Title: Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World
Author: Dan Koeppel
Number of Pages: 260
Plot Overview: Banana is a fascinating journey through the history of the banana, its cultural impact, and its current endangered status.
What I enjoyed: This book is not aggressively factual, successfully dodging the largest obstacle of non-fiction. It made an effort to include the cultural shifts that accompanied the banana, which I really liked. The language is accessible and in no way stuffy. It was also informative (as non-fiction should be), and organized in chronological format. Another thing that was appreciated was that, at the end, Koeppel offers his personal opinion on the best method for saving the banana (and, as one learns from this book, it does need saving). Whether you agree with his opinion or not, it does make for interesting discussion.
What I disliked: Koeppel opened with some anecdotes, which felt out of place in a book about fruit. I was reading to understand the banana, not to labor through explanations of how the author became interested in the banana. The quality of the writing in that opening section was also rather unimpressive, though it picked up as the book progressed.
Other notes: This book was published in 2008, so some of the information given is a little bit dated. CNN ran an article on the Cavendish banana (the kind that most consumers eat) in January 2016, featuring Koeppel. That link is here.
Other Reviews: Yale Scientific takes quite a different stance on this book. Read their review here.
Final Verdict: For a banana novice, delightful.
Title: Empire of the Summer Moon
Author: S. C. Gwynne
Number of Pages: 319
Plot Overview: This book focuses on two parallel stories: the fortunes of the Comanche tribes, the most ferocious warriors to ever inhabit the North American continent, and Quanah Parker, their last and most brilliant chief.
Thoughts: This book is an exploration of the rough, brutal people that lived and died on the Texas frontier. These are not the Native Americans you remember from first-grade field trips. The Comanches were nomadic, masters of the horse, lethal with a bow or lance. They made war simply because it was what they were good at. Singlehandedly, they halted the frontier and ‘manifest destiny’ . Their most successful opponents were the Texas Rangers, scruffy, lawless, vehement, and vicious, who took on the massive task of finding and exterminating the Plains peoples in their heartlands. Clearly, this is a topic that is difficult to write about without stepping on someone’s toes, but Gwynne proves himself to be an expert in neutrality, neither glorifying the Comanches nor their foes. For that matter, he also refrains from gentrifying either side. However, it included no maps and was noticeably lacking in pictures of that area – it’s a little harder to be engaged with warfare when one can’t visualize it well. Also, sometimes the interweaving of the stories felt clumsy and forced. On a more positive note, Gwynne chooses to engage with the characters rather than focusing exclusively on the battles, which moves this book squarely from mediocre and sometimes dense to interesting and worthwhile.
Other notes: This book has fairly small print and almost no photos.
Other reviews: Tim Giago, at the Huffington Post, has a very different view of this book. Find the review here.
Final Verdict: Very interesting: though it requires a certain perseverance, in the end an illuminating read. Worth your time.
Title: The Partly Cloudy Patriot
Author: Sarah Vowell
Number of Pages: 196
Plot Overview: In this send-up of various incidents in American history and her own life, Sarah Vowell discusses everything from Al Gore to the Civil War to Rosa Parks to salad dressing.
Thoughts: Vowell’s voice is inimitable: snarky, nerdy, yet oddly profound. However, she sometimes comes off as a little facetious, and her jokes might fall flat if, say, you didn’t follow the presidential election of 2000 in intense depth or have no idea what the New German Cinema is. Her profundity is often confusing and multifaceted- this is not a book you can pick up and read before you fall asleep. She does have her moments, though, particularly when she mentions her family and personal life. And when she discusses Lincoln, one’s heart might swell a little bit with patriotic pride. You might walk away from this book marginally baffled, but at least you’ll have plenty of new things to say about America’s roster of presidents.
Other Pertinent Information: Sarah Vowell is a frequent contributor to the radio show “This American Life”, on NPR.
Other Reviews: The New York Times, reviewing another Vowell book (Unfamiliar Fishes), said of Vowell, “Sometimes I loved the disruptive student in class who livened up lectures with wisecracks — it put a spin on things, added flavor, made me laugh. Other times I wished the heckler would just shut up so I could learn something.” (New York Times). This was truly how I felt about her style. Read the full review here.
Final Verdict: For presidential history buffs, a fine read. For those looking for humor or a lighter read, take this up with some caution.