February 28, 2014 6:33 pm

‘Geek Sublime’; ‘Sextant’; ‘Careless People’

Geek Sublime: Writing Fiction, Coding Software, by Vikram Chandra, Faber, RRP£14.99, 272 pages

 

To pay his way through graduate school, the literary novelist Vikram Chandra had a lucrative sideline in computer programming. These two activities – writing and coding – are often seen as diametrically opposed, but over the course of this enlightening, meditative book, Chandra shows that they are far more closely linked than it would first appear.

Code is a mind-bogglingly complex language that allows humans to interact with and control machines. The code entered by a programmer is translated into machine code – the eye-crossing binary strings of 1s and 0s. Part memoir, part history of coding, Geek Sublime draws connections with the work of Abhinavagupta, the 10th-11th century Kashmiri thinker, and explores the stereotype of the male geek and Silicon Valley’s “Indian Mafia”.

An illuminating, genre-defying exploration of a world that, despite the ubiquity of computers, most people (many coders included) find alien and don’t fully understand.

Review by Carl Wilkinson

. . .

Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans, by David Barrie, William Collins, RRP£16.99/William Morrow, RRP$25.99, 368 pages

 

Today, sailors can (usually) rely on satellite navigation to guide them. But it wasn’t so long ago that they had to do the work themselves – and the sextant, which measures the angle between “celestial objects” and the horizon, was an indispensable tool.

David Barrie traces the device’s development in the 18th century and highlights its role in some of history’s most important nautical explorations, from Captain Cook’s Pacific journeys to the voyages of the Beagle. He intersperses this with a personal story about how he learnt to navigate using “the light of the sun, moon and stars” during an Atlantic crossing he made in 1973.

The book abounds with technical knowledge, which Barrie fears could be lost. But the best parts are the tales of life at sea. Whether describing Shackleton’s slalom course through the icebergs of the Antarctic or his own experience of a north Atlantic gale, Barrie’s writing is exhilarating and suffused with a sense of adventure. A fascinating read.

Review by Orlando Bird

. . .

Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell, Virago, RRP£9.99/Penguin Press, RRP$29.95, 448 pages

 

“There never was a good biography of a good novelist,” wrote F Scott Fitzgerald. “There couldn’t be. He is too many people, if he’s any good.” Fitzgerald was indeed many people and was never entirely able to decide which one he wished to be.

Born in 1896 into a middle-class Catholic family in St Paul, Minnesota, he was, like his most celebrated protagonist, the deluded romantic dreamer and bootlegger Jay Gatsby, beguiled by the ease and confidence of the old moneyed elite from whom he always felt excluded.

Sarah Churchwell describes her book as “an histoire trouvé about what was in the air as Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby”. It is a collage of breezily written texts combining conventional biography and literary criticism with reportage and capsule essays on style, fashion and the movies.

“I feel I have an enormous power in me now,” wrote Fitzgerald while revising Gatsby. Which reader today does not still feel that power?

Review by Jason Cowley

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