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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sam The Banana Man
The Fish That Ate The Whale is sensational. A page turner, the book tells the story of poor Russian immigrant Sam Zemurray who came to the USA in the late 1800s with nothing but a strong body and a keen mind. He settled in Alabama, where he soon fell in love with the humble yellow banana--not so humble, it turned out. He started in the fruit trade at the bottom, selling...
Published on June 7, 2012 by Henry Richard

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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Fish that Ate the Whate
I have worked for United Fruit Company over 30 years, 15 of which were in the tropics: Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras, and remember the legend of Sam Zemurray well from the tales of people I worked with. While the story overall is fascinating and contains a number of historic facts that I was unaware of, for example the Israel connection, there are numerous technical...
Published on August 1, 2012 by Wolfgang Schulz


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25 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Sam The Banana Man, June 7, 2012
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The Fish That Ate The Whale is sensational. A page turner, the book tells the story of poor Russian immigrant Sam Zemurray who came to the USA in the late 1800s with nothing but a strong body and a keen mind. He settled in Alabama, where he soon fell in love with the humble yellow banana--not so humble, it turned out. He started in the fruit trade at the bottom, selling the bananas other peddlers considered too yellow to make it to the market in time for a sale. Called ripes, these bananas were considered garbage by other so-called "banana men." With them, Zemurray built his first fortune. He would eventually move to Honduras, go to war with United Fruit, and conquer United Fruit, overthrowing governments in Honduras and Guatemala along the way. All of this is told with great style, color and verve. It's like an opera of the American dream that raises questions about righteousness and sin, the good and bad that has resulted from a certain kind of energy and overweening ambition. It's a book about business, family, love and loss, but mostly it's the story of America.
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36 of 40 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The Fish that Ate the Whate, August 1, 2012
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I have worked for United Fruit Company over 30 years, 15 of which were in the tropics: Colombia, Costa Rica and Honduras, and remember the legend of Sam Zemurray well from the tales of people I worked with. While the story overall is fascinating and contains a number of historic facts that I was unaware of, for example the Israel connection, there are numerous technical errors in the manuscript. It makes me wonder who proofread the book before it was published. Here are just a few of those errors: The river Utila he refers to is called the Ulua. Utila is one of the Bay Islands off the Caribbean coast; bananas do ripen on the "tree" beautifully and taste delicious, you just have to cut them down green so they can be packed and transported by ship to the markets where they are finally ripened in specially equipped ripening rooms; the banana stem and bunch are synominous, the stem or bunch has typically 7 to 10 hands and each hand is cut into clusters of 5 fingers (average) for retail display for the final consumer.
Sam Zemurray was a real macho and the right man for those times. He created a banana empire where there were jungles before. The liberal minded college professors and historians should know that each farm had a village with a house for every laborer, a farm store, a free school and a free dispensary with access to a free central hospital. The pay may have been low, but they did not pay for their housing and many local schoolteachers quit their jobs in the national schools because the pay at the comnpany packing stations was so much higher. The unions fought the company whenever it wanted to turn over their facilities to local ownership because they knew that the laborers were far better off working for the "gringos" rather than local bosses/farmers.
I am saying all this to put this into proper perspective. One should not and cannot judge yesterday's events by today's standards. Where do you stop? Look what we did to the Indian population in North America? The then European immigrants and our Government stole their lands and their livelyhood. United Fruit never stole any lands, they created something where there was nothing before. It required tough and rough hombres who defended their perceived rights when local governments in those past years were mostly corrupt and dictatorships.
I am very proud of those years and the many fine people I worked with. The only reget that I have is never having met Sam the Banana Man. He retired 3 years before I started working with United Fruit.
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24 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Godfather, With Bananas, June 7, 2012
Sam Zemurray walks into a jungle, grows a product, becomes a giant. He takes over companies, a market, a continent. He becomes a political problem. He rescues a nation. And he becomes a rich man, a legend, finally a great story. You travel the whole thing with him, under the big sun and with the smells of the jungle and the rolling train compartments and the central air in the boardrooms. You see him grow from a lanky green immigrant kid--Cohen describes him as tall and hard-eyed, and you keep seeing Sam as John Wayne, or like George Clooney--to a rolled-sleeve powerhouse on the plantations to a man in a suit in the corridors of power, the most dangerous of all. Rich Cohen is telling a great story, an adventure story. You look at the things you want. You imagine going out to get them; then you do get them and what does it mean to you and do to you? What does it mean for your family--the people you live with, the ones you leave behind with the money? It's The Godfather with Bananas. It's also any life, in bigger letters. And it's the business, how the banana traveled from jungle to your table; that's Sam Zemurray there, in your cabinet, who got the fruit sliced onto your cereal, in your yoghurt at the brunch place. In the book Cohen takes you across the picturebook South--farms and piers and sly deckhands--to palmy New Orleans and then into the tropics, the messy place we go to extract the good stuff. Manpower, resources, money, all to be spent and converted to power back in the necktie regions. The book gives you everything. The jungles. Gun fights on the plantations. Rickety airplanes. The stacks of money, the anxious men in offices and D.C., the agents, ultimatums. Mercenaries and revolutions. (And a great word, for people whose job it was to go out and raise a ruckus for pay in the shadowy parts of the world: Revolutin'.) Sam Zemurray walked out of his old life as an underdog and lowered his head to do the work and came back with everyone's world changed and himself somehow different. And with America's role in the world different too. The fact that this whole story is in a peel and sitting on your breakfast plate is something else again; it's like having Sam Zemurray there, first thing, asking what you are going to be up to today. And it brings back scenes from the story. The nights, the mercenaries, the growers, the battles, the big houses, the small children, the anxious meetings, the achievements, all moving from the jungle to the boats to your own house. An amazing book.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Storytelling, June 10, 2012
I've been a fan of Rich Cohen ever since Tough Jews, and I bought this book as soon as I could, and finished it in one sitting; I can confidently say it is his best yet. Sam 'the banana man' Zemurray is an endlessly fascinating and complicated character, with his fingerprints all over the history of the 20th century, from the creation of Israel to the Cuban Revolution, and a lesser writer would have allowed these events to consume the character at the heart of the book. But Cohen strikes the perfect balance between history and character study- each stage in Zemurray's life brings a fresh perspective, or some florid, wholly unexpected detail to well-known events, and illuminates another corner of the complicated banana man. By the end one feels they both know Zemurray the man, in all his ambitions and failings, and that they understand how well he fits as a microcosm of America at its most admirable and its most vicious. The writing is uniformly excellent, especially the thrilling opening in New Orleans- precise and atmospheric, almost cinematic. Buy this book as soon as possible. You will not be disappointed.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Well written to a point, but also pretty wishful in thinking..., September 28, 2013
This review is from: The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King (Paperback)
First off, Cohen is a good writer. He does a real good job of setting the mood, but then interjects his 1st person point of view and it really breaks the feel of the narrative he presents. It's pretty distracting.

Now to the substance. Theres a guy named Gus Russo who wrote two books, The Supermob and The Outfit. In the Supermob he wrote about a Mob lawyer, Sid Korshak (another russian Jew coincidentally) and the Jewish power brokers in California and in the other, the Italian Mob in Chicago. In the Korshak book, we see the corruption this guy is in always in the middle of and the victims of his scams; in the Outfit book, it's about the "boys" and their shenanigans. You kind of get to not like the Jewish mob lawyer, but in the other, you get a feel for these italian mobsters as not killing or taking advantage of regular people, that they're rebels almost. Later, that author compares them to J.P. Morgan. A criminal syndicate that somehow is admirable? All I'm saying is that the author can spin something and maybe not even realize it. The Jewish guy had no redeemable characteristics and mobsters were just misunderstood. Couldn't have anything to do with the writer's background that affected his objectivity right? Now to this book:

Cohen glamorizes Zemurray, makes his shortcomings into something tragic. Don't get me wrong, it's an interesting story, but from the writer's own musing you get the idea that he is apologizing for and minimizing the stuff this guy was doing. The emphasis is on the "good" he did. And the bad, well, there is always an excuse it seems. Like the first coup he backed, or deputies bought were just him being the norm or fighting for what was "his." He was "different" after his son died. The Guatemalan coup was when things "started" to get out of hand and he seemed to "shy" away from it. And of course, we need to say that he wasn't J.P. Morgan, that he wasn't as "bad" as UF when he owned Cuyamel and gets a pass. In fact, it seems as if the two things that make this guy "better" than the other guys is that he lived on the isthmus and ran a more efficient company at one point or actually tried to improve the quality of the bananas sold. So he only had to show up, know all the jobs and make money better, to be somehow, relevant? He was overthrowing governments when he started and when he finished. There was little special or different about that. He was making money, again, nothing special or different about that. But Cohen somehow thought that translated into Zemurray being better or different.

Cohen gives out dollar figures and explains the links between Israel and Zemurray, he points out that he would have liked to get more info on the links to Israel. He did a chapter or numerous pages on this. When it comes to the money he spent on his workers in the isthmus, we get about three paragraphs total, no explanation, no dollar values, and no comparison as to what the norm was in those places with other companies, nor details into what a blessing all the services provided were and to whom. I have to think Cohen was stretching or dedicating his research to the wrong things, because Cohen saw what he wanted to see and when there wasn't much to see in other more progressive aspects such as the construction of schools, roads, power grids or hospitals, he just doesn't pursue it to substantiate his claims or to explain to what degree they were meaningfully pursued.

And I have to say, I find it odd that Cohen continually talks about Zemurray and the "old school" banana cowboys as being aficionados of the frontier, when their chief goal was to destroy said frontier in a money making endeavor. Go to Guatemala now and show me where that frontier is. That just bewilders me. There wasn't much to redeem this guy and I don't think Cohen should have tried. And if he was going to do so, he should have done a better job on this book. Maybe not Robert Caro's "The Power Broker" good, but better than this...
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Questioning the American dream, June 10, 2012
By 
M. D. Roth "Davitt" (LOS ANGELES, CA, US) - See all my reviews
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I heard an NPR story on this and picked up a copy as a Father's Day gift. I was only planning to read the intro before i sent it, but I got sucked in. Every other day I stop and pick up fruit from one of the hundreds of Mexican-American street vendors in Los Angeles. And i get my lunch from one of the hundreds of food trucks proliferating throughout the city. You have to wonder if this story could still happen today. And then you have to wonder...at what cost.

It's an unlikely rags-to-riches story, if the only in America kind. But what struck me was the honesty and raw truth behind the story. It lays bare the good and the bad of the American dream, and you want to simultaneously celebrate and question and condemn it all. Is this still the collective 'dream' that makes the country so great? What would we do without the Sam Zemurrays ... but what are we supposed to do with them?
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Too wild to be believed, but it's all true, October 23, 2012
By 
Mal Warwick (Berkeley, California) - See all my reviews
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Chances are, you've never heard of this guy. But if you're not aware of some of the things he's done, you'll never be a big winner on "Jeopardy" or pass an AP test in modern world history. Just for example, he was the guy who engineered the CIA-led coup that overthrew the government of Guatemala in 1954, ushering in an era of intensified hatred for the United States throughout Latin America. He was also pivotal in the early history of Israel -- as Chaim Weizmann's favorite donor in America, as the man who pulled strings to force the release of the ship Exodus from the Port of Philadelphia and send it on its way to Israel, as the source of ocean-going ships that carried tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from displaced-person camps in Europe to Palestine, and as the central figure in persuading President Truman to support the independence of Israel. Oh, and he also helped make the banana America's favorite fruit.

His name was Samuel Zemurray. He arrived in the United States in 1891 as a 14-year-old, a penniless Russian Jewish immigrant fresh off his father's wheat farm in present-day Moldova. Within two decades, he was a multimillionaire, only a little past the age of 30. Having stumbled across his first banana before the turn of the century, Sam was a major factor in the banana trade by 1910, a thorn in the side of the United Fruit Company, which commanded 60 percent of the market. Unlike most of his competitors, Sam had taken up residence in Honduras, where he worked the fields alongside his men and went out drinking with them in the evenings, a beloved figure throughout banana country on the Central American isthmus despite his later reputation as the personification of American imperialism and exploitation. Two decades later, exasperated with U.F.'s incompetent, Boston-bound leadership, he engineered a takeover of the company at a time when it was on the ropes. He led U.F. (known as "The Octopus" or "El Pulpo") back to consistent profits for 25 years, only to founder on the heels of his greatest triumph: the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz as President of Guatemala, which ironically brought to a close the era of the United Fruit Company as a landowner in Central America.

Nonfiction author Rich Cohen writes the extraordinary story of Sam Zemurray with a sure hand, delving into the recesses of the Banana King's soul as deeply as could anyone who never met the man. His intimate, first-person style is engaging, often ironic. The Fish That Ate the Whale is a joy to read.

In the end, Cohen offers this judgment of Sam Zemurray: "If he had questioned the workings of [the] machine [he had set in motion and tended so long], he would have been a great man, but he was not a great man; he was a complicated man blessed with great energy and ideas."

Zemurray died in his palatial New Orleans home in 1961 at the age of 84. Today, many of his descendants remain involved in Central America, as anthropologists, art experts, and in other academic pursuits. Perhaps they did come to understand the workings of Sam's machine even though he never did.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting story, good research, but too narrated for a biography, September 7, 2012
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The research on the history of the banana business is solid and very interesting. I personally prefer a drier, more straightforward account like Walter Isaacson's work. There was a bit too much speculation and fluff in this account. The hard facts tracing Zemurray's life, in particular, were a bit vague. There wasn't much detail to his relationships, whether business or personal. It was very lightly brushed over. Regardless, it's a great underdog story and I'm glad I read it.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Great Content, Poor Style, August 23, 2012
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I heard the author interviewed about this book and thought the subject matter fascinating. That part did not disappoint. The man's life was amazing and another example of the American dream writ large for an immigrant.

The style on the other hand, was quite irritating. The author's constant jumping between first, second and third person comes off as a transparent attempt to inject himself into the story. An author's view of the life of the subject is not germane to the story and his comparison of United Fruit to Halliburton is just snarky.

On the whole, a worthwhile read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Short on Biographical Substance, August 1, 2012
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Fascinating character but narrative is repetitive, almost as if the writer ran out of material. The author was authoritative about the life of a formerly Eastern European Jew in the American South, but for other environmental and social factors he was absent.
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The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King
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