Tag Archives: politics

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

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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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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Grass by Sheri S. Tepper

Sheri S. Tepper’s Grass, the first in the Arbai trilogy, is nothing short of amazing.  We are given a multi-layered story that keeps true to the science fiction and fantasy genres while managing to create something completely new and fresh, which is no easy task.  I was so engrossed in the book that I read the last 250 pages or so during one day.  It’s just that good.

A universal plague has broken out amongst the people of Grass‘ universe.  People are becoming sick and dying, even years after being exposed.  The doctors and scientists don’t know how to stop it.  The only ones with any information, it seems, are the leaders of Sanctity, the most popular religion.  The head of Sanctity decides to send his nephew to Grass, the only planet that has had no sickness.  And thus, Rigo, Marjorie, and their two children end up in an entirely new world with unfamiliar rules and strange taboos.

The wonderful about Grass is that Tepper has shaped it to be so many things.  The main plot circles around Grass and its relationship with the plague.  But it’s easy for the reader to completely forget about the disease and explore the relationships between Marjorie and those around her.  She’s our protagonist, and Tepper positions us well in her head.

Marjorie’s marriage is not a good one.  Her husband and she have personalities that tend to make things worse for one another, rather than better.  Stella, their daughter, takes after her father, much to Marjorie’s chagrin.  Rigo’s mistress is along for the ride, to round out the dysfunction.  These people can’t work together in a cohesive unit.

This lack of unity hurts them.  Meeting the “bons”, the noble families of Grass who exercise their veiled hostility toward all non-bon people, in such a state makes gaining their trust a difficult task.  They could try hunting with the bons, but one view of the creatures these settled people both hunt and hunt with disturbs Marjorie greatly.

On another part of Grass, Brother Mainoa of Sanctity is working on the Arbai village ruins.  The ruins of several Arbai villages have been found on many planets now inhabited by humans.  No one knows what happened to the Arbai; all the villages show few remains and relatively obscure relics.  Except for the one on Grass.  The Arbai remains there are ripped apart.  Brother Mainoa studies the site in order to gain new insight, whether from the artifacts or from the strange friend he gains.

Mixed into all this are religious anarchists, monstrously evil creatures, horsemanship, disease vectors, people with their minds wiped blank, murderous monks, and kind people in unexpected places.  Grass is so complex that I don’t really feel that I can describe it properly.  It’s a marvelous story.  I especially enjoyed the option Tepper gives the reader of focusing on one particular part of the story — they don’t all wind together until close to the end.  It makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen, which is great.  I like to be surprised when I read!

Once everything is together, things still go off in surprising directions.  So surprising that I’m going to have to get the next book in the series soon.

Rating: 5/5.

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World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

Zombies have become popular in recent years, featuring in movies, comic books, books, and television shows.  Unlike their main supernatural competitor, the vampire, the quality of works featuring the zombie tend to be (at least to me) more steady in their quality.  World War Z is no exception — it is a creative work that uses the undead in order to make the reader think about topics bigger than the individual — politics, humanity, ethics, and psychology, to name a few.  It’s a piece of fiction that fuels thinking, which makes it better than a lot of other books in the horror genre.

A friend of mine, knowing how much I like to read and how much I enjoy zombies, recommended World War Z to me a couple of months ago.  I said, “Sure, sounds like something I’d enjoy.”  So, while I was down at the library pulling books for that month, I thought I’d grab this too.  I had to think again when I found that, despite my local library system owning four copies of this book, I would have to wait.  In fact, I was fifth in line, and the queue reached a total length of twelve by the time I got my copy.  This told me something — people are reading this.

There is a zombie movement right now, it appears, and I happen to think it’s a masculine backlash to the vampire movement embodied in the Twilight series.  Vampires are, essentially, a romantic creature — it sucks on you, it broods, it’s creepy in a seductive way. Vampires are for romance novels that don’t want to be called romance novels.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing — if you’re into it, you’re into it, but it’s almost exclusively women who are buying those books, watching those movies.

Now, to the zombie.  It is as far away from sexy as possible.  It’s a killing machine, one that keeps on going, requiring significant force to stop.  There’s a lot of weapons used to take them out.  Planning is needed to avoid death by zombie.  They’re a supernatural villain geared specifically for more masculine interests.  I, for one, love the fact that zombies are big right now.  I’ve not read any vampire books in a while, but I’m definitely a bit of a tomboy when it comes to my evil creatures.  I like the apocalyptic theme most zombie stories have.

World War Z definitely has that theme.  There are countries with people having to fall back and protect themselves in castles.  Some people flee to other lands.  There are fights over resources.  Countries use the zombies as an excuse to attack other countries.  Lives change in big ways, and that’s a widespread truth.  You didn’t live through World War Z without being a different person on the other side.

Brooks sets the book up like the transcripts of in-person interviews, and I think that’s genius.  We hear from all sorts of different people, from a doctor who was one of the first to encounter the zombies to a developmentally disabled woman to a man who fought zombies underwater.  We hear all sorts of different stories, through which we are able to construct our own views on what happened.  I personally liked the fact that the book allows for some ambiguity, because I like to think that most people are good, but there’s plenty of room for someone to get the opposite view, as well.

Overall, I think that World War Z is a fantastic book.  Its appeal is not limited to those who are zombie fans, but also to those who are interested in what would happen to the world in case of catastrophic events.  Brooks gives us some possible answers and allows us to form our own.

Rating: 5/5.

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Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

Believe it or not, I was aware of this book series before the television series.  I just didn’t get around to reading it.  I have watched the series, though, and liked it.  This book, the one that started it all off, demonstrates that Dexter the television series is faithful in tone.  Darkly Dreaming Dexter has a significant amount of wit mixed in with its gore, with a more nuanced and compelling plot than the first season of the series.

The book starts off with Dexter stalking and eventually killing a priest who had been killing orphan girls.  It’s a definite shock to the system.  I know it’s a relatively common strategy on the part of thriller and mystery writers, but Dexter’s murder gives us insight into what exactly drives his homicidal tendencies — his Dark Passenger.  This component of Dexter’s psyche is essential to understanding what he does, and I think it’s a part of his personality that gets pushed aside in the television series, much to its detriment.

Dexter’s Dark Passenger is a torment for him in a way that is difficult even for him to effectively describe, even to his trusted father Harry.  Having to feed the urges of a part of yourself that seems so foreign in order to drive it back for respite — that must be extraordinarily difficult.  The work is something he enjoys, but is it truly something he would have chosen to do if it weren’t for that Dark Passenger?  That question is raised toward the end of the book in a rather painful, but well-done, way.

I found the choice of first-person narrative here really effective; I don’t think Darkly Dreaming Dexter would work any other way.  We need to be in his head in order to understand, for sure, but we’re also being tricked into sympathizing with a serial killer.  He’s shown to be witty, smart, and scrupulous.  He’s also naïve in an almost child-like way about interpersonal relationships; he’s had to study to figure out how to be a normal person, and the gaps in his education are both awkwardly painful and oddly endearing.  Lindsay does an excellent job of making the reader root for someone who, in another author’s hands, could well be the villain.

My only issue with Lindsay’s book is that it is sometimes too clever or too cute.  There’s a lot of alliteration, which I got tired of after a while.  It’s a good technique for a slogan; it’s not so great as part of the narration.  It almost always jarred me out of the story, which is not a good thing.  I wanted to be engrossed, and this just made it impossible for me to fully immerse myself in the plot.

The bottom line, though, is that Darkly Dreaming Dexter is an excellent example of a thriller with humor.  Lindsay gives us an original idea and follows through extraordinarily well.  I’d be happy to read the rest of the series; I think there must be a lot more to Dexter’s story that the television show just can’t provide.

Rating: 4/5.

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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