70 of 70 people found the following review helpful
on January 15, 2008
I have sat down to write this review at least 2 dozen times. There are so many things I wish to say about this book. All of them wonderful.
While I could go on at length about technical aspects of banana farming and the endless supply of quirky "did you knows," I think that the most lasting impact that this book had on me is its ability to make me want to learn more. Koeppel's works inform--thoroughly--but they also inspire true wonder and curiosity, and that's where the gold is.
"Banana" is written in a style that, if occasionally austere, is quite quick and energetic; I found it difficult to put the book down. With the turn of every page, I felt I learned something new, and subsequently wanted to learn more: be it about bananas, trade, globalization, science, genetic coding, 20th century marketing practices, the United States' political, cultural, and economic imperialism, the covert domination of "banana republics," violent crackdowns on labor movements--all of it!
Koeppel makes sure to balance the light with the heavy and knows exactly when he's losing those of us that don't exactly find banana DNA the most thrilling topic in the world. "Banana" masterfully weaves diverse issues into a tight, delightful read, leaving the reader excited and hungry for more. I truly cannot give this piece all of the praise it deserves.
74 of 76 people found the following review helpful
on January 10, 2008
Dan Koeppel, author of the stunning To See Every Bird on Earth, turns his obsessive inclinations to the banana. Who knew such an everyday, seemingly innocent fruit could embody so much, well, drama? The banana that we all know and love, the Cavendish, is rapidly becoming infected with an unstoppable disease, which threatens to wipe out not only whole crops but whole economies. How and why this is happening and what can be done about it, is the primary--but not only--concern of the book.
More than just a food history, Banana transverses the globe, modern genetics, and past and present political struggles in a fast-paced narrative that reads more like a travelogue than a textbook. Koeppel is one of those rare authors that like Mark Kurlansky, can make any subject come alive. Rather than throw facts at the reader, Koeppel takes you by the hand and walks you through his tale. From genetic research labs in Belgium to plantations in the Philippines, to the creation of banana republics of Central America, to the banana--not the apple--as the most likely fruit in the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Koeppel weaves a rich story, where all these seemingly disconnected pieces come together. Bananas is a remarkable piece of journalism. Anyone interested in the politics and social history of food, or for those just bananas about bananas will appreciate it.
70 of 77 people found the following review helpful
"Yes, we have no bananas", goes the song, and even if you are not a devotee of tin pan alley ballads, you can probably make that catchy tune of 1923 sound in your head. It was written at a time when, yes, the world risked losing all its bananas, and yes, we ourselves might have no bananas in the future. If that means you won't have bananas to slice upon your cereal, OK, but for others in the world it means they simply won't have enough food. It isn't all a dire story, but in _Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World_ (Hudson Street Press), Dan Koeppel, a popular nature writer, has covered a huge amount of history and biology, both of which are full of dark intimations of the worst aspects of human nature. "The _____ That Changed the World" subtitle is overused, but Koeppel makes it clear that this time it accurately applies. The banana, or the way humans have cultivated and used it, has raised and toppled nations, and still affects current geopolitical forces.
Bananas have traveled around the world, starting from the wild varieties of South China, Southeast Asia, and India, giving hundreds of cultivated varieties. It is surprising that some have textures like apples, and some must be cooked, and many of them have tart or creamy flavors that American shoppers know nothing about. This is because we buy one banana, the Cavendish which has good properties to make it transportable and long-lasting, but that it forms almost all the world's commercially cultured bananas is its weakness, perhaps a dangerous one. We have been through this before; the Cavendish is not your grandparent's banana. The one they ate was the _Gros Michel_ (Big Mike) banana, which was the monoculture banana of its time until, as one-species crops tend to do, it caught a bad disease, Panama Disease, a fungus that was discovered in that country and then spread worldwide. Bananas by that time had become a worldwide trade, and especially in South America the big companies got the dictators to agree about the dangers of rights for the banana workers, and of labor unions, and the American government helped out. There is new bad news for bananas: Cavendish bananas are now succumbing to Panama disease, as did their predecessor, and the disease is rapidly being transported worldwide. Koeppel maintains that there is one prospect of a solution, and that is genetic modification. GM is regarded with horror as producing "frankenfood", but it is in the banana that it could be used with the least risk. Proprietary seeds won't be developed, both because seeds are hard to come by and because scientists working on the banana genome have agreed that any resultant fruit will be in the public domain. Bananas, which have no seeds or pollen, are at little risk for allowing their modifications to escape into the wild.
Something will have to be done if we want our bananas, and we do want them: we eat more of them than apples and oranges combined. No more bananas would mean a gustatory loss for Americans but a nutritional disaster for Africa and other parts of the world where locally-grown bananas are a staple rather than a snack. The Cavendish was in the wings ready to take the stage when the Gros Michel was slain, and now that the Cavendish may go the same way, there is no understudy waiting to take over. Koeppel's descriptions of history and biology are reasoned and thoughtful, and this is far from an incendiary book. It is full of details that are surprising and amusing, as well as troubling. Koeppel shows that we have taken the banana for granted, and that this is part of its current problem; his welcome book will ensure that the banana's complexities are far better understood.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2008
I picked this up on a lark, having enjoyed another micro history work on cotton. I never imagined I would be so interested in a book on bananas, but just a few pages in and I was hooked.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 22, 2010
I enjoyed this book for revealing the actual, factual story of 'Big Banana' in Central and South America. It was good to finally read an account of what ACTUALLY happened, as opposed to the generalized 'it was a very bad time' story that one hears from people who either lived through it themselves, or heard it from their parents. Or worse, other writers who have either downplayed the villainy of these companies, or exaggerated it to demonic proportions. The reality was ugly enough.
Having visited and/or lived in some of the banana growing regions of the Western Hemisphere, I can tell you the damage is/was real, and continues to this day. The runoff from banana fields contaminates every body of water for miles around an active field.
The writing in here was pretty good. Not great, but not bad. The style is a little breezy in spots, but thats to be expected in a 'popular' book of this subject matter. I really think a few more photos would have enhanced this book tremendously, as well as a slightly more scholarly tone in a few areas. However, I realize that this is personal preference, and does not detract from the quality of the book. It just got a bit 'chatty' for my taste.
I would have given a 4 star, but the book lacks any detailed horticultural information (other than discussion of the use of pesticides), and that seems like an appropriate and needed addition to a book that tries to discuss a fruit that supports millions of lives. Politics, science and history are well discussed, but I really would have liked a little more about the impact of this fruit on lives of individuals who depend on it for daily sustenance. Horticultural info, a deeper discussion of varieties (including some more obscure cultivars), recipes, maps...something that would make this book less disposable.
A good, quick read (2 nights), but not one that is going to have a permanent home on my bookshelf
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on January 22, 2008
This book is so informative and interesting that the reader will keep saying " I never knew that". All the common phrases that refer to the banana are explained in fascinating detail. Dan shows us the historical political and human side of the story of tha banana and its perilous journey around the world only now to be on the endangered fruit list.
It is a book that maybe you wouldn't buy by its cover, and that's why they made the comment about judging. This is one fine, enjoyable book. Read it and enjoy.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on January 28, 2008
Americans eat more bananas than apples and oranges combined. And it's not just us: Bananas are the most popular fruit in the world, and the fourth most important crop overall. In some places, bananas are THE mealtime staple. Like in Uganda, where the word for "food" and the word for "banana" are one and the same. As Dan Koeppel explains in his compelling new book, it's not just our cereal bowls that will suffer if we don't save the banana from extinction.
That's right, the banana is right now fighting a fast-spreading fungus that threatens to wipe out most of the world's plantations. It's happened before (the variety of banana our grandparents ate was decimated half a century ago), and it very may well happen again.
What happened to that old banana (affectionately known as the "Big Mike") and how scientists are racing to prevent the same fate for our current fruit is just part of the fascination of BANANA. The book also covers the development of the advertising, marketing, and business practices that allowed a food grown thousands of miles away to become a daily snack for most Americans. It explains why slipping on a banana peel isn't just a slapstick gag and the lyrics behind that odd song "Yes! We have no bananas." It delves into the politics and social history that led to the monoculture that threatens the banana today. And that fruit in the Garden of Eden? It wasn't an apple...
Eminently readable, BANANA is one of those rare books that manages to be both important, and fun. Highly recommended.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on August 27, 2008
I am deeply grateful to Koeppel for the tribute he paid to Phil Rowe, the United Brands banana/plantain breeder in Honduras who died in 2001. Koeppel never met him but obviously captured a strong sense of who Phil was and his important contribution to world food security. I met Phil Rowe in 1981 in Tela Honduras and spent the day enthralled listening and learning about challenges to the World banana/plantain crop and Phil's efforts to overcome the challenges to successful banana/plantain breeding.
Koeppel's book emphasizes dessert banana issues. However, the World primarily relies on bananas and plantains as a vegetable crop. In the Dominican Republic they eat cooked green plantains 3 times a day and prefer it to potatoes. Next time you are in New York stop by a Dominican restaraunt and try mangu de platano for breakfast or fresh tostones hot off of the skillet. For those of you that have lived or visited Panama or Colombia, tostones are called patacones.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2012
Political intrigue, corruption, history, humor, science, folklore, genetic engineering, ethics, and a ticking clock for the future of bananas. All in this book about a seemingly mundane topic. And there's pictures!
This is, quite simply, a fascinating book. It might even be my favorite book about bananas. And that includes "Good Night Gorilla" and "The Happy Herbivore."
When I buy bananas at the grocery store, I'm always delighted and amazed at how inexpensive they are. I was stunned to learn that even in 1913 the same thing was true. Even though bananas were shipped halfway around the world, they were still cheaper than good `ol American apples.
The book is full of people I'd like to know. Like Wilson Popenoe. "By the time he was twenty, he was an agricultural prodigy, with an encyclopedic knowledge of nearly every fruit and vegetable grown in the United States and an intense desire that his understanding should encompass the entire world."
If you've ever thought about bananas -- and that's probably a big `if' -- chances are you'd be surprised at how much you didn't know about them. For instance, did you know a banana tree isn't even a tree? It's actually the world's largest herb. And that a banana is actually a ginormous berry? And that even though we only eat one variety -- the Cavendish -- there are over 1,000 types of bananas growing all over the world? And that the bananas you eat don't have seeds? They are always cloned.
Yeah, I didn't think so.
But the most important thing to know about bananas is that the Cavendish is not the banana Americans ate before World War II. That distinction goes to the Gros Michel ... the Big Mike. But the Gros Michel disappeared due to a fungus they named Panama Disease. By 1960 the Gros Michel was extinct.
Now, Panama Disease is stalking the Cavendish. It's a race against time and nobody knows if the banana can be saved.
Travel with Dan Koeppel on his banana journey and I guarantee this will become your favorite book about bananas too. It might also end up being your favorite mystery and history book too!
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on July 8, 2012
A friend recommended the book so I trudged through it but it was a chore. I have been reading as much as I can about the early spice trade and also sugar, so my friend's recommendation seemed like it would connect to what I was learning about the settlement of the Caribbean, and the heavy influence of the US and Europe on it. I have three disappointments with the book. First, the genetics background was extremely weak. The author could have solved his problem of how to convey hybrids with graphics. There are plenty of graphics in the book so if cost was an issue, he should not have wasted a page on a photo of a pile of bananas (we know what they look like). Since so much of the later discussion relies on a clear understanding of the stock parentage and his initial descriptions were just too general, it is a fundamental flaw. Next, the chapters are usually three pages. Why? The book then becomes a collection of magazine articles. Finally, the historical context seems extremely shaky with very few well-researched citations compared to other books I have been reading. I will continue to look for a better history of this important food; one with stronger research and a richer writing style.