Saturday, December 31, 2011

On the Farm

Generally I make it a rule not to read two books of similar subject matter back-to-back.  I need to break up my reading so that there is variety and I don't get bored with reading the same genre.  I recently broke that rule after a fortuitous trip to the library.  I have been trying to take Stevie Cameron's recent book On the Farm for some time now and it has always been on hold or on the wait list.  I happened to be in the library and I thought that I would look for it, holding out little hope that it would be available.  Happily it was on the shelves and I got my grubby paws on it.   

Back to my original point about not reading two books consecutively which revolve around the same topics.  On the Farm and Missing Sarah both chronicle the story of the missing women of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, albeit from totally different perspectives.  Missing Sarah is a personal narrative about Sarah de Vries, a prostitute who vanishes and whose DNA is later recovered from the Pickton Farm.  On the Farm is the overall story of the missing women, Robert Pickton, and the police investigation.  Cameron focuses on the narrative of the events, and profiles key players along the way.  This book is particularly relevant at this juncture in time, because of the Public Inquiry into the Vancouver Police Department`s handling (or mishandling) of the case.  

There were a number of points during the investigation that the VPD went wrong, most of which can be detected with common sense and hindsight.  The part of the investigation, which, in my opinion, was handled incorrectly was the hoops that the families of the missing women had to jump through in order to declare that their loved ones were Missing Persons.  By virtue of their lifestyles, many family members were given the brush off when they went to the VPD to tell them that someone had gone missing.  Though they had personal demons, these women could be counted on to regularly call their families, attend doctor`s appointments, and collect their welfare cheques.  Also, due to the amount of women vanishing, other members of the Downtown Eastside community were diligent about keeping tabs on one another`s whereabouts.  Still, families were told to wait, sometimes for months, to see if their family member would suddenly turn up.  After this waiting period, any leads as to where the person might be would have long gone cold.  Understandably, families grew frustrated with the double standard with which missing prostitutes were treated by the police department, and the subsequent inaction on their case files.  

The other frustration which appears in this book, is the inability of the VPD to act when Pickton had been one of the main suspects for years.  Kim Rossmo, a geographic profiler brought in to work on the case, pointed out specific traits that Pickton possessed, and he was totally ignored at that time.  Hindsight being what it is, there are a lot of people who regret not investigating Pickton more thoroughly earlier.  What angers me is that an officer did request a warrant to search the farm three years prior to Pickton`s arrest, but a judge turned him down due to lack of evidence.  Thus, from the standpoint of someone outside the law enforcement profession, it is difficult to not be angry while reading this book.

Besides the anger at those who did not aid the families of the missing women, one feels a lot of revulsion as well.  Cameron does not spare any of the details of the forensic findings in her book, and I will warn you that there are a lot of gruesome passages.  There were times when I needed to take a break because the horror of what was done to these women was just too much for me.  I don`t think that I am remiss in saying that if you feel you could get through those sections, you should reconsider reading this book.  Despite my declaimer, I do think that this is an important book to read for those interested in the case.  If you could get through the gory portions of the narrative, you would find this book to be a well-written account of the investigation.  It is difficult to communicate such a complex story, but Cameron manages to do so with thorough research and compelling writing.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Missing Sarah

To begin this blog, I would like to make a confession.  I generally do not like watching movies or reading books where the ending is well-known.  Despite its romantic nature and poetic tragedy, Romeo and Juliet is probably my least favourite Shakespearean play, for just this reason.  With this in mind, I began to read Missing Sarah by Maggie de Vries.  

The book begins with the revelation that the DNA of Maggie's adopted sister, was found on Robert Pickton's farm in Port Coquitlam, BC.  Along with many other sex workers from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, Sarah de Vries disappeared suddenly in 1998 while working her usual corner.  Her absence was noticed quickly by her loved ones and the tight-knit community of drug addicts and prostitutes that she associated with, but the police were slow to act.  It was only when her friend Wayne went to the media that any interest was shown by the Vancouver Police Department, and by then all the leads had run cold.  Due to the inaction of the police, the families of the missing women banded together to try and gain any answers about the state of the investigation.  Local media also played a part in pressuring the force to pay attention to the increasing number of women going missing.  

Missing Sarah depicts this fight for justice and is a compelling story of a grieving relative. She tells of how her family is dealing with the information that they will never be able to bury Sarah, nor can they live in the comfort that her last moments were peaceful. One of the more chilling moments is how someone approached Sarah's children and asked them if their mother was put in a wood chipper.  This book was written prior to Robert Pickton's trial and one cannot imagine how the publicity surrounding it would have negatively affected them.  

Though Sarah's horrific, unknown fate is at the centre of the book, her identity and personality really shine through the grisly narrative.  She wrote poetry and drew in a journal that was among her most treasured possessions.  In it she describes her life as an addict and a prostitute and provides a lot of insight into her life.  Maggie talks about how she would read her sister's letters and journal and every time she would hope that her sister's fate would turn out differently.  I, as a reader, had a similar sensation and constantly wanted to forget that she is no longer with us.  Though I don't have much in common with Sarah (except that we both like to write), I think any woman is a few bad choices away from ending up living the same lifestyle as she did.  Many people like to brush prostitutes aside as a small, fringe element of society, but de Vries allows us to see a different side of the story.         

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon

When I bought The Golden Mean by Annabel Lyon, I thought that it was a safe bet that it would be a good read.  The reviews were all positive and it had been a finalist for both the Giller Prize and the Governor General's Awards, so all signs pointed in the right direction.  

The subject matter is very tricky and the only reason that the book has been so well received is that the writing is far superior to the normal historical fiction fare.  It's story takes place in ancient Macedonia through the eyes of the philosopher Aristotle who has been commissioned to tutor the young Alexander the Great.  Even at a young age, Alexander realizes his role as a future king and his pride often gets in the way of his studies.  He is set apart from is friends both as a prince and an ambitious thinker.  Aristotle can relate to his young student, his mind often caused rifts between him and his family and peers.  Though his father was a well-respected doctor who cured strangers, his son remained a mystery to him, and as a result, Aristotle is sent off to Athens to study with Plato.  

His troubled youth is mirrored in the life of his student, with Alexander having similar issues.  Aristotle often touches upon he struggles with depression, though because he dwells in ancient Macedonia, he doesn't articulate his problems in the same manner that we do in modern society.  Instead he describes his condition with natural metaphors and his father's medical terms.  He talks about an excess of "black bile" which afflicts both himself and Alexander, and this causes extremes in personality.  In Alexander, this rears its ugly head after he is tested in battle.  To my modern mind his condition sounds very similar to post-traumatic stress disorder brought about by his first experience on the battlefield.  In order to inform Aristotle about what is going on with Alexander, the general Antipater, tries to describe something akin to shell shock.    

The book is named after a term that Aristotle coined for a balanced mind.  He taught Alexander to strive for the midpoint between two extremes and the irony is that neither achieves this "golden mean" for themselves.  Aristotle vacillates between manic periods of productivity and moments of deep depression and Alexander doesn't fare any better. Their struggles make for an interesting comparison and challenges what we think about the roles of the thinker and the soldier.  There are similar pressures to perform and their achievements as leaders should not be diminished due to their acknowledged frailties.  If it is true that Alexander suffered from battle-related anxiety, then his conquests are all the more impressive.

In addition to the insight that Lyon provides into the life of these two towering figures of ancient times, this is just a well-written book.  Sometimes historical fiction has a tendency to sensationalize the lives of the characters in order to titillate the audience, but Lyon does no such thing.  Instead she relies on good writing technique and a memorable narrative voice in Aristotle.  This book could have easily gone in the other direction, but I'm glad that Lyon charted her own course.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Don`t Mess With Atwood

There is something rotten in Toronto's City Hall.  What stinks is the Ford brothers and their seeming disdain for public opinion.  Though there have been more than a few controversial moments in their short reign, the one that I wish to concentrate on is Councillor Doug Ford's comments about the possible closure of public libraries. 

For those unaware of the controversy, I will elaborate.  When asked about possible spending cuts, Doug Ford replied to reporters saying that he would close down some libraries.  He argued that there are "more libraries than Tim Hortons" in his district, a fact which proved to be false.  Due to the proliferation of libraries, he claimed that he would close one "in a heartbeat".  This attitude provoked Margaret Atwood to step forward and voice her opinion on the subject and her legion of Twitter fans followed suit.  Over 25,000 signatures were collected as a result of Atwood's advocacy in favour of Toronto libraries, and her efforts have been recognized by Indigo books as well.  For everyone who purchased an Atwood book this weekend at any of the bookstores under the Indigo banner, they received a 30% discount when they presented their library card.  Atwood's efforts have not gone unnoticed by Doug Ford, who said that until Atwood runs for office, she had best keep her opinion to herself.  He even went so far as to say that she has very little political capital and he wouldn't be able to pick her out of a police line-up.  

Doug Ford's reaction to Atwood's call-to-action was more than a little childish and the backlash has only provided more of a platform for Atwood and the campaign to save Toronto libraries.  If Ford is speaking the truth and he would not be able to identify Atwood in a crowd, then that says more about him than her.  He comes off as a philistine who is out of touch with Canadian culture and clearly does not understand the value of libraries.  Maybe if he visited one more often, he would realize that libraries are hubs of the community where everyone has equal access to books, magazines, newspapers, and the internet.  It is one of the few institutions where everyone is welcome and all types of literature are accessible. Taking away this vital resource means that certain segments of the population will have only limited opportunities to read great books.  With the funding cuts to school libraries, their selections are too small for parents to rely on as a primary source for books.  For adults like me whose reading tastes exceed their bank balance, it is a great way to read what I like without any financial sacrifice.  It`s guilt-free shopping and a nice pick-me-up. 

The only compliment that I can pay Doug Ford is that he managed (if accidentally) to begin a conversation about libraries and their role in our lives.  I hope the resulting backlash will generate the amount of political capital necessary to take Toronto libraries off the chopping block. Or else Margaret Atwood and her band of CanLit loving minions will come for you. Based on personal experience, never oppose smart women with challenging hair. 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas

I circled around The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas a few times at my the bookstore before scooping it up at our local annual book sale.  What drew me to this particular book is its premise and how it told the story from many different points of view.  

The story begins with a barbeque in a suburban neighbourhood in Melbourne that goes horribly awry.  One of the children, an over-indulged product of new-age parenting gone wrong named Hugo, is hit by a man attending the party.  This one act results in a series of dramatic events and strains families and friendships.  Everyone has an opinion about how the situation should be handled and the tangled relationships of those present reveal themselves. The parents of the child who was struck, Rosie and Gary, decide to press charges against Harry, the man who claims to have hit Hugo in defense of his son Rocco.  Their pursuit of him becomes a single-minded determination, which ruptures friendships and develops tensions in otherwise happy households.  

The story makes a person question their own beliefs when it comes to child abuse and healthy parenting, but contains other, more subtle, underlying issues.  Without knowing much, if anything, about Australian society, I felt like I was given an authentic picture of Melbourne. Tsiolkas shows class distinctions as well as a divide between immigrants and Australians.  By "Australians" I am referring to the decedents of convicts and others who came from England in the first wave of immigration. As well, there are similar disparities between long-time friends who happen to be on both sides of the social-economic divide. It seems that economic class bubbles to the surface at the first hint of conflict and everyone is guilty of pointing out these differences.  

Though I am doing my best not to give anything away, I must say that the ensemble cast of characters all have a number of issues which reveal themselves at a fast pace. Everyone has skeletons in their closets and the plot moves along really quickly.  It is richly-textured, with complex relationships between the various characters and Tsiolkas does a great job keeping track of the various threads.  What he achieves is a complicated, but totally worthwhile story which causes you to question your own beliefs. This ability to provoke the audience into thinking about your fundamental beliefs, is a rare talent, and makes The Slap a great read.       

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Catching a Wave

In one of my previous blog postings, I discussed how I loathed public transit in bitter detail.  Since that entry I have sought to remedy the problem.  In a somewhat spontaneous move, I purchased a 50 cc scooter to commute to and from work.  It is a beautiful piece of machinery and has been a great fit for our lifestyle.  

When I first aired my complaints about taking the bus to work everyday, neither my boyfriend nor I even considered putting a second vehicle on the road.  Our two commutes take us in two different directions every working day and our hours differ too much to make carpooling practical.  While we are saving for our first property,  taking on the cost of insurance, maintenance, and gas for another car wasn't within the realm of financial possibility.  The idea of buying a scooter had come to me a while back, and I thought it would be worth re-investigating.  I quickly came to the decision that a scooter would complement our lifestyle in an undeniable way.  The initial cost of a scooter or moped can vary quite a bit depending on the make (with Vespas being at the very top end), but I opted to buy a used 2007 Yamaha Vino.  

The Vino is great, I love driving it, and the savings over public transportation is staggering. What I didn't know about was the complex hierarchy of the motorcycling world that I was about to enter.  Needless to say I am at the bottom of the food chain. I had no idea how bikers would treat me as I sped around town, and assumed that they would view me in a geeky novelty. Then the mocking began.  I would sit at a stoplight next to one biker and they would hoot and holler, or sing a little song in order to have a little fun at my expense.  It's really interesting to see grown men behave this way, especially considering how focused and quiet I am when I travel down the road.  I can see their frustration with the local tourists who rent scooters for the day and generally cause mayhem on the roads of our fair city, but that has nothing to do with me.  Also there seems to be tension between the bikers who drive the traditional chrome motorcycles and those who get around on "crotch rockets."  Though it is not fair to stereotype the two different groups, my experience after a few months within this world is that a lot of "crotch rocket" bikers take unnecessary risks, weaving in and out of traffic at dangerous speeds.  They are also a bit more disdainful of me, giving me a challenging look and gunning their engine at every opportunity.  I suppose they need a punching bag to make up for the flack that they take from the more traditional riders, but I don't want to get sucked into the realm of insecure male bravado.  Quite frankly, one false move and we are all roadkill, and as a chick on a bike with the power of a lawn mower, it's better that I not engage in this type of posturing.  The release of the movie "Larry Crowne" with it's scooter gang, will probably not help my cause either.

Besides the hidden hierarchy, their is also the introduction of the motorcycle wave.  Due to my place in this chrome caste system, I only receive the wave on very few occasions. And it's always exciting.  For those who don't know, the motorcycle wave is basically a peace sign held out sideways towards the recipient.  Often bikers will wave to one another right in front of me and glare as I approach, whatever.  This is not high school and I don't require to acknowledgement of the cool kids, but it is always a happy moment when I get the wave or a stoic nod from a fellow biker. It is a nice reminder that whatever the internal politics are, we are all motorists who are in it together, inches from death at every turn.   

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Left Behind

Things have been a bit complicated over the last few months, with a lot of questions hanging over my head.  My life as the girlfriend of a member of the navy has never been without its challenging moments, but the drama lately took on over-the-top proportions.  

His ship, the HMCS Vancouver is leaving today for Libya where it will relieve the HMCS Charlottetown.  As soon as my boyfriend Gio learned that there was even a possibility that he could take part in a NATO mission he became very excited about the prospect. This was why he joined the navy, to sail the world and gain combat experiences.  There is also a financial incentive for sailors to sail into war zones, which was a dangling carrot in front of his face.  Essentially his income would be doubled and he would not have to pay any taxes on this pile of cash.  For us, two people saving up to purchase our first house, it would have opened up a better class of options.  Also my little metal-chaser would have satisfied his need to be close to combat, before settling down and starting the next phase of his training.  Though I will never be in favour of my boyfriend sailing for over six months , especially with the remote chance that he might get hurt, I understood his enthusiasm and knew that everything would be okay.  

Unfortunately, Gio has been a hot potato between his superiors and his career manager, and his fellow sailors will be leaving him behind on the jetty today. Instead of sailing across the world to confront a crazed, power-hungry dictator, he will be starting a two-year engineering course in order to further his career. According to the zealous career manager that pushed for him to go down this path, he has been hand-picked as one of the rising stars.  Gio could not be more disappointed that he has been singled out.  I try my best to be sympathetic and am genuinely sad that he is upset.  But he and I both know that I am happy that he will be on solid ground rather than dodging missiles and taking leave in Sicily.  

To my mind, whatever home we buy will be fine and there will always be another insane dictator looking to shake things up.  One of the few things that we can count on in life is new challenges, whether they be in the form of a course, an aggressive regime, or a house hunt.  

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Chester Brown's Louis Riel

When it comes to Canadian history, sometimes we need to dig a little deeper to find the charismatic, bold personalities that permeate American history.  With their intrepid pioneers and revered founding fathers, it's hard not to be a bit jealous.  If one cares to look, though, we have our share of interesting characters.  One of the more colourful actors on the stage of Canadian history has got to be the incendiary Louis Riel.  His Red River Rebellion is chronicled in Chester Brown's graphic novel, Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography. 

At the heart of this novel is the conflict between the Metis of the Red River Valley and the Canadian government who wished to expand westward and complete a national railroad.  Without consulting the local population about what it wanted, the Canadian government sent in surveyors and carved up the land that the Metis had settled for generations.  Riel led a group of Metis who opposed the Canadian government's high-handed approach and demanded that residents of Manitoba have some say in whether or not they wish to join Canada or form their own country.  Things went downhill from there.  Without giving anything away (though Manitoba is part of Canada so you can't be totally unaware of what happens) there are some skirmishes between the Canadian troops and the Metis.  

The ending is pretty obvious, but Louis Riel's personal story makes it a lot more interesting.  Brown does a great job in outlining the foibles of this leader while telling the story of the rebellion.  Riel is plagued by a single-minded determination to provide his people with representation and delusions of grandeur.  He considers himself to be a prophet and the Metis cause to be his holy crusade.  Between his various stints in mental institutions, he hid from those who persecuted him across Canada and the northern United States.  The story of Louis Riel is somewhat difficult for any writer of skill to screw up, with the constant conflict between various factions and Riel's demons.  However, Brown's drawing style and writing do nothing to detract from the plot.  What really excites me about this book is the fact that it might be a good way for a lot of people who wouldn't normally pick up a book about a Canadian historical figure.  And that is miracle in an of itself. 


Monday, May 2, 2011

Once Bitten

I have a hard time with some forms of escapist fiction and thus am not familiar with the Twilight series of books, or those that have sprung up to try to emulate their success.  When my sister recommended the book Bitten by Kelley Armstrong, I was quite skeptical.  Luckily for both of us, I recognize her gift for choosing great books and submitted myself to her better judgement. My big issue with fiction that requires me to suspend my disbelief, is that it rarely manages to turn off my internal b.s. meter.  I want to immerse myself in the story without thinking about the plausibility of the plot or the fantastical nature of the characters.  For the most part, unless they are of the more trashy variety, I am able to do this while reading romance novels.  Perhaps this is not a fair comparison, because I read such books with the specific intention of bidding farewell to the rational part of my brain. 

Though I approached Bitten with a certain amount of trepidation and I considered this type of book to be a relic of my teenage past, I found myself sucked in.  The plot of the novel revolves around Elena, a werewolf that tries her best to maintain a "normal" human existence.  She finds herself drawn back into her old Pack when she is contacted out of the blue.  Dropping everything she leaves her home and boyfriend to find out more about this mysterious threat to her adoptive family.  While investigating the deaths of innocent people around Pack territory, Elena reunites with her former lover and fellow werewolf, Clay.  Their troubled relationship and her kinship with her werewolf brethren cause her to question her dream of assimilation into human society.  This is one of those plots that is somewhat generic in that monsters usually struggle with their identities and often display internal conflicts about the acts that they commit.  One of the best examples of this is Anne Rice's character, Louis, from Interview with a Vampire.  Another such example is that of Pinocchio, who just wants to be a real boy.  

What differentiates this book from so many others is Armstrong's strong understanding of the genre and her plucky heroine.  Elena embodies a lot of the qualities that women strive for, she has an almost unthinking belief in her ability to take on challenges.  She takes on scary situations with the aggression and rebelliousness one would expect from a young woman with superhuman strength.  The other aspect of the book that I enjoyed, is the self-effacing jokes that Armstrong makes throughout the novel that shows the reader that she has a sense of humour about her work and the genre she employs.  Overall I was pleasantly surprised by how well-paced the plot was, with almost non-stop action and some steamy love scenes.  I am still going to be a bit selective about the escapist fiction I read, but if I can find more of it that is as good as Bitten, I might have to reconsider my position.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Too Old For This Ride

Today I want to talk about an old nemesis of mine: public transportation.  I have a job whose location requires me to travel via transit for at least an hour and a half every working day.  Though I love my job and wouldn't give it up for a quicker commute, the bus has been grating on me lately and I must get this frustration off my chest.

Let me begin what is essentially going to turn into a rant on a positive note.  I do understand that many people take the bus as a gesture of environmentalism or for lack of a designated driver.  My hat's off to you.  Also, one can argue that the transit service in my community is extremely reliable in comparison to public transportation elsewhere, with buses arriving pretty much on schedule.  I can attest to the fact that whenever it snows in my temperate community, I always arrive on time for work, whereas my four-by-four driving colleagues hunkered down and waited for the snowplows.  With few exceptions, transit drivers are also polite, compassionate and take constant abuse.  They are often called upon to handle uncomfortable situations and will usually slow down if they see me running down the street like a half-crazed lunatic.

The part about riding the bus that I hate is the other passengers.  For me, the morning starts off okay because the only other people on the bus are working people like me.  Mostly people going to office jobs and/or tradespeople heading to their respective sites.  Everyone is tired, their noses stuck in a book, or sipping quietly on their coffee trying to wake up.  Nobody tries to strike up a conversation, and passengers maintain a comfortable level of personal space.  Unfortunately it all goes downhill at the start of my evening commute. At the end of the day I lose patience with the lack of boundaries people have within public space.  I don't want to sound old-fashioned, but there are some activities and conversations that are meant to be done behind closed doors.  

Today I couldn't help but overhear (she was talking very loudly) a woman talking about how her diabetes medication caused a tear in her bowel.  In what context is it socially acceptable to talk frankly about bowel movements to complete strangers who you happened to strike up a conversation with?  The same goes for loud cellphone conversations about sexual escapades and/or lover's quarrels.  It brings out the intervener in me which is difficult to suppress.  I feel like today's society has lost the privacy (or religious shame) of our forefathers and we need a politeness movement.  The bus forces me to confront how uncomfortable it makes me to sit thigh to thigh with strangers or when the bus lurches forward, pitching me into another person.  Physical closeness with people not of my choosing is one thing, but the questionable hygiene of some of the patrons is another issue altogether.  On a number of occasions I have quietly sat beside men who hadn't bathed in about a week or so, their stink causing me to ponder fleeing the comfort of my seat.  Men who reek are one thing, but the one that always takes the cake in my mind is the woman who cut her fingernails covertly while sitting a few seat ahead of me.  She didn't just manicure a broken nail, she went to town and left her clippings on the floor.  

I suppose it is the confessional nature of our society which has infringed upon my private space too many times.  With talk shows and reality shows abound, people seem to want to air their dirty laundry publicly and the bus is just another forum.  I will not take the bus forever, in fact, I am learning how to drive and will somehow finance a vehicle.  I am tantalizingly close to my goal of a license and will soon have to find something else to complain about besides the crush of humanity that awaits me every time that door opens.      

Sunday, March 13, 2011

My Life Under Threat

Throughout my entire life I have been living with the threat of imminent death.  I don't live in a third world country where I lack the resources to survive and I'm not part of some persecuted minority group which struggles in the face of ignorance.  I'm a person living in an earthquake zone, where there is the high probability that "The Big One" will strike and wipe out all that I hold dear.  

For as long as I can remember, scientists and teachers have placed extreme importance on emergency preparedness in a manner similar to the way my mother was instructed about  possible nuclear bombing.  At the same time that seismic upgrades were added to buildings and people were making sure they had First Aid Kits at the ready, another threat emerged.  Living in an area which is close to, or at sea level, should the polar ice caps melt in a way that scientist predict they will, my island will probably be toast.  During my high school years it became a bit of a joke, how likely we were to expire at the hands of nature one way or another.  I had one teacher who tried to hammer home the importance of thinking about our impending mortality, but you can imagine how this fell on deaf ears. Too many of people my age were dying as a result of automobile accidents for me to pay all that much attention to threats out of my control.  

This week it hit home how lucky I've been for the last twenty-something years.  I got a phone call at 5:00 in the morning from my boyfriend's mother, who just wanted to hear that he was okay.  He had just returned from Hawaii and came back to another place threatened by earthquake and tsunami alike.  His relatives from back east were all wringing their hands, hoping that our island wouldn't be hit with a tsunami similar to the one that hit Japan.  I was blissfully ignorant of all of this drama, having barely heard about a large earthquake in Japan, and having spent most of my life under the threat of one disaster or another, I never actually believe that I am in any type of jeopardy.  Though I'm sure that the people of Japan probably felt something similar until the recent devastation.  I don't doubt that a Japanese person my age has been drilled in earthquake safety the same as me, and being island-dwellers they too know the beauty and power of the ocean.  It is a double-edged sword living on the water.  

Unless I have a complete change of heart, I don't think that there is anywhere else which I would rather live.  Despite the consequences of dwelling in "The Ring of Fire," I think I'll learn to deal with it.  For me, there is comfort knowing that I will always be within walking distance to a body of water, come what may.  Meanwhile, I will stock up on emergency provisions, buy a First Aid Kit, and stop using our stash of bottled water to make coffee.  There is nothing wrong with basic emergency preparedness, but my life won't be dominated by the predictions of scientists that I have been listening to for as long as I can remember.  If the worst does happen, I hope that I'm totally ignorant of my fate, sitting on my couch with a beverage of my choice, awaiting whatever "The Big One" can dish out.

Monday, March 7, 2011

After the Asp

The story of Cleopatra has always been one of those classic tales of political power and seduction, but few books elaborate on what happens after the asp.  I always wondered what transpired after her death, to her country and family.  With this in mind, I picked up Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran.  Also I needed a bit of an antidote to Stephen King's mutants, and thought this novel might provide some girlish entertainment.

The novel begins with the Roman invasion of Alexandria and the deaths of both Marc Anthony and Cleopatra.  Octavian, the leader of Rome, takes Cleopatra's children, Selene, Alexander, and Ptolemy back home as trophies.  There are many other prisoners of Rome, slaves and royalty alike, who teach them how to manipulate the political system in their favour.  Luckily, Selene and Alexander have Octavian's formidable sister, Octavia, on their side and she takes them in and treats them like her own children.  Her slave, Gallia, instructs them about how to behave and endear themselves to Octavian, who holds their fate in his hands.  The tactic they use is to outwardly give the appearance of loyalty and usefulness in the hopes of one day returning to Egypt. For Selene, the situation is very tenuous because it is made clear to her that she will be used as a political pawn once she is of marriageable age.  There are examples of unhappy marriages and capricious divorces all around her, and so the future looks grim.

To feel some semblance of power over her life, she chooses to pursue her love of architecture.  With the help of Octavia, Selene convinces an architect to mentor her and spends all of her spare time designing buildings and  mosaics.  Though Selene's story is compelling, I think that the novel's strength is in the focus on the social history of Rome. The role of women and slaves within the empire is heavily discussed amongst the characters and provides some of the most interesting subject matter. The story also moves really quickly and there is plenty of intrigue.  There is a downside, however. Clearly a lot of research went into the writing of this book, and unfortunately the facts aren't woven into the narrative as seamlessly as I would like.  I felt there were times where the plot is bogged down with excess information and I think that it hurt the overall story.  For the serious history buffs it might seem a little lightweight, but it's good entertainment with a large amount of social history.         


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Stephen King and I

I have yet another reading confession to make.  Though I'm generally open to reading different genres, I have avoided horror novels like the plague.  With the exception of the R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike books of my youth, and the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, it hasn't really appealed to me as a reader.  I just never understood why a person would like the feeling of being scared.  I lose enough sleep as it is.  So I was partially humouring my boyfriend and indulging my own curiosity when I picked up Night Shift by Stephen King.  

It is a collection of short stories that were originally published in magazines throughout the seventies.  A lot of the stories have since been adapted into movies, one of the most well-known being "Children of the Corn."  Due to the fact that there are dozens of different plots involved in this book, I can't really go into the details too much, but I will discuss my personal favourites.  "Jerusalem's Lot" and "One for the Road" stood out to me as stellar writing by Stephen King.  He effectively captures the superstitious nature of the people of those who live in a small town and the outsiders who give them grief.  I like how King approached the story from these differing points of view, and the first of the two stories shows a lot of versatility in terms of his writing abilities.  Other great stories include "The Mangler" and "Trucks" which both feature machines that come to life and butcher their human overlords.  

What I really enjoyed about this collection is the variety that King achieves in terms of the stories. Every type of creepiness is represented in this collection, from stalker boyfriends, to hordes of rats, and mutants.  Other horror that I read in the past was really hollow and predictable in comparison. The only other work that I have read by Stephen King is his non-fiction book about writing aptly titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. This book and the foreword of this book both describe King's writing process, and although I've never read any of his fiction before this, his reflections about writing are quite brilliant.  He talks about why he writes about the dark subject matter that he does and his theory makes a lot of sense.  Two people can look at an inanimate object and think of completely different ideas, his usually happen to be scary.  And that's okay. 

Overall, I'm happy that I finally heeded one of my boyfriend's book suggestions.  Reading this book was like a great appetizer platter where I got to sample some thought-provoking work.  I look forward to taking on one of King's full-length novels, so that I can experience his brand of suspense on a larger scale.   


Friday, February 11, 2011

The Perils of Snobbery

There is an issue that has been bothering me lately, and so I thought I would get it off my chest.  It's the plague of what I call "book snobbery."  Everyone has their own preferences in terms of what they read, and those tendencies are not what I'm talking about.  Though I don't think it's a good idea to exclusively read books from one author, one genre, or because Oprah recommends them, if that's what floats your boat, then go for it.  What gets my goat is the concept of "high" and "low" art, and how people use these standards to inform which books they read. 

There are a few examples of this phenomenon, but the one that has struck me recently is the distinction made between graphic novels and cartoons.  For those not too familiar with the term "graphic novel," (and I had to look it up to be totally sure) it basically refers to a novel told in a comic book style.  The story is told in the same format as a novel, just with pictures rather than paragraphs.  I like to think of a comic as a chapter of a graphic novel, it takes you partway through the story arc and leaves you hanging until the next issue.  To me, this is really the only difference between the two genres.  The reason why they are two genres in the first place is the tendency of readers to categorize graphic novels as "high art" and comic books as "low art."  As an equal opportunity reader, this really grates on my nerves.  

When I was trying to figure out the difference between graphic novels and comic books, I ran across the Franco-Belgian concept of bande dessinee.  It makes much more sense to me and it takes away the categories created by North American readers.  In North America, terms like "funnies" are applied to the genre, and they imply that comics are good for a quick laugh or the consumption of children.  There is also the stereotype that people who read comic books are somewhat counterculture, living in their parent's basements and penning their zines.  For whatever reason these attitudes towards comics have never really taken root in Europe, and graphic novels and comics are on equal footing.  Rather than have two separate categories, they fall under the umbrella of bande dessinee.  One term for both genres. 

For me, I tend to read more graphic novels than comic books.  This isn't because I consider graphic novels to be "high art" or because I prefer to say that I'm reading a graphic novel rather than a comic, it's just that I like how they follow the same structure as a traditional novel.  When I read a book of any kind, I enjoy it when there is a beginning, a middle, and an end.  That's just a reading preference, and I don't consider it snobbishness.  I also like reading comic books, but I have found that I don't like being held in suspense until the next issue comes out.  Therefore, I prefer to read an anthology of comics where the story can be read continuously, and that is okay.  What bugs me is when people refuse to read books as a result of a close-minded prejudice.  I don't think a book should be dismissed because it is viewed as "low art" in certain circles.  People should be open to new reading experiences because fun and enlightenment can come in unexpected forms.     


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Just the Right Amount of Blasphemy

There are few books that I get really, really excited about.  I have been wanting to read Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore since it initially came out in 2000.  The premise of the novel is absolutely brilliant.  Within the text of The Bible there are serious gaps in the life of Jesus, and roughly thirty years are missing.  Moore sought to tell the rest of the story.  

The rest of the story is how Jesus goes on a quest to find the Three Wise Men to learn what it means to be a Messiah.  Biff, Jesus' best friend, who is conveniently left out of The Bible, fills in the details about the son of God's spiritual journey.  He provides a good counterpoint to Jesus because while Jesus contemplates deep issues, Biff only thinks about material comforts and bedding women.  These two set out from Nazareth and travel throughout the Middle East and Asia, befriending a diverse group of people along the way who teach them all about Buddhism, Confucianism, and of course kung fu.  Upon the completion of his spiritual training, Jesus and Biff head home to Nazareth and begin to build a group of followers.  

Without giving away anything, the rest of the story expands upon the events The Bible outlines.  Unless you have had absolutely no religious exposure, you know where this is heading.  It's how you get to the point of the crucifixion, that matters.  This book is one of the most hilarious novels I've read in a long time, the type that will make me get stared at as I laugh out loud in public.  I can understand how a person with deep religious beliefs may find this book blasphemous, but, as Christopher Moore points out, those people aren't likely to read it in the first place.  As for my opinion on the subject, I don't think that Moore intends to offend people and he generally paints Jesus in a positive light.  I personally don't have strong beliefs, and I think that any God of mine probably has a good sense of humour. 

Friday, January 28, 2011

Originality Anyone?

I was listening to an interview with William Skidelsky on CBC Radio Q and I thought that he made a number of compelling arguments.  He is an editor of The Observer and wrote an article for The Guardian bemoaning the lack of original material in recent films and novels.  With the amount of movies and books based on or inspired by true stories, Skidelsky argues that there is a lack of creativity amongst the artists that produce them.  

I definitely agree with Skidelsky that there is a lot of laziness amongst television and movie executives.  The recession is to be blamed for some of the unoriginal concepts and needless remakes, and I can understand why studios want to go with proven formulas and built-in audiences.  Mindless entertainment is one of those things that people turn to when times get rough, so one can comprehend why people watch silly reality shows and second-rate versions of classic favourites.  If they weren't inexpensive to produce and nobody tuned in, then studios wouldn't be motivated to produce the material they do, so, like many things, it's society's fault.  

I also think that the evolution of society is also to blame for the lack of originality in books and movies.  Skidelsky points out that there is an insatiable appetite for knowledge of what goes on behind-the-scenes, and publishers and producers are only too happy to oblige us.  If you want celebrity gossip there is True Hollywood Story, many blogs and tell-all books.  Our rising interest in social media is also to blame for our obsession with the private lives of celebrities. Nowadays, one can easily find out what is going on in the personal and professional lives of our political leaders too; even while they are in office. One of the best examples of this from the Canadian standpoint is Prime Minister Harper's political aide, Tom Flanagan's book Harper's Team: Behind the Scenes in the Conservative Rise to Power.  It seems like the new leader is barely sworn in before the outgoing president is beginning his or her memoir. 

I think that Skidelsky's argument breaks down, however, when he criticizes novels based upon real stories.  In particular, he points to the success of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel as an example of public acceptance of historical fiction.  I do agree with his assertion that it is a safe choice for a novelist like Mantel to mine the story of Henry VIII, because there is always going to be a built-in audience.  But in other ways I disagree.  To some extent, I believe that it is almost more difficult to write an impressive novel about a subject that has been a popular source for literary material.  It is a daunting task to differentiate one's work from the many other books that have already hit the shelves.  Though the book had a better chance of monetary success, Mantel required a higher level of creativity and writing ability garner it the critical acclaim it received.

In summary, I agree with some of Skidelsky's arguments and disagree with his criticism of historical novels.  I have included a link to Skidelsky's article so that you can form your own opinion.  

Monday, January 24, 2011

Under the Veil: The Complete Persepolis

One of my personality quirks is that it often takes me a long time to decide what I want to read.  The other night I was hovering around my bookshelves in my typical fashion, when my boyfriend pointed out that I hadn't yet read The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.  I hadn't read a graphic novel in some time, so I pulled it off the shelf and began to read.  

The story revolves around the author's childhood and young adulthood as an Iranian woman.  At the beginning of the book, Satrapi gives a short account of thousands of years of Iranian history which was a helpful refresher for me.  I had read another autobiographical book from an Iranian woman, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi, so I knew a bit the Islamic Revolution beforehand.  Though Nafisi described Iran in great detail, her story of the Revolution is from the perspective of an adult and Satrapi's is from that of a child.  Gradually Satrapi and the reader learn of the changes occurring and how the population reacts to the evolution of their society.  One funny scene is when a ten-year old Satrapi and her classmates have no idea what to do with the veils that the regime has imposed upon them.  So they use them in their games in a manner that would be frowned upon by Islamic clerics.  As the narrative continues, Satrapi outlines how the laws in Iran become more and more oppressive for young people in Iran.  Her parents end up making the painful decision for her to go to school abroad so as to ensure her safety. They felt that because of her education, she might be targeted by the regime, and therefore Satrapi went to Austria to continue her schooling.  

In the course of events, Satrapi ends up back in Iran where she feels lost.  There have been many changes during her time abroad and she feels that she has little in common with other women her age.  Mostly they seem preoccupied with getting married, whereas Satrapi is thinking about her career goals and what she should do with herself now that she has returned to Iran.  The theme throughout this book is how Satrapi feels that she is an outsider, both in Austria and in the evolving climate of her homeland.  In Austria she is alienated from her classmates due to a language barrier and her experiences in a war-torn country.  When she returns, Satrapi finds that she no longer recognizes the country she left four years before.  

One of the aspects of this novel that I liked the best is how honest Satrapi is with her readers about her faults.  Along the way, she uses drugs, and, for a short period of time, sells drugs to her classmates as well.  Her relationships with men have little success, but her ability to adapt to her surroundings allows her to strike up good friendships.  This honesty gives a lot of authenticity to her story and makes her easier to relate to as a flawed heroine.  Although I am by no means an expert on comic art, I think that her simplistic style allows you to focus on her words rather than the visuals.  Though Art Spiegelman's drawings are more detailed than Satrapi's, her personal writing style reminded me a great deal of his Maus trilogy. Both convey life under a dictatorship in a manner that people from peaceful, democratic nations can identify with.  I would highly recommend this novel for anyone looking to learn about the political situation in Iran, or a person who wants to read a compelling autobiography.          

Thursday, January 20, 2011

My Shameless Local Plug

I'm pretty shameless and/or jingoistic in my love of Canadian fiction, and I am constantly looking for new authors and old favourites to satisfy this need of mine.  So when I was in the library recently I went to the Canadian authors section to see what I could dig up.  What I found was Before I Wake by Robert J. Wiersema, a novel by a Victoria writer which is also set in Victoria.  

The basic plot of the novel is that a three-year old girl is hit by a truck and rendered comatose.  Her family is torn apart by the accident and the subsequent medical issues that the young girl faces.  Once the daughter's condition stabilizes, miraculous events begin occurring which defy explanation and her parents' religious beliefs.  Simon and Karen wrestle with the consequences of their daughter's gift and Wiersema deftly explores the downsides of this miracle.  He invites the reader to question their own religious beliefs without the usual preaching that often accompanies this type of content. Also the style of writing allows the reader to dive in and suspend their disbelief.  The reviews inside the cover of the book led me to believe that this novel was going to be one of those books that should only be undertaken by people with an empty long weekend on their hands.  It's one of those suspenseful roller coaster rides which is plot-based rather than an in-depth character analysis.  That's not a bad thing. When done right, like Before I Wake, it allowed me to escape from real life and lose myself in the problems of others.  Such is the beauty of reading good fiction.   

As a proud resident of Victoria, I personally got a kick out of the many references that Wiersema makes to local restaurants, streets, and other landmarks.  The novel has a really strong sense of place and really captures the essence of the city.  Though I have read books  set in Victoria, I don't think that I have ever read one that describes the city with as much detail as Wiersema does in this particular novel.  Another Canadian author with a similar ability to combine suspenseful plot with a fully-developed setting is Giles Blunt, whose Ontario-based mysteries also give the reader an accurate picture of the landscape.  

So in summary, the plot is so gripping there needs to be a warning label and the setting is beyond compare.  Not to brag or anything.     

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Beauty in the Ordinary

When I choose which book I'm going to read next, it usually takes me a little while.  I hover around the bookshelves deliberating in a way that only further reinforces my indecisive nature.  In an effort to ensure that I would not be disappointed in my choice, I picked out a book which I thought was absolutely foolproof, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields.  

Years ago, I was first introduced to Shields when I read Unless, a book that is in the mix amongst the best Canadian books of the past decade.  From my experience with Unless, I knew that I was in good hands with Carol Shields, and that I only needed to strap myself in and enjoy the ride.  The plot in an of itself is not the most stimulating, and is more than a little reminiscent of The Stone Angel by Margaret Lawrence, but I was still riveted for the most part. The Stone Diaries, like The Stone Angel follows the life of one woman, Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her dramatic birth, until her slow convalescence and eventual death. Aside from her unique childhood and short first marriage, Daisy doesn't really present herself as a dynamic personality.  Rather, she is surrounded by interesting people and through her eyes we glimpse their quirks and adventures.  

Books, for the most part, are driven by one or more of three factors: plot, characters, or language.  This book is primarily carried by the language Shields uses and the secondary characters.  Shields had a gift for describing everyday situations in a refreshing way, which is a quality that distinguishes good writing from great writing. Aside from her birth and childhood, there is nothing particularly engaging about Daisy's story, but the language Shields employs and the lives of other characters held my attention.  Daisy's father, Cuyler, is definitely one of the most distinctive characters I have run across in a long time.  From his beginnings as a humble stonecutter in Tyndall, Manitoba, he becomes a magnate and marathon orator.  His evolution as a character and his pursuits are fascinating and chalk full of symbolism.  The contrast between Cuyler and his daughter is quite dramatic, with him living life on a grander scale than his daughter. He lives his life and takes on projects without any thought to public perception.  Though Daisy is not a slave to the opinions of others, she lives within the confines of the female gender role of her time.  

This is pointed out to the reader by her son, Warren, who views her life as a waste of her intellectual potential.  I think that it is easy to criticize from the perspective of another generation, and it is difficult to judge her choices from a modern point of view.  Shields' gift for narrative is her ability to elevate the lives of the average, normal protagonists, so that they are appreciated in an of themselves.  It is far easier to tell the story of an adventurer or a rags-to-riches success, but Shields' talent lies in showing the reader the beauty of the everyday.  There are many novels featuring the lives of fascinating people and they provide great escapes, however sometimes it's nice to take a peak into the life of an ordinary woman like Daisy.        

Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Drama-Free Vacation Read

During the Christmas season it's important to choose just the right book to while away the holidays.  I tend to pick fiction for December in the same way as I would for a beach vacation; something with a good plot that is not controversial or jarring.  For me Christmastime provides enough drama, so I seek refuge in some well-written, safe fiction.  With this in mind, I chose to read Mistress of the Sun by Sandra Gulland.  

Previously I had read the first book in her Josephine B. trilogy which focuses on the life of Napoleon's wife, Josephine, so I knew what to expect from Gulland.  I will return to the other two novels in the trilogy at some point, but Mistress of the Sun called to me on this occasion.  Gulland again follows the life of a woman romantically attached to a powerful Frenchman by centering her narrative around Louise de la Valliere, the famous mistress of King Louis XIV.  Louis (aka The Sun King) is best known for his opulent lifestyle and personal charisma, and his fidelity (for the most part) to Louise struck me as very interesting considering the decadence of his surroundings.  The author goes out of her way to describe the powerful effect Louis had upon the women of the court, mentioning on a number of occasions how women often fainted in his presence.  

I think that Gulland succeeds in making the romance between Louis and Louise believable by making Louise's personal narrative compelling.  Her seduction of the most powerful man in the land is a bit of an underdog story.  Physically speaking, she is at a bit of a disadvantage.  As a child, she broke her ankle in equestrian accident and it was not set properly, leaving her with a permanent limp.  This limp forced her to wear corrective boots which never successfully correct her walk.  Her figure has little to recommend it either.  In a time where a voluptuous body is the ideal, she is thin and small-breasted. Also, her family fortune is gone after the sudden death of her father, so she is left without a dowry.  While she spends her time entertaining the king, her unknowing mother constantly attempts to scrape up enough money to enhance her marriage prospects.  

Another aspect of Louise's personality which makes her unlikely to attract a king, is her tomboyish love of horsemanship and hunting.  She is used to the outdoors and can hold her own with the men of the court, whereas the other ladies usually just put in a small cameo appearance.  This quality initially attracts Louis, and their mutual love of hunting and horses brings them together.  I was a little surprised to find that there is a little bit of a feminist message ingrained in the story of a mistress.  Ultimately the book reaffirms the personal power of a woman who knows who she is. Louise's strength stems from her ability to look at her situation unflinchingly, and plan accordingly. She knows her role as a mistress and when she feels trapped in this position, she acts in order to gain her own independence and happiness.  

I'm not sure if you can sense this, but I have a personal bias in favour of royal mistresses. This is in complete contrast to the way that I feel about modern-day mistresses, who I feel have more responsibility for the suffering of wives.  For the most part, women courted by kings had little choice but to submit to their desires.  Families pressured them to woo royals so that they could get more titles, political power, land, etc. and there isn't much a girl could do to convince them otherwise.  Thus I found the story of Valliere somewhat refreshing.  She did not seduce the king for any political or monetary reason, but rather, enjoyed his company and was physically attracted to him.  

The other thing that I found refreshing about the book is it's blend of readability with historical facts.  Throughout the pages of the book it is evident that Gulland has done a great deal of historical research is preparation to writing this novel, but the reader is never beaten over the head with facts.  The plot and the historical content work together seamlessly in a manner which is difficult to achieve.  I don't know how many novels are thin on historical details but good in terms of story, or vise versa.  It's story pulls the reader in without being a lightweight guilty pleasure.  A great book for those looking to escape the drama of the holiday season.