Category Archives: book reviews

Risking it all for a convenience store

by Cygne Sauvage

A good read is an excellent antidote to the tension spawned by a serious engagement to beat work deadline. So, I scanned our book shelves/boxes and spotted this book which I remember has been lounging in that dilapidated container for several months, one of those brought home by my peripatetic housemates who are earnest bibliophiles as well.   It is not a work of fiction,  but a factual narrative of establishing a small scale business in the US by immigrants, which I imagine must be a tough undertaking, similar in a way to a Caucasian holding out one’s space in a huge Chinese community.

The other factor that caught my interest in My Korean Deli: Risking it All for a Convenience Store is the author’s background.  Ben Ryder Howe is a former Senior Editor of The Paris Review, and I always have this not unfounded bias, and never been disproved so far, favoring former journalists.  They must have a good command of the language, therefore, write good prose which, for me, is essential element in the enjoyment of reading the book.

Indeed this bias holds true.   Howe narrates his family’s tribulations in setting up a convenience store in the heart of Brooklyn, in a close neighborhood inhabited by tenacious stalwarts, that include their own suppliers and workers,  not bereft of violent predispositions dominant in a locale’s demographic profile where everyday living is a battle for survival.  Nevertheless, the thuggish crowd proves to be no match to the diligence and steadfastness of Kay, the indomitable mother-in-law of Howe, to whose daughter he has been betrothed, and acquainted since their puberty years.  Thus, the highlights of myriad sub-stories are about Howe’s acquired family’s ingenuity, its cohesiveness, its cultural peculiarities  that impact the sustainability of the business, and of course his marriage.

Miserable, and even grotesque, reality is described in vivid, hilarious manner, always with comedic relief, punctuated with loads of sarcasm. Thus, the reader doesn’t end up commiserating with Howe’s skirmishes and strife, rather amused with his brilliant and scintillating  accounts of his two worlds as a worker:  as a senior editor in a magazine and as a deli cashier slash clerk slash purchaser, etc.

Actually,  the dual life he leads is the gist of his tale told only through the metamorphosis of a convenience store.  In juxtaposition,  Howe’s employers are of diverse, opposite predispositions  in life.  Kay’s idea of fun is hard work, while The Paris Review’s publisher/owner George Plimpton’ s concept of work is having fun.  The former represents the  reality of back-breaking toil, while the latter is a dreamland struggling with reality.

Image result

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews

After peaking into what seems to be a profound mystery, it ends in ‘nothing’

by Cygne Sauvage

 

Image result

Discussions of wars always evoke horror.   Novels dealing with this genre tell of heroic tales, more often romanticized, distorted and unequivocal,  of either who’s perceived as the aggressor or oppressed, depending from what points of view the stories emanate from, or the author’s ideological position.

The Sympathizer, a successful first attempt of the author Viet Than Nguyen in the sense that it won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, differs from what is considered a typical narrative of war exploits of the protagonist.  In fact,  Nguyen does not brand his lead character, who remains the unknown storyteller bearing only the title of the Captain relating his predilection to another unnamed superior he alludes to as the Commandant,  as a paragon of a good soldier.  The narrator’s exposition of events displays more, not subtly, his compunction, weaknesses and guilt, as if wanting to clarify his deeds, cleanse his soul of culpability. His actions which he succinctly owns up to all, he explains, may be irrational in  periods sans armed conflict,   but very pragmatic and  acceptable in otherwise situations.

The tragedy in this entire tale, set in the then South Vietnam and partly in the neighboring countries of the Philippines and Thailand,  is not the series of macabre mutilation of live bodies nor of the number of lives cold-bloodedly halted by trigger happy lunatics, but the absurdity of war dictated by supreme hunger for power. The lowly fighters are in the armed struggle not out of love for one’s country but because they have no choice. Either that or escape to what could be a more hellish predicament.  Everybody just wants to survive, his/her reason for involvement does not go beyond,  toward a much greater or nobler reason.

The Captain‘s  circumstances that lead to his involvement in the war demonstrates a case in point. He is driven by his personal attachment to people engaged in the larger arena of combat. He risks his life to save his friend.  Such passionate attitude and attachment originates from  acquiring that sense of belongingness for the first time when these pals saved him from school bullies. Outside of this incident, the Captain has always considered himself as an outcast. As a love child of a French priest with a young Vietnamese lass, he is neither deemed as a denizen of the country where he was born, nor looked up to by his father’s compatriots as somebody among them.

But then, like himself, everyone is an outsider, that is, to the ongoing war as metaphorically exhibited in  the movie, which has the semblance to “Apocalypse Now,” where he was sent on a mission.  The locals are afforded mere cameo roles. His purpose to manipulate the director for more substantial characterization and participation for the Vietnamese is not accomplished, though earned him a huge compensation.

The novel’s erudite prose is a very delightful read, though at times, unnecessarily high falutin, on the verge of being grandiose. The first three chapters engender excitement and curiosity for what is thought as ostensibly mysterious plot.  The reader’s mood is dampened by the succeeding sections, as the narrator’s character turns jaded, the subsequent events shallow.

Despite this, reading through this novel is not a waste of time.

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews

Colossal Deception: A Case Study of Corruption, Cronyism and Regulatory Capture in the Philippines

Free first page

Leave a comment

December 13, 2016 · 3:05 am

Despite the story’s happy resolution I put the book down with a heavy heart

by Cygne Sauvage

 

Resulta ng larawan

I read Donna Tartt’s The Gold Finch several months before it won the Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It was well-written, very absorbing.  Within three consecutive days,  I have to rush to the powder room every lunch break from work to continue where I left off when I was consuming the book at the back of the cab on my way to the office. Going home I have to make use of my emergency pen light to resume reading inside the dim lit service vehicle, a hobby I have learned to master in the metropolis I inhabit, notorious for its monstrous traffic. Reading this modern Dickensian tale did overcome my impatience and anxiety about being held for long hours in the main thoroughfare that looks like a gigantic parking lot every day. Upon reaching home,  Theo Decker, the main protagonist in the novel,  remains my dinner companion, up to the comfort of my bed and pillowcases which most of the time would send me off to dreamland in five minutes. With Tartt’s work of fiction sleep never came until I reached the concluding chapter.

Had time been on my favor I would have gladly reread this opus. The storyline can only be the product of an imaginative genius, one who has the full command, depth and empathy of every emotion associated with the myriad facets of human existence. For these exactly are what the 14-year old boy named Theo went through from the time he lost his mother in a tragic bombing. Even the choice of a museum where the appalling event occurred must have been well-thought off by the author to stress the ironic juxtaposition of beauty and tragedy.  Tartt’s style of narration is so consuming. She relates the minutest detail of body language, the innermost covert personal feelings  such that the reader feels inclusion in the company of the characters.  Her prolific pen fabricates  an interplay of funny and grievous circumstances, drawing  empathy for Theo and Boris’ quandary, their self-destructive lifestyles imposed upon them by the pitiful circumstances in their lives.

The novel reeks of social relevance bringing to the fore the unintentional harm the child care program in the United States casts on the defenseless members of the society, the too mechanical and rigid stance of administrators that exactly drove Theo to escape and accidentally find solace in the company of an equally neglected youngster Boris. Theo attempted to drown his misery from missing his mother, while at the same time salvaging whatever memory is left of her in his heart, particularly the painting he saved during the bombing.

The Gold Finch’s storyline was never lost in the subplots as the author ingenuously interweaves  their connectedness. As the narrative progresses,  the change in Theo’s character becomes palpable, his demeanor, his struggle for survival , the inner conflict of whether he has to keep a national treasure or surrender it, and lastly, the not-so-unrequited love he has harbored over the years for Pippa, as well as his undying hope of its being reciprocated.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews

CRAZY RICH ASIANS?

by Cygne Sauvage

Resulta ng larawanResulta ng larawan

Kevin Kwan’s books which sold million copies, if we are to believe the information from the books’ publisher, are of simple storylines belonging to the genre of traditional  Korean romantic-comedy telenovelas. Both the first book Crazy Rich Asians and its sequel China Rich Girlfriend exude post-reading feel-good  sensation that their initial value  is that as escapist tools to oppressed rank and file employees, dreamy millennials and citizens of countries of inefficient governments trying to redirect their angst and fury.

It was out of curiosity that I picked up both copies but did not line up for autograph with the writer who coincidentally was at the bookstore for a scheduled book signing for patrons. My reason is that I haven’t read the books yet that time, hence, not certain whether they are good reads or if they have the potential to turn into classic. I will struggle to have a signature on my copy if it were written by the likes of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know nothing about the author except that based on his written works after going through them, he is well adept with haute couture. This does not make him a good writer, though. There’s no sophistication in the narrative.  No surprising twists, no thought-provoking turn of events. But I might be asking too much. These are  not  metaphorical tales nor epics after all.

There’s a glaring misrepresentation however.  One of the reasons I am attracted to the first volume is the expectation of being toured within the lavish palaces, buffets and paradise-like hideaways of royalties and the scandalously opulent class of Asia.  It was disconcerting that I only encountered personalities who are rich but nor crazy rich belonging  to the compatriot circles of the author’s, and therefore, do not represent the zillionaires of the continent. I may lead a simple, frugal living but the periscope of my information is far-reaching even on topics which may not be of special interest to me, something about wealth, for example. Kwan’s contextual description of his affluent characters don’t qualify them for his allusion. Further, within the milieu of Asia’s aristocratic and moneyed people, they are in the lower rung of the socio-economic ladder.

On the other hand, another value that can be attributed to these fictional opuses is their being effective (though I wonder if reliable) sources of a reader’s education on high end fashion as well as the ways of the opulent class in the city-state of Singapore, Shanghai and Hongkong, especially for someone whose only preoccupation and concern is to have something spic and span to wear, without delineating whether it is for a corporate meeting or for an appointment with a dentist.

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews

De Luxe: How Luxury Lost its Luster

by Marc Romyjos

 

Image resultIn the same way that oil and coffee could inspire bloody cataclysmic wars we’d rather forget in the benign moods of car rides and Starbucks whilings, luxury goods are a remarkable historical palliative for the often latent conflicts that spurn faith in a rhythmic and integrated global economy. And yes, that was perhaps the hoped for kind of analogous analysis that would excuse the silly desire for a fashion briefer. In any event, the book cost too much.

The title feels preemptive, in fact, especially as the author walks off with a weak indictment — she banked on the industry’s hardliners to keep luxury alive even with its buyers’ clueless notion of it. And as yet, Thomas documents, we have the pomp-priming emporia of China, Russia, Beverly Hills and Japan to keep churning the extra-special merchandise in all their mass-retail splendour. The opposite of the title, then, is true: luxury is crossing borders in a blinding flash, and 8.3 million millionaires worldwide, apart from the impossibly rich neighbourhood of the billionaires having the pawing rights to it, makes for a very well-lit industry.

One suspects Thomas’ main thesis as drawn from the haute poutyness cultivated by the world’s snobbiest at the loss of exclusivity. Conglomerates handling the most expensive international brands, such as Louis Vuitton Moet-Hennessy (LVMH), Pinault Printemps Redoute (PPR), Prada and Hermes are collectively bewailing the proliferation of counterfeits. The shoddy recreation of brand logos stuck on the poster children of un-class in the back alleys of Los Angeles and the blighted industrial quarters of Xi’an and India is being policed by covert agents. Even Hollywood, if not for its impressionable minions, had not been exempted from the sniff.

But all these are supposed to stir the consumer conscience in some way. There is, after all, the marketable value of nitpicky craftsmanship that is supposed to justify costs. That may have been the case for luxury’s validity in high-nosed Europe. But presently the customary definition of luxury supports the ongoing contradictions that are duping the world’s aspirational classes. The drive for profits and expansion vis-à-vis the mystification of the merchandise as royal rarities picks its way into the splashy world of promotions. In turn, the hungry industry is feeding off the power of PR to sell “class” for money. And when Rachel Zoe’s fashion pets brandish a Birkin or a pair of Christian Louboutin stilettos, all nouveau riche hell breaks loose. To go mass Bernard Arnault et al exploits LV’s historical roots, where in fact, the present LV is fully detached from its founder’s philosophy, save for the name.

At its best the book exposes a fetishist world and documents rising inequalities in the outsourced production of luxury merchandise. Same old cheap-labour, weak-currency propellers. But I suppose most of us have been pitted to dreams of pretty things at some point, because in any case, Bernard Arnault and the PR industry are still manning fashion’s gates. And Miranda Priestly’s “cerulean” speech in the movie The Devil Wears Prada reaffirms the power base for even the most distended, semi-conscious fashion choices and mistakes we make.

That is why I think it is important to observe the luxury goods industry. After being made accessible to middle-income spenders eager to “buy into the dream” through petty merchandise such as handbags and sunglasses, the industry has become susceptible to economic downturns and new cultural maps. Despite unrestrained spending on promotions from within, it is actually an industry limited by the spending capacities of its broader client base — the middle class, the petit bourgeois if you will. In a forecast published December last year, The Economist had more cause to call the industry lacklustre (the actual term used was “less exuberant”) in light of the recent and anticipated pinches on sales courtesy of the subprime mortgage crisis and hints at a US economy recession. But more significantly, the industry will have to come up with new morsels that the petit bourgeois could chew. If it can’t keep up with that, it’ll have to make do with profits from the Parasite Singles and Mrs. Watanabes of Japan, the dapper, plainclothes cool of Russia’s Kremlin, and China’s populous rich. It’s hard to say ouch to that.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews

The Accidental Billionaires : The Founding of Facebook : A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal

by Marc Romyjos

6326920

The cover of The Accidental Billionaires might be offputting if you are a certain Mark Zuckerberg, a near-possessed genius of a computer programmer who frittered away most of his Harvard hours coding for the premiere alternative reality of our days. Facebook might be the force to reckon with if you are a regular employee or a focused coed endlessly resisting the social networks. It might be a chore to swallow how the Facebook compulsion might be driven by our own generational prurience, how the very end to which we socialize over the internet might just be to knock off some hormonal and narcissistic parties.

Is this book perhaps an indirect slap into our own shallowness? Not so much if the relevance of Facebook is viewed in an entrepreneurial and scholarly fashion, seeing as it had spawned an unusual demographic of premature billionaires such as Zuckerberg. Harvard, too, might be revelling at this biography, knowing that the upstarts of this technological phenomenon had been nurtured by fraternal bonds, academic competition, furious hobnobbing and idealistic brainstorming within the grounds of Harvard Yard and its dormitories. Even Lawrence Summers, Harvard President at the time, might have reached his smuggest achievement in the founding of Facebook under his tenure.

Zuckerberg is actually not the hero of this tale, pretty much because he had taken no part in Mezrich’s information gathering. This book cements him as the sinister geek with antisocial business acumen, as if he had himself been programmed by his ambition to seize unchallenged control of his creation. The betrayal aspect had been right all along — Mezrich narrates in a riveting, unreferenced manner unusual in biographies the initiation of young men into the unforgiving world of startups. The victims are inevitably a number of unknown names rankled by absence of credit to their contributions in the hugest platform since Napster : a certain young investor named Edouardo Saverin, former best friend to Zuckerberg; a trio of like-minded promising young men such as athletic twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and Divya Narendra, who have been legally crying foul that Facebook had been stolen under their noses by Zuckerberg; and Sean Parker, Mr. Napster himself, the washed up party animal who had been booted out of his brainchild and had been seeking his relaunching through Facebook.

The tale and title are things you would expect from gung-ho warlords, not college students blinded by the infamous Harvard pressure to attain billionaire status upon graduation. The book not only feeds into our involved curiosities about Facebook, but also exposes the wrathful college life of clique-ish discriminations. Still, it is hardly justifiable that the history of Facebook might be sensationalized by broken martini glasses and a racy red brassiere, those cover signifiers that allow us to feel the decadent premises behind our innocuous online status changes, relentless photo tagging and brushes with the innumerable networks embedded within Zuckerberg’s creation. Not the least because Facebook could only have been a jolly real-time respite for most of us who can not escape the daily grind with a mad rush to party or reconnect with friends.

Whatever the gut human instincts propelling it into existence, Facebook had been home to honest human dealings, and even some clean advertising. These are the technologically fine-tuned tools of our day and perhaps these kids deserve more credit than their collegiate indiscretions. The cover and title though, are devices for an appealing read, and Mezrich’s storytelling approach could only bring us closer to the human side of Facebook. Perhaps this could be a call for universities to manage their IT talents better in hawkish environments such as Silicon Valley, but we can’t impugne Zuckerberg et. al. for wanting to be the coolest billionaires around.

Leave a comment

Filed under book reviews, books and authors