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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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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.

Reading “Mother Tongue”

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Bill Bryson’s Mother Tongue is funny and informative. He explains how English is a global language, more flexible and versatile athan any other languages because despite many booby traps of the language, English still has some of the simplest spellings and pronunciation.

He starts with a couple of chapters about language in general and how it may have arisen. Inevitably this has to be a sketchy account, but good enough for general reading. His real subject is English, and here he produces a large number of facts that will surprise even native speakers of the language. For example, did you know that among the new words that Shakespeare introduced to the language include: barefaced, critical, leapfrog, monumental, castigate, majestic, obscene, frugal, radiance, dwindle, countless, submerged, excellent, fretful, gust, hint, hurry, lonely, pendant, and some 1700 others?

Bryson reassures us not to worry about American English and English English are drifting apart so remorselessly that one day the two nations may not be able to understand each other at all. But if Briton and American of the future baffle each other, it seems altogether likely that they won’t confuse many others—not, at least, if the rest of the world continues expropriating words and phrases at its present rate. The Germans talk about ein Image Problem and das CashFlow, Italians program their computers with il software, French motorists going away for a weekend break pause for les refuelling stops, Poles watch telewizja, Spaniards have a flirt, Austrians eat Big Mäcs, and the Japanese go on a pikunikku. For better or worse, English has become the most global of languages.

[761] Seven Ages of Paris – Alistair Horne

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“A great city is…a work of art. It is a collective and complex art, it is true, but this makes it an even higher form of art.” -Guillaume Chastenet

Before I headed to Paris this summer for an in-depth visit, I wanted to peruse its history, Horne’s book just serves the purpose. He has written extensively about France’s history, especially its wars, but Seven Ages of Paris is a story of Paris. 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. Paris is the symbol of chic and style, and Horne makes plain that while Paris may be many things, it is never boring.

Unlike How Paris Became Paris, which I read also in preparation for the trip, Horne’s is more than an analysis of urban design, of architectural shifts, of the court’s removal from the Louvre to Versailles, and of Haussmann’s massive re-design of the city at the expenses of demolition. To this monumental task of describing what he calls the seven ages that encompass a thousand years, Horne underscores the tenacity of the medieval French kings as they transformed a small, vulnerable town into the capital of a growing centralizing state.

The focus of each age is the king, the villains and the heroes. Philippe Auguste (1180-1222) is recognized as the first true adorer and lover of Paris. The Capetian king who at the battle of Bouvines saw off the Plantaganet English established the security of France by ensuring a French lineage of kings. The equally adroit Henri IV, who solved the religious quarrels (War of Religions) of the 16th century by a cynical conversion to Catholicism, is credited with both intelligence and a grand vision of how to embellish and to develop Paris, an ambition whose most eloquent testament were Pont Neuf and the Place Royale (today’s Place des Vosges). Sully and Richelieu, both ministers of different ages, come across favorably for their achievement in building Paris and enhancing the purity of French language, respectively.

Horne’s assessment of the Sun King, Louis XIV, who spent most of his time at Versailles, is mixed. He rid of redundant government administrations and achieved solidarity of power. His court removal was a long-term disaster for the monarchy as it established a distance both geographical and political between itself and the city of Paris. Horne’s distaste for the French Revolution is such that he skips it, even though the Paris of those turbulent, tragic years deserves to be discussed. He does acknowledge Paris always rebounces with greater depth in humanity—in the form of arts, literature, and theater. Horne emphasizes the city’s growth under the two Napoleons, contrasting its glitter with the misery of the underclass. The Commune year and Great War also receive special attention. The critical victory at the battle of Marne in 1914, and the humiliation of occupied Paris in World War Two also inspire excellent pages. This book is very dense and thorough in research. It is a work of inspiration and love for Paris.

458 pp. Vintage Books/Random House. Trade Paperback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[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]