The Man Who Loved China; The Fantastic Story of the Eccentric Scientist Who Unlocked the Mysteries of the Middle Kingdom
by Simon Winchester
Published by Harper Collins, 2008; hardback, 295 pp
Joseph Needham (1900-1995) of Cambridge University was a stereotypical British eccentric who enjoyed Morris dancing and nude bathing. But, more importantly, he was a world-class scientist, researcher and author. He was a man who spoke fluent Chinese and loved China, but he was also a man who loved women, many women.
He was a dedicated socialist, a member of the British Communist Party, unable for many years to visit the United States because of his close ties to the Peoples’ Republic of China. But he was also a fervent Anglican, who often delivered sermons at his local church.
His forty-volume Science and Civilization in China is still in print and remains the world’s greatest work on the history of scientific discovery in the Middle Kingdom, but never answered the riddle of why China’s advancement suddenly stopped in the sixteenth century and was overtaken by the European Renaissance.
While the book mainly tells the life story of Needham, a story fascinating in its own right, the more interesting aspect of the book was its backdrop for the telling of an equally fascinating panoramic picture of China through the millennia. It includes China’s own political and economic “renaissance” after the catharsis of the Cultural Revolution and the reopening toward the West.
The reader will learn a great deal about Chinese geography, history and culture in the process of reading Needham’s remarkable biography. It’s a very good read.
Simon Winchester, a prolific writer whose books have appeared on many best and notable lists, specializes in meticulously researched and well written stories about fascinating people and events from the past, including The Professor and the Madman; The Map That Changed the World; Krakatoa; and A Crack in the Edge of the World. He was awarded an OBE in 2006. He now lives in western Massachusetts.
Stand and the Storm
by Breena Clarke, ©2008
Published by Little, Brown & Co; hardback, 320 pp
Breena Clarke’s first novel, River, Cross My Heart, received fine reviews and notable attention as a selection for Oprah’s Book Club. Producing a second novel is always a bit chancy, even for a good writer, because expectations are boosted by the success of the first book, but Clarke’s Stand The Storm is a brave and successful follow-up.
Set in Maryland and Georgetown in the mid-nineteenth century, it is the tale of a family’s rise from slavery. “Sewing Annie” Coats, the matriarch of the clan, was born to slavery on the Maryland plantation of her master, Jonathan Ridley. The eponym was given her to differentiate her from a slave known as “Knitting Annie,” her mentor. Between the two of them, they produced all the clothes, fancy embroidery, and knitted items needed by the Ridley family and their white employees.
Sewing Annie, a woman of considerable fortitude and guile, formed a relationship with Bell, the plantation’s blacksmith, but their master would not allow them to marry. When Bell had an accident that cost him an arm, he was rendered useless to the master, and was given to a neighbor in payment of a farm debt.
Their son, Gabriel, was allowed to remain with his mother only because she had made him an essential part of her activities from his earliest years. At a very young age, his needlework and knitting showed skilled craftsmanship and an artist’s eye. He also had a masterful way as a cutter of fabric, managing to eke out scraps large enough to use for his and his mother’s own purposes.
At the age of ten, his owner decided to make some money on him, and hired him out to a tailor named Abraham Pearl in Georgetown. Pearl spent the next few years teaching him the craft he would need to make his way as a tailor of fine suits and clothing for the elite of Washington, DC.
Eventually, Abraham Pearl moved on, and Jonathan Ridley’s nephew, Aaron took over the shop. Aaron knew nothing of tailoring, and his management of the business was casual at best. He was soon complaining to his uncle about needing help in the shop, and Sewing Annie was sent to Georgetown to work with her son.