Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Category: Book Reviews (page 1 of 3)

Culture Shock! Korea — Chock Full of Information!

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  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd
  • Date: February 7, 2018

I’ll never forget when I first came to Korea in 1990 to teach English, my school sent me an information packet about the school and Korea. Specifically, it was mostly badly photo-copied material about what I should or shouldn’t bring to Korea as well as adjusting to culture shock (People will stare at you and bump into you when you’re walking down the street). It was useful information when you’re halfway around the world planning to live and work in Korea, but a few days after arriving, it was useless information and soon discarded.

Since that time, there have been various books and guides about living and working in Korea to help foreigners to make those necessary adjustments to overcome culture shock, but none resonate more strongly than John Bocskay’s Culture Shock! Korea.

This well-written and insightful book is chock full of information that would appeal not only to someone coming to Korea for the first time, but for the seasoned Korean old hat who wants to brush up on his or her Korean cultural knowledge (for example, I had forgotten all about bringing toilet paper as a housewarming gift!). To be sure, for this twenty-seven year and counting expatriate, I had a fun time reading this book and remembering what it was like when I first came here.

I especially enjoyed, and this is one of the book’s strengths, Bocskay’s explanation of Korean culture and how it applies to one’s daily life or sojourn here. That alone makes this a worthwhile investment. I liked Bocskay’s casual writing style and the way that he brings Korean culture alive. He covers the gamut of things Korean and how to survive in this dynamic and interesting culture. Whether you have just arrived in Korea or have been in Korea for a while, you are going to want to get this book. This book is an indispensable trove of information that will make anyone’s visit or sojourn here more enjoyable.

The Freedman — Book Review

619Px4hNVhLI’ve been a big fan of Lars Hedbor ever since I read his first book, The Prize. What first impressed me was his style of writing that captured this period of American history. I’ve often compared him to another one of my favorite writers, who also wrote about this period, James Fenimore Cooper.

His latest, The Freedman, is another literary tour de force. Of all the books in this series, I would have to say this is the most thoughtful and poignant, not to mention powerful. It’s an issue which would plague the United States from early colonial America and the Civil War to Reconstruction and beyond. But what makes this all the more powerful is the way that Hedbor tells the story of Calabar, a slave who has gained his freedom and sets out on a new journey through life.

In language that is just as evocative as it is dramatic, Calabar’s life, filled with trials and tribulations, is a stirring testament to those former slaves who endeavored for the same freedom and independence the same way the colonies did—a path which began with Thomas Jefferson’s immortal words, “All Men Are Created Equal.”

Pachinko, A Literary Triumph!

51mulp7HJ+LIn the spirit of Charles Dickens and Leo Tolstoy, Pachinko is a beautifully written story about the sweeping four-generation history and saga of a Korean family in Japan. In a story filled with forbidden love, triumph and failure, and the need to belong, author Min Jin Lee sheds light on a subject not normally explored by novelists—the plight of Korean immigrants in Japan. In rich, evocative language, Lee takes the reader on an emotional, amazing journey through the Japanese occupation of Korea, post World War II, the Korean War, and modern Korean society.

At the center of this moving story is the heroine Sunja, the family matriarch who will stop at nothing to ensure the survival of her family. She is the embodiment of the struggles that many Koreans faced during this period who found themselves exiled from their homeland and the yearning to return to it one day. The depth and empathy of her story, as well as other members of her family, is just as haunting as it is moving.

Pachinko is a literary triumph; a readable, passionate story that will resonate with readers long after they have finished it

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.

Book Review: Bangkok Belle

bangkok-belleBangkok Belle is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill hardboiled detective story. Indeed, what makes this novel fascinating and engaging is its exotic location and colorful characters. The author, Ron McMillan, who has knocked around Asia for a couple decades, offers much more than a “travel guide” story by dropping in a steady flow of Asian references, in this case, Bangkok, to showcase his expat expertise. On the contrary, in the grand literary hardboiled detective tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, McMillan is brilliant in the way that he uses the setting to propel his story along. Of course, the exotic location of Bangkok doesn’t hurt any, either.

As a fan of hardboiled detective stories, I enjoyed this one a lot. McMillan is a brilliant writer with a lion’s share of literary tricks to keep readers turning from one page to the next. I especially liked the way he played the two main characters Mason and Dixie off each other throughout the story as well as their attempts to solve a murder while protecting one of their friends who takes part in a beauty pageant in Bangkok.

McMillan delivers another hit with Bangkok Belle. Hammett and Chandler would be proud.

Book Review: An Unknown Shore

An Unknown ShoreOne of the joys of discovering a new author is coming to the table without any expectations of the author’s previous work (if any). It’s all about what’s in front of you now and the literary journey the author will take you on. At the same time, it’s also, “Okay, buddy, I took a chance and bought your book. Now show me what you got and make it worth my while.”

That’s exactly what happened when I bought and started reading Jim Yeazel’s An Unknown Shore. However, it didn’t exactly happen the way I just described. I heard about Yeazel’s book in an interview with him in my hometown newspaper, the News Trib. Turns out that we both are from the same area. That’s all I needed to convince me to buy his book and see what he had to say. You, nothing better than supporting one of the folks back home.

Not a bad decision. I liked this book a lot. It’s a psychological thriller with plenty of twists and turns to keep you riveted from start to finish. It starts with a badly mutilated body found in a forest in a small Minnesotan town that soon has the community turned upside down as local authorities try to find those responsible. Things become more complicated and chilling when more bodies are discovered.

Although the book bogs down a little here and there, especially with some of the back story and the past relationships with some of the characters, Yeazel has got himself a good story here. It handles the genre well and never shows his cards, which keeps you reading to see what’s going to happen next.

Book Review: Dear Petrov

2016-04-10-1460297788-3105516-dearPetrovcoverEarly in Susan Tepper’s brilliant collection of short fiction, Dear Petrov, her unnamed narrator asks, “Dear Petrov. Can you not take in, just out of range, a lady of wistful yearning. Who, by her own submission, adores you out of reach.” And so begins a mesmerizing and poignant spiritual journey into the heart and soul of a woman whose world has been turned upside down by the man she’s enamored with. We’re not sure if she’s waiting for her lover to come home from war or perhaps if he’s ever coming back. However, that’s not important. Although we the reader are not sure who he is that doesn’t make any difference because Petrov represents all the want in this world; he becomes the embodiment of one’s hopes, fears, desires, loneliness, loves, successes, and failures.

The language is rich and evocative. Open up the book and choose any story and you will be moved by Tepper’s use of language and emotions evoked by the imagery. “I have grown my fingers into claws, in order to shimmy up trees and watch for you,” she writes in “Shimmy” which exudes narrator’s deep-rooted longing for Petrov. “All day I watch for you. I hang by my nails dug into tree bark. The forest is summer tangle, while I’m this cawing bird.” This is brilliant writing. We, as the reader, get caught up in the gamut of emotions and imagery from one story to the next.

These are stories to savor and reflect upon over and over again. I haven’t been moved by a collection of stories like these in a very long time. There’s a reason for that. In the end, Dear Petrov speaks for us all.

Book Review: Dust

DustIt’s been a long time that a book of poetry moved me as much as Brady Peterson’s Dust did. A lot had to do with the topics, which reminds me of many of the things I like to write about, and the reasons why I write. Reading Dust reminded me of the important role we writers have to document and comment about life around us in an attempt to better understand the world we inhabit. Every single moment we capture through the looking glass tells us something about ourselves and invariably, the world around us.

And what makes Dust unique is that the author is simply commenting about life in its lowest common denominator. In language that is accessible and visceral, Peterson reveals much about the world around us.

Take for example, “We Once Played” which will resonate strongly for anyone who grew up in the sixties:

“We once played baseball unsupervised/climbed trees, squatted in culverts between rains—played war/using sticks as guns, jumped out of swings.”

But then, the poem does a 360 and might remind one of the Jim Carroll song, “People Who Died:”

“A college friend of my oldest daughter fell from a cliff one afternoon—free climbing/A college friend of mine was killed in Nam when his jeep rolled over on a bomb/Another slammed head-on into a truck while driving home to see if his high school friend was pregnant.”

It is so gut-wrenching when you get to the part. It’s both a reminder of innocence lost and life’s tragic moments that we all must experience.

And as much as I love Ginsberg and “Howl”, I had to chuckle when I read, “Moloch”:

“Vonnegut, who despised City Lights and the beat writers, claimed everyone knew the best minds majored in engineering, not English.”

Ouch.

I also liked his “everyman” approach and commentary. That’s what makes this collection so approachable for readers who might not read a lot of poetry.

On the other hand, for the literary connoisseurs among us, I really enjoyed his references to many of my favorite literary works, especially T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock” (one of my favorite 20th Century poems hands down; in fact, the book’s title echoes another one of Eliot’s works, “The Burial of the Dead”) as well as William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow,” John Fowles’s The Collector, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughter House Five.

This is a fine collection of poetry and another gem from Big Table Publishing.

Book Review: Blood Soaked Dresses

BloodSoakedDressesFront300xBlood Soaked Dresses

Gloria Mindock

Paperback: 72 pages
Publisher: Lulu.com (October 11, 2007)
ISBN-10: 1430310340
ISBN-13: 978-1430310341
13.50

If there were one thing that a poet must do when approaching their craft, it would most certainly be never avoiding topics which are too horrific or frightful. To be sure, it is a poet’s responsibility to do just that so we can benefit from one’s analysis and commentary. Whether it’s war, famine, genocide, civil rights, or death, the poets are the ones who shine through the darkness to help us better understand our world and give us all hope.

In Blood Soaked Dresses, Gloria Mindock journeys back in time to the late 1970s and the civil war in El Salvador (1979-1992). She exposes both the atrocities and the horror of this conflict, especially the way that women were affected by it. In hauntingly evocative verse that is brutal and honest, Mindock makes this civil war personal for the readers. These are not just nameless individuals who were killed (one figure places the death toll at over 75,000) or maimed by the conflict; instead, as only a poet can do, she resurrects them and the events of this terrible conflict so we won’t forget. Ultimately, she gives a voice to these tormented souls.

In “El Salvador Bird Watches” she writes about a person waiting to be executed:

“My heart beats so fast into this shallow air.
How can I be heard?
Orange rinds are shoved into my mouth
suffocating me with fragrance. Sadness engulfs me
to know my skin will be stripped and added to the heap.”

Aside from the juxtaposition of the sweet fragrance of orange rinds being stuffed into the person’s mouth to silence the screams, what’s most haunting about this poem is the fact that parakeets flock over the capitol city of San Salvador every day at five in the morning and in the evening and they bear witness to the atrocities happening below.

“The sky is blue, and it’s just another day.”

In that one line, Mindock is brilliant as she compares both the parakeet’s flight and the atrocities below as being a daily occurrence.

And in “Death March” Mindock wonders if the world will remember what happened here and if so, to make sure that those who perished here will never be forgotten:

“Who will be at my funeral?
Who out of this dying world?
A few friends, family, a pair of eyes that loved me
but never told me—

Let us sleep admired.”

These poems are a grim reminder of the evil that exists in our world. These could be poems about other places where hell was in session: Cambodia, Sudan, Rwandan, Syria, and Bosnia. It’s always the poets and the saints who get it right. We should heed their words and listen as if our very own survival depends on it.

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