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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]

[789] Twilight in the Forbidden City – Reginald F. Johnston

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The author, a Scottish academic, who was appointed as Imperial Tutor to the boy Emperor, the last Emperor Puyi, gives a fascinating account of the checkered history of China since 1898 as seen from the palace. The story covered in this memoir continues to the time of Puyi’s ascension to the Manchukuoan throne in the northeast of China. The memoir mostly concerns Johnston’s time with Puyi, who is then 13 years old, with whom he cultivates a relationship beyond that which is expected between teacher and pupil. Johnston later supervises Puyi’s residence in Summer Palace after he is evicted from Forbidden City, and plays a role in his seeking refuge in the Japanese embassy. The book therefore provides a very rare glimpse into the very secretive court life of China, bound by tedious formalities, protocols, and regulations.

By the time Johnston commences teaching in 1919, China has fragmented politically in the aftermath of the fall of the Qing Dynasty. The dictator Yuan Shikai attempts to form a strong central government and even contemplates declaring himself emperor, but his failure plunges China into even more states of warlords. In 1912, the Qing court announces the abdication of the last emperor who, under the privilege treaty, is to retain his residence i Forbidden City, to retain his imperial appellate but divested of political power, and to live off an allowance from the Republic of China. It is under this political disquiet that Johnston begins his engagement in the palace, where he observes and criticizes the corrupted goings-on among the courtiers in the imperial household department. These people live out for their own benefits and suck the lifeblood of the remnant of the Qing court. Johnston cities malpractices and embezzlement and advocates for the dismissal of this department. He later manages to dismiss all the eunuchs and bureaucrats in order to save expenses and to pave the way for moving the imperial household to the Summer Palace.

Johnston is often accused of being a monarchist, and to some extent it’s true. He cannot help being biased in defending Puyi and the Qing monarchy in the face of the republic. devotion and affection aside, he blames Empress Dowager Cixi’s mismanagement that has squandered and repleted the benefits of a strong monarchy, and that millions of lives and untold suffering and chaos could have been prevented had the monarchy remained intact. Johnston is for a central government, but he doesn’t see anything wrong if a figurehead of an emperor being in conjunction with a democratically elected president. The Chinese translator, with his well-researched annotations and comments, really supplement Johnston’s narrative and correct his biased comments. A scholar who is contemporary peer to some of the historical characters that populate the pages, Guo Pak-U provides historical context and expounds how the Chinese imperial system works. The backdrop of facts that Johnston provides is richly interspersed with comments and annotations from Guo, which renders Johnston’s account more readable and objective.

Johnston has provided what is probably the only Western eye witness account over a period of many years and he does so with discipline and rigor, often bringing into the narrative the necessary context for the reader to truly appreciate the landscape. The book’s scholarship, quality of writing, and personal investment in the story by the author make it a rare and engrossing read.

389 pp. Oxford University Press. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

African Silences

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Some of the books that have stayed with me over the years were serendipitous when found. Peter Matthiessen’s 1991 memoir on his travel through Africa is still irrelevant today in the sense of the depredation of landscape. The title itself is a disturbing double entendre—silences for the disappearance of nature’s diversity, but silences also for the few remaining areas of rich, forested seclusion away from urban chaos and destruction. The book, consisted of three extended essays, is a powerful brief for the argument that African wildlife and habitats can only be preserved if long-term economic and social benefits will accrue to African people for the effort. The same thing is happening in Brazil now, in the depredation of the Amazonian rain forest. African nations and Brazil might welcome the tourist dollars from wildlife parks, but this odd, if benevolent form of neocolonialism will never secure a conservationist ethic. Rather, Matthiessen advocates a long-term preservation that stems from a humanistic ecology of people protecting a bounteous nature for reasons of soul and body.

Reading Chinese Text

imageI chose to read the annotated Chinese translation of Twilight in the Forbidden City, originally written by Reginald Johnston, Puyi’s English Teacher from 1919 to 1923, because the translator does a great job to correct and clarify some of Johnston’s observations in hindsight. Johnston is privy to the inside workings of the corrupted imperial household that lived off extravagant allowance from the Republic of China under the privilege treaty after the Qing monarchy was overthrown. A keen observer and a close confidante of the young former emperor, Johnston depicts in vivid details the final years of monarchy before Puyi was evicted from the Forbidden City in 1924. I have a habit of mentally translating Chinese text in English as I read, grappling with the many Chinese terms that are not existent in English. It’s a rewarding brain exercise that shows me the versatility of both languages.

[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]

[748] 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

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” If you happen to pass by 84 Charing Cross Road, kiss it for me? I owe it so much. ” (94)

This book, just under a hundred pages, is Helene Hanff’s memoir that unfolds through transatlantic letters, dated from 1949 to 1969, between Helene and the employees of Marks & Co., a bookstore specializes in antiquarian and second-hand books in London. In all begins when Helene spots and responds to the books store’s ad in the Saturday Review of Literature, inquiring about several out-of-print and rare books. What ensues is a correspondence spanning twenty years between a literary camaraderie.

Apropos of a booklover’s haven, Marks & Co. is “the loveliest old shop straight out of Dickens,” (28) redolent of must and dust, with “shelves going on forever, up to the ceiling.” The primary correspondent is Frank Doel, a man in his late thirties who is extremely well-read and knowledgeable. He sends Helene old books of soft vellum and heavy cream colored pages, which she stores in orange crate bookcases in her cramped New York City apartment. In turn, Helene sends her literary friends parcels, including egg powder and a whole ham, as food is rationed in postwar England.

I personally cannot think of anything less sarosanct than a bad book or even a mediocre book. (54)

The pages move quickly with Helen’s eclectic requests made to the bookseller. But what makes this slim collection of letters so powerful and captivating is the comradely touch. Business formality over time wears away, and Helene become like friends and family with the bookstore staff. Adding to the literary exchange are recipes for Yorshire pudding, personal photos, and handcrafted linen tablecloths.

Elaborated from these letters is her preference of eclectic taste. She prefers nonfiction over fiction, and it’s only to the strong recommendation that she gingerly tries Jane Austen. She has penchant for English non-fiction from the 17th- and 18th-century and memoirs. She dreams of traveling to the UK where she hopes to find “the England of English literature” and pays a personal visit to the endeared staff at the bookshop.

This gem of a book illustrates the love of books with a passion that overcomes social and physical distance. It also makes us question the current state of instant communication through texting. It is a celebration of written word, a common bond of humanity, which connects us all from generation to generation.

97 pp. Penguin Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[743] Paris to the Moon – Adam Gopnik

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“What truly makes Paris beautiful is the intermingling of the monumental and the personal, the abstract and the footsore particular, it and you. A city of vast and impersonal set piece architecture, it is also a city of small and intricate, improvised experience.”(8)

Although the book is somewhat dated (it was written during his stay between 1995-2000), I totally agree with Gopnik on the interaction of the architectural with he personal. This book is actually a collection of essays from the New Yorker, and some of the them are very insightful. I am interested in the subject matter: living in Paris, the expat life, culture clashes, etc. But the author’s style is rather long-winded and unnecessarily dense; some passages reminded me of esoteric literary criticism I used to have to read in college, not particularly suited to light observational journalism. At the first glimpse the book is sophisticated, but later uneven: some essays are excellent, heartfelt, incisive, clever while others are smug, condescending, boring. The book does not ultimately come together as a unified whole. Other than the pieces on food and fashion and the architecture, Gopnik’s prose was dead set on describing the political events of the time, and the events leading up to them. Gopnik told me about worker’s strikes, government nonsense, and current affairs (which, considering his soirée lasted from 1995 until 2000, is now ancient history) and barely anything of his Paris, which is really what I was looking for. I regret this book is an utterly boring scope of minute differences between New York and Paris life. There are many better books on Paris than this one.

338 pp. Random House. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[733] The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris – John Baxter

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” Well, this is [Parisians’] habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that’s how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn’t exist here. ” (Ch.1, p.4)

This whole book itself is an irony—Baxter advocates following a guide while he himself is one. The book is a mash-up of a memoir, history, and armchair travel guide. Baxter, having lived in Paris over two decades and married to a French woman, found his witting entry into the very profitable business of tour guide when a friend running week-long literary seminars persuades him to tag along on one of the event’s organized walks with some academic. Baxter finds this academic personality very dry, dessicated and painfully pretentious. That’s what inspires him to not become a tour guide stereotype.

He urges visitors to embrace the art of a flâneur, someone who passionately walks for pleasure of it and allows the whims to guide him, with no set itinerary. Paris, after all, is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the peace of strolling can take in all the rich, if muted, detail.

Whereas most Americans associate Paris with the lost generation of 1920s epitomized by famous expats like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein, Baxter does not limit to presenting Paris in the eyes of these celebrities. The transplanted Australian seems to feel a particular kinship with Hemingway, but equally making lively cameo are Henry Miller, Jean Cocteau, and the entourage of French painters who made Paris the legendary art capital.

But the best part of the book is when Baxter steers away from mainstream attractions—the quintessential cafes and bistros, and delves into the off-the-beaten-path, seedy Paris. The alleys, he notes, do not connote squalor and danger, but are respectively rich in history. Who would have imagined the wide, beautiful expanse of Luxembourg Garden was the roaming ground of a social killer who murdered women for their money? And there’s the uninviting building in the Cour du Commerce where the guillotine was born. The catacombs underlay large areas Paris with expansive rabbit warrens of skulls, femurs, and tibias.

With a casual familiarity, Baxter makes Paris approachable to anyone willing to explore on foot. It’s a gem of a book that reminds me of A Moveable Feast, with small chapters exploring some engaging facets of Parisian culture and history.

298 pp. Harper Perennial. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

John Muir

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The recent trip to the Gold Country enlightened me of Yosemite’s 150th birthday. The trip also led me to John Muir, naturalist and founder of the Sierra Club, which saved national treasures like Yosemite and the Sequoia National Park. Without Muir this might no longer exist as it does to this day:
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To look at a map of the United States, one would get the impression that moving west a traveler would encounter the Rocky Mountains and then nothing but lowlands stretching out to the Pacific. But no, there are more mountains to be passed once you hit California and they are no joke. Just ask the Donner Party. Muir’s task was to enter this rugged country to oversee a herd of sheep sent into the mountains to forage during the blistering Summers suffered upon the San Joaquin Valley floor. My First Summer in the Sierra is his recounting of this life-altering experience.

The book describes the author’s 1869 stay in California’s Yosemite River Valley and the Sierra Mountains. Muir’s engaging journal describes majestic vistas, flora and fauna, as well as the region’s other breathtaking natural wonders. Picturesque descriptions and sketches will likely invest within reader a strong desire to see all he is describing. One thing is obvious almost from the beginning. John Muir was a good writer. His elegant use of language was apt for the grandeur of his subject.

[656] Finding George Orwell in Burma – Emma Larkin

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” He said that Nineteen Eigty-Four is banned in Burma because it can be read as a criticism of how the country is being run and the ruling generals do not like criticism. As a result, he told me, I would be unlikely to meet many people in Burma who had actually read the novel. ‘Why do they need to read it?’ he said. ‘They are already living inside Nineteen Eighty-Four in their daily lives. ” (1: Mandalay, p.11)

In the 1920s George Orwell (then Eric Blair) spent years working in Burma as an imperial policeman at various posts, including Mandalay and Rangoon. He has formed strong opinions against colonialism and taken rather jaundiced view of the colonial society that would endure throughout the rest of his life. In 2002, traveling under the pseudonym Emma Larkin, the author, an American journalist, followed Orwell’s footsteps in Burma, where visitors were allowed to explore the country only on its terms, to recreate his experience. Finding George Orwell in Burma, employing Orwell’s sojourn and experiences as a template, is part memoir, part biography, part social history and part travelogue. Larkin reveals the cultural and political landscape of a country, one of the most mysterious in Southeast Asia, where a military regime has been in place for over 40 years, sealing off Burma from the outside world.

We historians must keep our mouths tightly shut. We are scared. As Burmese people, we are not free to talk about what we want. We are not free to walk where we want. We are not even free t die: we must die according to their wishes. (5: Katha, p.256)

Government surveillance is in fact responsible for the society’s “normal” façade. Events taking place inside Burma are carefully controlled and orchestrated. people are conditioned to obey and to submit to government’s measures. Indeed this fear of the authorities is a constant refrain from the people Larkin spoke to in Burma, including students, drivers, tour guides, policemen, dissidents and historians. They are cowed into submission because they know the reprisal is high for the only one real crime, and that is to act against the government or in defiance of its interests.

The Burmese landscape, both mental and physical, has long been loaded with prophecies, and Orwell’s trilogy is only one among many texts in which you can read the future or the past in Burma. (5: Katha, p.261)

Writing with such suppleness and understatement, Larkin reports that Orwell is known as a prophet in Burma, so closely do Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four (now I regretted reading too young to even understand their implication) reflect what has happened in the tragically oppressed land afflicted by a streak of authoritarianism. Larkin also seeks to get to the bottom of what might have provoked Orwell to write with remarkable precision on oppression. She believes Orwell was witness to many oppression, even in the colonial age, along with his work as an imperial policeman had greatly contributed to his ability to write about oppression in a chilling dystopian land. The book is a plainsong to Burma; it’s a tribute to Orwell; and it’s a rare piece of journalism. In pursuing the young Orwell’s life, she has reimagined his experiences that help shape his political outlook. Finding George Orwell in Burma is a mournful, meditative, idiosyncratic and contemplative book.

294 pp. Penguin Books. Paper (2004) [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]