Book Title: The Empire of Tea [0]*
Author: Alan MacFarlane and Iris MacFarlane
posted on November 4, 2004

This is a very personal history of tea cultivation in India. The authors are the son and wife of a Scott who managed an English tea plantation in India for 20 years, starting sometime in the 1950s. The son is a social anthropologist. The book moves back and forth from Iris's personal and moving story of what it was like to be a tea manager's wife, and the cultural, social, and political history of Indian tea, particularly in the Assam region. I picked the book up because I'm not only a tea snob, but I'm an tea snob who prefers Indian tea and who's tea of first choice is an Assam -- you can keep your wimpy Darjeelings and Himalayan teas, give me a tea that will peel paint off the walls any day.

Ahem. Back to the book. I found it compelling because of my personal interest in the subject, but it wasn't very well written. It was obviously written by two separate hands and in parts (most notably the section on tea and health) relied far too much on questionable secondary resources (like newspapers), when the primary resources (like reports of study results) wouldn't have been that hard to find. Some sections, notably (1) Iris's personal accounts of trying to help the plantation workers, and (2) the history of how plantation workers were used (and abused) by the English in the World War II war effort, and (3) the sections arguing that tea made concentration of large populations possible because you have to boil water (thereby killing bacteria) to make the tea, were fascinating. I would recommend the book to someone with an interest in either the history of tea or the exploitation of India by the British, but would suggest picking and choosing among the sections.

Book Title: Calculating God
Author: Robert Sawyer
posted on November 1, 2004

This book takes the premise of Carl Sagan's Contact (at least the movie version; I haven't read the book) -- that religion and science, while opposed, are really the same thing -- and turns it on its head.

Two alien races come to earth to seek evidence of God. One of them visits a paleontologist in Canada, and the two of them look at fossils and debate the existence of God -- the alien believes that all available scientific evidence proves the existence of God, while the paleontologist is an atheist. A small but significant subplot involving fundamentalist Christian extremists drives the point home: science and religion don't have to be opposed to one another -- both ways of seeing the world are flexible enough to accommodate the other. The book is great fun, and I kept wishing it was a BCDC selection; it would make for great discussion fodder.

Book Title: Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 [+]*
Author: Nathaniel Philbrick
posted on October 12, 2004

This book tells the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, the last all-sail expedition to circumnavigate the globe. The expedition was a European-style jaunt combining the aims of exploration, science and conquest. Its three goals were to find land below the Antarctic Convergence, chart as many Pacific islands as possible (many of these charts were still in use during World War II), and chart the mouth of the Columbia river (then controlled by England).

It accomplished all that and more, including the first--but highly contested--sighting of the Antarctic continent. The expedition was a stunning accomplishment, one that deserves a place in popular memory alongside the Lewis and Clark expedition. But when the expedition returned to the U.S., it was mired in political controversy and scandal -- many officers, including the expedition's leader, Charles Wilkes, faced courts martial, and the expedition's scientific accomplishments were buried by a White House administration with an axe to grind.

I read this book because of my Antarctic obsession (which seems to be morphing into a South Pacific obsession), but it is a well-written, fast-paced history that is exciting and endlessly interesting -- I'd recommend it to anyone.

Book Title: In The Shadow of No Towers [+]*
Author: Art Spiegelman
posted on September 11, 2004

This is a gorgeous book. The cover features Spiegelman's haunting black-on-black image of the World Trade Center that the New Yorker published a few days after September 11, 2001; superimposed over the images is a small panel of characters that have been kicked by a goat -- they tumble through the air, confused and mixed up. The cover captures the sense of confusion, loss and fear that Spiegelman explores in his strips.

Like Spiegelman's Maus, these comics are personal. Spiegelman lives very near ground zero and was walking in his neighborhood on September 11. The first half of these strips explore his feelings immediately after the event, as well as his confusion and anger about the U.S. government's subsequent actions. His introduction to the collection is moving and insightful, and several of his panels (like the one where he's trying to find his daughter among 3000 students, at her school in the shadow of the collapsing towers) made me cry. Similarly, his political criticism made me wave my fists in the air and scream, in the same way that Fahernheit 911 did -- it's so good to hear someone speak my pain.

The second half of the book is a bit puzzling. It's a collection of several comic strips from around 1900 to 1905. In all of these examples, there's a nugget that could have been drawn/written today by someone like Spiegelman--a criticism of the government, of the passionless attitude most Americans have toward our freedoms, an exploration of paranoia and fear. As interesting as these were, what I really wanted was more Spiegelman -- I know he works slowly (Maus took him 13 years to write), but still, I wish the book contained more of his work.

However, setting that aside, this is good stuff -- go get it and read it now.

This is my notebook, my musings about what I've read lately. For more about why this site exists, please see the about page.

Other rooms in the palace:

current VM entry

Key to symbols
+ recommended
0 fine
- forgetable
* library book

Caveat Lector: This website documents my own reading adventure. I am the only reviewer and book selection is guided by my own tastes and interests. You may or may not agree with my opinions -- that's what makes the world an interesting place.

powered by movable type
Copyright 2001-2005.