Review: Torture Team by Philippe Sands

Author: Philippe Sands
Title: Torture Team: Deception, Cruelty and the Compromise of Law
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: May 2008
Publisher: Allen Lane
Length: 315 pages
Genre: Non-fiction
Why I Read: Library browsing, looked interesting
Read If You’re: Interested in the intersection of law + politics or the legality of torture
Quote: “…[all] aggressive interrogative techniques recommended by Jim Haynes and approved by Secretary Rumsfeld [were] used” (8).
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
GoodReads IndieBound | Chapters | Book Depository

In Torture Team, Sands explores “the role of lawyers who are required to give legal opinions on sensitive political matters, and asks what responsibility they bear”. He does this by focusing on the ‘enhanced interrogative techniques’ approved and used on Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani. I did not think I would review this book. It took me a long time to read, due to the high level of detail and wide cast of characters with titles and relationships that took some effort to keep track. My understanding of the American political system and the intersecting branches of the CIA, FBI, army, navy, etc. is limited so at times I found it tiring to try to keep track of how everyone related to each other. Thankfully Sands includes a list of “principal characters and the positions they held during 2002”.

The bulk of this book consists of in-depth interviews with most major players in the decision-making process (then President Bush and Vice President Cheney excluded). I had not expected to find conversations between Sands and the villains of the book.  I expected such people would not grant interviews to be published in a book condemning their actions. The inclusions of such interviews makes this a revealing read. I also like that Sands includes his own perspective to temper the wealth of interviews. He documents the ease or difficulty of securing an interview, and the interactions that arise from his interviews, thus giving a sense of each person as just that – a person, not just a player for the ‘torture team’.

“John Yoo had declined my invitation to discuss the Alstotter case but I had a slightly more willing response from Doug Feith, although our conversation was far from easy. It had the great merit, however, of teasing out the main issues ” (228)

The chapter goes on to document the banter between Feith and Sands, with Sands concluding “Dough Feith went some way in persuading me that the Alstotter case wasn’t exactly comparable and that further inquiry would cause offence in some quarters at least” (232). Sands writes with personal investment and doesn’t just fall back on relaying “he said, she did”. This makes the book easier to swallow as I think it would have been very dry without these touches.

Sands takes an odd turn towards the end of the book in his attempt to draw parallels between the White House lawyers and Nazi lawyers.  Sands concludes, “What happened in Washington in 2002 bore no comparison with what had occurred sixty years earlier in Nuremberg” (245), but he immediately follows this with a sentences beginning “Yet it wasn’t quite that simple…”. Although I agree with Sands’ argument that the White House lawyers acted far beyond their bounds, I don’t think its appropriate to compare to them to Nazi lawyers. This side-track does not add anything to the book. I would have preferred to read more about the connections (or lack-thereof) between torture at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, as Sands occasionally mentions a connection but does not flesh it out. He writes in the conclusion, “At the very least, however, it is clear that the pictures of abuse that emerged from Abu Ghraib would have been less likely without the Haynes memo and the culture of ill-considered aggression it embraced” but I’m not sure how this is ‘clear’.

Also alluded to throughout the book is the process of revelation, or declassification, or investigation, of al-Qahtani’s treatment – I wasn’t too sure because Sands never explains clearly. He writes like the public knowledge of what happened was something I should already know about (I think the book was published shortly after everything came to light). Perhaps Americans know all about the case but I did not, so I would have appreciate more context regarding what was publicly known and what was investigated.

While preparing this review, I came across a cover that said ‘includes new material’. I couldn’t find specific information on an updated edition, but maybe one does exist?

The Bottom Line: An extremely in-depth exploration of the role of lawyers in how the torture of Guantanamo detainee Mohammed al-Qahtani came to be permitted, but Sands tempers the information overload by portraying the persons involved as real people rather than mere information sources.

Further Reading: 

Review: Light of the Andes by J.E. Williams


Author: J.E. Williams
Title: Light of the Andes
Format/Source: eBook/ARC
Published: June 2012 (new edition released June 2014, I think)
Publisher: Irie Books
Length: 200 pages
Genre: Spiritual non-fiction
Why I Read: Browsing ‘religion and spirituality’ on NetGalley; mountain caught my eye
Read If You’re: A mountain lover or interested in Indigenous spirituality, esp. of Peru’s Q’ero people
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters 

In university I took a few courses about Indigenous spirituality, particularly that of the Cree and Inuit. I know very little about Indigenous cultures outside of Canada, so I thought this book would be a good choice to learn more about a people who live far away. The Andean setting also attracted me because I love mountains, though I live on the prairies so unfortunately mountains do not play a large role in my life. The highlight of my younger years was heading out West to camp in the Rockies. I’ve never seen any mountains as huge as those to be found in South America. That’s what I liked most about this book – how Williams captures the majesty of these grand mountains and conveys how deeply moving they can be, even for someone who has never seen them before (the photos and glossary are welcome inclusions). I loved reading about his journey up Apu Ausangate, “the spiritual ruler of [the Andes]” (preface). Williams balances a spiritual perspective and a scholarly perspective, blending his roles as immersed participant and outside scholar. These two perspectives are naturally merged in the book. While the book is about his spiritual journey up Ausangate, he also draws parallels to other religious traditions and ponders about the place of the Q’ero in the world-at-large.

The book begins with long sentences with too many words. For example:

A small, solid man with reddish brown sun-darkened, chestnut-colored skin, Sebastian stands on the corner of the busy city street wearing traditional Q’ero short charcoal apalaca pants and black tunic, the unku, hand wove by his wife, Filipa, from the wool sheered from his own alapacas, over which he wears a natural-colored beige poncho and on his head a multicolored knitted cap called a chu/ulhu, intricately beaded with designs representing Inti, the sun.

I didn’t really mind this, though, because I was interested in all the information  given. I found the style manageable because I felt there was a good story caught inside all the words. If this is not your style, no worries – the prose settles into a more natural, rhythmic style about 1/4 of the way in. Here is a short excerpt from a larger passage I particularly enjoyed, as Sebastian, Williams’ friend and spiritual mentor, and Williams have reached their destination near the top of Ausangate: 

In the shadow of the mountain, memory is intangible. Most of my experiences escape; the process of forgetting is already begun. Whatever I am is being erased by the wind, lost in clouds and snow. Where lies the prefect empty mirror? Where falls the condor feather? How silent is the snow and ice? How thin is the blue canopy of sky? Sebastian is already at work. He has chosen a place for the ceremony near the shoreline.
A more cynical reader could easily approach this work with a heavy does of skepticism, dismissing Williams’ involvement in the Q’ero community as self-righteous or exploitative, as he is a white man publishing a book about his experiences. I can be such a reader at times, but I honestly did not feel that sort of vibe from this book. It truly seems like Willliams is doing good work with the Q’ero and is personally invested beyond getting a good story to publish. Sebastian’s role is not diminished in the book, and Williams has included a note from Sebastian at the end. Williams founded the non-profit Ayniglobal “to further his mission and honour the commitment he made with Sebastian”. The mission of Ayniglobal is to “protect and preserve traditional indigenous cultures and ancestral lands including people, animals, plants and water systems”. Williams and Sebastian are currently on a tour to share the teachings of the Q’ero. Williams does offer “sacred journey” tours, but these appear to be in  cooperation with the Q’ero and in line with Sebastian’s desire to spread the Q’ero teachings.
The Light of the Andes is something of a sequel to The Andean Codex, which I have not yet read. I don’t think it’s necessary to read The Andean Codex first, but I think doing so would give one better background knowledge of the issues discussed in The Light of the Andes. I’ve added The Andean Codex to my TBR pile.

The Bottom Line:  Another reader might have a more cynical attitude towards William’s involvement with the Q’ero, but he comes across as sincere in this book. A good story if you want to learn more about the Indigenous Q’ero spirituality that has grown over centuries around the Andes in Peru, or if you have a deep love of mountains.

Further Reading: 

Review: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Author: Ruth Ozeki
Title: A Tale for the Time Being
Format/Source: Hardcover/library 
Published: March 2013
Publisher:Viking
Length: 403 pages
Genre: Contemporary + splash of magical realism
Why I Read: Canadian and Japanese characters/setting + pretty cover + on my radar
Read If You’re: A fan of Haruki Murakami, the genre, or Japan
Quote: “Or maybe none of these things will happen except in my mind and yours, because, like I told you, together we’re making magic, at least for the time being” (5).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

The cover of A Tale for the Time Being caught my eye. Bright, bold, clean, and elegant, it stood out on the express shelf at the library. I had put it on my TBR list because the description mentions the 2011 Touhoku tsunami. I decided to sign it out because I’m off to Japan soon and want to read more Japanese-related literature. Though the tsunami is a part of the novel, it’s more of a background framing device than the primary focus on the novel. The story alternates between two storylines: the first-person narrative of Japanese schoolgirl Nao and the third-person narrative of Canadian author Ruth. Ruth finds Nao’s diary washed up on the shores of the remote British Columbian island where she lives (the tsunami comes into play as Ruth wonders how the diary could have reached her). Nao fills the diary with thoughts on her difficult life, while Ruth becomes absorbed in finding out what ultimately happened to Nao. Nao’s tale spans generations, including stories of her suicidal father, her Buddhist nun great-grandmother and her deceased kamikaze grand-uncle. Ruth’s story is less enticing than Nao’s as she functions primarily as a receptacle for Nao’s story. Regardless, the story captured by attention and I read at least 75 pages at a time. I only made three notes about this book. But, now that I’m ready to reflect, there is a lot about this novel to comment on (I think this is my longest review to date!).

This book had many components that, when combined, create the sort of story I enjoy digging into. Some of the components are:

  • Observant and introspective narrators
  • Few but strong characters with deep relationships
  • Zen philosophy and practice
  • Vibrant settings in Japan and remote British Columbia
  • Exploration of the reader-writer relationship
  • Japanese involvement in WWII
  • Minor elements of magical realism (ex. ghosts)

Each of these components alone are perhaps not enough to truly capture my interests. The first two points are what create a novel’s hook for me. I love this type of story, where the central character or two is a reflective observer, sharing thoughts both mundane and profound about themselves and the world around them. Maybe that’s why I have trouble connecting with books like The Girls at the Kingfisher Club.

There are some very dark parts of this book, dealing as it does with nasty incidences of bullying, depression and suicide. I felt very uncomfortable during the height of Nao’s bullying and had a hard time accepting that this could be someone’s reality. Thankfully, Nao’s relationship with Jiko (spiritual, philosophical, grandmotherly) balanced the dark parts of the story for me, made them more bearable, as I think it did for Nao.

A lot of the aspects of A Tale for the Time Being that I enjoyed can also be found in the works of Haruki Murakami, one of my favourite authors. Perhaps I enjoy this book so much because it reminds me of my favourite Murakami novel, Kafka on the Shore. It’s not that I like A Tale for the Time Being because it emulates Murakami; I like both of these novels because I like this type of story. Some similarities between the two that I like include:

  • Thoughtful young person struggling to find their place in Japanese society
  • Connection to old wars gone by
  • Touches of magical realism
  • Two interweaving storylines, one in first-person and one in third-person*

Personally, I connected emotionally to Kafka but not to Nao. Kafka is so similar to me, while Nao has few experiences to which I can relate. This is why, and I emphasize again for me, Kafka on the Shore is a five-star novel while A Tale for the Time Being is a four-star novel. For another reader, Ozeki’s story could be the one she deeply connects with.

I loved old Jiko and would have liked to read more about her. The book description states “[Nao] wants to accomplish one thing: to recount the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Zen Buddhist nun, in the pages of her secret diary. The diary, Nao’s only solace, is her cry for help to a reader whom she can only imagine.” Nao’s documentation of Jiko’s life is a framing device through which Nao tells her own life story. Jiko has a prominent role in the story, but the book is Nao’s story. Nao expresses great pride in her great-grandmother’s life, but the reader only learns about Jiko’s final stages of life. I would have loved to hear more about Jiko’s younger days, as a feminist radical, and how (the why is briefly discussed) she transitioned to a Buddhist priest.  Jiko is not the main character in the novel, but she is the most fascinating to me and I would have been happy to read more about her.

Ruth’s story has less plot than Nao’s, but I found her story calming and grounding even though it has moments of stress. I think this is because I can picture myself in Ruth’s position, out on this remote island living in a beautiful but discontent state of solitude. In Ruth, the reader encounters encounters a blurring of fiction and reality. Even from the sparse author description on the book, I recognized similarities between Ruth-narrator and Ruth-author. I wondered how closely the two are related (as I did with Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), but I didn’t investigate further until after finishing the novel. With A Tale for the Time Being, we find an author who openly acknowledges how much of herself is in the fictional Ruth. Of course, the book is first and foremost a novel. I have been conditioned not to make sweeping correlations between fiction and reality based on what I’ve read in a novel**. Therefore, I find it fascinating when an author clearly recreates herself as a character in her own work of fiction. Here are some of Ozeki’s comments on including a version of herself in the novel (these quotes also speak to how the tsunami influenced the book):

“At that point I realized that the book I’d written was not relevant anymore, and I needed to do something to address and respond to the events in Japan. Actually it was my husband who came up with the idea. He said, “Why don’t you put yourself in the book?” And that would give you a voice to use to respond to these events in a more direct way.” (Goodreads Interview)

“The novel is told as a kind of dialogue with two interleaved voices, Nao and the Reader. I realized that Nao’s voice was still fine. The problem was the Reader I’d written. So I unzipped the manuscript, threw away that Reader and stepped into the role myself, as the character of Ruth. Somehow, stepping into the role as a semi-fictional version of myself seemed to be the only way of responding to the magnitude of the disaster, and once I did this, the writing came very, very quickly […] The character of Ruth in this book is me.” (Book Slut Interview

Some final notes: The book contains a handful of experiments in typography. In one instance, Ruth imagines what ‘temporal stuttering’ would like if it were typed (228). Finally, my favourite passage in the book described “the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling” (180). I think it deserves to be quoted in its entirety, so skip if you’d rather read it in its natural habitat!

It’s the cold fish dying in your stomach feeling. You try to forget about it, but as soon as you do, the fish starts flopping around under your heart and reminds you that something truly horrible is happening. Jiko felt like that when she learned that her only son was going to be killed in the war. I know, because I told her about the fish in my stomach, and she said she knew exactly what I was talking about, and that she had a fish, too, for many years. In fact, she said she had lots of fishes, some that were small like sardines, some that were medium-sized like carp, and other ones that were as big as a bluefin tuna, but the biggest fish of all belonged to Haruki #1, and it was more the size of a whale. She also said that after she became a nun and renounced the world, she learned how to open up her heart so that the whale could swim away. I’m trying to learn how to do that too. (180)

The Bottom Line: I enjoyed this book particularly for the introspective narrative style. The bulk of the story describes the difficulties of an American-Japanese schoolgirl from her point of view, so if that sort of thing particularly disinterests you I would avoid this book. I strongly recommend A Tale for the Time Being if you appreciate observant narrators, Haruki Murakami novels, or Japanese culture.

Further Reading: 

*Though Ozeki’s novel is far less surreal and the connection between the storylines far more straightforward.

**I attribute this particularly to The Lord of the Rings and The Fault in Our Stars. Tolkien vehemently disliked anyone trying to find allegorical meaning in his work. Tolkien famously wrote in his foreword to The LOTR, “I think that many confuse applicability with allegory, but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author”. Regarding TFIOS, I have been a fan of the vlogbrothers and John Green’s writing since 2007. Green has always been very adamant (and rightly so) that his book is a work of fiction. As he writes in the author’s note to TFIOS, “neither novels or their readers benefit from attempts to divine whether any facts hide inside a story. Such efforts attack the very idea that made-up stories can matter, which is sort of the foundational assumption of our species”. I generally agree with both Tolkien and Green’s sentiments. I’m not immune to correlating fiction and reality when I think my reading of story will benefit from doing so, but I prefer to let a work of fiction stand for itself.

Review: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine


Author: Genevieve Valentine
Title: The Girls at the Kingfisher Club
Format/Source: eBook/ARC
Published: June 2014
Publisher: Atria Books
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Fairy tale reworking/fiction
Why I Read: 12 Dancing Princesses +Roaring Twenties!
Read If You’re: Interested in fairy tales or sister relationships
Rating:  ★★★ [ratings guide]
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.
GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Book Depository

In The Girls at the Kingfisher Club, Genevieve Valentine sets the fairy tale of the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” in New York during the 1920s. The titular girls are twelve daughters of an awful man who wishes only to rise up in New York society. He keeps the girls locked up in the house, hiding the reminders of his wife’s failure to produce a son. He communicates only rarely with Jo, the eldest daughter, who is in charge of her sisters and organizes the nightly dancing. Her sisters call her the General for her controlling, cold behaviour. The father decides it’s the time the girls were married off, and this is where the story kicks off. The narrative is told in third-person, primarily from the perspective of Jo.

I was initially apprehensive towards the style, as it’s not the kind I’m used to. It felt odd to me – choppy, sparse description, lots of parentheses – but I came to appreciate it once I settled into the rhythm. I do like the use of bracketed asides. At first I thought there were too many, but they level out and Valentine nearly always uses them to strong effect (to convey character, share a snippy piece of dialogue, etc.). The prose is very bare, focusing on the characters and their actions, their thoughts conveyed as part of their behaviour. In this manner the book feels like a fairy tale, which often just relay the action of the story. This is not a criticism – I liked that the story, despite being a novel and a modern reworking, still felt like a fairy tale due to its style and plot. There were lots of bits of prose where I thought “That’s a great line!”, and I enjoyed reading about the sisters’ interactions (how they act with each other, how they act with the men with whom they dance).

However, the bare prose was cause for disappointment in another area. I was expecting a story where the era was as much of a character as the girls. This is not the case. It felt like the twenties were used as a setting just to give the girls a reason to go out dancing every night, although the decade is crucial to the plot beyond this. For me, the story didn’t truly feel as though it was set in the twenties, despite the use of keywords such as bob-haired, Charleston, and feather headbands. Perhaps the sense of being set in the twenties conflicts with the sense of the story being a fairy tale. I just didn’t feel it.

I was prepared to embrace this book, as it has all the elements of a story I love. But something kept me from becoming completely enthralled. I didn’t feel pulled towards the story, though I didn’t ever feel like I should stop reading. Perhaps it’s the focalization of the story through Jo, who I never felt connected with, though I understood and sympathized with her actions. Or maybe it’s that the prose style, which I admired from a technical point of view, didn’t resonate with me emotionally. It could be that I never felt the twenties vibe which I was looking forward to. Whatever it was, something prevented this story from resonating with me. But, I liked reading this book. I don’t think it’s a bad book. Perhaps another reader might be able to connect with it.

The Bottom Line: Something prevented me from deeply enjoying this book, though I can’t quite pinpoint why. However, it was an enjoyable read. Don’t read it because it’s set in the Roaring Twenties or because you’re looking for a deep story to connect with – read it because you love a fairy tale.

Review: The One & Only by Emily Giffin


Author: Emily Giffin
Title: The One & Only
Format/Source: Paperback/ARC
Published: May 2014
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Chick lit
Why I Read:Won through GoodReads First Reads (unfamiliar with Giffin; description had potential)
Read If You’re: In need of some football-themed chick lit and can overlook awful handling of rape
Rating:  ★★ [ratings guide]
I received a complimentary copy from the publisher through GoodReads First Reads in exchange for my honest review.
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon 

I read this book in one sitting. I haven’t done that for a very long time. Normally, I would take that as an indication that a book is good. I think that’s why I initially rated it three stars on GoodReads – “If I read 400 pages in one evening, it must be good on some level!”. Upon reflection, I think it was more like “I can’t look away from this drama unfolding before me”. Full disclosure: I didn’t realize this novel would be chick lit. From the description on GoodReads, it sounded like it had potential to be an intriguing character study (along the lines of The Casual Vacancy). I hadn’t read anything by Emily Giffin and chick lit is not my usual fare. I may read one or two such novels every few years when I want something very fun and light. This book is ‘chick lit’, I think, but unlike any I’ve read before.

I liked the beginning of the book. I like the use of a funeral as a framing device, allowing the reader to be introduced as they react to death. I liked the friendship between Lucy and Shea (hands up if you’d rather have read Lucy’s perspective). Their relationship was realistic and pure, not one-sided, not too catty. When crap hits the fan, I was pleased that Shea makes the right choice.

The book description refers to an unexpected tragedy leading to a sudden upheaval. That tragedy (the funeral) is revealed on the first page, so it’s not nearly as dramatic as the description makes it out. Shea decides she needs to improve her life. The book is probably longer than it could be. I found the second quarter (between Shea deciding she needs to improve her life and those decisions actually panning out) a bit drawn out, but it’s an easy read so I blazed through the slow parts. Shea spectacularly transforms her life with none of the expected drawbacks, which was difficult for me to accept (details discussed below the spoiler cut). Having Shea drunk dial twice as a plot mechanism also irked me. Both times it felt awkward and unrealistic, a poor way to push the story forward. Once I might have forgiven, but twice felt silly.

Beyond the sometimes unbelievable and sometimes slow plot, two aspects of this book disturbed me, both of which could be considered spoilers. For those of you who wish to avoid more specific spoilers, suffice to say there is an uncomfortable romantic relationship at the heart of the book and terrible handling of a character accused of rape.

Please noteThe remainder of this review contains spoilers. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

Back to Shea’s life transformation – she breaks up with her dull boyfriend to no consequence, quickly starts dating hot Dallas Cowboys quarterback without a hitch (I think they knew each other through college), and lands her dream job, virtually without issue. How her job plays out throughout the novel was the most unrealistic for me. A tough, old-school newspaper editor hires her to report on her own beloved team, even after he goes on and on about being unbiased in reporting. This felt like the author was attempting to manufacture conflict. I couldn’t believe that Shea would actually find herself in such a job. I expected her to get the reporting job, but not for her own team. Talk about too good to be true. In the end, there’s little consequence in anything related to the job. The controversy that could have been stirred up there dies a slow death and isn’t really resolved.

I don’t know what to make of Coach Carr and Shea. The age difference is not a problem for me. The relationship becomes uncomfortable when you factor in…

  1. Carr’s wife has just died
  2. He’s Shea’s best friend’s dad
  3. He served as substitute father figure to Shea
  4. Shea hero-worships him to an obsessive extent (I think this hero-worship was supposed to recognized as ‘love’ when Shea finally admits it, but this is unclear) 

Carr felt more like a father figure to me so the romance has undertones of creepiness, even if Shea and Carr are very cute with each other. If you removed the four factors above, I think it could have developed into a sweet, sexy relationship, something a little different, but then I guess it wouldn’t have been worth writing about because there wouldn’t be any conflict. Lucy’s initial reaction was believable, but her about-face at the end of the novel was not. I guess that’s what one has to expect in this genre.

Far more disturbing than Carr and Shea’s relationship is the handling of rape accusations against Ryan. At first I thought maybe Giffin was just writing how the scenario unfortunately might have played out in the real, but the conclusions Shea draws about Ryan – that he’s incapable of rape, that he just needs counselling – are unacceptable in today’s climate, especially in a genre that caters to women! I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Carr and Shea dismiss the girl who brought forward the accusation because she’s known as something of a troublemaker. That’s an awful message to send. I was glad Shea was upset when she realized Carr did nothing many years ago when a young woman told him Ryan had raped her, but when she comes to same conclusion as Carr (that Ryan couldn’t have done it) especially AFTER he physically assaulted her – I was furious. She thinks he’s a great guy who has a few problems that just need to be sorted out. Disgusting.

The Bottom Line: I don’t know how much football-themed chick lit there is, so this book could be filling a niche. The relationship between [redacted] and the responses to rape allegations could easily be enough to put off some readers, myself included.