The Golden House- book review

A wealthy stranger arrives from India with his three grown-up sons in New York, buying a large house in a close-knit community and attracts lots of speculation. However, nobody really knows their story and what the patriarch does, until a budding filmmaker decides to make a documentary about them. This is the premise of The Golden House- a novel, a strange story that takes a while to get going.

The “Goldens” come from Mumbai, which is author Salman Rushdie’s hometown in real life, after having suffered a tragedy during the infamous Mumbai terror attacks in 2008 that killed over 150 people across 4 days. Nero, the father, was a developer tycoon while his sons live comfortable and somewhat sheltered lives. The oldest is autistic, the middle son is a kind of artist, while the youngest is a sensitive soul who is still figuring out who he is.

The family settles into New York life just as a real-life political shocker is taking place as Donald Trump, who is unnamed, takes on Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

The novel starts off a little slow as the filmmaker introduces and explains the mysterious Goldens. The filmmaker gets his own sideplot but honestly it’s not very interesting. A ravishing Russian soon complicates the picture as she seduces the patriarch and marries him. The story picks up as Vasilisa settles into the household, dominating her husband’s affections and attention, while getting pregnant. This part is not as straightforward as it seems but I won’t give up the details so you’ll just have to read it.

There is a return trip to Mumbai for one of the brothers, the artist, which ends on a not very positive note. Soon it is apparent that Golden senior has a very murky underworld past that is threatening to catch up with him. To me, the India storyline is the most fascinating and tragic, and I wouldn’t have minded if the novel had been solely about this.

I’m not a big fan of Rushdie, but this book becomes more interesting the further I got. He makes a big effort to loop in contemporary issues like human sexuality, political polarization and culture wars. I didn’t think these had such a strong impact because there is a lot of jumping around and the narrative never focuses too strongly on any single theme.

Fire and Fury-book review

Donald Trump is such a ubiquitous presence in the media that it feels a little redundant to read a book about his presidency. Especially when the book Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump White House. backs up the popular perception of Trump that you often get in the media, which is that he is unpredictable, shifty, and a bit simple-minded.

Don’t get me wrong, Fire and Fury was a riveting and fascinating read, but just not in a positive way. The book is well written and the characters and events are described in detail. The problem is that none of it is inspiring or fulfilling. It’s like Trump and his whole administration are a reality show or second-rate soap opera veering from one shambolic plot to another.

The books features in-depth profiles of the supporting cast around Trump, including his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner, who form the main powerbase within the White House, and their nemesis Steve Bannon, who is a surprisingly compelling character. There are the military generals like James Mattis and HR McMaster, the young communications director Hope Hicks, who becomes a “senior” administration figure simply by staying on for over a year, the notorious Anthony “Mooch” Scaramucci (who succeeded for 10 days before being fired) and many others. However, one major figure who doesn’t really get much coverage in the book is Mike Pence, the vice president.

Assuming author Michael Wolff is correct, Trump genuinely did not expect to win, and instead, was planning to capitalize on the publicity of his campaign after his defeat to boost his reality star profile. Instead, he pulled off a shocking victory over Hillary Clinton, which forced him and those around him to figure out how to run the country. Almost three years on, it seems like Trump still hasn’t done so.

Hong Kong, the US, and the NBA

I haven’t been posting much here recently, but when I do, it’s mostly been about the protests in Hong Kong. That’s simply because for the past four months and counting, the protests have not only continued but intensified. Both sides have ramped up their actions. The dreaded October 1 date has passed, and the Hong Kong authorities have passed an anti-mask law using colonial-era emergency ordinance. In response, protesters went on a rampage on two weekends ago, causing the MTR to shut down for one entire day. Since then, the MTR has been closed at earlier times at night such as 8 pm and 9 pm, which is almost like enforcing a curfew on Hong Kong.

One good outcome for the protests is that the US House of Representatives just passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act on Tuesday, October 15 (it still needs to be passed by the Senate before becoming law). This bill will enable the US to assess Hong Kong’s autonomy every year in order to continue granting it special trading rights (Hong Kong is treated differently from China by the US). This has annoyed China, who have threatened to retaliate, but it’s another step in putting Hong Kong, and China’s treatment of it, in the global spotlight. I know that the US has its own issues, not least the appalling behavior of its president, but at least, it is still a much more inspiring nation than China.

Another major news involving the US and Hong Kong (and China) is the NBA controversy, in which a tweet by Houston Rocket GM Daryl Morey about the Hong Kong protests caused China to lose its mind. China went on to ban the Rockets, with Chinese sponsors cutting links with the club and Chinese broadcasters refusing to show Rockets games, and Rockets posters being scrapped from NBA promotions in China. The whole thing is so ridiculous and demonstrates China’s pettiness so profoundly that I actually want China to ban the NBA (in reality, it is extremely popular with Chinese) just to show the extent of censorship. But it is disappointing how the NBA, and even Lebron James, have seemingly bowed to China merely due to commercial reasons.

Outside of Hong Kong, the world seems like it’s full of turbulence and uncertainty as well. From the UK to Catalonia in Spain to Iraq to Indonesia, mass protests are breaking out. Actual war is taking place in Syria and Yemen. Meanwhile, there are growing signs of global economic trouble, including the dreaded “r” word- recession on the horizon. But as dispiriting or troubling as all this seems, I’d like to think that it’s still possible to have hope and not give in to despair, while trying to be a decent person as hard as it seems.

Figures in a Landscape, and Redemption Song- book reviews

Figures in a Landscape is a collection of non-fiction articles by Paul Theroux, in which he takes readers through a literary landscape includes celebrities, places, and the past. There are profiles of famous figures like Elizabeth Taylor and Robin Williams, as well as interesting non-famous people. There are shorter pieces on aspects of Theroux’s life including his love of reading and relationship with his parents. Theroux is one of my favorite writers but somehow I didn’t find this book too appealing.

The pieces vary in length with the profiles being over 30 pages while others like the personal essays are less than 10. The disparity in length and the widely varying subjects in the over 20 articles in the book give it an inconsistent effect that made it hard to fully appreciate them. But Theroux does well to probe his subjects and provide compelling portraits of their lives, whether it be a celebrity comedian actor or a dominatrix.

I found his personal essays to be interesting, especially the one about Hawaii, Theroux’s home, and about his father. Theroux had a complicated relationship with his parents as his mother scorned his writing career while his father was caring but deferential in life. What Theroux says about books giving him relief and hope while living in Africa as “no matter how badly the day went, a book was waiting” for him is the most touching statement I’ve ever read expressed about books. It’s something I will try to keep in mind with my reading.

The Caine Prize for African Writing recognizes the best African short stories every year. Redemption Song and other stories features the five shortlisted Caine Prize stories for 2018 as well as 12 stories written during a Caine’s Prize workshop. Featuring writers from Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, Rwanda and 4 other African countries, the stories highlight life, conflicts and other issues all over the continent. There are funny stories, sad stories, and even sci-fi, fantasy and ghost ones.

Among the more memorable are “Fanta Blackcurrant,” a sad tale of a street girl in a Kenyan slum, “American Dream,” which was about a boy in a rough Nigerian coastal community, and “No Ordinary Soiree,” about a female Rwandan businesswoman struggling to escape her loveless marriage to a wealthy heir. In “America”, a Rwandan woman visits her Cameroonian boyfriend in the US with high hopes only to be disappointed as she realizes the pitiful truth about him.

Hong Kong protests reach 100 days

It’s been 100 days since the Hong Kong protests started, which means Hong Kong’s protests are now into their fourth month. On the surface, things may have seemed to be improving after Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the dreaded extradition bill would be withdrawn.

But in reality, there have been ramped up violence, not just on the streets, but in the airport and the subway stations. Even worse is that besides protester clashes with police, who themselves have committed some brutal acts, there have been savage fights between protesters and pro-government/China thugs. It’s getting to the point where each successive weekend brings on more protests and violence, which seemingly outdoes the previous weekend’s clashes.

While I support the protests and I like that many Hong Kongers are discovering a growing sense of identity, I think that some protesters are resorting too much to violent means such as throwing firebombs, vandalizing MTR stations, and beating up individuals (the rationale is that pro-government thugs have been doing the same so revenge is necessary).

That said, there have been peaceful protests. While you might have seen news scenes of protesters facing off against riot police, there are peaceful protest actions taking place, often during the week. These involve human chains across Hong Kong, atop mountains, and even in front of schools. There have been rallies by medical workers, teachers, seniors, students, and even civil servants.

Besides these, I hope that people can focus on more non-violent means of protest such as general strikes (which have already been tried but should be tried again), boycotts, and even blocking off malls and hotels owned by local tycoons.

There is a lot of debate on the root causes of the protests, beside the opposition to the extradition bill.
Hong Kong is one of the world’s top financial hubs but unlike other hubs like New York and London, it is only that and nothing more. Hong Kong is overcrowded and cramped, heavily dependent on finance and commerce, while the local cultural scene (arts, music, writing) is very small. I wrote an article last month arguing that Hong Kong has been failing itself and its people long before these protests.

But unlike some pro-government people or Chinese state propaganda, I am not claiming that the issue is only economic. People are not going to simply stop protesting or start liking China if they get bigger homes or more money. The problems of Hong Kong are both economic and political, with an elitist and out of touch government combining subservience to the central government in China with the coddling of local HK tycoons.

Hong Kong has a limited democratic system in which only half of the legislators are elected by the general population while the other half are elected by sectors. So basically, corporations literally vote for their own lawmakers, which makes Hong Kong unique in a dubious way. And people cannot vote for the chief executive at all, as she is chosen by a committee of 1,300 people, most of whom are pro-government, and this is after being approved by a much smaller screening committee.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s political and civil freedoms have been gradually curtailed over the past few years as opposition lawmakers have been disqualified for petty reasons, and protest leaders of 2014’s Umbrella Movement have been arrested. You’ve also had booksellers being kidnapped in Hong Kong and detained in China, while a Financial Times editor being effectively banned from Hong Kong after his journalism visa was not renewed.

The protests have led to an unofficial anthem as well as a slogan – “Liberate Hong Kong- revolution of our time“. Some people mean it literally while others do not, but it is clear as I mentioned above, there is a growing consciousness of a Hong Kong identity.

After over three months of protests and street clashes, Hong Kong’s economy is suffering. Tourism is down, retail sales are down, and Hong Kong’s credit rating even got downgraded by Fitch earlier in September. But that is actually part of the plan for some protesters. Because even when Hong Kong was thriving, many people were not benefiting.

Tourism for instance is largely dependent on mainland Chinese visitors and much of what they do and buy only benefits a small group of people. It’s the reason you see so many identical chain stores and pharmaceutical stores selling milk powder and so on – they mostly cater to mainland visitors.
I also think Hong Kongers can benefit from doing less shopping and with less malls.

Even property prices and sales are down, and nobody is crying over this.

That said, it is probably not a good idea to visit Hong Kong for a holiday these days. While hotel rates are cheaper and the malls and tourist attractions like Disneyland are much less crowded, you won’t know when a MTR subway station will be closed or when streets will be filled with tear gas and fighting. While my area has not seen much disturbances, that changed on Sunday when quite a bit of fighting took place.

Amid all this, one thing is for sure. This will not be over anytime soon, though a potentially ominous day is coming up.

This is one of the many “Lennon Walls” that have sprung up across Hong Kong, displaying notes of encouragement, posters, and drawings supporting the protests. They also feature announcements of upcoming protests, functioning as a community notice board.

This Could Hurt- book review

Even though my mood has been affected by the turmoil in Hong Kong for two months and counting, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been able to do some reading.

Normally, human resources isn’t exactly the type of topic that great stories are made of, but I have a thing for workplace novels. This Could Hurt- a novel is about a HR head of a New York research marketing firm who goes through some major work drama and crisis, while rallying her team around her.

Rosa Guerrero has risen to the top of the corporate ranks as an executive VP and chief of human resources at her firm. But with a tough economy (the book is set in 2009) and rising unemployment, she faces the hard task of culling headcount at the company, not to mention within her team. Having already been affected by previous rounds of job cuts, the HR department includes a capable female VP of communications who has hit a rut, a dedicated family man who is unfortunately mediocre at his work, an ambitious young Wharton grad, and the VP of employee benefits who is fiercely loyal to Rosa.

Early on, there is controversy over the sudden departure of Rosa’s longtime number two, which has something to do with theft and family issues. But this is only a sideplot, because the story quickly moves on. Having already had to fire her number two, Rosa will need to make a hard decision on firing at least another of the execs on her team mentioned above. This is where the hardhearted and sometimes deceitful nature of office politics rears its ugly head as people jockey for position to become Rosa’s new number two, criticize their colleagues behind their backs, and plot their way to other jobs whilst neglecting their work.

Workplace drama is only half the story here, as the personal lives of Rosa and her executives also play a significant part. Family tensions, financial problems, and romantic struggles are all issues afflicting the main characters. One person has to cope with his wife cheating on him, while another tries to be more open with his homosexuality. The author does well in focusing on the characters’ personal lives, which makes them believable and sympathetic. Of course, all of the main characters are senior or mid-level executives and from time to time, it’s hard to be too empathetic.

When Rosa suddenly has a stroke which leaves her with serious memory problems but otherwise intact, her staff have to try and pull things together to ensure Rosa and themselves are able to survive the corporate restructuring.

One issue with the book is that the ending, which I won’t divulge, drags on. It’s not too predictable nor saccharine, but there were a few issues that could have been resolved better.

Many years ago, I read and reviewed And Then We Came to the End, a fantastic novel by Joshua Ferris about employees at an advertising agency. While that one still stands out as the best workplace novels I’ve ever read, This Could Hurt runs a close second.