As I read this book, I couldn't help thinking of a Broadway tune written back in 1917 called "China - We Owe a Lot to You." Part of it goes:
"Chin-a ,...moreAs I read this book, I couldn't help thinking of a Broadway tune written back in 1917 called "China - We Owe a Lot to You." Part of it goes:
"Chin-a , way out in Asia Mi-nor No country could be fi-ner Be-neath the sun. You gave us silk to dress our lovely women in ‘Twas worth the price And when we couldn’t get potatoes You gave us rice We mix chop suey with your chop sticks You’ve taught us quite a few tricks We never knew We take our hats off to one thing we’ve seen Your laundries keep our country clean Chin-a , we owe a lot to you!"
A jazz musician friend, Terry Waldo, has updated that rather patronizing tune to reflect the current times:
"Chin-a, way out in Asia Minor No country could be fi-ner Be-neath the sun. You gave us computer chips for our machines It's worth the price. In fact, you now make everything We think is nice. You make the parts for all they sell at Walmart Where we fill our shopping carts - I guess you knew. Please keep making all our phones, But for god's sake don't call in our loans - 'cause Chin-a -- we owe a LOT to you!"
Winchester's book deftly reconciles these two views of China -- the mysterious, exotic place that is still romanticized in popular culture and the modern industrial titan. The transformation might seem miraculous -- until a closer is taken at China's history.
Still, this is essentially a biography, and like most readers I hadn't any idea who Joseph Needham was until I picked up this book. Having read several of Winchester's biographies, I knew what to expect -- an obscure but fascinating subject, a monumental undertaking, lots of detail on a field I knew little about. All the elements are in place here. The thing that drew me in most, oddly enough, was Needham's association with Caius College in Cambridge -- my husband had done a postdoctoral fellowship there back in the mid 80's, and so Winchester's description of the college and Cambridge revived memories of a treasured time for me. But beyond that, he succeeded in making it clear what made Needham tick, and in particular what led him to China.
Needham was a colorful subject, but also one whose eccentricities threaten to overwhelm a measured understanding of him. He was (among other things) a biochemist, a Communist sympathizer, a "Naturist" (ie nudist), a philanderer, an amateur accordion player, an enthusiastic performer of English folk dances and songs, a calligrapher, a linguist fluent in over seven languages, a railway/transportation buff, a left-wing Anglican and social activist, and, in short, an amazing polymath. There was a risk of making him seem cartoonish -- his habitual breakfast, after all, consisted of several pieces of thoroughly burnt toast (he felt the charcoal did his system good). But Winchester resists reducing his subject to a mere collection of colorful anecdotes, and instead fleshes out a portrait of a man with an endless appetite for knowledge and an almost boundless energy to pursue it.
As we follow Needham, we learn a great deal about China and its history. This is my favorite sort of biography -- one that places the subject squarely within his time, making it clear how Needham was affected by events and how, in turn, he played a role in them himself. As an added bonus, Needham crossed paths with a number of fascinating people, such as Rewi Alley, a New Zealander living in China who has been compared to Lawrence of Arabia. But above all, masterfully portrayed, is China itself during the Second World War. Winchester brings us the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the country, most of which was under Japanese occupation during Needham's first contact with it. This section of the book, in which Needham engages in a series of long, danger-ridden treks through unoccupied China, is an rousing good adventure story, embellished with scientific flourishes.
The only problem I had with the book is that the last part seemed rather anticlimactic in comparison. After his epic travels through China, gathering vast quantities of material for his magnus opus, Science and Civilization in China (in seven volumes consisting of multiple separately-published sub-volumes), Needham returns to Cambridge and burrows into the lifelong task of writing. There are several notable events, such as his involvement with the formation of UNESCO and a lamentable involvement in a biological weapons investigation in Korea -- but for the most part the last half of Needham's life was overshadowed by the first. It's not that he becomes less active or interesting, but what can you say about a man who devotes almost all his focus to research and writing?
Well, the obvious answer would be to summarize what he wrote. In the short chapter, "The Making of His Masterpiece," Winchester describes this process and gives us some grasp of the project's scope. Still, we learn comparatively little of the contents of Science and Civilization in China, Needham's crowning achievement. As a result, there was a sense of "telescoping" the last part of Needham's life. He lived to be ninety-four, but the last decades of his life -- devoted to this massive work -- seem compressed.
Pirates (or privateers) always make sensational subjects, so author Stephan Talty didn't need much embellishment to make the tale of Henry Morgan into...morePirates (or privateers) always make sensational subjects, so author Stephan Talty didn't need much embellishment to make the tale of Henry Morgan into a fast-paced and thrilling book. I've read a handful of other accounts of Morgan and other privateers and found this one of the most successful renderings. And while Morgan cuts a definite dash, Talty doesn't shy from making it clear that it was ruthlessness as well as leadership skills, strategic thinking, and inventiveness that led to his success. Interestingly, Morgan was best operating on land, not sea, as one might assume. It was his epic land-based raids that assured his fame, not pitched sea battles (though there is one wonderful episode involving the brilliant use of a 'fire ship' that is the exception).
What I found especially interesting, however, was the how Spanish inflexibility and bureaucracy in the New World made it (relatively) simple for Morgan to defeat them time and again. Talty's descriptions of the bizarre workings of the Spanish court, the historical background on the shifting alliances among the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch, and the details of Morgan's campaigns were all masterfully done. He gave vivid accounts of both the top and bottom of the social ladder, summoning images that made, for example, death-obsessed Philip IV of Spain spring to life. Talty has a vivid style, too, that made listening to the tale even more enjoyable.
I'd be remiss not to mention the reader of this audiobook, John Mayer, who not only has the ideal voice for reading such a swashbuckling tale, but who injected a certain humor and relish into the reading that struck a suitable piratical tone. Mayer's pacing and reading of the text only improved upon it and were always a delight. This reading is an abridged version of the book, I understand, but I can't think that reading the full text would be any improvement -- there are no tell-tale "gaps" that gave away the abridgment.
This was the first of what I hope will be many audio CDs downloaded from a website maintained by a state-wide consortium of libraries. It took some "fiddling" to get the files into a format that would play on my iPod, but persistence paid off. It sure beats loading and ripping individual CDs checked out from my local library.(less)
A Title in Search of a Book - Alas, the title bears little resemblance to the material betwixt sensational front cover illustration and blurb-infested...moreA Title in Search of a Book - Alas, the title bears little resemblance to the material betwixt sensational front cover illustration and blurb-infested back cover. Once again, I smell the publishing world's eternal quest for a best-seller at work. This is no Longitude, try as the publishers might to try to cast it into that role.
It is, however, a decently written account of a French scientific expedition to the New World in 1735. Its mission was to measure several arcs of latitude and thus prove (or disprove) Newton's contention that the world was a sphere, flattened at the poles. There's a great deal of scientific background and detail, and it's fairly interesting to those curious about the methods and theories of early mapmakers. It has little to do with "love, murder, and survival in the Amazon," however.
No doubt the PR people reasoned that a plucky female "explorer" would be of more appeal than a tale of contentious French scientists, who seemed to have quarreled their way across one mountain after another during the very long and tedious process of making the minutely exact measurements needed to finish their work. The first five pages of the book open with Isabel (Mapmaker's Wife of title) setting off to cross the continent to join her husband, a minor member of the French expedition whom she'd married some twenty years previously. And then that thread just... vanishes. It's picked up on page 169, but Isabel doesn't undertake her trek until page 226, and she concludes it a mere sixty pages later. Why, then, does the jacket blurb proclaim, "At the heart of the sweeping tale of adventure, discovery and exploration is one woman's extraordinary journey, inspired by her love for the man she had not seen in 20 years"?
Well, I think I know why --- ka-ching! Someone undoubtedly could hear the cash register. "Damsel in distress" sells infinitely better than "quarrelsome French scientists at work."
Sadly, in the rush to make Isabel the "heart" of the tale, the author overlooked the true dramas that would have made potentially more interesting reading -- the story of the faithful slave Joaquín, who loyally undertook a rescue mission on her behalf, for example, or the "Spanish Benjamin Franklin," Antonio de Ulloa, who rose from a secondary position in the original expedition to become one of his country's most eminent scientists. In short, the decision to frame Isabel and Juan, her husband, as the centerpeice of this tale made sense only from a sensational or marketing point of view. Isabel's jungle trek was indeed fascinating reading, but the whole structure of the book was bogged down by numerous asides (some of which, luckily, were of personal interest). I can imagine, though, that many readers wondered where the heck the promised "true tale of love, murder, and survival" went.
The murder, by the way, was a rather minor affair, occupying at most a dozen pages. Basically, an arrogant, hotheaded member of the French expedition was beaten to death by an angry mob. (I couldn't entirely blame them.)
Structurally, the book was unwieldy, and seemed to backtrack upon itself for little rhyme or reason (much like the loops of some of feeder rivers in the Amazon basin). The tale of two members' trek to Pará is outlined once briefly over several pages, for example, and then reiterated in greater detail once again for no discernible reason. Other problems with organization make an already complex narrative even more complex. This is exacerbated by the author's inability to bring historical personages to life. In this respect, he's no David McCullough, who breaths fresh life into just about every fusty historical person his pen touches. No, sadly, Whitaker (the author) never manages to fully engage the reader's imagination or sympathy -- and this is a pity as there's plenty here to fill both the imagination and the human heart. In the vast canvas of characters, there seems to be a gaping hole that poor Isabel -- whose ordeal was truly remarkable -- seems unable to completely fill.
As luck would have it, though, the reading I'd been doing lately served to spark my interest in the book in a number of peripheral ways. I'd recently read an account of the discovery and exploitation of Amazon rubber, and so the botanical aspects of the expedition held my interest. I'd also just finished an account of Henry Morgan's exploits on the Spanish Main, which were contemporary with the latter parts of the narrative and provided an idea of what the Spanish and English were up to in the New World. And finally, a book on important plants in the colonies had fueled my interest in the discoveries of quinine as a cure for malaria as well as giving background on the subjugation of the native peoples and the slave trade. All this recent reading, in effect, buttressed material in the book.
So ultimately, I'd say that aside from misleading marketing and poor organization, this is a fairly interesting book. It's a pity, though, that the central narrative of the expedition was rather lackluster as that was obviously what the author could have rendered best. The tale of Isabel would be best suited for fact-based fiction. She could be convincingly (though not entirely truthfully) cast Katherine Hepburn-like as the woman who never says die in the middle of the jungle, braving all to be with her man. No quarrelsome French scientists, I need hardly add, have a place in that tale! (less)
Who knew that Kipling's famous tale was loosely based on the exploits of an American adventurer? I sure didn't, but was fascinated by this literary pr...moreWho knew that Kipling's famous tale was loosely based on the exploits of an American adventurer? I sure didn't, but was fascinated by this literary predecessor. MacIntyre's colorful biography traces the rise of one Josiah Harlan, a lapsed Quaker from Chester County, Pennsylvania, whose nominally harebrained schemes to pursue glory in remote regions beyond the Indian frontier eventually led to his becoming a key adviser to the ruler of Afghanistan and commander of his army. His crowning achievement was being proclaimed the "Prince of Ghoree" in the remote mountains of Hazarajat, a short-lived triumph before his ultimate flight from Afghanistan a few months later in the wake of a British-led invasion.
As MacIntyre makes clear, Harlan in many ways was an eccentric figure, at times bordering on ridiculous, but he was at the same time brave, determined, wily, and intelligent. He had a peculiar capacity to reconcile drastically different philosophies, most notably American ideas of freedom and justice and a romanticized view of benevolent monarchy. Harlan's initial impetus for traveling to Afghanistan, too, was romantic: jilted by his fiancee, he joins the British Army in India in the capacity of (self-taught) surgeon. After meeting the exiled Afghan king Shujah al-Mulk in a northern frontier town, Harlan, who habitually "made no small plans" concocted a scheme to travel to Kabul and restore the king to his throne.
From that point on, Harlan seems less buffoonish, as he masters languages and customs with ease, gaining insight into the convoluted shifting Afghan tribal alliances not to mention the "Great Game" unfolding in some of the remotest places on earth. Reading of Harlan's encounters with Afghan chieftains and his many near-brushes (and occasional outright) disasters shed no little light on how, in some ways, the region still operates today. MacIntyre used Harlan's own voluminous writings as well as those of other travelers to the region to flesh out a fascinating world, and it's easy to understand why Harlan, who initially felt disdain for the "primitive" people of the region, ultimately became assimilated and ultimately switched alliances altogether - standing with the king he once set out to depose and against the British-backed one he initially wanted to restore.
In the end, I found my initial appraisal of this somewhat quixotic figure had turned to admiration. Harlan, who continually imagined himself following in the footsteps of Alexander, had something of that legendary conqueror's daring and no small measure of his ability to lead men. MacIntyre's quest in writing the book, too, seems to have been an undertaking of no little scope: intrigued by scattered references he ran across about Harlan, he managed to track down his papers in a forgotten Chester County archive. Yet MacIntyre refrains from using the story of his quest as a major theme, which I found admirable as I've been bored on more than one occasion by writers so puffed up with their own research feats that they can't help but insert themselves into the tale. Here instead MacIntyre merely sets the book into motion with his initial fascination, while the atmosphere throughout is testimony to his extensive travels in pursuit of the elusive Harlan.
Hmmm... I was probably in over my head on this one, as I struggled quite a bit. While the book is a broad analysis of the military bluff up to the pre...moreHmmm... I was probably in over my head on this one, as I struggled quite a bit. While the book is a broad analysis of the military bluff up to the present day, there's a considerable amount of material here on WWII, which was my main interest. However, the deceptions include material going all the way back to the Hittites. I haven't the background in military history or tactics necessary to really appreciate a lot of this, but at least the book made me think about how much warfare is based on concealment and misdirection. There's so much material here that I found it almost hard to take in. Then again, it's the kind of book I could come back to after further reading and probably get a lot more out of. (less)
Good selection of brief articles and short stories. The thing I think I'll appreciate the most as I use this text in my RD 120 ("Reading in Content Ar...moreGood selection of brief articles and short stories. The thing I think I'll appreciate the most as I use this text in my RD 120 ("Reading in Content Areas") class is the way the editors have linked the entries through guided questions and the "Connecting Cultures" section at the end of each unit.
In constructing my syllabus, I elected to pair readings together for contrast or similarity of theme. This means I'm not teaching the text "in order," but it doesn't matter. Each article usually relates to several others elsewhere in the book.
Okay, so I'm addicted to these simplistic illustrated Eyewitness books written for youngsters. No shame there. Fact is, for a general overview this wo...moreOkay, so I'm addicted to these simplistic illustrated Eyewitness books written for youngsters. No shame there. Fact is, for a general overview this works on an adult level, too. The approach is a little scatter-shot, with the various themes not connected at any deep level, but, hey, given that this was written primarily for grades 3-5, I suppose I'm off the mark in expecting a deeper analysis. (less)
My favorite "plant" books are also exploration books, such as Frank Kingdon Ward's In the Land of the Blue Poppies, Peter Raby's Bright Paradise, and...moreMy favorite "plant" books are also exploration books, such as Frank Kingdon Ward's In the Land of the Blue Poppies, Peter Raby's Bright Paradise, and Patrick Synge's Mountains of the Moon. I've also got a copy of Toby & Will Musgrave's The Plant Hunters that I've thumbed through from time to time, so when I saw they'd written a book on the plants that were central to the spread of the British empire, I was intrigued.
For the most part the book lived up to its promise, though at times I confess it was a little textbook like. It helped that I'd recently read a book on the rubber trade, The Thief at the End of the World, a book which also dipped into the importance of the cinchona tree, from which quinine is derived. I'd wished for more information on the rubber plantations in the Far East in that book, and I found it in this one.
The seven plants profiled (one per chapter) are tea, tobacco, sugar cane, opium, cotton, quinine, and rubber. The chapter on opium gave a good overview of the Opium War, which I knew little about. I hadn't realized how widespread the addiction to opium in China was -- 27 percent of the adult male population by the start of the 20th century -- or how critical the trade imbalances were that led to Britain's mass smuggling of the product into China. (Interestingly, it was Britain's demand for tea that was one of the main factors in the huge trade imbalance.)
One of the things I've become more interested in recently is the role of trade routes, trade imbalances, and trade competition as a force for change in the world. This book certainly did a good job of showing the importance of key plants as "engines" for colonial expansion, and to no small extent also the cause of conflicts, subjugation, and slavery.
The chapter on tea (my favorite) provided such delightful conversational nuggets as the origin of the word "tips" (At fashionable 18th century "tea gardens" a small wooden box was placed on the table. "Upon sitting down it was the custom to drop a coin in the box 'To Insure Prompt Service' from the waiters.") Another thing I enjoyed were the wonderful illustrations scattered throughout the book. Finally, there's a good bibliography with some interesting ideas for further reading and a short but powerful epilogue that stresses the need for preserving the planet's biohabitat, particularly in places such the Amazon. (less)