At the Sun-Gazette, staff members tend to read. A lot. So we thought we would share what we're reading and let you know how they fare.
Submissions from the community also are encouraged and may be mailed to the Lifestyle Department, 252 W. Fourth St., Williamsport, PA 17701 or emailed to email@example.com.
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Reader: Mike Reuther, political-business writer.
What I Read: "Butterfly in the Typewriter and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces" by Cory MacLauchlin.
Synopsis: The tragic story of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John Kennedy Toole.
Stats: DeCapo Press, 2012.
What I thought: Writers have long had reputations for being eccentric, troubled, even mad.
The famous novelists who have turned to drink or drugs or ended up dead at their own hands include the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Richard Brautigan, Virginia Woolf and David Foster Wallace.
John Kennedy Toole was an unknown, an author with no writing credits to his name when he took his life in 1969 at the age of 31.
Toole wanted desperately to publish his unconventional and uproariously funny novel, "Confederacy of Dunces."
Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster praised the work and wanted to make it happen, but Toole was resistant to the many revisions to the manuscript he was asked to make.
Toole gave up on the book and sank into a deep depression - or so we are led to believe.
"Butterfly in the Typewriter and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces" traces Toole's life from his upbringing in New Orleans to his budding career as an academic and scholar and his very brief time as an author.
Toole, by all accounts was brilliant, articulate, a promising teacher, who showed no apparent signs of going haywire.
And when he eventually began to work on his book, while serving a short Army hitch in Puerto Rico, he seemed confident that his time had arrived.
The writing went well, but as happens with most first-time, unknown novelists, Toole ultimately could not get his book into print.
Much of this biography deals with Toole's life up to this climactic point in his life.
Born to a lower-middle class family in New Orleans, Toole showed signs early on that big things awaited him.
By the time he started college at Tulane University at 16, he had already displayed a precocious side.
He was a top student and as a teenager penned a novel he never got published in his short lifetime. By the time he reached his early twenties he was teaching at the college level.
Toole had friends and displayed a wit and talent for mimicry.
His star seemed bright.
So what happened?
Did his inability to get his magnum opus published push Toole over the edge?
And why did he submit "Confederacy of Dunces", a story about the misadventures of oddball characters in Toole's hometown of New Orleans, to just one publishing house?
Unfortunately, the answers can't be found in this book.
And so, Toole remains in many ways a mystery.
The author who wrote this much-praised, Pulitzer Prize-winning book took many secrets with him to the grave.
Where did Toole go and who did he visit during his two-month cross-country journey just before taking his life?
Was he, throughout his life, fighting latent homosexuality - which was more than frowned upon in the 1960s?
And what of his relationship with his mother, Thelma, a formidable woman who had great hopes for her son?
Toole would have remained unknown, just another anonymous writer unable to grab literary fame had his mother not taken up his cause several years after his death.
Embracing an unwavering belief in his talents, she managed to get the book published in 1980 with help from novelist Walker Percy and others.
Ultimately, it was Thelma who ended up basking in the celebrity her son never realized.
It's an interesting twist to this story about a talented writer, one incredible literary achievement and the forces that shaped the author's life.
What I'm reading next: "The Yankee Years" by Joe Torre and Tom Verducci.
Reviewer: David Bross of Williamsport.
Title: "The Fish That Ate The Whale" by Marc Cohen.
Synopsis: "The Fish That Ate The Whale" is a biography of Samuel Zemurray (the fish), and a history of the Boston-based United Fruit Co. (the whale). What they had in common was the banana.
In the late 1800s, the Central American fruit was just becoming popular in the U.S. and many bananas were shipped through the Port of New Orleans.
It was here that Zemurray, a recent immigrant from Russia, saw an opportunity to make money by selling bananas that were too ripe to ship to other parts of the U.S.
Possessing an admirable work ethic, but an increasingly questionable moral ethic, Zemurray built a very successful business. Zemurray's willingness to go where the bananas were grown, and control the process from planting to sale in the U.S., was viewed with disdain by his "well-bred" competitors at United Fruit, but it was the reason for his success.
Eventually, his success brought him in head-to-head competition with the giant of the fruit industry, United Fruit.
As the title suggests, Zemurray ends up running United Fruit, and it might seem that this is another heartwarming example of a "rags to riches" success story. But, his efforts to control the banana business by controlling the governments of Central America, gave him financial and political indigestion.
In the end, it seems that Zemurray bit off more than he could chew.
Stats: Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 2012, 242 pages, $27.
What I thought: A well-written biography is one of the most enjoyable ways to learn about our world, and Cohen's book is both fascinating and illuminating.
Fascinating because of the truly unique people Cohen brings to life, and illuminating because he shows us how an ordinary item (the banana) and a little known person (Zemurray) have had a significant impact on our country.
In addition to Zemurray, Cohen also introduces us to Lee Christmas, William Porter (later known as the author O'Henry), as well as other con artists and mercenaries.
Christmas was an adventurer who never met a revolution he didn't like. In fact, his favorite phrase was, "Let's go revolutin'!" Porter was a bank teller in Austin, Texas, who fled to Central America to avoid prosecution for embezzlement.
It was Porter who coined the term "banana republics" to describe the countries of Central America, which Zemurray and United Fruit treated as their personal banana plantations.
By reading this book, you will learn more about bananas than you probably need to know, and much more about our history that we all need to know.