Wednesday, September 23, 2015 74 comments

Book Review: The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot

Title: The Great Leader and the Fighter Pilot: The True Story of the Tyrant Who Created North Korea and The Young Lieutenant Who Stole His Way to Freedom
Author: Blaine Harden
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Viking Press (2015)
ISBN-10: 0670016578 
ISBN-13: 9780670016570

Blaine Harden's juxtaposing portraits of Kim Il-sung and No Kum-sok speak of stories much deeper than you might expect. This book isn't what I'd classify as a typical North Korean propaganda smashing, ten-foot-pole distanced shock-value reporting. It's equal parts entertaining, readily accessible, and shrewdly paced.

I held a passing familiarity with No's famous 1953 defection but I was wrong to think that this book could teach me little else. The book's quite different from Harden's previous work "Escape from Camp 14" and more akin to Erik Larson's "The Devil in the White City"; a chronological text novelized in two opposing parts. Each divided chapter didactically explores the the two sides of the North Korean military coin. Much like Larson's "Devil in the White City" focused on the improbable setting up and lasting aftermath of the the 1893 Chicago's World Fair, the commonality of Harden's work is the time and setting; pre- and post-war North Korea. 

The character studies and comparative interactions between major players far exceed the expectation for an ambitions work linking the rise of one world-famous dictator and his cronies with one esoterically noted but otherwise unremarkable fighter pilot. Harden blends both stories without political bias and instead focuses on the developing personas in their time without the subjective benefit of Western bias and 20/20 historical judgment. It's an impressive skill that I feel many other historians could learn from.

I don't want to give much else away but for a combined biography, the execution is masterful. It's damn good reading and well Worth your time.


Howdy. So, it's been about two and a half years since I've posted anything. No apologies, but an update wouldn't hurt. The lack of recent Korean-related history reading was linked to three major life events:

  1. I started and finished a M.A. program in E.S.L. and learned a lot. 
  2. Upon graduating, I immediately started and finished another graduate program, this time an M.Ed. in educational leadership. Learned even more and now double gilded. Double poor now, but double gilded none the less.
  3. When not studying about teaching, I turned to fiction. Now that I'm not studying any more, I'm trying to balance my non-fiction and fiction book shelf.

So I suppose the URL is a bit misleading now, but I am still plenty interested in Korea's history. Whenever I come across a new book, expect a review or a mention.

It's nice to be back.
Monday, March 11, 2013 8 comments

Book Review: A Diplomat's Helpmate

Title: A Diplomat's Helpmate: How Rose F. Foote, wife of the first U.S. Minister and envoy extraordinary to Korea, served her country in the Far East 
Author: Mary Viola Tingley Lawrence
Paperback: 50 pages
Publisher: H.S. Crocker Company (1918) location

A pretentious title to complement outlandish laudatory writing, A Diplomat's Helpmate: How Rose F. Foote, wife of the first U.S. Minister and envoy extraordinary to Korea, served her country in the Far East is a short but valuable piece of history transparently disguised in absurdly extravagant acclaim. Embellishments notwithstanding, this is a brief recount of events involving the wife of the first American Minister to Korea, Rose F. Foote.

Her biographer, Mary Viola Tingley Lawrence, was a personal friend and dutifully exaggerated Foote's accomplishments posthumously. Consequently, notable events are glossed over with patriotic zeal and otherwise useful personal accounts are unfortunately missing. For instance, nothing is mentioned of Foote's supposed domineering personality or her obstinate rivalry with the only other Western woman in Seoul. An example of Lawrence's flourishes:

The American lady at once commanded a prominent place in oriental diplomatic life. Her exceptional beauty and queenly bearing aroused admiration wherever she was seen.

For the reader's sake, included authentic photos of Foote betray this likelihood. Another example of Lawrence playing up Foote's prominence is in her retelling of the supposed feud between Foote and the Korean Queen. The grudge supposedly came about because of Foote's magnanimously arrival in Seoul where she was instantly loved and appreciated by all citizens. The Queen's alleged reaction:

The baffled Queen in a fury of rage beat upon her imprisoning walls, as she smarted under the taunting realization that the uncrowned occidental woman commanded a limitless freedom in her interference with the traditions that had been dearest to the Korean heart.

The book isn't all fluff, though. Rose Foote did indeed live a pioneering life abroad; after all, she was the first Western woman to enter Seoul. She accompanied her husband on this rather risky political assignment while in her fifties. Dutifully, she made the legation grounds social and accommodating of the status her husband garnered. It wasn't all tea parties, though; her perspective of her husband's witness of the abortive 1884 coup d'etat was graphically worth mentioning. It also seems that her time abroad proved to be too taxing on her health; she passed away six months after returning to San Francisco. 

For a fifty page adulatory account, it's short and far too sweet. It's not exactly fiction, though, so a discerning eye can detect some of the genuine work that the Foote's accomplished. For those interested in the time period, it's worth a quick read-through. 

- - - - - -

Robert Neff penned a broader picture of the woman for OhMyNews a few years back: Parts One and Two.
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 0 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 1 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.