Review: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah Rose

Review: For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History, Sarah RoseFor All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World's Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose
Published by Penguin Books on February 22, 2011
Genres: Nonfiction
Pages: 259
Format: E-Book
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"If ever there was a book to read in the company of a nice cuppa, this is it." -The Washington Post

In the dramatic story of one of the greatest acts of corporate espionage ever committed, Sarah Rose recounts the fascinating, unlikely circumstances surrounding a turning point in economic history. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the British East India Company faced the loss of its monopoly on the fantastically lucrative tea trade with China, forcing it to make the drastic decision of sending Scottish botanist Robert Fortune to steal the crop from deep within China and bring it back to British plantations in India. Fortune's danger-filled odyssey, magnificently recounted here, reads like adventure fiction, revealing a long-forgotten chapter of the past and the wondrous origins of a seemingly ordinary beverage.

More than a history of the British East India Company’s dominance in the tea trade, this book is really about how one man, Robert Fortune, managed to steal tea plants, seeds, secrets, and expert growers and transplant all of them to India so that Britain could wriggle out of trading with China for tea. In order to accomplish this feat, Robert Fortune committed what Rose describes as “the greatest theft of protected trade secrets the world has ever known.”

It’s an interesting story, and at the heart of it is British racism—their feelings of superiority to the Chinese from whom they stole the tea and the Indians they subjugated to help grow it in India are certainly familiar to anyone with a passing understanding of British colonial history. This act of espionage contributed in many ways, great and small, to the world around us today, and in some degree, we may owe everything from Indian independence to Chinese communism in part to Robert Fortune’s theft of Chinese tea.

Among several interesting things I learned:

  • The British East India Company basically “ruled” India until the Indian Rebellion of 1857. If I were a student in British schools, I might have learned this information in school, but since I went to American schools, I suppose it was not deemed important. Truthfully, most of the “world history” I learned was ancient history, and I learned very little about the last few hundred years in those courses. It blows my mind that a company, even one as large as the British East India Company, ruled a country.
  • In large part, the insensitivity of the British East India Company in using beef tallow and pork fat as a lubricant in the Enfield P-53 rifle, offending both Hindu and Muslim Indians, was one of the leading causes of the Indian Rebellion.
  • Wardian Cases were small “greenhouses” Robert Fortune used to transport tea plants. They actually worked pretty well, and the cases, along with Fortune’s idea to plant a few of the seeds rather than ship them unplanted, allowed them to germinate successfully.
  • There are some teas, like Da Hong Pao, that are more valuable than gold in terms of cost per ounce. Da Hong Pao costs thousands of dollars per ounce.

Rose mentions in her “Notes” that because “this is a work of popular history, not a scholarly undertaking, I have avoided the use of footnotes and tried to steer clear of mentioning sources in the body of the text.” I think this was a mistake on her part, and it’s one of the major reasons the book doesn’t earn more than four stars, for though it was entertaining, nonfiction should provide this sort of information to its readers, even popular nonfiction. And much popular nonfiction does. On the other hand, it’s the kind of popular fiction I like to read: narrow in its focus on one person’s impact on the history of the tea trade.


Review: The Lowland, Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri’s second novel The Lowland, released in 2013 and a finalist for the National Book Award, begins in the neighborhood of Tollygunge in Calcutta (now Kolkata) with two brothers, Udayan and Subhash, born 15 months apart, sneaking into the Tolly Golf Club. Subhash is beaten by a police officer when the boys are caught, and the incident seems to change their personalities as they grow up. Subhash becomes cautious, careful. Udayan’s anger at the police officer blooms into an interest in the Indian communist Naxalite movement by the time he is in college. The boys drift apart as Subhash becomes increasingly concerned by Udayan’s politics. Subhash decides to go to graduate school in Rhode Island. His brother writes him letters about his activities, including his marriage to Gauri. When Udayan is killed, Subhash travels back to Calcutta and meets Gauri, living in his parents’ home. They ignore her, and he begins to feel sympathy for her, especially after learning she is carrying Udayan’s child. He offers to marry her, and she agrees, traveling with him to Rhode Island in an attempt to escape her past. However, the terrible secret she keeps, which is not revealed until near the novel’s end, and the specter of Udayan cast a pall over the marriage.

While I can’t exactly say that I struggled through the first half of this novel, I will say it didn’t truly grab me until the second half. I’m glad I didn’t give up on it. Early in my reading, I might put it down for days at a time before picking it up again. I managed to pick up and finish two other books in the course of reading The Lowland. However, after Gauri became interested in education and started attending philosophy classes, I found myself fully engaged. Gauri emerged as the most fascinating character for me. I was actually surprised in the end when her secret was revealed, and the two most moving parts of the book for me were her final confrontation with both her daughter, Bela, and her trip back to Kolkata to see the Lowland where Udayan was killed. Gauri emerged for me as a fully realized character, a real person with a great deal of depth. I know that whenever Gauri was on the page, I sat up straight and pulled the book a little closer. Michiko Kakutani feels that Lahiri did not give Gauri enough psychological complexity for the reader to understand why she left the way she did, but I disagree. I feel that her actions are difficult to understand until she reveals her truth. In some way, Gauri feels like a bomb, I think, and removing herself from those who love her is her way of saving them and protecting them in the way she could not save two men who died—who she feels she plays some part in killing. What Gauri has done, both in Calcutta and after she arrives in America, is unforgivable. However, I think it was also very human. If one character doesn’t emerge as fully realized for me, it’s the adult Bela.To me, it’s her adult choices and actions that don’t make sense.

By the time Subhash and Gauri settled in Rhode Island and Bela was born, I found this book captivating and difficult to put down. Lahiri is at her best when she is describing the ways immigrant families navigate living in the United States, which is what made The Namesake such a success. This book is described as more ambitious than her earlier work, and it is perhaps that ambition that makes the novel a bit unwieldy. Michael Cunningham says in “First Love,” an essay he writes about discovering the novel Mrs. Dalloway, that “Woolf understood that every character, no matter how minor in a novel she wrote was visiting the novel, from a novel of his or her own.” Where this novel struggles, if it does, is that it tries to be the novel for all the characters—Udayan, Subhash, Gauri, Bela, and even Udayan and Subhash’s mother. Would it have been more even if Lahiri focused on one character? Maybe. But the result is a rich tapestry of a beautiful and moving book.

Rating: ★★★★½

The Backlist Reader Challenge 2017I can’t remember how long ago I put this on my to-read list, but it was a long time ago, and I have had the book for a while as well, so I am counting it as my second book for the Backlist Reader Challenge. Though this novel begins in the 1950’s, I am not counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge because it does go to the present and is not completely set in the past.

The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy

[amazon_image id=”0812979656″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” class=”alignleft”]The God of Small Things: A Novel[/amazon_image]I bet you thought I had given up reading for good! I admit I have been going through a real dry spell the last year or two, and it’s frustrating because the couple of years right before, I read excellent book after excellent book. I don’t see how I’ll meet my goal of reading 50 books at the pace I’ve moved this year, and much as I would like to give myself a break given that I moved last summer, I feel that at this point, I should have settled into a good reading routine. Bah.

At any rate, Arundhati Roy’s only novel, [amazon_link id=”0812979656″ target=”_blank” ]The God of Small Things[/amazon_link], was the final novel I taught for this school year, and I finished it just a hair before the students. That is Very Bad and I Do Not Recommend It. However, sometimes, it’s all you can do to stay afloat. So of course, I knew how things would shake out, and I didn’t get to see the story unfold naturally, as I would have if I had read it for pleasure. The fact is, I am not sure I would have picked up this book to read for pleasure, and how sad that would have been. It’s a beautiful book.

One of the things folks probably say too much about this novel is that its style is reminiscent of William Faulkner’s, and it truly is. He is a favorite of mine. When I taught the novel, I urged my students to be patient. This novel is like a puzzle. You know how you put it together, and you don’t have the whole picture until you get to the end? But there is a point when you can see how it is going to come out, and you realize what it is you are putting together? That is what this book is: It begins in the middle, and the beginning is somewhere in the middle. The end is in the middle, and the middle is at the end. The nonlinear narrative may pose a challenge for some readers, but it is a worthy one.

To start with, the description of Ayemenem in Kerala, India, is absolutely gorgeous. The green trees drip with fruit and the buzzing and whirring of birds and insects fills the air. The river, the deceptively quiet river Kuttappen describes as looking like “a little old churchgoing ammooma, quiet and clean,” but is “[r]eally a wild thing” (201), as the children learn from personal experience. It seems you can always tell when an author has truly inhabited a place she writes about because the description is so vivid that you inhabit it, too, for the time while you read the book.

I admit the narrative made it difficult to follow and put events in their proper place. A timeline, added to as the reader fills in details, would not go amiss. It will take some time to fall into the flow of the nonlinear narrative. Give this one a little longer than you ordinarily might give a book before giving up on it.

In terms of characters, I found myself fascinated by Ammu, the mother of twins Rahel (from whose point of view most of the novel is told) and Estha. Her choices fascinated me. One minute I found myself empathizing with her, and the next, I hated her. Her aunt, Baby Kochamma, was also a fascinating character. She is a master manipulator the likes of which you rarely see, but she, too, has a kind of tragedy at her core, even if it is of her own device, that provokes pity.

I have to recommend this book highly, most highly to those who enjoy Faulkner and who like to read about exotic locales. If you are not either of those, give it a chance anyway. It’s quite well written—gorgeous, lush prose in the English that for some reason, only Indians can write (I have no idea why that is). Aside from that, it tells the moving story of the destruction and decay of a family because things can change in day.

Rating: ★★★★★