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Tomes 2011: A Distinct Chinese Theme

My reading of late has taken a bit of a detour from geology.  I’ll no doubt swerve back that way soon, but when building a region modeled a bit on Southeast Asia, one needs to read up on Southeast Asia.  Not that that kept me from sneaking a bit o’ geology in there anyway….

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Tigers, Rice, Silk & Silt

When I first began writing, I would have laughed in the face of anyone who suggested I’d need to read up on old Chinese farming practices, and moreover, would love doing it.  That was, of course, before I came across Robert Marks’s wonderful book.

Anyone who’s interested in how people fed themselves and their nations before the industrial age, how humans have shaped the environment, how climate factors in to things like population and war, and who’s ever had a desire to see history from the perspective of ordinary farming folk – this is your book.  Environmental change is tracked by, of all things, tiger attacks.  And you’ll find out that the Pearl River Delta is very far from being a completely natural feature.

Robert Marks knows his stuff.  And he’ll teach it to you in a style that, while academic and detailed, doesn’t bludgeon with facts and figures, but weaves a tale of people, tigers, weather, and civilization.  I found it one of the more fascinating things I’ve read for research purposes.  And it’s given me a new perspective on China’s history.  The past is far more than the doings of emperors.  This book brings that point nicely home.

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The Pattern of the Chinese Past

Well, of course, if I was reading Tigers, I needed to pick this one up again.  I read it many years ago, and it’s a very good, easily readable survey of Chinese history.  It doesn’t focus as much on environment as on social and economic factors.  A nice crash course, if you will, outside of the usual dismaying tendency for so many histories to focus on war, dynasties, more war, regime change, salacious bits, and yet more war.

It’s a good companion volume to Tigers, reinforcing some of the former’s points and expanding the view from the Lingnan region to the whole of China.  And it covers a fair number of revolutions: in farming, water transport, money and credit, urbanization, and science and technology.  It’s a good reminder that modern folk and ancient Greeks and Romans weren’t the only clever bastards on the planet.

These two books are a good way to get a feel for where China comes from.  It’s a nation with a very long, very civilized past, and if we want to understand it today (as well we should), it’s a damned good idea to see where it came from.  Besides, with the push for organic farming, it’s also a good idea to see how that worked in the past.  It wasn’t, contrary to popular crunchy belief, all sweetness and environmental harmony: understanding that can prevent us from mistaking organic for completely eco-friendly.

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The Man Who Loved China

Sounds like a spy novel, dunnit?  Well, there’s a spy or two in it, but the Man himself isn’t a spy.  He was a biologist, nudist, socialist, ladies’ man, and Morris dancer named Joseph Needham, and he’s very nearly single-handedly responsible for ensuring China got proper credit for all of those ancient scientific breakthroughs the West liked to filch and then take credit for.  You should really get to know him.

No better introduction than Simon Winchester’s book, which follows Needham’s adventures in China with all the flair and dash of the man himself.  This is one of the most entertaining non-fiction reads I’ve encountered in a long while.  I laughed, I cried, it became a part of me, in the immortal words of one of my former creative writing classmates.  I came away with new respect for China, for Needham (whom I’d never heard of before) and for Cambridge and England, who together decided it was quite all right for a man to go fall in love with China and spend the rest of his life writing Science and Civilisation in China, volumes upon volumes of it, even though the book rather stole Western thunder at a time when everyone was freaking out over commies everywhere, including the ones running China, and took a scientist and scholar seriously even though he was a pinko commie lib who liked to run around with no clothes on and with women who weren’t his wife.

And it’s one hell of an intellectual adventure.  So, if you want to know more about China but don’t want to spend pages and pages on farming, make this one your first choice.

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A Crack in the Edge of the World

I really had no intention of reading this one.  Ever.  Sick of the San Francisco Earthquake, thanks ever so much.  But pickings in the geology section were slim, this was on sale for five bucks, and it’s Simon Winchester, so I folded. 
I’m so very glad I did, even though it’s had a rather earth-shaking impact on my dreams.

What I love most about the book is that the earthquake only occupies a small part of it.  We’re treated to a boundary-to-boundary tour of the North American Plate, its history through geologic time, and, just to shake things up a little, a detour by the New Madrid earthquakes.  There’s a good look at the San Andreas Fault, and the remarkable monitoring going on in Parkfield.  Then there’s a heaping helping of California history, complete with sturm, drang, und Chinatown.  I don’t think any other book not specifically dedicated to it has ever given me a more intimate look at the Chinese immigrant experience in America, and it belongs here because Chinatown shattered and burned with all the rest in the great quake of 1906.

And the descriptions of the event itself do it geological justice.  There’s stuff in there that will give you a new appreciation for good, earthquake-resistant construction, not to mention the importance of building with an eye to being able to put fires out after the rocking and rolling’s done.  You get a visceral feel for what it’s like to be in the midst of an earth-shattering event.  And, when all’s said and done, you’ll take a trip up to Alaska, where you’ll discover the San Andreas has a presence still.

Layfolk like myself will appreciate the clear and concise Appendix that takes some of the confusion out of things like magnitude and intensity. 

Those worried about having nightmares of being trapped in falling buildings should probably relax.  This book fascinated my brain enough to make it dream about earthquakes for several nights, but instead of a lot of chaos and destruction, it was mostly dreams about earthquake monitoring, which were far more interesting.

Those of us who know and love Chris Rowan will probably think of him frequently while reading this book, because there’s a distinct feel of Friday Focal Mechanisms about some parts of it.

So, yes, it turns out I wasn’t completely and totally tired of the San Francisco Earthquake after all.  When it’s in the hands of a geologist and historian who knows how to step outside the main event and see it as one piece in a continent-spanning whole, it’s quite interesting indeed.

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Great Caves of the World

Here’s what you do if you want a book that will give you a short, sharp intro to cave geology combined with a whirlwind world tour of the world’s most spectacular caves, illustrated with photographs that will cause you to consider joining the local spelunking club forthwith: you go out and procure yourself a copy of this book.

It’s absolutely wonderful.

There’s your basic limestone caves, some richly decorated in calcite and some not; there’s caves formed by sulfuric acid, formed in salt, formed in lava, decorated by ice, and decorated by dangling strings of buggy mucus that are far more beautiful than they sound.  There are caves with lakes, and caves with canyons, and caves with skylights.  The common theme is that they are magnificent.

It’s a whole new world down there.  And this is a wonderful window in to it.  If you only ever buy one book on caves in your life, it should very probably be this one.

Oh, and in keeping with our Chinese theme, it does indeed contain a cave from China.

I think that will do for now.  Additionally, I haven’t finished any other books just yet.  That’s as good a reason as any to stop here, then, innit?