Friday, 13 January 2012

Tea Leaf & Magic Bean

For All the Tea in China is a novelisation of the adventures of the Victorian botanist/plant hunter, and my ancestor, Robert Fortune. Covering his second, illegal trip into the Chinese hinterland this time he's is trying to steal the secrets of the coveted Green & Black Teas of China which are still highly prized and, at the time, a cornerstone of the Chinese economy. Fortune's search of seeds, saplings and Tea expertise was at the behest and expense of the East India Company, the very model of a ravenous, brutal corporate monster. The book pads out his dramatic and tense encounters with locals, pirates and warlords with plenty of social and historical background. Fortune comes across as a determined, passionate man who had no shortage of gumption but as much as he seems to admire the Chinese themselves he doesn't appear to understand or acknowledge much awareness (or maybe sympathy) for China's people and their cultural/political situation. There is one moment however, during his trip into the Wu Yi mountains, bowed over by the beauty of the landscape and the generosity of the monks that helped him, that he shows a more humane side. The writing is good, if a little unremarkable, and it's certainly a much easier read than Fortune's own memoirs of the time but it's the events & escapades of the main character that drive this book. I'm obviously a little bias but I really enjoyed it, a nice, interesting slice of history.

The Anatomist is another enjoyable tale of scientific discovery this time set in Renaissance Italy and about a man with a quite different passion. Mateo Colombo was a highly regarded physician of the era and after becoming smitten with a prestigious whore sets about finding a way to codify and manipulate female passions and during the process, stumbles onto a patient that reveals the existence of "Amor Veneris" aka the clitoris. There's less social/cultural scene setting than in For All... and the narrative is considerably more involved, reading almost like a novel but author Frederico Andahazi's light prose dances through the colourful story of Colombo's discovery, imprisonment & subsequent trial. There's a lots of laughs and a little tragedy along the way as well as the expected sex, death and politics and it's a fascinating & thoroughly entertaining read.

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