Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Little French Bistro, by Nina George

The Little French Bistro

This book starts darkly, with a desperately unhappy sixty year old German woman attempting suicide. On a trip to Paris Marianne slips away from her controlling, philandering, and dismissive husband and deliberately herself into the Seine. Unwillingly saved before drowning she is hospitalized; there she is captivated by a small painting of the French coast. She promptly escapes, making her way to the sea, alone, friendless, not knowing the language, and determined to try to kill herself again.

Despite the tragic beginning, The Little French Bistro tells the story of a woman learning to trust herself for the first time and discovering she has wants and needs of her own. "I never even noticed that I am alive, she thought." At the same time, the small group of people she falls into help themselves by helping her, binding them all together in camaraderie and companionship. While sharing Marianne's journey out of depression George brilliantly illustrates the unbounded healing power of friendship. I found her description of the simple gaze of friends as "a balm for all the tears a woman shed over her lifetime—tears of passion, longing, happiness, emotion, rage, love, or pain" especially moving. An uplifting story that was welcome in our isolating times.

First Sentence:
It was the first decision she had ever made on her own, the very first time she was able to determine the course of her life.

Friday, April 24, 2020

Chicago, by David Mamet

Chicago: A Novel of Prohibition

Mamet is known for his dialogue (Alec Baldwin's monologue in Glengarry Glen Ross is maybe the best 7 minutes of film in existence) where characters often interrupt to finish each other's sentences, punctuated with obscenities. Chicago lives up to this reputation, filled with mobsters, whores, and reporters in a post-WWI era Windy City. Sadly, the writing overshadows the plot with the result feeling more like a badly edited short story stretched out to novel-length.

Nothing really happens in the first half of the book, and then another third has the "hero" trying to drink himself to death. The conversations are quite good and occasionally insightful ("Why do we lie? To obtain something from our listener.") and the individual scenes often are as well (I especially liked the discussion of why you shouldn't carry a gun or a flashlight when cracking a safe) but they are only tenuously connected and thinly strung together. It almost feels like a series of vignettes featuring Chicago, but the characters and settings don't change enough to pull this off. If you like the glib pen of Mamet this may hold your interest, but if you are looking for a gritty tale of mobsters during prohibition maybe check out Dennis Lehane's Live by Night instead.

First Sentence:
Parlow and Mike sat quiet in the duck blind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

The Success of Open Source, by Steven Weber

The Success of Open Source

Parts of this book are interesting and engaging, and parts are mind-numbingly boring. The author is a professor at Berkeley and his scholarly background shows through strongly. The history of open source software is fascinating, and Weber does an excellent job of walking the reader through its genesis at AT&T Bell Labs to the widespread acceptance found today. His description of open source as "an odd mix of overblown hype and profound innovation" is spot-on, and his comparison of open source to religion was insightful—anyone can read the Holy Bible without a "license" from a Christian sect. The description of the constantly evolving social dynamics of open source is similarly compelling. Where the book drags interminably is during the discussions of the economic and political bases of the movement. Sadly, these last discussions are interspersed through all the interesting parts, making me almost afraid of turning each page for fear of encountering a discourse on tracking "the institutional isomorphism literature by encouraging hierarchical governments to remake their security organizations as networks to interface successfully with their networked adversaries." Well worth your time for the history and underpinnings of open source, but unless you are a political scientist or economist be prepared for a bit of a slog.

First Sentence:
This is a book about property and how it underpins the social organization of cooperation and production in a digital era.

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