on May 6, 2007
It took me a while to get my hands on this book after reading about Thomas in an issue of Esquire Magazine, I think it was. I had to get it shipped to me here in Korea through a book importer. I couldn't wait for it to arrive because I was so impressed with the magazine article that I had high expectations for the book.
My expectations were fully met. I've been interested in Korea for about seven years now, coming here twice as a student, and now living and working here while studying Korean. I've read several books about Korean culture, economy, etc, etc. None of the previous books I have read were able to paint such a vivid and profound picture of the culture I have come to love, in spite of its flaws.
Somehow, by experiencing a side of the country that we rarely hear about, he is able to understand the essence of Korean society and illustrate it in ways that rang true with my own experiences while simultaneously shedding new light on aspects that I still struggle with. In particular, it was interesting reading this book while settling into a job as the only non-Korean full-time employee of a Korean company. Not that prison compares to company life in the least.
This book is good on several levels. Other reviewers have already discussed the merits of the book as a memoir, etc, so I wanted to praise the book specifically as a book that relates to Korea, though perhaps not as many readers will be interested in this aspect of the book. I hope a Korean translation is released, because I think it would be an interesting perspective for Koreans to read about as well.
on August 13, 2007
This book is incredible! I agree with the other reviewer who pointed out that one particular negative review on this book seemed grossly uninformed. To sum up just how that review errs, this book is not at all "uneventful"; the entire point of the memoir is just how humbled Thomas *did* feel by his experience; and while he does comment on ethnic diversity in the prison, he by no means sees his fellow convicts as "losers." Please don't do yourself a disservice by assuming that this book is nothing more than some whiny, poorly adjusted, rich boy's lament.
As for my own reactions to Brother One Cell, I feel that everyone can take something from it. While receiving a prison sentence is obviously no small deal, the appeal of this book is broader than many might assume. Some readers who never had to deal with a jail term may still find that it strikes a chord, have they ever found themselves faced with a prolonged set of difficult circumstances far away from home. The soul-searching that Thomas does, the way he articulates his pain over being kept apart from his loved ones, his insistence on "going it alone" despite his feelings of isolation, and his discussions of the fear of losing himself (on a fundamental and psychological level) are all of universal interest. He talks at length about the internal change that leads him to value the most mundane of acts -- things that he does not have in jail -- such as reading whatever he wants, looking at members of the opposite sex, walking around outside, and so much more.
I feel that there are probably a number of people out there who could relate to the types of emotional and psychological changes explored and documented in this book. He even mentions (in varying amounts of detail) experiences such as phantom pains, flashbacks, and his unique relationship with Korea and feelings about the time he spent there. The author starts off by showing us the aimless vagabond he once was, allows us to accompany him very intimately through his periods of rage and depression following his arrest, and concludes with a sense that Korea is now very much a part of who he is.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the following
-unique glimpses into seldom-seen aspects of Korean culture
-anyone familiar with Korean culture who is interested in outsiders' impressions of it
-stories of self-discovery
-autobiographical accounts of the profound personal changes borne out of unrelenting hardships faced in relative isolation (as well as the changes in an individual's perspective on said hardships as time wears on)
The latter reason to read this book appeals not only to those who have been forever changed by circumstances that their loved ones will never truly know, but it could also be of immense help to anyone trying to understand their loved one's experience and the depth of the impact it has left.
Brother One Cell is fascinating--this book is raw, yet compassionate and, above all else, honest. Just as other reviewers have noted, I too can see this book taking a place on required reading lists; it is only a matter of time before it becomes a classic.
Cullen Thomas writes a strangely affecting book about his time in Korea. He goes there as a typical young American, no goals, not exceedingly smart or particularly stupid. Just a nice kid, really. He makes the mistake of underestimating the Koreans and gets caught shipping hashish over international borders. Somehow, he thinks the Koreans should notice that he is really a nice kid and that he hasn't hurt anyone. He is so presumptious, naive, and condescending to the Koreans that it is staggering. He is honestly surprised when he is found guilty of doing exactly what he did (and actually is found guilty of a lesser charge of "using" rather than "selling"). His time in prison is fascinating as he meets many interesting people and finally comes to accept responsibility for his own fate. I rather admired the Koreans, who certainly have a better penal system than we do (given the opportunity to apply to serve his last year in the States, he doesn't want to). I wish this young man well in the future, and hope that he writes more.
on April 11, 2007
The author of the Publisher's Weekly review seemingly didn't read the book in its entirety. In my opinion there is little except plot in that review that correctly addresses the book that I read. The last statement that Thomas was "unable or unwilling to be humbled by the experience" is amazingly off the mark.
The book was so good I didn't want it to end - I tried to make the book last longer, and when it was done I wanted more. It's not "just another prison book", if there is such a category, but it's so reflective and uplifting and hopeful, not just for the incarcerated, but also for anyone who has faced persistent difficulties. Thomas experienced an initiation that he endured with grace. Wonderful!
on April 11, 2007
BROTHER ONE CELL is an extraordinary memoir ...
The characters are complex, and the plot is both powerful and subtle. I can see this as required reading in high schools across the country. It is not only that good, it is that important. The writing is honest, straight forward, painfully introspective but never self pitying. I agree with the starred Booklist quote that Thomas had to overcome language barriers, unfamiliar foreign customs, extreme codes of social hierarchy, and almost no individual freedoms, "as well as his own personal demons, to get to a place of higher understanding--something that, amazingly, he seemed to accomplish." The reviewer from Publisher's Weekly must have been reading a different book because he/she couldn't have been more wrong by saying that Thomas "is unable or unwilling to be humbled by the experience."
Equal parts heart-wrenching drama and heart-pounding suspense, this narrative unfolds in a way that is both achingly personal and overwhelmingly universal. Thomas is a complicated character, frustratingly naive at the beginning of his tale and enviously self-aware by the end of it. Like any twenty something searching for self, Thomas makes mistakes but unlike so many of us, his mistakes provide us all with a greater appreciation for freedom and beauty and one hell of a story.
on April 4, 2008
Loved this book. As a prison memoir, it does not shock or scare. Korean prisons, despite their lack of heat, cannot compete with Thai, Turkish or American prisons on the fear scale. This book delivers much more; it is the best that I have ever read on the subject of foreigners negotiating, stumbling, fubmbling and bumbling their way through South Korea. Thomas captures the maddening dualities, how he is constantly faced with both special treatment and petty humiliations. One minute, he is in awe of the maturity, cohesion, the genrosity, gentleness and, above all, the charm of Koreans. The next he is driven up the wall by their uniformity, closed-mindedness, bullying, brutality and pride. Every foreigner that has lived in Korea on Korea's terms has lived Thomas's story. Obviously, few have lived as much on Korea's terms as Thomas. And fewer still have written about the experience with more intelligence, even-handedness and wit.
The most touching and disturbing part of the book deals with the author's friendship with a character identified only as Green. Green, married to a Korean prostitute, is serving time for murdering his own half-Korean children. Upon his parole, Green is deported and immediately relocates to Koreatown in Los Angeles, finding a home where outsiders are not supposed to have a place. Why would he choose to get as close as he possibly could to his former captors? After reading Thomas's extraordinary book, you will understand why.
on January 26, 2008
First things first. If your name is listed in red ink, and almost everybody else's is in black, it does not mean that you've won a prize. Do not try to collect your package from the window. Cullen did and he wound up serving 3 and a half years in a series of Korean Houses of D.
Ever since I read a Giant Robot article about Asian and Asian-American inmates stockpiling ramen, ketchup packets, soy sauce packets and other odds and ends to create ersatz versions of the dishes they craved, I've been fascinated with prisoner resourcefulness. In this respect Brother One Cell is a very satisfying travelogue. Cullen is a big, unseasoned foreigner, not yet fluent, completely inexperienced as a criminal, who must learn to survive as a prisoner - how to talk to people, how to make sure he gets his mail, how to deal with mosquitos, extreme cold and fluorescent lights that stay on 24 hours a day...
Even more satisfying is the transformative mental and phillosophical journey upon which the author embarks, at first unconsciously and then with growing determination. The appreciation and grace at which he eventually arrives is a good reminder for those of us who've been spoiled by taken-for-granted freedom, cooshy living conditions and Get Out Of Jail Free cards we didn't necessarily deserve.
on March 3, 2011
This book is a good read. Its a little bit different from your usual 'caucasion-gets-busted-for-drugs-in-asia-and-spends-time-in-hellhole-prison' book as the prison in South Korea is by no means as extreme as the ones you read about in Thailand etc.
I kept turning the pages pretty easily with this book but the one gripe I have is that the author feels a need to constantly describe EVERYTHING in such intricate detail. For example he will walk into a room and before before you find out what is about to happen he will spend 3 pages detailing every little thing in that room: "and the smell is like this, and the sound is like that, and there was this on the floor which reminded me of this when I was a kid back home..." etc (that is not a real phrase from the book, just an example of course). I know that some people like this kind of stuff but it happens every page and I believe it gets in the way of the actual book itself. If some of that waffle was cut back this book could have been 4 stars.
Still worth a read though, especially if you like waffles.
on April 29, 2007
This book is a lighthouse of hope in a fog banked world of despair. If Cullen Thomas can take his incredible, torturous, horrific but ultimately beautiful experience, find the good in it and share it with the world, then there are no problems in my (presently mundane by comparison) life that I shouldn't be able to overcome. This book made me take stock of my life while at the same time realizing just how lucky I have it...thanks Cullen!
on July 25, 2007
Heard Thomas on a pod-cast of the Diane Rehm show. Thought it was interesting and got a copy. This is one of the best books I have ever read. I was so captivated with his writting that I had a hard time putting it down to get other things done. The writting is easy on the eyes, flows well and just slips off the page. In this coming of age story we not only have the story but a true transformation. Highly recommend it.