exercises in compound storytelling

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

books y books

I could go for one of these Labor Day Weekends about once a month. I got to spend time with my wife in a peaceful, relatively stress-free environment, we painted and cleaned my bachelor house, and I got some time to read. I haven't had much time to read since I got back from London, but here are the little bits about what made the cut:

Culture Smart: Korea. I used to read the Culture Shock books, but those were kind of a mess; I got the impression that the series editor was a little permissive, and let authors write whatever they thought was important without regard for the expectations of the reader. I mean, honestly, who needs to know about the advances made by left-leaning film-makers in Mexico? Not first-time visitors to Mexico, that's for sure. The Culture Smart books, on the other hand, are typically written for English speakers (Americans, Brits, Canadians) visiting a country and probably doing business for the first time. If I had to summarize the helpful things I read in this book, I'd have to say the following:
  • Koreans were occupied by Japanese forces from 1910 to 1946, then split into two countries by/following the Korean War (1950-53).
  • The Korean language is spoken by people in South Korea, North Korea, and a substantial Korean population in Yanbian in China. The three groups are drifting apart linguistically.
  • Don't be seen in public with a "Korean-looking woman" if you're a non-Korean-looking foreigner.
  • If you see two Koreans of either gender fighting, don't intervene.
The one unhelpful thing about the book was that it tried to treat Korea as a single country with a border in the middle, rather than two separate countries, by treating a topic as if it were the same in both countries and then differentiating with closing country-specific paragraphs. I would probably have chosen to focus the book on South Korea, then adding an appendix about North Korea. We all hope that some day the two Koreas will be free, peaceful, and reunited, just like East and West Germany, but if and when that happens we'll probably need a new culture guide.

Red Storm Rising. I'm trying to read Tom Clancy's novels in publication order. This is the first one he wrote after he became a household name (in certain households, anyway), and it more or less follows the format of a strategy game. The story is weak, the characters are weak (e.g. no Jack Ryan), and there's lots of action. Unfortunately the action loses its force after a while, and there's no falling action to speak of. The book starts with an energy crisis in the Soviet Union, and ends with the resolution of the subsequent war, but doesn't deal with the resolution of the energy crisis. This book didn't age well, but not many Cold War narratives did.

McMafia, by Misha Glenny. Glenny reports on organized crime in a large number of countries, visiting each and offering stories of individuals either perpetrating or victimized by organized crime in each country. He talks about the impact of globalization, and about the way the ability to move goods (drugs and other contraband), money, and workers (prostitutes, mostly) across national boundaries has overwhelmed law enforcement efforts in various countries. And about the way jurisdictional boundaries (both within and between countries) benefit organized crime. To his credit Glenny doesn't just blame "globalization" as if it were a force like gravity, but tries to dissect the impact of the various forces that are often collectively referred to as globalization. It's an amazing book, and one of the most frightening things I've read in a long time. It's only occasionally tainted by a poorly-argued tendency to blame Blair/Bush for organized crime in far-flung corners of the world. Glenny has written books on the demise of Yugoslavia and on the history of the Balkans; I'd be inclined to pick up whichever book I found first.

I'm trying to get through Kevin Phillips's book American Theocracy and William Young's best-selling novel The Shack; one's turgid and arch, the other wooden and skimmable. I may or may not write up either one here.

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