Skip to content

From my interview archive: consummate Los Angeles man of letters David L. Ulin (2008, 2011, 2012, 2015)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

I took the path I took, such as it is, in large part because of book reviews — not articles that review books, but the standalone newspaper book-review sections containing them. Remember those? The New York Times Book Review still exists, of course, and I’ve even subscribed specifically to it now and again, but I drew more formative influence from the Los Angeles Times Book Review.

Something about the combination of a smartly curated selection of book-related articles unified by tasteful graphic and layout design fired me up, especially from a paper based in a city that so fascinated me, and the content introduced me to a fair few of the topics I’ve pursued ever since. It first caught my attention under the editorship of Steve Wasserman, who got the boot (or he gave it the boot, or he gave himself the boot, I don’t really know) in 2005 and a couple years later published a 10,000-word Columbia Journalism Review essay about the decline of book reviewing that I printed out (like most book review-lovers, I wasn’t an early adopter of the smartphone) and obsessively read and re-read.

Shortly thereafter I launched The Marketplace of Ideas on KCSB-FM, an interview show but also a forum for talk on some of the topics I’d started to get interested in through book reviews: economics, philosophy, evolutionary psychology, wine, Los Angeles, even book reviewing itself. At that point I had more experience writing than interviewing, so in order to keep my hand in that game I sent some samples out to Wasserman’s replacement, a certain David L. Ulin. If memory serves, I bugged him more directly a few times afterward until he shut me right down, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds but almost always results in my declaring the shutter-down, however influential, officially dead to me on principle.

But I didn’t do that this time, possibly because I sensed something of a kindred spirit behind the rejection. Instead I invited him on my new show for a talk about books, book reviewing, book-review editing, Los Angeles (David had at that point edited a couple anthologies of the city’s writing and written a book on the highly Angelenous topic of earthquake prediction), and so on. The Times shut down the Book Review the very next year, which might explain some of my lack of success in writing for it. (The positive spin held that it would make the paper’s book coverage more relevant by bringing it out of its pull-out isolation, but I don’t know anyone who didn’t consider it a loss.)

Even post-Book Review, I found reasons to keep interviewing David: not only did we record a couple of conversations before I moved from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles, we talked again on my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture right after I moved, and again on the Los Angeles Review of Books podcast (about Sidewalking, his Los Angeles book we’d all been waiting for) right before I took off for Seoul. He now stands as the individual I’ve interviewed the most times, unlikely to be surpassed any time soon. And though I live on the other side of the Pacific Ocean at the moment, I’m not done with Los Angeles — I’ve barely even started with Los Angeles — and so, even from this distance, I keep as close an eye on David’s work as ever.

From my interview archive: writer and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha (2007 and 2012)

This year, I’m listening again to selections from the archive of long-form interviews I conducted on the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas and podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture between 2007 and 2015.

More than a decade ago, I read a post by economist Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution — still one of my favorite blogs, and indeed one of my few favorite blogs now left standing — called “Hire Ben Casnocha.” Cowen described this eighteen-year-old entrepreneur as “a living test of whether college education signals the dedication of students to hard work. If Ben does not get or indeed even start his degree, does it mean he is undisciplined?”

Despite having only, at that point, spent three minutes with Ben, Cowen declared that “I will bet my reputation as a judge of talent that Ben will be a future star of some kind. He is already a star. And someday he will own you.” Intrigued, I immediately caught up on Ben’s blog. As luck would have it, his first book My Start-Up Life came out the same year I launched my first interview show The Marketplace of Ideas, so I invited him on for a chat. We talked over the phone, with me in the KCSB-FM studio in Santa Barbara and him at Claremont McKenna College, a school he would soon leave behind for less conventional pursuits.

Having at first envisioned the show as a balance between cultural types and entrepreneurs, hence the name, I soon found out that many of the latter lack the willingness, and often the ability, to engage in the sort of talks I want to have. Not Ben, though — very much not Ben, who has always displayed an impatience with standard thinking practices, be they laid down by academia, Silicon Valley, or any other cathedral, of which I heartily approve.

Since that first interview, we’ve found times and places to meet up for intensive exchanges of ideas every few years: in Mendocino, in Burbank, in San Francisco (where we recorded an early episode of Notebook on Cities and Culture), and most recently here in Seoul. I look forward to our next conversation, podcastable or otherwise, but until then I’ll keep any eye on his blog — which, like Cowen, still maintains, and on which he writes more intriguingly than ever. (It’s probably too late to hire him now, though.)

Los Angeles in Buildings: the Ambassador Hotel

“Last Tuesday night, for the first time in 30 years, I found myself by one casual chance in a thousand on hand, in a small narrow serving pantry of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles,” said a pained Alistair Cooke on his “Letter from America” broadcast of June 9th, 1968. He then vividly described that onetime playground of silver-screen royalty (and, from time to time, actual royalty) as “a place that I suppose will never be wiped out of my memory as a sinister alley, a roman circus run amok, and a charnel house” — the site, in other words, of the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, five years after the similarly shocking murder of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, moments after his victory in California’s Democratic primary election.

Though it temporarily elevated that pantry into the canon of sacred American spaces, the bullet fired by young Palestinian radical Sirhan Sirhan ultimately killed not just Kennedy but the Ambassador Hotel itself. Already well past its glory days by the late 1960s, its decline hastened sharply thereafter until its demolition in 2005, sixteen years after its last guests checked out. Half a decade after that, the new complex of buildings newly risen on the Ambassador’s site opened its doors: the pharaonically expensive Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools, not just an educational facility, and not just a tribute to the slain dynastic politician, but a symbol of Los Angeles’ difficult search for coherence in both its architectural identity and its attitude toward the past.

Many still mourn the Ambassador, but who mourns the dairy farm the Ambassador itself displaced? When its construction began in the early 1920s, then marveled at by the Los Angeles Times as “the most stupendous hotel project in the history of the United States,” Wilshire Boulevard was nothing but a dirt road. To some Angelenos back then, its site three miles from downtown might as well have been 300 miles from downtown. But after the Ambassador opened its doors on New Year’s Day 1921, with its storied nightclub the Cocoanut Grove following a few months later, its presence (which one advertisement quoted pulp writer Gouverneur Morris describing as that of “a three-ring circus of indoor and outdoor amusements in a layout filled with happy conceptions”) helped turn Wilshire into the central economic artery of Los Angeles.

Read the whole thing at KCET.

Korea Blog: Will Korea’s Most Famous Monk and His Tweets of Zen Wisdom Play in America?

“Penguin’s English translation of The Things You Can See Only When You Slow Down comes out in America on February 7th,” tweeted South Korea’s most famous monk, in Korean, at the beginning of this year. “At about the same time, it’s scheduled to come out in fifteen other Western countries like England, Spain, Brazil, Russia, Sweden as well. Please understand my frequent tweeting in English.” Up to that point, communicating with his readers in only his and presumably their native language, Haemin Sunim (sunim, or 스님, being the honorific title for a Buddhist monk) amassed a crowd of followers now numbering 1.24 million. That would qualify him as a Twitter celebrity by any standard, but in beginning to tweet in English, Haemin Sunim effectively announced an attempt to take it the next level.

The Korean edition of The Things You Can Only See When You Slow Down (멈추면 비로소 보이는 것들), his second book, came out in 2010 and quickly turned bestseller, thus setting up high expectations, easily fulfilled, for his most recent, last year’s Love for the Imperfect (완벽하지 않은 것들에 대한 사랑). Both draw on the original source of this fresh-faced, gray-robed figure’s fame, his stream of tweets (as well occasional pictures of animals or of himself hugging fans), the most liked and retweeted of which — here translated by me, but in the English version of his book surely translated much better — include the following:

Do not beg for attention from other people. As your abilities grow, you will naturally receive attention from other people. When you feel yourself unconsciously begging for attention, think, “I still have to grow my abilities.” Never treat your noble self like a beggar.

When you’re troubled and anxious, ask yourself: is there anything I can change about this future that worries me? Don’t those worries make you miss out on the moment? If there’s nothing you can change, put your heart in the present and feel the preciousness of the moment.

Be good, even to you. While you gold-heartedly take on the tasks others don’t want to, don’t you also have a hard time? Hearing nice words from other people is fine, but being good to yourself is important.

Don’t try too hard to find out what other people think of you. The harder you try, the more you simply hand the leadership of your live over to the thoughts of others. Live life with the confidence to be its protagonist. Hwaiting!

That last term, a Koreanization of the English word “fighting” (English education in Korea having the mysterious tendency to conflate gerund and imperative), functions as an all-purpose cry of encouragement here, and Haemin Sunim provides nothing if not encouragement.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

Korea Blog: When Chris Marker Freely Photographed, and Briefly Fell in Love with, North Korea

Even though I live there, I still only with difficulty perceive Northeast Asia through any lens not borrowed from Chris Marker. This owes mostly to the influence of dozens of viewings of Sans Soleil, his 1983 fact-and-fiction cinematic travelogue through places like Iceland, Cape Verde, San Francisco, and especially Japan, a feature-length realization of the peripatetic form of “essay film” he invented with 1955’s Sunday in Peking. Between that and Sans Soleil, he’d gone to Tokyo during the 1964 Olympics and come back with the materials for a 45-minute documentary about the titular young woman whom he happened to meet in the street there. Le Mystère Koumiko came out in 1965, just three years after his best-known work: La Jetée, the short drama of apocalypse, time travel, and memory made almost entirely out of still photographs.

But Marker also made it, camera in hand, to the Korean Peninsula as well — and the northern half of the Korean Peninsula at that. He’d accepted an invitation in 1957 to join a delegation of French journalists and intellectuals including Claude Lanzmann, Armand Gatti, and Jean-Claude Bonnardot: Lanzmann, so the legend has it, fell in with a nurse there. Gatti and Bonnardot, more productively, made the feature film, the first and only North Korean-French co-production, Moranbong (not to be confused with the North Korean girl group of the same name). Marker took the pictures that would, in 1962, appear as the photobook Coréennes, titled with the feminine form of the French noun meaning “Koreans.” It brings to mind — or at least brings to my mind — Marker’s quotable quote: “In another time I guess I would have been content with filming girls and cats. But you don’t choose your time.”

Had Marker’s time been the 19th century of travelers like Percival Lowell, he would have enjoyed nary a glimpse of Korea’s hidden-away womankind, let alone its strictly hidden-away young womankind, but this “prototype of the twenty-first-century man” (in the words of collaborator Alain Resnais) paid his visit in the middle of the twentieth. While he could and did photograph plenty of girls (though, apart from historical representations of Korea’s much-mythologized tiger, no cats), he also captured the images of a host of other North Korean citizens besides: children, scholars, soldiers, vendors, pranksters. The title of Coréennes‘ Korean edition, 북녘사람들 or “Northern People,” thus more accurately reflects the content of the book, although its English-language edition stuck, as many of the English-language releases of Marker’s movies have, with the original French one.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

콜린의 한국 이야기: 홍상수 영화의 힘

나는 지난주에 한국영상자료원에서 홍상수 감독의 최신 영화 <당신자신과 당신의 것>을 보면서 내가 로스엔잴래스에 살 때를 떠올렸다. 왜냐하면 한국어를 얼마 공부하지 않은 그 때 나는 로스앤젠네스에 본사를 둔 한국 신문 기자로부터 인터뷰를 요청받고 흥쾌히 응했다. 기자는 나에게 왜 한국에 대해 관심을 가지고 있냐고 물어봤고 나는 처음 본 한국 영화들 때문이라고 대답했다. 아버지께서 한국 영화 평론가라고 소개한 기자는 다음 번 질문으로 내가 어느 한국 감독을 가장 좋아하냐고 물어봤고 나는 자연스레 홍상수라고 대답했다. 나는 그 기자가 쓴 신문 기사에서 내가 “홍상수 작품이라면 닥치는 대로 보았고 영화제를 찾아 다니면서 홍상수 매니아가 됬습니다”라고 쓰여진 것을 보았다.

내가 그 기자가 쓴 말 대로 그렇게 말하지는 않았지만 기사에 쓰여진 말을 전부 거짓말이라고 부인할 수는 없다. 나는 로스엔잴래스로 이사오기 전에 살았던 조금 멀리 떨어진 산타바바라에 거주할 때도 홍상수 영화를 보러 몇 번 로스엔잴래스에 간 적이 있다. 그렇다면 나는 왜 홍상수의 작품들을 그렇게 즐기는 걸까? 그의 영화들은 흔히 볼 수 있는 액션도 없고 대스타도 없을 뿐만 아니라 특수효과도 전혀 없지만 그러한 것들이 없기 때문에 오히려 좋다고 할 수 있다. 하지만 그의 영화는 그러한 블록버스터 같은 요소 대신에 독특한 유며 감각을 지니고 있다. 홍상수는 그의 영화를 통해 평범한 삶자체와 그 평범한 삶을 사는 인간들의 행동과 태도의 부조리함에 대해 역설적인 즐거움을 보여 준다.

홍상수의 영화들이 거의 다 한국을 배경으로 촬영되었고 그 영화 속 인물들이 거의 다 한국인이지만 나는 한국어나 한국 문화를 잘 알지 못 했을 때도 그의 영화를 보면서 마음껏 웃을 수 있었다. 그렇지만 나는 그가 단순한 코미디 영화의 감독이 아니라고 확신한다. 그는 영화를 만들 때마다 일반 코미디와 달리 특이하거나 실험적이라고 말할 수 있는 구조를 사용하며 그 구조 속에서 그 만의 이야기를 풀어낸다. 예를 들면 한 영화에서 자세한 내용이나 시점을 달리하면서 그는 지루함 없이 같은 얘기를 두세 번 반복한다.

홍상수가 쓰는 시나리오들이 매우 사실적이고 촬영된 영상도 단순하지만 결과들은 의외로 예술적이다. 그 영화 속에 있는 술을 마시고 담배를 피며 서로 싸우고 모든 것을 얻으려고 하는 남자 인물과 여자 인물들은 많은 역경을 겪으며 서로 다른 그 역경의 배경 속에서 살아간다. 구체적으로 남자 인물들은 절대 진리나 절대 윤리와 같은 굳은 믿음을 신봉함으로 인해 그들의 삶자체가 고난이 되고 너무 쓸데없이 적극적이여서 낭비적인 삶을 살아간다. 이와는 반대로 여자 인물들은 어떠한 믿음이 부족하기 때문에 매 순간마다 뭘 해야 될지 알 수 없어서 남자 인물들에게 의존하며 수동적인 삶을 살아간다.

홍상수 영화 장면들의 대부분에서 인물들이 믿음의 유무와 상관없이 서로 피상적으로 대화한다. 그러한 대화로 인해 홍상수가 각본 없이 즉흥적으로 영화를 만든다고 짐작하는 사람들이 있을 수도 있지만 사실 그의 영화 제작 기법은 아침마다 그 날에 촬영할 장면의 대사를 꼼꼼이 쓰는 것이다. 그러한 그의 노력의 결실로 홍상수 영화 속 대화들은 다른 영화의 대화들과 달리 평범한 한국인들이 일상에서 나누는 대화처럼 자연스럽다. 그가 창조한 인물들은 마치 현실 속에 실존하는 사람들이 할 수도 있는 단절된 대화의 형태를 지니고 또한 아무 의미 없이 나열된 공허한 어리석음을 내포한 대화이거나 술 취한 상태에서 나올 법한 언어 일수도 있지만 어떻게 보면 이와는 상반적으로 제일 이해하기 쉬운 영화 대화라고도 말할 수 있다.

홍상수 영화에서 들리는 대화의 자연스러움은 나로 하여금 한국어를 공부하는 다른 사람들에게 그의 영화들을 추천하게 만들며 영화를 볼 때마다 한국어 표현들을 쉽게 습득할 수 있을 뿐만 아니라 서울에 대한 다양한 지식들도 알수 있게 해준다. 홍상수는 한국 지방과 프랑스를 배경으로 한 영화들을 만든 적도 있지만 대부분 서울에서 촬영해서 한국에 처음으로 온 나에게 그 동안 배워온 한국어의 익숙함 뿐만 아니라 서울의 친숙함도 선사했다. 한국에 이사오자마 처음으로 간 극장에서 본 영화가 그 당시 홍상수 감독의 최신 영화인 것은 재미있는 우연의 조우였다. 해마다 한 번쯤 새로운 작품을 만드는 그의 영화 주기로 인해서 그의 영화를 본 횟수를 더하면 내가 한국에 산 기간을 알 수 있을 뿐만 아니라 앞으로 있게 될 기간도 가늠할 수 있다. 한국에 오기 전보다 살면서 매일 한국어와 한국 문화에 대해서 새로운 걸 훨씬 더 많이 알게 되지만 홍상수 영화를 볼 때마다 내가 느끼는 감정은 그가 나에게 여전히 가르칠 게 남아 있음을 말해준다.

Five years at Open Culture

As of today, I’ve been writing for Open Culture on a variety of ever-more-interesting subjects, from wherever in the world I can get wi-fi, every single weekday for five years. My total post count now comes to over 1,300, but here are twenty of my hand-picked favorites to give you a sense of both the site itself and the sort of cultural figures, works, and concepts I’ve spent much of the past half-decade considering:

The Korea Times: Discovering Seoul’s Urban Fabric by Bus

I’ve seen ― and learned ― so much about this city from the windows of buses. They’ve shown me the hillside urban villages normally blocked from view by high-street towers; the less-developed and lower-key but nevertheless fascinating urban spaces between well-known districts like Hongdae and Insadong, Myeongdong and Itaewon (all filled with tourists who seldom stray outside their boundaries); and the veritable hidden labyrinth of covered market streets threaded through the neighborhoods between where I live in Sinchon and downtown.

Soon after I first came to Korea, I made the effort to better understand the nature of Seoul’s distinctive and ever-changing urban fabric by avoiding the subway whenever possible ― no matter how much I admire it.

Veteran subway riders may know the subway map intimately, but that hardly translates to knowing the city itself; they may grow familiar with many individual neighborhoods, but without much understanding of how those neighborhoods connect to one another and what lies between them.

The seeming complexity of the Seoul bus system, in not just its extent but variety of routes and the shapes, sizes and colors of the vehicles that run them, can intimidate potential riders, especially foreign ones. But even a basic understanding of how the buses work enables ― for tourists and longtime residents alike ― the discovery of Seoul, not in fragments, but as a whole.

Read the whole thing at the Korea Times. See also the broadcast on Seoul by bus I did one of the monthly urbanism segments on TBS eFM’s Koreascape.

Seoul Urbanism on TBS eFM’s Koreascape: Euljiro Underground Shopping Center

Each month I join Kurt Achin, host of Koreascape on Seoul’s English-language radio station TBS eFM, for an exploration of another one of Seoul’s urban spaces. This time we head down into the Euljiro Underground Shopping Center, a nearly two-mile-long subterranean street running beneath downtown from the City Hall to the Dongdaemun History and Culture Park Line 2 subway stations. Initially opening for business in 1983 at the same time Line 2 itself did, its ever-changing selection of shops supply everything from tailored clothing to computer equipment to medical supplies to punch clocks to electronic cigarettes to freshly baked bread and freshly roasted coffee — not to mention a safe haven from the weather during cold winters like this one. The Euljiro Underground Shopping Center can feel like a part of the city time forgot, but now that it has begun providing space for art installations and hosting exhibits like those of the recent Seoul Architecture Festival, what does its future hold?

Stay tuned for further explorations of Seoul’s architecture, infrastructure, and other parts of the built environment. You can hear our previous segments here.

Korea Blog: Haruki Murakami Has More Books in Korean than He Ever Will in English

Whenever someone has made progress studying a foreign language and asks which author they should try reading in that language, I always recommend the same one: Haruki Murakami. Though perhaps an obvious choice for students of Japanese, his mother tongue and the language in which he writes, his work has now made it into about fifty different languages in total. His stories’ globally appealing style, their abundance of non-Japanese cultural references, and their translation-ready prose style (legend has it he overcame an early bout of writer’s block by writing his first novel in what English he knew, then converting it back to Japanese) make them work just about as well in French, Polish, Turkish, Hebrew, or Mandarin as they do in the original.

When first reading novels in a foreign language, it helps to start with ones you already know from your own; undistracted by the plot, you can then focus exclusively on the mechanics of the words and sentences delivering it. Given Murakami’s enormous popularity (not to mention the evangelical nature of many of his readers) most enthusiasts of current fiction will already have read or at least encountered a few of his books. I first found my way into his work, as many do, through his first big bestseller Norwegian Wood, the vaguely autobiographical tale of a college student in 1960s Tokyo caught between two young ladies, one his dead best friend’s countryside sanatorium-committed ex-girlfriend, the other a lively and independent urbanite. From there I went on to read all of Murakami’s books available in English, then started over again with Tokio BluesNorwegian Wood in Spanish.

During that re-reading of his oeuvre — or rather, obra — Murakami published a few more novels. The year before I moved from Los Angeles to Korea, I showed up at Skylight Books for the midnight release of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, his most recent. My girlfriend managed to snag the last signed copy they had, but I think the effort still establishes my own fan credentials. All of us around the world thrilled to the news that Murakami’s next novel, a “very strange story” called Killing Commendatore, will go on sale in Japan just a few weeks from now. Translations  will surely follow over the next year or two, and the English one will bring that language’s Murakami book total up to twenty: fourteen novels, three short story collections, two non-fiction books, and a novella. That number makes Murakami look decently prolific, or at least I thought it did until I came to Korea.

Read the whole thing at the Los Angeles Review of Books.