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A Woman of Thirty
A Woman of Thirty
by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.90
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2.0 out of 5 stars Ludicrous and disjointed, November 28, 2014
This review is from: A Woman of Thirty (Paperback)
Even when I don't like a book, I don't usually give anything less than five stars to recognized classics, but this novel is such an obvious hack job that I feel guilty in giving it even two stars rather than just one.

The structure of the novel, if we can call it that, is a series of formative episodes in the life of Julie d'Aiglemont. The first describes how she came to marry her husband, and the last brings the reader to her death. So far so good, but the problem is that to be called a structure, the object must somehow hold itself up.

The truth is that in this novel, we find nothing in early episodes that supports what we find in later sections. The beginning of one story does not follow from the end of the previous story. People fall in love, are born, and die for no apparent reason. The whole fails the test of logic and falls apart.

OK, one could argue that life is like that. Life does not follow an Aristotelian progression unified in time or place. If this novel were an attempt at presenting life from a different perspective, the way the novels of Proust and Virginia Woolf do, or even the more approachable novels of Indian author R.K. Narayan, I would accept it on those terms.

But "A Woman of Thirty" is not an abstract rethinking of how to represent the lives of people. It clearly aims to be a standard novel ranking with those of other authors and set within Balzac's Comedie Humaine, complete with characters we've met before and will encounter again.

As such it fails.

The only two things that earn it an extra star are the opening scene where the daughter falls in love, against her father's advice, with her husband, and a later story about murderers and pirates. That particular episode is ludicrous and, unusually for Balzac who tends to shuns that particular contrivence popular among nineteenth century novelists, full of unbeliveable coincidences. But at least it has action & violence, which is also something unusual in Balzac.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


End of History and the Last Man
End of History and the Last Man
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $11.02

5.0 out of 5 stars Wrong in the best way..., November 18, 2014
The arrogance of the title kept me for too many years from reading this book. I still disagree that history has an end (a steady state) or that there is such a thing as the last man, but I was very wrong to put off reading this for so long.

Francis Fukuyama looks at history and says it's going to a specific destination. That's wrong. But the insights he brings as he defends this thesis are so clever and so deep that his conclusion, wrong or right, is neither here nor there.

When he speaks of history reaching an end, he means "end" as the end which justifies the means, not "end" as is the end of a story. And this is where (I think) he is completely wrong: history is not history towards anything. History is Darwinian but not in the "might makes right" vein which led to such perversions as eugenics. History is Darwinian in that it is ever changing and always adapting to what is going on now.

The foundation of Fukuyama's theory of history is that the Last Man in History is different from the First Man who made History. Economic theory takes reason as the defining characteristic of man's behaviour. Man wants to maximize his happiness and minimize his pain. Fukuyama credits Locke and Hobbes with these insights, but he then goes back to Plato to look for something else that might motivate man and better explain history. He is looking for a third part to man's soul, so to speak, a part that motivates him in a way that neither seeks pleasure nor avoid pain and suffering. After all, Man shares these two aspects of his being with animals. The First Man of History must have had something else prodding him on.

Fukuyama goes back to Plato and his theory of the tripartite soul. The third part of the soul is what Plato calls "thymos" to which Fukuyama comes back again and again. Thymos is the part of ourselves that yearns for recognition by other men. According to this theory of history, history is made by men who are willing to risk death (an idea Fukuyama credits to Hegel) in order to win something as insubstantial and abstract as a flag or as honour. This thymos also motivates man into fighting for liberal democracy, because all men and women in a liberal democracy are recognized as equal by each other. They all have some say in how they are ruled. The master isn't fighting for recognition from other masters anymore. We are all masters--the Last Man is his own master within a liberal democracy and that is the end of history.

Man is driven towards democracy not because he wants wealth or because he fears the master's whip. We want democracy because we want to have a say in what happens to us, even if it costs us comfort and brings us some pain. That history is driven by thymotic values is a profound insight. As he argues his point, Fukuyama undermines along the way the purely economic theories of history (other things motivate us besides wealth) as well as Henry Kissenger's still enormously influential theories of Realpolitik among self-interested nation states (in a world of realpolitik, why hasn't the USA taken over Canada already?).

Nevertheless, I remain unconvinced of Fukuyama's thesis. I see no end to history and no last man because I don't see a steady state of affairs. Certainly, liberal democracy is the most desirable of the political systems we know and Fukuyama doesn't imply that because liberal democracy is now prevalent, and becoming universal, nothing else will happen. Of course history will roll on in that sense, and Fukuyama never dismissed the idea that events like 9/11 would continue to happen. But he thinks that a world of democracies would be necessarily stable, and this is where I disagree.

Fukuyama never takes into account the inherant instability of large systems. This chaotic movement of complex systems is why we cannot predict the weather, it's why we cannot predict stock prices, it's why new ideas and technologies disrupt societies.

The world is about as large as it gets as far as our own lives are concerned (the rest of the Cosmos being outside our timescale). The Roman Empire fell and Western Civilization only just barely survived. China's greatest novel, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, begins with the sentence "Empires wax, empires wane." While history might not be as cyclical as the Romance implies, neither is it teleological as Fukuyama contends.

Some times and eras are true Golden Ages. India achieved in the past a degree of spirituality as yet unsurpassed. The dark ages humbled Western Man. Greece gave us Reason, and Rome Power. China invented the meritocratic civil service (that's what Confucian studies was all about). Yet these Great Powers waned. The world is a chaotic place, a dangerous place, and it is also a magnificent place.

If nothing else Fukuyama brings reason and a certain abstract, intellectual magnificence to our understanding of history. At least for that reason, The End of History is well worth reading.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Tuf Voyaging
Tuf Voyaging
by George R. R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.93
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4.0 out of 5 stars Tuf: vegetarian lover of cats and shaper of planets, November 15, 2014
This review is from: Tuf Voyaging (Paperback)
Before becoming big with Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin was a working science fiction writer published in old fashioned pulp or digest magazines. I first saw Martin's creation Haviland Tuf on the cover of the 12 October 1981 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, the same magazine that launched the careers of Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov, among others, before it changed its name from Astounding Science Fiction. That issue contained "Guardians", which introduced Tuf as a tall lanky languid ivory-white vegetarian lover of cats.

Tuf travels space in his Ark, a biological laboratory and DNA warehouse, looking for planets that can use and afford his services. The book is made up of seven stories: an introductory novella recounting how Tuf went from being a trader in treasures (actually, more like junk) to acquiring the Ark and becoming a planetary ecological engineer. There are three stand-alone stories, of which "Guardians" is one, and which appear interspaced with three stories about a planet with a runaway overpopulation problem.

Martin gives us light, entertaining stories with characters that are almost three dimensional. If you are a science fiction fan, you can't go wrong. If you are not a science fiction fan but you wonder what it's all about, you still won't go wrong. If you are coming from Game of Thrones and want more Martin, you won't go wrong. And if you want to read some Martin but Game of Thrones too long, then Tuf Voyaging is ideal.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Gobseck
Gobseck
by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $6.99
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5.0 out of 5 stars Seeing Shylock win, and almost cheering him on, November 7, 2014
This review is from: Gobseck (Paperback)
Shakespeare's Shylock utters few words and by this writer's trick, we are made to feel the economy, the careful greed, of the money lender. Balzac makes use of the same device for his money lender, Jean-Esther van Gobseck, known as Papa Gobseck. When asked direct questions, the prodigeously verbose Honoré de Balzac has Gobseck answer in short phrases or even monosyllables.

-You hold the trust?
-Possibly.
-Will you then take undue advantage of the crime the lady has just committed?
-Just so!

The main difference between Shylock and Gobseck is that Shylock loses everything in the end and we can think of him as a tragic hero complete with a tragic flaw. Gobseck on the other hand wins, so there is no reason for us to feel empathy. He goes for the pound of flesh, albeit figuratively, and ruins many clients. We should hate him, I am sure many readers do, but instead we cheer him on partly because because he is so clever, partly because he simply profits from the mistakes of others. Gobseck's gains may be excessive but they aren't entirely unfair.

For all that, Gobseck is unlovable. He isn't actually malevolant, he isn't even dishonest. He deeply respects the world. "Life is a craft, a profession, that one must take the trouble to learn" says he about about a man dying for being too sensitive and for not knowing how to overcome the adversities of life. But while understanding how the man got beaten, one of the few men form whom he held some esteem, Gobseck has no empathy for him. He simply doesn't love anything, so how can we love him?

A wonderful character to encounter in Balzac's Monde.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


The Sheltering Sky
The Sheltering Sky
DVD ~ Debra Winger
14 used & new from $16.22

5.0 out of 5 stars Despair and longing, October 23, 2014
This review is from: The Sheltering Sky (DVD)
Port (Malkovitch), Kit (Winger) and Tunner (Scott) arrive in Morocco some time after World War II. They are travelers, not tourists, they come not merely to visit and see the sights, but to live and experience the desert, the tea shops, and the souks.

Port and Kit are also looking to revive their marriage and implicitly their very lives. Port especially feels lost and Morocco for him represents a time when he thrived and grew. Salvation, he assumes, can be found here. As events develop, it is clear that Morocco cannot answer the needs of Port, Kit, or their marriage.

Tunner isn't careless but he doesn't need salvation. He lives without worry. He has money, he enjoys himself, and he readily shares his good fortune with his friends. He cares for friends and lovers. He offers Kit hope in life even as she follows her husband Port in his existential crisis.

This film has to be the epitome of the feel bad movie. It offers a difficult life lesson as it drains the viewer's soul of all desire, leaving it bare and exposed to the elements. Our longing is raised to a climax even as we realize it can never be satisfied. The sky cannot protect against wind or rain, and it is absurd to expect it to shelter us.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Capital in the Twenty-First Century
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
by Thomas Piketty
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.97
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 85% fact, 15% opinions about these facts, October 13, 2014
Like it or not, facts are facts. The distribution of wealth is clearly returning to 19th century levels, the rich really are getting richer, the middle class is shrinking, and the poor have little hope of joining the middle class.

Piketty's book is mostly an exposition of facts followed by opinions and proposals about what we should do about them.

==The Facts==

In a nutshell, the results are this: wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very few before, this changed in 1910 and by 1980 we had a strong and large middle class. However, simple economics show that these achievements are temporary and that the middle class will shrink.

Piketty looks at over two hundred years of solid data. This data is very difficult and problematic to interpret and to put in context so Piketty makes it all available online for others to examine.

The results are pretty simple and straightforward: if the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth, then capital will accumulate all by itself. Those who have capital will see it grow while those who do not possess it will never get richer.

Piketty also looks at the structure and sources of capital and how they have changed over time. Up until the mid-nineteenth century, over 90% of a nation's wealth was simply land. Return on capital was a generous, but more importantly a very steady, five per cent. With the industrial revolution, wealth and capital changed in structure. Today less than five percent of a nation's wealth is in farm land. The rest is in real estate, intellectual property, and factories.

Sources of wealth have changed as well. Obviously, if capital changes form, revenue changes its source but beyond that, the last thirty years have seen the rise of a new phenomenon: super managers whose revenue hoisted many of them out of the middle class into the top 0.1%.

But between 1910 and 1970, something interesting happened. Before that, there were the super-rich, the 1% who owned most of everything, there was a middle class of modestly wealthy home owners making up the rest of the top 10%. The poor made up the rest of the 90%. By 1950, the poor made up fifty percent, the top 1% flattened to the top 10%, and the middle class grew to forty percent. (World War I and II leveled the playing field and the wealth had to be shared as it was produced.)

Piketty also looks at where wealth arose. One of his most interesting findings is that until the 1880s and again between 1950 and 1980 (but not since then) the United States was the _most_ egalitarian place in the world. This bears repeating loudly: the USA was NUMBER ONE in fair wealth distribution. Why? Simple: in the nineteenth century, capital was farm land and farm land was cheap. But in the 1920s, the US was subject to same pressure to reform once a wealthy oligarchy appeared.

(Reality can be offensive. Piketty does point out that the southern states DID have unequal wealth distribution: a wealthy class whose capital was chattel. Slaves did form a computable capital base and provided a return that compared with the return on other types of capital. )

==The Politics==

One weakness in Piketty's book is that he almost takes it for granted that this is a bad situation. He doesn't spend much time explaining why this is undesirable. Well, he's an economist rather than a political scientist and I suppose he assumes everyone sees what he sees. Most people don't see it unfortunately, and Piketty's quips about everyone eventually paying rent to Wall Street bankers and Arab emirs aren't enough to convince opponents or even those undecided who are merely leaning towards free market capitalism.

Piketty also proposes different solutions, including many that he fully admits are unworkable: A world wealth tax for example. He points out that if all declared private assets and liabilities are added up, along with public assets and liabilities, we get a negative numbers. This implies, he jokes, that we are owned by Martians, but goes on to the real explanation: a significant portion of the world's wealth is hidden in tax havens. His second proposal is to have a wealth registry similar to a land registry.

To those who scoff at the idea, he points out that for all intents and purposes wealth has been registered in France for two hundred years and that this has benefitted the wealthy in one important way: it has cemented their property rights.

Still he realizes that his ideas are impractical, but insists they are useful. A world wealth tax might not be useful but a European wide wealth tax, or a US wide wealth tax, would bring many of the same benefits.

Finally, Piketty does NOT want government to grow. He agrees that with the current share of 30 to 40 percent of GDP, government controls a large enough share of the economy.

He wants to rich to pay more and the middle class to expand.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


Works of Love
Works of Love
by Soren Kierkegaard
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.54
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Love cannot hurt, October 10, 2014
This review is from: Works of Love (Paperback)
The command to love your neighbour is something from Christian writings that, even as an atheist, I admire and envy. Fortunately, one doesn't have to be a Christian follow this rule and I'd be much more comfortable with Christianity if it placed more emphasis on this personal and spiritual rule, and less on specific literal interpretations or injunctions.

Kierkegaard didn't find enough of the spiritual side of Christianity in the Church of Denmark. For him that church was a social club and church members simply labeled themselves Christians, without understanding what it was that a Christian had to do. So in "Works of Love", he picks apart one verse of the Bible, a verse which many Christians would say is the foundation of the religion: You shall love your neighbour as yourself (Matthew 22:39).

In picking it apart however, Kierkegaard makes us realize just how difficult it is to follow this command. Loving our neighbour implies things that we don't always realize at first. Kierkegaard takes this apparently simple sentence; he points out each key word, and makes us realize how rich in meaning it is.

+ You shall love your neighbour as YOURSELF.
+ You shall love your neighbour AS yourself.
+ You shall love your NEIGHBOUR as yourself.
+ You SHALL love.
+ YOU shall love.
+ You shall LOVE.

Do you love yourself? Isn't there a part of you that wallows in despair, shame, or fear? If you must love your neighbour as yourself, do you not also at the same time have the duty to love yourself? If you are to love your neighbour, you must therefore love yourself.

What does "AS yourself" imply? HOW do you love yourself? How should you love yourself? As much but not less as you love anything or anyone. And yet not, says Kierkegaard, as much as you should love God.

And who is your neighbour? Isn't he simply the person next to you, whoever they happen to be, whenever you happen to notice, anywhere you happen to be? The command is not to love your friends and family: that's easy. It is to love your neighbour, in other words to love anyone and everyone.

Further, you SHALL love your neighbour. No discretion is left you in the matter. It's an order, an obligation. You are not free to not love. It is a duty and because it is a duty, it rids you of the anxiety and despair from asking whether or not you _should_ love. Stop worrying, just do it.

And this obligation is laid on YOU. Never mind what your neighbour is doing, your job is to love him, it's not to tell him what to do or how to live his life.

Finally, what exactly is this action, this duty that you must carry out? It is Love. And how difficult a thing it is to do! It may seem easy to love someone, especially when we find ourselves "in love" but that isn't what the verse means. If losing your beloved pushes you to despair, that is not the Love you are commanded to feel. Because it applies to everyone and at all times, Kierkegaard deduces that neighbourly love is Eternal. Love abides.

"Works of Love" must be compared with "Fear and Trembling". This other work of Kierkegaard points out the absurdity of faith while here, he teaches us how to live in an absurd world, in a world filled with people we might not think of loving.

Nevertheless I fear Kierkegaard might have put faith above love when he chose to test his faith by sacrificing his love for Regine Olsen. He broke her heart, she married someone else, he died alone.

But who knows? Perhaps he did not sacrifice anything after all. Perhaps _all_ he felt for Regina was a burning passion, a kind of love (he points out) that contains the germ of despair and only the illusion of happiness (what a Christian might call salvation). Perhaps blinded by romantic love, he did not know how to love her *as his neighbour* and he determined that he would do that above all.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City


The Roman Republic
The Roman Republic
by Isaac Asimov
Edition: Hardcover
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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
50 used & new from $8.94

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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: $8.96
395 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 never ending 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


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