Book #12. The Pearl by John Steinbeck

the pearl

I have always wanted to read Steinbeck but never had the courage to tackle the massive and complicated volumes such as East of Eden or the Grapes of Wrath. Honestly, I didn’t find the synopsis very intriguing… Another tragedy, another long journey towards disappointment. What kind of lessons should I derive from books like those?

The Pearl, a novella by the said author, might give me the partial satisfaction to my mixed desire for Steinbeck. I pulled the mint copy out of a school’s library and only managed to read the first two pages. As soon as I got the e-reader, it became my first paid ebook.

The story is about a poor indigenous diver named Kino, his obedient wife Juana, and their baby son Coyotito. One fine morning, Coyotito gets beaten by a scorpion, but the worried parents find themselves without the means to afford the doctor’s service. Juana prays that they would find a pearl worthy enough to pay for the doctor and miraculously, her wish is fulfilled: Kino pulls out the “pearl of the world” from his diving for the day. The hard-working parents delightedly plan for the better future for their life together and the baby son, but things suddenly got worse for the greed and jealousy of the unseen enemies.

While I was reading this book, I was impressed with Steinbeck’s rich usage of verbs. I have seen authors boast their writing skills with their exceptional command of descriptive adjectives, and Steinbeck describes characters and setting primarily throughout actions. In the beginning of the book,  he sets particular setting around Kino’s house to suggest the readers about his natural and humble indigenous life:

Now Kino got up and wrapped his blanket about his head and nose and shoulders. he slipped his feet into his sandals and went outside to watch the dawn. Outside the door he squatted down and gathered the blanket ends about his knees. He saw the specks of Gulf clouds flame high in the air. And a goat came near and sniffed at him and stared with its cold yellow eyes.  Behind him Juana’s fire leaped into flame and threw spears of light through the chinks of the brush-house wall…A late moth blustered in to find the fire.

This first scene of Kino’s humble morning imprinted on reader’s mind brings a particular light to the description of the doctor’s morning few pages later.

In his chamber the doctor sat up in his high bed. He had on his dressing gown of red watered silk that had come from Paris…His eyes rested in puffy little hammocks of flesh and his mouth drooped with discontent. He was growing very stout…He poured his second cup of chocolate and crumbled a sweet biscuit in his fingers. (p.22)

The tension between the two mornings really sets the tone of the major conflicts of the novel: the simplicity of the indigine and the arrogance of the Europeans. However, there is little in the novel that suggests Kino as a representation of a broader group. After all, this is a story of a humble family that are no different from the norms and traditions. Kino’s wife Juana reminds me of O Lan, the wife of Wang Lung in the Good Earth in the way she made no resistance to the hurtful traditions against women.

The Pearl is another precious volume that instils a sense of diversity and compassion, for its shedding truthful light on a humble indigenous family suffering under the lies and exploitation of capitalism. I will definitely progress into one of Steinbeck’s full novels any time soon, having tasted the central theme of his stories.


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Book #11. Escape from Camp 14

11797365Three days ago, the new president of South Korea was elected: Park Geun-hye, the daughter of a former president and the first woman ever to be elected as the leader of the country. My immediate concern with the president-elect was whether she shall be the one who could make the nation’s longest dream possible: the reunification of the peninsula. Living in another continent for more than a decade gave me a sense of third-perspective on the country I was born, that nothing other than the resolution of the division could be the base for the higher prosperity, coherence and strength of the nation as an independent one.

My close attention to the imminent fall of the Kim regime in North Korea has naturally led to the heartbreaking stories of North Korean defectors as the only official source of the recent information of the actual lives in the communist country. It also gave me shudder to know that the concentration camps still exist in the not-too-distant land I was born and raised.

The labour camps in North Korea have existed for twice longer than Soviet Gulags and twelve times longer than Nazi concentration camps. South Korean and American governments estimate 145,000 to 200,000 were imprisoned within these camps. Four of the six camps across the country are “total control districts” on which the prisoners labelled as “irredeemables” are worked to death. The birth of Shin Dong-Hyuk in November 1982 was highly exceptional in Camp 14 where the laws strictly forbids sexual intermingling of prisoners. The marriage of his father and mother was arranged by the authorities as the highest reward to the prisoners whose conduct and productivity set the examples to others.

Of course, Camp 14 was among the worst places in the world to breed a family. The abusive guards and scarcity of food within the camp would not make it possible for Shin’s family to develop any sense of affection and care for each other. His mother was merely a competitor for food, as Shin recalls. He had rarely seen or known his father and older brother always away from home, working in other sites in the camp. Shin was no different from other desperate and exhausted prisoners who would willingly snitch on  family members and friends for guarantees for more food.  Family was only a burden to the young boy who had been only taught to obey the guards and wash away their sins through hard labour. Though his attitudes were understandable, it did make me very sad to read the parts where Shin coldly refuses the care his father struggled to show his remaining son after the deaths of Shin’s mother and brother.

His father had tried, after the killing of his wife and eldest son, to be more attentive. He had apologized for being a bad parent and for having exposed the boy to the camp’s savagery. He had even encouraged his son, if he ever got the chance, to “see what the world is like.” …his father had gone to the extraordinary trouble of obtaining the rice flour and sending it to his son as a paternal offering. Shin was repulsed by his father’s gift and, although hungry, gave it away. (p. 111-112)

After the escape, Shin spent a long time of shame and self-disgust before confessing his role in the execution of his mother and brother who were caught in the midst of their escaping plan. The thought of leaving his father behind the fences haunted him every night. Without major changes, he would live the rest of his life with that haunting images of his father and other prisoners still remaining in the camp. It was almost impossible for me to imagine a life with that kind of guilt forever buried in the heart. AndyKim, a young Korean American who, for a time, was Shin’s closest confidant, said:

“He cannot enjoy his life when there are people suffering in the camps. He sees happiness as selfishness.”

Besides from Blaine’s prose is explicit and succinct with a series of pertinent and extensive references to the experts and field workers for North Korean issues, I was also impressed by the author for his remarkable care, patience and understanding for Shin who was struggling very hard to adapt to the new life and freedom in South Korea and the States. After all, Mr. Harden played a role that is more than just a biographer: he was a mentor and close advisor to the young man now in his late twenties, planning for a future in the new world.

The book concludes with a portrayal of Shin giving a successful speech in a Korean American Pentecostal Church where he finally looked the author in the eye he always avoided, as if hinting the end of his dark past and a new beginning of his future. Of course it would be impossible to estimate the depth of his internal struggles from the haunting images of  his own family and other North Koreans still in the camps, but I believe that the day will come sooner than we think and remove all the burdens we have towards those inside the closed borders of the half of the Korean peninsula.


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Starting Escape from Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West

I have put a hold on Emma for the second time. I think I’m getting too much of Austen’s typical themes and characterizations… Of course she is amazing writer but I think I have had enough of her.

I have been tasting a few pages of this one and that one, including Les Misérables and the Scarlet Letter. I’m considering getting a Kindle for the amount of ebooks available for free. It’s amazing to know that most classics are available in free ebooks from sources like

When I was out with my cousin to browse laptops, I walked into Chapters and saw these two non-fictions I always wanted to read (the other being Susan Cain’s Quiet)on the Bestseller shelf. As soon as I got home I ordered them online that offered 30% discount. I have been fascinated by the stories of Shin Dong-hyuk on the newspaper articles. I was surprised by his bright and normal outlook that resembles any college student you met on the street; you won’t believe looking at a man born and raised in a North Korean concentration camp.

I do really hope that the reunification of the Korean peninsula has actually become as imminent as many perceive. That was what we were misled to believe when Kim Il Sung died in 1994, but I wish that our current anticipation is not repeating the same past. It’s not possible to know when and how it will be done, but I believe things have substantially progressed in the 18 years.

I will include the details about the book in the reviewing post. Instead, I’m attaching his 15-minutes interview footage below that surveys important facts about himself and his life at the concentration camp.

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Lauding Taylor Swift’s fourth studio album RED

I didn’t see country music globally inclusive because it originates from the region where diversity is not much celebrated. That was why I have not paid proper attention to the gorgeous and ingenious Taylor Swift until now, shortly after she released much anticipated fourth studio album Red. I accidentally heard several songs and I could not help peeking at the album cover, just to see where these sweet songs came from. Of course, some do criticize her loss of ‘Country-ness’ but I can tell you that her new direction has earned her a considerably increased number of fans, including myself. Maybe it is because of the participation of Max Martin the legendary producer of Britney Spears, BSB and N’Sync who literally dominated the 2000’s pop world.

Taylor is an amazing musician. She’s coming to Toronto next June but I didn’t succeed to reserve a ticket 😦 I’d love to see State of Grace as the mindblowing opening number; I’m certain it will be the first song she’s going to sing in this tour.

I want to do a lesson on poetic devices with Taylor’s lyrics. Here’s example:

Polysyndeton (repeated use of conjunctions): Thinking all love ever does is to break, and burn, and end. (Taylor Swift, Begin Again)

Let me come back with more!

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Book #10. All But My Life by Gerda Weissmann Klein

There is hardly a non-literary figure I will be interested to grab his or her memoir or autobiography. I think there are way more cool ways to express about his/her life than just plain prose with a singular perspective delivering specifically framed accounts of events. As such, I was unwilling to select this book, All But My Life by a Jewish-American Holocaust survivor, for my literature circle project. I was so inclined to choose The Boy in Stripped Pajamas, had it not been for a fellow member who is obviously far more bookish than myself.

One thing I liked about the book was its comparability with the beloved classic the Diary of Anne Frank. Of course the latter is also categorized as biography but there are way more authenticity and depth to it than any other conventional ones written by adults. I found many things similar between Anne Frank and Gerda who were two same-aged girls who lived at the same era at the same region of the world. They share similar preoccupations and feelings about their family, friends, dates, and school life in the brink of the War. It’s so heartbreaking to see how they miss their normal life that has been lost in the midst of the destruction and atrocities.

Her story is very compelling, but the author of five books did not show much effort to appeal to the international audience. For too many times I got a feeling from her prose that the author herself stays distant from the memory, which was of course almost a half century ago. In other words, her memoir does not really resonates with the current lives of young women as much as Anne Frank’s diaries do. For a global reader like myself, it is easy to distinguish between works that have been translated into 60 different languages and the ones that have not.

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Were Hamlet and Ophelia in love with each other?

One of the favourite literary discussions in English literature might involve the famous doomed couple: Hamlet and Ophelia. It is hard to say they are qualified to be labelled as ‘star-crossed lovers’ as Romeo and Juliet because the ingenious playwright never made a scene where the two persons explode their desires by kissing or hugging or jumping onto bed. Strangely, they are hardly seen together, and even if they do, they seemed to not understand or even trust each other enough to become lovers, making the readers are still debating whether or not they are truly in love with each other with a variety of textual interpretations.

I do not think this issue is as complicated as it is being discussed: few would disagree that the prince and the girl would end up as husband and wife if the circumstances had been different. The biggest problem with their relationship was that their feelings could not remain free and private from the privy eyes of their seniors who were obviously more concerned with something other than the happiness of their children. All they needed to do was to defy them–which Ophelia meekly attempts in the Act I Scene 3:

Pol. Marry, I’ll teach you : think yourself a baby, That you have ta’en these tenders for true pay, Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly ; Or–not to crack the wind of the poor phrase, Running it thus–you’ll tender me a fool.

Oph. My lord, he hath importuned me with love In honorable fashion.

Pol. Ay, fashion you may call it ; go to, go to.

Oph. And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, With almost all the holy vows of heaven.

Ophelia, a pure virgin who clearly had not been exposed to the evils of the world, gently objects Polonius’ dismissal of Hamlet’s affection by elevating Hamlet’s actions as “honourable” and “holy”. However, despite her defence of the prince, Ophelia succumbs to his father’s command not to see or talk to Hamlet again at the end of the scene. From her choice of words describing Hamlet’s actions and her decision to follow his father’s order, we can infer that she would not continue her involvement with the prince so long as it is not supported and approved by the elders whose opinions would matter tremendously to make their relationship “honourable” and “holy” as the matrimony. Her manner when conversing with her father reveals a specific perspective on her relationship with the prince:  her potential husband who would offer her “holy vows of heaven.”

In the famous “nunnery” scene, it is evident that Hamlet feels about Ophelia in the same way:

Ham. Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners ? I am myself indifferent honest ; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious ; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven.

Here Hamlet refers Ophelia to a “breeder of sinners” and then he lists all the faults of himself as the ‘sinner.’ This passage clearly reveals Hamlet’s perception of Ophelia as the future mother of his children. Even though he seriously considers Ophelia as his future wife he knows the circumstances are unfavourable for their happy union. ‘Nunnery’ is an antithesis to ‘marriage’ which have been corrupt by the incestuous union of the King and the Queen. Because of his demoralized state of mind he rejects the whole idea of his own marriage altogether:

Ham. I say we will have no more marriage. Those that are married already–all but one—shall live. The rest shall keep as they are. To a nunnery, go.

Later in the the play it becomes clear that Hamlet is more explicit about his feelings for Ophelia. In the funeral scene (5.1), none other than the following passage makes it clearer:

Ham. I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers Could not make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her? …show me what thou’lt do. Woo’t weep? Woo’t fight? Woo’t fast? Woo’t tear thyself? Woo’t drink up eisel? Eat a crocodile? I’ll do ‘t. Dost come here to whine? To outface me with leaping in her grave? Be buried quick with her, and so will I.

The affair between Ophelia and Hamlet was something distant from the erotic and romantic one we might expect from  a handsome prince and a beautiful girl, probably due to the overall ominous tone that persists throughout the tragic play. Evidently Shakespeare suppresses their mutually beneficial feelings in every way possible in order to set the road for their doomed ends. Had Hamlet been more affectionate, Ophelia would not go mad. Had Ophelia been more commanding on her own actions and decisions, Hamlet might have the ability to solve the problems of Denmark with a strong vision of his future consort. But Shakespeare’s Hamlet is not a romance or an epic but a tragedy, and the two young man and woman were mere subjects to their own genre.


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Teachability of a book

I have to confess that my independent reading project was too much interrupted by the coursework that required me to read the whole bunch of reading material. I was forced to read this Holocaust memoir called ‘All But My Life‘ by a Polish-American woman named Gerda Weissmann Klein. It was heartfelt story of the wartime but the genre itself wasn’t really appealing to me; I’m not into memoirs or autobiography unless I’m going to marry that person.

It has become somewhat difficult to select a book for a private read. As a prospective educator, I’m increasingly concerned about the ‘teachability’ of the books I am and will be reading. I tremendously enjoy Jane Austen but I’m won’t be teaching it to high schoolers. I know how timeless and awakening Pride and Prejudice is but not every teenager is going to see the value of it in that particular time of their lives. In the same respect, I’m not going to teach Les Misérables, though it is one of the greatest books in the world, simply because I won’t be able to spend just the whole semester on that huge volume alone. As for non-fiction, I’m baffled to bring the hugely opinionated Michael Sandel’s Justice and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers into classrooms, although they were awesome ways to spend my private time.

I don’t know if I have enough texts in stock for my prospective pupils. Other than the well-known titles such as Lord of the Flies, Brave New World, and Hamlet, I would love to bring Diary of Anne Frank, Demian, and Miguel Street into my classroom. But how could I teach them as meaningful to their lives as they were to me?

Fiction can be hugely divisive; some people love it and others can hate it. A majority of adults may not see its value throughout their entire lifetime apart from a certain group called bookworms. It may be much useful for the students to learn how to read newspapers and contracts.

I wish I could teach just one fiction in a school year. Of course I appreciate fiction but it won’t apply to ‘all.’ As a future educator, I value ‘diversity’ in every possible way; I must come up with materials that would suit all interests from all backgrounds.

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