Sunday, 12th August, 2012 § Leave a Comment
Only two reasons why I even bothered with this book. Firstly, I’m sort of a fan of the show. I like history and some of the items that are featured are very interesting. Second, the book was like 60% off at Amazon. Can’t resist a bargain.
The book is surprisingly good. Just like the show, it has a bit of humour and Rick is a natural storyteller. It’s not difficult to tell stories I suppose when a lot of zany characters walk through your door looking for some quick cash. In fact, from what Rick tells us the show is a sanitized version of a typical day at the World Famous Gold & Silver Pawn Shop. Practically ignored while he was growing up because his parents were too busy working, Rick Harrison feared as a child that he would never see adulthood because of his seizures that would relegate him to the bed for days. This was where he would spend his days reading any books he could get his hands on and he credits those days as his real education. He also has a natural gift for numbers. So the bald overweight guy with the smoker’s laugh isn’t actually a dumbass.
His employee Chumlee though isn’t as book smart and looks it while his son Big Hoss is smart but doesn’t look the part. They both get to tell their stories (they were meth addicts in their teens and cleaned up their lives while their other meth buddied didn’t). Rick’s dad The Old Man also pitched in but it’s Rick’s book so he gets most of the pages.
The most interesting part of the book for me was when he describes some of the characters he has encountered in the twenty years he’s been working in the pawn shop. There’s the billionaire who browses in his shop without buying anything ever but everytime he comes in, there’s a new girl by his side. There’s the Asian lady who looked like a bag lady but took out a roll of hundred dollar bills from her sock to make a purchase. The family who live their lives as professional gamblers and visit the Gold & Silver whenever they need cash for the casinos (which is often) and the thieves and conmen who sometimes get away with their scams and causes Rick to lose thousands of dollars. And then there’s Bizzle. The Bizzle story is amusing, touching and just a little bit heartbreaking and he’s one of those people that you would never meet if you were not managing a pawn shop.
It is a well written book. A Tim Keown is credited alongside Rick Harrison as the author and I’m guessing he’s the ghost writer. I usually avoid ghost written memoirs but Rick’s voice comes out loud enough in this book that I believe that Rick actually did the writing while Mr. Keown merely polished the rough manuscript.
A surprisingly deep book about a hustler with a heart.
Tuesday, 17th July, 2012 § 8 Comments
Yasmin Ahmad died in 2009. She was a copywriter who later became well known for her annual Merdeka television ads for Petronas and later became even more famous for her movies. I’m not a fan and I knew of her more from the controversy of at least two of her movies than from watching the movies themselves. One, Muallaf, was even banned from screening in Malaysia if I’m not mistaken. (EDIT: Okay, I was mistaken. Muallaf was never banned. But she was seen by some as ‘controversial’ because she made movies that did not feature mat rempits).
She was loved by her friends and fans because of her pluralistic and liberal outlook in a nation that only pays lip service to such ideas and this book is a collection of memoirs of that liberal woman from the people who knew her best. “Yasmin How You Know?” (saying “How you know” in a staccato manner was her habit apparently) is hilarious, touching and even made me who was ambivalent towards her work miss her deeply.
Here are some excerpts:
Yasmin on Orang Putih (literally white people):
“You know what orang putih are to me? Albino Punjabis.”
Yasmin on what to do before going to bed:
“Seek forgiveness from God and to forgive everyone who has hurt you”
Yasmin and how she got Kok Wai Ming the typist to type her copy first (fondly remembered by Irene Ho, Yasmin’s colleague and Ogilvy and Mather):
Circa 1980s, all copywriters had to write their copy by hand, then pass it to the typist, Ms Kok Wai Ming, to type on the only computer in the department. And the queue would be horrendously long.
Yasmin being Yasmin, would finish her copy only at the very last minute.
Once I saw Yasmin so frantically late, she actually went on her knees: “Kok Wai Ming, please type for me first, please…”
Kok Wai Ming: “Cannot!”
Yasmin literally begged: “Please, please, Kok Wai Ming. I’ll even give you an English name if you type for me first.”
“What name?” asked our typist.
“Massive,” said Yasmin, “Massive Kok.”
The design of the book is unique. Slip it out of its envelope and it looks like a notepad one would have on one’s writing desk. The back of the book says that “this book is not damaged. It is intentionally designed with the “yet-to-be-perfected” look. Read it, and you’ll understand why. God willing.”
I did. And I did.
Saturday, 4th February, 2012 Comments Off
Browse the shelves at your local bookshop and look for books on Muslim women and chances are you’ll find many titles on the subject. You will also find that most if not all of the books have one recurring theme: the victimisation of women in Islam. Disgusted with this stereotype, two American Muslim women invited other American Muslim women, many of them writers themselves, to tell the world about their experiences finding love that is totally different from the preconceived notion that most westerners have and in fact is just the same as everyone else. The result is “Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women“.
There are stories of arranged marriages like Aisha Saeed’s “Leap of Faith” who was so adamant against the idea that when the boy’s family asked for a photo, she did her best to pose with an annoyed look. Far from driving him away with the look, it intrigued him. “Love In The Time Of Biohazards” is an endearing and humorous story about a spouse taking care of his wife, Melody Meozzi, who is suffering from pancreatic cancer and “A Prayer Answered” is about a Muslimah looking for love from another Muslimah. Gay love. I’m half expecting this book to be included in Malaysia’s 2012 list of banned books. Or maybe it won’t be sold here at all. I bought mine from Amazon.
Most of the stories are by women of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent and a few converts to Islam but there’s one from Malaysian-American Aida Rahim whose journey to find her one true love prompted her husband to say, “we plan and God laughs”. True that.
I’m not the target audience of this book but I was intrigued by the subject. Some Muslims may take offense at it what with its frank portrayal of lesbian love and stories of Muslim women having sex before marriage (gasp! shock! horror!) but to do that is to miss the point. Love, InshAllah is not here to preach. It just wants to tell the (western) world that Muslim women have the same foibles and needs as any other woman. Be they Sunni, Shia’, orthodox Muslim, lapsed Muslim, reverts to Islam, straight or gay Muslims, the stories collected in this book all revolve around the same thing: the search and discovery of that thing called ‘Love’.
Wednesday, 21st December, 2011 Comments Off
Jeremy Mercer used to be a crime reporter in Canada. One day he wrote a true crime book based on information from a career thief who spoke on condition of anonymity. For some reason, Mercer broke that condition and included the thief’s name in the book who naturally felt betrayed and promised physical pain to Mercer. That prompted him to quit his job and emigrate to Paris, France and after running out of money he found his way to a famous bookshop that allowed indigents to stay within its walls as long as they help out around the shop during the day.
That is the premise of Jeremy Mercer’s memoir, Books, Baguettes & Bedbugs: The Left Bank World of Shakespeare & Co. (also published as Time Was Soft There: A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.) I love biographies and history and where a book appears to combine both? Bring it. Unfortunately, ‘BB&B’ was a tad disappointing for me. Perhaps I was expecting more than it promised. Or perhaps my mistake laid on the fact that I thought this was the same bookshop owned by Sylvia Beach and was famous for publishing the then controversial Ulysses by James Joyce. It is not the same shop. That one was closed during World War II and never re-opened. This other one was renamed by proprietor George Whitman who wanted to pay tribute to the original bookshop. Whitman saw his bookshop as “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” and allowed visitors to spend the night or two (or in one case, years) in the shop.
This was the arrangement that Mercer agreed to when he was penniless and looking for a place to stay in Paris and it is his sojourn there that most of the book covers. Once there he finds a motley crew of disaffected people. There is the talented but depressed poet, a screenplay writer wannabe, a beautiful bisexual and a refugee from China. There are others but it is these four who Mercer spent the most time with. While they all have interesting pasts, nothing they did while living at the bookshop was interesting enough. In fact I would classify them as one rung above being a loser. They sleep on makeshift beds, they share a toilet (complete with a rack of damp books), a washroom with no shower and eat at a kitchen littered with dead cockroaches and basically just chug along writing as little as possible.
There is tension along the way when a real estate developer attempts to buy the shop because he wanted to transform the entire block into a hotel but as we all know the shop is still in operation the tense feeling quickly dissipates.
The proprietor, George Whitman, died on 14th December 2011 which coincidentally was the day I began reading the book. His daughter now runs the place.
The other biography is Mark Twain’s Autobiography 1910-2010 by Michael Kupperman which is not to be confused by the actual autobiography of Twain. In this parody, Mark Twain never died because a wizard made him immortal (details of that not forthcoming) and like Zelig (or if you’re too young to understand, like Forrest Gump) finds himself involved in just about every major event of the 20th century. Marketed as a humorous book, it instead falls flat about forty pages in. While reading that an immortal Twain had to write porn screenplays for money to ward off the loan sharks managed a chuckle out of me, most of the ‘humour’ in this book failed to even make me grin. Absurdity for absurdity’s sake is a tough act to pull. Personally, I think the British are better at it (Douglas Adams comes to mind). Kupperman throws everything into this book except the kitchen sink and the result looks like something a teen would write to impress his friends. And that is probably the only group of people who would find this remotely interesting.
Monday, 29th August, 2011 Comments Off
Boris Hembry’s memoir is similiar to A Company of Planters (reviewed here) in that both authors served as managers of rubber estates in colonial Malaya and wrote about their time living, at a relatively young age, in a strange land far from home and shouldered with responsibilities that both admit had no experience shouldering. The only difference is that John Dodd in A Company of Planters arrived in Malaya after the Japanese occupation and had to face the risk of Communist ambushes while looking for a local girl to sleep with. Boris Hembry on the other hand was already managing Malayan rubber estates before anyone had ever heard of Hitler. He was also quite chaste before marrying his wife Jean just before the war. Hembry also took an active part in espionage duties during the war years which saw him infiltrating into Japanese occupied Malaya in a submarine. Not content with that, he also organised an army of volunteers (Hembry’s Own Bloody Army, HOBA) to fight the post-war Communist threat especially after fellow estate manager, Arthur Walker, was killed. Being an orang putih and an estate manager made Hembry a prime target for assassination by the communist guerrillas. But it’s not all doom and gloom in this book. Hembry led an active social life and when there was no social life to be found, things other than rubber trees kept him busy. The wildlife for example amazed him to no end. He once found a thirty three foot python and wondered if the record still holds (it’s not. A 49-footer was captured in Indonesia in 2004). Then there was the time he set a tiger trap for a tiger that was spotted wandering near the estate. When he found the trap the next day, it had a tiger paw in it and felt sorry for the tiger which he obviously thought was dying in great pain. A few days later, another tiger was spotted at the estate and this time he shot it dead…and discovered that it had a missing paw. It was the same tiger which he thought had died from its injuries. Not only did it not die, it came back to the estate to hunt!
Though the book has the word Spymaster in it which conjures a certain image, Hembry’s memoir is less on his time as a spy and more on the time he managed estates all over Malaya and briefly in Sumatra and his experience fighting the Japanese. He has never quite forgiven the Japanese for the atrocities committed during the war especially when it happened to someone he knew. The bitterness oozes out of the memoirs whenever he recalls a friend’s beheading. He was also quite critical of the deplorable actions of British officers who looted homes in Singapore after the Japanese surrender. “I could name names”, Hembry threatened.
His memoirs were written quite matter-of-factly, like a grandfather recounting his younger days to his grandchildren and that was in fact the reason he wrote his memoirs. According to his son, Boris Hembry never intended to publish his memoirs but his family thought it would serve his memory better (Hembry died in 1990) if it was available to the general public. I for one am grateful for that decision.
Wednesday, 17th August, 2011 § 5 Comments
Let’s get straight to it — don’t read Q’s Legacy if you haven’t read 84, Charing Cross Road and Duchess of Bloomsbury Street which I’ve reviewed here. Q’s Legacy is Helene Hanff’s memoirs on how she came to order books from the rare books dealer Marks & Co. in London. It was all because she couldn’t find in America the books mentioned by Cambridge don, Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch (or Q to his students) in his collected lectures. That led to her long distance correspondence with Frank Doel of Marks & Co. which became the well known 84 epistolary and the success of that book resulted in her visiting London as a mini celebrity chronicled in Duchess…, so really, if you haven’t read those two book you will never ‘get’ Q’s Legacy. But what Q spurred her to do was merely a catalyst and not the meat of the book. I think Helene Hanff only had that one book in her and she milked it for all it was worth. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I would have done the same thing if I was in her position. Q’s Legacy begins with how she educated herself, due to lack of money for college, by reading textbooks on English literature in alphabetical order at the library. Nothing wowed her until she reached Q and the rest as they say is history.
An interesting fact: 84 Charing Cross came about because she needed a catharsis to cope with Frank Doel’s death. It was planned as a short story for a magazine but it got published as a book instead. Later when she wrote Duchess of Bloomsbury Street after visiting London for the first time, both books were published together in one volume because both were so slim that the publishers figured it would not have been worth it to publish them separately (they didn’t think it would sell well). Its success caught everyone, author and publisher, by surprise.
Her further trips to London that made up most of Q’s Legacy was to meet her many British fans. It was they who persistently invited her to visit Britain so they could show her around (and they could spend time with her which was their true intent). One of her fans who invited her happened to be the widow of Q’s biographer and Ms. Hanff got to visit the quarters of the Cambridge don who influenced her so much through his books. Her London trip also included her witnessing the rehearsals of the BBC adaptation of 84 and taking a bow on Opening Night of the stage adaptation. So really, this book is sort of a sequel to Duchess of Bloomsbury Street. If it wasn’t filled with Ms. Hanff’s self deprecating style of writing I would not have enjoyed it so much. She gives the impression of being a slightly batty, self opinionated person who loves to reply to her fan letters and answer their phone calls even if it’s 3am in the morning (like the guy who miscalculated the time difference and thought it was just after dinner time where she was). She sounds like a fun person to be with and I regret it was a decade after her death that I found out about her books.
If you have read ’84′ and ‘Duchess’ and loved them then you won’t go wrong with Q’s Legacy. Reading these books makes you want to write letters the old fashioned way again.
Monday, 9th May, 2011 § 1 Comment
I would have appreciated this book more if I hadn’t fallen ill round about the time I started reading it. A thick book on the rise and fall of Bernie Madoff should not be your go-to reading material when you’re stuck in bed with the flu. I finished the book with more questions than answers and I’m not sure if those questions were never answered in the book or that I may have missed them due to my condition. One big question was, Why? Why did Madoff do it? Why did he cheat his clients, some of whom were his relatives and close friends? Was he that greedy?
Diana Henriques received unprecedented access to Bernie Madoff albeit from behind bars and discovers that Madoff has been breaking the trust of his clients since he started his first started his first small brokerage firm in 1962. Back then he invested his clients’ money in high risk stocks when they thought he was dealing in the safer low yield stocks. When the market suffered a hiccup, Madoff’s clients were wiped out financially but did not realise it because he managed to return their investments by using his firm’s own money and by borrowing more money from his father-in-law. This was not a scam but morally it was reprehensible since Madoff invested his clients’ money in areas where they did not want him to invest. The 1962 debacle taught him things that he would later use in his pyramid or Ponzi scheme thirty years later.
The book reveals that Madoff was almost caught a few times in the nineties and in the early years of this century but was saved because the people tasked to police these things simply did not look too closely at Madoff’s business ventures. They did not look too closely because they were either looking for insider trading, not Ponzi schemes, or because the one person who saw Madoff for what he was, financial analyst Harry Markopolos, was regarded as too obnoxious and more of an irritant than anything else.
Diana Henriques states time and time again in her book that Bernie Madoff is a master liar and even she doesn’t know which part of the story he is telling her is the truth and which is made up. Madoff jumps between truth and lies as naturally as breathing. Even his promise that Henriques was the only journalist he was talking to turned out to be a lie.
In the end, we still don’t know why, why, why Bernie Madoff did it. Thanks to Henriques meticulous research we can more or less know the when, the what and the how but the why remains a mystery. Greed? Sure. But why take the highly risky route of a Ponzi scheme when there are legal ways to achieve it? Perhaps Bernie Madoff is a sociopath who did it for the kicks and damn the consequences.
This book didn’t help my illness, I can tell you that.
Monday, 25th April, 2011 Comments Off
Rick Gekoski, dealer of rare books, tells the publishing history of twenty books which he thinks were the most significant in the 20th century (though curiously Wilde’s Dorian Gray which was published in the late 19th century is also included). He has bought and sold most of the rare editions of the twenty books listed in Tolkien’s Gown and includes, amongst the book’s history, his own anecdotes and insider gossip although none of it is mean spirited. Gekoski shamelessly name drops various authors like personal friends Graham Greene and Salman Rushdie but I was not annoyed by this as I thought I would be. That is perhaps a credit to Gekoski’s entertaining style of writing. Also, it is a memoir after all and when you deal in rare books you will undoubtedly meet collectors who are authors themselves. It is unthinkable to travel in such a small clique and not have stories to tell.
Opinionated Gekoski may be (he think Pullman’s Dark Materials is better than Rowling’s Harry Potter series and can’t understand the latter’s success) but the stories in Tolkien’s Gown are such a joy to read you would hardly mind or notice at all.
The first chapter, on Nabokov’s Lolita, can be sampled here.
Wednesday, 20th April, 2011 Comments Off
Reading Helene Hanff’s book inspired me to go and search for a copy of Samuel Pepy’s complete diaries. Complete, mind you. Like Ms. Hanff, I too dislike the abridged edition or collections of excerpts from Pepys’ diaries with commentaries from the editor. I want the diaries with words written by Sam Pepys’ himself. No words added, none omitted. That’s all. Fortunately I live in an age where pretty obscure books can be searched for and purchased with a few clicks of the mouse from a retailer half a world away. I couldn’t find an old and rare first edition that Ms. Hanff wanted but I don’t care. I just want the complete diaries and Amazon UK have all ten volumes (1660-1669) published by several different publishers. I settled on the FQ Books edition which is large enough in size (about the size of an A4 paper) and cheap enough. Well, cheap-ish. It’s just over £8 per book after discount. For a four hundred year old volume of ten books, that’s a bargain. I just received the first volume today. I may read a month or two worth of entries before bedtime. Samuel Pepys lived in a time of turbulence; the English was about to restore their monarchy after getting rid of Cromwell; half of London burnt in the Great Fire; the Plague killed almost everyone. Pepys was there through it all and recorded it in his diaries. He also diligently recorded his personal life including marital problems with his wife. One time, Mrs. Pepys caught the husband in a, shall we say, compromising situation with a young woman. “I was at a wonderful loss upon it and the girl also….“, wrote Pepys. Wonderful loss indeed.
I’m looking forward to collecting and reading Pepys diaries.
Wednesday, 13th April, 2011 § 3 Comments
Before there was an internet, heck, before there were even home computers people used to write letters and wait days, weeks or months for a reply. Such was the case with Helene Hanff, a writer in New York, who inadvertently in late 1949 began a friendship via letters with an antique book dealer, Frank Doel, in London. The friendship would last for twenty years but they would never meet despite Frank’s frequent invitations for Helene to visit London. Frank Doel died of appendicitis before Helene managed to find the money to fly to Britain. Sorry, should I have given a spoiler warning? Oh c’mon, the book is over thirty years old and the story is quite famous. There was a play based on the book and also a movie. It’s not like I revealed Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Whoops.
Anyway, what began as a simple request for books which were not available in post-war United States transformed into a close friendship with Frank Doel and the rest of the small staff in the bookshop of Marks & Co. They soon exchanged cards and gifts. When Helene found out post-war Britain was under strict food rationing, she arranged to have food flown in to the bookshop from a distributor in Denmark (which I thought was strange. Denmark was occupied by the Nazis during the war but had enough food to sell abroad after the war, while London was never occupied but experienced rationing until the 1950s. Oh well)
The book collects the correspondence between Helene and Frank over twenty years and we can see the differences in the styles of both personalities. American Helene is more frank (no pun intended) and has no problems cracking jokes by her third letter while British Frank takes months to change his salutations to her from ‘Madam’ to ‘Miss’ and finally to just ‘Helene’.
Reading these letters made me feel that we today have lost something in the art of communication. E-mail and other communicating innovations have made the world smaller and communicating easier but it has also made it simpler and crude. Everything is short and quick with no finesse. Today’s Helene Hanff need only to log on to Amazon or search for that rare book she’s looking for on Google and Frank Doel…well, Frank would be out of a job because there’s no way a bookshop like Marks & Co. can survive in today’s world. In fact, the actual Marks & Co. closed its doors not long after Frank’s death. 84 Charing Cross Road is today a restaurant.
There is a cheap paperback edition of this book but this hardcover edition should be the one to get because it includes Ms. Hanff’s other book, Duchess of Bloomsbury Street, which chronicles her visit to London after 84 Charing Cross Road (the book) became a huge success. The inclusion of Duchess is serendipitous because there was no indication anywhere on the cover or its spine that a bonus book was included. In Duchess, Ms. Hanff finally meets with Frank’s widow and daughter, visits the now derelict shop that meant so much to her and also visits all the places she ever wanted to see in London.
Every bibliophile should have this book, this particular hardcover edition in fact. I bought mine from Book Depository because Amazon didn’t have it. Then go watch the movie starring Anne Bancroft and Tony Hopkins. You’ll thank me later.
EDITED TO ADD: The paperback edition also has Duchess of Bloomsbury Street but I still recommend the hardcover edition because it just feels nicer on the hands. If you love books you’d understand.