Seems like it’s been ages since I’ve posted any book reviews here on the blog. But last month I scored a passel of books from Seoul Selection Online Bookshop for a bit of light reading over winter vacation. Not to get to promotional here (and no, I’m not getting paid for this), but if you’re looking for books about Korea, Seoul Selection is a great resource. They have a knack for carrying a lot of books that simply are not available on Amazon or whatthebook.com, not to mention they self-publish a lot of titles which sell for very reasonable prices. So without further adieu, here are a few books that might help you while away your time in front of the space heater this winter:
“Korean Tea Classics” by Hanjae Yi Mok and the Venerable Cho-ui: Ever since my friend and local tea aficionado, Don Baumhart, published his two-part introduction to the Way of Tea in Korea here on this blog, I’ve made a point of exploring more of Korean and East-Asian tea culture. Turns out this year Seoul Selection has made the timely decision to publish English translations three classic Korean tomes on tea and tea culture: “Rhapsody to Tea” by Hanjae Yi Mok (1471 – 1498) and “A Chronicle of the Spirit of Tea” and “Hymn in Praise of Korean Tea” both by the Venerable Cho-ui (1786 – 1866). In fact it was Ven. Cho-ui who earned himself the nick-name Dasan or “Tea Mountain” was responsible of the revival and restoration of the tea ceremony in Korea. Translated by Brother Anthony of Taize (author of “The Korean Way of Tea” ) among others, this book is not simply a dry, academic translation of obscure historical texts. Rather it is an object de art itself, with impeccable design and choke full of beautiful color pictures of tea, ceramics, temples and ancient paintings. Plus, for students of classical Chinese, the original “Hanja” is printed alongside the English. Not merely an obtuse historical artifact, this book would be of interest to anyone with a love for Asian tea culture, and of course it’s a lovely accompaniment to a lazy afternoon sipping tea.
“Journey to Korean Temples and Temple Stay” by Jang Eunhwa: Published in 2009 this book is a must for anyone interested in Korean Buddhism, planning on doing a temple stay in Korea or who simply enjoys the tranquility of Korean Temples. “Journey to Korean Temples and Temple Stay” is more compact and informative than other introductions to Korean Buddhism that I’ve read (like “Korean Buddhism” published by the Chogye order in 1996). It covers everything from the history of Buddhism in Korea to temple etiquette, symbolism and the daily life of Korean monks. It also includes a guide to important temples in Korea plus an introduction to the basic tenants of “Seon” (or “Zen” as we know it in the west) Buddhism. Heck, it even comes with a fold out map of temples in Korea where foreigners can participate in a temple-stay program. At just 12,000 won, this 200 page book complete with gorgeous, full color photos is a steal.
“Baekdu Daegan Trail- Hiking Korea’s Mountain Spine” by Roger Shephgerd & Andrew Douch (with the legendary David A. Mason): Instead of promoting Korea as the leisure capital of Asia (I’m afraid Thailand already lays claim to that title), Lee Myung Bak’s officials over at the tourism office might fare better selling Korea internationally as a hiking, cycling and adventure sports destination. Luckily there are some folks in publishing here who are already hip to this idea, as this last year saw the publication of “Baekdu Daegan Trail.” A long awaited spin off from the Baekdu Daegan hiking blog (active primarily in 2007) this guidebook traces the 1,400 km hiking route from the bottom to the top of Korea along the Baekdu Daegan mountain range, known to Korean as the Tiger’s Spine. The book breaks the trail down into 17 stages and includes highly detailed maps, notes (including elevation, water stops and shelters) plus copious tips, stopovers and explanations along the way. Although not really a narrative read, this book is an essential reference for anyone who enjoys hiking in Korea, regardless of whether you plan on doing the entire Baekdu Daegan Trail.
“Folk Tales From Korea” collected and translated by Jeong Inseop: First published almost 60 years ago, this book is a classic and highly entertaining romp through Korean’s collective psyche. Back in the days before Starcraft, PC rooms, Norebangs and i-phones working Korean’s would entertain themselves around the fire in the evenings by telling stories. For the length of the Japanese Occupation the scholar Jeong Inseop collected myths, legends, fairy tales and fables from the length of the country, which he finally compiled and published in English in 1953. These include numerous tales of ghosts, wicked foxes, affable and naïve tigers, puckish “dokkaebi” or goblins along with among stories of good fortune and woe among common villagers (Of course my favorite is number 77, the story of “Sweet Dung”). There are even a few old novellas, such as the story of Hong Gil Dong, the Robin Hood of Korea. Curiously, I noticed while re-reading “Folk Tales From Korea” recently that Jeong Inseop, was actually born and raised in a village near Eonyang, the market town south of Gyeongju. Many of the earlier stories in this collection are from around this region, which he presumably heard as a child, including a few curious legends about Gyeongju’s Shilla Dynasty.