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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten


Malavita - Tonino Benacquista
Update: I just discovered that this is also available in English translation, under the title Badfellas.

An entertaining story about a former Mob family that relocates to a small town in France. (The Witness Protection Program is having problems keeping them safe in the US). It is a little disconcerting that Fred/Giovanni, a ruthless and brutal killer, somehow comes across as basically a good guy. This isn't Godfather-style idealization of the Mafia - the author spends some time talking about that - so what exactly is he doing? I wasn't completely sure he knew either. But I couldn't put it down, and there are some hilarious sequences.

Here's how it begins. The family has just arrived in the sleepy little French village. The next day, the kids have to start in school, while Maggie, the mother, goes out to do some shopping. Fred stays at home. So Maggie goes down to the local store, and can't find peanut butter anywhere. In the end, she gives up and asks. The owner tells her in his inimitable French way that there's not much call for it round here. Five minutes later, she hears two women in the next aisle chatting about that bloody American bitch looking for peanut butter, merde, who do these people think they are? Maggie, who prides herself on the efforts she's made to learn French language and culture, is hurt. She slips some cotton-wool and lighter fluid into her bag, and casually torches the store on the way out.

Delicious 17 year-old Belle is starting high school. Everyone thinks her name is ridiculous, but also very descriptive. A guy insists on driving her home, but takes a completely different route that ends up at the other side of town. He stops the car. They get out. She asks what the hell is going on. He looks stupidly at her, and tries out some unsubtle moves. She sighs, picks up a tennis racket from the back seat, and breaks his nose with it. Then, while he's rolling around in agony on the grass, she tells him sweetly that he'll have to improve his lines, or he'll never get anywhere with girls. She gets back into the car and drives home, leaving him there.

The younger kid, Wayne, is also starting school. At morning recess, the tough gang beat him up and take his lunch money. Wayne isn't fazed. He spends the rest of the day discretely chatting to his new classmates and gathering information. He's on the football team and is keen on her... her brother is failing math... her best friend is the other girl... she's always had a crush on him... she never fails to ace the math tests. Pretty soon, he has a complete jigsaw. Then it's just a question of setting up a few deals. At the end of the day, the tough gang are ambushed by three suitably incentivized members of the football team, who have to be restrained before they start breaking bones. Wayne tells the one-time tough guys he wants the money back by tomorrow, with 900% interest.

Mom, daughter and son arrive home simultaneously. Fred looks at them. He asks mechanically how their day's been. And they answer in chorus, "Nothing special!"