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review 2018-02-12 23:00
Bikers, escorts, and a detective with a conscience in hipster Vancouver
Invisible Dead - Sam Wiebe

I do read mysteries, but I don't tend to read the gritty crime/noir genre. Too dark, in most cases. I loved this, though. 

 

Wiebe captures the culture, ephemera, and atmosphere of Vancouver with endless telling details, making his narrative about crime and the seedy, dark underbelly of the city all the more alarming. Reads smoothly and convincingly, with all-too-recognizable characters. The endless men (and some women) dismissing the harm they do to others, particularly to the most vulnerable (and often First Nations and visible minority) women, are the company owners I've worked with and for, the powerful and dismissive, the entitled and self-satisfied, and most of all, the casually careless.

 

The specificity of eating out in Vancouver and enjoying the views are so common in the city as to be living stereotypes, and the friendly familiarity of the lifestyle and location details drives the knife in even further as one character after another drives the women who've suffered in this book, and on our streets in real life, further into the mud.

 

I prefer reading mysteries set in exotic foreign places and times. New York. Chicago. London. Paris. 1920s. 1940s. A crime novel calling out not only the shady hidden figures of my Vancouver, but all of us in the city, privileged and struggling alike, for glossing past, stepping over, and treating with casual disdain and irresponsibility the ones having the hardest time surviving, hits far too close to home. But there's a balance of hope and tenacity in this book that keeps the darkness from feeling entirely crushing. So I'll read more of Wiebe's work, if only to remind myself of the faces, the voices, and the stories I need to not forget.

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review 2017-12-27 23:40
Generally well-written historical fiction with a supernatural twist.
The Steep and Thorny Way - Cat Winters

Winters continues her run of excellent historical fiction with slight paranormal/supernatural elements. Great historical detail with care taken to avoid anachronisms, and a relatable, strong heroine. The Oregon settings are also interesting, as most Prohibition-era stories seem to take place in New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. In this edition, an era of social upheaval and the power of small men is explored as the biracial main character and a homosexual boy in her town both experience the effects of hate. The local KKK are seen as a fairly friendly, inactive group. Three guesses what's really going on...

 

I've appreciated how Winters' books so far don't overly rely on central romances, so I was kind of disappointed how much emphasis this book put on romantic relationships being so central to identity, acceptance and future success. But on the other hand, she doesn't necessarily pursue that within the main plot, which is in line with her other stories so far. Some attention given to exploring the motivations of people on different sides of an issue (nice to have the parents' story), but less so than other books so far. There's only so much you can cover within a tightly-paced book and the main POV, but it might have been too much to cover (racism + sexual identities with two different representative characters).

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review 2016-03-12 10:02
Justice and Wealth
On Social Justice - Basil the Great,C. Paul Schroeder

Personally, I really do not know what to make of this book. Yes it does challenge those of us who are wealthy (and that pretty much includes most people who live in a developed country) but we still must remember that this book was written in the 4th Century and there are a lot of differences between the fourth century and now. In looking at this book I will first consider the differences, and I will then look at some of the themes that come out of this book. However, before I go into that I must point out that this book was not 'written' by St Basil but rather contains a small number of his essays, or sermons, that deal with the issue of wealth.

 

Now, first of all in the introduction the editor stated that this book was more relevant today that it was back then. I could not disagree more with this statement. I have noted that a lot of Christians do not like it when we suggest that things have changed in the interceding two thousand years, but they have. While the Bible is as relevant today as it was two thousand years ago, many of the writings that have come out of the Bible are not. Take for instance the writings of, I believe, Clement, who suggested that the animals that the Jews were forbidden to eat were forbidden because they represent some form of sin that we humans need not participate in. In particular the idea that weasals procreate through fallatio. As it turns out, weasels procreate like every other mammal that we know, so it turns out that Clement's theory was wrong.

 

With St Basil we must remember that when he was writing he might have been writing as a citizen of the most powerful empire at the time, but this empire was still an agrarian society. In those days people were tied to the mercy of the seasons and the weather. If there was a drought then people would starve. This is not true these days because we in Australia have just lived through a seven year drought, and I tell you what, I was fed every day, and there was little in the way of changes to the price of food. The only time that the price of food spiked was when Cyclone Larry, and later Cyclone Yasi, struck far north Queensland and wiped out our banana crop. To be honest, I was able to live without Bananas for the year that it took to replant the crops and grow them again. In our industrialised society we can go without.

 

However I would suggest that industrialised is a little backward to describe our society. I would call it computerised. The reason I raise that is that there is a lot of discussion on debt. Now, debt is not in itself bad. Our society was built of debt, but on the flip side, debt has brought it close to collapse. Now, going into debt always brings about a risk that you will not be able to pay it back, but it is not necessarily bad. Companies and businesses always go into debt to meet their day to day obligations, but these companies generally plan and make sure that they can service this debt. If you look at the average annual report from the average company you will discover that they all carry a debt. This debt is also used for expansion and growth, and there are even methods (such as 'Interest Cover') which measures a company's ability to service its debt. I am in debt, I had to go into debt to pay my way through University, but this debt is a government debt, and the government says that I can pay it back when I can afford it. As a friend of mine once said, 'I try my best to pay as little of this debt off as possible' and this friend of mine is a doctor. She definitely does not have money problems.

 

However let us consider the bad side of debt, and that bad side comes out in two ways: the first is through greed, and the second is through desperation. Now, the first comes about when people simply want to feather their nests in a way that they could not normally afford. Many people buy big houses, nice cars, lots of furniture and electronic gadgets, and suddenly discover that they are in over their head. Further, many of them get so caught up in the use of debt that they resort to debt to meet their obligations, such as phone and electricity bills. Secondly, there are those that simply struggle to make ends meet and get themselves into debt to get by. Now, Basil pretty much goes off at the first type if people, and goes off at those who exploit the second type of people. He was writing during a drought, and it is clear that the haves were loaning money to the poor at exorbitant rates, so they could buy food to eat. That generally does not happen anymore, but when I walk down the main street of Salisbury I notice that there are pawn brokers and payday loan shops everywhere. However, I will hold off on this now because there are other books that address this.

 

Now, what St Basil is really attacking is not so much wealth and debt, but the greed that lays behind it. He is a big believer in being generous, and it is not as if St Basil was poor and had a chip on his shoulder. Far from it: he was quite a wealthy man, but he used his wealth to help those less fortunate than him, and established what could be considered the ancient Roman version of the Salvation Army. He rebukes those who store up all their goods in barns but do not release it to those who need it. Remember, this is an agrarian society, so there were no banks (at least the modern type). Everything was traded in kind, though they did have money. If you grew crops, you will sell some and store others. It is to those who store up their wealth and let the poor suffer that he is rebuking.

 

Now, once again, there is a difference here. In those days they did not have pensions or an advanced welfare state. Pretty much everybody was left to fend for themselves and it was left to the generous to support them. These days we have pensions, but we also have the ability to save for our retirement. While on one hand Basil raises the parable of the man who wanted to build bigger barns, he forgets the passage where we are told not to be a burden to others. They did not have superannuation in those days, but they do now. Look, there is nothing wrong with saving or investing money, just as debt in the right context is okay. However, there are concerns when one becomes miserly and ungenerous, and it is this attitude that Basil, and indeed the Bible, attacks.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/238226543
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review 2015-09-05 08:46
Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy
Resurrection - Leo Tolstoy

What moved me the most in this novel is: how true is what Tolstoy says about the judicial system, even in our world of today. And this is not just in France, but all over the world. When I read those sections on judicial errors, imprisonment for lack of official papers, inhuman treatment of prisoners, and the fallacy of the 'correctional system', I really had the impression that very little has changed since his time.

But, before I get carried out, here are some more points that also moved me deeply, as I could relate to all them personally:

Nekhludoff’s internal void, when he feels he has not really done anything useful so far, to give a meaning to his life.  Then he is called into the jury duty, where he sees how his former recklessness has ruined the life of a woman and her child. And, he decides to act. 

His transformation is not a linear process. At every instant, he is struggling with two internal forces, equally valid and equally strong, and it’s hard to tell which one is going to win. Tolstoy does a great job in unravelling this process, this severe inner conflict in depth, and the gradual change in the lifestyle of Nekhludoff.

Maslova, over whom Nekhludoff has this conflict, doesn’t make his job easy either. In a less experienced writer’s hand, she would have fallen for Nekhludoff's offer immediately, but that would have been unrealistic, and the story would have lost its challenge. In fact, at the end, just the opposite of what’s expected happens!  Yet, what happens also appeases the heart of Nekhludoff, and we see his true sacrifice. Isn't this how life is really?

Nekhludoff had stopped believing in himself and started believing in others. This gave him a serious conflict between his conscience and animal instincts; unconsciously, he started to hate himself, thus others as well. When he starts to believe himself again, he feels tender toward himself, experiences a freedom and joy he has never known before. This is something I can relate to, both in my professional and personal world; it gave me the courage to be like him even more. 

Nekhludoff had become so obsessed with the 'social mirrors' that, even when he started to act for Maslova, he kept asking himself if he was really doing all that for his conscience, or to look good in the eyes of others. This is so true! No matter how hard I try, my old habit of looking into the social mirrors always comes back. 

I loved Tolstoy’s insight where he shows how Maslove reasons in favor of her ‘profession’, to give a meaning to her life. This is something I've always done about my job of a business consultant, although I know how wrong I am. Yet, I have to keep this job to feed mouths.

Then Maslova starts to transform during her travel across Siberia, under the influence of those two fellow prisoners, whose opinions become important to her. She changes, to live up to their eyes, because she feels they care for her. This happened to me too, when I met someone who cared for me. 

In fact, in one novel, Tolstoy has enacted two great resurrections: one of Nekhludoff and one of Maslova!!!

Now, coming back to the judicial system. I absolutely agree with the paragraph where Tolstoy says that those who are the most nervous, strongest, talented, yet the least careful and lacking cunning, fall victim to the judicial systems. And, the ‘correctional methods’ are total misnomers, because they correct nothing; only destroy the individual. This is a universal phenomenon, as I've seen. 

How can we 'correct' people, by confining them behind bars, by humiliating them? Why call these methods 'correctional' at all? Can't we think of better means? Let's hope.

 

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review 2015-08-30 16:40
Les Misérables
Les Misérables - Victor Hugo

In my vacation, over the last two weeks, I visited the birthplace of Victor Hugo in Besançon, his home in Paris where his children were born, and his grave in Pantheon. I also read his “Les Miserables” again, that is 21 years after I read it for the first time in my High School in France, and I was surprised to see how differently I reacted to this book.

Then I realized the book has not changed over these 21 years, but it’s me who has changed!

At the school, I was obliged to read this book as a part of our curriculum, and it came across as something heavy. But, now that I have been blazed a few times in my life, I could relate to this book a lot better, and, at times, even felt healed by it.

The aspect that struck me the most is how Victor Hugo has constructed his characters: they’re neither entirely good, nor entirely bad; they’re humane, yet extraordinary.

The police inspector Javert values his duty of keeping law and order above human beings, until he is humbled by Jean Valjean, when he saves the life of Javert, his worst enemy, during the barricade. Then Javert enters his irreconcilable internal conflict between ethics and law, that is between his moral duty to preserve a good man like Jean Valjean and his legal duty of turning him in as a fugitive, and Javert ends his life to save Jean Valjean.

This comes across as a surprise, because Victor Hugo had set up all along Javert as a man of unbending principles, yet not incredible, because we’ve also seen Javert to be a man of good heart and conscience.

Victor Hugo didn’t set up Jean Valjean as a paragon of virtue either. We can see his humane side, even after his conversion into a good man, when he enters his severe inner conflict vis-a-vis the man about to be condemned in his place, for having stolen the forty sous from Petit Gervais. You can see his temptations to evade law and save his own life; you can also see traces from his life of ex-convict when he gets angry with people, and the use of his force when his personal ethics conflict with the law. And, even for a powerful man like him, you can see his fears, his anxieties, and his insecurities about Cosette.

Even for the rogue Thenardier, Victor Hugo has made him humane, by letting him save the father of Marius in the battle of waterloo!! Hugo also gave Thenardier a realistic end, in the sense that, in spite of all his dirty tricks, he ‘succeeds’ in life, from Thenardier’s perspective of course.

Gavroche, the son of Thenardier, earns his bread by stealing, but he also steals your heart when he saves the two kids, and gives up his life at the barricade. His sister, Eponine, is another thief and manipulator, but she sacrifices her life at the barricade too, trying to save Marius, her secret love. Marius, the closest in resemblance to Victor Hugo (whose middle name is ‘Marie’ by the way), is a political idealist, yet insensitive to many in life, including Jean Valjean; you’re in love with him, and angry at him at the same time.

It’s this powerful use of contrast, in the characters and in the events of the novel, that I find absolutely fascinating in Victor Hugo’s work, particularly in Les Miserables. And, I think this is what makes his works so lifelike, because, just like in life, you can’t really put a definite label on any of his characters or story events; that’s why you can never predict anything, and you remain hooked in suspense till the end.

Of course, there are his big philosophical discourses about life and love, but, if you focus on the core drama of this novel, it’s just absolutely gripping. The way he details the inner landscape of the characters, and the values of the society he touches upon, are as universal today, as they were during his time. It’s because those details are so unique and specific that they no longer remain individual; they become us, the universal.

This evening I’m going to see the grave of Juliette Drouet, who was the muse of Victor Hugo, for fifty years!! As a woman, I wonder what was there in her spirit that could inspire a writer like Victor Hugo, for so long.

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