Tuesday, February 26, 2013 2 comments

Book Review: Naval Surgeon in Yi Korea: The Journal of George W. Woods

Title: Naval Surgeon in Yi Korea: The Journal of George W. Woods
Author: Fred C. Bohm & Robert R. Swartout, Jr.
Paperback: 138 pages
Publisher: Institute of East Asian Studies
ISBN-13: 9780912966687

Of all the Westerners who passed through Korea after it cautiously (albeit officially) opened its doors in the late 19th century, one would be hard pressed to find a more learned individual with a penchant for detail. Enter 46-year-old U.S. Naval surgeon George W. Woods, a career officer who eventually rose to the highest medical rank the Navy bestows. Woods kept an impeccable journal of his several month stay in and around Seoul in 1884 while serving aboard the USS Juniata.

What makes the annotated transcription of Woods' journal so significant, apart from his prosaic depictions of Korean life, is that his sojourn occurred before notable missionaries like Henry Appenzeller, Horace Newton Allen, and Horace Grant Underwood arrived and established themselves. In fact, Woods arrived less than a year after Lucious Foote, the American envoy, took up official residence in Seoul. Few others can claim such a distinction.

The old adage "don't judge a book by its cover" is especially accurate here. The cover of this 1984 publication is admittedly atrocious but the over twenty full page photograph reproductions admirably complement Woods' accessibly detailed and optimistically objective account. A lot of the characteristic air of superiority that was common of the time is refreshingly absent. We are quite fortunate that the editors, Bohm and Swartout, preserved and compiled this historically significant journal. If you can still find a copy, it's worth the trouble.
Saturday, February 23, 2013 2 comments

Book Review: Pyongyang: A journey into North Korea

Title: Pyongyang: A journey into North Korea
Author: Guy Delisle
Paperback:  192 pages
Publisher:  Drawn and Quarterly (May 2007)
ISBN-13:  9781897299210

Try to keep expectations on level for this one: it's a graphic novel chronicling a two month animation project.  The gratuitous mountain of critical praise piled on the first few pages and back cover are really unneeded. There's no great revelation, no expounding truths to be found at the end and certainly no scholarly work was done. It was a job and he did it complaining most of the time. The rest of the time was spent criticizing transparent inefficiencies and consequently drowning sorrows away in peculiarly copious amounts of alcohol. The narration is predictably wry and cynical.

That isn't to say that "Pyongyang" is a bad read. Far from it. The illustrator is charmingly talented and wittingly depicts his unique, sheltered experience. He's astute without being cocky and meek without being self-deprecating. He's a regular guy whose snarky comments would probably come from 90% of us if we were in his shoes. After all, he isn't working for an NGO or some humanitarian cause; he's an animator working on cartoons. His observations are just that.

This isn't the latest groundbreaking piece from Andrei Lankov or the latest controversial drivel from Bruce Cumings; it's a graphic novel aimed a wide audience and it's fun. Worth a read.
Friday, February 22, 2013 0 comments

Book Review: Journal of the Third Daughter: Growing up in Korea

Title: Journal of the Third Daughter: Growing up in Korea
Author: Frances Lampe Peterson
Paperback: 152 pages
Publisher: Four Seasons Publishers (2000)
ISBN-13: 9781891929380

It's really hard to slap a negative review on a memoir like this because I'm not in a position to judge the life the author led; rather, the way she wrote it down. For that, I can say that this is not a very good book.

For a memoir that claims to cover the period of time before her birth up until she left Korea and entered college, it tells surprisingly little. Far too much valuable information is assumed to the reader; as if only other "mishkids" were reading. The average reader, even one with a background or interest in Korea, is mostly left wondering what exactly is going on.

The writing style hurts the experience, too, as it is entirely too oral. Gratuitous exclamations abound. Chapters are arranged more like topics and are often difficult to follow. The "third daughter" motif fails to make an appearance other than in the title. Romanization of Korean words are sloppy and inconsistent. The uninspired layout isn't going to win any beauty contests, either.

I was really hoping for a salient recount like in Mary Linley Taylor's "Chain of Amber" but instead it read more like a disjointed gathering of somewhat related recollections. Sometimes oral histories that make their way to print are hidden treasures begging to be discovered and relived. Others are more suitable for keeping in the family for nostalgia's sake. This book is the latter.

Thursday, February 21, 2013 0 comments

Book Review: Hamel's Journal and a description of the Kingdom of Korea: 1653-1666

Title: Hamel's Journal and a description of the Kingdom of Korea: 1653-1666
Author: Hendrick Hamel and Jean-Paul Buys
Paperback: 113 pages
Publisher: Royal Asiatic Society: Korea Branch (1998)
ISBN-13: 978-8972250869

Crashed on the shores of a forbidden kingdom unknown to the Western world, a young Dutch bookkeeper and 35 of his shipmates found themselves in uncharted territory in 1653. Unlike the Japanese or Chinese who customarily sent shipwrecked foreigners on their way, the Korean court flatly refused and instead intended the survivors to spend the rest of their days as guests in their kingdom. For thirteen years, that's exactly what happened.

All told, only 8 out of the original 64 members of the Sperwer made it back to their homeland after living in Jeju, Seoul and later split between three cities in the Jolla region. Hamel's observations were well recorded and still provide a fascinating look into life in seventeenth century Korea. This revised edition contains plenty of supplementary information. A small treasure worth reading.

The story makes several interesting references to an older Dutch shipwreck survivor, Jan Jansz Weltevree, who decades earlier, also shipwrecked in Korea. although his two shipmates successfully escaped, he did not and lived out his life in Korea. After meeting Hamel, he acted as a translator for the Dutchmen. What are the odds?

There's a museum in Jeju near the supposed crash site of the Sperwer. I visited it in 2010 and took a few snapshots. If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013 0 comments

Book Review: The Trespassers: Korea, June 1871

Title: The Trespassers: Korea, June 1871
Author: Irving Werstein
Hardback: 158 pages
Publisher: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc (May 1969)

ISBN-10: 999922928X
ISBN-13: 978-9999229289

And for today's obscure gem, we have (un)celebrated children's author Irving Werstein, who published dozens of short nonfiction titles that frequently dealt with international war. I came across this while researching the USS Pueblo Incident, which is mentioned in the introduction. For a library book from the late 60s, I have to say that I was impressed. Onto the review:

A short nonfiction account of the Battle of Kanghwa Island (1871) aimed at junior high school readers, this entertaining retelling of the "Sinmiyangyo" incident is surprisingly well-constructed. In addition to drawing on remarkably telling journal and diary entries from officers, sailors and marines who participated in the battle, the corresponding ink illustrations by Joseph Papin make this a delightfully fun, if not obscure, gem. If you happen to run across an old school library copy, I recommend picking it up.

It's sad to think that only four years later, the Japanese would end up doing a number on the island, too, and eventually the country itself in 1876.

Curiously not mentioned in the book, the marines famously captured the defending general's flag and brought it back to the states. There, it festered in an obscure wing of the U.S. Naval Academy Museum in Annapolis, Maryland. Seeing as how the flag was questionably obtained (the countries were not technically at war) its housing in an American museum raised the interests of a fellow acquaintance.

Korean archery expert and longtime American expat Thomas Duvernay was instrumental in repatriating the flag to Korea, albeit on a ten year loan. Unrelated, but also interesting is that his son, Nicholas, is a rockstar slash professor. Very impressive.

Lastly, a short biography of Irving Werstein courtesy of LibraryThing:
Irving Werstein was born and raised in Brooklyn, but grew up in Queens. He attended P.S. 90 and graduated from Richmond Hill High School, where he was on the staff of the school paper. Despite the Depression years of the early 1930's, he entered New York University, but family finances forced him to leave school only after 2 years. He claimed he left college to "see the world." He enjoyed various careers along the way, including those of waiter, camp counselor, factory worker, reporter. Mr. Werstein made his first writing sale in 1938. Before being drafted in 1941, Werstein sold many stories to mens and adventure magazines He served in the Army during WWII, stationed in Panama. On the eve of his transportation to England for the D-Day invasion, he contracted malaria, and sat out the remainder of the war stateside. In the army, he honed his writing skills working for the Army magazine, Yank. He achieved the exalted rank of Corporal. After his honorable discharge, he seriously embarked on a full-time writing career, selling his stories to the likes of Saturday Evening Post, plus radio and TV. He spent much of the late 40's and early 50's traveling, living abroad in England, Mexico and Italy. He returned and resided permanently in New York City, in particular, at the newly developed Stuyvesant Town apartments. His first published book, July 1863, came out in the fall of 1957. His newly adopted son arrived on February 22, 1958, a four year old born in Belgium. With his wife Goldie, the family resided continuously on the lower east side, with a move to Peter Cooper Village in 1968. Mr. Westein wrote over 50 books, mostly concentrating his efforts on non-fiction writing for young adults. He died of a sudden heart attack on April 7 1971. His wife died several months later. He left behind his young son Jack, now a librarian, living in Washington D.C. with his own adopted son, Michael.
Saturday, February 2, 2013 0 comments

Book Review: Letters from Joseon

Title: Letters from Joseon: 19th Century Korea through the Eyes of an American Ambassador's Wife
Author: Robert Neff
Paperback: 432 pages
Publisher: Seoul Selection (December 2012)
ISBN-13: 9788997639090

This is the kind of history book that you hope gets written but almost never does. Freelance writer and late 19th/early 20th century Korean historian Robert Neff follows up 2009's Korea Through Western Eyes with an intimate look into the life of an American diplomat and his family living at the legation in Seoul during the 1890s. Neff is the perfect choice to compile and edit this entertaining and frank look into the turbulent events that occurred during the four years of Joseph Sill's residency. Between the Sino-Japanese War, the Gabo Reforms, the brutal murder of Queen Min and King Gojong's subsequent escape to the Russian legation, they lived in Korea at a very exciting but tragic time.

The full title "Letters from Joseon: 19th century Korea through the eyes of an American ambassador's wife" is somewhat misleading. The book covers so much more than just an ambassador’s wife and her mail. The ambassador himself, his wife, sister-in-law, and several others have their personal correspondence featured here as well. Also, these letters are not simply transcribed and reprinted. Backstories and explanations are beautifully fleshed out for the reader’s consideration. 

The narrative is cohesively arranged chronologically and further divided into twenty four chapters covering topics like “Trouble With Soldiers”, “Cholera: The Rat God” and “The Murder of the Queen”. This is in addition to the painstaking number of footnotes, photographs, and quotations for quick reference. Virtually every single major and obscurely minor player in the events leading up to the 20th century is mentioned; dozens earn their own miniature biography.

This is also an aesthetically pleasing book; a luxury many history texts choose to do without. The layout is clean and the color scheme is charmingly rustic. What steal the show almost more than the story itself are the photographs, most of which are from the author’s personal collection. It seems that hardly a page passes without an affixed biographical portrait, naval ship profile, sketchbook rendering or outdoor snapshot. For a time when photography was a new kind of novelty to Korea, the collection amassed here is impressive.

Aside from some typos, fault can only be found in the book’s abrupt conclusion. Up until the ending, the reader is gingerly lead along a path that relives the unique lives of these people in great detail. The literary handholding anticlimactically ends as the Sills unceremoniously enter into a quite retirement. Such is life, I suppose. A few questions do remain about those who took over, though. Perhaps it’s outside the scope of the book to divulge the goings on in Korea after the protagonist and her family left. 

The overall result is an academically relevant history book that reads like a juicy gossip column. This is the author at what he does best; research, compilation and exposition. He tells a story that was always there for those who knew where to look but few cared to venture. What makes it worth reading is how Neff makes you actually give a damn about people who history nearly forgot. For such a niche corner of history, it’s really a wonderful book that is well worth your time.