Snow Country

I don’t know why I put this book on hold at the library, but I’m glad I did (sorry, DC Public Library, for being late returning it!). A kind of melancholy minimalism and claustrophobic stasis afflicts the characters, of whom there are really only three: Shinamura, an apparently wealthy man (or, at least, a man of sufficient means not to need to work); Komako, the geisha (who begins, rather, as a sort of geisha in training) who becomes his lover; and Yoko, another sort of geisha in training.

It takes place in a sort of middle class vacation spot in the titular snow country, where people ski in winter and enjoy hot springs the rest of the year. Neither wealthy nor sophisticated, the geishas who work here have neither the luxury nor the illusion of their profession’s official distance from sex work.

Shinamura is married back in Tokyo, though only one short scene takes place there. He returns frequently to the hot springs town to see Komako, though the memory of an early sighting of Yoko stays with him and both he and Komako struggle with both love and ambivalence towards her.

Though obviously not needing to work, Shinamura is first seen traveling third class on the train and stays in a resort that is rather obviously not fancy. But his independence still sets him apart from the women, whose lives are precarious, options limited, and who work in a career where their livelihood doesn’t last much longer than their looks.

The ending is notably ambiguous, but it is obvious that Shinamura was never going to give either woman a happy ending. It’s not that he’s indecisive, but rather… I can’t say. If you read it, you’d understand what I mean. Perhaps that his money and gender protect him from having to ever make a truly difficult decision?

A Cruelty Special To Our Species

Just… just a wonderful collection. I missed her when she came to town and read at East City Bookshop, but was glad when I finally picked up book.

The most common theme is alienation in some of its most disturbing forms. There is the alienation of being non-white seeking affirmation and a place in a white world, but the heart of the book are series of naturalistic biographical poems (often a form of prose poem) describing the lives of Korean comfort women, kidnapped by Japanese soldiers in World War II, and of Korean women who were abused by American soldiers during the Korean War (should I say, what we call the Korean War). The most heartbreaking parts about the emotionally and physically damaged women living in the long thereafter that followed the end of hostilities.

‘From Dawn To Decadence: 1500 To The Present: 500 Years Of Western Cultural Life’ By Jacques Barzun

I knew of Barzun as one of one of the New York intellectuals of the fifties and sixties, but only knew of him; I’d never read him.

But after reading an essay by someone who knew him (I can’t remember where I read; some right leaning publication, I believe, but one of those who mostly try to ignore Trump and assert some intellectual legitimacy to the right), I thought I should rectify that.

For better or worse, all the library had was his immensely long, late in life, magnum opus.

A couple of things struck me while reading it.

First, a fascinating aside about Hamlet within another aside about Shakespeare. He points out that it is a modern understanding to think of him a vacillating. In fact, Barzun argues, he was being judicious in a difficult environment. It is no small thing to kill a king and dangerous if you fail; also dangerous if you succeed, because you are vulnerable in the short term to popular unrest or the ambitions of nobleman who sees opportunity in the inevitable chaos. That he was not indecisive is proven, he writes, by Fortinbras saying, upon finding the scene of slaughter at the end (I am giving nothing away, I hope), that Hamlet would have made a great king. Surely, if Hamlet were the waffling type, this would not be the case. He also suggests that Laertes is included to point out the contrast between an impetuous character and a careful one; Laertes’ recklessness makes him an easy tool for Hamlet’s uncle. It also nicely matched an interesting (but not great) production of Hamlet that I saw at the Folger, where the director challenged the actors and audience not to focus on psychology, but on the actions of the characters.

Second, I am an elitist. I already knew this. But Barzun is writing elite, cultural history. He is not Braudel. He’s not even a Durant. He is an apostle of high culture. And, well, I like reading about that. That said, his brand patrician elitism can elide decency and slip into something distasteful, as in his off hand, Malthusian remark about “the rapid increase in people as hygiene and medication recklessly prolong life.” He was in his nineties when he wrote this book.

What did I learn? Well, it is the sort of magisterial, grand work one doesn’t find so much anymore, so one does learn a lot. Too much to sum up. But…

I’m not sure that counts as learning, but his thesis that monarchism is the key to unlocking an understanding of the baroque was fascinating, even if I am not qualified to judge it.

His portraits of cities as exemplars of particular times – Venice in the mid seventeenth century or London in 1715 – are as masterful as they delightful, until they are not. Paris in 1830 is oddly, mostly about German thought. His pastiche of 1895 showed an unsurprising indifference.

It feels like, and this especially struck reading his reading of the twentieth century, that the figures he most enjoys are more contemporary ones whose style harkens back to the witty and learned diaries, essays, and criticisms of Samuels Pepys and Johnson and the men who filled the pages of the Tatler and its siblings of the eighteenth century. But he does namecheck Garbage, one of the great bands of the nineties (the 1990s, that is), even if disparagingly (in the context of band names that are… bad? Dirty? Filthy?)

Should you read Barzun? Probably. He is Eurocentric and not terribly interested in non-white cultures, but these deep flaws don’t make him unreadable. Indeed, he is a witty writer. Lines like “a thin slice of antiquity for a large spread of modern butter,” in reference to French baroque culture’s preference for Roman over Greek antiquity struck me very nicely.

Rhythm Of War

I am officially tired of reading long, unfinished series of fantasy/science fiction novels, with each and every novel being longer than the last. I think this one clocked in at 1300 odd pages. Are you better than War and Peace? No? Then consider tightening your narrative.


It wasn’t that bad, I was just ‘over’ this fourth book in the so-called Stormlight Archive about five hundred pages short of finishing it. Which, before you ask, I did finish it.

Sanderson does still write some great action sequences. He has characters (one in particular) who can fly (that’s technically not what he’s doing, but close enough without explaining an unnecessarily complicated magical system) and does a good job at depicting combat in multiple dimensions.

At least, if the author is try to his word, this particular storyline will end with the next book.

Free Food For Millionaires

It’s a long book, over six hundred pages, but it still annoyed me that some 150 pages in, I’m being told important traits about the protagonist. When the reader learns, over a quarter of the way in, that she’s oddly religious and even sees signs (not necessarily religious revelations, but still something quasi-gnostic), it feels like discovering something new than an author introducing a deus ex machina to move something along.

The protagonist, Casey Han, is often rereading Middlemarch and I suspect Lee sees it as a model for this book. But who is the village? The Korean-American community? The wealthy of Manhattan around whose edges Casey flits? It’s not clear. And despite being clearly soap opera-ish, Eliot never feels like a soap opera. This does. Must the Korean boyfriend have a gambling problem? Must the jerk husband have sex on the trading floor? Must the middle aged mother and the choir director have an affair? I never thought I’d say this, but I could use more social commentary and less sex.

Finally, if we accept that this is ultimately a soap opera, then the philosophical ending is unearned. She was aiming at a novel that deserved such an ending, but she ultimately didn’t achieve it. Despite some of the trappings, it was closer to Crazy Rich Asians than to George Eliot.

The Prisoner Of Zenda

What a great book. I can’t even guess how many times I read this during my school days. A dozen times, at least.

When this article from the Post came out, praising it as a lost classic, I knew I had to revisit it.

And it’s just as good. Thrilling, romantic, brisk. Some fascinating twists and turns. In some ways, it reminded me of my beloved planetary romances, wherein, despite the presence of advanced weaponry, folks still use swords. Similarly, despite there being revolvers and despite seeming to take place in the 1870s or 1880s, characters consistently choose to use swords instead of guns. Why? Because it’s cooler, that’s why! What a silly question.

As the hero says, when asked if he intends to use a gun when surprising a group of six ruffians, “No; steel for me.”

Steel, indeed. Duels, seductions, disguises, nighttime raids. What more can you ask for?

Priest-Kings Of Gor

Like all of John Norman’s Gor novels, Priest-Kings of Gor is a rehash of Edgar Rice Burroughs more enjoyable Barsoom novels, except with some super uncomfortable ideas about the role of women and some crude and unsuccessful stabs at eroticism.

No, I can’t justify having read this book, except to say that, when I was much younger and prowling used bookstores, this series was ever present on the sci-fi/fantasy shelves.

The protagonist visit the home of Gor’s unseen rulers and learns that they are a race of intergalactic spiders who communicate by scent (I’ll say this much, Norman does a good job of describing and explaining this). He sort of forgets that they destroyed his city and scattered its citizens, including his ‘Free Companion’ (sort of like a wife), to places unknown and becomes friends with the spiders and… well, it’s exciting enough, but you’re better off just reading A Princess of Mars.

Just as a note, there is, apparently, a small Gorean subculture who participate in Norman’s deeply awful ideas of gender roles and sex, which mostly involves a belief on his part that women really want to be ruled by men and to call them master. It’s sort of like someone took an occasional, kinky date night idea and decided to do it every day and not just when the kids are asleep. It’s so weird. It also means that every female character is incredibly shallow and two dimensional.

If I Had Your Face

I liked this book very much. I liked it very much, but didn’t love it. Much of it was compelling and fascinating and, if accurate, gave me an illuminating view into an aspect or segment of women’s lives in South Korea that, arguably, my favorite Korean soap operas are not so likely to educate me about.

Many of the characters (it is a set of women in their twenties living in the same apartment building) are intriguing and draw you, but the author does seem to lose interest in some of them (the poor pregnant and married Wonna gets very short shrift) and become more interested in others, which makes one ask, should she just have written about those two? Also, a non-point of view character goes on to have an outsized (and mostly positive) influence on how things end for everyone and I rather wished we had gotten to hear her thoughts; she seemed pretty darn compelling, more so than some others.

‘The Tiger’s Daughter’ By K. Arsenault Rivera

This book was beautifully written, but maybe not written for me, if that makes sense. In some senses, it is a very long fairy tale about two born for each other lovers.

The lovers are both noble (one, technically royal; the niece of the emperor and his heir, due to a lack of children) and both female. This is not presented as being truly insurmountable. I would compare it to being lesbian in the early nineties or eighties. People know ‘it’ exists and maybe even know some people who are queer, but its acceptance is limited and so are civil protections (which is not to diminish the challenges and harms that LGBTQ+ people faced and still face).

There is some kind of a dangerous threat to the empire from demons who are nearly impossible to kill and whose blood can actually transform someone into a demon. Which all should be a bigger deal than it is. I mean, it appears as a trigger for an important plot point, but the presence of incredibly dangerous demons feels like it should be more of an ‘all hands on deck’ situation for any political body than it is treated here.

I have, until now, skipped over the second item for which this book was best known when it first came out (the first was the queer love story). That is that it is not a western fantasy, but takes places in an empire based on China.

And it gets one big thing very, very right. China is huge. China is diverse. China has tropical jungles, freezing mountains, grasslands, temperate zones, steppes… pretty much every kind of biome you could imagine. From this follows there are many different cultures and languages. Generally, when one thinks of China, in a western context, it is of what primarily emerged from Han culture (I say this being not at all a China expert). This books gets it right. The two protagonists are from different cultures. One is from the ‘Han’ imperial culture. The other is darker skinned and from the steppes.

Review: ‘A Greater Music’ By Bae Suah

The unnamed narrator, who admits to writing this book (most books written in the first person don’t actually, to my memory, admit that, yes, they are writing a book or something or whatever) is a Korean woman of undefined age (though probably in her twenties) who tried to learn German by living in Germany and who evinces an interest in cold, Teutonic places.

There is no plot; it is the narrator slowly trying to work out the end of a relationship with a woman M (never named beyond that initial; everyone else gets a first name, but no surname). The book begins with her visiting a sort of boyfriend named Joachim who is best described as the opposite of M. Not just that he’s male, but that he is often self consciously anti-intellectual (M being an intellectual of sorts; a writer and researcher on and lover of classical music) and blue collar laborer. It’s not clear how she met him. When other romantic incidents are noted, the other person is a woman (a woman named Sumi, who reminded her of M; and an Icelandic woman who approached her, mistaking her, she said, for her ex-girlfriend).

It took time to hook me, not in the least because it took time for the narrator to finally, honestly grapple with M. As the partner of someone who immigrated to the United States, I also felt sympathy for the challenge of the narrator needing to break things off with M because, well, she couldn’t stay, not legally.

Would I recommend it? I suppose I would. If you like slow, slightly dreamy, yet also quotidian books operating almost but not quite in stream of consciousness style, you might like it. Best I can offer. Also, it’s quite short.