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[833] Heads in Bed – Jacob Tomsky

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“Service is not about being up-front and honest. Service is about minimizing negatives and creating the illusion of perfection.” (43)

Heads in Bed is the funny at sometimes galling memoir of an indiscreet veteran of the (so-called) hospitality industry. (I pick this up because of the alluring subject matter, and the recent shocking revelation that some hotels do not change the bed sheets after checkouts.) It tells the tale of how a jobless philosophy major worked his way up the industry ladder, beginning as a rubber-burning parking valet in New Orleans and then making his way into the “hotel proper.” From bellman to concierge, housekeeping to front desk, Tomsky doles out stories of transactions that involve high degree of cupidity and dishonesty on both guests’ and hotels’ behalf. Guests come up with ways to get something for nothing—room upgrade or complimentary minibars. Hotels encourage staff members to cosset guests in every conceivable way but cut corners in the the staff’s benefits.

Tomsky’s keen depiction on workers and how a nickel and dime make a huge different in their cutthroat jobs rivets the pages. The competition for tips is fierce and so real. Tomsky is fratty, snarky, brass, but industry-specific, revealing insider scoops of the industry that savvy travelers would have gathered. He confirms the pecking order of hotel guests according to their bookings. His many anecdotes show constant cordiality is taxing, but there’s no arguing the fact that the infinite stream of guests makes for good fodder. One point that truly resonates with me is: A person of culture should make every effort to hide his frustration from those who had nothing to do with its origin.

366 pp. Anchor Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

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[807] The Unwelcome Chinese – Pokong Chen

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*Currently only available in the Chinese- and Japanese language. Pokong Chen appears on Voice of America radio.

Where the Chinese are there will always be racket, filth, and kerfuffle. It’s for a fact. Pokong Chen, a dissident originally from Szechuan and now residing in New York, cities many incidents of uncouth behaviors of mainland Chinese people to argue that inveterate despotism and one-party rule are to blame for the vices. He recognizes that rudeness and uncouth are not exclusive to the Chinese, but the Chinese people’s distasteful behavior are tied up with a long history of suppression, persecution, and cruelty by the government. The age-old monarchy and dictatorship system in China is not conducive to development of ethics on an individual level as people, out of fear, are led to blind observance. They are stripped of their own thinking and more caught up with pleasing the system at the expense of right-or-wrong.

Chen expounds on the culture of control that reigns over the people as a whole. Under generations of censorship, China has remained closed to any democratic liberation as seen in former East Germany and the USSR. China, ruled under the Communist Party, has become a nation that does not respect the dignity of human freedom. Chen is relentless in his denouncement of party officials, whose vices are endemic to their political culture. Bribery is rife as it’s the unspoken norm to get things done. The demonic values and pervasive influences of their party have every last Chinese person to some extent. Daily life becomes currying favor with local officials. The rougue behavior of Chinese tourists is a result of a deep-seated anxiety and fear imparted in them over the years. There’s a lot of distrust. There’s fear that material properties will be taken away from them. They dare not to criticize the Party or the government. Every man is for himself and so individual integrity diminished.

Chen further demonstrates the Chinese psyche is mere manifest of a political system so corrupted from the very top. Bureaucrat is the most coveted job in China because it’s the bright path to money and power. Their pride and arrogance; their exclusivity and elitism; their outward vanity and bravura; their titles of respect, authority, and personal renown; their heavy burdens that crush so many; their exploitation to maintain the standing—all trickling down to the common people, entangling them and weaving them into actions and thinking that are not of their own volition. In pleasing the devil, the people become devil of their own, given to corruption, cowardice, deceit, hypocrisy, selfishness, effrontery, greed, apathy, distrust …

The book title sounds gimmicky but Chen is neither sermonizing nor pedantic. He draws on facts from over a long period of time from the dynasty periods to modern China and makes objective generalizations. He seeks a fair justification of the cause of the unruly, uncouth behaviors of Chinese people from a social and historical perspective. He argues there will be no trust and freedom until the demise of the tyrannical rule. Until then, the weightier matters of the law-justice, love and mercy are neglected, and ultimately, the eventual slavery of men to the powers that be.

269 pp. Open Books Hong Kong. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

History of Japan

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A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present, Third Edition, paints a richly nuanced and strikingly original portrait of the last two centuries of Japanese history. It takes students from the days of the shogunate–the feudal overlordship of the Tokugawa family–through the modernizing revolution launched by midlevel samurai in the late nineteenth century; the adoption of Western hairstyles, clothing, and military organization; and the nation’s first experiments with mass democracy after World War I. Author Andrew Gordon offers the finest synthesis to date of Japan’s passage through militarism, World War II, the American occupation, and the subsequent economic rollercoaster.

Memorable Readings of 2015

imageSycamore Row by John Grisham.
The bigger picture is that law is indistinguishable from the history of race in the South. In this novel, the law burdens us with secrets that must be revealed, but the most brutal acts can be balanced by an unexpected act of salvation. Grisham portrays racism as something poignantly inveterate and deeply rooted in our perception. This is a multi-layered legal thriller that evolves and branches off to new direction until the end.

Well-Schooled in Murder by Elizabeth George
This one keeps me on the edge of the seat and makes me a fan of Elizabeth George. George has a deft hand in exploring the multi-facets of the murder, whichever path she explores, reader is taken down the pathways of guilt, earned or unearned, as well as remorse. There’s a new tiwst nearly on every page, and the sense of danger elevates as Lynley and Havers peel back the dark and murky secrets of a school that is far more interested in protecting its reputation than helping the investigation.

A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines
When a white liquor-store owner is killed during a robbery attempt, along with his two black assailants, the innocent bystander Jefferson gets death. A white teacher Grant manages to reach out to Jefferson. In trying to save him from disgrace, justice and Jefferson’s innocence suddenly seem secondary. In reaching out to Jefferson Grant has come to embrace a new depth, irrelevant of religion, that even the reverend cannot accomplish.

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens
In this melodrama of a book he depicts the savagery of the regime at Dotheboys Hall, which, despite the often extravagant claims, it offers little in the way of education. The novel, no doubt, is a social commentary; but more powerful than its social protest against injustice, is the exuberant and absurd comedy that suffuses its narrative.

The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street by Helene Hanff
For twenty years, between 1949 and 1969, Helene Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel, a London bookseller at Marks & Co; but it was not until 1971 that her fervent wish of visiting England came true. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of her long delayed visit to London, where she was met by late Doel’s wife, Nora and her daughter Sheila. Written in the diary form, this memoir is still full of exuberance and wit, although less all the literary references in her previous book.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
A quotation from King Lear prefaces this novel and gives its title, setting the tone right from the beginning. It foreshadows how one’s mind will be stripped naked, identity crumbled, and language blown out of him, leaving behind only the memory of the last words. While the book’s prime focus is Eileen, the moral lesson is from Ed Leary and his illness. Thomas’s treatment of Leary’s Alzheimer’s is extraordinary. It seems to come upon the reader with the slow realization as it comes upon his wife and son.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
Ayn Rand’s gargantuan enterprise of a novel advocates selfishness. Selfishness in terms of safeguarding and preserving an individual’s thinking, achievement and reason from the hijacking of the government. Groundbreaking and outlandish. In the context of the novel, men have been taught that the ego is the synonym of evil, and selflessness the ideal of virtue. But the creator is the egoist in the absolute sense, and the selfless man is the one who does not think, feel, judge or act. These are functions of the self.

Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne
This is my Paris primer when I made the trip to the French capital. Paris is riddled with history and Horne dissects into seven periods. Keeping primarily within the confine of political and social history, he covers nine centuries, from the battle of Bouvines in 1284 to the barricades of 1968. Like many cities, Paris has its up and down. It has evolved over time and escaped unscathed from wars. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells
First published in 1922, crammed into just under 350 pages, in highly lurid and readable prose, is the history of the origins of the world millions of years ago until the outcome of the First World War. The book is impressive in its scope and groundbreaking in its approach. It’s the first book of its kind to try and narrate the entirety of the planet’s history on an evolutionary, sociological, and anthropological basis. The book demonstrates Wells’ admirable skill in the compression of material, and extraction of what matters, with a sense of moral purpose. The history is seen through the perspective of human psyche—the frailties and limitations.

Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
For all the family intrigues, Palace Walk is more than a domestic saga. It’s the novel of the awakening of an entire generation, men and women, rich and poor, educated and uncouth, to the social and political realities in early 20th century. Mahfouz enlivens the tumultuous time in which people have to preserve their Islamic faith and cultural identity as they are overwhelmed by foreign, secular ideologies.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
A mixed drama-romance-thriller. The one thing that reminds me of the social constraint theme is the women’s invisibility, which is crucial to the twists and turns of the ensuing soap opera. No one appreciates the lesbian subtext of the situation; and the pressure that remorse and moral responsibility on their love affair is unleashed with exquisite pathos. Maybe Waters wants to be sarcastic, in creating this extreme outcome, about how society is blind to the same-sex love.

Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders by Vincent Bugliosi
This is as much a documentary of the Manson murders as a testimony to Vincent Bugliosi’s brilliance and perspicacity in his handling of the case. The book gives insight into the mental faculty of the mind’s working of those who are prosecuted for the murders. To Bugliosi’s credit, he showed how a Mephistophelean guru had the unique power to persuade others to murder for him, most of them young girls who, disconnected from their families and loath to the world, went out and murdered total strangers at his command, with relish and gusto, and with no evident signs of guilt or remorse. They were not insane, Bugliosi showed, but was in full mental faculties and were aware that society disapproved of their acts.

Non-Fiction Reading List

[Note to Self Post] The holiday season is not stopping me in terms of my reading. A visit to City Lights always affords new reading ideas. The staff is knowledgeable, well-read, and friendly.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live with it? Coates is answering this question in a letter to his adolescent son. This book is powerful. Toni Morrison hails this book to be a bold and personal literary exploration of America’s racial history.

The Devil’s Chessboard by David Talbot. This book is on the rise of American secret government a.k.a. the CIA. Talbot eviscerates those who wish us to remain unaware of the machinations of the wealthy and/or influential who ultimately decide where the power of government resides, the electorate be damned. Talbot reveals the underside of one of the most influential figure.

The Other Paris by Luc Sante. I’m not a big coffee table book person but this makes the perfect one. Sante takes us on a trip through Paris as it will never be again-dark and dank and poor and slapdash and truly bohemian. It draws on testimony ranging from Balzac and Hugo to various boulevardiers, rabble-rousers. It’s meant to upend the story of the French capital.

Learning to Die in the Anthropocene by Roy Scranton. Subtitled “Reflections on the End of a Civilization”, Scranton draws on his experiences in Iraq to confront the grim realities of climate change. War veteran Scranton combines memoir, reportage, philosophy to explore what it means to be human in a rapidly evolving world.

Sir Nicholas Winton

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In honor of Sir Nicholas Winton and his quiet heorism. May his memory be eternal. It was only after Nicholas Winton’s wife found a scrapbook in 1988 that he spoke of his all-but-forgotten work rescuing 669 children who were destined for Nazi concentration camps and extermination. “I didn’t really really keep it secret,” he once said. “I just didn’t talk about it.” Now I want to read all about it in this book.

[752] The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street – Helene Hanff

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” A few years ago I couldn’t write anything or sell anything, I’d passed the age where you know all the returns are in, I’d had my chance and done my best and failed. And how I was to know the miracle waiting to happen around the corner in late middle age? ” (58)

For twenty years, between 1949 and 1969, Helene Hanff corresponded with Frank Doel, a London bookseller at Marks & Co; but it was not until 1971 that her fervent wish of visiting England came true. The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street is the chronicle of her long delayed visit to London, where she was met by late Doel’s wife, Nora and her daughter Sheila. Written in the diary form, this memoir is still full of exuberance and wit, although less all the literary references in her previous book.

The publication of 84 Charing Cross Road made it possible for her to make the trip to London, as the publisher, paying for the expenses, wanted her there to help publicize the book. Although the book didn’t make her rich, it got her hundreds of letters and phone calls from people she never knew existed. The flummoxed first-time traveler soon found herself to be a celebrity with a particular connection to London, and this account of her time in the city was colored and enlivened by that experience.

All my life I’ve wanted to see London. I used to go to English movies just to look at streets with houses like those. Staring at the screen in a theatre, I wanted to walk down those streets so badly it gnawed at me like hunger. . . . I wanted to see London the way old people want to see home before they die. (21)

Indeed, owing to her versatility and flexibility, she made friends everywhere she went. Among her tour guides to literary and historical landmarks were comedienne, painter, playwright, an Eton alumni, a professor and an English colonel. The book is full of travel anecdotes that are both humorous and witty. She was amazed to be called chic while a bohemian mess back home. She ended up instructing a bartender to make martinis her way. She pitched a fit at Oxford when her friends wouldn’t take her where she wanted to go and insist on taking her shopping—the last thing she wanted since she was on a tight budget and that all price tags read the same message “one less day in London.”

This book is a gem in the sense that reading has inspired one on a pilgrimage. It’s abound with trenchant comments comparing American and British culture.

137 pp. Avon Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]