December 31st, 2007

earthsea

December Books 13) Slide Rule

13) Slide Rule: An Autobiography, by Neville Shute

Probably my last book of 2007, and it's good to end on a high note - thanks, nickbarnes, for the recommendation; it was a good call. It's a book in three parts: the first couple of chapters describe Shute's boyhood and youth, where the most exciting part is his close observation of the Easter Rising of 1916 - his father, as it happens, was the Secretary of the Irish Post Office, so there is a certain immediacy to Shute's account, from an angle one doesn't often get - that of a middle-class English teenager pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer.

Then a bit over half the book is devoted to a fascinating account of Shute's involvement with the R100, the private sector counterpart to the doomed state-funded R101 British airship. This was at the cutting edge of technology, a prestige engineering project every bit as important in its way as the moon landings, which was to open up mass travel between the continents at a time when it was thought that aeroplanes would never be able to be big enough or fast enough to satisfy the commercial demand. Shute clearly loved his own creation (he was deputy to Barnes Wallis but ended up de facto in charge) and goes into fascinating detail about the problems they faced, both technical and political; and looming over the narrative, of course, is the eventual R101 disaster, which he blames on the failings of senior civil servants as technical managers and on the general policy of having any state-run industry (and specifically the ego of Lord Thomson, the Air Minister, who paid for it with his life and the lives of dozens of others). I admit my most substantive encounter with this story before was the (excellent) Doctor Who audio Storm Warning, in which Thomson's part, renamed "Lord Tamworth", is played with considerable creative licence by Gareth Roberts (Blake from Blake's 7), but there's nothing like the real thing.

The final chunk of the book, a bit over a third of it, is Shute's account of setting up his own aircraft company, and the difficulties of running a hi-tech startup in the context of the Great Depression. Again, an interesting human tale of innovation, struggle against the odds, the difficulties of balancing the books and the personalities, the intimate involvement of people and capital; I think it ought to be required reading for anyone thinking of setting up their own business. On top of that, the looming clouds of war - in Spain, China and Ethiopia, and coming up close to home - were crucial in making the company break even by the time he was eased out with a golden handshake in 1938.

Shute isn't shy about his politics, which are certainly to the right: I guess that being caught on the wrong side of a revolution at 17, and then seeing your professional colleagues killed by the hubris of a Labour government minister, may well be formative experiences, but he also argues for the retention of the moneyed aristocracy as a source of start-up finance for innovation. I'm not in huge sympathy with him on these points, but I like his clear and occasionally self-deprecating prose; the two books of his that I have read, Pied Piper and Trustee from the Toolroom, are both rather enchanting tales of older men who accidentally go on long journeys to do good deeds, and it's interesting to see where this comes from.
books

My year in books

There seem to have been quite a lot of books this year. Like, er, cough, about 235 of them, which is rather more than last year's 207 let alone 2005's 137. 81 (34%, same as last year) were non-fiction; 44 (19%, same as last year) were by or edited by women; 123 (52%, slightly up from last year) were sf, fantasy, or somehow related to the genre. In the list below the cut-tags, books in bold are the ones I gave five stars to on Librarything.


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Books of the year

Non-fiction
George and Sam, an account of parenting two children with autism (and one without); James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, the extraordinary story of the famously pseudonymous sf writer; Wild Swans, about China in the twentieth century; A Time of Gifts/Between the Woods and the Water, walking across Europe in the 1930s.

Fiction
Proust, especially vols 1 and 3.

SF + fantasy
Guy Gavriel Kay's Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors were a truly superb discovery. J.R.R. Tolkien's The Children of Húrin was a welcome comeback from an author dead for a third of a century. The best sf novel, as opposed to fantasy, that I read was Elizabeth Bear's Carnival.

Doctor Who
The About Time series, erratic in places, are consistently enjoyable, enlightening and entertaining; and Tom Baker was the only person to make me laugh out loud on the train.

Book of the year
Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, strongly recommended to everyone; a superb tale of a dysfunctional family, dealing with sexuality and great literature and love and death. We've had guests in our house queuing up to read our copy, and you will too.
plovdiv

2007: culture

We actually saw a glorious total of four films in the cinema this year, probably as many as we had managed in the previous four years combined. They were: The Last King of Scotland, Pirates of the Caribbean 3, 2 Days in Paris, and Stardust. Also I took F to see Alvin and the Chipmunks at the weekend, and Anne took him to see The Simpsons Movie during the year.

We have also been to two classical music concerts in the last few weeks, more than we have managed in the previous decade: Pieter Wispelwey playing the Bach cello suites at the Brussels Royal Conservatory at the end of November, and La Mystère des Voix Bulgares in Leuven last weekend.

Also we got through the whole of the first five seasons of The West Wing, plus Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Smith Adventures, and The Goodies At Last!

Gradually picking up our ability to engage in these things what with the new circumstances..