Sunday, May 27, 2007

Sweetness in the Belly: A Novel by Camilla Gibb

This beautifully written and impeccably researched tale contains a wealth of information about the battered country of Ethiopia and the strength and resilience of its people. It is obvious that Camilla Gibb had first-hand experience in the field and has the highest regard for those who went through the terrible years of war, famine, upheaval and dictatorship.

Sweetness in the Belly personalizes this unthinkable social and political tragedy so that we have an inside view into the life of Lilly, a privileged Muslim woman with an ill-fated attraction for Aziz, a doctor and a man of another class. The book goes back and forth between Ethiopia and England as Lilly reflects back on early years in her homeland before she was forced to flee. It is a testament to human nature that anyone can survive the atrocities that were perpetrated on these blameless souls, and can emerge with any kindness, decency and dreams for the future.

That makes this a book of hope with a wealth of fascinating information, although at heart, it's also just a great story. I'll be looking for more books by Gibb, after I've watched some lightweight comedies on DVD that will serve as a buffer from reading about so much pain.

Sigrid Macdonald, Ottawa, Ontario

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

I absolutely adored this critique of religion by Richard Dawkins. He is a preeminent scholar who backed up his arguments against the existence of God, or rather the probability of the existence of God, beautifully. Dawkins also made a compelling argument for the fact that religion is not simply a benign preference that one adopts; it can be and is indeed frequently used to justify sexism, homophobia, territorial disputes and futile, bloody wars.

It seems politically correct nowadays to separate fundamentalist religions from the mainstream, in particular when we are talking about Muslims; however, Dawkins argues that all religion is a form of fanaticism because it's based on myth and compulsion. He talks about how frequently we overlook the fact that suicide bombers truly believe that they will be rewarded in the hereafter for their heinous deeds.

The only complaint that I, as an agnostic, would have about The God Delusion is that it offers no solace. Dawkins seems to find comfort in science and the evolutionary theory but I don't and I don't imagine that a terminal cancer patient would either. That's not to say that fear of mortality justifies a belief in a higher being whose presence we can't confirm -- it is to say that I understand why people embrace the concept even if it runs contrary to what we know scientifically.

Sigrid Macdonald, Ottawa, Ontario

Bush's Brain -- SCARY!!!

If you want to rent a true horror movie, watch Bush's Brain, based on the book by two Texan reporters. Their assertion that Karl Rove is running the White House is frightening because apparently he's a brilliant but ruthless man that no one elected. This DVD was released in 2004. Much of the information is outdated. Only brief allusions were made to the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq whereas much attention was paid to the background of Karl Rove -- if even 1/10 of that is true, he is a man without a soul or a conscience and he's directing our domestic and foreign policy.

The big surprise is not so much how Bush and Rove pulled this scam off; the true surprise to me is how the electorate put these men in for a second term! The first term was quite "iffy." It could be argued that Bush was appointed by the Supreme Court because that race was so damn close, but all that really says is that the country was divided right down the middle in terms of partisan politics. When we knew perfectly well that Bush revealed himself as a war president, why, oh why elect him for a second term?

Thankfully, he'll be ousted in 2008 but that's not soon enough for the dept that he's run up, the programs that he's destroyed, the American troops that he's sent needlessly to die or be maimed, and the horrific damage that he inflicted on the country and the people of Iraq. And this is only January. He's got lots of time to expand his reign.

Sigrid Macdonald, Ottawa, Ontario (formerly from New Jersey)

Promise Me by Harlan Coben

This is the second book that I've read by Coben and I was immediately engaged by the people and the story line. He manages to weave an intricate plot without dropping characters along the way, overly complicating matters, confusing the reader and developing shallow protagonists. I loved Myron and will look forward to reading about his previous adventures.

The basic premise of this one is that one night, without thinking about the consequences, 42-year-old Myron Bolitar, an ex-athlete turned entertainment lawyer, overhears a conversation between two teenage girls, one of whom he knows quite well. They're talking about drinking. It's senior year in Bergen County, New Jersey (where I grew up, BTW!) And the number one priority for affluent parents and their children is getting those teens into a decent university.

Myron remembers that a classmate in his high school never made it because she was killed by a drunk driver. He makes the girls promise him that if they're ever in trouble in the middle of the night, they can call him at any time -- no questions asked. Little does he anticipate where that promise will lead him and us, the readers.

Much like his other book, whose name I have forgotten, this was a page turner. I will put Coben at the top of my list and go back to read his other books. Very well done and highly recommended, although it stretched the imagination a bit at times.

Sigridmac, author of D'Amour Road

America Alone: The End of the World as We Know It

Mark Steyn makes a chilling and compelling argument that we need to be more concerned about international demographics than global warming and compact fluorescent light bulbs. He enumerates the birth rates for countries around the world, starting with North America and moving on to Europe, the Middle East, Africa, China, India and Russia. Steyn claims -- and I have no reason to disbelieve him -- that Europe and Canada are failing to repopulate themselves. Some countries are really bad like Germany, Japan, Spain and Italy, which Steyn also criticizes for their left-leaning, socialist tendencies since he believes they contribute to unemployment and far too great a reliance on government.

What will happen down the road is that we will have nations, or perhaps entire continents, with such aging populations that they don't have enough young people to support them in retirement. And their tax bases will be so high that fresh blood won't want to immigrate there.

The countries that are doing very well in terms of fertility are mainly Muslim countries and that scares Steyn because of their anti-Semitism, opposition to Western ways and lack of "forward thinking." He quotes a UN statistics from 2002 that said that in one year more books were translated into Spanish than into Arabic over the last one thousand years -- pretty frightening and evidence to Steyn that the Arab world is quite xenophobic.

As an independent, I'm not prone to taking a conservative position on most issues but I do like to read all sides. And in this case, much of what Steyn argues is irrefutable in terms of sheer stats about populations. For that reason alone, I give this book 5 stars because it was a serious eye-opener for me and it was very well-written, researched and funny as hell.

However, there are some things that I don't think that Mark Steyn fully addressed. The first is that he pats the United States on the back for managing to at least have a fertility rate above 2.0. He mentions that this is NOT coming from the average 30 year old couple who live in his hometown in New Hampshire; we can thank the large number of Hispanics and Mormons for keeping the US population high. Latinos are largely Catholic so it seems that both groups in the US may be keeping the population afloat for religious reasons. Thus, it's not so much that *America* is enlightened or any different from Europe or Canada when it comes to having children or being concerned about keeping the population growing; it's the Red states (Republican women) and certain religious groups that are doing so.

Another area that I think he could have focused on more was women's rights. I've been a long-time feminist since the early 70s but I concede that ready access to abortion, more reliable birth control, women entering the workforce in large numbers and thus being able to support themselves financially, along with increased cultural and social acceptance of divorce have all contributed to these declining birth rights. Therefore it's hard to recommend that giving Islamic women more rights and equality will do anything but reduce their rate of breeding.

There's no going backward and who would want to? But we need some form of education in the schools and campaigns on television and print that will raise awareness about our declining population. So many women my age were raised with the idea that they should delay having children until they were established in their careers; and by the time they reached 38 or 40 they realized that their eggs weren't that good. All of this info needs to get out to the public when they're much younger. I don't think it's that people aren't interested in having children or in keeping the population going -- much of this is simply ignorance about the fact that we even *have* a population shortage. I grew up thinking that we were having a global population explosion. The word needs to get out and reading this book is a great place to start.

Sigrid Macdonald, Author and Editor Ottawa, Ontario

When the Levees Broke -- The Enemy within

9/11 was terrifying. For the first time in decades, we were attacked on our own soil. But the assault came from outsiders. Even more frightening is to think there may be a malevolent group within the country that kills people by its own negligence. Prior to watching Spike Lee's masterpiece, I had naïvely thought that New Orleans was wiped out by Hurricane Katrina. In fact, Lee argues that the United States Army Corps of Engineers designed the levees so poorly that they could not withstand anything stronger than a category two hurricane.

Given the fact that the city is surrounded by water on all sides, it was inevitable that it would be hit by a storm much more powerful than category two, thus, the engineers-- who can't be sued -- bear an enormous amount of responsibility for the catastrophe that befell hundreds of thousands of people.

Worse was the downright embarrassing and disgraceful response of the Bush administration. It took George Bush 12 days to get down to New Orleans. Meanwhile, he was on vacation and making speeches about Iraq (hey, let's get our priorities straight!) while Dick Cheney was flyfishing and Condoleezza Rice was buying shoes. Spike Lee shows some old footage of Lyndon B. Johnson making a clumsy appearance in New Orleans following Hurricane Betsy -- old LBJ was out there in the dark with his flashlight and down-homey kind of way but at least he was there. People knew that he cared.

FEMA, as we all know, took five days to get to the city although somehow it only took our government two days to go across the world to help the tsunami victims. One can only conclude that it is deliberate disdain and racism or a complete lack of concern for people of lower incomes that resulted in such a horrifically slow and inadequate response to this tragedy.

Spike Lee, who I've always loved, tells the story of Katrina through the words of those who lived through it -- from rich to poor, black to white, the important to the "ordinary." Their tales moved me to tears and to an angry rage as the story unfolded from the beginning of the chaos to the cleanup -- or so-called -- and the bailouts of so many insurance companies who refused to pay up.

One thing that I would have appreciated in this HBO series was a few more facts. After watching for four hours, I still don't know exactly how many people were killed or injured. Also, there was a reference early on to the fact that the levees had been dynamited during Betsy and that some people suspected that the same may have happened during Katrina in order to flood out the homes of the poorest people to save the rich. That's a serious allegation and it deserved more time and attention in the film.

Otherwise, this DVD was fantastic. It was moving and irreverent -- a real eye-opener and must-see. Hope that it's resurrected before the next election!

Sigridmac, American living in Canada


Although I'm not a big fan of Jennifer Aniston's, I thoroughly enjoyed this fast-paced thriller about a married man who meets an attractive woman on a train and arranges a hookup. His relationship with his wife is strained because their young daughter is seriously ill and the woman that he, Clive Owens, meets, Aniston, offers the promise of soothing his pain. Little does he know that the heartache and nightmares are about to begin!

Jennifer Aniston plays a different type role, which is nice to see since she's usually typecast in that boppy, upbeat and giggly kind of way. She is serious, almost too much so, as a high-powered businesswoman.

Owens, who I just saw in Children of Men, does a marvelous job and I loved the unpredictability of the story. Looks as though he's on his way to being the next Nicolas Cage.


Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home

SEND is a great book that reminds us to check our knee-jerk reactions to e-mail. Regardless of how many years we've been on the Internet or how savvy we think we are in terms of e-mail etiquette, it doesn't hurt to brush up on some of the basics.

I can't count how many e-mails I receive in a given day that have a subject line that is completely unrelated to the topic; so many people, myself included, will continue a correspondence back and forth without ever changing the subject of the e-mail.

Due to the rapidity of the medium, we often expect unreasonably quick replies to our e-mails. And many people have no idea when to end a conversation. In person, we know how to do that easily. Most people are in agreement as to when a conversation is over but chitchat in e-mail can go back and forth into cyber eternity and someone has to know when to say stop, when to delete an e-mail or just reply with one line.

Much of the advice in this primer is based on common sense but I found it to be an excellent reminder that in general my own e-mails tend to be too long, partly because I dictate with a voice program, and that I reply too often instead of hitting the big "D" on my keyboard. Something here for everyone, particularly beginners, but also for old-timers too.


The Secret -- So unlike old-fashioned positive thinking

The Secret has a lot of things going for it. It emphasizes the importance of thinking positively and acting with confidence. It encourages people to affirm the abundance in their lives and to be grateful for what they already have. All of those are good things. If we think negatively and feel depressed, we're not likely to have amazing outcomes.

On the other hand, there are times when people work as hard as they possibly can but encounter numerous obstacles. If they don't succeed because they struggle against systemic racism, poverty, discrimination or debilitating illness, it's not their fault and there's no way that they can talk themselves out of that situation. They might be able to deal with it better but I preferred the more rational thoughts of Norman Vincent Peale to The Secret because he never blamed anyone and he was always sane and rational about who could and who couldn't further themselves.

There's a reason that the serenity prayer became very popular in 12 step programs and that's because there really are some things that we CAN control and other things that we CAN'T. Rape, child abuse, sudden dismissal from a job, a spouse dying, working at a crappy job for minimum wage... those things are out of many people's control. When we get into Third World issues, applying The Secret becomes ludicrous. Can we feed Ethiopians, eradicate HIV, boost sagging economies that are strangulated with debt? Hardly. No matter how much someone with AIDS in Kenya affirms that he is healthy, he won't be!

Don't get me wrong. I own The Secret and have watched it several times. For middle-class folks who are reasonably healthy, it's possible that the techniques here can make them happier and more successful. Having an attitude of expectancy is always a good thing unless we blame ourselves when our dreams don't materialize and we never had a chance in the first place.


The Queen -- One of the best movies I've seen in ages

The Queen was a fantastic depiction of the way that Queen Elizabeth may have felt following the death of Princess Diana. Despite all of the media hype about the latter, this movie is new, fresh and surprisingly funny. I laughed out loud a number of times both at the Queen and with her.

How can an apple become an orange? That's what Elizabeth had to do after the sudden and shocking death of her son's ex-wife, whom she had never liked to begin with. A reserved, imminently proper woman, Elizabeth was completely out of touch with the need of the public to grieve. She wanted to mourn privately but didn't understand that the country lost Diana too and had to have more closure. Although she wanted a private service, she needed to bend and come round to something that eventually included pop stars like Elton John -- a 180° turn that was most difficult for her.

As always, Helen Mirren is nothing short of amazing. I've loved her since her early days in Prime Suspect and have watched every episode! She doesn't disappoint here either; neither does the character who plays Tony Blair, whose name escapes me at the moment. Acting is great, story is wonderful. Only question I had was the reliability of the details and facts -- were those leaked by palace insiders? Interesting to know..

This is a movie I could watch two or three times and probably will!


Who was the monster?

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino is a compulsively readable book which grabbed my attention from the very first page when the narrator confessed a seething hatred for her unspeakably beautiful sister. Kirino shows exactly what kind of a curse striking beauty can be for a woman in the same way that ugliness or ordinary features work against women. She provides a scathing indictment of the highly competitive nature of Japanese female schools as well as the workplace and introduces a number of self-loathing individuals whose lives appear to be full of promise when they're young but in fact, their fate has been sealed early on.

Male-female relationships are portrayed as a form of combat; at one point, Kirino says that in order to decay, plants need water and that in the case of women, "men are the water." Ouch! Cruelty, competition and class are the big issues in this book along with sex and what might make a woman choose to prostitute herself.

In the end, Karino concludes that women become prostitutes because they hate other people -- a bit simplistic and dismissing a more obvious reason which is that many prostitutes, male and female alike, sell themselves simply for the money; because they're hooked on drugs or too young to get decent jobs or sexually abused and need to reenact the pattern.

The ending was ambiguous and left me with some unanswered questions but nonetheless, I thoroughly enjoyed every single page of this beautifully written, wonderfully analytical, wildly entertaining and provocative story about a young woman who grows up with an abnormally attractive sister who she calls the monster. "The monster" eventually becomes a prostitute along with another schoolgirl known by the narrator -- 6° of separation? -- and in the end we must conclude that all of the characters are monsters: mean-spirited, self-loathing and ridiculously self absorbed.

Well worth the read. Sigridmac