by Rob Dunn
(Little, Brown and Company, pp 348, $27.00)
The opening chapter of “Never Out of Season,” exposes the book premise flat out. It deals with the short history of the banana. This rather prosaic fruit, available in abundance, at least in New York, from every street vendors on most street corners, is not the result of simple happenstance or sustained popular delight. Its ubiquitous presence is both the product of refined methods of distribution and the result of a long selective agricultural process, an outcome we have grown to rely and take for granted. This hegemony of productivity is what Dunn, through this masterfully well-documented book replete with singular stories reading like detective stories, underlines with conviction to sound the alarm. Indeed, even if you do not buy his banana argument, his historical cases will not leave you indifferent to the danger of monoculture, and all the risks associated with it. While history has proven over and over the futility of such approach, we persist in the same direction.
When a pest or a blight breaks down the natural defense of an organism, it kills it. This is what happened to the banana. Since only one type of it was grown, once the Panama disease contaminated the fruit, it did not simply destroy a field, it wiped out an industry, with all the societal fallout this entails. Following the banana trail, Dunn merges into the potato territories and the Great Irish Famine of 1845-48, by going to the roots of the problem, chronicling the pest arrival, its development, and the reason devastation on such scope happened at all. An uncanny situation since Ireland was still exporting food towards England. Was the famine exacerbated because of a lack of communications? Did the protectionism that always accompanies the defense of special interests help its spread? Or was it the failure of scientists to gain credibility while they held solutions within reach? Or was it simply the compounding of several interlinked factors?
“Never Out of Season,” goes on to analyze other scourges impacting cassava, wheat and more . . . What becomes transparent in the search of solutions against blight and pests, wracking havoc on continents and political stability, is that successes have been often reliant on a set of isolated individuals, who followed their own instincts. You will learn much through their stubborn efforts: their frustrations and years of failure, before discovering a cure. In the meantime, danger still lurks. While quick-fixed politics to produce vast quantity of food works, the pressure goes counter to variety. Dunn warned us, with the growing global population, we are walking a thin line, in the proximity of pending disaster. It is precisely past mistakes that bring the promise of hope not to repeat them.
(TBR Books, pp 210, $19.99)
This book is about education and the teaching of foreign language in the American school system . . . And this book is about community and the use of other languages within a specific social framework . . . This book is also about cultures, ancestries, foreign roots, identities, and above all how they manifest through other languages. You could leave a blank space and fill it with your own input, and chances is that it would be coherent. Because, at heart, this book is a love-letter to the preservation of linguistic diversity.
Its arrival could not be more timely. A disruptive force in this age of nativist revivalism, where pluralistic criteria are perceived as threats to uniformity and stability of a nation. Jaumont, a specialist in these linguistic issues, has crafted a remarkable history of bilingual and dual education, which runs counter to this ideology. This is what he calls the bilingual revolution. He seeks to debunk the monolingual myth.
But the book’s true revolutionary spirit, which he clearly captures, reveals that like all revolutions, this one started as grassroots movements, scattered around the nation, with little connections with each other. Far from being led by radical and heated spirits, these groups were led by mothers and fathers, with no legal and educational expertise, but with simply the eagerness to transmit their native tongue to their children. The revolution is that over the last 5-7 years, these groups have mushroomed all over big cities and are transforming education in a global way. Jaumont shows how these groups succeeded in establishing dual language programs in their community. He covers a wide range of languages: Chinese, Russian, French, Japanese, Polish, and so on, to show how these parents did it. The real nugget of this book lies precisely on this latest remark. For anyone wishing to give their children a bilingual education, this book is a must-read. It is above all a roadmap to navigate your way through the educational school mazes and their treacherous administrative hurdles. His message is loud and clear, whether you speak Chinese or Serbian, you too can implement new programs, and he has the merit to tell you how to do it. Merci mille fois!
(Delphinium Books, pp 224, $24.00)
Here is a book that could easily be missed out. So delicate in tone and style that it reads like a minuet. It is precisely the finely chiseled and graceful sentences that make this sonorous book all the more moving. Its topic, on the other hand, reads more like a symphony. A multi-layered memoir, which deals with the life of books and their influence on our lives, but without ever becoming cacophonous. Its impact, however, could not be louder, so much the ideas tackled are gigantic. You would have to be tone-deaf to miss the point Hill is driving home.
“She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons” is about the rendition of a courageous young American idealist taking a teaching job in Nigeria in 1963, and who thinks she is going to remake the world. If her memoir could be a grain of sand, each chapter describes a unique universe of self-questioning, which echoes with so much truism that you will catch yourself nodding as her journey progresses, with universal truth. Big frictions are raised. The validity of a western education, which displace traditional values and cultures, in the name of economic development. It is not just the horror of the ivory trade, as in “Heart of Darkness,” or the indoctrination of charmed African workers laboring merrily in coffee plantations as in “Out of Africa,” but also the disruptive voice of “When Things Fall Apart” which departs from the accepted discourse of obvious legacy of the white man’s burden. And Hill does not fall in the trap of explaining all the whys.
What makes this memoir so captivating is that the journey is undertaken through fiction novels. Hill excels at navigating through the labyrinth of her trajectory back to the source of the long river of colonialism, starting back at Badagry. What is it like to read “Portrait of a Lady” thousand miles away from home, in the darkest jungle? Can books really teach us anything if they taint our reality with fiction from other worlds? Of course, there is a chapter on “Madame Bovary,” who epitomizes de facto the issue of self-deception. Chances are we have all been infected with Bovarism somewhere in our life. Though a work of non-fiction, “She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons” come in a world increasingly globalized to make us ponder over our decisions and lives. Is anyone immune at all? Are you living your life or the one expected from you? “She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons” will keep you pondering.
(William Morrow, pp 302, $ 26.99)
Though all wars results in the same atrocious outcome, they are hardly similar in their origins. They often start with an incident, a provocation, appearing to be insignificant, but releasing long-repressed emotions, a process which makes take years to burn out. We celebrate May 8th, officially marking the end of WWII, and though the conflict has been over for more than 70 years, it still continues to consume us on the intellectual and spiritual levels. We still try to comprehend how the magnitude of atrocities was made possible. We remember the main perpetrators, their names synonymous with locations, whereas all the forgotten heroes and sacrificed populations are collectively remember as the casualties. Even in memory wars and history are unjust.
Upon reading “The Fire by Night,” Messineo’s remarkable and powerful debut novel, I could not help thinking about “Hidden Figures,” and how tenacious women made NASA’s spatial odyssey possible, and also “The English Patient” for the resilient tenderness the nurse displays towards her wounded soldiers, no matter the external circumstances. In “The Fire by Night,” we met a pair of unsung heroes, two nurses working on the front lines, one in Europe, Jo, and one in the South Pacific, Kay. Jo struggles to survive in a makeshift medical camp as German troops advance. Kay is kept captive in Manila at the hands of sadistic Japanese soldiers. Both women where friends in Nursing school and only when they come home do they realize that they now must fight a different kind of enemy, not only their own disillusion, trauma and losses, but also a world forever changed. A world they struggle to adjust to. One of the paradoxes of wars is that one can find endless resilience to fight a well-defined enemy. Life in freedom however may not be as extreme in terms of survival, keeping the enemy thinly veiled. Communities and friendships are paramount to heal wounds. The nurses rely on each other to survive. My reference to films was not random. The world of nurses in wars, their sacrifices and resilience in the face of the utmost atrocities, tending to others while striving for their own survival, have been broadly neglected. The novel deserves to find its way to the big screen. Like Messineo wrote for it.