The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King
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The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America's Banana King

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3.8 of 5 stars 3.80  ·  rating details  ·  642 ratings  ·  134 reviews
Alegendary tale, both true and astonishing,from theauthor of Israel is Real and Sweet and Low

When Samuel Zemurray arrived in America in 1891, he was tall, gangly, and penniless. When he died in the grandest house in New Orleans sixty-nine years later, he was among the richest, most powerful men in the world. In between, he worked as a fruit peddler, a banana hauler, a do...more
Hardcover, 288 pages
Published June 5th 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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Kyrie
Reading this book felt like listening to a very elderly professor tell a story. It started out about Samuel Zemurray, the banana king. It wandered off and told long tales about various people associated with him, the history of the banana business, the history of Guatemala and Honduras, Che Guevara, WWII, the founding of the Israeli state, Tulane University, how the author wrote the book, and I'm just skimming the surface of the meanderings.

I know more than I did before I read the book, but I di...more
Zahir
An interesting read about Sam Zemurray, the Russian immigrant who came to the United States penniless and died one of its wealthiest and most influential men.

One of the greatest strengths of this book is that it's an honest portrayal as Zemurray as a complicated human being. It doesn't try to cover up his misdeeds or his involvement in some of the darkest and morally questionable acts in American foriegn policy during his era. Rather, it explains the rise of Cuyamel Fruit and Zemurray's eventua...more
Mal Warwick
Too Wild to Be Believed, but It's All True: The Outrageous Story of America's Banana King

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 pivo...more
Amy
Fascinating man.
Amazing impact on an entire region.
But . . .
I really don't like a story that interrupts itself to (for example) tell you what route he took to work and then say, Not that we know what route he took every day. We have to guess. Just throws me off the stride.
Margaret Sankey
Cohen, finding another Tough Jew, relates the outrageous life of Samuel Zemurra, who rose from emigrant poverty as a Mobile shopkeeper by selling ripe bananas along the southern railroads, then branching off into his own plantations, then operating under the wing of United Fruit, then overthrowing the Honduran government with New Orleans goons, then breaking from United Fruit, then taking over United Fruit. Along the way he toppled governments and installed banana republics of breath-taking inco...more
Ray
If you ever wondered about that strange yellow "fruit" that easy to eat; try this fascinating story which, among other things, will explain why it's not a fruit. And how it comes from an herb that grows as a rate rivaling the kudzu vine. And how in the history of Central American countries, shrewd entrepreneurs (in the correct sense of the word and not to be confused with business managers) saved piles of what were considered noxious waste into a product of immense proportions. Even how the almo...more
Nan Williams
The story of the time period from 1890 to 1960 (or so)was interesting. I remember the hoop-la surrounding the events in the mid-50s when Allen Dullas was head of the CIA so learning the background for the previous 50 years in Central America was enlightening.

The book, however, was very poorly written. It would go around and around in a circle, covering the same material and then suddenly shoot off into the stratosphere to take on a different subject altogether. Many of these subjects (like the f...more
Catherine
A really fascinating portrait of Samuel Zemurray, one of the original banana men. He was such a colorful character, and I never imagined a banana company could yield so much influence (at the beginnings of Cuyamel Fruit, Zemurray organized the overthrow of the Honduran government in order to gain tax benefits for his company). His business practices are not considered entirely ethical these days, but at the time he was a revolutionary and even came out of an early retirement to take over United...more
Doctor Sax
I thought this was a superb book! A inside look on how the United Fruit Co. and capitalism ruled south and central America for generations. It got to the point that if Zemurray did not get his 'concessions' from the local government...HE JUST REPLACED THE ENTIRE GOV'T. This had it all for me - CIA corruption, murder, tyranny, rebel factions etc. I enjoyed 'tough Jews' by the author Rich Cohen so I already liked the writing style.
Alger
A chatty book that is a portrait of an era and a man that defined the relationships of the US and Central America into the present (as I write this the Sula Valley of Honduras is the most violent location in the world, causing a 'crisis' of children from the area fleeing into the US).

Even among people who know of Sam Zemurray and his unlikely and outrageous role in Latin America he is an enigma; a man known more for his involvement in events than what he thought of those events or his motives. I...more
Laurie
2.75 stars.
This is the story of very interesting character in American history, Sam Zemurray, a Jewish Russian immigrant who came to the US penniless and died one of the richest and most powerful men of the time, the rise of the banana empire and related politics between the US and Central America.
While the history is interesting, the presentation needed editing. It felt like a lot of back and forth and with so many people and events being covered the story needed more cohesion than I felt it ha...more
Andrew
Was not much of a fan of this book. Felt like a great deal of authorial speculation, and a relative paucity of primary evidence. Perhaps this is due to a lack of documentation of and about Zemurray's life, but that was not made clear by the text.

Furthermore, took substantial issue with the author's decision to frame Zemurray's life as an intensely Jewish experience, despite no evidence that Zemurray himself perceived it as such and perhaps even repudiated such a notion. Particularly galling at...more
Laura Little
An exceptional history of Sam Zemurray, an immigrant who rose from making slim profits off of "ripes," or bananas turning bad, to the boardroom of United Fruit, one of the most powerful forces in 20th century Latin America. Incredible to understand the history of revolution and regime change in Honduras, Guatemala, and Cuba within the context of paramilitary forces on Zemurray's payroll (with a dash of symbiosis with the CIA thrown in for fun.)

The books comes short in terms of style, though - Co...more
Julie
The story of Samuel Zemurray is truly one for the history books, yet is fairly unknown. He effected world politics in enormous ways, both for good and bad. Unfortunately this epic life is written by an amature who continually inserted himself into the story, thus dimishing the impact.
Lisa
What a sordid history of the banana as we know it. Some of it was too much, but I did learn a lot.
Carlos Pellot
Those of us familiar with the biblical story of the Jewish patriarch Jacob won't get too far into The Fish That Ate the Whale before recognizing the similarities between him and Sam Zemuray, the subject of Rich Cohen's outstanding biography. The constant scheming, striving and conniving is evident in them both. Both were exiles. Both worked tirelessly beyond the limits of human expectations. Both lost a son (kind of). Both achieved their goals even when it cost them dearly. One is a descendant o...more
Ru
I definitely wasn't expecting a book about the origins of a banana empire to be as serious as this book was. Sam "The Banana Man" Zemurray, a Russian Jew, emigrated to America and ultimately became the largest banana distributor in the world. With a corny nickname and the emergence of the banana as a common food item in the late 1800's, I thought humour would be prevalent in this biography, but it's actually very serious in tone, nearly from beginning to end.

Zemurray, like most successful busine...more
Magila
3.5

If you have ever wondered where the term "Banana Republic" derived from, this book answers that question. It is a fascinating treatment of a complicated figure in American history that you may not have heard of if you don't have a connection to Bananas, New Orleans, or Tulane. The first two thirds are also useful to business people interested in the entrepreneurship.

The biographical parts of the book were fascinating, and to the best of my knowledge accurate. I found the pieces on the CIA an...more
Andrew Meyer
A fascinating book about a fascinating life. Zemuarry was the quintessential American success story of the early 20th century. As such, his life is interesting in and of it's self, but more interestingly, he interacts with many of the other fascinating men of his time. Beyond his business success, which is well presented, you also meet:

* Chaim Weizmann - who is critical in the founding of Israel.
* Edward Bernays - who defined Public Relations, which Bernays came to understand vacationing with hi...more
Eapen Chacko
I don't recommend reading business books. They have a half life of about six months, and most of them should be magazine articles. This is the best business book I've read, because it about so much more than the tale of a great entrepreneur.

This is a great story about a 14 year old Maldavian Russian immigrant who comes to Selma, AL to work in his peddler uncle’s store. His curiosity takes him to the docks of Mobile, AL where he sees the beginnings of the banana trade. He puts $150 of his saving...more
Laurence
I have finally returned the book to the library unfinished. It kept falling from my hands. I have not been able to catch up and been motivated to read as it was so poorly written it was a shame!

It felt like some parts were aggregated together from different notes without editing, and that the book had not been written by the same person, or that person had really never done any editing work. I can't congratulate the publishers.

I am sure the story is fascinating. But I never got past chapter 7 an...more
Christopher
(This is my review which appeared in the October 18, 2012 issue of the Christian Science Monitor)

THE FISH THAT ATE THE WHALE, by Rich Cohen

Georges Doriot, the eminent Harvard Business School professor and widely acknowledged “father of venture capital,” had an annual ritual: He would have his students examine a Boston business directory from 100 years prior and then ask them how many of those businesses were still in operation. Invariably, the response ranged from few to none. It was a sobering...more
Richard
Rich Cohen is an entertaining writer, but I get the feeling he's a somewhat unreliable narrator. This is the true story of Sam Zemurray, a Russian Jewish immigrant who came to this country destitute and left the world as one of its richest most powerful men, due mostly to the popularity of bananas in the USA. I would put the emphasis on "story," rather than "true," and I think Mr. Cohen works with "truthiness," as a legitimate value. Here's a for instance: someone is assassinated, Sam Zemurray k...more
Shawn
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jason
Like the fruit (or is it?...da-da-dum!), Cohen slowly pulls each piece of peel enveloping 'America's Banana King' to reveal the flesh of a man, a man named Sam Zemurray. A man who found a way to capture the minds and palates of the common late 1800s eater with a, then, exotic new food item. A man of the people, who became a man who controlled the people. Revolution, coups, industrial espionage and takeover - all in the name of...bananas. Amazing.

What ultimately makes this such an enjoyable read...more
Neal
While the topic and much of the information was very interesting and satisfying, I found the structure of the book a little confusing and offputting. The narrative seemed to waver between a personal reflection of the author on Sam Zemurray and a straightforward small history. In addition, the historical idea underyling the narrative wavered between a focus on Sam Zemurray's role in the banana industry and a focus on the role of the banana industry in US involvement in Central and South America....more
Thomas Umstattd
This is a book about the ascendence of the American Empire. LIke Rome that was advanced by individual ambitious men more than by a concerted effort on behalf of the government this is a book about how a businessman in New Orleans grew his own business empire while extending American control over many Central American countries.

The book is a fun read and I would be curious to hear what you think about it.
Kalendra Dee
Arriving in America in 1981, Samuel Zemurray was 14 years old, penniless, and possessed of a nature to spot things others might miss. One day, he noticed bananas being unloaded off a ship and left on the dock as garbage because they were too ripe. Making a deal with the banana company, he takes the “ripes” off of their hands and manages to find a lucrative market for them. Thus begins one of the most fascinating stories of a man who would one day battle and conquer the most dominant company in t...more
Matt White
I consider this more of a long, detailed lecture about what I am now calling 'the banana wars!' This is an interesting read about something as simple as a banana being at the heart of the economy, a countries development, civil wars, and more. I never knew about any of this history happening, I guess the history books like to exclude some of our.... 'opps' moments. But i recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn some fun information about the banana king and his banana war... with a littl...more
Frederick
Simultaneously informative and engaging, THE FISH THAT ATE THE WHALE is a rare example of a biography which knows how to get into the mind of its subject. (The subject here being Samuel Zemurray, the life-force of the United Fruit Company.) Author Rich Cohen never reads Sam Zemurray's mind when a decisive moment is being described. He doesn't put words in his mouth at moments of action. When Zemurray is alone, then Cohen will say, "He cursed." This gives color to a compelling story, but it does...more
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RICH COHEN is the author of Sweet and Low (FSG, 2006), Tough Jews, The Avengers, The Record Men, and the memoir Lake Effect. His work has appeared in many major publications, and he is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. He lives with his family in Connecticut.

For more information, please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rich_Coh...
More about Rich Cohen...
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