Thursday, January 28, 2010

Book Review: Korea through Western Eyes

Title: Korea through Western Eyes
Author: Robert D. Neff, Sunghwa Cheong 
Paperback: 434 pages
Publisher: Seoul National University Press (2009)
ISBN-13: 9788952110039

This polished collection of over thirty short stories about Korea around the late 1800s and early 1900s is a treasure. In a field where academics rule and accessibility is limited to skewed ancient historical journals, Korean War veteran memoirs and horror stories from North Korea, this book is a much needed breath of fresh air about foreigners in Korea.

Neff takes a very honest approach to his book. His research skills are quite evident as he cites scores of newspaper articles, personal correspondence and travel journals. When he makes a claim, it's backed up and sometimes even runs counter to what has been previously published. Although I'm sure the author is not actively looking to debunk popular myths, the book does come off as brutally honest though decidedly neutral in terms of historical interpretation. Inadvertently, some myths get debunked in the process.

If you are looking for some juicy history that has nothing to do with Korea's distinct four seasons, kimchi or dokdo than you've found your book. It's filled with many firsts introduced to Korea such as electricity, streetcars, foreign-owned gold mines and western military advisors; not to mention some of the most scandalous foreigners Korea has ever seen. Historians and casual readers alike will appreciate the readability of this one-of-a-kind text.

As I try to be critical of all books by presenting both positive and negative points, I must say that the only thing I would have preferred is more Korean language when mentioned in the script. As an avid discriminator to English romanization, I would have preferred if romanized words are used that the corresponding Korean words in parenthesis would also be used. As this doesn't come up often, it's not a huge gripe and small potatoes considering that it is the only complaint I have. Furthermore, it's quite a personal one that may not be shared by all.

Finally, I must also note that the photos included are quite impressive and very relevant to stories told. The overall design of the book is practically flawless. It's just an overall impressive presentation full of humor, sadness, debauchery and curiously relevant parallels to modern times. Don't let this one pass you by.

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Full disclosure: I'm a huge fan of Robert Neff and his works. I eat up his writings wherever they may be published. I think he is one of the most talented researchers out there and although he writes for such a niche market, one would be hard-pressed to rival his works.

Anyways, this was a book that I was anxiously awaiting and it did not disappoint. I burned through it within a week and look forward to his next efforts. I'm a Neffie.

Also, here's a short review from the Korea Times although I'm not sure that she actually read it. Does anyone else get that feeling from her writeup?

NOTE: This book finally laid to rest my morbid curiosity of George Lake; a poor excuse of a human being that Neff first wrote about back in 2008. His story is enough to buy the book.


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