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Book Review: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin

February 1, 2016 2 comments

Book Review: Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan FaginSummary:
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).

Review:
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

Source: Netgalley

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Giveaway: Porcelain: A Novelette by William Hage (INTERNATIONAL)

December 26, 2015 Leave a comment

cover_porcelainIt’s the sixth and final giveaway of 2015 here at Opinions of a Wolf.  Woohoo!!

There is ONE ebook copy of Porcelain: A Novelette by William Hage (review) available courtesy of the author, William Hage.

What You’ll Win:  One ebook copy of Porcelain: A Novelette (review) by William Hage.

How to Enter:

  1. Leave a comment below stating the second-hand item you own that you think is most likely to maybe be evil.
  2. Copy/paste the following and tweet it from your public twitter:
    Enter to win PORCELAIN: A NOVELETTE by @w0rdvirus, hosted by @McNeilAuthor http://buff.ly/1JAHQcP #giveaway #entertowin #horror #short
    You may tweet one entry per day. The blog comment gets you one entry. Each tweet gets you one entry.

Who Can Enter: INTERNATIONAL

Contest Ends: December 29th at midnight!

Disclaimer: The winner will have their book sent to them by the author.  The blogger is not responsible for sending the book.  Void where prohibited by law.

Book Review: Porcelain: A Novelette by William Hage

December 26, 2015 1 comment

cover_porcelainSummary:
Out near the Pine Barrens in New Jersey sits the Whateley Bed & Breakfast, home of a wide collection of knick-knacks and antiques for its guests to view, including a beautifully ornate porcelain doll. However, after the Whateley’s latest guest purchases the doll as a gift, a horrifying series of nightmarish events begins to unfold.

Review:
This is the final review for the 2015 ARCs I accepted (6 total).  Woo! This 8,000 word novelette was the perfect way to wrap up my year of ARCs.  Bite sized, it kept me entertained for almost precisely the duration of the public transit portion of my commute.

This short horror involves a father buying a doll for his daughter, only to have the doll wind up to be evil.  I don’t consider that a spoiler, because I think it’s pretty clear from the cover and the description that is what is about to go down.  While some of the evil doll aspects were about what I was expecting, others were not.  The scenes happened at just the right pace to hold interest, and I did find myself hoping I’d have time to finish the novelette without having to stop.  I think the story is helped by reading it in one sitting, so I would advise picking it up when you know you have enough time to finish it in one go.

All of this said, while I enjoyed it and it is well-written, it just didn’t linger with me.  I wound up feeling quite neutral about it.  Perhaps because the novelette is so short that there’s no time to establish an emotional connection with the main character.  It’s also possible that the ending just failed to wow me.  That said, other readers who are more generally into short fiction than I am will probably enjoy it more than I did.

Overall, this is a well-written piece of short fiction that should be read in one sitting.  Recommended to fans of short horror.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review

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Friday Fun! (Updates! Boston Organics, Halloween, and Hurricane Sandy)

November 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Hello my lovely readers!  I know you can all tell I’ve been very busy since there hasn’t been a Friday Fun from me in….over a month. I am pleased that I managed to at least keep a few posts trickling in, but even so I have three books waiting to be reviewed. No one thing in particular has kept me busy, it’s just….life is busy!  So, beyond my usual work, reading, exercising, cooking, general hanging out, what have I been up to?

First off, a friend told me all about Boston Organics, and I signed up for it!  Basically you get a box of fresh produce delivered to your door either every week or every other week. You can choose organic or organic and local. I chose organic and local.  So far it has been totally awesome and removed my sense of boredom I had recently acquired over choosing recipes. Getting produce chosen and sent to me challenges my cooking skills, and I’m really enjoying it!  Plus knowing that my food is coming locally, organic, and fresh makes me feel good both about what I’m feeding myself (and my boyfriend), but also makes me feel good about supporting local farmers.

Of course Halloween also happened.  Friends of mine are on the organizing committee for a Boston area scifi/fantasy group (I am so nerdy), and so boyfriend and I went to their costume party. We were Gem and Sam from Tron, and it was awesome. My friends did a great job organizing, and it was the nicest Halloween I’ve had in a while.  We also carved pumpkins! Since my current work in progress is set in the Lovecraft universe, I decided to do Cthulhu!

Cthulhu jack-o-lantern.

Ia ia Cthulhu fthagan!

Hurricane Sandy also arrived. Thankfully, it really did not affect Boston very much. Most people either didn’t have work or got sent home mid-day. The T stopped running partway through the day as well. I briefly lost power, but frankly Nstar did an amazing job maintaining power to homes in Boston during this storm.  I was a bit disturbed that my building was shaking, but truly nothing adverse happened.  My cat spent the morning trying to dive out the window to chase the wind-whipped leaves (her survival instinct is clearly amazing *eye-roll*) but by afternoon needed some serious snuggles. I actually had to wrap her up in her favorite fuzzy blanket to calm her poor little kitten nerves.  I was saddened to see that the National Park I worked at through Americorps in New Jersey suffered severe damage.  Almost every single historical building was flooded, but more importantly, the dunes that the endangered piping plovers nest on were demolished.  It’s very sad, and I can only hope that Americorps will have enough funding to send larger conservation teams than usual there in the spring.

Currently, I’m revving up for Thanksgiving this week!  Since neither boyfriend nor I can make it home to our respective home states to visit, we’ll be making our own vegetarian Thanksgiving. The planned menu is chili and pumpkin pie with vegan maple whipped cream. Nom!

Be expecting some book reviews to come up!  I’m hoping to get caught up writing them this weekend.

Happy weekends all!

Book Review: The Egyptian by Layton Green (Series, #2)

August 27, 2011 1 comment

Egyptian sculpture holding a green globe.Summary:
Dominic Grey, previously a government worker and before that a champion jiu-jitsu fighter, is now working for Professor Viktor Radek on private detective cases frequently involving religious mysteries and the occult.  His first case seems straight-forward enough–retrieve a vial stolen from a biomedical company in Egypt.  But there’s more to this biomedical company than meets the eye, and Dominic soon finds himself racing around the globe from New Jersey to Bulgaria to Cairo in an attempt to unravel a mystery involving what just might be the elixir of life.

Review:
This follow-up to The Summoner (review) lives up to the excitement and global noir feel of the original without retracing the same steps.  This holds promise for the series as a whole as one issue in writing serial detective novels is keeping everything fresh for the reader.

Green has either traveled the world extensively or done a ton of research, as his writing shows an intimate knowledge of the various areas of the world Dominic’s work takes him that is only evidenced by those who have been there.  It is easy to tell when a writer intimately knows the setting they are speaking of, and this is clear in Green’s work.  This lends an extra edge of excitement to the work.

Dominic’s character develops at a believable rate in this entry of the series.  Who he is at the core is still the same, but his work and his encounters with a variety of people lead him to question himself, his life, and his intentions.  I also appreciated that instead of pulling a 007 and moving on to the next woman without thinking much of his love interest from the first book, Nya, Dominic struggles with his emotions about the women he sleeps with.  He is certainly no saint when it comes to the opposite sex, but the way he deals with women strikes a believable middle.

Unfortunately, Viktor does not feature as prominently this time around, and he also appears to be on a bit of a downward slope in his fondness for absinthe.  I hope his character will be addressed more fully in the next entry in the series.

Two of the new characters added this time around are particularly enjoyable–Veronica (the love interest) and Jax (an international mercenary).  I actually fell for Jax much harder than I’ve fallen for Dominic.  He is from small town America with no ties to family, completely confident in the most rural corners of the world.  He’s brassy, witty, and clearly has a bit of a good streak buried in him somewhere.  I think both the ladies and the men reading the series will enjoy his presence, and I hope he’ll pop up in later entries (or even get his own spin-off series).  Veronica is enjoyable for different reasons.  She’s a career woman starting to question where her life is heading and falls for the guy she can’t have.  It may seem cliche, but that sort of thing happens all the time in real life.  She’s sympathetic without being pathetic.  Also, personally, I found her a lot more enjoyable than Nya.  She’s more assertive with Dominic; let’s just leave it at that. 😉

The writing style itself still struggles in places on the sentence level.  Sometimes Green tries too hard to sound philosophical, and it comes across as forced.  Similarly, some paragraphs lean a bit too heavily on showing, not telling.  The instances of this occurring are fewer than in the previous book, though, and it is obvious that Green is working hard on improving his craft.  Personally, I did not find that these instances distracted me from the exciting plot at all.

Overall, The Egyptian is a fast-paced, unpredictable detective mystery, perfect for those looking for a light-weight, page-turner for their evenings or the beach.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Free kindle copy from the author in exchange for review

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Note:  The Egyptian and The Summoner are on sale for 99 cents for this release weekend only (August 27th and 28th)

Previous Books in Series:
The Summoner
, review