02 May 2009

Review: The Fruit Hunters

I confess: I wasn't that interested in reading this book. I won it in a contest, and while I was giddy over winning (book! about food!) I wasn't particularly enthused about the specific subject. Ooh--fruit: Exciting.

It turned out it was. And fascinating. And a little gross.

Around the middle of the book I started obsessively reading chapters like some junkie mainlining heroin (which, by the way, is a product of the fruit of the opium poppy). I knew then I'd be giving this book a great review.

Gollner has a way of bringing you right along with him as he traipses through tropical jungles or encounters the eccentrics who are obsessed with fruit (the so-called hunters of the book's title). The man has a way with words. Describing slugs eating coco-de-mer blossoms: "It's like watching an educational film about venereal diseases in outer space." (p112) By the way, to get the full sense of this statement you might want to google a few images of coco-de-mer (you will anyway as soon as you read about it in the book)--just be forewarned that this fruit is not entirely work-safe.

Some of the more offbeat topics--alternative health, spiritual beliefs, the nature of obsession--are the most interesting. I could have read an entire book about any of them. Of course, Gollner occasionally delves into the territory of TMI. I don't care how much you think it adds to your narrative, no one reading about food (or in my case, about anything) wants to come across anecdotes about what the author discovered floating in a toilet.

The book also covers some fairly depressing issues: monoculture, species extinction, corporate greed, and the sad reality that "local and organic" food production will remain, at best, a beautiful and futile dream. Still, the overall tone of the book is one of hope, and plenty of it. By the end, I know I felt pretty good about humanity's future, possibly for the first time ever.

The book has its share of problems, as well. Some of the factoids are questionable. Do we really owe gravity to apples? I thought the story of Newton making his discovery after being hit by a falling apple was apocryphal. Gollner also states that medlars are "now-forgotten." Mostly forgotten maybe, but I know what they are and I've read about their existence and use in other relatively recent sources. I wouldn't relegate medlars to complete obscurity just yet. And again, Gollner makes the too-common mistake of claiming that a vomitorium was a room used by the Romans for purging during feasts. (Despite what it sounds like, a vomitorium is simply a passageway; musicians can tell you that signs pointing them to the vomitoriums--vomitoria?--backstage still exist, with nary a feast or a Roman in sight.)

Gollner's most egregious error is possibly this laughable statement: "Even severe arctic climates produce fruits. Doyenne du Comice pears...do well in gardens north of Toronto, Canada." (p 73) As a resident of Toronto, I assure you--we're nowhere near an arctic climate! The fact that this comes from a fellow Canadian makes me think the inaccuracy was born of a desire for brevity, rather than out of ignorance. Still, sometimes it's better not to say anything at all.

Overall, I think the problems can be easily overlooked, especially once you get lost in the writing and the stories. The further I got into the book, the greater my sense that somehow there's a deeper meaning to the world than I'd ever hoped for. That has to be the rarest fruit of all. This is Adam Leith Gollner's first book--I hope to see many more from him in future. For now, do yourselves a favour and read The Fruit Hunters.

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