Monday, May 03, 2021

a quickie review of three self-published authors:
Shawn Matthews, Island of Fantasy
Mark J. Russell, Young-hee and the Pullocho
NB Armstrong, Korean Straight Lines

A lot of us expats are given to writing.  Some of us, like Michael Breen, write in a semi-scholarly, journalistic vein—serious nonfiction.  Others of us write to entertain, and even that style subdivides into literary fiction, poetry, and nonfiction:  fantastical adventures or humorous autobiographies.  Below are some long-overdue mini-reviews of two works by expats, plus a mini-review of an expat-created work that I only recently finished.

1.  Shawn Matthews, Island of Fantasy (2004)

I actually wrote a sort-of review of Shawn's book way back in 2004.  You can find my old review here.  Shawn's personal story is, ultimately, a sad one:  he broke up with his Korean girlfriend for unspecified reasons, hightailed it to China, got himself a Chinese girlfriend, and ended up committing suicide by jumping off the top of an apartment building.  In the aftermath of the suicide, Shawn's best friend told the world something that some had already suspected:  Shawn had been bipolar.  Shawn's blogs, Korea Life Blog and China Life Blog, were unfailingly—even manically—upbeat accounts of the awesomeness of living as an American expat in East Asia.  His blog was extremely popular for its photos and its unflagging humor—something that also suffuses Shawn's Island of Fantasy.  The events described in Shawn's book are fairly horrible, though, and they're a true reflection of a freshman expat's experience of life in Korea when he has no idea what he's getting himself into.  We've all been there:  in my first year of working in Korea, I ended up suing my boss, who was a true dick.  Like Shawn, I had no idea how crappy the hagweon experience was going to be.  If I could, I'd recommend that wannabe expats go straight into university teaching.  It's not perfect, but it's a damn sight better than hagweon work.

Shawn's prose could stand a good bit of editing (as you'll see, this will be a running theme through all of these mini-reviews), but if one looks past the occasionally clunky prose, there's an engaging narrative there about a young guy who plunges into the Korean hagweon experience after accepting an offer to teach on South Korea's Geoje Island (pronounce it "gaw-jeh").  The kids are unruly and misbehaving, and the couple running the hagweon prove to be an absolute nightmare.  People who know little about Korea might think Shawn's portrayal of this evil duo is an exaggeration, but such predators do exist, and in droves.  My first Korean boss was one of them.  Shawn somehow spins his narrative in a positive way, but he can't hide the truth that, to find happiness, he basically had to physically run away from the school to gain his freedom, with that evil Korean couple desperately running after him like wolves about to lose their prey.  Horrific, funny, and relatable.

2.  Mark Russell, Young-hee and the Pullocho (2015)

I read journalist Mark Russell's fantasy story a while back, and I haven't reread it since, so some of the details have gone fuzzy.  The story is about a little girl named Young-hee; she's spent some years in the States and has lost a bit of her Korean.  Now newly reestablished in Seoul, Young-hee is disappointed by the tall, forbidding apartment complexes that surround her.  Her adventure begins when she loses her little brother; her frantic search for him leads her down, down an apartment building's parking garage where she encounters a portal that takes her, in true CS Lewis fashion, into a sort of alternate universe where the creatures and characters of Korean legend live and interact.  Young-hee discovers her brother has been captured by a tokkaebi, a sort of goblin, and he refuses to relinquish the boy unless Young-hee goes on a quest for a powerful, ginger-like root called a pullocho.  While in this alternate world, Young-hee encounters dragons, tigers, a talking pair of jangseung (pole-shaped guardians, male and female, often found at trailheads; I've written about them many times), and many other magical, mystical beings.  She learns of a great war on the horizon—one that might devastate this world, which is called Strange Land (a biblical reference to Moses' self-identification as "a stranger in a strange land"?).

Russell's story is filled with colorful characters and Korean idioms, all perceptively rendered by an author who obviously loves Korea and its legends.  There's a keen awareness of Korean culture that no doubt comes from Russell's own experience in Korea; I did feel a twinge when I thought that the author may have beaten me to the punch in writing a story that involves characters much like the ones I'd like to include in my own fantasy-themed novel.  That said, Russell's book could stand some massive proofreading:  typos and other linguistic gaffes abound, and they sometimes detract and distract from the story.  Comb through the prose, straighten out the kinks, and you've got a fascinating adventure on your hands—readable by both kids and adults.  (I also really like the book's cover design.)

3.  NB Armstrong, Korean Straight Lines (2012)

My English friend N, who does freelance work for my company along with the several dozen other things he does to keep himself busy, recently recommended his Korean Straight Lines to me, so I bought the Kindle version.  Published in 2012, the book recounts N's early experiences in South Korea.  The narrative is presented in a pastiched, impressionistic manner; chapters are short, all unfailingly ending with little vocab lessons written in both hangeul and English words.

For the scatologically inclined, there's a brief story about N's encounters with an old man in Busan, whom N came to think of as something of a sage... until the day N found the old man leaning against a wall and taking a foul-smelling shit while gesturing vigorously for N to provide him with toilet paper.  Later in the book, and in much the same frank, toilet-related spirit, N finds himself on a bus, saddled with a raging need to take a piss.  He does so surreptitiously, into a bottle, and is literally caught with his pants down when another bus pulls alongside him, and a woman in that bus sees N in flagrante and fixes the Englishman with a glare of disapproval.  As the comedy of errors continues, N ends up dropping the urine-filled bottle, which rolls along the floor of the bus.

I don't want to give the impression that the book is entirely focused on bodily functions; it isn't.  Most of the book, in fact, combines insights on Korean culture with N's experiences as a newbie who eventually gains competency in the language and a deeper knowledge of the culture.  N isn't bipolar, so his perspective on South Korea isn't as relentlessly positive as that of the late Shawn Matthews:  N is more thoughtful and meditative, and he's not inclined to view Korea through rose-colored glasses.  He offers respect to the country when respect is due, but he's honest and critical when he sees the country's flaws.  A person can learn a lot, from this book, about private teaching in Korea, Korean food culture, piano lessons, Chinese lessons, and the interesting things that can happen in the company of strangers.

N's book, like the other self-published books reviewed before this one, can definitely use some proofreading.  I mentioned this to N, and he tells me he wrote the book in a rush; I can only hope that, one day, he goes back to his manuscript and buffs out some of the typos and other errors (re-uploading an e-book manuscript to Amazon is easy beans).  

Also, the hangeul lessons at the end of each chapter are useless if you can't/don't/won't read hangeul, but N does provide a handy appendix in which, step by step, you can learn to sound out hangeul and learn some basic words.  I've lived in South Korea for sixteen years, and while I speak Korean at a high-intermediate level (I'm far from fluent), I was embarrassed to see, while reading N's book, how many basic vocab words I still didn't know.  I used my Kindle app's highlighter function to note all the words that were new to me; I'll be studying them all when I have some free time.

Do I recommend N's book?  Well, how can I not?  N is English, so he writes in the idiom of a speaker of the Queen's.  This is wildly different from Shawn Matthews's splashy, flashy, Amurrican prose, but I suspect that most Yanks find Brit-inflected English charming, not off-putting.  N's style is occasionally prone to humorously purple hyperbole, but the reader never loses a sense of proportion.

One thing I still haven't quite figured out, though, is the meaning of the book's title.  First, I'll note that the title, Korean Straight Lines, is slightly Konglish-y:  Straight Korean Lines would be more natural-sounding, just as it's more natural to say "traditional Korean clothing" rather than what Koreans always say, to wit:  "Korean traditional clothing."  That's not how we normally order our adjectives.  

I don't mean this as a criticism of N's diction, although it may sound like one.  I'm actually wondering whether the title involved a deliberate choice to "go Konglish," so to speak.  My guess, based on my own experience living in this country, is that the title is a friendly jab at the nonlinearity of Korean thought, society, and culture.  Things rarely proceed straight from A to B here, and it often seems, from the foreigner's perspective, as if life in Korea has been deliberately set up to prevent linear, Euclidean movement.  

Result:  the Korean version of a straight line looks like a drunken scribble.  You start your first day of vacation, as N once did, thinking you'll be heading to Busan and sitting out on the beach, but instead, you're accosted by a Korean stranger who insists you tag along and meet his friends up in the mountains (that, by the way, is an introvert's worst fucking nightmare—trust me).  

Or a more relevant example from my own life:  you want to sign up to a website so you can order kitchen products, but as you muddle your way through the registration process, you're suddenly told by the website that you need to register with this other website to make the payment procedure smoother.  Only after registering at Site B can you return to Site A and continue registering.  One step forward, three steps sideways, ten steps backward.  

That's life in Korea, and maybe that's N's ironic point.  Things that ought to be simple and direct, like the frank expression of certain opinions, can't happen because you have to worry about everyone's over-delicate ego thanks to notions of "feelings," "face," "honor," and "shame."  Of course, if you live here long enough, you do get used to things, and you do learn—at least somewhat—how to navigate society.  But the static and friction of everyday life will constantly annoy you, anyway, because the Korean version of a straight line is indeed a drunken scribble.


John Mac said...

I left a comment earlier, but got a "this site can't be reached" message. Not sure if it went through or not. It was about how much I had enjoyed Shawn's Korea blog and how shocking and sad it was when I learned he had chosen to end his life.

(By the way, Grammarly says to lose the comma after "earlier", but it precedes "but", one of the FANBOYS. Who is right?)

Kevin Kim said...

I don't see your original comment in the moderation queue, so I guess it got eaten. Sorry about that.

Shockingly, Grammarly is correct. No comma needed. Why? Because what follows the "but" isn't a clause.

See, this is why I say that the ability to recognize clauses is important. A clause has both a subject and a verb. If your sentence had said "but I got" instead of "but got," then a comma would've been necessary. The sentence you wrote simply has a compound predicate, which is only one clause.

"I left a comment earlier but got a [X] message" is similar in structure to "John arrived early but had forgotten to bring the cake." That's only a single clause. Note the difference: "John arrived early, but he'd forgotten to bring the cake." Two clauses, therefore a comma-conjunction to separate them.

Charles said...

Thanks for the reviews. I know of Mark Russell mostly through his writing on K-pop, and hadn't connected him with this book.

Kevin Kim said...

Heh. K-poop.

Kevin Kim said...

"Thanks for the reviews."

I am but to serve.

John Mac said...

Kev, thanks for that explanation. I see the distinction now.

Kevin Kim said...


I am but to serve.