Monthly Archives: July 2017

What I've Been Reading

Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World, Dan Koeppel

Not bad. I'm a sucker for this type of history of a single commodity or common household object. It did make we want to try to get my hands on one of the few non-Cavendish cultivars of bananas that ever make their way to America.

Banana, Dan Koeppel

Very short summary/background info: all of the bananas at American grocery stores are genetic clones. This leaves them very susceptible to disease. This is not a theoretical concern: the variety which was previously ubiquitous was wiped out in the middle of the 20th century, and the current variety is being decimated in many growing regions. The fact that they're sterile fruits propagated clonally also makes it extremely difficult to breed other, more resistant varieties the way we do with the majority of our produce. Also important to the story is that banana production for the US and European markets has historically been very oligopolistic, leading to some … unsavory … business practices.

(Digression: The artificial banana flavor used in candies tastes nothing like our modern Cavendish bananas but I have heard that it is a very good match for the flavor of the Gros Michel that the Cavendish replaced. I've never been able to find definitive confirmation of that though, and I wish it was mentioned in this book. This a minor was disappointment. On the other hand, I was unreasonably amused by Koeppel's tongue-in-cheek translation of the "Gros Michel" as "The Big Mike".)

There is a temptation when people right books about subjects that have been overlooked to try to swing the pendulum too hard the other way to make the audience realize how important the subject is. Koeppel mostly avoids that trap, but falls in to it somewhat when discussing more current history. There's a lot more to Latin American politics and the rise of Bolivarian Socialism than the treatment of workers on banana plantations, which Koeppel asserted as a primary cause. Similarly he drew an analogy between the Clinton administration filing a complaint with the WTO about EU banana import duties and the active role that United Fruit played in shaping US foreign policy in Latin America between the beginning of the century and the middle of the Cold War. Both have fruit companies involved in international relations, that's where the similarities end. One of those is egregious cronyism, and one is a rules-based order in action.

Koeppel was on the shakiest ground towards the end of the book, when he was discussing the future of the banana market. His discussion of Fair Trade could benefit from reading Amrita Narlikar and similar critiques. I do give Koeppel much credit for his recognition of Consumer Sovereignty. If the conditions of banana growers are going to improve it won't be because Chiquita/Dole/etc. become kinder and gentler, it must be because consumers decide to spend more money buying bananas. Our stated preferences for better conditions for poor agricultural workers do not match our revealed preferences as consumers.

I also commend Koeppel for admitting that researching this book caused him to change his mind about transgenic food. He had previously been anti-GMO but became convinced genetic manipulation is the only way to save the banana crop. I do wish he had extended more of the same enthusiastic acceptance of transgenics to other crops, which he only went halfway to doing. Yes, bananas sterility makes them somewhat of a special case, but only somewhat.

A couple of months back I read Dan Reader's Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent. If you're going to pick up one book about a non-cereal staple crop (and why wouldn't you?), I liked Potato much better.


Pilot X, Tom Merritt

This is a time-travel adventure story. It seemed like it could have been a Doctor Who episode. Merritt handles the oddities that result from time travel with deftness and wit. (A couple of examples that make you stop and think. 1: "This will be the last time I meet you, but not the last time you meet me." 2: The main character spends twelve years in training for a job, but it takes only four years, because when he gets to the end of the four year period he goes back in time and starts again twice, so that there are three of him all operating in parallel.) Amusing, but not great.


The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu

I had previous read Liu's short story collection The Paper Menagerie and loved it. Grace of Kings didn't disappoint. Highly recommended. One of the blurbs on the back cover described it as "the Wuxia version of Game of the Thrones" and that pretty much covers it.

One downside to the book is that characters experience rapid changes in fortune within the span of several pages. It's a nice, fast pace — most contemporary fantasy authors would lumberingly stretch out plot points like this for scores (hundreds?) of pages — but it does rob the story of some of the potential dramatic tension. One minute I've never even considered the possibility of a character rebelling against their overlord, and then within ten minutes they've plotted their rebellion, rebelled, been suppressed, and then punished. That doesn't give me much chance to savor the possibilities of what might happen. All in all though, I prefer this pace to the prolix plodding common to so many contemporary fantasy authors. I appreciate GRRM-style world building as much as the next reader, but not every fantasy novel needs every minor character to have their entire dynastic history spelled out, complete with descriptions of their heraldry, the architecture of their family seat, their favorite meals, and their sexual peccadilloes.

I'm not actually sure 'fantasy' is the correct term for Grace of Kings, come to think of it. There's some minor divine intervention and a couple of fantastic beasts, but no outright magic. I suppose it's fantasy in a sort of Homeric way, rather than a 20th century way.

Anyway, I've got my hands on the sequel, The Wall of Storms, and will be starting it as soon as possible. Hopefully we don't have to wait too long before the third and final volume is published.


The Art of War, Sun Tzu, translated by the Denma Translation Group

I listened to this audio edition from Shambhala Press. I don't pay much attention to which publishers produce which books, but I've been quite happy with several volumes of theirs that I've bought.

I hadn't read Art of the War in probably 20 years, so this was a good refresh. The way they structured this was to first have a recording of the text being read, and then start at the beginning with another reading but this time with interspersed commentary. That was a very good way to do it.

The text itself is short, and the commentary in this edition is good, so I'd recommend this even if you have read Art of War before.


The Map Thief, Michael Blanding

This is the story of an antiquities dealer specializing in rare maps, E. Forbes Smiley III, who turned to theft to build his inventory. I don't usually go for true crime stories, and indeed that was the least interesting aspect of this book. However, it was an interesting look at a little corner of the art/antiques market that I did not know about. There is also good information about the history of cartography, exploration and printing.((Everyone loves to hate on the Mercator projection, but this book does a good job of explaining how revolutionarily useful Mercator's cartography was in the 16th century. His projection is a tool that is remarkably good for its intended purpose, i.e. helping navigate over long sea voyages. It shouldn't be used the way it has been (hung on every classroom wall, making choropleth infographics, etc.) but that doesn't make it a bad tool per se, just one that is misused. The fitness of a technology, just like that of a biological organism, can only be usefully evaluated in the environment it is adapted for.))

Perhaps the most interesting part of the case for me came after Smiley confessed and the various libraries he stole from had to go about figuring out what was missing and from whom. In the case of normal thefts, or even art thefts, this is pretty straight forward, but the nature of the material — rare, poorly or partially catalogued, incompletely and idiosyncraticly described, existing in various editions with only marginal differences, etc. — make it quite a puzzle. Coming up with a good cataloging system for oddities like antique maps would make a good exercise for a library science/information systems/database project. (Indeed it was only thanks to the work of a former Army intelligence analyst that things got sorted out as well as they did.) Even something superficially simple like figuring out which copy of a printed map is which makes for a good computer vision challenge.

There are also Game Theoretic concerns at work: libraries would benefit if they all operated together to publicize thefts in order to track down stolen materials, but it is in every individual library's interest to cover up thefts so as not to besmirch their reputation and alienate donors, who expect that materials they contribute will be kept safe. The equilibrium is not straightforward, nor is it likely to be optimal.

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