Les Enquêtes de Vipérine Maltais : Mortels Noëls by Sylvie Brien

Les Enquêtes de Vipérine Maltais : Mortels Noëls
Sylvie Brien
(Gallimard Jeunesse, Paris: 2004)

READ: June 2008

Un livre d'enfant, évidemment. En 1920, à Montréal, Vipérine Maltais, jeune pensionnaire, est chargée de déterminer s'il fut vraiment un fantôme qui a fait peur la nuit à une des soeurs. Concept simple, mais toute une histoire se développe. Très intéressant, facile à lire, puis une bonne manière de pratiquer mon français (j'ai appris toutes sortes de nouveaux mots).

A children's book, obviously. In 1920, in Montreal, Vipérine Matais, a young girl who lives in the convent, has been assigned the task of determining whether it really was a ghost that scared one of the nuns one night. A simple premise, but a whole story develops out of this. Very interesting, easy to read, and a good way to practice my French (I learned a bunch of new words).

First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea by Paul Woodruff

First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
Paul Woodruff
(Oxford University Press, New York City: 2005)

READ: June 2008

Jury's still out on this one. It was ... fine. But I didn't think it was very well-written (still trying to figure out why, however), and it frightened me how often I disagreed with or disputed some of his claims, leading me to wonder if I really believe in democracy at all!

Highlights (?) include:

  • The tale of the frog and the snake, one of Aesop's fables, used to illustrate how our laws are often absurd, yet somehow necessary in order to protect from tyranny (p. 211 et seq.). I found this argument unfounded, illogical, and, frankly, ridiculous. I also think the fable was a poor illustration of the point being made.

  • The fallacies in the arguments of those who would oppose democracy: mainly, that citizen wisdom will always fail since the ordinary person has neither the time, the education nor the will to make decisions, so best to defer to those with the expertise to do it for them (see p. 159 et seq.). I agree with Woodruff to a point; yet, again, his arguments (remember he is disagreeing with these claims) are not carried out as fully as they should have been.

  • In a discussion of whether the United States and other similar so-called "democracies" are ready for actual democracy (rule actually for and by the people), Woodruff has a throwaway paragraph about Canada in which he points to the actions of a citizen activist group in British Columbia as proof that Canada is, in fact, ready for actual democratic reform such as proportional representation (see 213 et seq.). Not likely, Mr. Woodruff. First of all, while proportional representation is a popular idea generally, the chances of it becoming the norm in Canada as a whole is highly unlikely, given the structure of our government. Second of all, a citizen group in B.C. is unfortunately not going to have the leverage to get this idea successfully promoted cross-Canada ... even if they could get the B.C. legislative assembly to agree. Their activism cannot be taken as representative of Canada's prevailing political will.

On the plus side, Woodruff knows a lot about the workings of Greek democracy, and that was fairly interesting. However, there are better books on the origins of democracy, and while this is a short read at just over 200 pages, I'm not sure it's worth the time.

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini
(Doubleday Canada, Toronto: 2003)

READ: June 2008

One of those remarkable books where you can't really put it down despite the fact you don't really like the narrator (he *does* grow on you somewhat) and despite the fact that the last quarter of the book (or so) feels like you're watching a train rushing to an impending collision in slow-mo. Hosseini's writing is vivid and his characters jump off the page. I haven't eaten up a novel like this in a while. Truly enjoyable.*

* There is also now a movie, which I have not seen and about which I have heard mixed reviews. I'm always torn on the book-to-movie transition - a really great book does not need a movie to make it more real. And really great books often translate into mediocre movies - you can only fit so much into 2 hours. Thoughts?

Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate by Felicity Lawrence

Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on Your Plate
Felicity Lawrence
(Penguin Books, London: 2004)

READ: May-June 2004

I stumbled across this book in my library's catalogue whilst searching for something else food-related for a client. Intrigued, I requested it be sent to me, and it was quite a fascinating read.

Felicity Lawrence is an investigative reporter for The Guardian in London, England, and she has been writing on food-related topics (and other things, too, undoubtedly) for over 20 years. This book focuses on the food industry in Britain*, but I have no reason to believe that things are substantially different or better in Canada and the U.S. I'm willing to bet that while things may differ in the details, the larger brushstrokes of our food distribution chains are similar.

From the back cover (because sometimes they just say it better):

In a series of undercover investigations tracking some of the most popular foods we eat at home, Felicity Lawrence travels from farms and factories to packhouses and lorry depots around the world. She discovers why beef waste ends up in chicken, why a third of apples are thrown away, why bread is full of water and air. And she shows how obesity, the plight of migrant workers, motorways clogged with juggernauts, ravaged fields in Europe and starving farmers in Africa are all connected to a handful of retailers and food manufacturers who exert unprecedented control over what we eat and where we buy it.

This book is well-written and fascinating. Lawrence isn't preachy. She isn't trying to get us to switch to all-vegetarianism or all-organics or all-local. Rather, in a series of exposés (Chicken / Salad / Beans / Bread / Apples and Bananas / Coffee and Prawns / The Ready Meal), she is simply trying to make us more aware. She eats meat, and doesn't shun (all) processed food. She even sometimes buys bananas. However, she wants to make us more aware of where our food comes from, and what is done in the system to make food as cheap and abundant as it is today (at least in the Western world). Her general philosophy is: As much as possible, buy local, seasonal, and direct. Sounds like fine advice to me.

The book is an eye-opener. Sure, I've been hearing for years about the appalling conditions in which many animals destined for slaughter are raised (chickens in tiny cages where they can't even turn around, etc.). Lawrence mentions these things, but doesn't dwell on them. Rather, she walks us through the steps in production of some of the most basic things. Like salad: there are an unbelievable number of steps involved in getting today's ready-cut, pre-washed bags of salad to the grocery store. And if you want a mini-lesson on the effects of globalization, read her chapter on Coffee and Prawns. You'll suddenly have a much better understanding of why so many countries can't afford to feed their own people.

A rather timely read, as the headlines these days are full of dire predictions for the food supply in the not-so-far-off future, and we keep hearing about the rise of food prices despite any direct evidence of that here. This book helps me understand this rising debate, and I am looking forward to reading more on the subject.

* Perhaps in some ways it would be more accurate to say "the food industry not in Britain".