Two quick book reviews (cause it’s Friday)

And I’m fairly relaxed now. And still tired. At least there’s a birthday party to go tonight, that’ll provide some merriment.

Anyway, it’s been a bit of time since I’ve talked about recent reading — and as always the backlog’s pretty huge — but the two I’ve read most recently fit squarely in the realm of entertaining and informative popular nonfiction, each beholden a bit to their own cliches. Good reads both in any event:

  • Todd Balf‘s The Darkest Jungle is yet another in the series of books that draws, consciously or not, on the model of Erik Larson‘s Isaac’s Storm in particular to provide a demi-documentary you-are-there feeling out of an overlapping series of papers, archives and historical distance. This isn’t a complaint per se, it’s just that this is the model, or at least this is how it was pitched by someone to someone else somewhere along the line; Larson himself didn’t found the approach, as I’ve muttered before, but he was the great popularizer of it in recent years. Balf’s own writing career works in similar paths to Larson’s in terms of journalism and book work — at the time of this book’s publication in 2003 (and perhaps still today — too lazy to check right now!) he was a writer at Men’s Journal, which figures (there’s something about the whole model of Esquire/Men’s Journal style of journalism which…well, that’s a post for another time).

    This all said, the book itself is a fine take on the story of an American 1854 expedition, driven by a combination of nationalism, capital and ‘discovery’ in the classic (and biased) sense, to cross the isthmus of Panama via the Darien region, led by a Navy lieutenant, Isaac Strain. It’s a fairly obscure bit of history, known to those interested mostly via David McCullough‘s The Path Between the Seas, which provided a solid popular history of the development of the Panama Canal. But McCullough himself didn’t focus much on the Strain project, and part of the interest of Balf’s work is the solid footwork put into not only researching much obscure material (and not finding all of it — as he frustratedly observes in the end notes, Strain’s formal Navy report is missing from the military and government archives) but actually being on the ground in Panama. A key piece of the puzzle can actually be read by anyone right now — Joel Tyler Headley‘s Harper’s article from 1855, done in collaboration with Strain after his return. Balf mentions an earlier trip of his to Panama in the early 1990s and this book concludes with a return visit that attempts to retrace the steps of the expedition, but which turns into a story of his own struggles with the rough terrain and with the — at this point in history fully understandable — suspicions of the Kuna, the native inhabitants then and now.

    The great gift of the past few decades in what can be called ‘travel’ or ‘expedition’ writing has been an increasing reflexivity on the nature of travel and what it is meant to accomplish — what, in essence, is one trying to prove? Balf is cleverly aiming at having his cake and eating it too — he is going on the trip still and we the audience get the voyeuristic thrill of reading about it in comfort, the essential contract between author and reader in any such case like this, but at the same time he puts in careful observations about everything from the effect of cruise ship tourism on the coastal Kuna dwellers to concerns over the Pan-American Highway and whether a projected completion through the area would just lead to a host of problems. Notably these aren’t simply him wondering, as he conveys sentiments from many Kuna speakers during this final chapter; at the same time he is still the mediating voice (as this article notes, Internet access for the Kuna is practically nonexistent) — and so the intertwining of perceptions and interpretation of concerns continues. The book is a good read in all, quietly problematic but not unaware of its problems and one which ends on an open note of unsureness.

  • In marked contrast, Joel Glenn Brenner’s 1999 book The Emperors of Chocolate is about something seemingly far more simple — candy bars. Brenner’s histories of the Mars and Hershey’s corporations are not themselves good histories of chocolate, though — I recommend instead The True History of Chocolate by Sophie and Michael Coe, which upends a lot of myths the cacao bean as well as providing a thoughtful overview on its transformation into the milk-heavy bars and simliar delights we’re all familiar with. Nothing against Brenner per se, since her focus is elsewhere, but combined with the slightly curious structure of her book — generally chronological but sometimes whiplashing back and forth across the decades or more — the actual sense of chocolate as commodity and cultural product, while not ignored, is sometimes obscured or given over to mythmaking.

    But setting these criticisms aside — I remember many years ago first learning about the sheer paranoia of the Mars bunch when I read this great exchange in The Straight Dope via one of the early book collections regarding the question of how the heck they got the Ms on M&Ms. Brenner’s book not only confirms how in more detail but provides a wealth of until-then-unavailable information about the whole company and its curious history, thanks especially to Forrest Mars Sr., who passed on in the year of the book’s publication. To say Mars was a business genius is undeniable — to say he was a raging, angry guy who in the course of driving himself hard drove everyone else just as hard if not harder, including his now-running-the-business kids (who frankly sound like they had a horrible upbringing), would also be undeniable.

    As for Milton Hershey, his own family history is equally tangled but he is seen in a gentler light, in part because unlike Mars he relied on someone else to do the hard-headed stuff but in part just because he was a nicer guy all around. It’s an interesting story of being well-meaning, driven, hungry for love and affection and wanting to leave the world a better place, in marked contrast to Mars’s goal to leave his company in a better place to take over the world. (The idea that Mars would have founded a whole company town with fringe benefits undreamed of by most at the time would be as laughable as imagining Hershey making a company partner — much less one of his sons — get down on his knees for the enterity of a corporate meeting with the whole board in attendance.)

    With the flaws noted above, Brenner’s book is a great resource about two companies with intertwined histories, resources and goals far beyond their most well-known food products (Mars in particular has a massive presence in a wide range of products, no less so than Hershey eventually did) and public images that completely bely their private battles. Nearly a decade old now, the book would benefit from an update as to how things stand in the 21st century, but it’s still a great overview of two institutions and more specifically how they became institutions in the first place, with two different philosophies that started to parallel each other more closely with time (though notably the movement was mostly on Hershey’s part). It’d be interesting if Brenner had unpacked more of the implications behind American identity via consumables and the globalized food market — now more than ever something of extreme interest, and given Mars’s involvement in a lot of it doubtless something they’ve been tracking obsessively for decades and near-minutely now — but at least they are addressed, and in a way that allows one to recognize more of what is at play.

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