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Vol. X No.18 - December 1 - December 31, 2011

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Book Review: by Lang Reid

Sex on the Moon

Ben Mezrich (a previously published author of 11 books) has written Sex on the Moon (ISBN 978-0-434-02079-9, Random House, 2011), and I suppose it goes with the old adage ‘sex sells’, well in this case the cover caught my eye amongst the hundreds of titles in my local Bookazine.  Sex does sell!

The plot runs around a young American Mormon who is kicked out of the church and his family’s home for having pre-marital sex.  The offender, young Thad, then moves in with his girlfriend and with no real ideas about his future, decides that he wants to be an astronaut.

Readers who are old enough will remember the strip cartoon Charles Atlas advertisements where the weakling has sand kicked in his face, but after a Charles Atlas course he lets the bully have what he deserves.  Did any 97 lb sand kicking weakling ever believe those ads?  I really doubt it.  However, in this book, the hero Thad changes from a timid failed Mormon to someone who would carry out a heist of priceless moon rocks.  That a clever young man would be able to work out how to do this is quite credible, but that he would be able to shrug off the morality of it all, with his Mormon background, is not so credible.

However, the story is reputedly true, and author Mezrich notes at the beginning of the book that it is a “narrative account based on multiple interviews, numerous sources, and thousands of pages of court documents.  He does point out that the story is written from Thad’s point of view, without Author Mezrich actually endorsing them himself.

You are led through the actual robbery by Thad, and this showed just how lax security at a NASA base really is/was.  The plan was not brilliant, but was successful because of the poor security.

Of course, to make it all worthwhile, Thad has to sell the moon rocks he has stolen, and he finds himself with a spaced-out drop-out, who trawls the internet, looking for a buyer, and amazingly, does come up with someone in Belgium who expresses interest.

Unfortunately for Thad and his space-monkey Gordon, this all comes to the notice of the FBI, which mounts a ‘catch or destroy’ mission, with tens of agents and police, complete overkill with this bunch of amateurs, led by Thad the dreamer, Thad the totally immature, thinking he was giving his girlfriend a present that no one else had done on Planet Earth.  A trip into fantasyland for a young girl he had known for less than a month.

Despite the prolific nature of Author Mezrich’s book writing, it reads as if he had just been to some creative writing course which entails that every noun gets an adjective e.g. “fake-wood bureau”, “vomit colored carpet”, “bright red plastic cups”, and so on.  Perhaps this was Thad’s description of his life, environment and background, but it certainly made reading more tedious than it should.

At B. 630, it is at the upper bracket of paperbacks, but it is still an engrossing book, without being riveting.

The Master Builder

There are two reasons that I chose this book, The Master Builder written by Charles Sale (ISBN 0-370-30927-8, Putnam and Company, 1982, but first published in the US in 1930) for review this week.  This first reason was Serendipity and the second followed Jung’s theory of Synchronicity.  I shall now expand on the first, but you will have to wait until the end of the review for the synchronicity.

I attended a Xmas Charity bazaar a couple of weeks ago, and bumped into ‘Foo’ (Felicity) Smith who was manning one of the Lion’s Club stalls.  Amongst a weird range of memorabilia items (some more memorable than others) they also had some old books, some of which obviously did not sell during the course of the day, and had rapidly become close to the “surreptitiously throw in the bin” category.  One of these was Charles Sale’s The Master Builder.  However, Foo, knowing my penchant for books presented it to me (probably rather than bin it), and I was delighted with it.  Thank you Foo.  Serendipity indeed!

The Master Builder is a slim volume with only 41 pages, and the pages themselves are smaller than A5. After all these years (81 since its first publishing), it was fortunate that the publisher included a note to tell us a little about the author, Charles Sale.  Apparently he was an actor, and wrote a stage monologue which was called “The Specialist”.  Having written it, he performed it on stage as well, and by the release of the British version in 1982 it was already a best-seller with over 700,000 copies sold.

Two storey out-house.

The monologue is given by a “Lem Putt”, a tradesman who builds and digs out-houses.  Fortunately those days are almost gone, though there are still some trenches in the North-East of Thailand.  Lem is not a shy and retiring chap, as you would imagine from his chosen profession.  His advice is slanted to show his own expertise, but I think we all do that.  The finale is the two storey loo.

Now I did mention C. G. Jung’s Theory of Synchronicity in my introduction.  This is where two similar things happen which have no obvious relationship to each other occur at the same time, and here’s where this theory comes in as far as The Master Builder book is concerned.  A couple of weeks ago I was sent an email, with the drawing I have included along with the pic of the cover this week.  It was supposed to be a humorous expose as to why there is a need for a two storey out-house, which allows the members of parliament to use the top floor, while we lesser mortals receive their offerings on our heads.  The drawing was the one from the book.  What are the chances of synchronous events such as those?  Billions to one I should imagine.

It remains a humorous little book, throwing off at our foibles, but you might have to go to Amazon dot com to get it - or haunt the charity bazaars!

1001 little ways to spend less and live well

This week’s book is 1001 little ways to spend less and live well (ISBN 978-1-84732-350-7, Carlton Books, printed in Dubai 2009).  The compiler of the 1001 ways is Esme Floyd.  Ms. Floyd has found another 6006 hints on other different subjects, and she has collected these in another six books.

The “1001” series has spawned many different projects, with each reputedly jam-pack full of places to go, things to do or helpful hints.  With the austerity measures throughout the world, as well as our own domestic belt tightening, I eagerly took “1001 little ways to spend less and live well” down from the Bookazine shelves.  Obviously my financial salvation would lie between the 224 pages with subjects as diverse as shopping around for mortgages (number 1 little way) to registering for on-line surveys (number 1001).

The book is divided into different headings with all the money-saving ideas with even some of them money-making ideas, but the latter was not of much real value, such as “do overtime”.  In today’s world, you are lucky to have a job, let alone “do overtime”.  The sections include “essential money saving”, “basic needs”, “eating well”, “hearth and home”, “fashion and beauty”, “entertainment and luxuries”, special occasions”, and finally “shopping and selling”, where the reader is urged to attend car boot (garage) sales - more than once.

Of course, to receive these 1001 gems of financial advice costs money too.  B. 385 must change hands, making the 1001 little ways around 30 satang each, and though that might be a miniscule amount, there is a lot of duplication.  Number 309, clearing out the fridge is very, very similar to number 326 which again is clearing out the fridge, and quite honestly is something we all do, with many recipes from different countries all doing exactly just that.  Number 368 once again suggested we plan an ‘anything goes’ dinner, with the leftovers in the fridge.  In fact, there was a recipe for Scottish ‘stovies’ made from leftovers in the Mail just a few weeks ago.  Had Khun Ocha read this book, I wonder?

Suggesting that I should only go shopping on my own, so I don’t get distracted and buy non-essentials, does not really deserve a place in the 1001 ways of spending less, surely.

Honestly, I did find the book very boring, stating the obvious, such as shopping around for bargains, be that mortgages, clothes or credit cards, and had nothing which made me say, “How clever, I’ll do that and save money tomorrow.”  Suggesting I visit a ‘nail bar’ instead of a salon is not some wonderful new revelation, but is really putting an additional, unnecessary expense in the budget.  Or has the modern woman, such as author Esme Floyd, become incapable of using a nail file?  Ceasing expensive, but non-essential items is not true savings.  Just because I did not catch a limousine to work, does not mean I saved B. 500, but Author Esme would apparently think so.  And suggesting I buy an adjustable spanner?  Is this really a worthwhile entry in 1001 ways?

Maximum Security

This week’s book review is of Maximum Security (ISBN 978-1-84193-755-7, Arcturus Publishing 2009) by Karen Farrington and has the subtitle Inside stories from the world’s toughest prisons.

It begins with the history of incarceration, and why many miscreants found themselves behind bars. Not only that, but the punishments that were meted out for those who had crossed some societal boundary are mentioned. For example, flogging with the cat-o-nine-tails was followed by the “guilty” party’s back being scrubbed with salt water, ostensibly to stop infection.

Description of the jails of the early days brings to light the horrendous conditions that convicts were kept under. Disease was rife, so much so that occasionally an entire courtroom, including the presiding judge, died within days after exposure to the infected (and infective) criminal.

From there, the book launches into descriptions of the penal conditions of today, which if you believe the book, can be quite dreadful. Overcrowding appears to be endemic as more and more criminals are sentenced to spend time in jail, and there are not enough jails to deal with the influx. The answer, all over the world, appears to be to cram more bodies into the small cells, rather than look at alternative punishments.

Mention is made of various penal concepts, all of which appear to be abandoned after a few years, but a certain American sheriff marshal get his moments of fame (infamy?) for re-instituting the chain gangs, even for women. It is almost unthinkable, that we are still chaining human beings together and sending them out in that condition to dig ditches. We have not progressed very far.

However, there were even more horrifying details presented to the reader. This is the gangs that form in the jails, ostensibly to look after the members, but in actual fact are merely an outlet for aggression, and all tied up in the drug trade. For those of us who have not been “inside” it is almost inexplicable as to how drug barons can operate from within a prison. It requires ineffective weak management, corrupt wardens and politicians who turn a blind eye to the situation. A damning expose of today’s societies. Despite our trappings of ‘democracy’ and ‘charity’ homo sapiens is still an animal. So what can be done about the situation? Author Farrington does not know, neither do the politicians, and quite frankly, neither do I.

The book covers riots, rapes and escapes, but many of the escapes are suicides of younger convicts who are unable to repel the bullying from the gang members.
The final “escape” is the death penalty and the various methods are described, from hanging to stoning, and the last meals for some convicts are recorded.

This is an authoritative tome but the publisher has decided to give the book a “tabloid” appearance with large typeface headings and illustrations on the page. A marketing decision no doubt, but the details revealed in the book deserve a more academic approach, in my opinion.

Despite my complaints, it was still a very interesting (and horrifying) book, and at B. 430 not an expensive, yet informative read.

Bangkok Days

The publishing world appears to have a set of rules all its own.  I will stop short of calling its conduct ‘subterfuge’, but I direct you towards that very core of the publishing business, the ISBN.  A way to identify books which dates back to the 1967 version (called the SBN in the UK), and through to the International SBN and now the latest 13 digit classification.  All very noble, and good to see that there has been international agreement on something at least.

Let us now look at this week’s book from the Bookazine outlet that I have in my hand.  Called Bangkok Days it was written by Lawrence Osborne and sports ISBN 978-0-099-53597-3. Published by Vintage Books in London in 2010, it sells for B. 395.

However, it was only when I came back to my office and went through my files that I found I had already reviewed a “Bangkok Days” written by a Lawrence Osborne (ISBN 978-1-846-55298-4) and published by Harvill Secker and released in 2009).  It sold for B. 650.  Could these be the same books?  Surely not.  The covers were entirely different, but inside, in miniscule print was the statement “First published in Great Britain in 2009 by Harvill Secker.”  So the different ISBN numbers did refer to the one book, and with the change a sad commentary for the author that his work had been devalued from B. 650 to B. 395.  That certainly lowered his income from royalties.

Previous books from Lawrence Osborne include The Accidental Connoisseur and The Naked Tourist, so he is no novice to the genre.

Bangkok Days is a narrative, with the author describing his (Bangkok) days as he explores the Thai capital on foot, claiming to be as poor as the proverbial temple dog.

Author Osborne has a keen eye and a full vocabulary.  Describing his feelings after being told of a spirit inhabiting his garden he writes, “The mood suddenly changes.  As the spirits move, a supernatural breeze stirs a chime, a bough, or a piece of grit against my tongue - and there for a second I feel them, shrilling like pipes in the distance, flickering in the dark with the mosquitoes.”

He deals at length with some of the other expats he meets, the Brit, the Aussie and the Spaniard.  His eye examines his fellow expats finely.  “Bangkok was filled with guys who played in unknown rock bands, ran bars, designed hotel toilets, but among them the fires of genuine ambition were not necessarily extinguished.”  And one wonders whether that also described our author?

Amongst those who he meets and describes are Father Joe Maier and Sister Joan from the Klong Toey slums, two tireless workers who somehow have managed to retain a semblance of sanity whilst working in an environment that almost defies any sane logic.

However, Osborne is a gifted writer, but I felt the subject, with all its banality, was beneath him.  As a travelogue, it didn’t need the salacious moments.  It would have been better without it.  He is a seriously good writer who should not trivialize his talents.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Sex on the Moon

The Master Builder

1001 little ways to spend less and live well

Maximum Security

Bangkok Days



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