Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Month: August 2017

Perfume River

51u0D0URQ+L._SX314_BO1,204,203,200_Perfume River

By Robert Olen Butler

Hardcover: 272 pages

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly Press; 1st edition (September 6, 2016)

Of all the modern writers I admire and who have inspired me the most, Robert Olen Butler would be at the top of the list. Butler’s latest, Perfume River is a literary tour de force. Beautiful, haunting, and evocative, I have never been moved by a novel as much as I have been moved by this one.

The story about two brothers, Bob and Jimmy, and their strained relationship with their father is the story’s critical mass. The story moves seamlessly back and forth through time as both brothers come to terms with their dying father and the spiritual wounds of the Vietnam War which split apart the family. What’s so moving about the relationship between the father and his sons, is how Bob and Jimmy represent the polarity of the war: Bob the one who goes off to fight to win his father’s favor and Jimmy who wants nothing to do with the war and runs off to Canada. Butler could have stopped here, and the book would have been a fine one as the two brothers in later years reconcile those differences. However, Butler doesn’t. Instead, he takes it to the next level with the real story here: laying to rest the ghosts of war.

One early scene that resonated most for me was on the eve of the Tet Offensive, and the older Bob tries to get back to the compound, and he hides in a banyan tree. It reminded me of this Buddhist statuary at a temple in Ayuthaya, Thailand, where the roots of a banyan tree had grown around it. This moment in the story was both gripping as it was almost surreal the way Butler described it. For Bob, this was a defining moment not only for trying to survive Tet but also the deep, dark secret he will carry with him through life.

The story is also a microcosm of the nation coming to grips with the war and the wounds that still exist. Even more, is the significance of the character of the other Bob, himself a veteran of Afghanistan. As America continues to find itself ensnared in that conflict, the character of the second Bob is a grim reminder of another generation of young men and women sent into harm’s way.

For many of us, who were not in Vietnam, we come with our own perceptions of the war from the movies and documentaries we have seen and the literature we have read, which is good and bad. But my read of Perfume River…there’s this human element with the two Bobs and Jimmy that again, and this is just my perception of the story, has really helped me understand the war and the lives it took…physically, mentally, and spiritually.

It’s hard to say if a novel could provide some semblance of closure for the men still fighting that war, but I believe Perfume River does just that. If anything it serves to remind us of the generation of young men who still carry the scars of war with them. If we are ever truly going to heal as a nation and lay to rest the ghosts of war, it takes authors like Butler to remind us that it can be done.

The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

Breen's BookThe New Koreans: The Story of a Nation

By Michael Breen

Hardcover: 480 pages

Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books; 1st edition (April 4, 2017)

When it comes to writing about Korea—its people, culture, and history—there is no one better up to that onerous task than Michael Breen who has devoted most of his life observing and writing about the country. In his latest book, The New Koreans: The Story of a Nation, Breen does what he knows best. Sorry, if I seem a little bias, but I have known Breen since 2000, when I started writing feature articles for the Korea Times. In all those years, there is no else who can come up to his level when it comes to talking and writing about Korea.

However, this is more than just an outsider’s take on Korea. To be sure, Breen with journalistic flair and cultural sensitivity offers an in-depth look at modern Korea that is unrestrained and honest. This is more than a history of modern Korea, though. Breen endeavors throughout this impressive tome to help readers understand who the Koreans really are through anecdotal musings and historical evidence.

Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the opening chapter which talks about the Sewol tragedy when a ferry sank off the southern coast of the peninsula in the spring of 2014. This was a rather bold on the part of Breen to lead off with this tragedy, but this chapter and his delicate, cultural understanding set the tone for the rest of the book when he tries to make sense of why something like the tragedy and its aftermath could happen. I remembered when this tragedy happened and immediately on Facebook, foreigners in Korea started to chime in about “their take” on the accident and the “culture” that allowed it to happen. Breen, though, the acute observer of Korea that he is, can analyze something critically without being shackled by his deep appreciation for the country. In the process, he helps the reader understand the Korean psyche and character without running the risk of being bias.

One of the things that I liked most about the book were all of his personal anecdotes and his loving attention to detail. Even for this old Korean hat who has lived and worked in South since 1990, I learned some new things about my adopted home. Whether it’s talking about why there’s a wastepaper basket next to a toilet in a public restroom or the manner in which Koreans number and name their streets (one of the first things I learned when I came to Korea and took a taxi—in the days before GPS—was always to make sure I could tell the taxi driver a landmark to help with navigations) Breen’s observations and analyses make for some very enjoyable and insightful reading.

Another thing I liked about the book was how he divided the sections and named the chapters, which helps readers develop a better understanding of Korean than by saying this happened, and then this happened because something else happened. We want to know why it took Korea as long as it did to finally rise from the ashes of the Korean War and become the nation that it is today. We want to know why the Chaebol continue to have a stranglehold on the Korean economy and culture. We want to know why men like Park Chung-hee and Kim Dae-jung played pivotal roles in South Korean politics and their legacies that remain until today. We want someone to explain why K-Pop has become an international phenomenon. And yes, we want to know why something like the Sewol incident could happen.

If there was one book that I would recommend to anyone thinking about coming to Korea to work, study, or simply visit, I would recommend Breen’s book hands down. There’s no one writing about Korea these days more knowledgeable and understanding of Korea than Michael Breen.

Hot off the Presses!

Bureau 39 First BatchThe first batch of Bureau 39 arrived in Daejeon today, and in the immortal words of Ed Grimley (Martin Short) what a thrill it was to open the box to see all these copies, if I must say. This is one book that readers are going to love holding in their hands. As much as eBooks have given me the chance to read more books, there’s no better thrill a new book gives you when you hold it in your hands and begin to read it. And not just a new book.

I remember it was the summer of 1975 and I was hanging out with my friend David Walther. After he had broken both of his wrists, thanks to a movie I wanted to do (in the movie he had to jump from a train trestle–a story for another time) there wasn’t a lot we could do. Both of us expressed an interest in joining the Air Force after graduation from La-Salle-Peru Township High School the following year. One hot summer day, we walked to the Air Force Recruiting Station on Fourth Street in Peru, Illinois to get some information about the Air Force with David’s father who had served in the Air Force in the 1940s.

On the way back to David’s house, we walked down Fourth Street and stopped at a used book store in the old Turnhall Building. Although very hot, the inside was cool; the smell of all those old books was sweet and musky, like some exotic perfume. We all bought a couple books, and if my memory serves me correctly, I bought a collection of Rod Serling stories. But it was the first time I understood the thrill of holding a book in my hands and thinking not only about the people who might have read it before me, but the author’s life–the sweat and toil that went into its creation. It was that physical connection to other readers and the author which made me realize then, as it does now, the value of the written word and something that all of us writers strive for when we sit down and write.

I loved that feeling. I want to feel it more.

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