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The Roman Republic
The Roman Republic
by Isaac Asimov
Edition: Hardcover
29 used & new from $37.34

4.0 out of 5 stars A great start, but probaly full of mistakes, September 1, 2014
This review is from: The Roman Republic (Hardcover)
I have somewhere in my boxes one of Isaac Asimov's last books, his Chronology of the World. While it gets the gist of history right and it is fun to read, it's likely full of factual mistakes and long outdated views. (I'm extrapolating from those mistakes I found when reading on fourteenth century France.)

The same probably applies to Asimov's history of the Roman Republic. Asimov doesn't provide a bibliography or notes to justify this or that assertion, so we cannot refer to his history as a reliable authority. Still, he gets the gist right despite factual mistakes, and he writes in a gripping, fast paced style that is sure to engage the reader.

So, read it for fun and if you enjoy it, move on to other books on the topic.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Asimov's Chronology of the World: The History of the World From the Big Bang to Modern Times
Asimov's Chronology of the World: The History of the World From the Big Bang to Modern Times
by Isaac Asimov
Edition: Hardcover
46 used & new from $4.30

4.0 out of 5 stars Gets the gist right, but many mistakes, September 1, 2014
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Isaac Asimov was a voracious reader with an near perfect memory. He was a polymath interested in all sorts of things from science to history to technology. And while he was not a literary writer, his friendly, engaging prose is clear and impossible to misunderstand. If anyone could write a history of everything, Isaac Asimov could.

Being very interested in certain periods of early fourteenth century France, I went to read the pages on that period and found it was full of small errors, factual mistakes as well as long discredited opinions. But still, Asimov did correctly convey the gist of what the period was like in France, so I feel I can trust he did the same for the rest of the world's history between the Big Bang and the end of World War II.

So this project is not a failure. By all means, get it, read it, enjoy it. But do not refer to it as an authority. If something interests you, then move on to Wikipedia articles on the topic, and then to properly researched books.

In the end, I can forgive him his mistakes: in 1992 when he finished his Chronology, Asimov was dying (of complications from AIDS gotten through a blood transfusion) and he was not at the top of his form.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Racketeer: A Novel
The Racketeer: A Novel
by John Grisham
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $6.02
398 used & new from $0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Good, entertaining legal thriller, September 1, 2014
All of John Grisham's novel are "damn good novels" so fans will be glad to see this one is not an exception. He writes legal thrillers, usually set in the American south, that have readers turning the pages until they are done.

And Grisham often adds something else to his novel: a genuine moral dilemna. Think of "A Time To Kill" where one juror asks her colleagues (and by implication the reader) to close their eyes and imagine that the black victim of a brutal rape was a _white_ little girl: wouldn't they (we) automatically find the defendant guilty? Or think of "The Chamber" where we are left wondering if it was right to execute a repented murderer. Or "The Summons" where Grisham wonders when it's OK to trust people and when it's OK to keep secrets from them.

On this level "The Racketeer" disappoints. There is a tenuous moral dilemna about what a wrongfully convicted innocent man can do to get out of jail, but because Grisham takes his answer for granted (anything he can get away with) there is no moral tension or suspense surrounding the question. The answer is given without even the question made explicit and we cheer the hero, Malcolm Bannister, every step of the way.

Malcolm, by the way, is as bland as any of Grisham's characters but in a glorious moment of affirmative action, he has made him African American. This is not a bad thing, but if Grisham was going to feature a black attorney as a main character, I would have preferred him creating a successful one who defends mostly African Americans but has been stuck with a white client pro bono by a judge. (For instance.)

In any case, Malcolm is as one dimensional as any Grisham hero, but since the author doesn't bore us with neverending introspections or justifications, the reader will never really notice as he is zipping through a fun story with a clever plot.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Inequality for All
Inequality for All
DVD ~ Robert Reich
Price: $14.99
10 used & new from $14.53

5.0 out of 5 stars Robert Reich's "communist" diatribe, August 17, 2014
This review is from: Inequality for All (DVD)
The point of taxing the rich isn't to pay for government services, it's to remove the incentive for obscene salaries or returns and give CEOs and boards a reason to raise wages.

Median wages have gone down. For about 30 years, from 1950 to 1980, it was possible for a middle class family to buy a nice house, go on vacation, and put children through college on ONE median income. Today, two median incomes are necessary and even then, that family won't be as comfortable as it was in the 1960s.

The rich getting richer doesn't help the economy because they can only consume so much. It's the middle class that does all the spending that translates into a healthy economy. Make the middle class prosperous and expand it and you improve the economy and society.

Give tax breaks to the rich (and by rich, I mean the top 0.1%) and you help them get richer at the expense of the middle class, and without creating more demand for goods and services. Demand comes from the middle class and Ronald Reagan got it wrong: it does not trickle down.

Robert Reich's film makes these and other points forcefully and with wit. Recommended.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories: Volumes I and II: 1
Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories: Volumes I and II: 1
Offered by Random House LLC
Price: $2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Complete, August 15, 2014
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I've read some stories many times and the whole thing (both volumes) twice.

It's all of Sherlock Holmes in an easy to carry paperback edition. It's got Professor Moriarty, the Red-Headed League, the true portrayal of Dr. John Watson as a swashbuckling, womanizing retired military doctor, Mycroft Holmes, ferocious hounds on English moors, and The Woman. And if a paperback is too heavy for you, get the exact same edition on Kindle.

What more could you want? A classic.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français
Dictionnaire étymologique et historique du français
by Henri Mitterand
Edition: Paperback
6 used & new from $51.00

3.0 out of 5 stars Uninspiring, August 15, 2014
I wasn't expecting anything as massive as the Oxford English Dictionary, but for each word included I was expecting better definitions and more quotes giving example of very early usage.

This dictionary does the job it gave itself but it doesn't really seduce me into spending hours pouring over it.

It's interesting that for all the pride the French have in their language, the government isn't funding or subsidizing a French equivalent of the Oxford, something sponsored by the Académie Française. And the money isn't lacking: the sheer magnificence of the military parade each July on Bastille day is a testament to that.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Science of Discworld 4)
The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day (Science of Discworld 4)

5.0 out of 5 stars Science wins, July 13, 2014
The Omnian sect refuses to accept that the world is a disc resting on the back of four elephants who in turn rest on the back of a space turtle. In spite of all evidence, they stick to their outdated belief that the world is round. While experimenting with high energy magic, the wizards of Unseen University have accidently created such a world in a magicless bubble, which they call Roundworld. The Omnians want Roundworld and they want the Wizards to cease all their sacrilegious activities.

Science, as the Science of Discworld series presents it, is a means for understanding the world around us. We live in a causal world where everything happens for a reason (Science of Discworld 1) but those causes are behind us. Science is predictive it the sense that causes have effects, it is not predictive in the sense that it will predict the future.

From Science's point of view, the world has no purpose. Paradoxically, we human beings love stories, in fact we absolutely need stories (Science of Discworld 2) or else we will never understand the raw data the universe bombards towards us. We call these stories "models" and we build models of the universe that are simple enough for us to understand but complex enough to predict how the universe works. Simpler models might be useful even when they are wrong. We say the sun rises and sets, even though we know the earth is spinning on its axis. We need myths and legends and we need Shakespeare to give some sort of spiritual meaning to our lives. From the power of narrative, we get the energy to study the world.

But Science does not confuse these myths and legends with reality. When we impose a purpose or a direction to what the universe is doing, we aren't doing science anymore, we are doing theology (The Science of Discworld 3). When we set on the universe a purpose outside itself, while accepting that we can only study the universe as it presents itself, we are giving up on the quest for understanding. Whenever a puzzle seems too difficult, we just have to tell ourselves "Ah well, there's a reason for that but we'll never understand it".

It's one thing for the Omnian to believe in things, but it's quite another for them to insist they can impose their view on Science. They believe, without evidence, in a higher purpose and therefore any study of the world must comply with that higher purpose. And while science needs stories to jump start itself, it absolutely requires that these stories match reality and not the other way around.

Because the study of the world bothers them, Omnians want us to stop studying the world. Musn't we fight this? This is a battle Science never wanted to fight but for humanity to move forward, it is one Science must win. The Science of Discworld IV: Judgement Day brings the epic battle between Science and Superstition to its conclusion.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets
by Simon Singh
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $17.61
69 used & new from $4.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Homer's other Pi, and other ninja stealth teaching tools, July 12, 2014
This book is for people who know the Simpsons and don't know math. (Or it's for people who know math but don't know the Simpsons but I suspect the former group is larger than the latter.) As such it's a fun way to learn something about how beautiful and fun mathematics is.

Most people hate mathematics. Children tremble at the thought of fractions and then grow up into adults who think percentages can add up to a number greater than 100. Anything that gets people interested in math deserves our applause.

Singh gives us an inside look at how the Simpsons TV show is written. Many on the writing team are serious math geeks with Ph. Ds. They know their stuff and they insert in the TV show many odd references that are easy to miss. For instance a series of diagrams Homer draws on a blackboard imply that donuts and spheres are identical. Anyone with a bit of college math knows this is wrong, but Homer is drawing the donuts and he understands that to make it true, he must take a bite out of the donut to turn it into a sphere. Singh's book explains why this is interesting.

But do people want to bother learning why this is interesting? Those who do can read the book, and those who don't won't even notice since Homer's blackboard is visible only for a few moments. Enough for those in the know to think "Hey, what was that?" but not enough to bother the rest of the audience. And yet, the little in-joke is there if they ever change their mind.

Stealth math trumps rammed-downed-your-throat math...

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Of Human Bondage (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
Of Human Bondage (Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics)
by W. Somerset Maugham
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.54
173 used & new from $0.01

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An ordinary book for ordinary people, July 7, 2014
Whatever age you happen to be, if you are hit with despair at how meaningless, trite and ordinary your life is, then I urge you to get a grip on yourself and read this book. You need to learn how to live for yourself, and you need to do so without becoming selfish.

I can think of no other book that better celebrates the joy of plodding along. I can think of no other book that better celebrates the ordinary. Genius is its own reward but what about the 99.9% of us who have no talent or genius? The answer is in this book: forget talent, forget impossible ambitions, and find your passions in the joy of everyday life.

This is the hard reality: yes, we are special like every one else; but only a very few are truly special. We might work our fingers to the bone and suffer for our aims but what will be become of us? Read this central quote from the novel, and think about it.

"You have a certain manual dexterity. With hard work and perseverance there is no reason why you should not become a careful, not incompetent painter. You would find hundreds who painted worse than you, hundreds who painted as well. I see no talent in anything you have shown me. I see industry and intelligence. You will never be anything but mediocre."

This is heartless! But the man who said it, well, he paused and he painfully added this:

"But if you were to ask me my advice, I should say: take your courage in both hands and try your luck at something else. It sounds very hard, but let me tell you this: I would give all I have in the world if someone had given me that advice when I was your age and I had taken it. It is cruel to discover one's mediocrity only when it is too late. It does not improve the temper"

If you are a cashier in a grocery store or if you input data for a living, so what? Find joy in living, not in thinking you are somehow " talented" or "special".

One of things in life that makes me happy is once in a while writing these Amazon reviews. They are what they are and that is all that they are. (Please excuse my parody of Popeye.) They aren't what you'll find in The New Yorker or in any serious literary review. But I am OK with that.

Anyone who is down in the dumps about how "ordinary" their life is will get something out of this book. In extreme cases, it might even keep them alive. As trite and ordinary as this slightly insipid novel is, isn't that (paradoxically) extraordinary?

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inevitable a century ago, but could it happen today?, March 19, 2014
With this history of the years leading to World War I, Margaret MacMillan wants to convince readers that the Great War didn't have to happen, that there was nothing inevitable about the conflict, in short that leaders who had stepped back from the brink so often before could very well have stepped back from the chasm again in 1914.

She has a point. Who would have gone to war if they had understood the loss and suffering that actually occured? But despite the warning of the American Civil War, no leader had imagined what was in store. When war came, the watch word was « Back home by Christmas! ».

We all know Hindenburg and the Kaiser, Churchill and Lloyd George, and Bismarck before them. But MacMillan devotes most of her pages to other actors whose interactions and designs shaped the war many years before it actually happened.

For instance, we meet Alfred von Tirpitz who built the German Navy and thus began and arms race with the United Kingdom, one that the British Navy could not lose and one that Germany could not really afford.

We meet Alfred von Schlieffen who devised the two theater plan to allow Germany to fight on two fronts at once. After his death, the lack of ability of his successor, Helmut von Moltke, ensured that if Germany did declare war on one front, war would automatically happen on the another front as well.

Chapter after chapter, we meet diplomats and generals who approached problems piecemeal. Sometimes they were geniuses with no one of comparable talent to succeed them (Bismarck and Schlieffen come to mind) and sometimes they were ordinary people who approached a problem without thinking the consequences through (Tirpitz).

And in the end, over what? Over one assassination by a small group of nationalists in an obscure backwater of Europe? Of course not. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand did spark World War One but it lit a pyre that had been years in the building.

MacMillan insists the Great War could have been avoided but her work, to me, shows the exact opposite. If Europe was on brink of war so often that avoiding World War One would simply have been stepping back from the brink once more, doesn't that just show that had they stepped back, they would later have found themselves again on the brink? And so on and so forth...

No one seemed to ask what Europe was doing to find itself so often on the brink of war. And thus,the war was inevitable.

But what of today? Could another world war happen? The message I take from MacMillan's magnificent book is not that World War One could have been avoided, it is rather that World War Three can happen but that we can avoid it.

To do that, the first question we need to ask ourselves is why, today, the Great Powers of China, the European Union, Russia, and the United States so often take positions that risk escalating to a conflict.

Vincent Poirier, Québec City

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