The residents of Toms River, New Jersey didn’t mind when a CIBA chemical plant opened up in their backyard in the 1950s. It brought jobs to their small town that mostly depended upon tourism. But slowly the river started to look funny. There were plumes of funny-smelling smoke coming from the building, at first during the day, then only late at night when they were asleep. And a nurse at a hospital specializing in children’s cancer notices an awful lot of cases coming from Toms River. What follows is a multi-year public health investigation and lawsuit, only the second of its kind in the United States (the first being the Woburn, Massachusetts toxic water case).
I picked this book up for a couple of reasons. I work in an academic library that serves a Public Health program (among others), and I thought reading about a landmark case would be helpful. I also was just personally curious about how bad the pollution actually is in New Jersey. (For my non-American readers, there’s a running joke that New Jersey is the “stinky armpit” of the United States, due to the pollution).
The short version of what I got out of it is that I researched and bought the best reasonably priced water filtration pitcher for my household and will scold my husband if he drinks water directly from the sink instead of from the pitcher. The more academic version is that I learned that epidemiology is not as straight-forward as it seems, and things we can know just by looking at the situation are not easily proved. Additionally, what a woman puts into her body during pregnancy is much more important than what a young child eats or drinks.
The book is written in an investigative journalism style. If you’re comfortable reading the science section of the New York Times or something similar, you will be fine reading this book. Some of the science was new to me, but it was well-explained. On the negative end, the writing can sometimes be a bit sensationalistic. For instance, at one point the author assumes to know the reason why some people leave a meeting, jumping to the most sensational reason–that they were “repulsed” (loc 5441). (If he knows for sure why they left because he interviewed them, he does not make that clear). Most statements that are clearly factual are well-cited, however. Although the book is well-written and interesting, it simply reads as dense. I often found myself wondering if he could have maybe sped up the delivery a bit. It periodically felt like a slog, even though I was quite interested in the topic.
The book starts with introducing one of the children who was born with neuroblastoma, a particularly nasty form of childhood cancer. Then it flashes back to the arrival of CIBA in the 1950s. This clearly establishes the reader’s empathy with the children with cancer from the get-go. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but it’s not exactly unbiased.
So let’s get to what I learned. Here are the unequivocally bad things that CIBA did:
- They claimed to residents that only “the purified effluent, clear, neutral and harmless to fish life, is discharged into the Toms River” (loc 671)
- When residents complained about pollution, instead of taking pollution-minimizing measures, they just re-adjusted their schedule so that most of the discharge happened at night when residents couldn’t see it. (loc 1071)
- CIBA came to Toms River after being kicked out of Europe and the Midwest for their pollution but didn’t change their practices at all. They simply pursued the location with the least oversight. (For non-American readers, at the time, there were not the national pollution laws in place in the US that there are now. It was more overseen on a state-by-state level).
- CIBA hid the cancer rate of employees from employees
- The CIBA water fountains were too toxic for their employees to drink from–they actually stank.
- The various governmental protection agencies repeatedly found violations at CIBA, for instance, their toxic waste pits were inappropriately lined.
Here’s what I learned about cancer:
- “Cancer is not one disease but many–more than 150, by most definitions. their only common characteristic is supercharged cell division, growth run amok.” (loc 1842)
- A swollen lymph node over the left collarbone is an early warning sign of cancer. (loc 1873)
- “Between ages 5 and 69, the likelihood of getting cancer in any particular year rises with each year of life, and it does so in increasingly large intervals: from about one in nine thousand in the fifth year of life to about one in fifty-seven in the sixty-ninth year.” (loc 1882)
- “Childhood cancer incidence jumped by more than one-third between 1975 and 2005–more than twice as much as overall cancer incidence.” (loc 1889)
- The second largest cause of lung cancer in the US after cigarette smoking is radon. (loc 2343)
- Pregnant women’s consumption of polluted tap water was much more correlated with later childhood cancer than children’s consumption of it themselves (60% more likely vs 8% more likely). (loc 6757)
What I learned about Public Health epidemiology can’t be summed up easily in a bullet-pointed list. Basically, epidemiological studies are incredibly difficult, particularly when the toxic event has already passed. Study methods rely on things like patient recall of what they did day-to-day and massively complicated retroactive restructurings of how the water supply worked and which person got which well-water. The groups of people effected seem large to consumers but in the matter of actual epidemiological numbers are in fact quite small. Too small to easily prove something. As little as one extra child having cancer can be enough for the percent to appear to skyrocket but that could easily be explained as one of the normal abnormalities. A glitch, basically, that is normal when you look at a large population as a whole. Thus, even though people can look at a group and say, “Hey they seem to have a lot of cancer,” it could just be a chance cluster. Or appear like a large number but isn’t actually when you look at the charts over time. Or it could appear like a large number but actually be difficult to prove, numerically, that it is. David Ozonoff, a professor of environmental health, is quoted in the book as saying, “A good working definition of a public health catastrophe is a health effect so large even an epidemiological study can detect it.” (loc 7495) The government is reluctant to investigate these types of cases, because they take a long time, are expensive (Toms River cost over $10 million), are embarrassing, and often work out without anything being able to be proven anyway. In the United States, cancer registries may only be looked at by government agencies, due to privacy laws, so this means that if the government doesn’t look into it, no one can. The book ends on the horrifying note:
Clusters of rare cancers like the one in Toms River may actually be much more common than we can discern with the crude statistical tools of small-number epidemiology. In other words, many more pollution-induced cancer clusters may be out there, but we don’t see them and we rarely even bother to look. (loc 7535)
In the end, the book was interesting, yet a bit of a struggle to get through, as it was quite densely-written. I learned a lot about how epidemiology and public health actually work in the United States, and I was terrified of basically everything (my own tap water, weird smells in the air) the whole time I was reading it and for a few weeks afterwards. I’m still pretty freaked out by my tap water, honestly.
Overall, I would recommend this book to readers with a vested interest in better understanding epidemiology and public health, particularly in the United States, regardless of how uncomfortable knowing these facts might make them. To those who might not be up to the intensive read I would say: be vocal about environmental protection where you live, be careful what you put into your body especially if you are or will be pregnant, and seriously consider filtering your water no matter where you live or how good it tastes. Chemicals we think now are safe we may end up finding out later are not. That is certainly what the mid-20th century taught us.
4 out of 5 stars
I was looking forward to this week’s theme of Nonfiction November the most, because one of my favorite parts of being a librarian is “reader’s advisory.” Reader’s advisory is when you chat to a person about what they enjoy reading, what they’re interested in, what they’re looking for, and recommend a few books to them as books they might enjoy reading. (I don’t get to do this a ton as an academic medical librarian, but it does still come up sometimes). I view this as a book blogger version of that.
For this, I thought I would select out a few of my favorite fiction books and seek out nonfiction books that would pair well with them. If you read and enjoyed the fiction, consider checking out the nonfiction. Of course it will also work the other way around! If you’ve read the nonfiction book and enjoyed it, consider checking out the fiction.
First Pairing: Sled Dogs
The Call of the Wild
Buck is a spoiled southern dog enjoying a posh life when one of the family’s servants steals him and sells him away to be a sled dog for the Alaska gold rush. Buck soon goes from an easy life to one of trials and tribulations as the result of humans fawning over a golden metal, but it might not be all bad for him in the wild Alaskan north.
Gold Rush Dogs
Jane G. Haigh
Dog lovers and history buffs will delight in this collection celebrating the beloved canines that offered companionship, protection, and hard work to their masters in the Far North.
Why pair it?
Buck, the main character (and dog) in The Call of the Wild is trained to be a sled dog for the gold rush (not the Iditarod). This nonfiction book is about the gold rush dogs.
Second Pairing: Women in Ancient Japanese Court Life
An aging empress decides to fill her empty notebooks before she must get rid of them along with all of her belongings to retire to the convent, as is expected of her. She ends up telling the story of Kagaya-hime, a tortoiseshell cat who loses her cat family in a fire and is turned into a woman by the kami, the god of the road.
Diary of Lady Murasaki
The Diary recorded by Lady Murasaki (c. 973 c. 1020), author of The Tale of Genji, is an intimate picture of her life as tutor and companion to the young Empress Shoshi. Told in a series of vignettes, it offers revealing glimpses of the Japanese imperial palace the auspicious birth of a prince, rivalries between the Emperor’s consorts, with sharp criticism of Murasaki’s fellow ladies-in-waiting and drunken courtiers, and telling remarks about the timid Empress and her powerful father, Michinaga. The Diary is also a work of great subtlety and intense personal reflection, as Murasaki makes penetrating insights into human psychology her pragmatic observations always balanced by an exquisite and pensive melancholy.
Why pair it?
Fudoki features tales being told by an aging empress that illuminate women’s lives in ancient Japan. This nonfiction period piece is a diary by a real woman with an insider’s view of the same court life. Although not written by an empress, she was an empress’s companion.
Third Pairing: We’re Living in the Future the 1800s Scifi Imagined
The Time Machine
Nobody is quite sure whether to believe their eccentric scientist friend when he claims to have invented the ability to travel through time. But when he shows up late to a dinner party with a tale of traveling to the year 802,700 and meeting the human race, now divided into the child-like Eloi and the pale ape-like ground-dwelling Morlocks, they find themselves wanting to believe him.
In the Beginning…Was the Command Line
This is “the Word” — one man’s word, certainly — about the art (and artifice) of the state of our computer-centric existence. And considering that the “one man” is Neal Stephenson, “the hacker Hemingway” (Newsweek) — acclaimed novelist, pragmatist, seer, nerd-friendly philosopher, and nationally bestselling author of groundbreaking literary works (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, etc., etc.) — the word is well worth hearing. Mostly well-reasoned examination and partial rant, Stephenson’s In the Beginning… was the Command Line is a thoughtful, irreverent, hilarious treatise on the cyber-culture past and present; on operating system tyrannies and downloaded popular revolutions; on the Internet, Disney World, Big Bangs, not to mention the meaning of life itself.
Why this pairing?
Wells and Stephenson are both considered masters of the scifi genre. In this nonfiction piece, Stephenson explicitly draws comparisons between modern culture and the one envisioned by Wells in The Time Machine.
Fourth Pairing: Scandinavia Is Perfect….Or Is It?!
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.” These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities. The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit. Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.
The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
The whole world wants to learn the secrets of Nordic exceptionalism: why are the Danes the happiest people in the world, despite having the highest taxes? If the Finns really have the best education system, how come they still think all Swedish men are gay? Are the Icelanders really feral? How are the Norwegians spending their fantastical oil wealth? And why do all of them hate the Swedes?
Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians, on and off, for over ten years, perplexed by their many strange paradoxes and character traits and equally bemused by the unquestioning enthusiasm for all things Nordic that has engulfed the rest of the world, whether it be for their food, television, social systems or chunky knitwear.
In this timely book he leaves his adopted home of Denmark and embarks on a journey through all five of the Nordic countries to discover who these curious tribes are, the secrets of their success and, most intriguing of all, what they think of each other. Along the way a more nuanced, often darker picture emerges of a region plagued by taboos, characterised by suffocating parochialism and populated by extremists of various shades.
They may very well be almost nearly perfect, but it isn’t easy being Scandinavian.
Why this pairing?
The Unit is a unique dystopia in that it is set in Sweden and takes various aspects of Swedish culture to their dystopic extremes. Since Scandinavia often comes across as idealistic, it was interesting to see a dystopia set there. This nonfiction work takes a long tough look at Scandinavia and exposes the minuses (in addition to the pluses) of living there.
That’s it for my pairings! I hope you all enjoyed them. I know that I certainly found a few new books for my wishlist!
This month I’m participating in Nonfiction November, a book blogger event cohosted by four different bloggers (not including myself) that brings our attention to our nonfiction reads. Each week has a different topic, and this week’s asks us to look back at our year in nonfiction.
So far in 2015, I’ve read 6 nonfiction books. They are, in order of when I read them:
- Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War by Karen Abbott (review)
- Drugs for Life: How Pharmaceutical Companies Define Our Health by Joseph Dumit (review)
- Cat Sense: How the New Feline Science Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet by John Bradshaw (review)
- Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman (review)
- Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World’s Most Pungent Food–with over 100 Recipes by Robin Cherry (review)
genre: food, cooking, history
- Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin (review still to come)
genre: science, public health, history
I think it’s interesting to note that exactly half of my nonfiction reads were by women and half by men.
Now, on to the discussion questions about my reads!
What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?
I’d have to go with Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy: Four Women Undercover in the Civil War. Although I have a BA in History, I never had much interest in the Civil War. This book’s title intrigued me, and then the content more than lived up to it. It held my interest, was easy to read (without being dumbed-down), and I still learned a lot from it.
What nonfiction book have you recommended the most?
Definitely Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology behind the World’s Most Pungent Food–with over 100 Recipes. I actually texted two of my friends while I was still reading it with snippets about garlic. Since a lot of my friends enjoy cooking and gardening, and this hit on both of those interests, it led to me recommending it more often than some of my other reads.
What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet?
Usually I read at least one self-improvement nonfiction read a year. I am working on one, but have yet to finish it. I also haven’t touched a memoir this year, which kind of surprised me.
What are you hoping to get out of participating in Nonfiction November?
I hope to meet other book bloggers who also read nonfiction! I’ve met a couple of my best book blogger buddies through niche events like this, and I’d like to add some more. :-)
Hello my lovely readers!
I hope you enjoyed the variety of genres on the blog this month. I know I enjoyed reading them! I also just wanted to let you know not to expect a huge influx of product reviews. I at most will have one a month, and then only if I’ve won an item from another blog (I like to give them the links back as a thank you) or if I receive an item for review. Again, though, I will keep it to one a month at most.
The book of the month for September will be:
The Lady in the Lake by Raymond Chandler
First reviewed in September 2011
“Marlowe is someone whose presence it is always worth being in, regardless of whether his surroundings are perfect or not. I recommend this to noir fans, highly.”
How was my reading, reviewing, and writing this month?
August books read: 4 (1 historic urban fantasy, 2 ya dystopian scifi, 1 historic fantasy)
August reviews: 7
Other August posts: 1 product review
Most popular post in August written in August: Product Review: Squatty Potty
My favorite post of August: Book Review: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman. I really enjoyed the discussion in the comments of this review. It was a difficult review to write, and I was really glad it stirred such a positive response!
Most popular post in August written at any time: Book Review: The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)
August writing: I put my writing energy into the blog this month, as well as my reading. This was intentional, as I was very limited on time, and I wanted my blog in tip top shape before fall.
Coming up in September: I have a 2015 ARC with a giveaway to post, as well as reviews for the reads named above. For the first time in years, I won’t be participating in the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril challenge. Instead, I chose to participate in the Once Upon a Time fantasy challenge in the spring. But I encourage you all to consider participating in R.I.P. X!
Happy September and happy reading!
Book Review: Garlic, an Edible Biography: The History, Politics, and Mythology Behind the World’s Most Pungent Food — With Over 100 Recipes by Robin Cherry
A history of the world and medicine as seen through the eyes of garlic, plus a lesson on the many varieties of garlic, how to grow it, and where to find other garlic lovers. Topped off with a collection of over 100 recipes from all over the world featuring garlic, both historic and new.
When I saw this book on NetGalley, I knew I needed a review copy. I’m a passionate home chef with a love of garlic and a never-ending interest on the history of food. This book’s title indicated it would hit all three of those interests, and its content did not let me down.
The book is divided into two parts. Part One focuses on everything but the recipes. Part Two is the recipes. Part One’s chapters cover the history of using garlic for health and for food, garlic in legends and lore, and how to grow your own. This is the section that most entertained my friends and fiancé, as they found themselves the recipients of random facts about garlic. One friend received an email of all of the types of garlic that originated in the country of Georgia; another a tip that growing some near her fruit tree might be beneficial for the tree. Here are a few of my favorite facts that I learned in Part One:
- The world’s first-known medical text also mentions medical uses of garlic (loc 129)
- Garlic is designated as a drug in Japan (loc 222)
- Spanish immigrants were the most likely to survive during the colonization of the Western hemisphere, thanks to their consumption of garlic. Carrying the cloves protected them from disease-carrying mosquitoes. (loc 309-313)
- Garlic vodka is used as an antiflu remedy in Russia (Bonus: the book has the recipe for making this for yourself). (loc 392)
- “In addition to preventing colds, garlic is effective in killing viral meningitis, viral pneumonia, influenza, and herpes.” (loc 423)
- “Garlic also kills bacteria directly, by invading its cells and causing them to explode, thus bacteria has not opportunity to develop a resistance to it.” (loc 427)
- “Green-colored garlic is stronger than white garlic because it contains more of the aromatic sulfuric compounds.” (loc 922)
- The earliest bridal bouquets incorporated garlic to ward off the evil spirits. (loc 1067)
- There are over 200 varieties of garlic. (loc 1203)
Part One ends with tips on how to cultivate garlic and a selection of the various types of garlic, including notes on where they grow best, how they look, and how they taste. Garlic may be broadly divided into hardnecks and softnecks, but there are subvarieties within these two main ones. (Softnecks are the ones that you can braid). My one criticism of Part One is that I wish it had gone more in-depth into the history of garlic all over the world. It left me wanting more. Perhaps there isn’t more, but I certainly wish there was. I would additionally note that, although I personally enjoyed reading about the many varieties of garlic and took copious notes, some readers might find the listing of the types a bit tedious to read and may not be expecting it in a book of this nature.
Part Two is the recipes. It starts with notes on how to handle and prepare garlic. The recipes are then divided into: dips, sauces, and condiments; bread, pizza, and pasta; soups; salads and salad dressings; appetizers; poultry; lamb; beef; seafood; vegetarian; side dishes; dessert; and historical recipes. I marked off a total of 19 recipes that I definitely want to try, which is quite a lot for me. Often I’ll read a cookbook and only be interested in one or two of the recipes. The recipes cover a nice variety of cuisines, and the historic recipes are fascinating, although most readers will probably not try them as they require things such as fresh blood. Besides the historic recipes, the dessert ones are probably the most surprising. I actually did mark one off as one I’d like to try–Roasted Garlic Creme Brulee.
I have managed to make one of the recipes so far: Garlic Scape Pesto (loc 1649). For those who don’t know, garlic scapes are the green stalks that grow out of the bulbs. They must be trimmed (on most varieties). They taste a bit like a cross between garlic and leeks. Our local produce box happened to give us a bunch of them right around when I read the book, and I’m a big pesto fan, so I decided to try the recipe.
The recipe is supposed to make 2 cups. I halved it, and somehow still wound up with 2 cups of pesto. The recipe suggests storing the leftovers under a layer of olive oil. I found that unnecessary. My extra kept in the fridge in a tupperware container for a week without adding a layer of protective oil. The pesto was truly delicious though. I partially chose it since I have made garlic scape pesto before, and I must say I found this one much more delicious than the other recipe that I tried. I am looking forward to trying the others I am interested in, although I will probably continue to halve the recipes, as I am only cooking for two.
Overall, foodies with a love of garlic will find this book both fascinating and a source of new recipes to try. Some readers may wish for more information, while others may find themselves a bit more informed on the varieties of garlic than they were really looking for. All will find themselves chock full of new information and eager to try new ways to use garlic…and perhaps even to start growing some heirloom varieties for themselves.
4 out of 5 stars
Emma Goldman was a Russian immigrant to the United States who embraced Anarchism and became an impassioned orator and pioneer in the movement for birth control. She was deported in 1919 for her antiwar activities and spent the remainder of her life moving among multiple countries. This book is a collection of a variety of her essays and includes a contemporaneous biographical sketch and preface. You may read more about Emma Goldman and her life here.
I picked up this essay collection due to my interest in both US and women’s history. It then languished on my TBR pile for years until I heard about how the Emma Goldman Archive at UC Berkeley was going to lose its funding (source). The archive is currently still running thanks to charitable donations, (source) but I still wanted to invest some time in learning more about this important female historical figure, and what better way than by reading her own papers.
The essays in this collection are: Anarchism: What It Really Stands For, Minorities Versus Majorities, The Psychology of Political Violence, Prisons: A Social Crime and Failure, Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty, Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School, The Hypocrisy of Puritanism, The Traffic in Women, Woman Suffrage, The Tragedy of Woman’s Emancipation, Marriage and Love, and The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought.
The thing to understand about Anarchism (the historic early 20th century kind anyway, I won’t venture to talk about modern Anarchism as I have not studied it at all) is that the basis of Anarchist belief is that there should be no government and no religion.
Anarchism is the only philosophy which brings to man the consciousness of himself; which maintains that God, the State, and society are non-existent, that their promises are null and void, since they can be fulfilled only through man’s subordination. (page 38)
Emma took this to the conclusion that fighting for rights within the governmental power structure was pointless since the government shouldn’t be involved anyway. Modern readers may thus be surprised at how against women getting the right to vote she was. The reasoning behind it, though was that she thought it was a pointless fight. Like putting frosting on a shit cake. It won’t make the cake any less shitty. It’s interesting reading these papers how much faith Emma had in human nature to do good. It’s the power structures she considered evil.
My lack of faith in the majority is dictated by my faith in the potentialities of the individual. (page 34)
What I found most interesting in reading these essays, beyond getting a firmer understanding of Anarchism, is how most of them are still highly relatable today. They have not been particularly dated. Only “Francisco Ferrer and the Modern School” and “The Modern Drama: A Powerful Dissenter of Radical Thought” came across as dated and a bit difficult to read to me. The rest could have been pulled straight from a social justice Tumblr account, with just a few names and places changed. The three essays on women were the most interesting to me, particularly for the rather prophetic predictions that Emma made about the direction women’s rights were heading. In particular, one section discusses that women winning the right to work will just make everything more difficult because women are still seen as the primary caregivers and homemakers. They will just end up working just as much at home and out and about. Emma also pointed out that society would come to expect two incomes, making it impossible for women to not work even if they want to. This has certainly come to pass. Emma’s solution to this is more individual freedom, and her passage of advice to women still rings true today:
Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children, unless she wants them; by refusing to be a servant to God, the State, society, the husband, the family, etc.; by making her life simpler, but deeper and richer. That is, by trying to learn the meaning and substance of life in all its complexities, by freeing herself from the fear of public opinion and public condemnation. (page 132)
Sections that would probably stir up the strongest feelings among modern readers include frequent rants against the Catholic church, hatred of all patriotism or nationalism, very strong anti-military positions, and a strong negative view of marriage. However, if the modern reader keeps in mind that Emma was for 100% individual freedom and individuality, it’s easier to see that it’s not an individual institution she had something against, but rather institutions in general. Think of her as an extreme libertarian, and it’s easier to understand. In the case of marriage, for instance, it’s not that Emma was against love or being part of a couple, but rather against the state being involved in that love.
One aspect I think was missing from these essays was more from Emma on what she thought the ideal world would really look like. How would things work once total individual freedom was won? This is not touched upon very much, beyond Emma’s belief that crime would disappear without crooked institutions and there would be no more war. I found her belief in innate human goodness to be overly optimistic, verging on naive. But I also found it to be endearing that she had so much faith in humanity.
Overall, the modern reader will still find most of these essays highly readable and may be surprised by how modern many of them feel. Readers will realize how little some things change through time and also will come away with a better understanding of the stance of the often feared and misunderstood Anarchists.
4 out of 5 stars
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge