Sunday, March 13, 2016

Richard III: The Search for the King's Grave

"Oh, enough about Richard - let's talk about me!"  That's how Philippa Langley's chapters came across.   A writer who organized the search for Richard III's remains (found under a Leicester car park in 2012 and confirmed as Richard's in 2013), she makes Richard almost an afterthought to her search, and her navel-gazing.  I am interested in the archaeology involved in finding the grave, but Langley glosses over that and keeps coming back to the "feeling" she had when she stood over the R painted on the tarmac and under which Richard was eventually found.  (My cynical side kept thinking about how plastic memory is and how easily one can implant false memories in one's own mind.)  Langley's writing style didn't help; I can't remember the last time an author irritated me so much.

Historian Michael Jones's chapters were much more enlightening and enjoyable.  His straightforward exploration of Richard's actions and motivations segued neatly into how Tudor libel turned Richard III  into a historical monster.  His style is a bit dry, though.  I wanted to enjoy Richard III: The Search for the King's Grave but unfortunately the authors made it difficult to do so.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Man Who Loved China

I should have enjoyed The Man Who Loved China more than I did.  I've read a few books by Simon Winchester and found them engrossing, and Joseph Needham is a fascinating character.  A true polymath, he read biochemistry at Cambridge, became a fellow of the college, and married a fellow scientist.  (Joseph and Dorothy Needham - also a biochemist who studied the chemical composition of muscles - are the only married couple to both be named fellows of the Royal Academy.)

Then Needham met a young Chinese scientist named Lu Gwei-djen.  They started a life-long affair (with the knowledge and consent of Dorothy Needham - they had the sort of bohemian post-Edwardian arrangement that makes me think of the Bloomsbury Set), and Needham's love for Gwei-djen led to a love of China.  Initially attached to a diplomatic mission, he set out to confirm his theory that China and the West had parallel tracks, both inventing technologies that at the time were considered purely Western.  He was right, and his discoveries changed the world's view of China.

I should have been fascinated by Winchester's narrative, but for some reason it didn't make much of an impression on me.  Perhaps it was how and when I read it, a few pages at a time before bed during the dreariest part of the winter.  It may be a book that requires more concentrated attention.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Sun in a Bottle

Imagine, unlimited power where the only by-product is helium, a non-toxic gas used both industrially and to blow up party balloons.  Sun in a Bottle traces the 20th Century quest for viable, and then commercially viable fusion power.  Building on the (ultimately wrong) Too Cheap to Meter dreams of early fission power and the sensible desire not to create waste products that could bring about the end of the world, scientists on both sides of the Cold War raced to create fusion reactors which produced more energy than they used.  Charles Seife has written a fascinating, if somewhat dry,  narrative of what is still an unsuccessful enterprise.

Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas

1814 is drawing to a close and Jane, Cassandra, and their mother travel to their former home to spend the holidays with the Mr. Collins-like James Austen and his Mary Musgrove-like second wife, Mary.  They're in for a drearily holiday until a neighbor invites the family for a series of parties and balls to celebrate the full Christmas season (the holiday not being confined to a mere day until the rather dreary Prince Albert imported that tradition).  Jane, as usual, stumbles upon a murder and with the help of Benjamin West's son Raphael (an artist in his own right but here making sketches for a later work of his father's), untangles a web involving both clandestine love affairs and foreign affairs.  As usual, the charm of the story lies in "meeting" the inspirations for Jane's characters and seeing her for the witty, rather sharp-tongued woman she must have been (rather than the prim spinster her nieces and nephews made her out to be after her death).