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Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas
Price: $2.99

5.0 out of 5 stars What yarns will people spin around tomorrow's campfires?, May 18, 2015
This review is from: Cloud Atlas (Amazon Instant Video)
Science fiction films are getting better. As enjoyable as it is, even Star Trek makes for pretty lame SF: every alien species speaks perfect American English and yet Chekov never overcame is Russian (RAAASHun) accent.

There are only a half dozen or so films that really qualify as serious science fiction and I rank Cloud Atlas at number three, after 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner.

(In some ways the very best hard SF film ever made is Terminator because it is, like all good science fiction, completely self-consistent. So much so that a very proud and smug James Cameron had one of the characters make the point in the film. But I digress.)

Like 2001:A Space Odyssey, Cloud Atlas leaps from era to era. We follow slave colonies in the nineteenth century, a young composer in the early twentieth century, an investigative journalist in 1972, a publisher hounded by a murderer author in 2012, the executed leader of a slave revolt in 2144, and the world her sacrifice made possible centuries later.

The stories feature the same actors (among others Halle Berry, Tom Hanks, and an unrecognizable Hugh Grant who finally shows the world he can play other characters besides romantic leads) reappearing in different roles across different times. The frame story, which is also the core story, starts with a sage old man who yarns a tale in a language we cannot recognize but cannot fail to understand, a kind of future English where people verb familiar nouns and they noun their doings. By the fire the old man tells the tale, and we jump in and out of his tale and of other tales he isn’t yarning but that happened just the same.

By the end, every story is resolved to a satisfactory dramatic conclusion. Sometimes the ending is happy, sometimes sad, sometimes unfair and tragic. We are left perplexed and wondering "What does this all mean?" and there is no simple easy answer.

In so many ways, this film beats 2001 and Blade Runner hands down. It avoids the heavy, grand, almost religious overtones of humanity's destiny that fill Kubrick's work and instead offers introspective insights into what destiny awaits the film's characters, and by extension what destiny awaits you and me. And while Cloud Atlas doesn't make me feel as much empathy for any of its characters as I did for the dying Roy Batty in Blade Runner, it does make me look at more aspects of what it means to be human than does Blade Runner.

But I cannot claim to understand Cloud Atlas completely. I don't mean that it is confusing and I am not condemning the Wachowski Siblings of being unclear. Quite the opposite: Cloud Atlas offers so much that it requires repeated reflection to gain insights. You've got to think about it a lot, you've got to forget about it, and you need to come back to it to get everything that it says. You need to live with it to understand the yarn that an old man will spin around a campfire a few centuries from now.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution
by Francis Fukuyama
Edition: Paperback
Price: $13.49
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Where did our liberal democratic institutions come from? And where could they go?, May 9, 2015
The title is no accident, I'm sure.

In the early 19th century naturalists developped the classification of living things to such an extent that their work is one of the great achievements of human history. The unit was the "specie" and the resulting immense catalogue of living things recorded begged the question: "Where did all these species come from?". The answer came in a flash to Charles Darwin in the 1830s as a result of his travels across the world and his systematic first hand study of plants and animals. He worked on writing out his answer, Natural Selection, for thirty years and finally published "The Origin of Species".

For some reason, many intelligent well-read people make the mistake of thinking Darwin's work proves that somehow the Ascent of Man was inevitable and the process of evolution has a direction. It does not, and biologists agree that evolution is largely contingent, a sort of continuous random walk. Evolution might be evolution-from-something but it isn't evolution-towards-anything. Where you are does depend on where you've been and it imposes a constraint on where you can go, but it doesn't decide if at the crossroad you'll go left, right, straight on or turn back. That part is contingent.

And so with Fukuyama's 2011 book "The Origins of Political Order". We've studied history, we've seen the rise and fall of nations and empires. We've had a go at now discredited economic theories of what caused these. But still we too often think that the rise of Liberal Democracy is somehow inevitable, or that all political development tends towards Liberal Democracy, just as we too often wrongly think the evolution of man is the end-all and be-all of evolution.

Francis Fukuyama himself is guilty of promoting this thesis in his otherwise brilliant and insightful 1992 book "The End of History and the Last Man" where he passionately argues that once a society has achieved a stable form of Liberal Democratic government, there is nothing left to improve, that the process of developing social and political institutions has reached its satisfying conclusion.

Fukuyama is now older and wiser; he's outgrown his youthful exhuberance and he has reconsidered the conclusions towards which his earlier insights had led him.

From the start, a humbler Fukuyama recognizes that because of the relatively small number of cases available for study, it isn't possible to create a complete, or predictive theory of political development. But working with what is in fact available, we can tease out insights and clues as to how successful societies develop the instiutions that characterize them and in which their people live and thrive.

Institutions form the foundation of Fukuyama's ideas of political development, more precisely he studies the relationships among three instututions: the state, the rule of law, and accountable government. Says Fukuyama "A successful modern liberal democracy combines all three sets of institutions in a stable balance."

He surveys history to look for examples of these institutions and others coming into existence then thriving or failing. He looks at India, China, and Russia. Fukuyama looks at Hungary and examines why despite the king having had his own Magna Carta imposed on him, the kingdom never developed accountable government. He looks at Denmark and studies how that kingdom did develop accountable government and that this came from the king without a Magna Carta and at the expense of the aristocracy (the force was peasant literacy brought from Lutherism and having the Bible translated in Danish).

The author saves the study of England for last for the reason I mentioned above: English Speaking Peoples tend to see the rise of their liberal democracy as inevitable. Fukuyama shows that it was contingent on many factors coming together and that parliament (government) the king (the executive or the state) and the rule of law balanced the other two. Each institution was strong but none was ever able to fully dominate the other two. The crucial idea of balance comes through.

I find only a few things wrong with the book, and even then they are merely cosmetic. I don't know why Fukuyama bothered with diagrams: they add nothing to the author's wonderfully clear prose and they risk oversimplifying his ideas.

The other defect is only a minor sin: Fukuyama has a knack for occasionally coming up with truly ugly words: "repatrimonialization" (p 81) and "subinfeudate" (p 107). I'll leave you the pleasure of finding out what these words mean.

(At least when Winston Churchill used the word "depotabilize" while quoting one of his memos in his World War II memoirs, he had the decency to apologize. Perhaps Fukuyama constructs these ungainly technical monstrosities because of an unwarranted envy social scientists feel towards the more mathematical hard sciences. Pish posh! History is history and physics is physics. If no word exists and a writer can't come up with a good one, he should simply use a phrase.)

On the other hand, Fukuyama shows tremendous courage in bluntly articulating hard truths. One in particular deserves to be singled out: a major problem liberal democracy faces today is that of the weak state. It is tremendously difficult for stable liberal democracies to make major corrections to social problems. Witness the United States inability to deal with healthcare. Conversely, strong states with little or no rule of law and where government is not accountable can simply run roughshod over anyone opposing their will. Witness China building the Three Gorges hydroelectric complex and simply forcing people out of their ancestral villages.

This doesn't mean the Chinese model works. Fukuyama reminds us that while it does deliver prosperity today when the leadership is smart and displays economic wisdom, the Chinese model doesn't allow for "bad emperors" ie dictatorial leaders that don't know what they are doing or who work exclusively for themselves.

The author calls these and other problems "political decay" and he examines them in the second part of of his work, his 2014 book "Political Order and Political Decay", which I look forward to reading very soon.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 10, 2015 6:07 AM PDT

Design of Books
Design of Books
by Adrian Wilson
Edition: Paperback
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Dao of Design, May 1, 2015
This review is from: Design of Books (Paperback)
THE Way of design.

The definite article is appropriate because Adrian Wilson keeps his rules flexible and general. Wilson shows us _the_ way to design books, not merely _a_ way. He never says that one must use this font in that context, instead he explains that one must choose a font appropriate to the context and he illustrates this with an example of a book he designed. Who can argue with that? Failing to choose a font is leaving your design to chance, it is letting others do the designing for you.

Even more generally, he urges book designers to begin with rough pencil scketches of what they want the final book to look like. His point is that a designer needs to get to the big idea of his design. We find this idea in everything people make: writers outline their novel, generals put strategies ahead of tactics, inventors build protypes.

Written in 1967, this book predates computers, word processors, and the internet, but it should not be scorned. Readers will find timeless principles, not of fads, and the principles apply to anything published, be they blogs or books.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Soon I Will be Invincible
Soon I Will be Invincible
by Austin Grossman
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.38
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3.0 out of 5 stars The joke runs for too long, April 23, 2015
First off, this is straight-up point-of-view novel about relationships, about self-realization, about the futility of it all, and about the drive to go on despite all the setbacks life throws one's way.

It's just that the characters are all superheroes and supervillains.

"Why did I never learn to keep quiet about my plans?" moans Doctor Impossible. "It doesn't matter! All my efforts have led to this moment and this time I WILL rule the world."

It's well written and you empathize with the characters. Sort of. Until you realize it's quite silly. Treating supervillains as regular people is an old joke that's been done countless times. Just search the internet for the "Evil Overlord List" or look at the 1969 Monty Python "Bicycle Repairman" sketch where in a world of Supermen, no one knows how to fix a bicycle. Or Jane Curtin interviewing Bond villains on the original Saturday Night Live in the 1970s. Or the father and son moments in Mike Myers' Austin Powers series from the 1990s.

Here it's done deadpan and seriously but it's still a joke; one that runs too long.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Interstellar: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Interstellar: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Price: $10.00
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5.0 out of 5 stars Serene, haunting, a smile towards the heavens, April 15, 2015
All great soundtracks add to a movie but when a great soundtrack makes a movie great, it stands on its own. As good as they are, the soundtracks of The Godfather or Star Wars will never be independent of their films. Who can listen to the theme from Jaws without thinking of a (possible) shark?

Not so with Interstellar. Hans Zimmer produced something as powerful and as quiet as anything Tangerine Dream ever did. A meditative work that will gently carry your mind down a languid stream.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Book of Longing
Book of Longing
by Leonard Cohen
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.74
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3.0 out of 5 stars Sing more, write less, January 6, 2015
This review is from: Book of Longing (Paperback)
With Leonard gone
Whose words to compare
With those of his songs?

Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that he's gone...

(Apologies to Annie for the above.)


A man needs a hundred or so poems to make a book, but only eight or ten for a music album. Sifting matters. Cohen's latest album, Popular Problems, is wonderful, youthful, fresh, wise and experienced, but his Book of Longing is... well I found it M'eh! An old man having a go at it. Power to him, but try getting this at the library before buying it.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford
Friends in High Places: The Rise and Fall of Clark Clifford
by Douglas Frantz
Edition: Hardcover
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not unjust, but a little unfair, December 31, 2014
Clark Clifford, the Democratic Party's wise old man, had his reputation and his Washington law firm destroyed by the BCCI financial scandal in the early 1990s but the trial that followed absolved him and his partner Robert Altman of any wrongdoing. Friends in High Places was written a few years after these events, while they were still fresh in everyone's mind but long enough afterwards for the facts to be well understood.

Clifford was tall, good looking, hard working, ambitious but also pragmatic and practical. As a young man, he wanted to be the best trial lawyer in the Mid-West of the United States. When he found no firm to hire him, he offered to work for free at one of the top firms in St-Louis, which he did until the partners realized what an asset they had. He prospered.

He married for love, he loved his wife, he loved his children, but no one could say he loved marriage or family life as he devoted almost all his time to the office. World War II disrupted everyone's plans and Clifford joined the Navy. He eventually moved to Washington to engage in government service, more or less at the top: counsel to President Truman.

He served well. He was jealous of his reputation, often taking full credit for the work of those who reported to him. Authors Frantz and McKean write disapprovingly of this, but working in government myself, I understand that this is how things work: the boss gets the credit. If this seems unfair, remember that the boss gets the boot when things go badly.

Government work at the top level isn't for everyone. It's for those who don't care about money or for those who already have more than enough of it. Clifford wanted money, and he was earning $30,000 by 1940. Government service paid a fraction of that so it would not do as a career. He stayed on long enough to cultivate relationships and to develop a thorough understanding of how government worked before leaving his White House office and moving across the street to found his Washington law firm.

Again, he prospered. As a lawyer, what did he sell? His knowledge of how to make things happen in Washington, or his influence with those in power?

Clifford always explained at length to his clients that he offered them, for a fee, his knowledge and experience. The authors argue convincingly that Clifford sold his influence. And yet Clifford prospered despite the Democrats losing the presidency to Eisenhower in 1952. For eight years Clifford really had no influence with the executive branch, but his practice flourished anyway. All the while, he continued to advise senior Democrats; he was the party's wise old man.

His finest hour came when he replaced Robert McNamara as Secretary of Defense. Before joining the Johnson administration, Clifford had opposed escalating the Viet Nam conflict. By the end of his short term in office, he had begun de-escalating.

After Richard Nixon took office, Clifford returned to his law practice. In 1976, Jimmy Carter brought a new generation of Democratic players to Washington and Clifford wasn't really invited to join. He decided on a new career and he became a banker.

He lent his name to deals and eventually the bank he chaired, First American, was purchased cleverly but covertly and illegally by BCCI. The story came out and Clifford claimed to have had no knowledge of any wrongdoing. Only two alternatives were possible: Clifford was a lying criminal or he was an honest fool. He fought his indictment tooth and nail and he won. An honest fool he was.

This ended his days as a Washington wise man. His reputation was in tatters. Again, the authors make a convincing argument for Clifford being in the wrong and that his problems were of his own making. And again, they are a little unfair. The opinion among Clifford supporters was that the old man had been misled by his young partner Robert Altman and that Clifford ought to lay the blame on Altman. Clifford resolutely refused to this. He had made all the key decisions and he never gave Altman any discretion on vital matters. If anyone was responsible for wrongdoing, it would be Clifford.

The authors dutifully report this, but they don't really convey how easy and simple it would have been for Clifford to blame Altman. Clifford could have saved his reputation; he could have maintained his standing in Washington. The thought seems never to have crossed Clifford's mind.

Yes, he appropriated as his own the work of those under him. Why not? He gave them the work and he directed it. Yes, he fired people who dared to challenge him or his decisions (though he accepted challenges _before_ he made decisions). Yes, he was the boss. But he paid loyalty in kind and Robert Altman had been loyal. Come what may, Clifford would heroically accept full responsibility. If his ship went down, he'd go down with it.

Just as he made his own way to the top, Clifford rushed ahead and caused his own fall and that makes him a true Shakespearean tragic hero. However his loyalty to Altman and especially his honesty deserve more praise than the authors gave him.

Still, the authors seem to mostly like Clark Clifford. This book is by no means a hatchet job. They seem disappointed with Clifford rather than angry. The tone throughout is a little condescending and it misses something vital: what a life this man has led. In the end the book is not unjust, but it is a little unfair.

Vincent Poirier, Montreal

A Woman of Thirty
A Woman of Thirty
by Honoré de Balzac
Edition: Paperback
Price: $9.90
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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

Note: This novel is a only a very small part of the Human Comedy, which on the whole is a five-star work!

End of History and the Last Man
End of History and the Last Man
Offered by Simon and Schuster Digital Sales Inc
Price: $10.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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: $12.86
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
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 you find Game of Thrones too long, then Tuf Voyaging is ideal.

Vincent Poirier, Quebec City

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