Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Pulp Jungle

Frank Gruber
The Pulp Jungle

Sherbourne Press, 1967

This book is like an accountant ledger. Is it boring? No, absolutely not. It is fascinating.

Gruber lists all his sales during his pulp years, tells how much money he’s made for each story, what rates magazines paid in those years, what markets were the most prestigious. In these dry facts and not less dry and matter-of-fact numbers we feel that era like we can feel the era smelling old pulps.

Gruber started with Sunday school papers, and then made his goal to become a writer after his first sales. Like Tarzan, he went to the pulp jungle – New York - where most of publishing companies were (and still are) – and made it into big time. But not right from the start. Before he conquered New York and dozens of pulp magazines (and subsequently Los Angeles, working later in Hollywood), he lived through years of struggle, barely selling a couple of stories a month and literally starving on the streets of NYC.

It’s a fascinating account of a professional who works and works non stop and who knows that hard work will pay off some time in the future. His story of success Gruber ornates with recallections of other pulpsters, who also made successful careers (some after that vanished somewhere).

While reading this book, one can easily see how many differencies there were between publishing businesses now and then – and how many similarities. Gruber wrote thousands of short stories and novelettes before he’d moved to writing novels (and screenplays). It was not easy, to just write a novel and sell it without establishing your name first.

The book, though, is roughly written and feels like a first draft. But damn, the masters of pulp always wrote only one draft – the first. They couldn’t afford to write many drafts and rewrite their stories. And we shouldn’t ask for more.

That’s the memoirs everyone interested in book history should read.

Friday, March 6, 2015

A Kim Jong-il Production

Paul Fischer
A Kim Jong-il Production

Flatiron Books, 2015

The most successful couple of the South Korean cinema, Choi Eun-Hee and Shin Sang-Ok, during a few decades earned the love of their fans. Shin was a famous director, the founder of an independent film studio which released numerous films each year. Choi was a star of the silverscreen, beautiful actress and the founder of an actors school. Choi, before the fame reached her, was the wife of a war vet, invalid with a short temper, who beat on her time from time. She played almost for free, and had only a modest fame. Shin helped her made big time, they hit it off, though not publicly, keeping in secret their affair. Then gossips started to sip in, the scandal broke out, and the actress left her husband, having chosen Shin. The couple made even larger success as a pair, doing together films, spreading their businesses, receiving awards.

Later financial troubles started to bother the couple, Shin couldn’t make more films due to high censorship and competition, and with money love also went away. The couple divorced, Shin started to work on his invitation to film in Hollywood, to restart his career in America. Choi had focused on her actors school.

And then they were kidnapped, by the North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il.

Young film producer has written a debut non-fiction book, that is on the level with best examples of spy fiction. The only thing absent is heavy involvement of intelligent services, the rest of the necassary elements are all there – powerful villain, brave heroes, sinister plot, mysterious kidnapping, surprising rescue.

Fischer even stylistically sticks to belletristic approach to his narrative. He presents the main heroes’ biographies (and antihero’s who plays as important role as the couple of heroes), makes enough geographical and historical digressions, leads to a culmination, the kidnapping itself, then switches to heroes’ lives during their captivity, their reborn as filmmakers, and then to the final with the rescue. The epilogue tells us the oucome of their lives.

The book has 360 pages of exciting prose, and even when Fischer retreats to the historical background, it still is a fascinating read. These digressions are necessary if only to place this kidnapping into the world context. During the book we’re told of the birth of a dictatorship in North Korea, rivalship between two Koreas, the general place of North Korea in the world. Fischer describes a number of methods used by Kim and his people for kidnapping people. Shin and Choi were not the first victims of Kim’s dangerous games, the couple will even meet some other kidnapped victims. This is the evidence to that the couple weren’t the only victims of Kim’s crimes, neither they were the first. Their case is not unique, possibly, it’s the most spoken of and resonance.
Digressions about, for example, Korean labour camps are the heart-wrenching reading in itself. Atrocities and cruelties commited in those camps were not less shocking, probably even more than the ones in Stalin and Nazi camps. Fischer doesn’t restrict his descriptions of tortures forced upon Shin the camps. To survibe, Shin had to make some sacrificies, had to step on his principles and agreed to work for the man who ordered the tortures.

It’s hard to say, yet after reading this book I’m of the opinion that Shin made his best films during his prisoner years in North Korea. That means that only being not free, he could reach the highs of his talent. And does it overcome these tortures he had suffered through, this chance to be reborn in your art and make the films you’ll be remembered after? That’s the question one can hardly will find an answer.

The book also can be read as a chapter from a film history textbook. Fischer includes in the book a short history of the North Korean cinema, Choi and Shin’s achievements, their post-kidnapping period, and legends of Kim Jong-Il as a father of North Korean films and omniscient expert on the world cinema.

A Kim Jong-il Production is written quite frivolously, without stating the sources of the obtained information, and that’s understandable: this books is aimed at the wide audience, not at academic world. The story of kidnapping of Shin and Choi already for dozens of years raises questions and doubts. Paul Fischer is quite sure that the couple was abducted and worked on Kim after the fear of death. The other believe that they at their own will crossed borders when their careers went downhill. The story is, withoubt doubt, mysterious, controversial, it’s possible it will be left thus for ever. It is one of those historical events, like Kennedy’s assassination, US moon landing and disappearing of the group from Dyatlov pass, that people can’t come to one point. There is plenty of information all around, but what are the truth and what are the lies – it’s all wrapped in the mist.

This book will let you sink into one of the secrets of XX century. First rate non-fiction book.