Bananas: How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World by Peter Chapman

publication date: 2007
pages: 208
ISBN-13: 978-1-84195-881-1

For such a slim book, Bananas took me forever to finish. And even at that slow pace, I still skimmed some parts. Why, you ask? Because Bananas was so nonsensically and enigmatically written as to be boring.

Bananas was supposed to be a history of the United Fruit Company in Central America and the world. However, Chapman didn’t even mention the founding of United Fruit until page 168. Instead, he bounced around from the 1980s to the 1880s and back again in vaguely chronological order. His use of dates was very confusing and was rarely tethered to anything meaningful like historical context or cause and effect.

Not only was Chapman’s use of dates and chronology confusing and disjointed, but his introduction and discussion of the important people in the story was just as bewildering. Chapman would introduce someone in a passage with no mention of why they were important to United Fruit and then would ignore them for dozens of pages. An example is Chapman’s treatment of the Cabot family, who were introduced in a discussion of Andrew Preston:

Socially ambitious Preston preferred to stay at home. Boston’s ‘Brahmins’ were a tight-knit bunch that ruled the city . . . . [T]hey were mostly of English background, although one leading family, the Cabots, came in 1700 from Jersey in the Channel Islands . . . . The families married well and famously, and set up dynasties: the Jefferson Coolidges, the Cabot Lodges. As such they ran the political, economic and social life of a city known as ‘Beantown’ for one of its favourite foods and the ‘Hub’ from an assumed central position in the universe. As a local toast would have it: ‘And this is good old Boston, The land of the bean and the cod, Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots, And the Cabots talk only to God.’

The Cabots weren’t again mentioned until seventy pages later, and even then, I still don’t understand their importance. I hope that long quote displays Chapman’s confounding and erratic writing style, including odd uses of quotation marks and unnecessary interjections.

To further confuse things, Chapman would shift between narrators. Sometimes the book was scrawled in a textbook style, with facts being relayed with little interpretation. Other times, and with no explanation, Chapman would insert his own voice and discuss events in his own life. Another long passage illustrates the confusion:

[President Anastosio] Somoza’s story was familiar: a few bandits assailed him from distant mountain hideaways. Radical priests had joined in and were sadly deluded people who should not concern themselves with politics. What they failed to grasp, Somoza went on, was that he had pitched himself against the greedy rich on behalf of the poor. As for Jimmy Carter, the US’s present leader, Somoza found himself hard pushed to remain polite. Under Carter, the White House had taken leave of its senses and opened the way for Communism.

Actually, from what I understood, the guerrillas fighting Somoza were capable of seizing important towns just a couple of hours away north along the Pan-American Highway.

Perhaps you’re thinking that passage was confusing because you aren’t reading it in context. I can assure you that context does not help anything. Almost the entire book was written like this. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I learned nothing.

2/6: many problems

Here are other reviews of the book; the first two are positive. I really don’t understand how anyone who read the book could call it a “page-turner” or “breezy but insightful,” but here you go:

A.V. Club
New York Times
Yale Global

The Book of Lost Things

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

publication date: 2006
pages: 339
ISBN: 978-0-7432-9885-8

John Connolly explored the power of words and stories in The Book of Lost Things. The book began with young David, who understands the power of stories and books because that was taught to him by his dying mother. After his mother’s death, books become so powerful that they talk to him and beckon him to join them in another world. That is where the plot thickened, as David was transported to another land – a land with things both familiar and impossible, like the Crooked Man and wolves that look like humans.

The Book of Lost Things is very focused on stories and words. In fact, the narrative is its own character, with personality and motive. Because of this somewhat loose definition of narration, Connolly included unique plot twists and stories; however, it also meant a lot of plot holes. It seemed to me Connolly was less concerned with the coherence of the plot and more concerned with its fancifulness and any lessons we might glean from it.  In that way, Connolly mirrored the fairy tales he was alluding to.

Connolly also included many quips and rules about stories, such as which ones are best and which ones only boring old adults like. For example, books on communism are boring and poems are only good if they have a plot. He also included this bizarre condemnation of newspapers:

Newspaper stories were as insubstantial as smoke, as long-lived as mayflies. They did not take root but were instead like weeds that crawled along the ground, stealing the sunlight from more deserving tales.

The passage above illustrates Connolly’s writing style: wordy, with a Victorian formality that I usually found tiresome. I assume Connolly was again attempting to mirror the stories and fairy tales that were such a focus of this book. Although I found the writing style generally tiresome, Connolly was good at creating a sense of place. I was able to clearly imagine the places he described, such as the Crooked Man’s kingdom and the Woodsman’s cottage. Most of the places sounded distinctively horrifying; for example, the Hunter’s lair:

[T]he room was dominated by two great oak tables, so huge that they must have been assembled within the house itself; piece by piece. They were stained with blood, and from where he lay David could see chains and manacles on them, and leather restraints. To one side of the tables was a rack of knives, blades, and surgical tools, all clearly old but kept sharp and clean. Above the tables hung an array of metal and glass tubes on ornate frames, half of them as thin as needles, the others as thick as David’s arm.

For ninety-eight percent of the book, I was usually a little bored or a little confused, but there was one passage in the book that was so sad, beautiful, wonderful, poignant that it really made the whole book worth a read. I have already re-read that portion several times and think it is one of those pieces of literature I will remember forever. Of course, it wouldn’t have had the impact it did if I had not read the remainder of the story. The book is enjoyable enough, and that extraordinary passage transforms the book into something I would recommend.

4/6: worth reading

some other reviews:

Fairy Tale Critic
USA Today


Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

publication date: 1987
pages: 416
ISBN: 0-930289-23-4

I enjoyed Y:The Last Man so much, I decided to give another comic book a read. I chose a classic: Watchmen. I understand why it has attained classic status; it was excellent.

Watchmen consisted of twelve different comic serials released over 1986 and 1987. It took place in an alternate New York City, where superheroes existed, cars ran on electricity, and Richard Nixon was president well into the 1980s. The comics began with a murder and the mystery and suspense was so well-crafted, the reader spends the next twelve issues attempting to unravel the gradually disclosed plot.

One problem I sometimes have with any media presented in a serial format, especially TV shows, is a disconnect from one episode to the next or one season to the next. Watchmen did not have that problem at all. Themes, clues, and images were present from the first panel to the last with seemingly every important plot point decided before the first issue was published. That made for a dramatic and cogent read, even as I read all twelve issues in a short time.

The authors didn’t just convey a story; instead, they explored the strengths of the comic book form. Dialogue and thought bubbles were revealing and interesting. For example, one of the superhero characters reflected:

This city is dying of rabies. Is the best I can do to wipe random flecks of foam from its lips?

Images and forms were used repetitively to create a sense of satisfying symmetry. Panels were detailed and always rewarded a closer look. Additionally, the coloring was fantastic. The comic was not a happy or escapist read and the dark and moody coloring reflected that.

I did have some problems with the book. For example, although the rest of the book was well-paced, the ending felt rushed and unconvincing. Also, the comics contained some pages in prose, which felt unnecessary, although they were interesting. The authors also included almost the entire text of another comic book that one of the characters in Watchmen reads. A comic within a comic; kind of an Inception-type thing. That interior comic went on for way too long.

It’s hard for me to accurately portray a comic book in these reviews because so much of the writing is contextual and I can’t really include images. But I will tell you that the writing was usually interesting and concise and the images were evocative and riveting.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Ready Steady Book

Peter Pan Must Die

Peter Pan Must Die by John Verdon

publication date: 2014
pages: 440
ISBN: 978-0-385-34840-9

Peter Pan Must Die is a classic murder-mystery, with detective Dave Gurney at its center. Gurney, living out his retirement in idyllic rural New York, is pulled back in to solving crimes by the case of Carl Spalter. According to the official report, Spalter, a wealthy politician, was murdered by his wife. However, Gurney notices some inconsistencies with the case, including the lead police officer sleeping with a major suspect for the crime and the fact that it was impossible for a gun to be shot at the precise moment that Spalter was killed by a gunshot.

The book fit nicely into its genre. Much like a Law & Order episode, Gurney spent the first half of the book interviewing all the involved parties, including Spalter’s cold but innocent wife, his saintly and sinister younger brother, and his “demented slut” of a daughter. The second half of the book followed Gurney as he pieced the puzzle together and steadily closed in on the true murderer. The book also involved all the predictable characters, including Jack Hardwick – the hard ass with a heart of gold; Malcolm Claret – the wizened psychiatrist with all the answers who doesn’t take shit from anybody; and Donny Angel – the Greek mobster with the slick exterior who only chats with cops at ethnic restaurants.

The author’s presentation of the mystery and pacing was generally very good and there were even some moments of heart-pounding suspense. However, that was all overshadowed by the book’s many problems. A major problem was it turned out the book was part of a series, and passages of the book were confusing and forced because I didn’t understand the back story. Had a known it was a series, I wouldn’t have picked up this book and instead would have searched for the first one. There was nothing on the cover or book jacket or anywhere else to indicate it was a series, however. Another problem was Verdon’s peppering of the story with ridiculous details about “urban” life. Like this gem:

Like many other little upstate towns that for years had lingered in a kind of Leave It to Beaver time warp of old-fashioned manners and appearances, Walnut Crossing was slowly being infiltrated – as Long Falls already had been – by the toxic culture of rap crap, gansgta clothes, and cheap heroin.

These little asides had nothing to do with the story. In fact, any evil acts in the book were perpetrated by people of European descent, with no connection to rap, “gangsta” culture, or even drugs.

Another off-putting part of the book was the chapter endings. They were often so maudlin as to be nonsensical. Here’s the last sentence of the first chapter:

If Gurney were the kind of man who believed in omens, he might have seen the shattered image [reflected in the water] as a sign of the destruction to come.

Oh please! And here’s another one of my favorites, at the end of a chapter where Gurney fails to understand how all the pieces of the crime fit together:

The dissonant chords of [his wife’s] cello piece were growing louder.

If you are someone who really likes mysteries, might as well give this book a try. However, I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

3/6: more good than bad

Buried Under Books
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Daisy’s Book Journal

Silver Sparrow

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

publication date: 2011
pages: 340
ISBN: 978-1-56512-990-0

This taut and sparkling novel focused on an interesting plot: the daughters of a bigamist in 1980s Atlanta. The book began with Dana, a young girl whose Daddy has two wives and two daughters. As Dana navigated being part of her father’s “secret family,” the book explored issues of identity, loyalty, family, and belonging.

Tayari Jones took a compelling plot and told it very well. The introduction and conclusion were well-handled, with just the right amount of intrigue and satisfaction, and the perfect touches of foreshadowing. Also, the climax was one of the best I have read in a while, with impeccable pacing and suspense.

What made this book so exceptional was its infusion of suspenseful plot with pithy explanations of relatable themes. From almost page one, I was wondering about and fretting over what was going to happen next. But meanwhile, Jones filled her pages with rewarding descriptions and observations, such as:

Everyone knows that [being pregnant] is the hardest thing that you can ever tell a man, even if he’s your husband, and my father was someone else’s husband. All you can do is give him the news and let him decide if he is going to leave or if he is going to stay.

Jones also was very funny. For example, this description of a newly befriended teenage boy, which I laughed at but still don’t quite understand:

Mike was Seventeen magazine in the face, but watching him walk away in his Levi’s, I kept thinking “Jack and Diane.”

One theme that I particularly enjoyed was the exploration of the dual lives that teenage girls, and all teenagers, experience. Jones doesn’t shy from the fact that young girls mess around, have sex, and get high just as much as young boys but are still thought of as Daddy’s Little Girl.

One of the few missteps made by Jones was her use of anachronistic terms and phrases. For example, in a portion of the story set in the 1960s, young girls and their families frankly talked about pregnancy and rape, and even used those terms. Now, granted, I was not alive in the 1960s, but people I know who were still don’t talk about those issues sixty years later, and when they do, they use terms like “expecting” and “domestic issues.” Also, some of the descriptions of 1980s Atlanta seemed more like 2010s Atlanta, when the book was written, such as gas pumps with credit card readers and a pre-pay requirement.

I’m torn between giving this book a 4/6 or a 5/6. It is absolutely worth reading and I would recommend it to diverse readers, from those who enjoyed The Help to those who enjoyed Dean Koontz-esque suspense. However, I could imagine someone, somewhere not enjoying it. With all that said, I think I will give it a

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

Washington Post
Paste Magazine
Denver Post

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

publication date: 1998
pages: 434
ISBN: 978-0-312-18008-9

Here’s another book brought to my attention by the “Request-a-Review” feature. One Thousand White Women was a novel of historical fiction, which chronicled the journey of May Dodd and her life with the Cheyenne Indians in 1875. Written largely as May’s journal entries, the book began with May banished to a mental institution for creating a family with a man out of wedlock. While there, she was discovered by a government doctor, who promised her freedom from the institution if she took part in the United States’ secretive, new “Brides for Indians” program. As a member of the program of one thousand white women, May would be an ambassador of the United States living within the Cheyenne Tribe and would be required to marry a Cheyenne husband and bear his children for two years. May agreed to be a member of the program, largely to escape the hellish mental facility.

The plot was based on an event that actually happened, wherein a Cheyenne chief requested one thousand white women to live with the tribe to foster peace between the Cheyenne and the United States. In real life, the request was met with shock, disgust, and a resounding “NO,” but Fergus explored what life would have been like for the women who agreed to the program. Fergus took an inventive idea and crafted a penetrating plot that made the book a worthwhile read.

The plot was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-executed by Fergus, but it isn’t the only satisfying aspect of the book. Fergus used the plot to explore themes such as the relationship between the federal government and the Indian tribes at that time and the role of women in pre-Industrial American society. Fergus discussed Cheyenne society so thoroughly that I keenly felt its absence in contemporary culture. As a small example, here is a great anecdote from the book:

At [May’s Father’s] and Mother’s endless dinner parties [Father] is fond of giving credit to his and his wealthy guests’ great good fortunes by toasting the Sac Chief Black Hawk, who once said that “land cannot be sold. Nothing can be sold but for those things that can be carried away” – a notion that Father found enormously quaint and amusing.

Fergus also excelled at creating a voice for his characters, especially May Dodd. Dodd’s narration encapsulated an 1870s American woman, from the word choice and diction, to her dialogue and values. In fact, because the book was so steeped in May’s voice, there were times I couldn’t separate the author’s views from May’s, as a 19th century woman. This became problematic for me when Dodd’s viewpoint ran counter to my sensibilities. For example, May held condescending feelings for the Cheyenne and American blacks. Her primary description of people of color was “a proud and noble race.” She also fixated on motherhood and thought of motherhood and child-raising as the highest goal for any person or civilization. If Fergus was merely weaving these historical viewpoints into Dodd’s narration, he did a masterful job. I was left wondering, however, if these were some of his values that he worked into the story.

A heinous example of this was Dodd’s recounting of a gathering of Cheyenne where they drank whiskey. It became a complete bacchanal, crowded with rape, assault, and pedophilia. Dodd described it thus:

Throngs of drunk savages, men and women, jostled me as I pushed by. Naked couples copulated on the ground like animals.

Now was this just an urban white woman’s experience, viewed through the lens of her culture, of the Cheyenne drunk on whiskey? Or does Fergus actually believe that a majority of Cheyenne people responded to whiskey in this way? I’m not sure.

Notwithstanding any missteps, the book is an absorbing read.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews (this book is very popular in book clubs, I’m told):

Book Club Queen
The Eclectic Book Worm
News Herald book club

Girls to the Front

Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus

publication date: 2010
pages: 367 (including back matter)
ISBN: 978-0-06-180636-0

For anyone unfamiliar with the Riot Grrrl movement, it is, according to Wikipedia:

an underground feminist punk rock movement that originally started in the early 1990s, in Washington, D.C., and the greater Pacific Northwest . . . . In addition to a music scene and genre, riot grrrl is a subculture involving a DIY ethic, zines, art, political action, and activism.

That definition was about as much as I knew about Riot Grrrl, so I decided to read this book and learn a little more about the movement.

Sara Marcus obviously felt very passionate about the movement and spent time collecting and investigating it. Her bibliography included hours of interviews, Riot Grrrl zines, many books and essays, and more. However, this passion did not translate into a cohesive or informative story. Marcus related several anecdotes and events, but with no coherent theme or objective. In fact, the first morsel of a theme that I spotted was in the Acknowledgments at the back of the book.

There were many problems with Marcus’s storytelling of Riot Grrrl beyond the lack of coherence. It was bogged-down in name-dropping, for example. There were several pages about Nirvana and Kurt Cobain, who were barely tangentially related to Riot Grrrl. Many passages also contained Marcus’s rants and raves about things with no appreciable connection to Riot Grrrl or to each other. At one point, Marcus sent up the song “Right Here, Right Now” by Jesus Jones. Marcus snarked:

True youth rebellion is always elsewhere, and verily, ’tis better that way, without the chaos and collateral damage and inconvenient principles that always seem to mar such movements in close-up.

If you’re wondering what this idea has to do with a mediocre 1990s pop song, I am too.

One thing Marcus was competent at was accurately portraying her subjects and the Riot Grrrl movement. This meant that the portrayal was not always favorable. There’s this story where members of Riot Grrrl punish some “jerky boys” at a concert:

And once, at a huge alienating jock-filled Fugazi/Slant 6 show at the University of Maryland where some jerky boys booed Erika’s onstage announcement about Riot Grrrl, the girls went into the women’s bathroom and inked WRITE RAPIST’S NAMES HERE on the wall; one girl from the college asked to borrow Erika’s marker and wrote a name up on the wall right away.

I would recommend this book only if you have a burning interest in this topic.

2/6: many problems

A.V. Club
L.A. Times