South Korea Diary #1: Seoul & Nami Island

Last month, I just went on a 4-day trip to South Korea with my aunt. It was an organized tour, which is my least favorite form of travel, but my aunt asked me to accompany her, and I never turn down the chance to travel to a new country, so of course, I accepted.

We started out in Seoul, with a tour of the Gyeongbokgung Palace and the Blue House, the presidential residence. The Blue House we only got a glimpse from afar, but the Palace is beautiful, with traditional buildings surrounding spacious grounds, dotted here and there with trees full of fall foliage or stately evergreens. We also got a short visit to the National Folk Museum, which is located within the premises, and learned about the traditions of Korea.

The Blue House

Entrance to Gyeongbokgung and a corridor inside the Palace

A pavillion on the grounds

Another fun thing about the Palace is that you can see a lot of people wearing hanbok (traditional Korean dress), both tourists and locals. You don’t have to worry about cultural appropriation here – apparently, you can visit the palace for free if you wear a hanbok! (The tour also included a package for hanbok rental, though I didn’t wear one; I much prefer taking pictures of others.)

The maine square of the Palace

These kids did an entire reenactment… it was quite cute to watch

Traditional meets modern

Later in the day, we went to Everland theme park, South Korea’s version of Disneyland. You need at least an entire day here, and besides, I’m too much of a wuss for some of the rides (it has the fourth steepest roller coaster in the world. Just hearing the screams was traumatic enough). I ended up wandering around the flower gardens of the European Village with my aunts and other elderly ladies of our tour group (I guess I’m an old lady at heart!) and enjoying the Halloween decorations.

Main street of Everland

The Cupid Garden and Cottage Garden of the European Village

Everland at night

The next day, we got to see more of Seoul in the form of the Dongdaemun shopping district. Shopping is actually a huge part of the tour – most of the women in the tour group came back ladden with Korean beauty products – but I’m not much of a shopper, so I used that time to wander the nearby streets and people-watch. Later, we headed to the Namsan Tower, where you can have some magnificent views of the city.

The National Assembly Building

Seoul City Hall

A temple on the street of Seoul

Dongdaemun Design Plaza, where you can see a lot of street style photo shoots

The road to Namsan Tower, and the Tower itself

The famous “love locks” of Namsan Tower

Panoramic view of Seoul from Namsan Tower

Finally, to round out our Seoul trip, we went to Nami Island. It is not an actual island but just a river islet about an hour from Seoul, which gained popularity for being the filming location of “Winter Sonata”, a famous K-drama. I don’t watch K-dramas, but the island itself is very beautiful, with tree-lined walks and glimpses of the river through the branches. It was full of tourists, of course, but if you venture down to the river bank, you can find a lot of quiet pockets to relax in, after the hubbub of Seoul.

A little rice paddy by the river and the famous ginkgo-lined avenue of Nami Island

The squirrels and chipmunks of the island are so used to people that I could go right up to this guy and he even posed for me!

My only complaint is that we went there a tad early, so the leaves haven’t changed colors yet. But that would soon be rectified, because our next stop would be a national park in the mountains. Stay tuned!


Book Reviews: October 2018

Happy Halloween! Fall is a good time for reading, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s anything nicer than curling up with a good book and a cup of tea. And it was a good month of reading for me too, with all the books being quite enjoyable, more or less.

The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:

This is the second book in the silkpunk epic series Dandelion Dynasty, which I describe as “Romance of the Three Kingdoms meets Game of Thrones“. I’ve read the first book, The Grace of Kings, a while ago, so I don’t remember much of it, but that’s OK, because they can more or less stand on their own, and it only takes a while to get caught up with the story. This one revolves around the next chapter in the reign of Kuni Garu, his children, the power struggle within his court, and the threat of foreign invaders (who are clearly based on Genghis Khan and the Mongol Empire). As with the first book, the world-building is great and the science interesting (such as when they discover electricity and use it to fight the invaders’ dragons, resulting in some epic air battles.) However, just like the first book, character development remains Liu’s weakness – the characters are either flat and boring or unsympathetic. And the romantic subplot is a joke (it’s – mild spoiler – between two women, so one gets the impression that the author includes it only for the sake of representation and not because it makes sense for the story.) 3/5

Tell the Machine Goodnight by Katie Williams:

I got this from a Buzzfeed quiz, something like “What Book Should You Read Next Based on Your Favorite TV Show”. I picked Black Mirror, and got this, which is perfect, because it could’ve easily been a Black Mirror episode. It takes place in the near future, revolving around a machine that can tell you how to be happy, with an ensemble cast – a “happy technician” working the machine, her co-workers and clients, her anorexic teenage son and his friends, her pretentious artist ex-husband, his current wife who’s harboring a dark secret, etc., with each chapter focusing on one of their stories.The world is fascinating and the characters, though deeply damaged, are relatable. However, the story never becomes as powerful as Black Mirror, because there is very little conflict, and when things do get resolved, it feels too easy. 3/5

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee:

This memoir consists of a series of unconnected chapters detailing the author’s time growing up in the Cotswold during and after World War I. Actually, they don’t “detail” much; they’re mostly just fragments of memories and impressions from his childhood. I would’ve preferred some more details and descriptions of life in the village, but the writing is lyrical and beautiful to read, and it perfectly captures both the random, innocent memories of childhood and the nostalgia we feel when we look back upon them later in life. 4/5

The Truth by Terry Pratchett:

I’m reaching my Discworld phase in the year – it’s when I suffer what I call “reader’s fatigue” and just want something fun that I know I will enjoy, so I return to Discworld. This particular book, which deals with the arrival of the printing press and subsequently the newspaper in Ankh-Morpork (it belongs in the same category as other “Industrial Revolution” books like Moving Pictures and Going Postal), has a slow start, but once the pace starts picking up, it becomes very enjoyable. The main character, the aptly named William de Worde, may not be quite memorable (though he does come to his own toward the end), but there are some funny side characters – like a reformed vampire photographer and a pair of hitmen straight out of Pulp Fiction (there is even a parody of the “Royale with cheese” scene). And even though it was published 18 years ago, the story is still very relevant. The bit about a Patrician candidate, an unscrupulous businessman who wants “a return to the values and traditions that made the city great”, is eerily prophetic. 4.5/5

What did you guys read this month?

Adventures In Watercolor 5

Here are some more paintings I’ve finished over the past few weeks. Most of them are copied from existing paintings, and a few are from photos.

These first two are from photos, while the ones below them are copies of existing paintings

I find it easier to copy a painting than to work from a photo, because with a painting, I can see the techniques used, while with a photo, I still have troubles figuring out how to achieve a certain look. And that’s why I’m taking another class, starting later this month. Hopefully it can help me to improve.

Book Reviews: September 2018

It’s a pretty eclectic month of reading, in that none of the books I read have any similarities, but here goes:

A Cook’s Tour by Anthony Bourdain:

I’ve always been a fan of Anthony Bourdain (RIP), and this book, which details his travels around the world in search of “the perfect meal”, combines two of my interests – food and travel – so of course I love it. His writing is funny (in a biting, belligerent kind of way, very different from Bill Bryson’s self-deprecating humor) and vivid; the travels are fascinating and the food mouth-watering (in most cases. I’m not sure about the sheep testicles.) Sure, there are graphic descriptions of a pig getting slaughtered in Portugal, a sheep getting butchered in Morocco, and a snake getting killed in Vietnam (where else?), but that’s what makes the book come to life. 5/5

The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson:

I quite enjoyed Helen Simonson’s first book, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, and this one, which revolves around life in the idyllic town of Rye in the summer of 1914 before World War I breaks out, seems right up my alley. Unfortunately, it doesn’t live up to its predecessor. Like Major Pettigrew, it deals with a close-minded community and how they react when faced with changes, but the characters are not memorable and the conflict is light. The most effective part, ironically, is the last few chapters which deals with the war itself. The “before” part is really boring. 2/5 (and that’s only because I have a superficial liking for passages describing life in a British town, like the kind of clothes people wear and the food they eat.)

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson:

I’m a bit embarrassed that it took me so long to read this. I’ve read one other book by Anderson, Winter Girls, and loved it, and I also quite like the movie adaption of this book (starring a young Kristen Stewart), but I never got around to reading it until now. In a way, it’s a standard YA novel about a girl becoming a selective mute after being sexually assaulted, but the main character’s voice is strong and relatable and reflects her struggle really well. My only complaint is that there is no strong event to prompt the main character to “speak” out about her trauma and begin her journey toward recovery, but I know it’s more realistic that way. 4.5/5

People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry:

When it comes to non-fiction, I enjoy some true-crime books from time to time, especially if it’s historical crimes (like Erik Larson’s books.) This one, which deals with the disappearance and death of Lucie Blackman, a British young woman, in Japan in 2000, is decidedly more modern than I prefer, but it’s a fascinating read nonetheless. The case itself is not that special; what makes the book so gripping is the way it delves into the lives of the victim, her friends and family, as well as her killer. It may contain too many details, but it really shows the dark side of Japanese society and the devastating ripple effect of a tragedy. 4.5/5

Adventures In Watercolor 4

As promised, here is my final piece from my watercolor class:

For our finals, we had to pick a photo (NOT a painting!) and reproduce it on 18 x 24 paper. Mine was based on this photo of the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland. As you may have noticed from my previous paintings, trees are kinda my specialty, so this seemed like a good choice. I’m pretty satisfied with the end result; I only wish it could look more transparent, more like a watercolor painting – here, I added so many layers that it looks more like a gouache/acrylic piece. I guess I just need to practice more…

And here are some more paintings that I’ve been working on since the class ended:

There is still a lot I need to learn though, so once my schedule slows down a bit, I’m going to see if there is another class I can take.

Adventures In Watercolor 3

So here is the next batch of my watercolors. After tackling flowers and still life, we were on to landscapes, which I prefer, because it doesn’t require drawing precise shapes. We started with monochromatic landscapes first:

Then we moved on to full color:

Stay tuned, because it’s our “graduation ceremony” this weekend and I’ll get to pick up my final piece to show you guys. And I’ve been painting regularly (now that school has started again, I try to complete one painting per week) so there will be more to come!

Book Reviews: August 2018

It’s a good month of reading – 6 books, and they’re all more or less enjoyable, with one exception. Here goes:

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters:

I only know Sarah Waters from the adaptations of her works (Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith, and The Night Watch, I haven’t watched Affinity), but I’ve never actually read her novels before. So when I came across this in the used bookstore and remembered seeing a trailer for the upcoming movie adaptation, I decided to pick it up. It takes place post-WWII and revolves around a country doctor whose life becomes entangled with an aristocratic family living in a crumbling mansion as they are plagued by increasingly strange and sinister incidents. It’s a ghost story in the vein of Henry James and Shirley Jackson, in that the supernatural elements are very subtle, and you have to wonder if they are really supernatural or merely psychological. It can be frustratingly slow at times and don’t expect a tidy explanation at the end, but Waters is so good at creating a creepy and oppressive atmosphere that I had to stop reading it before bed. 4.5/5

Spook by Mary Roach:

After a ghost story, it seems natural that I would read about the scientific studies of ghosts and the afterlife. I’ve quite enjoyed Mary Roach’s other books (Stiff and Packing for Mars), and this one, while not as informative as those two, is still very entertaining. And no, she doesn’t come up with a tidy explanation for ghosts either, but it’s fun to read anyway. 4/5

Margaret the First by Danielle Dutton:

I picked this up because of the pretty cover. And also because it’s a fictional account of the life of Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, an eccentric 17th-century writer, which sounds right up my alley. The blurb says it’s “not a historical novel but a modern novel set in the past”, so I didn’t expect a bildungsroman, but I did expect the normal stuff – you know, plot, character developments, details about life in 17th England and Europe. What I got instead is a rambling series of prose, like the diary entries of someone with ADHD, written in an overwrought, clumsy attempt at being poetic. There is no character development; the main character comes off vain, silly, and delusional, not brilliant and misunderstood like the book tries to make her out to be. Oh and, it switches POV halfway through (the first half is written in first person, the second half in third person). Why? No reason. The real Margaret Cavendish deserves so much better than this drivel. The only good thing I can say about it is that it’s short, so I didn’t waste too much time reading it. 1/5

The Utterly Uninteresting and Unadventurous Tales of Fred, the Vampire Accountant by Drew Hayes:

With a title like this, I was expecting something in the vein of “What We Do in the Shadows” or at least “The Reformed Vampire Support Group“, something humorous that details the mundane, everyday struggle of a vampire and subverts all the usual vampire tropes. It turns out to be a series of very standard adventures with all the usual – werewolves, zombies, mages, etc. Sure, there are things like a were-pony or an ancient dragon masquerading as a 7-year-old boy, but it’s nowhere near as clever as I hoped. Also, the writing is super expository. It is trying to be personal, like Fred is addressing the reader, but it just ends up flat. It’s not terrible, actually, just disappointing. 2/5

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly:

This has a typical fantasy premise: a boy in WWII-England, mourning the death of his mother and resenting the presence of his new stepmom and his half-brother, ends up in a world that contain elements of his favorite fairy tales, but they have been twisted into something dark and dangerous (in fact, I once wrote a screenplay with a very similar premise). Although the main character is a kid, it’s not a YA book by any means – it goes to some pretty dark places. And that’s also my problem with it. The story is good and the world is interesting, but it’s just so grim. I don’t mind dark fairy tales; heck, I live for dark fairy tales (especially Neil Gaiman’s), but in those, there is still a sense of magic and wonderment. Here, aside from some communist dwarves who are oppressed by Snow White, everything is so somber and heavy all the time. 4/5

The Nature Fix by Florence Williams:

You may have known that nature is good for you, but have you ever wondered why? Well, this book goes into all the scientific research behind the restorative power of nature and how it is being used to improve our life in general, from “forest bathing” in Japan to bushcrafting (sort of like survival skills, like making fire and shelter, but less about the survival and more about interacting with nature) in Scotland, and also how much time you need to spend in nature to feel its positive effects (5 hours/month, according to the Finns). I’ve always loved being in nature, but I have to admit, I don’t go outside as much as I should, so this book has made me a lot more mindful of that. 4/5

What did you guys read? Let me know in the comments and make sure to check out my friend Mike’s book reviews here.