Category Archives: 4.5/5

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel

I’ve never really thought much about the banana. I was terrified of them as a child, suspecting that there were deadly poisonous spiders concealed within each bunch. I’ve gotten a little older now, and occasionally enjoy them, but they’ve not really ever been on my mind until I read Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World that tells the reader all about its past, its present, and its future.

Dan Koeppel, the author of Banana, has a wonderful sense of humor throughout the book. He actually goes to visit banana plantations and other notable locations, such as Leuven, Belgium, the seat of banana research. I found his levity delightful; I like microhistories, but not those that take themselves so seriously as to squish the fun out of their topics.

The first thing Koeppel does that I think is great is explore how bananas most likely spread throughout the tropics. He makes the important point that plants, unlike us animals with our easily (in comparison) bones, plants are made of materials that don’t fossilize well. The path of the banana is a guessing game, one that has better odds now that there is genetic testing, but it’s still not perfect.

The majority of Banana, though, is spent discussing the more recent history of the fruit. I found it most interesting that United Fruit Company (what became Chiquita) allowed its competitors to survive only to avoid anti-trust lawsuits. The businesspeople behind the companies were something else — I think it’s incredible how ruthless the leaders of fruit packing companies were. You think fruit and you think happy, but that’s not often the case.

Koeppel talks extensively about the conditions on the ground in Central America. Workers were treated as if they weren’t human, but animals; when they tried to stand up for themselves, the fruit companies got the local (or American) governments to squelch the rebellions. The banana literally helped shape the way government functions today in Central America. How sad it is that it’s often a brutal and militaristic regime that’s in power.

Even more interesting is the disease that killed the banana type most eaten before the 1940s — the gros michel. It was not immune to Panama disease, but the Cavendish was. Thus, we now eat the Cavendish … but it’s not immune to all forms of Panama disease, only those found in Central America. The thought is that the banana will eventually die out like the gros michel, and it’s up to us to find another variety, create another variety (which is difficult with an asexual organism), or find a way to beat Panama disease.

Koeppel presents the banana in both a fun and a serious way, interspersing humor with gravity well. I think anyone who likes microhistory will enjoy Banana.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

I am a devoted Michael Shermer fan. I’ve read most of his other books — and enjoyed them a lot. Imagine my excitement when The Believing Brain came up as a possible advanced review book. I applied only for this one book, and I’m so glad I did. The Believing Brain is a wonderful introduction to how our minds make themselves up, then look for support for their conclusions.

Shermer breaks the book down into four parts. I feel it’s appropriate to explore the book based on the parts he’s decided to present.

Part 1: Journeys of Belief

Providing us with real-life case studies first, Shermer gives us a blue-collar gentleman whose experience one late night in the 1960s made him look for the otherworldly being he thinks visited him and gave him a message of love. This gentleman then took up philosophy and science, hoping to prove there is such a being.

The next gentleman Shermer discusses is a scientist who believes in God. He tells Shermer that he used to not have belief, and then, one day, he made the leap and became a believer. He sees evidence of a creator in the fact that he has a choice whether to believe. He thinks doubt is a chance to grow in one’s faith.

Then Shermer tells his story. Once a born-again Christian (by his own choice — his family was mostly secular), Shermer grew to see in college that his beliefs didn’t jibe with what he was learning.

I thought this part was somewhat interesting. I already knew Shermer’s story, but it was refreshing to read the stories of the other two gentlemen to see how they ended up on the other side of the belief table.

Part 2: The Biology of Belief

This was a really fascinating part of the book for me. Shermer discusses how the human brain is wired to find patterns — if we make a mistake on whether there is a pattern to a random occurrence, we don’t really suffer a consequence, but if we think things are unrelated when they actually are, then there’s a problem. We also tend to think there’s a cause behind things, which has aided our species to survive. I like the fact that Shermer provides us with these tendencies, because they’re helpful to keep in mind both when reading the book and when exploring one’s own beliefs.

Part 3: Belief in Things Unseen

This is the part that felt most familiar to me in the entire book. Shermer goes through several types of beliefs (e.g., belief in UFOs) and discusses the research on them. He explores the experiences of those who think they have had contact with or some other experience involving these “things unseen”, and then talks about the science behind those beliefs. I’ve read books, both by Shermer and others, that talk about similar things, but it’s always nice to be up on the latest science in the field.

Part 4: Belief in Things Seen

I loved this section of the book. Here, Shermer talks about facets of our everyday lives, like politics, and why we dig our heels in when confronted with a contrary tenet. He also talks about the history of astronomy to illustrate how even science can be affected by our set beliefs. I thought this was great. To show that science is, ultimately, something done by humans and is prone to human mistakes and tendencies is fantastic. How else are we to try to eliminate bias if we don’t acknowledge its existence?

Overall, I really liked the book. My only quibble with it (and for shame on me, after having read it) is that Shermer reveals he’s a libertarian. My cliché sirens went off! I really don’t think it’s something he necessarily had to share. The Believing Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how people decide on what they’re going to think, and then seek the evidence. I think we all need to be aware of that tendency, and also be wary of it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Something Rotten by Jasper Fforde

After reading The Well of Lost Plots, I wasn’t sure what to expect in Something Rotten.  It surprisingly picks up two years after the previous book, with Thursday having given birth to her son, Friday, and returning to the real world.  It gets back to the main story of Thursday’s life, which, I think, is preferable to the fantastical world of unpublished books.  Something Rotten is superior, and I enjoyed it even more than The Well of Lost Plots.

Thursday returns with a guest — Hamlet, who needs some time away from his play.  Accompanied also by her son and dodos, Thursday comes back to stay with her mother.  She also finds Goliath Corporation trying to make itself a religion, a prophesy that states that if the Swindon Mallets, the local croquet team, doesn’t win its game against the Reading Whackers, the world just might end.  Thursday ends up as manager, since Goliath hires away most of the talent from the team.

Thursday takes advantage of Goliath’s religious aims, asking for an apology and the return of her husband, Landen.  They hold to their word, but he flickers in and out for a while, causing some issues with showing up at his home only to find his parents there instead, who don’t remember their son ever becoming an adult.

With all this going on, Thursday is also chasing down the minotaur that escaped from captivity in the previous book and is chasing down Yorrick Kaine, who has come to significant political power and has started a crusade against the Danes and all things Danish.  She is also being chased down by an assassin called the Windowmaker, who has close ties to one of her good friends.  A loaded plate, to say the least.

I think the best thing about this book is the balance between the crises.  I didn’t have as much of a problem following exactly what was going on in Something Rotten.  That might have something to do with the fact that I’ve actually read more of the books and plays mentioned in this volume than the others, but I also think Fforde has created a more polished book.  Friday’s escapades make more sense and the prose flows more easily.

One thing that confused me a bit was the inclusion of illustrations in the book, which seemed more heavy in the front of the book than in the back.  I suspect these might have been a holdover from the hardcover edition, but, seeing as they weren’t in the other books in the series, it made me a little perplexed.  I would have preferred them be left out; I think that, unless it’s a children’s book or a nonfiction book that needs figures, illustrations aren’t really necessary.

Overall, I really enjoyed Something Rotten.  I found it more clever than The Well of Lost Plots, which is a pretty difficult feat, and I was completely engaged in the narrative.  I can’t wait to get into the next book in the series, to find out what next happens to Ms. Thursday Next.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys, the sequel to American Gods, has a decidedly different feel to it compared to its predecessor.  While American Gods had the feeling of a sweeping epic, Anansi Boys is the story of one particular young man.  This just goes to showcase the talent that Neil Gaiman possesses, because both books are exceptionally well-written.

Fat Charlie Nancy is our hapless protagonist, shifting as life forces him to move.  He gets bossed around at work.  His fiancée, Rosie, refuses to sleep with him until after they’re married.  The one aspect of his life that causes him the most trouble, however, is his father.  He spent most of his childhood being tricked, and, understandably, enjoyed the fact that his mother moved the two of them to England when he was a child, while his father stayed behind in Florida.

The real adventure starts when Fat Charlie’s father dies.  It is then that he learns that his father was a god — Anansi, the spider god — and also that he has a brother.  When, in an idle impulse, Fat Charlie asks a spider to bring his brother to him, his problems really start.  His brother, Spider, is everything Fat Charlie isn’t — confident, self-assured, and charming.  Spider also ends up in love with Rosie.  Fat Charlie’s frustration with his brother boils over, and his anger leads him to make a dangerous decision with unforeseen consequences.

Most likely the best thing about both Anansi Boys and American Gods is their use of traditional mythological characters while maintaining a realistic modern sensibility.  I’ve read books where the author has taken a mythological or religious theme and placed it in the modern day and made it cloying or cutesy; Anansi Boys is never either of those.  Rather, Gaiman’s novel has a sharpness to it that creates a sense of believability that is uncommon in books with fantastical components.

Another wonderful aspect of Gaiman’s writing is the lightness of it.  Even when characters are in peril and the pacing is fast, Gaiman’s prose is supple and flowing.  His use of humor is also quite smooth and rather dry, which goes well with the overall tone and subject of the book.

My only quibble is the ending, which I found a bit too neat.  That might just be me, thinking ahead to future books, but I would have liked a little more ambiguity in the final results of Fat Charlie’s story.  I also would have liked a stronger development of Fat Charlie’s boss, Grahame Coats, and his relationship to Tiger.  Until very close to the end, Gaiman didn’t discuss a direct relationship between the two; while this might have been because he wanted to create a surprise factor, it isn’t too terribly difficult to imagine, and I think the story might be more interesting if there were a more defined partnership between the two.

Overall, Anansi Boys is well worth the read, especially for its interesting take on magical realism and Gaiman’s strong writing.  The gods may be based on African ones, but the story belongs to us all.  Let’s take advantage of that.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Working for Yourself: Law & Taxes for Independent Contractors, Freelancers, & Consultants by Stephen Fishman

Unlike the first Nolo guide I read, which was about how to buy your first house, Working for Yourself is not directly related to my everyday life.  I don’t have my own business, and though the thought of working for myself is appealing, I don’t really know what I’d do.  I read this guide more out of my own personal interest as to what laws and regulations business owners have to take into consideration.  For my goal, Working for Yourself is more than adequate, because I think anyone could use it to get their business started with a stable legal and tax foundation.

The most valuable chapter of Working for Yourself is, in my opinion, the first one.  “Working for Yourself: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” discusses the pros and cons of setting up shop on one’s own.  The most important thing I took away from this chapter was that my workplace actually provides me with many benefits I hadn’t really thought of before, like automatically taking my taxes out of my paycheck and providing me with a modicum of job security.  This really is the chapter that taught me two important things — one is that people who employ themselves do a lot of work besides their work, and the other is that I’m probably not cut out for running my own business.

The rest of the book provides plenty of legal advice, most of which centers on tax law.  I had no idea that self-employed people have to pay estimated taxes four times a year, which is a little scary in its frequency.  I knew that there are different kinds of companies, but Fishman goes into detail about the pluses and minuses of being considered a sole proprietor as opposed to a partnership or a corporation — did you know that a sole proprietor is a lot more likely to be audited than a corporation?  I found a lot of the information interesting in the abstract, at least.

A couple of lines in Working for Yourself were a little questionable to me.  At one point, when Fishman discusses renting business property, he says something to the effect of that, as opposed to when you rent an apartment, you aren’t covered by as many laws because you’re considered to be “an adult”.  While this sentiment might resonate with many self-employed people, the last time I checked, very few minors are allowed to rent apartments.  We’re all adults; the two spaces are used for different things.  Businesses aren’t as covered by regulations protecting the renter because people don’t live in their businesses.  Housing is essential, business offices aren’t.

The other line that bothered me was when Fishman, referring to a fee for starting a business, calls it “basically a tax”.  No, it’s not a tax.  It’s a fee.  That’s why you don’t put it on your tax form and you pay it up-front.  If it were a tax, they would call it a tax and assess it as such.

Other than those couple of bumps, I thought Working for Yourself to be a comprehensive resource on business law and business taxes.  I’d recommend it without reservation to those interested in setting themselves up.

Rating: 4/5.

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Death by Black Hole: and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Let me just get this out:  I love Neil deGrasse Tyson.  I’ve enjoyed watching him on television and have read a couple of his other books.  He’s my favorite astrophysicist.  I’ve even gotten my fiance to start watching Nova scienceNOW with me, which makes me beyond happy.  This book also makes me beyond happy; Tyson makes astronomy and physics delightful to read.

Death by Black Hole is composed of essays Tyson originally wrote for Natural History.  They’ve been broken up into sections, which is in keeping with the greats of popular science writing — it’s definitely what Stephen Jay Gould did with his books, and those are almost unfailingly fantastic.

The first section, “The Nature of Knowledge,” contains essays about how we gather information about the world around us.  As a geography nerd, I loved his explanation of how something that seems as simple as measuring the length of a border becomes more complex when you adjust the scale at which you’re looking at it, as well as your rules for what to do about curves, tides, and other things that can affect a border.  It all fits in with the concept of measurement, and how it works differently depending on your tools, your intent for the result, and the time and culture in which you live.

The next section, “The Knowledge of Nature,” discusses what we do know about how things work.  The section on antimatter and subatomic particles was particularly good.  They’re such weird concepts that I love to read anyone’s description of them, and Tyson’s particularly enjoyable.

“Ways and Means of Nature,” the third section, discusses how nature appears to us.  Tyson discusses constants and limits found in nature, which are interesting to know about.  He also discusses how the work of people like Newton still contains practical, useful concepts and rules.  This is nice; I like knowing that my high school physics hasn’t all gone out of style.

The fourth section, “The Meaning of Life,” has information about how life started on Earth and how it might start other places.  This is probably one of the more controversial sections.  People vary widely in their opinions on both topics, but, in my opinion, Tyson gives a nice rundown that seems very reasonable.

The most entertaining section is next.  “When the Universe Turns Bad” contains his essays on how people, Earth, and the Sun can be destroyed by outside influences.  He also talks about what it would be like to fall into a black hole (not so awesome), have Earth hit with a large meteor or asteroid (also not awesome), and to be hit with massive amounts of gamma radiation (surprisingly enough, not awesome).  It’s a fun section, in a morbid sort of way.

“Science and Culture” is all about people, how they perceive science and nature, and how often they get it wrong.  One particular essay that made me laugh was how movies get science wrong.  I found this entertaining for a couple of reasons.  The first was that Tyson said he hates people who say, “the book was better,” because he often doesn’t read the book — the movie’s more condensed!  The second reason was that, for Pete’s sake, it’s a movie.  As long as it’s not egregious, can’t you suspend disbelief for two hours?  That essay was still entertaining in the way he intended it to be, but I also thought it was cute for those other reasons.

Lastly, we have “Science and God.”  While Tyson doesn’t come right out and say that science and religion are incompatible, he does mention that God has become the answer for the gaps, which I think is very true.  The more we know about nature, the less God is responsible for and the less he’s needed in a creator role.  He’ll always be needed for comfort and faith; that’s just a fact.  But he’s not very effective as a causative factor regarding the physical universe and all it contains.

My only complaint with Death by Black Hole is that sometimes Tyson’s humor doesn’t come through as he intends it to.  Sometimes he sounds grumpy, which I don’t think he is.  I think he just has a subtle or wry sense of humor that doesn’t translate very well on the page.  Having seen him many times in many different appearances, I’m able to gauge his intent a little better than a reader coming to him for the first time.  It’s unfortunate that’s the case, and is the only thing that kept me from giving the book a perfect score.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko

Night Watch, the first of the Watch series, reminds me of the Dresden Files books.  We’ve got a man whose job is to be part of the fight of good against evil.  Lukyanenko, however, has created a darker world than that of Butcher’s Harry Dresden.

Lukyanenko’s world consists of normal people and Others, people with magical powers.  A small number of Others are part of one of two Watches.  Those on the side of good take part in the Night Watch, keeping tabs on what evil Others are doing, while those of the side of evil monitor the good by becoming a member of the Day Watch.

Night Watch is composed of three interwoven stories.  The first, “Destiny,” starts off with the almost-killing of a teenage boy, Egor.  Our hero, Anton, comes to his rescue, outright killing the male vampire involved in the attack and seriously wounding the female vampire.  After all, they were poaching — Egor wasn’t on the list of acceptable prey, and the woman had no license at all.

Anton gets a better look at Egor’s aura after the fact, and realizes the boy is an Other, like him, but undecided as to whether he will become good or evil, making him a rare creature indeed — most people over the age of three are decided in one way or another.

Mixed into all this is a woman Anton came upon while hunting down the poachers.  Svetlana, a physician, has a dark cloud over her the likes of which are rarely seen.  A cloud as large as she has means not only the destruction of Svetlana herself, but also that of the entirety of Moscow if left unchecked.  While trying to balance his debt to Egor and his concern for Svetlana, Anton gets himself into a very difficult situation — needing to stem two crises at the same time.

The stories of Egor and Svetlana twine through the next two stories as well.  “Among His Own Kind,” the second story, is about a rogue good Other — who doesn’t know he’s an other — who goes around killing evil Others.  For a while, it appears that Anton is being framed for the murders.  He has to go on the search for the actual killer while trying to prevent Svetlana from killing those who threaten his life and, later on, needing to protect Egor once again.

The last story, “All For My Own Kind,” pushes Anton and Svetlana to the test — Svetlana’s powers are becoming stronger than Anton’s, pushing the two apart.  Anton is lamenting this, and is angry over the change.  He is tempted by the Light Watch.  He has to make a choice between his feelings and his sense of duty.

I thought Night Watch was very good.  Anton has a tendency to ruminate, almost to the point of annoyance, but it is, to an extent, understandable.  Lukyanenko also likes to quote Russian music, which also is slightly annoying.  Overall, though, Anton’s tale is interesting and suspenseful, which is just what I was looking for.

Rating: 4.5/5.

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