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Hande Z (Singapore)

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The Discreet Hero
The Discreet Hero
by Mario Vargas Llosa
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Heroism in the microcosm of domestic tragedy, 9 Feb. 2016
This review is from: The Discreet Hero (Paperback)
The story of three families, intertwined in their misfortunes, is told with verve and excitement, splendidly translated by Edith Grossman (who had done impressive translations of the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez) will leave the reader spellbound right to the very last line. Felicito Yanaque is married to Getrudis. They have two sons, Miguel and Tiburcio. He owns a transport company in Piura, Peru. In the neighbouring city of Lima are two families. Don Ismael Carrera, who was married to Clotilde until she died, has two sons, a pair of twins – Miki and Escobita. He owns an Insurance company. His manager, Rigoberto works for him but at 62, announces his retirement. He wants to see the world with his doting wife, Lucretia. They have a teenage son, Fonchita.

Felicito receives an extortion note demanding that he pays a monthly sum, but Felicito remembers his father’s words of advice, ‘Never let anybody walk all over you’. He thus refuses to pay. He tells his family that once you give in ‘they will walk all over you’. Felicito has a dark secret which he keeps from his family. He has a mistress named Mabel. But Getrudis has a secret no one knows either.

Ismael, at the age of 75 or 78 (even Rigoberto cannot recall) tells Rigoberto that he wants to marry his servant, Armida, who is still in her 30’s. Rigoberto becomes involved when Ismael asks him to be one of his witnesses at the wedding. The other witness is another loyal employee – Ismael’s long-serving driver. Ismael plots to deprive his errant sons of his fortune.

Rigoberto has his own problems. His son keeps talking about a stranger named Torres who no one else seems to see or know. Is Fonchita wicked or crazy? Rigoberto is driven to despair by Fonchita and Torres.

When the extortionists took action in the face of Felicito’s stubbornness the story spins into a whirlwind of fast action with a host of fascinating supporting characters such as Captain Silva, the smart-thinking, suave, police investigator and his not so clever Sergeant Lituma. And, of course, the sons of Ismael and Felicito. From extortion, comes hints of betrayal, and deceit. Lots of it. Only Llosa can make a mountain out of a mole-hill and still keeps his readers eyes riveted to his work.

The Gatekeepers: Inside Israel's Internal Security Agency
The Gatekeepers: Inside Israel's Internal Security Agency
by Dror Moreh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Open sesame, 5 Feb. 2016
This is clearly an illuminating book because it touches on one of the most secretive aspects of international affairs – the Israeli Secret Service (Shin Bet). What makes it even more attractive is that the information contained in the book comes mainly from the interviews given by six former directors of the Shin Bet.

How much of the truth is revealed, and how much more remains concealed, no one might really know, but the book is captivating and thought-provoking. There is a great deal of focus on the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the security fall-out thereafter, including questions and self-doubts. Could more have been done? Was the assassination preventable?

The former directors also talk about the use and efficacy of torture. The methods employed in countering the enemies of Israel. These men also express their views concerning the politics of the Israeli state, how differently politicians view matters from the security people. No other book has so much information about the inner thinking of the Israeli secret service.

Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church: The Findings of the Investigation That Inspired the Major Motion Picture Spotlight
Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church: The Findings of the Investigation That Inspired the Major Motion Picture Spotlight
by The Investigative Staff of the Boston Gl
Edition: Paperback

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shepherds, 2 Feb. 2016
‘It is God’s will’. What do Catholics understand by that phrase? One of the oldest Christian churches, and probably the largest, wealthiest, and best organised church in the world had ordained sex predators and subsequently shielded and protected them when their crimes became known to the church. This book is about the scandal in the Catholic Church that was brought into the open by the investigative team of the Boston Globe in 2002.

Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Boston admitted in a court document that he had known that one of his priests, John J Geoghan who was named in a child abuse suit (in which Cardinal Law made the admission) had a known history of child abuse. The church did what it had done for decades – move him from parish to parish. The writers of this book wrote, ‘Geoghan’s long history of treatment, denial, and recidivism had already begun by the late 1960s, and perhaps even earlier’ (Geoghan entered the seminary in 1954 at the age of 19). His sexual offences first became public in 1996 and culminated in civil suits in 2001 after 130 people identified themselves as victims of Father Geoghan.

The Boston Globe probed and set out to inquire whether ‘the Geoghan case was an anomaly or part of a pattern’. Its discovery and subsequent publication in 2002 of a series of revelations from the investigation by its staff shook the Catholic Church at its foundations. Cardinal Law, the most powerful religious leader in America, who dined with kings and presidents, eventually resigned. He accepted full responsibility not only for the wide-spread sex abuse by Catholic priests (1,500 offenders in 15 years) but also in the cover-up by the Church.

This book begins with chapters on the case of Father Geoghan, then moving on to other major offenders like Joseph Birmingham, Ronald Paquin, Paul Shanley, and James Porter. Then it reveals the cover-up in all these (and other) cases. 1,600 pages of secret Church documents forced into the open show that Cardinal Law ignored the decade-long allegations of Shanley’s sexual misconduct. The book has a chapter in which the writers talk to and about some of the innumerable victims.

The book goes on with chapters explaining how the scandal ‘exploded’, how deference to the offending fathers declined and how the Church continued to ignore court findings even though many judges were Catholic and were ‘complicit in the secrecy that kept the extent of the abuse hidden from public view’.

The chapter on the desperation of Cardinal Law and the intervention of the Pope makes much of the exciting end-game to the scandal. This is not a story of mere sex abuse; it is a story about sex abuse by priests across America. The ‘shepherds’ of the Church abused their flock. That breach of trust has launched a growth of lay power in the Catholic Church and a re-examination of how the Church is to run. Enlightenment comes from knowledge; knowledge from answers; and answers come only when people start asking questions. For some, the questions need to be deeper than just who have not been caught; how may such things be prevented in the future? Even the question, why have such scandals occur, ought to prompt deeper and more probing ones.

The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley
The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley
by Eric Weiner
Edition: Paperback
Price: £12.08

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Full throttle ahead, 29 Jan. 2016
This is a delightful book about everything that is (considered by Weiner) a product of genius, written with an attractive writing style, a great sense of wit and humour, and, dare one say, a dash of genius?

Weiner embarked on a journey through the world, stepping in and out of a time machine as he goes. The result is an enlightening study of all facets of brilliance. He goes to Greece to learn that we are all Greek – our learning, language, and thought, all have Greek roots.

He goes to China to find in Hangzhou to learn about the genius that is the city. He enters the city’s pothole to the past – Xi Hu (West Lake) to gather his materials. His account is fascinating. He compares the products of Hangzhou with Switzerland as Graham Greene described – ‘They had brotherly love, five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock!’ Weiner quickly corrected that misinformation – the Germans, not the Swiss, invented the cuckoo clock.

Weiner visits Florence, Vienna, Calcutta and the Silicon Valley to complete his tour of the genius in this world. In these places he provides an impressionistic account of his subject. With art in Florence and music in Vienna, he tells us how the genius transforms culture. Music was a way of giving vent to political sentiments – ‘What cannot be said is sung’. The stories from the Silicon Valley can be encapsulated in one of the stories, commonly referred to as ‘The Egg of Columbus’. If you have not heard that one, your enjoyment should not be spoiled by an eager reviewer lacking in genius.

The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time
The Confidence Game: The Psychology of the Con and Why We Fall for It Every Time
by Maria Konnikova
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.09

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Game is never up., 29 Jan. 2016
Confidence tricksters set themselves upon us ever so often. Sometimes we are taken in and sometimes not. There are likely many times that we have been conned without even knowing it. Konnikova explains why that is so.

We must first know what the confidence game is about. When a person cheats, is he invariably a confidence trickster? Can he be just someone hard on luck and cheated out of desperation? It is not easy to judge as Konnikova shows in some of her accounts.
This is a fascinating book for its identification and analysis of the way a confidence trick is carried out, what a conman requires to succeed, and how we fall victims to fraud.

Konnikova tells us that the conman needs to be very accurate in knowing what factors his victim uses to judge him, and armed with that knowledge, he knows who he can pick as his victim. That is first part of the scam - the ‘put-up’ (identifying the victim and gaining his trust). Next the conman has to make his ‘play’ – that is, to execute his move – usually through the manipulation of the victim’s emotion. Then Konnikova explains ‘the rope’ – the various strategies used by conmen. An example is the technique of promising more. Invariably, the conman will spin a tale; and it will be a very convincing one.

Konnikova also explores our own vulnerabilities that make us susceptible to a confidence fraud. We too can pick up tricks that may help us expose the con played on us. For example, conmen thrived because they promise things that are tempting but impossible to prove, usually of events that are so far off in the future – take his word for it, as it were. That is how Ponzi schemes work. That is how Bernie Madoff pulled it off for more than 20 years. Had he died before he was exposed, no one might have been the wiser.

The stories of fraud that Konnikova uses to make her points are amazing and we might wonder whether we might have ourselves fallen for them had we been in the victims’ place.

by Ryan T. Cragun
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.84

5.0 out of 5 stars A sociological take, 23 Jan. 2016
This is a book by a social scientist using data (from publicly available sources) to make his points. ‘Highly religious parents favour spanking as a form of punishment far more than do nonreligious parents’. 20 % of a survey shows fundamentalist religious people would force a woman to jeopardize her health rather than to have an abortion, in contrast to only 3% of nonreligious people. 30% of religious people would force a woman to have their rapists’ children, compared to 8% from nonreligious people. Children from liberal and nonreligious families do better in education than children from religious families scoring A, A, and D respectively). In a long list of comparisons, that set the trend. The only exception is ‘Happiness’ where the trend is reversed (B, B & A respectively in favour of the religious), but In terms of coping, generally, the religious score a ‘B’ and the nonreligious an ‘A’. His research shows that the ‘Happiness’ factor is highest for religious compared to nonreligious people only in the less developed countries.

In addition to data, Cragun also uses examples of cases he knows personally. None more so than his personal stories. He and his wife Debi were Mormons. They became nonreligious eventually. His wife suffered from clinical depression when she was 11 years old. She is on medication and throughout her life, she remained clinically depressed. The point Cragun makes is that religion (and no religion) play do not make people happy.
Cragun was a Mormon elder who once told a woman in Costa Rica, ‘You prayed and God told you that Joseph Smith was his prophet, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints is the one true church on the planet. If you do not get baptized into our church, you will go to hell.’

In his book, Cragun explains why he had been so naÔve (he was 19 years old then). As a sociologist he explains the power of socialization. How children become indoctrinated into religion. All babies are born without religion. They have to be taught religion. Hence, when his two year old son asked him about a statue of Jesus, Cragun said, ‘That’s Bobario’. His son was not taught about Jesus the way a Christian parent would teach their children. His son never associated the image of Jesus with God or religion.

That is why religious people are so concerned about families and keeping families together in the same religion. Cragun tells the story of the Christian Scientist parents telling their son who had a severe infection and needed antibiotics urgently that he can choose – either he stays home, and they will continue to pray for him (which they did for a week with no improvement), or go to hospital. If he chose the latter, he need not come home; he will be disowned. He chose to go. Many religious people will say, Oh, but my religion is not like that’, but all religions are the same in that respect – only their quirks differ.

Atheists in America
Atheists in America
Price: £19.48

5.0 out of 5 stars Born again atheists, 21 Jan. 2016
This is a collection of writings by Americans of all genders, ages, races, and backgrounds on the reasons why they are or have become atheists. 21-year old Lynette tells her personal story about a sexist father and how an incident in church in which the sex of a person appears to have significance in Christianity. Speaking to her mother, Lynette was astonished to find that he Christian mother accepts the Bible’s sexist doctrines.

James Mouritsen woke up to reason one day and turned his back on the Church of the Latter Day Saints. As an Utahn and a Mormon, it was a tough decision, but he made it and sets out why. He saw through the ‘Catch-22’ of the Mormon faith which is a 3-step way of knowing God. First have a true desire to find God. This is known as having a ‘sincere heart’. Secondly, pray and ask God to reveal himself. Thirdly, God will reply affirmatively through the Holy Spirit. But what if this does not work? Here’s the Catch-22: If the 3-step does not work it means that the person concerned did not have a sincere heart – and, by the way, Mormons are taught that the ‘Holy Spirit is the unmistakable feeling inside you’. So, basically, if God does not talk to you, it is you who messed up.

Amy Watkins and her husband were Seventh-Day Adventists (SDA) but she became an atheist after her daughter was born. The big event of becoming a parent got the Watkins thinking about all the big questions about life. Amy Watkins searched for those answers in the Bible. She read Ellen White, ‘the prophet of the SDAs’, she read C S Lewis, but the more she read the more she doubted. She writes: My path to atheism starts with the most fundamental elements of my faith: Reward and punishment, mercy and judgment, love and fear, but the path is only visible from this side. Start with me saying “I don’t believe in god” Go backward…Go back further. Ask, “Where did the doubt come from?’ If we are to be honest with ourselves, Amy says, it means admitting to our doubts. Christians tend to ignore the hard questions or accept superficial answers in dealing with doubts. We should go the Amy Watkins way.

Naima Cabelle says that from ‘the time I was conceived in Harlem, New York, my future as a black woman was already compromised’. She tells her personal story of how she went from Catholicism and born-again Christianity to secularism and atheism. ‘Men in the Christian community are raised with the expectation that they will find a nice Christian girl who was raised to be a nice Christian wife’, David Norris writes. The trouble was that Norris is gay. His Christian parents maintain that they love him, but that he was just a ‘broken heterosexual who needed Jesus and a good woman to fix’. Justus Humphrey, the son of a Presbyterian minister, took up Bible studies in college and after studying the history of the Bible, he began asking questions. ‘I began wondering how every word could be divinely inspired if the document itself was adjusted and altered so much over time. If any one version of the Bible was God’s perfected text, then all the other versions must be flawed. It made no sense that any other version could be right’, Humphrey writes.

This book is very personal and every contributor seems to have written with a sincere heart. When we reads about the so-called ‘New Atheists’ like Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, we see how similar they are in the way they write, or, as the editor describes, they appear ‘composed, thoughtful, informed, and even humorous or playful – certainly not disfigured creatures of the night.’ This is a book written fearlessly and ought to be read without fear.

What is Humanism and Why Does it Matter? (Studies in Humanist Thought and Praxis)
What is Humanism and Why Does it Matter? (Studies in Humanist Thought and Praxis)
by Anthony B. Pinn
Edition: Paperback
Price: £26.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Everyone matters, 19 Jan. 2016
This is a small but serious study of three important questions about the idea of ‘humanism’, namely, ‘What is humanism?’, ‘Why does it matter?’, and ‘What do we do with humanism?’ As an idea, humanism has long roots, as long as religions before Christianity. It has existed and competed with religion for a long time, but has in the past two decades seen a marked surge.

But, as the editor reminds us, there are thousands of expressions of humanism. This book is not intended to be a comprehensive definition of humanism. Humanism in all its forms and differences, is not, like religion, inconsistent or contradictory (in contrast to a claim that a God is all good and all powerful – a statement that cannot answer the question of the existence of evil).

This book is directed towards humanism and the American society but is equally helpful to humanists all over the world. The contributor Hutchinson, for example, examines the relevance of the rise of ‘white nationalism, white supremacy, and Christian evangelical activism’. Thus she writes: ‘The notion of humanist social justice must begin here, with an unflinching assessment of American racial history’. She explores the issues raised by the social commentator Kevin Powell, and asks: ‘What does it mean to be a man in 21st century America?’
McGowan discusses humanism and the big problem of death. He points out that traditional religion is a first and foremost response to this problem, ‘by declaring it unacceptable, and therefore untrue.’ One need only read a review of Peter Cave’s book, ‘Humanism’, in which the reviewer gave the book a one-star and dismissing Cave derisively because Cave holds the view that life has no meaning and that we are mortals destined to die.

McGowan explores the Epicurean comfort that we have no need to fear death because ‘Where I am, death is not, and where death is, I am not’ as well as that which troubled Montaigne – not death, but dying. For those, like himself (McGowan) who fear dying, McGowan reminds us that dying is not just a return to non-existence (although every atom of our body is a particle of the universe before and after our lives came to being) nor is death an unnatural condition. ‘Death’, he says, ‘not life, is our natural condition. This is the extraordinary moment, the departure from the norm. Far from bemoaning our return to nonexistence, we should for as long as we live, never stop dancing and singing about our current reprieve from it. Humanism is no guarantee that I’ll dance. But thanks to that honest and ennobling perspective (McGowan was referring to Richard Dawkins’ ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’), I can at least hear the music’.

Ardiente and Speckhardt’s chapter following McGowan’s addresses the path forward for humanists in the face of religious bigotry – a gentle, well-focussed approach to humanist activism. There is a helpful appendix in the book setting out various humanist manifestos.

Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics
Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and the Breakdown of American Politics
Price: £32.39

4.0 out of 5 stars Is democracy a 'one size fits all' garment?, 18 Jan. 2016
Gottlieb, a constitutional law professor writes: ‘Courts abroad treat “democracy” and “democratic” as terms with real meaning that courts can and should enforce, in sharp contrast to the Roberts Court, for which democracy is largely an excuse for inaction, but not of rights and requirements.’ (pg. 67) Prof Gottlieb believes that history and political science are relevant to a court’s thinking, and ought to form a basis for its jurisprudence. However, he is of the view that the Roberts Court has failed in this respect.

Prof Gottlieb says that the Bill of Rights embody basic human rights that the Roberts Court have not given sufficient recognition. As a consequence, there is inadequate protection in areas such as criminal procedure. Gottlieb writes: ‘The Roberts Court’s rejection of many of the principles of the Bill of Rights, the Reconstruction Amendments and the structural principles of the Constitution leaves democracy without the safeguards Americans assume’ (pg.237)

The Rule of Law is considered to be a vital foundation of democratic countries. Gottlieb thus raises an important point, namely, that no one is above the law, and yet, the US Supreme Court seems to operate without regard to it. This is interesting because we are drawn to think about how guardians of the law and the declarants of the law ought to be policed. The executive cannot act above the law, but it may be tempted to do so where it is confident that their executive action will be sanctioned by the highest court in the land.

It seems clear to neutral eyes that the US Supreme Court in the Roberts era is utterly polarised. But the situation is complex. It seems odd to claim that the Roberts Court does not promote democratic ideals, and at the same time, acknowledging that the present day polarization is along party line – parties that are borne out of, and serving US democracy. To that end, interesting and analytical as this book is, there is more to consider. What democracy really means is probably one question that needs inquiry.

The Real Planet of the Apes: A New Story of Human Origins
The Real Planet of the Apes: A New Story of Human Origins
by David R. Begun
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £19.95

4.0 out of 5 stars Monkeying around, 4 Jan. 2016
Do we know our anthropus from our pithecus? If not, we will find this a very helpful book. But why should we be interested in either? We do not, unless we are interested in knowing how we humans evolved. But I dare say even if one has not such interest, this book is impossible to put down once we start on it. The period under study is the Miocene Age, which was the period about 7 to 23 million years ago.

Prof Begun writes like a detective novelist with an intimate knowledge of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation). Indeed, palaeontology is very much like CSI. The principal work is finding fossils – and that is like looking for a needle in a haystack. After a fossil has been found, it has to be studied and analysed to ascertain when it lived. To do this, the palaeontologist has to understand geography and rock formations.

This book gives a lucid account of the numerous fossils of ancient ape-like animals from Europe to Africa to Asia. It explains the differences between gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, and humans; and that all have common DNA although we have more DNA in common with the chimpanzees than we do with gorillas and orangutans (which seemed a step removed from both the chimpanzee and the gorilla).

Prof Begun’s study of the dental ‘records’ of the fossils is intriguing. It covers the fascinating study of the diet of the ancestors, and how the jaws and teeth provide clues as to the type and age of the ancestor. Prof Begun also explains why the human baby is born with a less developed brain than the primates. It is because the human child is born earlier (before his skull gets too big) than that of the apes. Hence, the human child is virtually helpless by itself for at least a year.

Prof Begun writes with such clarity and simplicity that makes this book a joy to read. What is more fascinating is how he challenges the conventional thinking that the human ancestor came from Africa. He thinks that our ancestor (or rather, the common ancestor of the apes and us) came from Europe and migrated to Africa – not the other way round. He has several bases for this hypothesis. One of which is that the ‘vast evidence of modern great ape morphology in Eurasia.’ He also cites Charles Darwin in support. Darwin had written in ‘The Descent of Man’, that:

‘In each great region of the world the living mammals are closely related to the extinct species of the same region. It is therefore probable that Africa was formerly inhabited by extinct apes closely allied to the gorilla and chimpanzee; and as these two species are now man’s closest allies, it is somewhat more probable that our early progenitors lived on the African continent than elsewhere. But it is useless to speculate on this subject, for an ape nearly as large as man, namely the “Dryopithecus” of Lartet, which was closely allied to the anthropomorphous “Hylobates”, existed in Europe during the upper Miocene period; and since so remote a period the earth has certainly undergone many revolutions, and there have been ample time for migration on the largest scale.’

Prof Begun is counting on eventual vindication through DNA extraction from the fossils. It seems that the technology for the extraction of DNA from fossils has not been perfected. Until it is, this book stands as a brilliant and plausible hypothesis.

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