Sunday, July 13, 2014

A BEL for Susano

I'll never stop appreciating The Busan English Library.  When I was there on Saturday, I saw a sign that they've just had their 5th birthday.  I've been here almost two years.  Hmmm. So was it a Field of Dreams thing?

On Saturday, I was in one of those amiable moods in which I wanted every book I touched.  In keeping with library policy, I had to hold it to five, so this is what I brought home:

1. Ella Enchanted - Gail Carson Levine.  I polished this one off as soon as I got home.  I read it because an old friend of mine read it for a YA literature class.  I was curious when she said her classmates complained about the invented languages.  I liked that part and the rest of it as well, but the friendship/budding romance between Prince Char and Ella got a little tiresome.  There's a movie version as well.  I should check it out. Yeah, maybe. Someday.

2. will grayson, will grayson - John Green and David Levithan.  I really wanted Looking for Alaska, but it's John Green.  I'll take what I can get!

3. I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive - Steve Earle.  There's no way I could pass up a book with the title of a Hank Williams song for its title.  Not to mention that the author is one of my all-time favorite badass country singer-songwriters.

4. Godric - Frederick Buechner.  A novel based on the life of a 12th century holy man.  It was nominated for a Pulitzer back in 1981, but I think that's the year it would have been up against A Confederacy of Dunces.  Nobody puts Ignatius J. Reilly in a corner!

5. Code Name Verity - Elizabeth Wein.  I've been watching a lot of book vlogs on YouTube lately,  This Printz Honor book set during WWII is getting a lot of love from YA vloggers.

I can't decide which book to read next.  They all look good.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

The Korea Shelf

Sometime in the next few months, it will become necessary to dismantle the Bybee-ary.  I'll have to make some hard choices.  Some of the books will be sent back to the U.S. and some will find new homes in and around Busan.

My Korea shelf, pictured above, falls into the first category.  These babies are going with me.
 Do you hear that, books?  Ga chi gaja.

First, a moment of silence.  Here are some of the physical books have gotten away from me over the years:

1.  A short novel called An Appointment with My Brother by Yi Mun-Yol  was so good that I kept insisting people read it and finally, it didn't come back.

2. Another was a cookbook called Korean Cooking Made Easy. No, they didn't make it easy, with beaucoup ingredients and recipes that went on for two or three pages, but the pictures of the finished dishes were gorgeous.

 3. A 1931 novel, Three Generations, by Yom Sang-seop was...hard going.  I tried, I really did, but those first 50 pages seemed iterminable.  I'd borrowed it forever from the International Zone at my old university, but I changed my mind and took it back.  I still feel bad about quitting that book.  In retrospect, I could have muscled up on the reading process and made it more of an interactive thing.

4. Tears of Blood, a memoir by Korean War POW Young-Bok Yoo somehow disappeared before I had a chance to read it. That was my autographed copy!  [Smiting forehead.] 

5. Finally, I had a Korean travel guide by Lonely Planet but the chapter about Busan had such a shitty, mean-spirited attitude that I ripped out the Seoul subway map for future use and left the rest of it in some waiting room somewhere.

As my departure date gets closer, I predict I'll get all soppy and sentimental about leaving Korea and start adding titles like Good Morning, Kimchi! to the Korean collection.

Here's a closer look at my Korean shelf:


1. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin -Author unknown.  A short biography about the man who invented the "turtle ship" and almost singlehandedly defeated Japan several hundred years ago  He's the most admired historical figure among Koreans.

2. Introduction to Korean History and Culture - Andrew C. Nahm.  I admire an author that can get 5,000 years of history into less than 400 reader-friendly pages.

3. Korea's Place In The Sun: A Modern History - Bruce Cumings.  I haven't read this one yet.  When I get back to the U.S. and I'm homesick for Korea, Cumings' book will be just the ticket.

4. How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions - Sang-Hun Choe and Christopher Torchia.  So many good ones. My favorites are: "Go and wipe your own nose" = mind your own business and "He burned down his hut to kill the fleas" = he couldn't control his emotions.

5. Korea Bug - J. Scott Burgeson.  An entertaining look at the quirkiest bits of Korea.  I wrote more about it here.

6. Korea Unmasked - Won-bok Rhie.  The history and culture of Korea in comic book form.

7. Picky, Sticky or Just Plain Icky? - Valerie Hamer.  Hamer interviews a 30-something Korean woman named Su-jin whose hobby is going on blind dates.  The title refers to the type of guys she unfortunately seems to attract.

8. Culture Smart! Korea - James Hoare.  A helpful guide to customs and culture.  Presumably, if you read this book you'll never put a foot wrong.  I did and I have, sad to say.


9. Korean Phrasebook - Lonely Planet.  So tiny and so useful.  I'll send the rest of the shelf on ahead of me, but this will stay tucked in my bag until Korea is completely in my rear-view mirror.

10. Survival Korean - Stephen Revere.  I never studied this book as thoroughly as I intended, but in those first few months in Korea, I would play the tapes and feel reassured that I could learn the language anytime I wanted to.

11. English Games for Korean Elementary Class - Most of it is written in Hangul for Korean teachers teaching English, but enough of it is in English for me to get the gist.  Some of these games are fun for university students as well. Great resource during the first week when we're doing icebreakers.


12.  Let's Eat Korean Food - Betsy O'Brien.  A great resource when you know what you liked at the last Korean restaurant you went to, but can't remember the name of the dish.  Clear explanations and descriptions.  Illustrated with drawings.

13. Bee-bim Bop! - Linda Sue Park.  A children's picture book in rhyme about a little girl who helps her mother prepare one of the most popular traditional Korean dishes. Fun for all ages.


14. Your Republic Is Calling You - Young-Ha Kim.  A strange, yet compelling novel about a North Korean spy who has lived in South Korea for so many years that he presumes he's been forgotten.  He's settled, married, a father, has a career he enjoys, then one day, he gets the call to return to Pyongyang.

15.  I'll Be Right There - Kyung-Sook Shin.  This is Shin's follow-up to the wildly popular 2011 novel Please Look After Mom.  I haven't read it yet.  I have high hopes.

16. Three Days in That Autumn - Wanseo Pak.  A gynecologist at the end of her career finds herself conflicted about the ways in which she's helped women in the years after the Korean War.  This was my very first Korean novel; I was so excited to finally read some Korean literature.

17. The Chronicle of Manchwidang - Moon Soo Kim.  A father is obsessive about wanting to hang on to his ancestral home.  The son has other plans.  As usual, when generations are involved, it's never just a story about a family -- they represent different aspects of Korea -- in this case, old vs. new.

18. Drifting House - Krys Lee. For me, Krys Lee is THE definitive voice of Korean fiction.  In Drifting House, a collection of short stories, she reflects the people and culture, and they're real, not just convenient symbols for an allegory.  She probes, but she's got a light touch.  This is one of the best short story collections I've ever read.

North Korea

19. Escape From Camp 14 - Blaine Harden.  The true story of Dong-Hyuk Shin, who escaped from his birthplace, a prison camp in North Korea where Kim Seung-Il had ordered that his family be kept captive for generations.

20. The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag - Chol-Hwan Kang and Pierre Rigoulot.  I haven't read this book yet.

21. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick.  For this book, Demick interviewed in depth six former North Korean citizens who escaped to South Korea.  She explores what their lives were like there, and how they've adjusted to a markedly different culture.

E-Books on my Korean shelf

Our Happy Time (novel) Gong Ji-Young
Waxing Moon (novel) H.S. Kim
Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (nonfiction) Bradley K. Martin
Highway with Green Apples - (short story) Bae Suah
The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly (novella) Sun-mi Hwang
Korea: The Impossible Country (nonfiction) Daniel Tudor
The Living Reed: A Novel of Korea - (novel) Pearl S. Buck
Please Look After Mom - (novel) Kyung-Sook Shin
Angry Young Spaceman - (novel) Jim Munroe.  Technically, this book takes place on another planet, but it's easily recognizable as South Korea.)

Friday, July 04, 2014

Bookstore Bargains

Since it's the 4th of July and I'm not in the U.S. doing my regular celebrating, I had to do something to cheer myself up today.  How about a walk that would ultimately lead to the bookstore?  Yes.  Brilliant idea.  A little sashay around the shelves would put the roses back in my cheeks.

A tall, narrow shelf caught my eye because it had a sign taped to it saying "Books 3,000.  Flat Price." Definitely worth a look.  After all, 3,000 Korean won = $2.97 USD.  That price is almost unheard of here even among used books, and these were new books!

Here's what I found:

1. The Artificial Silk Girl - Irmgard Keun.  A 1932 German novel about the life of a young woman-about-town -- Berlin -- in the early 1930s.  In the introduction, the translator compares it to Sex in the City, Bridget Jones' Diary and the Shopaholic books, which set off my Snobbish Inner Bookworm.  SIB was quickly silenced when I got to the part about how Keun's book was banned and copies were destroyed the following year by a Nazi censorship board.  By that time, The Artificial Silk Girl had been published in English, so they couldn't deep-six it completely.  Isn't the cover to this edition fun?

2. Jubilee - Margaret Walker.  I wasn't familiar with this 1966 novel, but from the description, it seems like a Gone with the Wind from the enslaved point of view.  Jubilee covers the same years in Georgia as GWTW -- Antebellum through Reconstruction, following the life of Vyry, the daughter of a white plantation owner and his black "mistress". The book is based on the life of Walker's great-grandmother, which makes it sound a bit like Roots as well.  I have a feeling that when I start reading Jubilee, I'll go into a reading stupor and I won't want to put it down for even the most necessary chores.

Great finds and excellent prices!  It's almost like the bookstore knew that I needed a bit of consolation.  This excursion takes the sting out of no barbecue, fireworks or Sousa.  Well, almost.  Not quite.

Monday, June 30, 2014

June Reading: Leaps and Bounds

Whoaaaaaaa! 17 books this month.  What happened?  This has got to be tied to my recent resolution to DNF with impunity.  Or it could be that I read a few short books.  Either way, it was a great reading month in both quantity and quality.  New books, new discoveries.  There's nothing like being a bookworm.

1. Gather Together in My Name - Maya Angelou.  This is Angelou's life from age 17 to 20.  A lot of activity during these years, a lot of missteps, but she owns it all.  I must get the other volumes of her memoirs.

2. Plainsong: For Female Voices - Wright Morris.  This is a forgotten classic. Find it. Read it.

3. Black Potatoes: The Story of the Great Irish Famine, 1845-1850 - Susan Campbell Bartoletti.  A lucid, moving account of those terrible years in Ireland.  For younger readers, but don't let that stop you.

4. Blankets - Craig Thompson. I first thought this graphic memoir was going to be like Stitches, with evil, creepy parents.  So glad I was wrong!  Offbeat story of growing up and first love.

5. Veggies Not Included - Christine Leo.  Her rather unconventional method helped her lose 130 pounds and keep it off, and that's because she's put a hell of a lot of brain work behind it.

6. Highway with Green Apples - Suah Bae.  This is a long short story (47 pages) translated from Korean.  I wrote a review of it here.

7. Medicine Men: Extreme Appalachian Doctoring - Carolyn Jourdan.  There's already a lot of great material here, with the oral histories of the Appalachian doctors and their patients, but at times, Jourdan gets in the way of her own objective with her overly folksy manner.  As a reader, I felt vaguely insulted when, in the middle of a funny, interesting narrative, she broke in and said something along the lines of, I was doubled over with laughter. As if the readers might not be getting it.  Still, it was a fun read that kept me occupied during a few subway rides.

8. Radical Frugality: Living in America on $8,000 a Year - Nic Adams.  Difficult and Spartan, but not impossible.  I enjoyed the lists of the cheapest states and towns/cities.

9. The Odd Women - George Gissing.  What I like best about Gissing is how he illustrates how his characters fit (or don't fit, in some cases) into the society they are part of.  This novel, published in 1893, follows a group of women who are unmarried by fate or by choice. Gissing also turns his attention to one woman who didn't want to struggle along, settled for marriage and got a husband that makes Mr. Casaubon from Middlemarch look like a picture of mental health. Gissing throws his readers some curve balls, but I respect an author who has confidence that his audience can keep up with him.

10.  The Street - Ann Petry.  This novel of a single mother in 1940s Harlem struggling to give her 8-year-old son a better life is a combination of Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth and Native Son by Richard Wright with a few of Sherwood Anderson's 'grotesques' from Winesburg, Ohio sprinkled in.  Another forgotten/neglected classic.

11. Gentleman Jim - Raymond Briggs.  In this graphic novel, Jim, a janitor, decides to change careers after 20 years.  His Walter Mitty-like daydreams and befuddled notions of how to proceed and Jim's wife, the most perfect straight man ever, make this a hilarious read.

12. The Strongest Man in the World: Louis Cyr - Nicolas Debon.  A short graphic biography of the 19th century strongman from Quebec.

13. Serve the People: A Stir-Fried Journey Through China - Jen Lin-Liu.  The author went from America to China in search of her family's roots.  Her explorations led her into the world of cooking.  She went from reviewing restaurants to attending a cooking school in Beijing, to working as a noodle intern, then to working in the kitchen of  a high-end restaurant in Shanghai.  Eventually, she opened her own cooking school, Black Sesame Kitchen in Beijing.  Thanks to my friend Nancie for giving me this book.  I'm looking forward to reading another offering by Lin-Liu called On the Noodle Road: From Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta.

14. Shirley - Susan Scarf Merrell.  This novel reminds me so much of Call Me Zelda -- imaginary person becomes intimate friends with well-known literary figure.  I have to stop reading these types of books because they irritate me.  Too much of the imaginary person and not enough of the other. Who am I kidding? I can't stop; they are like candy.  Shirley is odd and brilliant like the author herself.  I love all the details sprinkled in from the Oppenheimer biography of Shirley Jackson and the psychological needling.

15. How to Start Out or Over on a Shoestring - Annie Jean Brewer. I have fond visions of Annie Brewer going toe-to-toe with Amy (The Tightwad Gazette) Dacyczyn in a frugal-off.

16. The Nether World - George Gissing.  In this novel, written a few years before The Odd Women, Gissing depicts the lives of several different families living in the slums of London.  He is sensitive to the subtle differences of poverty.  Some of the characters are managing with a job or renting out rooms and some are so poor they are compelled to pawn their clothing.  Most of the characters want something better for themselves, but scarcity leads to bad decision making and schemes gone wrong.  Really depressing, but I loved it.

17. The Price of Salt - Patricia Highsmith.  What's not to like about this 1952 classic?  Snapshots of New York City in the late 1940s.  An unconventional (for that time) couple.  A road trip. Romance. Suspense. Highsmith's dry sense of humor -- the couple succumb to passion in Waterloo. So much smoking and drinking and drinking and drinking.  The smart and literate writing demands and deserves an instant reread.  I have to get back into reading Patricia Highsmith's work.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

New 19th Century Crush: George Gissing

Move over, Emile Zola.  Step aside, George Moore.  (Stay where I can still see you gentlemen, though!)

 There's a new fellow in the Bybee bookiverse.  George Gissing.  I've only read one complete novel so far -- The Odd Women -- and I'm about 15% into another -- The Nether World -- but I'm a fan.  Look at me, dashing like Emily Dickinson.  Yep, I'm smitten.  How did his work escape my notice for so long?  Or did it?  A long time ago, before most of your blogs were born, we had an Outmoded Authors Challenge.  Did I see his name there?  A memory stirs...

Anyway.  How do I love George Gissing?  I won't count all the ways, but suffice it to say that he hits my literary sweet spot.  He's like George Eliot and Emile Zola combined.  One foot in Victorian literature (but not the fainty, fussy kind -- the spirited, intellectual discourse kind that really takes its time about developing characters. Yes, I'm looking at you, Middlemarch!) and the other foot in Naturalism. His characters go off the rails on a crazy train from time to time, but then they go home and have a cup of tea and think about it.

 Furthermore, his prose is so intensely readable. [Rant about Henry James removed.]  I'm afraid to read him on the subway; I'm going to miss my stop one of these times.  Also, the way he creates characters!  I wanted to smack practically everyone in The Odd Women upside the head, but it's only because Gissing made me care so much about their lives.

Of course, this in no way plays into my hero-worship, but Gissing's books are free.  Thanks to Susan at Pages Turned, who mentioned him on Goodreads, I hunted them down and snapped up five -- The Odd Women, The Nether World, New Grub Street, Eve's Ransom, and The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft.

It's going to be a George Gissing summer.

P.S. He was cute, wasn't he?  I tried not to say it, but there you go.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Weight-Loss Memoirs

I've always liked this type of memoir.  Even the ones in which weight loss is decidedly not a good idea.  Why?  Well, they have an arc, and sometimes, a twist.  They appeal to the side of me that enjoys Naturalism (Human vs. Human, Human vs. Nature, Human vs. Self).

Digging down in the deep chest freezer of my memory, here's what I found from that genre:

1. Solitaire - Aimee Liu.  I read this one during my high school years.  If I'm not mistaken, this was one of the first memoirs of anorexia.  I remember feeling appalled about someone in the book going a whole summer eating and drinking nothing but carrots and Tab, and feeling impressed that Aimee was able to lose weight during a family vacation in France by constantly ordering fish and salad.  Liu dedicated a lot to energy to detailing her eating habits and weight loss.  When she made the decision in college to start eating, it seemed as if the book trailed off and came to a hasty conclusion, almost as if the author had lost interest.

2. Starving For Attention - Cherry Boone O'Neill.  This book was a shocker.  Aimee Liu merely didn't eat.  Cherry Boone binged and purged.  Vomiting and laxatives were her tools. I'll never forget the opening of the book in which she creeps downstairs in the middle of the night after Thanksgiving because she is craving turkey skin.  There are also some sobering photos.  Cherry also doesn't present her parents, especially her father, Pat Boone, in a very flattering light.

3. Mary Ellen's Help Yourself Diet Plan - Mary Ellen Pinkham - Best known for her household hints, Mary Ellen Pinkham had a weight problem that first she tried to disguise by wearing beige.  The thing that pushed her over the edge was when her kid came home from seeing Cinderella and said that the little fat mouse in the movie reminded him of his mom.  Being a sensible type, Mary Ellen didn't reach for the Ex-Lax, but instead lost the weight the tried and true but dull and boring way of counting calories and lots of walking.  I remember this book as being quite witty.

4. Stop the Insanity! - Susan Powter.  Powter started out large and did a lot of yo-yo dieting, then finally realized that the body was like a machine that must be fed healthy food and exercised regularly.  She called out the diet industry, and built her own empire for a few years.  Some of her detractors said she was lying about having been obese, but I always believed her.  She was always seething.  That rage had to come from somewhere.

5. Diary of a Fat Housewife - Rosemary Green.  The author of this book was a former beauty queen, then she got married, had 6 kids and got up to 300 pounds.  The book is a diary of her struggles served up with a large portion of self-loathing.  I remember that at the end, she had lost a substantial amount, but wasn't at goal yet.  This was also the first book I remember reading that suggested obesity be treated like a disease, and that people should be more understanding and less judgmental. Yet she doesn't apply that compassion to herself or others.  Of course, this is a diary, and people are rawer and less consistent in that format.  I often wonder what became of her.

6. Drinking: A Love Story - Caroline Knapp.  Early in this prose-perfect memoir of high-functioning alcoholism, the late Caroline Knapp wrote about her eating disorder.  It seemed to start when her boyfriend went off on a summer vacation and she couldn't go. She was lonely and she was pissed off, so she decided to stop eating, and it spiraled from there.  She got down to an emaciated 83 pounds, eating things like one egg for breakfast, a bagel at lunch and an apple and a slice of cheese for dinner.  After a while, drinking became more and more attractive.

7.  Wasted - Marya Hornbacher.  This was the book that made me swear off of anorexic and bulimic memoirs forever.  The part that did it was when Marya was staying with relatives. She threw up so often, she ended up bursting their pipes. Then she pointed out in the very next sentence that this happens all the time in campus sorority houses. Ewwwwwwwwwwwww.  No more.

8. Fat Girl - Judith Moore.  Here's my review from 2008.  I stand by my original conviction that this manuscript should never have seen the light of day:

 Moore must have intended to keep the reader at a cool remove during this memoir of growing up in the 1940s and early 50s, unloved by most of the adults around her. Her petite mother was especially furious with Judith over her size, and would put her on crash diets and abuse her verbally and physically when the number on the scale went up or stayed the same. The father, who Judith resembled, was absent in her life and went on to a new wife and child when Judith's mother threw him out. Moore also writes about her life as an overweight adult and shows the reader that her bitterness and self-loathing knows no bounds. She died of cancer soon after this book was published, and it's obvious that it was written while she was feeling the full effects of her illness and the grueling treatments that would eventually fail her. I think if she'd been healthy, she would've framed this book differently. Fat Girl book reminds me of someone in my family who also grew up fat with a svelte mother who was determined that her daughter should be thin, and, like Moore's mother, wasn't very subtle or supportive and even to this day still comes out with unfeeling comments. This relative and Moore even have similar names. Reading Moore's memoir left me incredibly sad.

9. I'm Not the New Me - Wendy McClure.  Wendy McClure?  My favorite Bonnethead in the whole wide world?  Wrote a weight-loss memoir?  Reader, I made this book fly to me in a New York (allowing for the time difference) Minute.  Nor was I disappointed from my first sight of the Roy Lichtenstein-ish cover.  McClure's motivation for weight loss came from an unflattering photo of herself doing karaoke, so she repaired to Weight Watchers, and started a blog called Pound.  Cruise control to the happy slim ending, right?  Not exactly. McClure explores her mother's dramatic and unsuccessful attempts to lose weight, takes an amusing journey to Lane Bryant, dates a couple of guys who turn out to have shitheel tendencies, and finds some really scary vintage Weight Watchers recipe cards (included in the book) that are guaranteed to put even the heartiest eater off of her feed.

10. 344 Pounds - Shawn Weeks.  Here's what I wrote about Weeks' memoir last year:

When Shawn Weeks decided to vanquish his lifelong weight problem once and for all, he created a blog in which he periodically photographed himself shirtless, then went and hit the gym. He ate what he liked, but tried to burn more calories than he consumed, or "erase" the ones he over-consumed.  His story is a familiar one, and he tells it plainly and honestly. His message is more about getting real than it is about a bunch of facile diet tips.

11. Veggies Not Included - Christine Leo.  In 2008-9, Christine Leo lost 130 pounds and has kept it off for 5 years.  Her "rock bottom" moment was having to make presentations at work in front of a group of people, while her image was projected on a huge screen behind her.  In this engaging and extremely readable memoir (which has one of the best first lines I've ever read) Leo frankly admits that she loves fast food and hates vegetables and exercise.  She believes that most diets tell you what you should do and don't address what people actually do.  She built the bridge over that cognitive dissonance, met somewhere in the middle (relying on calorie-counting) and her success speaks for itself.  Her methods are similar to Shawn Weeks', but Leo is more articulate and connects all the dots for readers.

Have you read any of these weight-loss memoirs?  Is there one that sticks in your memory?  If there is, please give me the title.  And yes, I would like fries with that.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Brother One Cell - Cullen Thomas

In 1993, a twenty-something young American woman fresh out of college and looking for adventure smuggled a bag of drug money through a European airport.  The transaction went smoothly, without incident.  A few years later, the police caught up with her, and she ended up serving a brief prison sentence.

 Almost a year to the day later, a young American man of 23 also looking for adventure, went on vacation to the Philippines and sent a box of hashish to himself (under an assumed name) in South Korea, where he worked as an English teacher.  Unfortunately, the post office smelled a rat and he was arrested on the spot.  After a swift trial (compared to the young woman's long legal drama), he began serving a full 3.5 years in the South Korean penal system.

If you're a fan of the book and/or TV show Orange is the New Black, you'll recognize that brief outline of Piper Kerman's (Piper Chapman in the show) story.  The second story might not be as familiar.  Brother One Cell, Cullen Thomas's memoir of his time as a prisoner in South Korea, is also a great read, and in some ways, even more riveting because of the foreigner/culture shock angle.

Possession with intent to sell would have meant possibly serving a life sentence, so Thomas convinced the prosecutor that he was an addict and it was for his own personal use.  In reality, he had been hoping to follow someone else's example and parlay his 300 (USD) Philippine purchase into 10K worth of sales in SoKo.  As mentioned above, his trial wasn't a long drawn-out affair, and within two months of being arrested, he began serving his sentence in Uijongbu, a city approximately 15 miles from the DMZ.  His cell was 10 feet long, 5 feet wide and 6.6 feet high.  He had a thin sleeping mat and two blankets.  A porcelain trough served as a toilet.

Prison meals consisted of barley, rice, kimchi and soup.  The prison had a store where the inmates could purchase extras, including ramen, which somewhat supplemented their meager fare.  There were also some attempts at making homemade alcohol using bread, juice and a plastic container.  The sticky rice served to them proved to be a handy glue substitute.

Since Uijongbu is pretty far north, winter was harsh in the unheated cell block.  One morning, Cullen found a rat frozen in a wash basin.  Rats overran the place, so work detachments of 15 men would corner them and bludgeon them with brooms. [Note: I actually got to see this technique for dispatching rodents one summer day while taking a bus downtown.]  After several months, he was transferred to Daejeon, a city located an hour south of Seoul.

Like Piper Kerman, Cullen Thomas was lucky in having friends and family that were supportive and sent him letters, pictures and books.  As a prisoner, he was only allowed one hour a day with a pen that he had to return to the guards.  A pen found in a cell was considered contraband, and could mean two months in solitary confinement.  Writing about his case or about the prison was strictly forbidden.  Cullen got around this by making notes on the backs of letters sent to him.. Since the letters had already been inspected when they arrived, they were never looked at again during inspections or during his transfers.  Pens were finally legalized, but only black ink.  Blue ink meant time in solitary.

Prisoners included gang members, political prisoners, draft dodgers, a painter, and other foreign prisoners.  Among the foreigners was Big Green, a mentally ill American who had killed his own children (it is a testament to Thomas's fine writing that he makes the reader feel sympathy for Big Green), Billy the Kid, a Columbian emerald and cocaine smuggler, and Tracey, a Pakistani gang member.

Among the Koreans, Cullen got along fairly well. He had picked up some of the language before he was arrested, and soon became fluent.  He played basketball, taught English, and worked hard to fit into the Confucian hierarchy, which was even more pronounced in prison.  Because of his knowledge of Korean, he was able to dissuade inmates that were close to his age from speaking to him in ban mal, or informal Korean.  He was worried that others might get the idea he was a subordinate, making him a possible target for bullying.

Also reminiscent of Piper Kerman's memoir, Cullen Thomas found work a respite from the boredom of serving time.  In Daejeon, he got a factory job assembling boots and shoes used by riot police, for which he was paid 600 won (59 cents) a day.

One of the most bizarre recollections in Brother One Cell involves the homemade penis enhancements that some of the Korean prisoners would do on themselves.  Cullen had noticed many misshapen and tumorous-looking chajees, and the men were happy to explain how they achieved this look:  They would make small cuts on the head and the shaft and fill the cuts with Vaseline, little pieces of plastic, or the bristles of a toothbrush.  They called these altered members "sunflowers" and swore that it drove women crazy with desire.

Cullen Thomas was made to serve every day of his three-and-a-half year sentence.  On the last day, he was taken to the airport and deported back to the United States.  He hasn't been back to Korea.  Brother One Cell was published by Viking in 2007 and translated into Korean the following year.  Like Orange is the New Black, it's a gritty coming-of-age story without a shred of self-pity.