January 27th, 2007


Links and memes for the weekend

communicator links to a fascinating YouTube diary presented by a woman with autism. The behaviour patterns she shows to us are very familiar to me.

A Doctor Who fan-vid using "I'm Gonna Be" by The Proclaimers - hilarious and uplifting.

George R.R. Martin's pizza crawl.

Brian Aldiss is on Desert Island Discs tomorrow.

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January Books 14) The Tin Drum

14) The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass (.co.uk, .com)

Part of my reading resolutions. This is the story of a boy growing up in Germany between 1927 and 1954 - in the Free City of Danzig until 1945, then in Düsseldorf - with a couple of fantastical wrinkles: he is able to shatter glass at will by yelling at it, and he deliberately decides not to grow and remains the size of a three-year-old until the war (and even then he grows only to four feet tall).

I found it pretty fascinating. The liminal identities of what is now northwestern Poland are vividly brought to life - various members of our hero's family are forced to identify themselves as Polish or German, though their roots are in fact Kashubian; and the growth of Nazism, and the consequences of it, told in a tone which I found descriptive rather than preachy. I don't know Danzig at all, so I found those bits particularly interesting; I do know Düsseldorf a bit, and felt the author's heart was less in it there (though it's still a good description). Also, because great stories are written about unlikely events, he happens to be in Normandy on D-Day, so we get to hear about that too from an angle I wasn't really familiar with.

Not quite sure what to make of Oskar's physical distinctness. Peter Pan never grew up either, but the consequences seemed much more benign. In any case, Oskar is able to beget children despite his physically immature appearance. Perhaps, living as I do with disability in my own home, I am looking for something that isn't there. Apart from that, I also enjoyed the intensity of the story of the relationship entanglements of Oskar and his relations and neighbours. It's a long book but worth the effort.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: Eldest, by Christoper Paolini (the sequel to Eragon).

January Books 15) Tau Zero

15) Tau Zero, by Poul Anderson (.co.uk, .com)

Another of my reading resolutions, one of those sf classics I had never got around to. The fifty-strong crew of a colonisation starship hit a technical problem - they can't shut the drive off, so the ship will keep accelerating towards lightspeed, where the relativistic factor τ approaches zero (hence the title). Although this is billed as one of the hardest of sf books, I suppose because of the importance of the Bussard ramjets to the plot, I found the treatment of the relationships between the crew members very sympathetic and believable, and indeed it's really a story about them than about the technology (which to me moves it off the hard end of the sf spectrum). It's certainly way better than the Heinlein/Robinson Variable Star, which at one point features a similar situation.

Although the crew leave Earth at the very beginning of the book, there too Anderson has designed an interesting background, a post-nuclear war world in which the rest of humanity has agreed to put Sweden in charge (I think he refers also to this setting in There Will Be Time). So the leading members of the crew are Scandinavian and occasionally mutter in Swedish to each other. I would be interested to know if any of the Swedes on my f-list (I know there are at least two of you) has read it, and if you felt Anderson had got it right.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger.

January Books 16) To Engineer is Human

16) To Engineer is Human, by Henry Petroski (.co.uk, .com)

I remember at one heated political meeting, doing a post-mortem on a particularly disappointing set of election results, a relatively new recruit to the party stopped the show by declaring that, as an engineer, she had been taught that it was vitally important to learn from disaster by doing some serious failure analysis, and the party ought to do that too. Well, she was right, and she's now Deputy Leader of the party, and from what I hear has been able to put those words into action.

No doubt this was one of the books on the QUB engineering syllabus on the subject. Lots of interesting stuff about why mistakes happen - the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the Kansas City Hyatt Regency, etc. Unfortunately the style is a bit repetitive and some of the most interesting nuggets - about Nevil Shute, for instance, or the Crystal Palace - felt rather shoved in at the end. Anyway, thanks very much to angeyja for sending it to me.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides.

January Books 17) From Behind a Closed Door

17) From Behind a Closed Door: Secret Court Martial Records of the 1916 Easter Rising, by Brian Barton (.co.uk, .com)

A Christmas present from wwhyte, this pulls together the primary source material of the official records of the court-martial trials of the fifteen executed leaders of 1916, with framing and explanatory text by Barton. Reading it in the context of the recent execution of Saddam Hussein and the ongoing war crimes trials in the Hague is an interesting experience: it is almost a matter of course to learn of gross procedural errors, of dubious verdicts arrived at by dubious means.

It has to be said that not only the British, but also the rebel leaders - specifically, those who had signed the Proclamation, and the sectoral commanders - expected that they would be executed. As with Saddam Hussein, while one can query the sentence and the procedure, the verdict was pretty inevitable in those cases. Barton makes much of the half-dozen of those executed who did not fall into that category, and the lack of evidence against them; indeed in one case, that of William Pearse, he seems almost to have been desperate to incriminate himself in order to share his brother's fate (he was the only one to plead guilty to the charges put to him). I wish he had gone more thoroughly into the cases of the two sectoral commanders who were not executed, Eamon de Valera and Constance de Markievicz; he spends little time on the former and his account of the latter is dubious, as discussed in more detail below. (Roger Casement's case is also absent.)

The overall point, though, is a valid one. Even if everyone knows the facts of the matter and the inevitable verdict, if the court is not to show itself to be as bad as the abuses it is set up to deter, the accused must get a fair hearing and due process; and the Irish rebels of 1916 got neither, as Barton demonstrates. Indeed (and this is another point I wish he had gone into further) the seventy-five years of secrecy surrounding the records appears to have been extended not by any sensitive practical information in the transcripts, but by their revelation of the scantiness of the process by which almost a hundred people were condemned to death, fifteen of them actually executed. The brutal inequity of British justice has been a mainstay of Irish nationalist propaganda for centuries, but this is evidence of it straight from the horse's mouth.

However. Even though this is only meant to be an apparatus to illuminate a particular set of source materials rather than a comprehensive analysis of the events of the time, it is still much inferior to Charles Townshend's Easter 1916, which I read last year. In particular, Barton has (like other authors I have complained about previously) allowed himself to become too fascinated by his particular strand of the source material, meaning that we lose out on the bigger picture. He actually comes to the conclusion that the notion of the rebellion as a "blood sacrifice" was a last-minute stratagem decided on by Pearse to save further bloodshed among his own men and the civilian population, based on the scribbled memos issued from the GPO; but to say this is to ignore the substantial body of evidence about his intentions written by Pearse himself over the years before he went into the Post Office on Easter Monday.

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Finally, I think Barton allows himself to get carried away by the story in places. I suspect that the fifteen executed men were not, in fact, saints; but we are told their biographical details in hagiographical tones. We are also given a list of 60 IVF and ICA members who were killed in action in Easter week (though a different figure, 64, is given in the introduction); but there is no list of the 116 British soldiers, 16 policemen or 250+ civilians who died in the fighting. The problem with focussing your light very closely on one particular corner of the scenery, as Barton has done here, is that the rest of the stage gets distorted, or lost in the shadows. This is an interesting book about an important set of documents, but it does not give us a full picture.