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My ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2021: Hitchcock Meets Borges, Brian Wilson Meets George Martin, and KFC Meets Japan

For nearly a decade now, I’ve written a post every weekday at Open Culture, usually to do with literature, film, music, art, architecture, television, radio, or language. The total comes to more than 2,600 so far, and here are ten of my favorites from the more than 250 I wrote in 2021:

See also my ten favorite Open Culture posts of 2012201320142015201620172018, 2019, and 2020.

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: <정말 있었던 일이야, 지금은 사라지고 말았지> 저자 이주호 작가님

<도쿄적 일상>과 <오사카에서 길을 묻다>를 쓰신 이주호 작가님의 최신 작품은 <정말 있었던 일이야, 지금은 사라지고 말았지>이다. 소설식 에세이라고 묘사할 수 있는 그 책은 2000년대 초의 서울에서 사는 20대 주인공의 무기력하지만 되게 인상적인 생활을 다룬다. 글 쓰시는 행동 외에도 이작가님께서 여행매거진 <브릭스>의 편집장으로 일하신다. 인터뷰를 여기애플 팟캐스트를 통해 다운받을 수 있다. 유튜브에서도 스트리밍할 수 있다.

Pretty Much Pop podcast: The Beatles and Get Back

I appear on the latest episode of Pretty Much Pop: A Culture Podcast to discuss Peter Jackson’s new documentary Get Back and the legacy of the Beatles. Having first listened seriously to their music just last year at the age of 35 (as documented in this Twitter thread), I at least had the relevant material more or less fresh in my mind. The episode was recorded, as its official description notes, on “the anniversary of John Lennon’s death. We consider the arc of their career, the various post-mortem releases that keep our interest, why Beatles solo work remains a cult interest, and much more.”

You can hear my previous appearance on Pretty Much Pop, in conversation about the films of Martin Scorsese, here.

Korea Blog: Sang Young Park’s Novel of Gay Almost-Romance Love in the Big City

In recent years the internet has launched into the zeitgeist the term “incel,” referring to individuals filled with resentment about their state of involuntary celibacy — i.e., sexlessness. In nearly all cases the incel is a heterosexual male, though some have speculated on the nature of his homosexual equivalent: a tweet I saw a few months ago, for example, posited that “the gay version of ‘incel’ is not finding a long-term relationship.” If so, then the protagonist of Sang Young Park’s novel Love in the Big City is a kind of incel. With opportunities for casual sex perpetually close at hand, thanks not least to smartphone dating apps, Young longs for nothing more than a deep and lasting connection. Yet all the overlapping cultures that clam him — gay culture, “hook-up” culture, social-media culture, Korean culture — seem to have allied themselves against the fulfillment of that desire.

Matters aren’t helped by the company Young keeps. His best friend Jaehee, namesake of Love in the Big City‘s first section, acts as if given over to the pursuit of dissolution, compulsively smoking, drinking, and going to bed with any man who will have her. “Jaehee and I had very little sense of chastity, or none at all, to be honest,” Young tells us in his narration, “and we were apparently known for it in our respective spheres.” Having bonded over a shared penchant for the excesses in which impecunious twenty-somethings can indulge, he and Jaehee fall into a pattern of mutual support, and more so mutual reinforcement. When Jaehee falls pregnant, with predictable uncertainty as to the father’s identity, it is Young who accompanies her to the clinic in hopes of an abortion — and apologizes for the outburst of anger she releases on its moralizing doctor.

Despite sounding more troubled than not in his telling, Young’s time with Jaehee, which even includes a period of cohabitation, comes to look in retrospect like an idyll. When Young goes off to perform his mandatory military service, Jaehee goes off to study abroad in Australia, a choice that appears to plant in her mind the seed of reformation. Park has a knack for this sort of ironically telling detail: such is the disorder of Jaehee’s life that a stint in Australia, of all places, sets her on the straight and narrow. Or at least it sets her on a path just straight and narrow enough to lead to the altar: Park opens the novel with a scene at her wedding, and in it Young fields questions about his weight gain and inchoate writing career from their old French-literature department classmates at the “mid-tier university” from which they graduated.

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

Korea Blog: Kwon Yeo-sun’s Korean-millennial murder mystery Lemon

A murder mystery can end either resolved or unresolved. Most writers opt for the former, if only out of habit or crowd-pleasing instinct, though some habitually leave ends just loose enough to lead to a sequel. In the absence of any resolution, a novel’s very status as a murder mystery comes into doubt. It tends not to be described as belonging to the genre, but as using its elements — or, imprecisely, as “deconstructing” it. Reviewers of Kwon Yeo-sun’s Lemon (레몬), newly published in Janet Hong’s English translation, disagree about whether its central mystery is fully resolved. One could make a fair case either way, to my mind, but in this lack of a resolution over whether it even contains a resolution — its meta-unresolvedness, if you like — lies a clue to the source of its power, which critics have variously but unanimously praised.

The murder in Lemon is that of an eighteen-year-old girl named Kim Hae-on, the enchantress of her high school. “Her beauty seemed not of this world, a kind you rarely encountered,” remembers a former classmate who narrates certain chapters. After a glimpse of Hae-on’s face, “the classroom seemed to have transformed into a fictional, perhaps magical, place.” As for her body, it later turns up lifeless in a park, bearing evidence of blunt force trauma to the head. Her underwear is also missing, seemingly not the work of her attacker — “the autopsy didn’t reveal any traces of rape or sexual assault” — but the result of her own lifelong carelessness about matters of dress. “Before stepping out of the house, I stood her before me and circled her, checking her uniform to make sure she hadn’t forgotten anything,” recalls her younger sister Da-on.

Apart from her defining (though vaguely sketched) looks, Hae-on comes across as in no way especially appealing. “It seemed she didn’t think about anything,” says Da-on. “She did nothing and thought nothing. She considered no one and harmed no one. She wasn’t interested in anyone nor bothered by anyone.” When hungry “she became incapable of empathy, of putting herself in someone else’s shoes, and hardly considered another person or the smallest etiquette.” She “seemed like an animal then, or even worse a sociopath, someone who could easily take a piece of bread from a starving child or elderly person.” Somehow, Hae-on’s less than fully human — or simply other than fully human — behavior hasn’t drawn more comparisons to Han Kang’s acclaimed The Vegetarian (채식주의자), which also features an inert woman, withdrawn from human affairs, her actions relayed through the interpretations of others.

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

콜린의 한국 팟캐스트: <도시를 바꾸는 공간기획> 저자 이원제 교수님

<콜린의 한국> 팟캐스트 시즌 2 시작! 최신 저서인 <도시를 바꾸는 공강기획>에서 상명대학교에서 커뮤니케이션디자인을 가르치시는 이원제 교수님께서 한국과 일본에 있는 삶의 질을 향상시키는 여러 색다른 도시 공간을 다루신다. 도시 공간들을 묘사하길 뿐만 하니라 설계자와 건축가를 인터뷰하기도 하신다. 여기애플 팟캐스트를 통해 다운받을 수 있다. 유튜브에서도 스트리밍할 수 있다.

Los Angeles Review of Books: Eight books on Steely Dan

The term “gaslighting” has returned to the popular lexicon over the past decade, when as recently as the turn of the millennium it had fallen into near-complete disuse. It was then that I first heard the word myself, in the context of a Steely Dan song from 2000, “Gaslighting Abbie.” Not only did I have no idea what it meant, I had only the vaguest sense of who Steely Dan were. But I was, at least, in the right place: a university-district high-end stereo shop, the kind of audiophile’s sacred space that has provided countless “Danfans” their first proper experience of the band — that is, of the band’s records, played back on a sound system of high enough fidelity to do justice to the enormously costly, complex, and time-consuming labors of recording and production that went into them. “Gaslighting Abbie” alone required 26 straight eight-hour days in the studio to get right.

Jez Rowden includes that fact in Steely Dan: Every Album, Every Song, a volume of Sonicbond’s “On Track” series from 2019, whose charge is to provide brief descriptions and assessments of every album and song recorded by the act in question. Though at least by avocation a critic, Rowden approaches this endeavor in a spirit of near-pure enthusiasm. No fewer than five times does he deem a song a “winner”; another he introduces as a composition “regarded by many as their worst, although I like it a great deal.” Indeed, he seems never to have heard a Steely Dan–related recording he didn’t like. This is a common condition among Danfans, as is his tendency to venture occasionally into the wilds of interpretation. On that level, his book fulfills the same function as exegetic fan sites like Fever Dreams, once the go-to source for help with the band’s never-straightforward lyrics.

It was on Fever Dreams, 20 years ago, that I found an excerpt of an interview in which Steely Dan’s leader-masterminds, Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, explain the nature of gaslighting. The word came, Fagen said, “from the classic film Gaslight, and to gaslight is what Charles Boyer did to, who was it? Ingrid Bergman or someone…” In any case, Boyer’s character “tried to convince her that she was insane by moving things around in the house” and (adds Becker) “constantly turning the lights lower and lower.” Steely Dan’s references, on which Becker and Fagen seldom deigned to elaborate so straightforwardly, constitute a rich cultural nexus. The online Steely Dan Dictionary, the fruit of another Danfan’s obsession, offers entries on gaslighting and much else besides: the Andria Doria, black cows, Cathy Berberian, the Haitian divorce, Jill St. John, kirschwasser, the Studebaker Lark, the College of William & Mary.

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

Books on Cities: Shawn Micallef, Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness (2017)

I’ve just returned from a few weeks in Toronto, a city with which I find myself in a not-quite-expected relationship. It started seven years ago, when a Torontonian listener of my podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture suggested I come interview a few notables there. I’d given little thought to Toronto in particular, if some to the Canadian city in general. For the show’s previous season I’d gone to Vancouver, a frequent car-trip destination when I was growing up near Seattle. Toronto, by contrast, must have held an appeal as an experiential blank slate, and the listener who recommended it also named several potential guests to get me started. At the top of the list, as I recall, was Shawn Micallef, whose copious writings about Toronto — including books on its architecture and the psychogeographical walks to be taken amid it — made him seem like an ideal interviewee.

To the surprise of Micallef and the city’s other local observers, Toronto had lately become an object of attention from the international news media. This owed to the antics (as they were by then almost reflexively called) of mayor Rob Ford, who cut a distinctive figure in the buttoned-up realm of Canadian municipal politics. A vulgarian Falstaff given to illegal drug use and what he himself called “drunken stupors,” this scion of a label-manufacturing dynasty had positioned himself as the fearless leader of a forgotten Toronto. Far from downtown, showcase of the city’s participation in the 21st-century urban revival, this constituency projected the image of exurban striving, for economic if not cultural capital. “Ford Nation was utterly familiar to me,” writes Micallef, “a life where a Reader’s Digest sat by the toilet; where people cut their white wine with 7UP, and where wood-paneled basements were standard.”

Those words come from Micallef’s Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, which came out a couple of years too late for us to talk about in our interview. Instead we discussed his then-latest book The Trouble with Brunch: Work, Class, and the Pursuit of Leisure, a treatise inspired by life in not just Toronto but his hometown of Windsor as well. A kind of mini-Detroit across the river from the big one, Windsor when Micallef was growing up there in the 1980s afforded its native sons and daughters (as well as no few immigrants) plentiful employment in auto manufacturing and other industrial sectors. Even into the 1990s, one only with difficulty turned down the “good money” available on the factory floor. But Micallef himself ultimately did just that, trading the prospect of decent working-class financial comfort in the small city for cosmopolitan middle-class precariousness in the big one.

Read the whole thing at Substack. You can listen to my Notebook on Cities and Culture interview with Shawn Micallef here or on Youtube.

Korea Blog: The Pleasures of Watching Korean Television from the 1980s, Before K-Drama Went Global

I belong to the rapidly shrinking group of pop-culture laggards who haven’t seen Netflix’s hit new Korean drama Squid Game (오징어 게임). That’s counting people not just in Korea but all across the world. My latest glimpse of someone engrossed in the series’ (so I gather) trenchant social commentary and startling violence came on a domestic flight in the United States, since I happen to be in the middle of my first post-COVID travels. While abroad I’ve kept an ear to Korean news, eaten Korean meals of varying quality, and even watched Korean dramas. Those last, however, long precede Squid Game, Netflix, and even the internet as we know it — yet before the era of streaming video, I couldn’t have seen them at all. I refer, of course, to the Korean television dramas of the 1980s now free to watch on YouTube.

These channels are maintained not by enthusiasts (though such unofficial operations do exist), but by the networks themselves. None go deeper than KBS Archive, property as it is of the Korean Broadcasting System, the first major player in South Korea’s television industry. KBS got into single-act productions after purchasing fledgling TV station HLKZ fifty years ago; later in the 1960s came serial dramas, antecedents of the shows that have bolstered Korean soft power across the world for decades now. I’ve long wanted to watch these early examples of what trend pieces these days call K-drama, but it seems KBS’ archivists haven’t yet worked their way quite that deep into the vaults. But they have, thus far, uploaded individual broadcasts dating back to the late 1970s, and on KBS Archive’s drama playlist have assembled several complete or mostly complete series of thirty or forty years ago.

On KBS Archive you can stream the likes of The Tree Blooming with Love (사랑이꽃피는나무), Fetters of Love (사랑의굴레), Moonlight Family (달빛가족), and When the Flowers Bloom and the Birds Cry (꽃피고새울면). These English translations of their titles do not, I would argue, wholly misrepresent the sensibilities on display. With their reliance on prolonged conflicts in the realms of romance, family, school, and work, these are entertainments of what could fairly be called simpler times, at least in the set of emotions conveyed and the techniques used to convey them. One frequently deployed technique is a zoom in onto a character’s shocked or pained expression accompanied by a music sting — almost invariably produced, in the 1980s, with now incongruously cheap-sounding digital synthesizers.

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

Korea Blog: Routledge’s New Handbook of Contemporary South Korea

I began living in and writing about Korea, an endeavor in which I’ve now been engaged for years, with practically no academic preparation. After graduating university, I audited a few lectures on Korean popular culture, then tried to take community-college Korean 101, which ended up cancelled for lack of enrollment. Later, after moving to Los Angeles, I signed up for language courses at the Korean Cultural Center on Wilshire Boulevard. They formed a pyramid, the top being a modestly sized “advanced” level (though many of us could barely string a sentence together) and the bottom an introductory level popular enough to spread across multiple classrooms. Of the throng of beginners there, a large proportion seemed to have come to the language through love of Korean pop music and television dramas. Whatever our individual motivations, all of eagerly partook of the offerings of South Korea’s newly ascendant cultural empire.

Yet this empire isn’t quite as new as it seems. The Korean Cultural Center, Los Angeles opened in 1980, as Keimyung University professor Seon Jung Kim notes in an academic paper on overseas Korean language education, and today there are 41 such centers in eighteen countries. That paper appears in the new Routledge Handbook of Contemporary South Korea, edited by Sojin Lim and Niki J.P. Alsford. Following previous Routledge “handbooks” on modern Korean history, Korean culture and society, Korean politics and public administration, and contemporary North Korea, it collects articles on the various aspects of the Republic of Korea studied by its contributors. As in most academic anthologies, these selections read as if included for their suitability as assigned reading in an undergraduate course — or rather courses, given the range from “Historical Development of Judicial Independence in South Korea” to “The South Korean Literary Field and Its Recent Evolution.”

Only a small minority of this book’s purchasers will thus read it as I did, from cover to cover. Doing so may not yield a clear single narrative of South Korea, but it does — despite the frequent changes of author, focus, and prose style, about which more later — yield a coherent image of South Korea. Here we have a modern nation that spent the early part of its life in hopeless-looking poverty: more than one contributor cites its GNP of the early 1960s, which was comparable to the that of Ghana or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But over the two or three decades thereafter, factors including shrewd use of aid and loans (primarily from the United States and former colonizer Japan) as well as even shrewder industrial policy turned it into one of the economic champions of Asia. Today, South Korea’s economy is the world’s 11th largest.

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