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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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Filed under 4.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

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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Filed under 4.5/5, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction