Thursday, November 1, 2012

Excerpt from Wally Lamb's I Know This Much Is True (page 15): 

In the second newspaper photo, taken on January 24, 1954, my brother and I have become Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. We wear matching sailor hats and woolen pea jackets and salute the readers of the Daily Record. Mamie Eisenhower squats between us, one mink-coated arm wrapped around each of our waists. Mrs. Eisenhower, in her short bangs and flowered hat, beams directly at the camera. Thomas and I, age four, wear twin looks of bewildered obedience. This picture is captioned first lady gets a two-gun salute.

The President’s wife was in Groton, Connecticut, that winter day to break champagne against the USS Nautilus, America’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Our family stood in the crowd below the dignitaries’ platform, ticket-holding guests by virtue of our new stepfather’s job as a pipe fitter for Electric Boat. EB and the Navy were partners in the building of the Nautilus, America’s best hope for containing Communism.

According to my mother, it had been cold and foggy the morning of the launch and then, just before the submarine’s christening, the sun had burned through and lit up the celebration. Ma had prayed to Saint Anne for good weather and saw this sudden clearing as a small miracle, a further sign of what everybody knew already: that Heaven was on our side, was against the godless Communists who wanted to conquer the world and blow America to smithereens.

Note: We can see above America's obsession with containing Communism, a half year after the Korean War had ended. (Communism is a passing remark in  I Know This Much Is True, published in 1999.)  

Friday, October 5, 2012

A Literary Gem (An Amazon Review)
September 29, 2012
  Amazon Verified Purchase
This review is from: Tendrils of Life (Paperback)
Tendrils of Life takes you through the turmoil of war in Korea at the end of World War II and the Pacific War with the surrender of the Empire of Japan. Choi writes a detailed narrative of the plight of the Korean people during the time-frame when their beloved country is torn in two by outside forces. He weaves the historical events through the eyes of his main characters as they struggle to survive the injustices and strife that war brings. Readers need not be familiar with the Korean War to appreciate the story. Choi's writing is non-linear, using flashbacks at strategic points in the novel to give us the back-story of the characters while driving the action forward in the present. The novel could easily be transcribed into a screenplay, as the historical framework, visual detail and pace of the story are not unlike a cinematic movie -- similar to other novels which have successfully been made into films such as Bernardo Bertolucci's The Last Emperor or Heinrich Harrer's Seven Years in Tibet.

The overall journey through the war-torn country of the main characters -- Jimin, his little sister Misern, his soul mate Sora, his arch-nemesis Sinman and others -- is depicted with so much visual detail that I felt hunger, pain, sorrow, loneliness and despair as I read each chapter. What is unique in this story is that the main character Jimin is not portrayed as a typical hero -- he is not particularly strong nor is he brave. However, every time he looks death in the eye, his faith, love and determination to survive overcome the impossible.

I was so moved by the story and enjoyed every word. I felt as though I was right there beside Jimin, Sora, Teacher Yang, Jimin's father and even Sinman. I loved how the story was brought together at the end. Knowing now that Sinman was Jimin's half-brother and the real reason there was trouble between both families brought closure for me. It made sense to have heard the different points of view from each of the main characters. In addition to the narrative, I thoroughly enjoyed the historical information interwoven between the chapters. It helped me place the story in context with the actual events of the war.

Tendrils of Life is a literary gem, a novel I recommend to readers, especially those who appreciate good writing and historical fiction. I anticipate more novels by Owen Choi and look forward to reading more of his work in the future.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Review by BookIdeas ( )
(reviewer: Celina Cuadro)

Owen Choi's 'Tendrils of Life' not only tugged at my heartstrings as a reader, it strummed and plucked them through a whole range of emotions like a well-played harp. Moving themes of love, filial loyalty, and the kindness of strangers play counterpoint against the horrors of the Korean War and the rap
acious greed of men ready to take advantage of a country in turmoil. I could not put it down - I worried for them as if the characters were neighbors and friends of mine who were going through so much personal upheaval, and I could not stop till I knew all that befell them.

Bark Jimin and his sister Misern had an idyllic childhood in the remote island of Ockdo in the South Seas of Korea. Likewise, somewhere near Pyongyang a young girl named Sora was enjoying life at her grandfather's home before her family left to visit the United States. Both Jimin and Sora held memories of their childhood dear to their heart by the time their two families end up as neighbors in Seoul. They had no idea how precious those memories would become - Korea was in the middle of social, economic and political upheavals that would give rise to the Korean War, and soon Jimin and Sora would lose their homes, their families, even each other. Despite heart-wrenching tragedies and ordeals that pushed the limits of their bodies and sanity, a love blossomed between them. But how can tenuous tendrils of a possible life together survive the ravages of war?

'Tendrils of Life' hooked me immediately as a reader because of the emotional rollercoaster the characters went through - Jimin, Sora, and Misern endured so many tragedies I found it easy to commit to them and fret for their welfare. They went through so much - the physical exhaustion of walking everywhere because there was no reliable transport; the gnawing hunger and the filth they endured as they traveled; the dangers of the road both from people and attacking aircraft - that I was on tenterhooks trying to find out if they managed to stay alive. In quiet contrast to the atrocities of war was the slow bloom of love between Jimin and Sora. In Seoul they were neighbors who saw each other but never spoke. When they met once again they met as strangers who started to talk to each other frankly and deeply, and it was those quiet talks that sealed the bond and made them seek each other out each time they were split apart. This quiet theme of love anchored me as a reader and helped me speed through the tumultuous events taking place in the hopes that they would find each other again. And yet this was not solely a romance: the author was just good at using quiet themes to anchor me through the backdrop of turmoil and tragedy. The growing love between Jimin and Sora was a pervading and obvious 'quiet' theme, but there was also the quiet sibling loyalty of Misern, who my heart went out to because in my opinion she was the saddest subplot of the book. Little Misern was relatively helpless for being so young, yet she followed her elder brother doggedly, accepted his decisions despite any difficulties they caused her, and believed all his promises. There were times when Jimin was near death, or nearly insane, and the thought of Misern - worrying about her, remembering a promise he made to her, or just knowing he might let her down - would pull him from the brink and strengthen his resolve. Perhaps it is because I have a younger brother I am close to and have sacrificed for that I sympathized with her plight the most, and even after reading all through to the end and the epilogue, I still shed a tear for her.

This tale was riddled with numerous personal tragedies - War is ugly, sad, and painful - so there was very little levity to be found within this book's pages. The story was uplifting however because Owen Choi struck the right balance to give me as a reader lucid insights in human hopes and dreams that transcended the mind-numbing suffering. There were quiet vignettes of touching kindness from strangers on the road who had very little to give, but cared and helped in whatever way they could - they alleviated the characters' current pains, restored my faith in the better parts of human nature, and helped both of us move on. There was the stoic tone the author used to illustrate how victims crushed under War's heel managed to keep going - no matter how many times one is raped, no matter how many times one is conscripted by thugs and made to march to parts unknown, no matter how many loved ones are killed or die by the wayside, one must still pick oneself up and move on. There would be little strength to waste on drama because there were still loved ones traveling with you who need your care, there was the gnawing hunger in your belly and theirs that needed to be sated, and more was asked of you - the stark tone the author used for narration, devoid of overly flowery description, helped give me that impression and helped me grit my teeth and keep going with the characters. And finally the chapters that were called 'Commentary' also helped - they gave a overview of what was taking place in Korea at the time in order to show the historical and socio-political context of Jimin's and Sora's situation. I found these chapters disconcerting because they pulled me out of the characters' personal tragedies, yet I realized in retrospect that they helped restore my objectivity, gave my emotions rest, then gave me useful information before I delved deeply once more into the intricacies of each characters' journey.

I get the impression that Owen Choi wrote from the heart - he did not belittle his characters' suffering, but he did not sensationalize the drama or pain. I hope more readers discover this moving story and would highly recommend 'Tendrils of Life' to all those who would like a peek at human resilience amidst a difficult time in Korea's history.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

More Amazon Reviews

Tendrils Historic Novel, Page Turner
By CA Snow

Kind of like if a James Mitchner novel and Diary of Anne Frank were to have a love child on the Korean peninsula. This historic novel reads much more like a historic biography. A definate page turner to the very end. A must read for anyone interested in recent Korean history. Both gut wrenching and compelling I had a very difficult time putting this one down.
Heart-warming, Cultural Novel
By Kelly Felsted

Vivid descriptions and well-rounded characters fill this heart-warming, tension-filled novel. If you are looking for a war-time novel with ethos and pathos, this book is for you.

Very sensitively written
By Porchgirl

It is clear to me that so much heart and soul went into this novel. 'Tendrils of Life' touched on so many human themes, mostly love and relationships, but also hardships and survival, family turmoil, the horror and tragedy of war, and how greed can destroy us. Owen Choi takes us into his world with fully developed characters that become all too read. 'Tendrils of Life' is Mr. Choi's first novel. I anxiously wait for more!

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Delicate and Touching

A review for Tendrils of Life

Format: Paperback
I liked the cover, the beautiful sunset and what it says on the front and the back, and was hooked by the first chapters in the sample, yet was unsure whether I would really enjoy the rest. But what a gem it turned out to be. I thought it would mostly be passages about the war, but the book was surprisingly character- and scene-oriented.

Even the historical snippets, which are interlaced with the plot, are presented as real-time scenes, and they were much more enjoyable than ordinary flashbacks. I liked how the book had many short chapters as opposed to a few long ones. The unexpected turns at the end of many of these chapters kept the book moving. From the first chapter, where Jimin departs from his island, to the tragedies and difficulties he and Sora suffer, to the sad but triumphant end, I was filled with high emotions.

Sora's reflections on her childhood in America and her views of Americans were very interesting to me. Jimin's dramatic discovery of her identity as his former next-door neighbor he had secretly fallen in love with was heartwarming, and I enjoyed all the interactions between the two. (In hindsight, some of this was a bit too convenient. But otherwise the events and the heartbreaking separation of Jimin and Misern were highly believable.)

One thing I wasn't sure about: Except for the few Korean words, the book including the dialogue is in ordinary English. It didn't sound like most Koreans in the US speak. I thought the dialogues were too Americanized. It felt somewhat forced, especially the few times when the characters use things such as double negatives (but could there be a similar style in Korean? Maybe I'm wrong).

But overall the book is filled with touching moments, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tendrils of Life Themes and Symbols


Essentially an anti-war novel, Tendrils of Life encompasses the themes of love and hope, greed and revenge, war and corruption; strife between families, war's effect on individuals and families, finding the meaning of life and choosing how one should live. Passages toward the end, exemplified by one on page 367 hint some desirable choices: "He [Teacher Yang] became a real teacher: about nature, about life, and about how one should live - for himself and according to his own values, not to prove himself to others." An overarching theme is the resilience of the human spirit.


Iodo is a legendary island everyone wants to find; it symbolizes one's ideal goal in life, but is difficult, if not impossible, to reach.

Ockdo is a "real" island; it symbolizes an achievable goal and what one should be content with.

Jimin carries a seashell from his island and squeezes it whenever he misses his old home. It symbolizes the yearning for one's past and the safety of home.

Jimin misses the sunset on Ockdo. It gives him the hope that the sun will rise again when he feels despair.

When Jimin loses his strength to go on he thinks about the waves constantly breaking on the shore of his island, and that image restores his strength.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Tendrils of Life Synopsis 4

Plot Overview

Part Four

(Part Four Synopsis is intentionally left out.)

Tendrils of Life Synopsis 3

Plot Overview

Part Three

With the help of Unhee, a young widow he meets upon arriving in Hadong, Jimin decides to go to Seoul to find his father as well as Sora, whom he assumes had gone back to her old home. He persuades Misern to stay, while he is away, with the owner’s family of the house in Hadong where they live. But he sees her in the bus station and tells her to go back. When she starts to cry, Jimin reluctantly buys another ticket.

Sora’s mother dies in October. And Sora—her wound healed but with a scar on her face—finds out that her father, a lieutenant colonel in the southern army, had been killed in battle in July, and that her home in Seoul had been destroyed by bombs. She heads toward her childhood home near Pyongyang; along the way four southern army soldiers rape her. She finally nears her old home, but can’t get through the roadblock the southern army troops have set up in a last stand against the oncoming Chinese troops who have entered the war. Sora turns back and follows the refugee column south.

When Jimin and Misern arrive in Seoul, they find their former home destroyed, but the old man in the owner’s family has returned alone and is staying in a half-collapsed room. They learn that their father had come looking for them twice, and they stay with the old man.

Jimin’s father, now ill with tuberculosis, stays in a mountain north of Seoul with other fugitives because he doesn’t have the proper papers to go out in public. As the Chinese troops draw closer, he heads toward his former home in Seoul to find his children, but he collapses in the refugee column. One of his former classmates, a one-star general, recognizes him while passing by and takes him to an army field hospital.

Jimin and Misern stay alone in the half-collapsed room after the old man heads south. Misern is anxious to leave Seoul, but Jimin wants to wait until the last minute, afraid that he will never again see Sora if he leaves. As he goes out to earn some money on Christmas morning, he promises Misern that they will head south when he comes back. But he gets picked up by the military police from the street and is forced to join the newly formed Defense Militia. During the march toward the training camp near Busan, Jimin is near death and is left in a roadside house to die.

After following the refugee column for twenty days, Sora arrives in Seoul on Christmas Eve, ill and about to collapse. A kind-looking man takes her to an inn, but on New Year’s Eve, he drugs her and then rapes her. Sora finds out he is a pimp who plans to use her as a prostitute. She steals his stash of money and joins the refugee column again.

Two weeks later, still in the refugee column, Sora comes across Jimin, skeletal and almost unrecognizable. After finding out what had happened, she takes him toward her mother’s hometown Sunchon (near Hadong), first on an ox-cart, then by train. Partisans (communist guerillas) have derailed a train along the way and Jimin and Sora have to walk to the next stop for another train. Sora hires a man to carry Jimin and they continue in the snow. When they reach the train wreck, Jimin refuses to go farther south. He insists on going to the village where he and his sister had visited in the summer and staying there until they could go back to Seoul to rescue his sister.

Sora and Jimin sojourn in that village for three months. At night partisans come down and demand food, and during the day the police harass the villagers for providing food to partisans.

The UN troops regroup and retake Seoul in March, and Sora goes there alone to find Misern, but she returns without success. A few days later, southern soldiers who come into the area to exterminate partisans take Jimin and other villagers to a field where a large crowd is assembled, and open fire on them. Jimin miraculously survives and comes back wounded; Sora hides him in a cave. When his health improves, they consummate their love, then travel slowly toward Hadong, taking local buses from town to town and enjoying their newly discovered passion. Jimin believes that Misern is with his father in Hadong. Sora does not have the heart to tell him otherwise.

After ten days they are on the final leg of their journey when a group of disguised partisans led by a one-eyed man hijack the bus. They separate out men, including Jimin, making them carry grain sacks to a partisan-controlled area in the JiriSan. Sinman had belonged to the band, but earlier in March, just before they raided Hadong, he tipped off his police chief father. When his former cronies captured the band leader, Sinman ordered them to gouge out one of his eyes as revenge for five months of suffering under the cruel man. But he had later escaped.

Now the one-eyed man intends to force the men from the hijacked bus to join his band because he had lost many of his own when Sinman betrayed him. An old man called Teacher Yang, a young man named Wonsik, and Jimin try to escape, but they encounter groups of policemen led by Sinman, who shoot at them; a man who had decided to accompany the trio is fatally hit, and they turn back.

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