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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

A Pocketful of History by Jim Noles

A Pocketful of History is a collection of essays about the state quarters put out during the fifty state quarter program.  Some are straight history, some are about a particular coin design’s travel from idea to eventual winner, and some … some kind-of go off on tangents.  When the coins give Noles something of historical importance, he does a good job of telling us the story.  Unfortunately, not all do, and Noles has to scramble to deliver on his promise.

A lot of the time, Noles is lucky.  A state chose something of historical interest to base the design of their coin on, and he has a good topic to write about.  This happens most frequently in the beginning of the book, which is organized by order in which the states joined the union, and thus has the oldest states closest to the start.

One of the best examples of this is the very first chapter, which tells the story of Delaware’s coin design.  It features Caesar Rodney in his gallop from Delaware to provide a critical vote for independence in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  It’s a story I didn’t know, and Noles tells it well.  I enjoyed learning that little bit of Delaware history that turned out to contribute to a fairly large part of American history.

Another type of story Noles tells is the trip the winning design took to become the design a state chose for their coin.  California’s chapter is a good example.  Noles spends a lot of time on Schwarzenegger’s decision-making process before getting to the story of John Muir, who is featured on the coin.  These chapters I found much less interesting than the ones that focus most of their attention on the story of the coin.  I found myself bored when he discussed the process of design, the way the decision was made, the people who made the decision, the number of the coins, and whatever controversy there was about the design that was chosen.  I didn’t expect to get that type of story.  I’m interested in the story the coin is intended to tell, not that of the politics that brought them into being.

The worst of the chapters go off on paths that are tenuously connected to the design of the coin.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this type of chapter is that of my home state, Michigan.  Noles starts off the chapter by titling it, rather insultingly, “Great Lakes, Great Drama … and a So-So Quarter”.

I’ll admit that the design of the quarter is more simple — it’s the shape of our state (not the borders, since those extend out into the Great Lakes) as well as those of the Great Lakes.  Instead of telling the story, then, of the formation of the lakes, or the history of the shipping industry, Noles chooses to tell us of the great storm of 1913 and the devastation wreaked on the ships sailing at the time.

How, exactly, is this related to the image depicted on the coin?  It doesn’t show a boat in distress.  It doesn’t even show waves, and has little to do with Michigan itself.  I was extremely disappointed in Noles’ treatment of my state.

Fortunately, the good chapters outnumber the bad ones, which made A Pocketful of History much easier to get through.  Noles would have done better to keep out of the politics, and find the more honest stories for the coins that didn’t readily provide a  historical image for him to write about.

Rating: 3/5.

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Nathaniel’s Nutmeg: Or the True and Incredible Adventures of the Spice Trader Who Changed the Course of History by Giles Milton

The first thing I have to say about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg is that its title is misleading.  Nathaniel Courthope, the gentleman referenced by the title, features him for a very small amount of time.  What the book is about, the struggle between the Dutch and the English to gain and keep control of the Spice Islands, is an interesting topic, but I felt a little let down.  I imagined a more swashbuckling tale than the one that was delivered.

That’s not to say that I didn’t like the story Milton had to tell.  I knew that the spice trade was big, but I never knew how much it fueled naval exploration.  European people really wanted their spices, mainly because they attributed all sorts of magical healing powers to them.  Plus, they’re tasty.

I love that Milton is telling me a story that I’ve never heard before.  I knew, vaguely, that there are places called England and the Netherlands, and that their peoples were both seafaring and entrepreneurial.  I had no idea that the two nations fought a kind of cold (sometimes hot) war over the spice trade.  I didn’t know that it was for spice that the East India Company was founded.  I didn’t know that the fate of navies are so dependent on good leadership.

I appreciate Milton’s set-up for the story of Courthope, but the book feels lost for the first two hundred or so pages.  I kept thinking that the next chapter had to have Courthope in it, since the book’s named for him.  It’s quite frustrating, as a reader, to be forced into reading about what otherwise might be a quite interesting narrative because there’s a constant expectation for a particular person or event.  The marketing of the book, frankly, ruined a good part of the history Milton wanted to tell.

Giles Milton, the author, also attributes to Courthope the eventual ownership of Manhattan by the British due to the trouble he caused the Dutch by holding onto Run for as long as he did.  If he wanted to make that point, it would have been nice to have the juxtaposition — the lessening of the Dutch control in the Americas as their power grew in the East Indies — put to the forefront.  I think it’s a far-fetched idea, that the British gained New York solely because they traded Run for it; there was an actual battle in Manhattan for the land.  New York: The Novel devotes its first section to the waning power of the Dutch there and the rise of the English, and there were skirmishes.  Run may have been in the formal agreement, but I have serious doubts about whether it was truly a large part of the overall treaty between the two countries.  This, therefore, makes Milton’s claim for Courthope rather flimsy, in my opinion.

Overall, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more had it not advertised itself as the story of one man.  I would have known what I was getting into, and could have experienced it for what it is, and not for what I expected it to be.

Rating:  2/5.

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New York by Edward Rutherfurd

Washington, D.C., might be America’s political capital, and L.A. is the modern source of a lot of our shared cultural experiences, but to examine the true heart and soul of the United States, one has to look to its largest city.  Edward Rutherfurd provides an opportunity to do just that with his aptly, if slightly uncreatively, titled novel, New York.

Toward the end of the novel, Rutherfurd mentions James Michener a couple of times in passing, most likely for the time-sensitive cultural clue.  It’s also, however, an amazingly appropriate choice for Rutherfurd to make.  This book is a sprawling, grand examination of a city through time since its creation by the Dutch in the seventeenth century, following in the same vein as Michener’s work, mixing the fictional and nonfictional together in a closely-researched and very accurate novel.

This is, unfortunately, one of the aspects of the book that made it a bit of a chore to read.  Rutherfurd has a wealth of engaging stories in the Master family, the one clan we get to follow from the beginning of New York until the present day.  Even most of the side stories are interesting.  There’s simply too much.  While the plots are good and the characters are, for the most part, believable, there’s a lot to keep track of and, quite frankly, the story seems to stall in certain time periods.  Most of the Revolutionary period, as well as the time around the Civil War, comes to a standstill.

A reason things tend to go slowly is the painstaking way the city’s history is presented.  It often feels like the actual story grinds to a halt so Rutherfurd can provide the reader with a history lesson.  A little bit of this is good.  A lot of this makes the story feel as if it’s there merely to teach us what we should have learned in high school history class, which gets old fast.  I found it difficult to get through at times because I felt it was a slog to get to the story through the education attempt.

On the plus side, I really liked following the one family and seeing its fate (and the fates of those surrounding them) unfold.  It’s an excellent device for mirroring and exploring how historical events affect both individuals and following generations.  I was sorry to see that we lost families along the way; I would have liked to been able to see an African-American storyline throughout the entire book, for example.

I feel that Rutherfurd was extremely honest about what people’s reactions to their current events and situations.  Most Northerners were, for the most part, complicit about slavery, and he gives us a full view of people passively and indirectly earning money off the forced labor of African slaves.  We see many in the Master family show their greed, their vanity, their generosity, their idealism, and their malaise in incredibly accurate prose.  Rutherfurd has an amazing understanding of people’s inner motivations, and I enjoyed being able to see inside so many interesting minds to explore their thoughts.

Overall, New York is a series of wonderful stories strung together by exposition that can drag.  If you don’t know the history of New York, or American history, the background is probably helpful.  For those of us who have a grasp on what this country — and what its landmark city — has been through, a lot of the book can be jettisoned.

Rating: 3/5

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Presidential Confidential: Sex, Scandal, Murder, and Mayhem in the Oval Office by John Boertlein

I like history.  I enjoy reading about it, I like doing informal research about it, and I’m marrying a man who has a degree in public history, and thus also likes to talk about the past.  I also think that history need not be dumbed-down in order for most people to find it interesting.  So I was a little hesitant to request Presidential Confidential as an advance reader’s copy.  I was afraid it would be flippant.  I had no reason to worry.

John Boertlein’s publisher most likely thought that Presidential Confidential would sell better with the tabloid-like appearance on the outside, the sidebars on the inside, and relatively brief chapters.  This may or may not be true.  I find that I’m typically pretty indifferent to a cover, unless its design is particularly egregious, so they weren’t pulling me in there.  In fact, I was a little nervous about the quality of the work found within something that looks like the National Enquirer.  It either can be like one of the mental_floss books, or it can be full of junk.  It’s risky, and I’m not sure it was the right choice for this book.

Chapter length, in this case, doesn’t bother me.  Each historical story has its own length; some can be covered in one page, while others need twenty.  I thought this was fine.  The other feature this book uses inside is the sidebar.

I hate sidebars.  As someone with OCD, and not ADHD, I don’t like having to disrupt the flow of the narrative to read about something tangentially related to the main topic.  It feels disjointed, and makes me a grumpy reader at points.  That’s not to say I didn’t like the contents of the sidebars — I enjoyed them.  I just dislike pulling my attention away from the story the author wants to tell to read a little list of factoids, or, worse, another, smaller story.  My preference would be for these things to run either at the end of chapters or in between them.  I suspect that I’m in a minority here, and will thus summarily be ignored or ridiculed.  I don’t care.  They’re distracting and encourage multitasking within a book, which is a little ridiculous.

Anyway, Boertlein writes about the histories of the presidents with talent and style.  I felt that he provided a level-headed, fair representation of goings-on in the White House all the way through the Clinton presidency.  He didn’t turn the book into a tawdry piece of shoddy history, but rather gives the reader a decent account of what most likely happened.  Even stories I had heard before were written in a way that clarified my understanding or provided me with new insight into the situation.  Boertlein did his research, and it shows — the background of the times is always explained to the reader, and the events that unfold are given fair treatment without being too kind.

Until we get to the last chapter, on George W. Bush.  Now, I’m not a Dubya fan; I’m fairly far from that crowd.  But the treatment Boertlein gives his administration in this chapter is brutal.  He seems to take delight in making out Bush’s term in office to be corrupt, stupid, or both.  No matter how true this may seem to be to many of us, it still feels wrong to gloat over an administration that has caused irreparable damage to our soldiers, our economy, our environment, our international reputation, our educational system, our social safety net systems — you name it, they did horrible things to it.  It’s not something to be taken lightly or treated in a snarky manner.

Overall, Presidential Confidential is a popular history book in almost-perfect form.  Without the sidebars and obviously partisan last chapter, it’s darn near perfect.

Rating: 4/5

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Filed under 4.5/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov

If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s a good alternate-history piece of speculative fiction.  There’s nothing like the navel-gazing pleasure a lot of these stories provide.  So what could be better than a book that posits that there are people out there creating new realities and new histories all the time?  As The End of Eternity proves, not a whole heck of a lot.

The story follows Andrew Harlan, a man who is responsible for making some of the changes in the flow of time in Reality.  He and all the other people who work to perform these changes live in what is called Eternity, an outside-time location.  Here people (mostly men) are trained from puberty to study Reality culture, preserve artifacts, decide on how to alter Reality, calculate Changes, and make those Changes.  Harlan is a Technician, which makes him one of the detested and feared group that actually makes the final decision and makes the Change.

Harlan is an isolated and lonely person.  His few interpersonal relationships are solely work-related — his first boss, whom he detests; the esteemed elder who takes him under his wing; the trainee he tutors in Primitive (pre-27th-century) history.  He has no family.  No Eternal does.  They give them up when they start training, and are never allowed to go back.

Thus, when Harlan is introduced to Noÿs, a (gasp!) woman working as a secretary for his former supervisor, he does not understand how his feelings of attraction are supposed to work.  He attempts to suppress them, but fails when he is sent to her time in Reality to do more study before a planned Change.  This is not surprising, seeing as he was sent to stay with her.

His infatuation leads him to take some drastic actions.  I’m not going to outline them here; that would ruin the surprise.  I will say, though, that the ending is not what I suspected, and shows, I think, a rather more nuanced view of the importance of the individual in relation to concerns for the overall good.

I had my misgivings about Asimov when I read I, Robot a couple of months back, and I hesitated in requesting this book by him through inter-library loan.  This, however, is worth it.  Rather than a woman who is overly emotional, Noÿs is feminine but also competent.  She is a rarity in the Eternal world, but is, from the start, capable of being both openly loving and intellectually capable — in other words, she’s like most actual women.

Harlan responds to this, and does some interesting things in response.  He is a good study in the book-smart, experience-dumb bookworms and nerds that exist in sufficient numbers for them to have been a tried and true group for the last century, at least.  While Noÿs’ reactions are real, his are artificial at first.  He can’t trust them, and has to grow through the emotional atrophy his training and occupation impose.  While his decisions, at times, seem to be overreactions, they show that Asimov understood that men are just as capable of letting their emotions get the best of them.

This is a fantastic exploration of both reality and relationships.  It made me surprised every time I looked up at the clock — how could another hour have gone by?  That’s the measure of a good book.

Rating: 4.5/5

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The Council of Dads by Bruce Feiler

Disease is a scary thing.  It can disturb an entire life’s worth of planning in a frighteningly short amount of time.  It has the power to separate people from those they love most.  It can make the most mundane of actions impossible to perform.  Bruce Feiler, finding himself seriously ill, made the decision to not allow his cancer to sever all ties with his daughters.  He documents his steps to make this happen, and it’s a good thing he did.

If nothing else, I can confidently say Bruce Feiler has good people in his life, most likely because he himself is a good person.  He is lucky enough to have six men he feels would be able to stand in for him and provide guidance for his daughters.  These are also men who come to provide for him — they visit while he’s sick, they talk to him frankly about how they would help his daughters in their times of need.  This book is a tribute to male friendships, and I found it very interesting to read for that aspect alone.

But this is also a story about how the past shapes the present.  Feiler’s own father and grandfathers have interesting stories that reflect how they ended up parenting.  His friends’ childhoods altered how those men think of parenting, friendship, and life.  Even Feiler’s disease can’t escape connections with history– his cancer-affected leg is the same one that he shattered as a child when he was hit by a car.

His story is touching, but I had a couple of issues with the structure of the book.  There are two narratives winding themselves through this book:  the standard parts that focus on telling the reader about one of the dads, or about Feiler’s back-story, or about meeting his wife.  The other is made up of letters:  one he wrote to the dads, one he wrote to his daughters, and several he wrote during the course of his illness to friends and family.  The two don’t feel smoothly-joined to me.  There are points where the reader hears about certain aspects a couple of different times, which I don’t particularly like.  I would rather not have the everyday events semi-sequestered in the newsletters, seeing as the rest of the book also contains a good amount of the everyday.

I also can’t help but think that Feiler could do with a little more candor.  It was a bit exhausting reading about all the positivity in his life, with very little shown of the more realistic moods of anyone, the children included.  We hear about his crying and the occasionally-off behavior of the twins, but most of it feels glossed over in order to portray everyone involved in the best light possible.  Having been seriously ill myself, some of the coping narrative doesn’t resonate with my own experiences.  It could be that we’re just different people, but I think that he is purposely holding back on the bad times for some reason.  Whether that is to avoid appearing weak, or to protect his children, or for some other reason, I don’t know.

I like his message.  I really like the non-letter parts of the book.  I’m glad that he is doing well, and that he decided to share his story.  I’m hoping he’ll write something else about his daughters, something in which they are all healthy and don’t have to worry about getting the marrow out of the moment.  I suspect they’re pretty good at doing that without trying.

Rating: 3.5/5

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Filed under 3.5/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction