due to the ebook edition I read: for example, München-Gladbach should be München Gladbach.*

*Note: this is a very pedantic criticism: In 1950 this German city, which appears in the book because the Royal Air Force bombarded it early in the war, acquired the hyphen; and in 1960 it became Mönchengladbach.


Passage to Power, one of the American presidential biographer Robert A. Caro's magisterial works, is about Lyndon B. Johnson. But, at the spot where I'm in the audiobook recording now, he also delves into the war service of President John F. Kennedy, specifically the wreck of the future President's patrol torpedo boat during World War II.

Even living through the original explosion of the boat was a feat, of luck perhaps. In Caro's hands the tale of how Kennedy then rescues his wounded men and tries to make sure a ship picks them up, swimming many kilometres under adverse conditions, is nail-bitingly suspenseful. (The Wikipedia article about Patrol torpedo boat PT-109 and its fate is less dramatically paced than Caro's prose, but its epilogue about Kennedy's reconciliation with the commander of the Japanese ship that had sunk the patrol boat is touching.)


In more cheerful reading, Michelle Obama's Becoming and Nelson Mandela's Long Walk to Freedom are ongoing. I am also beginning to read New York Times food writer Melissa Clark's fusion cookbook, Dinner in French, and hope to try out a recipe once my work life settles down.

Sunday, June 12, 2022

April, May & June 2022 In Books: What I've Been Reading

As always, I've been reading older books, although Akwaeke Emezi, Kacen Callender and Elizabeth Acevedo have all published new works in May that I'm looking forward to reading.

Thanks to colleagues clubbing together to buy me a gift certificate, I now also have Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi and If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

In paper form I finished reading the five tales by Nikolai Gogol. In the end, The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich, maybe also Ivan Fyodorovich Shponka and His Aunt, and The Overcoat were my favourites: the scene-painting, the emotions, and even the discomfort of seeing the social inequalities and imperfections that must have been full-blown tragedies in everyday reality.


Vaguely I remembered reading Lebanese Australian journalist Rania Abouzeid's posts on Twitter during the early years of the Arab Spring. A decade later, it turns out that she wrote at least two books about her experiences: living in Syria with middle-class families, and interviewing protesters and militants across an impressive spectrum.

Sisters of the War (2020) focuses intimately on the lives of two girls and their families: one, from a pro-Assad, Alawite family — the other, from a revolutionary family. Perhaps it is written more for a younger audience, and the intention to draw attention to our shared humanity breathes through every page. I listened to an audiobook that helpfully offered the proper Arabic pronunciations.

Cover of Sisters of the War (Scholastic Publishing)

No Turning Back: Life, Loss, and Hope in Wartime Syria (2018) follows adult Syrians as they negotiate their path amongst various anti-Assad groups, culminating in being either witnesses to or also perpetrators of intense violence and in one case even sympathy with Isis. Abouzeid makes an unusual decision not to speak about rape, except when an al-Nusra militant alleges that Alawite prisons perpetrate it against women. While Sisters of the War also proves if proof were needed that she thinks the women's perspective is just as important, the book is guided largely by masculine points of view.

She uses the book to bust myths about the Syrian Arab Spring, and finds the leading threads in the entanglements of different revolutionary groups, al-Qaeda, the Turkish government, foreign intelligence agencies, etc. knowledgeably. (I was following the news at the time and recently rediscovered a diagram I'd drawn of which group or party was linked with which other group or party.)

The food scarcity, cut-off water supplies, self-interested diplomacy, disappearances, technological makeshifts, and bombing of residential areas, in the 2022 invasion of Ukraine; the torture and other abuses that Abouzeid describes in Syrian government prisons that will not have ended with the war; and the legacy that Syrians today still carry —these many open ends and tragic parallels make No Turning Back and Sisters of the War still feel urgent years later.

No Turning Back [W. W. Norton & Company]


Public Service Announcement: I'd like to take the opportunity to link to the resources at the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. They take a modern approach, founded in mental health best practices and a care for the wellbeing of any journalist, source, and assistant, to understanding, acknowledging, and counteracting the risks of war reporting. On a personal note, I've cribbed some of the ideas here to help cope with work stress unrelated to war.


Tilly and the Crazy Eights is a fictional novel that addresses another traumatic history — colonial and post-colonial treatment by Canadian government authorities of Indigenous people. 

Monique Gray Smith had already written about Tilly, the youngest of the core cast of characters and a registered nurse who is tasked with caring for her elderly cohort, in another book that I haven't read. In this sequel, she introduces a knitting circle of elderly Indigenous ladies. They decide to travel to the southern United States in a bus, and to try to address something in their own 'bucket lists' — lists of things they would like to have done before they die.

Along their journey they carry their nightmares. For example: often sexually abused in Canadian residential (boarding) schools, many of the elder characters were forced to repress their own language, and taught that their cultural traditions were inferior and wrong. A few older and younger characters are trying to mend broken relationships; one older character has also survived cancer, and another is living with diabetes. In one case, an elder is personally affected by one of the thousands of unresolved murders and disappearances of First Nations women that are rarely prosecuted in Canadian courts.

I appreciated that the author included an Indigenous woman who came out as a lesbian during the Second Wave in urban Canada, a perspective which one doesn't read about that often and is well (if sparingly) presented here.

Gray Smith guides the plot perceptibly with magical realism and other devices to the conclusions that she wants. I'd argue that a firefly that zooms in during a crisis moment like a B2 bomber, is not really a fair analogue to the coincidences and talismans that we sometimes look for as guideposts in life, for example. Some of the humour is maybe a little corny — realistic for the cast of characters, and yet I did feel the urge from time to time to stick a fork in my eye.

But I loved the genuine warmth in Tilly and the Crazy Eights.

The road trip itself — a writing challenge to the greatest literary genius and the 'merest plodder' alike — is well executed. Gray Smith gives tastes of the scenery and locations at just the real pace and depth of highwayside observation, not weighing down the book with pedantic exposition about historical, geographical or cultural minutiae.

Cover of Tilly and the Crazy Eights (Second Story Press)


Lastly, I read Efrén Divided, by Ernesto Cisneros, and some of The Ghost Squad, by Claribel Ortega. The first book — which explores the effects of American immigration law enforcement in the 2010s on Latino-American families from a teenage boy's perspective — especially is wonderful and a 'tear-jerker', not necessarily just for tween and teenage readers. The publication year of The Ghost Squad is a little unfairly positioned chronologically, between the Harry Potter books, which also deal with magic, and were published before Ortega's book, and the film Encanto, which also deals with magic, and was released after Ortega's book. If you're interested in imaginary young people doing fun magic for good causes, I recommend Encanto.

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Around the World in 32 Countries: South Korea

Official languages:

  • Korean (Pyojuneo)
  • Korean Sign Language
Capital City: Seoul
Surface Area: 100,363 km2 (smaller than North Korea, larger than Taiwan)

Currency: Korean Republic won
Driving side: right

Main trading partners: China, United States, Vietnam, Taiwan, Japan

Sources: "South Korea" [Wikipedia] and "Economy of South Korea" [Ibid]


As a twenty-something I spent hours watching the entirety of the Korean romance drama television series Goong (Princess Hours), and one of my siblings was a fan of Coffee Prince. So the South Korean cultural output I've been exposed to was generally cheerful.

My reading experience of South Korean books, during my literary journey around the world, has turned out by chance to be rather strikingly grim in contrast.


Mount Halla, in South Korea
Photo ca. 2005, photographer unknown. (Gnu Public License)
via Wikipedia

One Spoon on This Earth, I've already mentioned in this blog before.

In this novel (published in 1999 by a Korean writer who made it part-autobiographical), a man who was born on Jeju Island in the mid-20th century mirrors his horrific experiences of growing up in the shadow of World War II. Starvation, house burnings, massacres, and more gruesome incidents crowd the pages, in chapters that act as vignettes.

The vignettes 'photograph' a bookish, introverted young boy who survives into teenagerhood despite the violence in his neighbourhood, the starvation and disease, that threaten him and his big multigenerational family. He himself is sickly, less socially adept than some of his peers, and haunted by his resentful relationship with his often-absent father.

At the same time he loves his natural environment, except where mountain slopes are the haunted field of a massacre or the oceanside reminds him of a drowned friend, and a few of his experiences with childhood playmates.

The author, Hyun Ki-young, published a story "Aunt Suni" in the 1970s, which was also about the Jeju massacre. It was so politically fraught even decades after the events it described that, according to his Wikipedia biography, "shortly after its release in 1978, Hyun was arrested and tortured for three days by the South Korean authorities"

"Jeju citizens awaiting execution in May 1948."
Public domain (South Korean law), via Wikipedia

One shock to a North American or European reader may be that the 'democratization' of South Korea post-World-War-II was not the squeaky clean transition one might have learned of in a history class: Syngman Rhee was a deadly leader and it was not only North Korean leaders who cracked down on civilians in revenge for political and armed opposition in the post-war period.

Two passages I copied into my notes embody the author's endurance and deadpan humour:

Since I survived a politically dangerous and volatile period when living and dying was purely determined by chance, perhaps my fate isn’t so bad after all.


Entering an elementary school meant having a new set of family. In other words, it was like having an even stricter father and even more selfish brothers and sisters.


Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 takes up the early 2000s. It has more of a hardened dystopian quality, although the events it tells are of ordinary life and not wild flights of fantasy or brutal wartime events.

The book was a bestseller, published in Korea in 2016 and a hit not just there but also in Japan, Taiwan and other countries. But there was also a wave of antagonism in reaction to it. Perhaps it hit a nerve because statistically South Korea is surprisingly unequal in its treatment of genders. Over 90% of the population mention in polls that they want a power balance between the sexes, so it is not necessarily intentional.

An interview from 2020 with the American media outlet National Public Radio summarizes how and why the author chose her theme:

Author Cho Nam-Joo wrote the book inside of three months. She says she never expected it to take off — and she didn't even know if she could get a book deal. "I just wanted this book to be in the bookshelves, in bookstores and the library as evidence of how women in this era, the 2010s, lived, thought and made efforts," Cho says through an interpreter.

In the book, Kim Jiyoung's life looks regular; she is an everywoman, married with a child, family around her, cooking and tending the household. But she begins to slip into irregular outbursts of apparent psychosis.

Original cover of Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982
Minumsa publishing house
via Wikipedia

Cho Nam-Joo sketches an unhealthy reality for Korean women, finding madness that underlies not her titular character's own psyche but rather her titular character's world. ("[S]he wanted women to know they're not alone," says NPR)..

A pattern of (semi-)benevolent and at rare times outright malevolent repression underlies her everyday life. It gives rise to malaise: Kim Jiyoung is not the only one who notices that something is wrong. But it simmers away insidiously instead of looking like an outright cause for reform or outrage.

Sexism makes Kim Jiyoung's family life in childhood tilted in favour of some siblings, her academic environment limited, her career doomed, a walk in the streets fraught with discomfort, and her marriage annihilating.

When she does express unhappiness about the invisible limits that hedge her every day, she is met with 'gaslighting' and her protest sinks away into oblivion. People who don't bear the brunt of the system, or have decided not to fight, are too comfortable with the way things are. The echo of George Orwell's year 1984 in the title is surely not unintentional.

(I read the book a while ago, so please excuse any inaccuracies.)

So in the end Kim Jiyoung, despite her middle-class income, her education, and the lack of crime or violence in her environment, has very few genuine means.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 tells part of the truth of being a woman as I haven't read anyone else tell it — certainly not only relevant to South Korea. Thank goodness, it is only a part of the truth.

"Gender inequality in South Korea" [Wikipedia]
"Hoju" [Wikipedia]
"Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982" [Goodreads]
"Kim Ji-young, Born 1982: Feminist film reignites tensions in South Korea" [BBC News Korean], by Hyung Eun Kim (October 23, 2019)
"South Korean Bestseller 'Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982' Gives Public Voice To Private Pain" [National Public Radio], by Elise Hu, with Se Eun Gong, Dasl Yoon, and Petra Mayer. (April 19, 2020)


Lastly, a Canadian missionary, educator and translator, James Scarth Gale, published an English-language edition of Korean fairy tales by Im Pang and Yi Yuk, in 1913. The Koreans' tales are set in a time frame roughly equivalent to the Early Medieval period through the European Renaissance and Baroque eras.

Each tale tells of old times and practices, in a landscape of animals, hermits with incredible powers, mysterious wanderers, aristocrats, goblins, mountains, and wilder regions of the afterlife.

The tales also sketch a great bureaucracy, Confucian religion, and imperial armies that fictionally adumbrate the bygone empires. The plots do not insist that life must be fair; but the characters in them sometimes find that 'what comes around, goes around.'


The Old Woman Who Became a Goblin

There was a Confucian scholar once who lived in the southern part of Seoul. It is said that he went out for a walk one day while his wife remained alone at home.

When he was absent there came by begging an old woman who looked like a Buddhist priestess, for while very old her face was not wrinkled. The scholar's wife asked her if she knew how to sew. She said she did, and so the wife made this proposition, "If you will stay and work for me I'll give you your breakfast and your supper, and you'll not have to beg anywhere; will you agree?"

She replied, "Oh, thank you so much, I'll be delighted."

The scholar's wife, well satisfied with her bargain, took her in and set her to picking cotton, and making and spinning thread. In one day she did more than eight ordinary women, and yet had, seemingly, plenty of time to spare. The wife, delighted above measure, treated her to a great feast. After five or six days, however, the feeling of delight and the desire to treat her liberally and well wore off somewhat, so that the old woman grew angry and said "I am tired of living alone, and so I want your husband for my partner." This being refused, she went off in a rage, but came back in a little accompanied by a decrepit old man who looked like a Buddhist beggar.

These two came boldly into the room and took possession, cleared out the things that were in the ancient tablet-box on the wall-shelf, and both disappeared into it, so that they were not seen at all, but only their voices heard. According to the whim that took them they now ordered eatables and other things. When the scholar's wife failed in the least particular to please them, they sent plague and sickness after her, so that her children fell sick and died. Relatives on hearing of this came to see, but they also caught the plague, fell ill and died. Little by little no one dared come near the place, and it became known at last that the wife was held as a prisoner by these two goblin creatures. For a time smoke was seen by the townsfolk coming out of the chimney daily, and they knew that the wife still lived, but after five or six days the smoke ceased, and they knew then that the woman's end had come. No one dared even to make inquiry.

Translated from a tale by Im Bang, or Pang, (1640-~1722), son of a provincial governor, scholar.

Im Pang rose in the political ranks, but in 1721 (already an elderly man) he fell from grace. He was banished a year later when he was involved in 'disturbances.' He died in exile.


Changdeokgung (Palace)
Photo ca. 2014, by unknown photographer
(License: CC-BY-2.0-KR )
via Wikimedia Commons


Pang, Im and Yi Ryuk. Korean Folk Tales: Imps, Ghosts and Fairies, James Scarth Gale, transl. (London: J.M. Dent, 1913) via

Thursday, March 10, 2022

March 2022 in Books: What I'll Be Reading

BECAUSE of the literary tour around the world begun last year, I'd been reading Ukrainian books when the country was invaded on February 24th.

In the family's translated copy of Nikolai Gogol short stories, I have finished "The Tale of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich" and begun reading "The Nose."

Portrait of Nikolai Gogol (early 1840s)
by Otto Friedrich Theodor von Möller
via Wikimedia Commons

Even as a sheltered Berliner in peacetime Germany, it hurts the soul to read the jaunty, satirical prose — framed in imperial Russia; with its tin soldier figures, small-town drama, and tempests in a teapot. Because his tales are harshly real at times, but at other times far away from harsher realities even of Gogol's time.

(That said, since I was also a reader who did not want to read pandemic literature during Covid, but others enjoyed 'the hair of the dog' as an approach to handling times of duress, your mileage may vary.)

I am often thinking before reaching for the book of the decimated 21st century apartment buildings, dead Ukrainians and Russians, and fleeing civilians of 150 years later.

"Picket Ural Cossacks" (1813)
by Korneev E. M. (1782 – 1839)
via Wikimedia Commons

But, to paraphrase the Bible, the wars are always with us. In Berlin, I live in what used to be a village that was practically annihilated during the Seven Years' War. Gogol would certainly have known war at least at a distance — like the heard roll of cannon thunder.

The beautiful depictions of landscapes, people, and other vignettes in his prose are a little, but very little, comfort. Here is a passage from "St. John's Eve," another Gogol story I haven't read entirely yet, which illustrates his style:

As I now recall it,—my old mother was alive then,—in the long winter evenings when the frost was crackling out of doors, and had so sealed up hermetically the narrow panes of our cottage, she used to sit before the hackling-comb, drawing out a long thread in her hand, rocking the cradle with her foot, and humming a song, which I seem to hear even now.


The sky is red only on one side, and it is already growing dark. It grows colder in the fields. It gets dusky and more dusky, and at last quite dark. At last! With heart almost bursting from his bosom, he set out on his way, and cautiously descended through the dense woods into the deep hollow called the Bear's ravine.

by A. Weitzel, 2013 (attr.)
via Wikimedia Commons

Or, from "A May Night"

The nightingales of the Ukraine are singing, and it seems as though the moon itself were listening to their song. The village sleeps as though under a magic spell; the cottages shine in the moonlight against the darkness of the woods behind them. The songs grow silent, and all is still. 

Which reminds me indirectly of Thomas Hardy's consoling poem "The Darkling Thrush" (1900), about another songbird:

So little cause for carolings
  Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
  Afar or nigh around.
That I could think there trembled through
  His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
  And I was unaware.


(Off topic, I haven't even gotten far into "The Nose" yet. But also based on the internal evidence of "Ivan Fedorovich Chponka and His Aunt", I have already decided that the author is not the Feminist of the Century.)

It also turns out that Gogol influenced Sholem Aleichem, another Ukrainian prose author whose work is sitting on my desk.


Emma Graham-Harrison, foreign correspondent for the Guardian newspaper, noted via Twitter on March 4th:

"We aged a hundred years and this descended/

In just one hour, as at a stroke."

Only realised today that the great 20th century poet Anna Akhmatova was born in Ukraine and had Ukrainian roots.

Her poem on the outbreak of WWI, "In Memoriam" seems apt


Aside from Ukrainian works, the Jimmy Carter biography His Very Best, Canadian author Esi Edugyan's historical Half Blood Blues, Vincent Sheehan's Louis XIV and Omar el Akkad's What Strange Paradise are a few of the half-read books I'm working on.

Saturday, February 12, 2022

Valentine's Day: Do Poets' and Novelists' Arrows Hit, or Miss?

[Disclaimer: As a Valentine's Day skeptic, I am also purposely publishing this blog post two days early in sign of protest.]

In my Canadian high school, an English teacher asked us to bring in and discuss a poem that expressed to us what love is. I failed in that attempt because it was hard to find anything that did, even though in the end a Shakespeare sonnet was what came closest. As a teenager, to me there were three pieces of literature that came to mind:

War and Peace. For some reason the later scenes with [spoiler alert: please drag your cursor over the white spaces if you don't mind the spoiler] Pierre and Natasha represented to me what true love was all about. Everyday, boring happiness where you're a little starry-eyed about each other even in your forties; a type of relationship whose harmony makes it livable and comfortable for others (children, friends, relatives) to be around you.

Shakespeare's Sonnet 116.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:

O, no! it is an ever-fixed mark,
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth's unknown, although his height be taken.

Love's not Time's fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle's compass come;
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.

⁠If this be error, and upon me prov'd,
⁠I never writ, nor no man ever lov'd.

The Scarlet Pimpernel. Even as a teenager I knew that the book was soap opera in its depictions of relationships and human psychology. But this scene was still moving and while it felt over-the-top as a scenario, held a kernel of possible emotional truth:

Pride had given way at last, obstinacy was gone: the will was powerless. He was but a man madly, blindly, passionately in love, and as soon as her light footsteps had died away within the house, he knelt down upon the terrace steps, and in the very madness of his love he kissed one by one the places where her small foot had trodden, and the stone balustrade there, where her tiny hand had rested last.


In the intervening years, I've read other poems that were felt to be romantic classics — amongst others — by the Victorians. For example:

Wordsworth's She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways

She dwelt among the untrodden ways
Beside the springs of Dove,
A Maid whom there were none to praise,
And very few to love.

A Violet by a mossy stone
⁠Half-hidden from the eye!
—Fair as a star, when only one
⁠Is shining in the sky.

She lived unknown, and few could know
When Lucy ceased to be;
But she is in her Grave, and, oh,
The difference to me!

I think a poem that idealizes a woman's life being largely unappreciated and ending in early death, is a strange choice as a love poem. Wordsworth's other poems are also infantilizing (Note: which is not to say that I don't appreciate Wordsworth in general):

A Creature not too bright or good
For human nature's daily food;
For transient sorrows, simple wiles,
Praise, blame, love, kisses, tears, and smiles


As a 36-year-old, here's my latest take:

In the end, the Corinthians in the Bible give perhaps the best nudge toward how to love when you have the chance, platonic or romantic:

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

"1 Corinthians" in: The King James Bible. Oxford: 1769 (Wikisource)

As a teenager I'd probably think this idea of 'love' is to be soft-spoken and ingratiating, and find it vomitous. But now I think I understand. It's encouragement to keep fighting the battle not to make ourselves feel better by depreciating others, or by getting hung up on silly arguments.

And, to drop Shakespeare's idea of a constant love that had convinced me as a teenager, I think love needs to keep changing, adapting, growing, stretching and improving the older we grow and the more challenges we find.


Lastly Charles Baudelaire's "L'Harmonie du soir" comes to mind, especially the elegiac but heartwarming final line "Ton souvenir en moi luit comme un ostensoir!" ('Your memory, in me, glows like a church monstrance.')



"Sonnet 116" in: Shakespeare, William. Shakespeare's Sonnets. Edward Bliss Reed, ed. Yale University Press: 1923. (Wikisource)

Orczy, Baroness Emmuska. The Scarlet Pimpernel. Ch. XVI. (Wikisource)
[Edited to add - Feb. 13th: As a strange historical footnote, apparently The Scarlet Pimpernel's central narrative, adopted into a 1940s anti-fascist propaganda film, inspired Raoul Wallenberg.]

Wordsworth, William. Poems, Vol. I. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown (1815) (Wikisource) and "She was a Phantom of delight"

(I hate when people do this self-referential thing, but will do it anyway: For Baudelaire's poem, please see my blog post)