Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World


by Dan Koeppel

published 2008

So I’ll admit that I’m a lazy reader.  I prefer to read fun, frivolous fiction over studious non-fiction.  But I still try to keep a non-fiction book going as well (actually, I’m reading One Summer: America 1927 right now, and it’s brilliant).  A while back, I asked my followers if any of them had any suggestions for books about Central America (I’m still totally looking for good books about that region, by the way, so let me know if you know of any!).  Someone suggested reading Banana.  I’m always up for books about random topics, so I checked it out.

Koeppel is pretty passionate about bananas.  Even though he wasn’t at all trying to be funny, there were times that I found myself snickering because just – this dude LOVES BANANAS.  And you can tell that he’s surprised at how much he likes them.  He read an article about the banana blight in 2003, and then pitched the idea of writing a more in-depth article for Popular Science.  While traveling to do the research for that article, he found himself completely enthralled by the culture and – dare I say? – mystery that surrounds the banana.

The banana is truly an amazing fruit, and it provides sustenance for many people throughout the world.  While most of us who live in areas where bananas don’t grow naturally are only familiar with one type of banana, there are actually all sorts of varieties with different flavors and textures.  Koeppel takes us through the history of the banana and the banana industry, the basic physical properties of the banana, and problems facing the banana today.  (Okay, let’s face it, while I’m not a huge fan of bananas, I LOVE the word banana, and I really like to think about all of you reading this article and having to say “banana” repeatedly as you do.  It’s such a funny word!  BANANA!)  He does a fairly good job of keeping some of these more complex topics readable, and I actually found myself being sucked in to Koeppel’s banana passion, and I don’t even like bananas.

I think that his ability to make complicated topics a little more relatable really helped this book flow.  For instance:

Understanding genetic modification … [means we must] imagine that chromosomes are an old-fashioned film reel – the kind that used to jam up the projectors in … biology class.  The film wrapped around the reel is made up of individual frames.  If the frames are genes, then creating a [genetically modified organism] involves splicing the genes from one movie, perhaps Gone with the Wind, into another – let’s say Star Wars.  The result is something that should contain the best qualities of both:  Rhett Butler played by Harrison Ford and Scarlet O’Hara with a cinnamon-bun hairstyle.

Simplified?  Absolutely.  But does it make genetic modification slightly easier to grasp?  Yes.  And genetic modification is a huge part of the banana’s past and its future.

In truth, things are looking rather grim for the banana.  Our banana is very specific – every one ripens in the same amount of days for starters – and that banana is suffering from a blight that could actually wipe out the world’s banana production if a new strain of banana isn’t created soon.  While Koeppel isn’t a doomsdayer, he does have strong words about the potential fate of the banana, and the impact that fate will have on much of the world.

If you’re like me and you enjoy books on random topics, or if you really just bananas (or even just the word banana), Banana is well worth a read.

Johnny Tremain


by Esther Forbes

Published 1943

For some reason, I seem to keep stumbling across Newbery Award winners lately (The View from Saturday and Ginger Pye leap to mind).  Johnny Tremain is classic historical fiction – set in Boston just before, during, and after the Boston Tea Party, ending with the Battle at Lexington.  Johnny is an extremely skilled, and thus valuable, apprentice to a silversmith in Boston.  When a terrible accident leaves Johnny’s hand maimed, and unable to work silver, everything in his life is turned upside-down.

While set during tumultuous times, in many ways Johnny Tremain is way more about Johnny than about the history being made in Boston.  The way that he grows and matures enables the reader to see the differences between various schools of thought at the time.  Forbes does a good job of portraying not only good/bad Tories and good/bad Whigs, but even good/bad British soldiers, reminding the readers that everyone in history is human.

Several real people are woven into the story, as Johnny becomes involved with the Sons of Liberty – Paul Revere (a silversmith himself), Sam Adams, John Adams, John Hancock, and others.  Johnny himself goes from someone who simply didn’t care about the way his country is governed – because Johnny most certainly starts as an obnoxious and self-centered individual – to a passionate Rebel, and Forbes writes that transformation brilliantly.

For me, the weak part of the story is the entire part about the Lytes and Johnny’s possible familial connection to them.  But in some ways, I think that the point of that story line is to emphasize how this new country that is being birthed is one that (theoretically) does not depend on royalty or lords, but is democratic and equal.

Forbes is writing for children; this book is probably a sixth-grade level, but the story is strong enough to hold the attention of an adult, and possesses enough depth to give that adult food for thought.  There is a brilliant section where James Otis stands up and points out everything that these rebels have to lose, and demands to know why it is worth fighting for.  He then goes on to give the answer to his own question:

James Otis was on his feet, his head close against the rafters that cut down into the attic, making it the shape of a tent.  Otis put out his arms.

“It is all so much simpler than you think,” he said.  He lifted his hands and pushed against the rafters.

“We give all we have, lives, property, safety, skills…we fight, we die, for a simple thing.  Only that a man can stand up.”

Sometimes, for me, I read historical fiction as though it isn’t historical at all, but simply fiction.  I don’t want to know if these are things Revere really thought, or if he and all the others were selfish, money-grubbing men who were unprincipled enough to take an entire country to war for their own gain.  I don’t read these books to debate whether or not what this book says what they believed was actually what they believed.  Instead, I read it like regular fiction – are the beliefs they express in this story ones that are worthwhile?

A truly good story, a timeless one like Johnny Tremain, carries on not because it records history so faithfully, but because it reminds us of what we ought to stand for, reminds us what rights and privileges are worth fighting for, reminds us of who we should be.

Unequal Affections


by Lara Ormiston

Published 2014

As I’ve confessed in the past, I really enjoy Pride and Prejudice retellings, most of which I don’t review because I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve read them, as the vast majority are really just dreadful.  Even so, I find myself endlessly fascinated by the many, many divergent paths those retellings can take, perhaps because it reminds me how one very small decision and impact a whole string of events.

The best part about Unequal Affections, which is actually a lovely book, and one that I’m going to end up recommending instead of hiding, is the introduction, wherein someone (I’ve had to return this book to the library as someone else had it on reserve; I finished this book in early March, so I’m sorry if I sometimes get a bit vague on the details!), not the author, basically explains how the majority of P&P stories are ridiculous because they have the characters scampering about stealing kisses (and more), and that’s all just truly not what would have happened.  In short, though she didn’t say it in so many words, the introductioner says Don’t expect shagging.  How singularly refreshing!

Unequal Affections starts (more or less) with Darcy’s proposal at Hunsford.  But in this version, instead of losing her temper and telling Darcy just what she thinks of him, Elizabeth listens to his proposal and asks for time to think about it before giving her decision.  This alone is enough to get Darcy thinking, as well.  Elizabeth eventually accepts him, and Darcy returns to Netherfield to be with her as they plan their wedding – and get to know each other better.

I think that the reason I enjoyed this version so much is that one thing that’s always made me a bit sad about the original is that this huge gulf of misunderstanding had to be overcome by Darcy and Elizabeth separately, as Elizabeth reads and digests Darcy’s letter, and Darcy relives and digests Elizabeth’s accusations at Hunsford.  In this story, Elizabeth freely confesses to Darcy before accepting his proposal that she does not love him, and through the course of their engagement, they end up working through what were the contents of the letter/proposal refusal in the original, together as they arise.

Darcy is very well-written, as a gentleman in love, but still a gentleman, and, honestly, still just a man who is often completely confused by Elizabeth because she is, after all, a woman.  Most of the original characters stay true to form, and the story flows just as naturally as the original.

Unequal Affections is a rare gem in a plethora of Pride and Prejudice retellings, one that is actually a worthwhile read, that involves story and dialogue rather than heated looks and stolen touches.  A lovely love story, but more importantly, a good story, I definitely recommend it.

The View from Saturday


by E.L. Konigsburg

Published 1996

So I’ve begun to realize that there are books I loved as a child, books that have become beloved classics in my personal library, and that these books were written by people who wrote other books.  Part of me, though, is a bit terrified of those other books.  What if they don’t live up to expectations?  Wolves of Willoughby Chase is one of my dearest books, but the rest of the series, which I recently read as an adult, was rather dreadful.

One of these beloved childhood books for me is The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.  I can’t explain why, exactly.  Something about the brilliance of running away to a giant museum closely paralleled my dream of living in a library (specifically Wagnall’s Memorial, which is like a castle!), and just the magic of the whole idea.  As I got older, I was able to better emphasize with Claudia, and the struggle to be an individual and to do something special, something unique – to have a secret that was yours.  

Point is, a couple months ago I was looking at my bedraggled copy of The Mixed-Up Files (no covers and it’s taped together) and I thought to myself, I’m pretty sure Konigsburg is a famous author and wrote lots of other stuff.  I should try one of those!  So I typed in her name on the library website, and there was The View from Saturday, and I decided to give it a whirl.

Overall, I’m not a huge fan of slice-of-life kind of stories, and I have an inherent suspicion of award winning/classic books, which too often are dreary, depressing, pointless, and full of stupid, whiny people who never do realize how good their lives actually are.  And so I approached The View from Saturday with some trepidation.  What I read was a book that I purchased the day that I finished it so that I could add it to my collection.

Here’s the tricky part, though – I can’t explain why.   I don’t really know what it is about this book that so completely captured me.  It wasn’t anything like I expected it to be; it was a perfectly crafted story in every way.

It is a story, sort of, about Mrs. Olinski’s sixth-grade Academic Bowl team, which has somehow  managed to beat not only the other sixth-grade teams, but the seventh-and-eight-graders, too – and beyond.  How did these four completely different children end up on the same team, and why do they get along so well?  How did Mrs. Olinski choose them?  The story unwinds, partly taking place during a current quiz bowl competition, partly told by each of the four children as they recall a critical event in their recent lives that led them to where they are today.

And while that is the bare bones of the book, it’s nothing like what the book really is.  This was a book full of insight and beauty, yet told in a way that is simple and readable even for a someone the same age as this eclectic sixth-grade team.

After The Souls had won the Epiphany Middle School championship, Dr. Roy Clayton Rohmer paid a visit to Mrs. Olinski and asked – guess what? – why she had chosen this team.  She still didn’t know (and wouldn’t until after it was over), but by that time the success of The Souls (even if she did not yet know that they were The Souls) had made Mrs. Olinski less timid.

Dr. Rohmer announced that he had just completed a three-day workshop on multiculturalism for ed-you-kay-toars.  Mrs. Olinski had always been amused by educators who called themselves ed-you-kay-toars.  So, when he asked her how she had chosen the four members of her academic team, Mrs. Olinski knitted her brow and answered with hushed seriousness.  “In the interest of diversity,” she said, “I chose a brunette, a redhead, a blond, and a kid with hair as black as print on paper.”

Dr. Rohmer was not amused.  He gave Mrs. Olinski a capsule lecture on what multiculturalism really means.

“Oh,” she said, “then we’re still safe, Dr. Rohmer.  You can tell the taxpayers that the Epiphany Middle school team has one Jew, one half-Jew, a WASP, and an Indian.”

“Jews, half-Jews, and WASPs have nothing to do with diversity, Mrs. Olinski.  The Indian does.  But we don’t call them Indians any more.  We call them Native Americans.”

“Not this one,” she replied.

“Mrs. Olinski,” Dr. Rohmer asked, “would you like it if people called you a cripple?”

Mrs. Olinski gave up.  Everyone believed that she could be wounded  by the word cripple.  She could never explain to Dr. Rohmer, nor would she try to, that the word itself does not hurt, but the manner of its delivery can.  For all of his training, Dr. Rohmer would never believe that cripples themselves are a diverse group, and some make jokes.

I think I loved this book because it explored different life-situations without making any seem better or worse than another.  Happy parents, divorced parents, widowed parents – kids who had lived there all their lives, kids from someplace else, kids from a different country – Konigsburg manages to explore the concept of true diversity – that we are, by nature, diverse – that diversity has nothing to do with skin color, and everything to do with the simple fact of being.

I strongly recommend this book.  It’s a short, easy read, and one  that I could barely put down.  Even though it is not a plot-driven story, it engaged me completely as Konigsburg wove together such different lives into one whole.

It’s truly rare for me to embrace a book so completely.  As an adult, I so rarely come across a “magic” book – one that becomes an instant classic, one that I know I will read time and again – but The View from Saturday did just that.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  5/5.

Death by the Book


by Julianna Deering

Published 2014

First off, SO sorry it’s been so long.  Life has been quite busy and full of a couple of big changes (one very good, one very bad, and both very time-consuming), and I just haven’t had the blogging time I’ve yearned for, which is a shame because I have so much to share!  To start, a book from Bethany House that was provided to me for free from the publisher in exchanged for my unbiased review –

Last year, I had the pleasure of reviewing the first book in the Drew Farthering series, Rules of Murder.  This year, Deering published its sequel.  So I pulled Rules of Murder off my shelf and read them both, back-to-back.  If you’ll recall, I enjoyed Rules of Murder just fine, but it didn’t really engage me emotionally.  Unfortunately, I had very similar feelings about Death by the Book.  

This second installment picks up pretty shortly after the first ended.  Drew, Madeline, and Nick are trying to settle back into regular life.  Drew is still convinced that Madeline is the girl for him (since he’s known her about a month now) and Madeline is still a bit uncertain.  Madeline is an orphan, and an American.  When her aunt (who raised her) arrives unexpectedly, the household is thrown into a bit of turmoil, since Aunt Ruth isn’t the easiest person to get along with.  To top it off, people are showing up dead, with delicate hatpins stuck into their chests, mysterious messages attached.

I really, really wanted to like this book, but it just didn’t engage me.  And I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I finished it to try and figure out why.  I think that part of the problem is that the characters don’t feel very realistic.  I’ve also been reading through Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple series (more cozy mysteries).  From the very beginning, Daisy and Alec are very real people, and I think that it’s because they do things.  When I’m not reading about their adventures, it’s easy to picture them tooling about, living life – Daisy doing research and writing articles, Alec solving mysteries at the Scotland Yard, getting together for dinner whenever they can.

But Drew, especially, doesn’t do anything.  He’s rich and leisurely.  He has no employment, and doesn’t even seem to have any hobbies.  When he’s not doing something on the pages of the book, I have no idea what he is doing, you know?  It’s more like a play, and when he isn’t out on the stage, I figure he must just be sitting about behind the scenes, waiting for his next line.  He doesn’t feel like a real person, and the same goes for Madeline and Nick, who appear and give their lines, and then exit, stage left.  Nick at least has some employment, so I figure he’s off to do some estate managing, but apparently Madeline and her aunt hang around a small cottage all day doing ???? and Drew meanders about the countryside, waiting for murders to happen.

His detecting position is also ambiguous.  In the first book, it made at least a modicum of sense to have Drew doing some detecting, since the murders had occurred in his own home.  But the Inspector was consistently irritated at his interference, and, in the end, it didn’t really feel as though Drew had been the one to make the brilliant deductions.  Yet, for some reason, in this book the Inspector actually invites Drew along.  And even though the Inspector says things like, “Let me ask the questions,” Drew always ends up asking the questions.  It just feels awkward, because Drew really has no purpose.

And finally, just too  many deaths for a true cozy mystery – traditionally, cozy mysteries kill off a minimum of people, and mostly kill people we don’t like anyway.  Deering has no such compunctions, leaving us with a villain who feels far too ruthless for a cozy (rereading the first book, I realized it was very similar in this aspect).

I really don’t mean to just completely bash this book.  The mystery itself was intriguing, and some of the dialogue fun.  But overall, the whole thing felt very scripted and unnatural, leaving me with very mediocre feelings towards the story – a pretty solid 3/5.

Hey friends!

Sorry for the long silence!  Life has been truly crazy of late.  Of course, I always have plenty of time to read (an expert like myself can read while doing other things that would normally be a waste of time, like brushing my teeth or cooking supper or walking from one end of the apartment to the other), but blogging…!!!  And I’ve read some really great books, too!  I’m especially looking forward to posting about The View from Saturday, which was a book I wasn’t really expecting to enjoy and ended up purchasing immediately after reading because I loved it so much; Unequal Affections, which was actually a well-written retelling of Pride and Prejudice for once; Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, because who doesn’t want to read a random book by someone who is weirdly obsessed with bananas?? and Conrad’s Fate, another great installment of the Chrestomanci series.

But all of that is (hopefully) in the future.  Last week, my husband and I went to North Carolina with my brother and his wife, and had a fantastically relaxing week (for once, I legitimately felt like I needed a holiday), so for now my blogging focus is going to be on updating the Travel Log.  I usually post as we go along, but I didn’t take my laptop this time (more time for reading!) so I’m a bit behind.  Feel free to catch up on my news there (or not lol), and hopefully I will be back to books soon!!