The Story of Tea is a beautiful piece of work, valuable to all tea lovers. Many gorgeous photographs suggest the cultivative art, while a strong discussion of production methods in various regions is the real heart of the book. For those interested in a description of production down to the village level, this is one of the few works that will provide it. This section is followed by a longish chapter called "Journeying along the tea trail," which is both meandering and somewhat redundant, while at the same time providing many interesting vignettes. By the finish of these two parts, the reader will have a decent knowledge of which regions produce the more famous teas, and why. With that said, I was disappointed by the rather spare, even perfunctory, history of tea, trade and the tea trade's role in the world economic system. As for the "drinking guide" section of the book, I much prefer the author's better known "The Tea Enthusiast's Handbook: A Guide to the World's Best Teas." Moreover, the structure of the book lends itself to overlap, leading to duplication of information. Even given these deficiencies, I consider The Story of Tea to be a must read for anyone seeking knowledge about the worlds most popular beverage. It remains the best single volume concerning all things tea-related.
The Song of Achilles is a beautifully written account of the life and doom of Achilles from the perspective of his best friend, Patroclus. Miller combines material from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, as well as Vergil's Aeneid, to tell what is essentially a love story. This telling is from the perspective of a very different Patroclus than the one we meet in the Iliad. We learn of Patroclus' exile and boarding with Peleus, his time as a student with Achilles under the tutelage of the centaur, Chiron, of his troubled relationship with Thetis, Achilles' goddess-mother, and the myriad forces that pushed a reluctant Achilles into the Trojan War. In passages that are at times quite lyrical, Miller describes the playing out of the connected fates of the lovers, and those of their closest relations, including the captured Trojan, Briseis, and Achilles' horrid son, Pyrrhus. Overall, a very enjoyable novel, reminiscent of the best work of Mary Renault.
Based on a review I had read, I was expecting a novel that included all of my favorite elements: Sci Fi + Cyberpunk + Neo-Tokyo + Kinky Sex. Midori's book included all of that (and more), but was most definitely not a novel. It is a series of short stories based on the same setting, with loose ties, and a few parallel themes linking them together. As science fiction goes, I enjoyed most of the stories. The author successfully captured the cyber-punk mood and rhythm, and the often predatory element of its citizenry. Midori is clearly a talented writer, and I look forward to a novel along similar lines. The short stories couldn't quite carry through on some of my other interests. For example, I would've preferred a more detailed discussion of her version of Neo-Tokyo, and its stratified society. As for the sex, as other's have mentioned, it was pretty hot stuff--well beyond vanilla--let the buyer beware. Midori's book was quite reminiscent of Bacigalupi's "Windup Girl," without the detailed descriptions of the devastating effects of climate change on economies and societies. It had the same dystopian tone, including that element of hopelessness, and actors with few redeeming moral qualities. All in all, a worthy effort, though quite short for those looking to spend a bit more time in Midori's "depraved Neo-Tokyo."
After reading most of Haruki Murakami's oeuvre, it's safe to say that he is my favorite living writer. At his best, he can paint a picture with words, adding layer after layer of description to a canvas that, as a whole, avoids becoming dense or encrusted, but rather maintains both delicacy and depth simultaneously. His characters can often be both non-descript and unique, which he often achieves with a simple parenthetical: "In order to flee from responsibility, Tengo learned early on in life to make himself inconspicuous. He worked hard to negate his presence by publicly displaying very little of his true abilities, by keeping his opinions to himself, and by avoiding situations that put him at the center of attention...It was necessary for him to keep such contrivances in mind at all times, like the orphans in Dicken's novels." 1Q84 is a long novel in three books. Like many of Murakami's works, it involves fantastical elements and synchronicities, not to say, coincidences. It would probably be going too far to describe it as a work of magical realism. I often prefer to think of some of his fantastic contrivances as metaphors--I'm thinking of his "INKlings" from the earlier Hard-Boiled Wonderland. In 1Q84, one can only do that for so long before "air chrysalises" run into actual "little people." But Murakami-lovers must have the fortitude to get beyond, or behind, such details. Murakami is known for building his stories around an earlier novelistic archetype--e.g., his Kafka at the Shore is primarily an Oedipus story. 1Q84 is obviously riffing on Orwell's 1984, and it carefully builds and maintains throughout the oppressive mood created by Orwell's surveillance machinery. Further, 1Q84 is similarly a romance, though in this case a decades long romance between an assassin avenging the wrongs suffered by the abused and molested, and a gifted, yet not overly successful, math teacher and novelist, neither of whom has been able to surpass their life-changing grade-school encounter. And this, all set against the machinations of a fanatic and powerful cult, bent on controlling the actions of these characters and those close to them. The first two books were set up as opposing third person narratives of the stories of the two main characters, and their inter-connections. I went through the set-up, and middle portions of the book--i.e., books one and two--like the proverbial knife through butter. But in the third book, where Murakami should have continued to cleave quickly while building forcefully to his conclusion, he chose to add a third perspective--that of the representative of the afore-mentioned surveillance machinery. This character was himself, quite interesting. I enjoyed seeing this weird world through his eyes. Unfortunately, the third perspective, meant the story began jumping back and forward on three tracks. It became a chore to decipher where we were in each characters stories. At this point, I put the book down for an extended period of rest and recuperation. Eventually, though, I had to know the end of the story: Would the lovers end up like Orwell's victims of the machine? I expected so, and was haunted by that potential. I won't spoil the resolution, but however it came out--and it did include elements that were macabre at best, I was quite satisfied with the conclusion. In sum, while not my favorite of Murakami's novels, I probably prefer Wind-up Bird or Kafka, or possibly, Norwegian Wood, I consider this 1157 page door-stop, well-worth anyone's time.