Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rapid-Fire Book Club: Ready, Aim Edition

I seem to have forgotten a book that I need to include in the Rapid-Fire Book Club, gained from, as so many others were, Downtown Books in Milwaukee.

Although Downtown Books is no longer the massive two-story spend-hours-browsing place I loved going into. They've recently moved into a much more modestly-sized location around the corner, which when I went in they were still in the process of stocking. They said it was because the old location was so big they were losing track of their customers and couldn't help them out as efficiently as a smaller store would let them do, and I respect that. It was still a hell of a shock to see, though, and given that the size was my favorite part, a bit of a disappointment.

It's still better than Milwaukee's other major used bookstore has made out, though. That's Renaissance Books, which when I mention Downtown Books is the place that keeps getting brought up by locals. I was in there once a year or two ago and I did not stay long. It is hands-down the messiest bookstore I've ever seen and ever hope to see. Maybe half the books were actually on shelves. The other half were either in stacks on the floor or, more commonly, giant piles on the floor. Piles up to my shoulders. I couldn't find a damn thing in there, and yet I almost wanted to buy something anyway if only to save the poor defenseless books from the bad, bad man that did this to them.

After my stop at Downtown Books, I swung by Renaissance Books a second time. I did not go in. I was not permitted to go in. Why? Because the police had declared the building unfit for human habitation. A look inside the front window revealed the piles of books, if anything, in even higher piles than the first time. It was almost painful to see. I know nothing about the physical state of the building itself, but I could only agree with the cops as I walked away.

But as it stands, I have one book to log, and in an unusual development for the Rapid-Fire Book Club, I've actually read this one before logging it. (Standard procedure is to log it as soon as it's in my possession. The point is mainly to just log the books I buy.)

The book is Some Girls: My Life In A Harem by Jillian Lauren. In the early 1990's, Lauren, who was at the time, for lack of a better term working as a high-class call girl, was invited to Brunei for two weeks to be eye candy at parties thrown by Prince Jefri Bolkiah, part of the Sultanate of Brunei. It turned out she'd stay on for a lot longer than that; as the book's title implies, she'd be part of the prince's harem-- though she, like the vast majority of the girls in the harem, would have to figure out on their own that they were in fact in one. She would, it turns out, have a couple fleeting encounters with the sultan himself.

Are you at all familiar with the phrase 'Sultan of Brunei'? Then you know how much money is going to be thrown around over the course of the book.

The events of the book took place prior to 1997, when former Miss USA Shannon Marketic unsuccessfully attempted to sue the Sultan for being held against her will in the process (it was unsuccessful due to the fact that the Sultan had diplomatic immunity), and it was a tad more relaxed when Lauren was there. Not by much, though, and this was by design.

In 2004, there was a show on FOX that shot 25 episodes but was cancelled in seven, called Forever Eden. The way they billed the show was that a number of single people would stay at the show's luxury resort, hook up, and engage in whatever dramas are presented by the show. Participants would be regularly kicked out, to be replaced by new faces. The longer you managed to remain on the show, the more you would earn, and theoretically, you could stay, well, forever, or at least as long as the show aired.

The harem, at least at the time of Lauren's presence, worked much the same way. The underlying thread behind everything was that Prince Jefri could keep four wives according to local law, but had only three at the time. Which meant he had room for one more. Fresh-faced, beautiful young women from all around the globe would be brought to Brunei, eventually realize what was going on, and hopefully, they'd be attracted enough to him- or, failing that, the money- to want to make a play for him, and compete against each other for his affections. Failing that, the longer you stay, the more money and gifts you rack up, and the more you endear yourself to Jefri, the faster you rack them up. Manage to get him to ask for your hand in marriage- or get impregnated by him- and you win. You get to spend forever in Eden as a royal princess, or at least as close as Brunei comes to that. In the process, you have to stay ahead of the other women who are vying for the same thing, and may be trying to get Jefri to send you home. Of course, someone going home doesn't necessarily get the others any closer to the grand prize. It just means someone new will be showing up, someone who may be a bigger threat than the someone that's gone home.

To operate such a thing these days, to say the least, requires a delicate hand, even if you're royalty. A properly-functioning harem requires that all the women a man keeps, however many that is (and Lauren notes somewhere in the range of 40 at a time), are kept, if not joyously happy, at least content enough to be willing to continue to participate at his pleasure. The whole point of a harem is that all the women want, ultimately, to please the man running the harem. If the women aren't happy, they're not going to want to make the man happy either. And with a harem full of women from countries that are not your own, the stakes increase higher, especially in modern times and women from more socially progressive nations. It only takes one woman from some other nation to be unhappy enough, to want to make an international incident out of things- say, Shannon Marketic- for the whole operation to fall apart, which over the following few years is exactly what happened. We're not endorsing harems here by any stretch of the imagination. That's just the operative logic behind them.

Obviously, Lauren didn't get Jefri's hand. She did get something else, though. In the 2010 Press Freedom Index, compiled by Reporters Without Borders, Brunei ranks 142nd out of 178 nations. And that's what Lauren got.

She got her book banned in Brunei.

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