In Review: May 20, 1998

Korea: a dimly understood country
A national story worthy of Hollywood

The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History
Addison-Wesley, $30
Don Oberdorfer '52

About two-thirds of the way through The Two Koreas, Don Oberdorfer '52's fine general-interest history of post-war Korea, the veteran Washington Post foreign correspondent drops something of a bombshell. In the spring and summer of 1994, he matter-of-factly asserts, the political crisis over the North Korean nuclear weapons program brought America closer to the brink of war than at any time since the Persian Gulf conflict.

How close? "It is instructive," writes Oberdorfer, "that those in the U.S. and [South Korean] governments who were closest to the decisions are among those, who in retrospect, rate the chances for hostilities to have been the highest." Or in the words of an Air Force lieutenant general, "Inside we all thought we were going to war."

If you happened to miss this geopolitical crisis, don't feel bad -- so did everyone else. That is the way it is for most Americans with most things Korean. Indeed, to the Western audience, Korea remains something of a mystery, a dimly understood land seen primarily through the distorting prism of old reruns of M*A*S*H.

Fiercely patriotic, Koreans are annoyed at how little Americans (and virtually everyone else, for that matter) know about Korea or seem to care. And the Koreans have a point. By any measure, the recent history of Korea, both North and South, makes for one hell of a story, with a plot line worthy of a Hollywood epic. Cold War tension, spies and spectacular assassinations, corruption on a colossal scale, political unrest, and heroic prodemocracy demonstrators, military dictators, and Stalinist relics -- Korea has seen them all over the past 45 years. It makes for remarkable reading, and Oberdorfer delivers handsomely.

His work on the political evolution of South Korea is particularly meaty. While giving due attention to the Korean "economic miracle," the export-led strategy that transformed the South Korean economy from postwar ruins to its current prominence as a top-10 economic power, Oberdorfer does not spend too much time retreading this ground, already the domain of development economists. Instead, he focuses on the tumultuous political intrigue that marked Korea's run of military-dominated governments, starting in the early 1960s with the accession of Park Chung Hee to power.

And intrigue there was in spades. Park, who was later murdered by his own intelligence chief, ruthlessly crushed any opposition to his rule, imprisoning thousands of dissidents and even approving the kidnapping and execution of his main rival, Kim Dae Jung. (In a wonderful historical twist, this is the same Kim Dae Jung who was installed earlier this year as the first Korean president from an opposition party. Quick footwork by the U.S. government prevented his captors from tossing him into the Sea of Japan.)

In addition to his strong-arm tactics, Park was also known for his lucrative dealings with the chaebol, the handful of conglomerates that controlled nearly every aspect of Korean economic life. But it was Park's successor, a general named Chun Doo Hwan, who really pushed corruption to new heights. Oberdorfer is at his best in describing how Chun and his successor, Roh Tae Woo, extorted hundreds of millions of dollars from Korean businesses. Noncompliance with their demands came at a steep price: when one prominent conglomerate called the Kukje Group resisted these payoffs, Chun wasted no time orchestrating its immediate collapse.

In contrast to his deft handling of South Korean politics, however, Oberdorfer falls short in his treatment of the North. In part, this is not his fault; reliable information on North Korea is scant at best, and accurate political intelligence the most scarce of all.

Even so, Oberdorfer could have enlivened The Two Koreas with a richer analysis of the Pyongyong regime and the "Great Leader," Kim Il Sung, the charismatic founder of the North Korean state. Indeed, the surrealistic world of North Korea -- its highly regimented society, the cult worship of Kim Il Sung, the formidable state propaganda machine, and the mismanaged economy -- if anything makes for a better story than the corruption-ridden South. And there are also the unanswered questions about North Korea as a rogue state: why, for instance, the unending campaign to dig tunnels under the Demilitarized Zone (one was big enough to drive trucks through), or the various assassination schemes and terrorist acts?

But this is a small quibble, and given the notoriously unpredictable leadership in the North, Oberdorfer is doubtless wise to curb any temptation to speculate about the causes and motivations of the North Korean leadership. Similarly, he makes no predictions for the future. Instead, with famine rampant throughout the North and economic austerity setting in the South, Oberdorder leaves us with a warning. Hold onto your hats, he writes. Korea is always full of surprises.

-- David Williamson '84

David Williamson, a former PAW staff writer, worked as an editor at the Korea Development Institute in Seoul in 1984-85 as a Princeton-in-Asia fellow.

Russell Banks teaches his last class

Teaching was an important part of his life as a writer, Russell Banks told an interviewer: teaching insured that he never forgot the basics, he said.

That interview was almost a decade ago, but this spring, Banks, who has taught creative writing at Princeton for 16 years, is teaching his last class. Success has changed his outlook. Cloudsplitter, Banks's novel about the abolitionist John Brown, is a bestseller; his novel The Sweet Hereafter became a successful movie; a movie based on still another novel, Affliction, will be released this fall; and two more novels will be made into movies.

It's not that Banks has turned against teaching, he says, but that having written four novels in the past 10 years, he's worn out, "bone weary."

"I used to write a novel and then write some short stories," he says, "and that was a change that was almost like a rest."

He still sees the value of teaching for a writer. Asked to name a few writing fundamentals that an experienced writer might forget, he cited the need to visualize ("I ask my students if they can't see a room or a field, how do they expect the reader to see it?") and the rule that dialogue is only useful as it serves to reveal character or to move the plot along.

"I'm not leaving teaching because I don't like it," he says, "but it's a tradeoff." He plans to work on a libretto for an opera with the composer Robert Carl and to write screenplays of Continental Drift and The Book of Jamaica. And he plans to visit Liberia to do research for a new novel about that country's civil war.

He enjoyed writing his first historical novel, Cloudsplitter, so much that he wants to try another. "The African diaspora that started in the 17th century, the whole drama, interests me," he says. "It's been most often told from the African point of view, and I want to tell it from the white point of view."

Although he doesn't plan to teach anymore, Banks and his wife, poet Chase Twichell, who has taught poetry at Princeton since 1989, will keep their house in Princeton and live here half the year and the rest of the time in their house in the Adirondacks in Keene, New York, near where John Brown is buried. "We'll be in Princeton from January through May and then go up," he says. "That way we'll see two springs."

They certainly do not plan to cut their ties to Princeton. "We have a circle of friends here, and at this stage of our lives, that's irreplaceable," he says.

After Banks taught the first day in his first creative writing class 20 years ago, he realized he'd told his students everything he knew about writing. An old hand at the game told him just to go back in and repeat the same lesson the next day. Banks keeps stressing the fundamentals. Each semester he has his students read and discuss short stories from an anthology. This past semester the book was Telling Stories, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, the Roger S. Berlind '52 Professor in the Humanities, in which one week's assignment included stories by Richard Ford, Jamaica Kincaid, and Gish Jen.

Banks's students have changed in the past 16 years. "In the early '80s they were much more concerned about making millions," he says. "Now they're more idealistic, more conscious of their moral and political principles. A different kind of kid is coming to Princeton."

Reflections on the civil-rights movement

Cheryl Lynn Greenberg '80, an associate professor of history at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, helped organize a conference several years ago that brought together for the first time many of the civil-rights workers who had been active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during the 1960s. The book that arose from the conference, A Circle of Trust: Remembering SNCC, is essentially a transcript of the various talks given by different participants, including Diane Nash, Julian Bond, and Tom Hayden. As Greenberg states in the introduction, SNCC is "uniquely inspirational for our time. Even its members' disagreements and lapses in judgment should inspire." A glossary of names and terms relevant to the civil rights movement is also included.

-- Lolly O'Brien

Backpacking guide from OA director

For years I've had a love-hate relationship with my Coleman camp stove. The stove, which runs on a vaporized high-octane fuel, has a protocol for lighting it as complex as the countdown for a space shot. It also has a mind of its own and can be petulant or accommodating, depending on its mood. After I've turned this valve, flipped that lever, and pumped until my thumb ached, it may flare up angrily or (if I'm lucky) emit a fine blue flame accompanied by a contented hiss. Now, thanks to Rick Curtis '79's The Backpacker's Field Manual: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills, I know what happens inside my stove's inscrutable plumbing and how to adjust my technique to counter its willful ways.

Curtis, the veteran director of Princeton's Outdoor Action Program, has distilled his years of experience as a trip leader and teacher of wilderness skills into a handy guide that's packed with information on equipment, cooking, hygiene, weather, safety, and first aid. The guide, which grew out of a spiral-bound manual Curtis originally wrote for OA student leaders, is especially good on planning group trips for hikers who vary widely in experience and physical condition. The book weighs 13 ounces, according to my postal scale, but as Curtis advises, the next time you head into the wilderness, take it with you and "leave that extra dessert at home." (Three Rivers Press, $14.95)

-- J.I. Merritt '66

Jacques Smith '93 lands a role in Rent

Auditions to full performances in two weeks

This past fall, Jacques Smith '93 was just beginning his third year of an M.F.A. program in acting at University of California, San Diego, when
he was invited to audition for a part in the musical Rent, about a group of poor, striving young artists in New York City. The auditions were being held on a Friday in New York, so the director of the show, Michael Greif, flew Smith in for a 4 p.m. singing try-out followed by a 6 p.m. dance audition. An hour later, Smith received a call. The man on the other end of the line said, "We want to hire you to play Benny on Broadway."

Broadway? "This was the first time I had heard Broadway mentioned," says Smith, who is originally from the Chicago area. "I assumed I was trying out for one of the productions abroad. I remember thinking it would be great to be in the Canadian production."

That evening, Smith rushed to the Nederlander Theater on West 41st Street to watch that evening's 8 p.m. performance. Before his return flight to California on Sunday, he watched two more performances. "They wanted me to start working that next Tuesday," Smith says. "But I had a life in California I had to close down first. So I returned on Thursday instead."

In Manhattan, rehearsals began Friday, a week after the audition. His first performance was a week later. "It was really surprising how little I got to rehearse going into a Broadway show," he says. "They only had four rehearsals for me, and two were by myself. Before the first show, I had never run through the entire performance." Smith's first show went well, and by now, several months later, he has settled into his new role and life.

In a diner on 57th Street, Smith cleans the plate of the "Lumberjack" he ordered -- three pancakes, three sausage links, and two eggs -- and sips water with lemon. With eight shows each week, he must care for his strong dancer's body and deep bass voice. "When I first got here," he says, "I lost so much weight that people I didn't even know were commenting on how small I looked." Now he works out several times a week and drinks vanilla-flavored weight-gainer shakes. As for his voice, he says, "I used to sing a lot when I was alone -- in the shower and in the car. Now I only sing for the show."

Smith, who majored in religion and earned certificates in African-American Studies and in theater, can't see very far into the future. In April he auditioned for the television show Law and Order and for the musical The Lion King. He explains, "The actor always asks, 'Am I going to get another job?'" He adds, "Rent's a great credit -- but it doesn't get the next job for me." Still, it certainly helps. This week marks the two-year anniversary of the show, and it continues to play to full houses.

But getting paid for doing what he loves it what's most important to Smith. As for how much he gets paid, Smith says, "It pays the rent."

--Mark Rambler '96

First Lines

The Pact, by Jodi Picoult '87

There was nothing left to say.

He covered her body with his, and as she put her arms around him she could picture him in all his incarnations: age five, and still blond; age eleven, sprouting; age thirteen with the hands of a man. The moon rolled, sloe-eyed in the night sky; and she breathed in the scent of his skin. "I love you," she said.

He kissed her so gently she wondered if she imagined it. She pulled back slightly, to look into his eyes.

And then there was a shot.

--The opening of the first chapter of The Pact, a novel by Jodi Picoult '87, published by William Morrow.

Jon Friedman '69 paints places he knows

Oil paintings by Jon Friedman '69, including "View from Mt. Surat" (above) are on display at the Weber Fine Art gallery in Scarsdale, New York, through mid-June. Friedman, who earned his degree in philosophy, worked for several years as a muralist in New York City before turning to painting full time during the 1980s. "I paint places I know intimately well," he says. "I spend a lot of time on location, take photographs, and make thumbnail sketches. On occasion I do plein-air sketches as well. But because the paintings are so large, typically several square feet, I come back to the studio to work." Friedman, whose brother Paul is a member of the Class of 1965, created a series of charcoal portraits of eminent physicists to illustrate a book by his father; they are now on permanent display in Jadwin Hall.

Web Sightings
Bad back? Crack in sidewalk?

If back pain has you down, literally, take a look at, the Website of Dr. David Schechter '80, a Los Angeles family and sports physician. The site explores back pain and similar ailments as expressions of Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS). Schechter writes, "It is a soft tissue condition that can involve the muscles, ligaments, and nerves of the back and neck. The pain in TMS is caused or worsened by tension and in most cases can be eliminated by a mental process that involves focusing on the emotional, rather than the physical." Schechter first learned about TMS when he consulted Dr. John Sarno, a pioneer in the field, for knee problems while a medical student in New York.

Schechter takes a mind-and-body approach to treatment, and it shows in his site, which walks viewers through definitions, symptoms, related conditions, and treatment, with three audiotapes for sale. The site's cleverest section is a seven-part questionnaire viewers can use to gauge whether or not they suffer from TMS. First question: "Do you find that your pain level is related to the amount of tension/stress you are experiencing or to how you are coping with your feelings?"

John Wetmore '80 has taken a truly pedestrian topic -- walking -- and run with it, creating both a monthly cable TV show and a Website called Perils for Pedestrians ( Illustrated with the international symbol for a walker, the site packs a great deal into a few pages. Nearly everybody walks, but few people devote much thought to the safety aspects of what the homepage calls "missing sidewalks and crosswalks, dangerous intersections, speeding traffic, and obstacles to wheelchair users and people with disabilities." Wetmore, an independent TV producer in Bethesda, Maryland, has done the thinking and research, and it shows on the site. (Scary statistic: 18 pedestrians are killed every day.) He keeps the text simple and practical, defining perils and then giving examples of both problems and solutions. Viewers are encouraged to get involved in pedestrian activism and submit their own "peril reports." Lots of links -- and lots to think about the next time you go for a walk and wonder where the heck the sidewalks are.

-- Van Wallach '80

Books Received

Origins of the Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps, 1775-1967, by Jay Siegel '59 (Government Printing Office, $51. To order, phone 301-953-7974; order number: 0-16-049135-5) -- Traces the legislative and executive processes that affected legal affairs in the Navy. The 700-page book (with 18 appendices) took Siegel, who is a retired Navy lawyer, five years to write and assemble.

The Brazilian Photographs of Genevieve Naylor, 1940-42, by Robert Levine *67 (Duke, $24.95) -- Levine, a professor of history at the University of Miami, annotates this collection of photographs.

The Downsized Warrior: America's Army in Transition, by David McCormick *96 (New York University, $24.95) -- Examines the effects of downsizing on the political and organizational effectiveness of the Army, as well as on military professionalism and morale. McCormick is a former Army officer and Gulf War veteran.

Soviet and American Psychology During World War II, by Albert R. Gilgen '52, et al. (Greenwood, $59.95) -- Compares the Soviet and American approaches to psychology during the war, and how this historical climate influenced trends in the discipline. Gilgen is a professor of psychology at the University of Northern Iowa.

Charles W. Chestnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction, by Henry B. Wonham '83 (Twayne, $25.95) -- The life and work of this early 20th-century writer who challenged racial boundaries are put into perspective in this book, which includes selections from contemporary critics. Wonham is a professor of American literature at the University of Oregon.

From Here to Nirvana: The Yoga Journal Guide to Spiritual India, by Anne Cushman '84 and Jerry Jones (Riverhead, $27.50) -- This guidebook tailored for the spiritual traveler provides information on India's nine major philosophies and religions, recommends temples and pilgrimage sites, and includes maps and contact information. Cushman is an editor-at-large for Yoga Journal.

Calvert Casey: The Collected Stories, edited by Ilan Stavans and translated by John H. R. Polt '49 (Duke, $16.95) -- This anthology brings the work of a renegade Cuban writer to an English-speaking audience for the first time. Polt is a professor of Spanish, emeritus, at the University of California at Berkeley.

The Trembling Mountain: A Personal Account of Kuru, Cannibals, and Mad Cow Disease, by Robert Klitzman '80 M.D. (Plenum, $27.95) -- Documents the mysterious disease called "kuru" and its spread among the tribes of New Guinea. The disease, which continues to elude scientists, attacks the central nervous system and is spread through ritualistic cannibalism.

Remaking Eden: Cloning and Beyond in a Brave New World, by Lee Silver (Avon, $25) -- A professor in the molecular biology department, Silver examines the science of cloning and its concomitant ethical issues.

Assassination Science: Experts Speak Out on the Death of JFK, edited by James H. Fetzer '62 (Catfeet Press, $18.95) -- Fetzer, a professor at the University of Minnesota, has compiled various documents, by a variety of people, that dispute the findings of the Warren Commission.

Art and Objecthood, by Michael Fried '59 (Chicago, $20) -- Selections of Fried's art criticism that were first published between 1962 and 1977, providing a look into an eventful time through the lens of some of the era's major artists. Fried is a professor of humanities at Johns Hopkins University.

The Enlightenment of Joseph Priestley: A Study of His Life and Work From 1733-1773, by Robert E. Schofield '45 (Penn State Press, $45) -- The first of two planned volumes of the life of Priestley, a distinguished polymath. Schofield is a professor of history, emeritus, at Iowa State University.

Sixth Ezra: The Text and Origin, by Theodore A. Bergren '74 (Oxford, $49.95) -- An introduction to the early Christian writing known as 6 Ezra. Bergren is an associate professor of religion at the University of Richmond.