Mark James Russell

Books, blog and other blather

Author: Mark (page 1 of 85)

Doors of imagination

Young-Hee & the Pullocho is a “portal fantasy” — meaning a story in which the fantasy element is accessed from our boring world via a doorway, like the wardrobe in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. That meant I needed to come up with a portal. So how to get Young-hee into my magical world?

Fortunately, Korea is a country with no shortage of strange doors. Like this one I passed while on a walk today, on the right of the photo, just sitting there on the side of the hill. No steps. No signs (unless you count the graffiti underneath it).

Door in Seoul wall

Why is it there? Who uses it? Could there be a magical world lurking behind it? I have no answers. But I love wondering about it.

Wall door closeup

Genuine K-pop

Hard to believe it’s been a year already since K-Pop Now came out (thanks once again to all to bought it and/or read it). On one hand, it’s amazing how much has changed already in the world of K-pop — new groups, people leaving old groups, etc. But at the same time, I think the last year has been a bit static, without anything transformative really going on.

K-Pop Now wasn’t the most academic book ever, nor was it the most in-depth (it was fairly short with a lot of images). But I tried to give a sense of what K-pop is, why fans love it, and the spirit of the K-pop age.

One line from the book, though, I wish I had been clearer about:

“K-pop is overwhelmingly genuine. When a singer loves, he loves completely.  When he misses his love, it is a deep, soul-crushing ache”

Now, clearly the industrial nature of the K-pop business doesn’t really nurture singer-songwriters, people who spill their souls and reveal their deepest truths. But I wasn’t talking about the industry that makes the music; I was talking about the sentiments expressed by K-pop singers. The industry and the structure of the industry might be cynical and full of artifice, however the emotions and ideas of the songs are not.

Does that make sense? I might compare it to professional wrestling.  Professional wrestling isn’t “real”, but the reason people like it is because of the force of the emotions expressed by the wrestlers. It seems genuine.

It’s kind of an adolescent way of viewing the world and emotion. A grown-up, disillusioned view of love might be more like Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box” or Radiohead’s “Creep” (okay, not really “grown-up”, but certainly more jaded). K-pop is more like an opera aria, and the feelings expressed by most K-pop songs are more straightforward and pure. Personally, I find the artifice of honesty a fascinating subject in all creative areas.


Pullocho now available as an e-book

Some happy news, for those of you who prefer your books electronic and your trees to continue standing — Young-hee and the Pullocho is now available at Amazon as an e-book, too. Like the paperback, it will ship on May 12.

No signs of the e-book version at Barnes & Noble, Indigo, or other stores, but I assume it will soon appear in all the major e-book formats on all the major websites.

Check out Young-Hee & the Pullocho

I just added the first chapter of Young-Hee and the Pullocho to its page here on my website. So now you can check it out, for free, in whatever format you prefer — PDF, .mobi or ePub.

It’s just a few pages long, but it starts out in the middle of some action, so hopefully it will give you a sense of what’s in store in the rest of the story.


More Shinchon changes

It’s strange seeing parts of Korea that are so familiar to me change so rapidly. Not only is the Grand Mart getting a facelift, but an old part of Shinchon is also changing fast. Down the street, where the old rail bridge used to cross the big road, looks like it is about it get its park at last.

The rail bridge used to cast a pretty dark shadow over that stretch of Shinchon, and only old, lousy buildings abutted the noisy tracks. The bridge was torn down six or seven years ago (seen here in 2009 from Google Maps).

Shinchon 2009

Then the big ugly concrete anchors were taken out and the train line was buried and turned into a subway (Naver Maps: 2012).



Then the construction was covered over, but the land on top has been left to grow wild, with those same old buildings just sitting there — an old gopchang jeongol restaurant, a tiny vegetable stall, and some little, rundown places (Daum Maps, 2014).



Or, rather, they were just sitting there. Monday night, they were all gone.

Shinchon teardown

I guess this means they are finally getting around to building the long-promised park here. It’s already done by Daeheung Station to the east and is nearly done west of Hongik Station. Now they need to fill in the middle bit. Considering how much those completed sections have improved, I’m really looking forward to seeing how this stretch will change. It’s really perfect for some cafes and open spaces, the kind that Seoul so lacks.


Kim Jong-Pil remembers

When I came to Korea, it was still the era of the “three Kims” — Kim Young-sam (then the president), Kim Dae-jung (soon-to-be-president), and Kim Jong-pil (never president, but not for lack of trying). JP, as former head of the Korean intelligence service, was the most sketchy of the three, but both YS and DJ had found it necessary to play nice with him in order to win the presidency.

Now the Joongang Ilbo has published a series of articles based on two long interviews with KJP, mostly looking back at his early days, leading up to Park Chung Hee’s coup d’etat in 1961. Of course, JP portrays himself as a positive force in Korean history, opposing corruption and trying to foster democracy, and the Joongang doesn’t push back at all against his narrative. And despite being “compiled” by the Joongang, it’s still pretty rambling and disjointed. But, nevertheless, it’s still an interesting dialogue.


Writing a declaration of principles before the coup, and why anti-Communism was their No. 1 issue.

JP’s experiences at the outset of the Korean War

Meeting Park Chung Hee for the first time (who was related to JP by marriage … I didn’t know that).

On plotting the coup with Park Chung Hee

A Grand Facelift

Drab old Grand Mart in Shinchon appears to have gotten a fancy facelift. It’s about to re-open with a Spao on the ground floor, and the usual mix of restaurants upstairs. I guess it is mostly (entirely?) E-Land stuff, which isn’t a huge surprise, considering the mini-chaebol is headquartered just down the street.

New GrandMart2

New Grandmart Entrance

The Shinchon Grand Mart opened in 1994, even before I arrived in Korea. But ever since I started hanging out in Shinchon, it was the most depressing building in the area. The three-screen cinema that used to be housed in its upper floors was perhaps the worst I ever went to in Seoul, with tiny screens and terrible sound. That theater closed years ago, thanks to the rise of nice multiplexes everywhere, and the Grand Mart has generally be trending downward for years (although I do appreciate the supermarket in the basement).

Old Shinchon

The Grand Mart is located in the lower left of the above photo. As totally as the area has changed over the years, I think I recognize a couple of the buildings on the rotary, though — the Hongik Mungo bookstore and the Woori Bank building.

Vice takes K-pop seriously

Far too many interviews with K-pop groups in the Western media end up being rather infuriating. Sometimes that act like clueless fans, eating up all the marketing b.s. the group’s management throws at them. Or, worse, they ask a lot of insulting, condescending questions that are just as ignorant (usually under the guise of being “probing”, when really it is more about cultural ignorance).

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised by this Vice interview with the group 4Minute. Jakob Dorof asks interesting questions and clearly knows the genre, without falling into the usual traps.

Of course, it helps that 4Minute are a bit more established now, letting them loosen up and be themselves a little. And it helps that their latest single and music video, for “Crazy”, are so good.

What have we here …

Happy day, as I found this parcel waiting for me when I got home.

Pullocho_Parcel2Pullocho parcel1

Seriously, I can’t really believe it’s an actual printed book. I’ve been so convinced that someone would go wrong, even at the last minute. And yet, here it is, in the flesh.

You know how some authors say their books are like their babies and they love them all the same? Well, that’s garbage — I love this book the most.


Young-hee and Pullocho—2 early reviews

So, Kirkus has come out with what I think is the first review of Young-hee and the Pullocho. But they didn’t seem terribly impressed. On the positive side:

Russell enriches his debut novel with many details borrowed from Korean folk tales. Fans of stories within stories will enjoy the tales included here,

But the reviewer also seems to think that young readers will find the contents confusing and did not like how I started things off in the middle of the action, then looped back. The word “mundane” was used.

One the other hand, a friend of mine gave the book to her 9-year-old daughter, who apparently enjoyed it immensely and did not find it confusing at all.

“It’s amazing!”  –  4.75/5 stars

The mom said she likes it, too, although her daughter raced ahead and read it all first. Funny that a middle-aged reviewer worried a book would be confusing, while a 9-year-old had no problem. I know which review I prefer.

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