One-Minute Book Reviews

November 22, 2013

‘Toms River’ – Why Did So Many Children Get Cancer in a Jersey Shore Town?

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:34 am
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A real-life environmental detective story about toxic wastes suspected of causing cancer in children

Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation. Bantam, 538 pp., $28.

By Janice Harayda

Thirty years ago, New Jersey was the capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States, and Toms River stood at a crossroads of that dark enterprise. In this stellar environmental detective story, the gifted science writer Dan Fagin tells how a toxic disaster befell and — after decades of political and legal wrangling — ended in a Jersey Shore town better known for its Little League World Series champions.

Toms River abounds with the sort of cloak-and-dagger exploits more often found in suspense novels: midnight dumping, anonymous tips, criminal sabotage, indifferent government officials, and corrupt executives – in this case, at Ciba-Geigy, once a major air and water polluter in the area. But the emotional heart of the book lies in its account of the unusual number of children in town who developed cancer, especially leukemia.

Many of the victims’ parents suspected that the problem lay in the toxic wastes dumped by or emitted from the smokestacks of Ciba and other polluters, and they spent years trying to prove it. Their efforts had impressive results — a government investigation, a cleanup of dump sites, and more rigorous testing of the town water. But the parents received no financial settlement from polluters until their legal team expanded to include Jan Schlichtmann, the brash lawyer whose gladiatorial fight for leukemia victims in Woburn, Mass., inspired A Civil Action. In 2001 he helped to negotiate an estimated $35 million payout to the Toms River families, a sum Fagin calls “unquestionably the largest in a residential cancer cluster case, dwarfing the $8 million Woburn settlement of 1986.”

Schlichtmann does not appear until page 349 of the story, and when he does, he has mellowed enough to urge the victims’ relatives to stay out of court. And his late and subdued arrival — and Fagin’s penchant digressing into epidemiological history — make Toms River a slower-paced and less splashy book than A Civil Action. But it is perhaps a more valuable one. Its focus on science and citizen action, not on a go-for-broke lawyer, shows more clearly than Jonathan Harr’s bestseller how difficult it is — even for prosecutors and environmental agencies armed with subpoena power and sophisticated databases — to determine what caused a cancer cluster.

Fagin notes that “Toms River had an extraordinary amount of toxic pollution and a discernible cluster of childhood cancer, and the two seemed to line up, roughly, in what looked like a cause-and-effect relationship.” But the case that the victims’ families hoped to make against polluters was impossible to prove:

“Even with all the pollution and cancer in Toms River, the apparent association could never be confirmed definitively because of the unanswerable questions about long ago exposures and also because of the enigmatic nature of cancer, which struck so unpredictably and had so many possible causes.”

Toms River has cleaner water than it did 30 years ago and no leukemia cluster, but whether other towns could marshall the resources that enabled it to make those gains is doubtful. The main legacy of Toms River, Fagin notes, “has been to solidify government opposition to conducting any more Toms River–style investigations.”

Best line: In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency posted its first official list of the country’s most dangerous toxic waste dumps, known as “Superfund” sites because a “superfund” would pay to clean them up if the government couldn’t force the dumpers to do it: “Sixty-five sites on the original Superfund list were in the undisputed capital of hazardous waste dumping in the United States: New Jersey, which had 24 more sites than its closest rival, Michigan. With nine dumps on the list, Ocean County alone had more Superfund sites than 36 states.” Two of the Ocean County sites were in Toms River.

Worst line: Ciba-Geigy blundered when it faced unflattering news stories about all the treated wastewater it was pumping through a pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean a half-mile offshore from Ortley Beach: “The company responded with all the finesse and humility of Marie Antoinette on the eve of the French Revolution.” That might be true, but the image is tired.

Furthermore: Learn more about Toms River on Dan Fagin’s website. Wonder how close you live to a hazardous waste dump? Click on your state on this Environmental Protection Agency map of Superfund sites.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button on this page.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 15, 2013

Coming Soon – A Real-Life Environmental Detective Story

Filed under: Nonfiction,Science — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 11:42 pm
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Suppose that an unusually large number of children in your town developed cancers that seemed to result from an environmental hazard such as air or water pollution. What would it take to prove it? A group of parents in Toms River, NJ, found out when their children were diagnosed with cancers that they believed to have been caused by toxic wastes dumped by the town’s largest employer. Dan Fagin describes their fight for justice in Toms River: A Story of Science and Salvation (Bantam, 2013), an environmental detective story that involves midnight dumping, criminal sabotage, and other subterfuge. A review of the book will appear soon on One-Minute Book Reviews. 

February 9, 2013

Harlan Coben’s Thriller, ‘Hold Tight’ – Parents Snoop in ‘Sopranos’ Country

Filed under: Fiction,Mysteries and Thrillers — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:33 am
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Mayhem results when parents install spyware on their teenager’s computer

Hold Tight. By Harlan Coben. Dutton, 416 pp., $26.95.

By Janice Harayda

Hold Tight ought to be catnip for those of us who have lived in New Jersey long enough to know that its loopy plot doesn’t lie far from reality. Up to a point, it delivers.

Harlan Coben uses in this suburban thriller a variation on the Agatha Christie formula – a machine-tooled plot strewn with clues, a smattering of local color and an eventual convergence of many threads that at first appear unrelated. But Hold Tight involves a sick violence that Christie wouldn’t have gone near. And it has no Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot whose idiosyncrasies might have offset other characterizations that range from bland to stereotypical, as in the case of an icy feminist lawyer and shady men who wear “wifebeater tees.”

Some of the gore results from a morally questionable decision by Mike and Tia Baye, well-educated suburban parents who live a few miles from the Satin Dolls, “the famed gentlemen’s club that was used as Bada Bing! on The Sopranos.” The Bayes’ 16-year-old son, Adam, won’t explain why he has withdrawn from them after the suicide of a friend, so they install spyware on his computer. The snooping plunges the couple into something much worse than they had feared. It also sets up light philosophizing about violence: “What is in our makeup, in fact, that draws us to that which should sicken us?” The question appears unintentionally metafictional. In the first of many brutal scenes in Hold Tight, a thug beats an innocent woman to death so savagely that he didn’t just break the bones in her face but left them looking as though “they were ground into small chunks.”

Best line: A mother whose son died says, when someone mentions “closure”: “What does that even mean? … Can you imagine anything more obscene than having closure?”

Worst line: No. 1: “wifebeater tee” (used twice). “Wifebeater” is a nasty cliché that libels men who wear ribbed undershirts and don’t beat their wives. No. 2: “She made the twins dinner – hot dogs and macaroni and cheese.” Really makes you see them as individuals, doesn’t it? No. 3: “The mall was pure Americana ginoromous.” “Ginormous” is cute, not funny.

Furthermore: The Guardian reviews Coben’s more recent Caught.

Published: 2010 (Dutton hardcover), 2009 (Signet paperback).

You can follow Jan on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2013 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharyada.com

August 12, 2012

‘New Jersey Noir’ – Taking the Final Exit in the Garden State

Filed under: Mysteries and Thrillers,Poetry,Short Stories — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 4:50 pm
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“It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed” Paul Muldoon

New Jersey Noir. Edited by Joyce Carol Oates. Akashic, 274 pp., $15.95, paperback.

By Janice Harayda

“Is noir the dominant sensibility of New Jersey?” a writer for New Jersey Monthly asked in a review of this book. No, that distinction belongs to tragicomedy. But New Jersey has an underside barely suggested by what Joyce Carol Oates calls the “noir drama” of The Sopranos. New Jersey Noir exposes part of it in 19 previously unpublished short stories and poems set in places far from the back rooms of strip clubs and pork-butchers’ shops.

Oates notes in her wide-ranging introduction that prototypical noir fiction involves a man “whose desire for a beautiful woman has blinded him to her true, manipulative, evil self.” Her book revives that tradition in Jonathan Santlofer’s “Lola,” a contemporary tale of a femme fatale on the PATH train from Hoboken to New York. Other stories in New Jersey Noir support Oates’ view that noir treachery can involve something more complex than sexual double-dealing: “a fundamental betrayal of the spirit – an innocence devastated by the experience of social injustice or political corruption.” An idealistic technician at a Newark morgue falls victim to her own naiveté and to the duplicity of a co-worker who sells corpses’ hair to wig shops in S.A. Solomon’s “Live for Today.” A rookie cop is a pawn in a dangerous game that pits his father, a Republican U.S. Attorney, against the powerful Camden County Democratic machine in Lou Manfredo’s “Soul Anatomy.” And a hard-up South Jersey substitute teacher agrees to a friend’s plan to sell glass eels illegally, only to run into thugs running a lethal game of pay-to-play, in “Glass Eels.”

Faithful to noir conventions, the bleakness of these stories goes mostly unrelieved by devices used in other types suspense fiction, such as a wisecracking protagonist or a sentient tabby cat who helps to solve crimes. But the Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Paul Muldoon offers an inspired bit of comic relief in his satirical poem, “Noir, NJ.” As he sends up noir clichés, Muldoon neatly encapsulates a theme of this book in two of his lines: “It’s clear that I’ve been double-crossed / It’s clear that I’ve been framed.”

Best line: In her excellent 10-page introduction, Oates gives an overview of noir themes in novels, movies and television shows; of each story or poem she has chosen; and of true crimes in New Jersey that provide context for New Jersey Noir.

Worst line: Oates: “Quintessential noir centers around …”

Published: November 2011

Furthermore: The 19 original stories and poems in this collection cover New Jersey cities and towns that include Montclair, Princeton, Paramus, Rutherford, Cherry Hill, Long Branch, Asbury Park and Atlantic City. Publishers Weekly and New Jersey Monthly also reviewed the book. The Akashic Noir series has produced more than 50 other books, including London Noir, Paris Noir, Seattle Noir, Lone Star Noir and Twin Cities Noir.

Jan is an award-winning journalist and former book editor of the Plain Dealer in Cleveland. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking on the “Follow” button in the right sidebar.

© 2012 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

February 19, 2012

A Collie Enters the Westminister Dog Show in ‘Lad: A Dog’

Filed under: Children's Books,Children's literature,Classics — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 2:36 am
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Long before Malachy the Pekingese won “Best in Show” at the 2012 Westminster Kennel Club competition, Lad the collie had his own adventures at that annual event at Madison Square Garden. Albert Payson Terhune describes them in two tales in Lad: A Dog, a collection of 12 short stories inspired by an exceptional dog at a New Jersey kennel, which became an adult bestseller after it appeared in 1919 and which its publisher later repackaged as a children’s book. You can read “For a Bit of Ribbon” and “Lost!” online or in the attractive 1993 Puffin edition with illustrations by Sam Savitt.

November 9, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion – A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’


The author of
Tuesdays with Morrie says he has learned that he is “neither smarter nor better” than other people

Have a Little Faith: A True Story. By Mitch Albom. Hyperion, 254 pp., $23.99.

By Janice Harayda

More than two decades ago, the Unitarian minister Robert Fulghum achieved bestsellerdom with All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, a small book that offered twee advice such as, “Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you” and “Flush.” For Mitch Albom the font of wisdom appears to have materialized in what is euphemistically called “midlife.”

In his bestselling Tuesdays With Morrie and the new Have a Little Faith, Albom assumes the posture of an innocent who became a man of the world without having learned the basic lessons that Fulghum seems to have picked up between games of dodgeball. He is not, it appears, a quick study.

Albom said in Tuesdays With Morrie that during his talks with a dying former professor, he learned that “love is how you stay alive, even after you are gone.” He writes in his new book that he has learned fresh lessons — about what he calls “faith” — from Albert Lewis, the New Jersey rabbi who presided over his bar mitzvah in 1971, and a pastor to the homeless in Detroit. Lewis told Albom that whenever he looked at a picture of the family he loves, he thought, “This is your immortality.” But if love keeps you alive – at least in others’ hearts – isn’t that what Albom learned from Morrie Schwartz?

No discovery seems too basic for Albom not to cast as a revelation as he and Lewis talk about cosmic and earthly questions: What makes people happy? Why does it mean to be good? How can you cope with tragedy? Albom is amazed when Lewis asks a Hindu health aide about her belief in reincarnation. “How can you – a cleric – be so open-minded?” he asks, as though shocked that the rabbi isn’t a bigot. The news that his old synagogue has extensive files on its history seems to fill him with wonder. “I didn’t know there were files,” he tells the woman who informed him of it. Imagine: A synagogue that keeps good records!

Under the rubric of “faith” Albom writes about religion in such a generalized feel-good way that you’re not sure how his view differs from the God-is-love school of theology or even New Age psychobabble. You wonder if he knows. Albom says he wrote Have a Little Faith “in the hope that all faiths can find something universal in the story,” and it’s full of pseudoprofundities such as, “we all want the same things: comfort, love, and a peaceful heart.” But the view of “immortality” that he seems to advocate – that you find your afterlife in the memories of others – is far more Jewish than Christian (not to mention, Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim). Certainly few Christians would disagree that people “live on” in others’ minds. But Christian theology holds that things like “comfort, love and a peaceful heart” are not the ultimate aim. They are the byproducts of a larger goal, which is salvation through Christ.

Albom tries to keep the book from tilting toward his religion by interweaving chapters about his old rabbi with sections on Henry Covington, an ex-drug dealer who began a ministry to the homeless after a spiritual plea bargain: One night when he thought killers were trailing him, he decided that if he survived, he would devote his life to Jesus. But in these sections Albom keeps his distance from theology and focuses on matters such as whether the pastor’s church can keep the lights on, so the spiritual heart of the story lies in Lewis, who set the book in motion by asking his former congregant to give his eulogy.

Like Albom’s recent novel For One More Day, his new book is written at third-grade reading level, according to readability statistics that are part of the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.* Have a Little Faith is more interesting than that homespun parable in because Lewis is a bit of card – he kept a mock parking sign in his office that said, YOU TAKA MY SPACE / I BREAKA YOUR FACE — and the book has excerpts from his sermons. It also includes the fine eulogy Albom eventually gave for Lewis that may inspire you if you have to give a similar talk. Otherwise, you are well-advised keep in mind something Albom says he learned while writing this book: He is “neither smarter nor better” than others, just luckier.

Best line: The first line of the Twenty-third Psalm, quoted by Lewis in a sermon: “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”

Worst line: No. 1: “January arrived and the calendar changed. It was 2008. Before the year was done, there would be a new U.S. President, an economic earthquake, a sinkhole of confidence, and tens of millions unemployed or without homes. Storm clouds were gathering.” Yes, when January arrives, the calendar usually does change. No. 2: “What do you do when you lose a loved one too quickly? When you have no time to prepare before, suddenly, that soul is gone?
“Ironically, the man who could best answer that question was sitting in front of me.” This is a misuse of “ironically.” Nothing “ironic” is happening here.

About the reading level of this book: To figure the reading level of Have a Little Faith, I entered into a computer the full text of pages 24–25, 124–125, 224–225 and pages 164–165, then ran the spell-checker on Microsoft Word, which shows you the Flesch-Kincaid reading level at the bottom of the stats window. The reading levels for the pages averaged Grade 3. 7 and ranged from a low of Grade 2.8 to a high of Grade 6.5. The passages entered include only words written by Albom, none by Lewis. A comparison of Albom’s level and that of other authors appears here.

Published: September 2009

You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

November 1, 2009

Mitch Albom Gets Religion — A Review of ‘Have a Little Faith’ Coming Soon

Filed under: Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:35 pm
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Mitch Albom gets religion in Have a Little Faith, a memoir of his encounters with his childhood rabbi in New Jersey and a pastor he met as an adult in Detroit. Albom was a finalist in the annual Delete Key Awards competition for bad writing in books for his novel For One More Day, written at a third-grade reading level according to the readability statistics that come with the spell-checker on Microsoft Word. Is his new book better? A review of Have a Little Faith will appear this week on One-Minute Book Reviews. You can also follow Jan Harayda on Twitter www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.

October 14, 2009

Late Night With Jan Harayda — What Exit Are These Books From? — New Jersey on the 2009 National Book Awards Shortlist

What exit are these books from? At least three of the 20 National Book Awards finalists announced today or 15 percent have strong New Jersey ties. Lark & Termite (fiction) comes from Jayne Anne Phillips, director of the young Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Rutgers/Newark. Princeton University Press published Adrienne Mayor’s The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates: Rome’s Deadliest Enemy (nonfiction). And Lips Touch: Three Times comes from the Scholastic Books imprint of Arthur A. Levine, who lives in New Jersey. Annette Gordon-Reed, a professor at Rutgers/Newark, won the 2008 National Book Award for nonfiction for The Hemingses of Monticello.

www.janiceharayda.com

August 3, 2009

Clara Kramer’s ‘Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival’ – A Teenager’s Holocaust

Filed under: Biography,Memoirs — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 3:25 pm
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A first-person account of hiding in a bunker during the Nazi occupation of Poland

Clara’s War: One Girl’s Story of Survival. By Clara Kramer. With Stephen Glantz. Harper/Ecco, 339 pp., $25.99.

By Janice Harayda

Clara Kramer tells us early in this book that when Nazis arrested Jewish leaders in her town in Poland in 1941, her mother donated “her wedding band” to help ransom them. More than 150 pages later, she says that her family had to pay a monthly fee to the Christians who were hiding them in a bunker, and when her parents ran out of money in 1944, her mother gave “her wedding ring”: “We didn’t sell it until now.”

This first quote comes from the story told in Clara’s War with the aid of screenwriter Stephen Glantz. The second comes from one of its excerpts from the teenage diary said to have inspired the narrative. The inconsistency between the two quotes – one of a number involving substantive facts – shows a problem with this book: Its publisher bills it as a “biography,” but it reads more like a novelization of a life.

As Clara’s War has it, five thousand Jews lived in Zolkiew, Poland, at the start of World War II, and about 50 survived. Clara Kramer was one of the lucky ones. She survived the Holocaust because an ethnic German named Valentin Beck hid her family and others for more than a year in a bunker under his house, “a space no larger than a horse stall.” Beck had a reputation as an anti-Semite, a drunk and a philanderer, and he appears to have had complex reasons, not all of them noble, for sheltering Jews during the Nazi occupation of Zolkiew. He often summoned one of the women in the bunker to his living quarters for trysts, and the affair may have begun before she arrived. His infidelity enraged his wife and, when it came to light, imperiled everyone under his roof.

If Clara’s War is accurate, the Becks were nonethess heroic, saving 18 Jews, and have been honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial. Valentin’s acts of kindness included bringing the teenage Clara composition books and a blue pencil that she used to keep a diary, now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

But it is hard to know how accurate the book is. With Glantz’s help, Kramer describes many scenes in a detail few people could recall even with the help of a diary, such as line-by-line conversations complete with gestures and facial expressions. Some events serve literary purposes that seem too neat. One occurs in the prologue when the author is 12 years old and her sister leaves the shelter of an apple tree to look at bombers overhead – a foreshadowing of a disaster that will occur later. You never really see how 18 people could have survived in a crypt-like space the size of “a horse stall,” though the book has a diagram and says that the bunker still exists and the author and others have returned to it.

Kramer kept in touch with others saved by the Becks, and they and their descendants presumably have confirmed much of the story in Clara’s War. Even so, you wish the book had fewer inconsistencies and cinematic flourishes. The excerpts from the diary in the Holocaust Museum are fascinating in their own right, and you hope that readers someday will have a chance to read the entire journal in straight-up form.

Best line: “My father, like every Jewish business owner in town, had his business confiscated by the Nazis. We had to wear the white armband with the blue Jewish star above the right elbow. Any offense was punishable by death. The day the order for the armbands came down, none of us could leave the house until my mother had embroidered them. It took Mama over two hours to do one armband.”

Worst line: “My father’s family was so religious that they had had considered it irrelevant to have their weddings recorded by the state. So even though we went by the name of Schwartz in our day-to-day life, all of our official papers, including my birth certificate, bore the name of Gottlieb.” Why Gottlieb? Was Gottlieb carried over from previous generations not mentioned in the book? Or did ultra-religious Jews choose it because it means “God love”?

Published: 2009 (first American edition), 2008 (British edition from Ebury Press, part of Random House).

Watch a video of Clara Kramer talking about the Holocaust and her book.

Consider reading instead of or in addition to Clara’s War: All But My Life, a beautifully written memoir by Gerda Weissmann Klein and a pillar of Holocaust literature.

Furthermore: Kramer lives in Elizabeth, NJ. She helped found the Holocaust Resource Center at Kean University in Union, NJ. Glantz is a screenwriter. The inconsistencies cited in the first paragraph of this review appear on pages 43 and 219 of the book and can be confirmed by using the “Browse Inside” tool on the HarperCollins Web site to search for “her wedding band” and “her wedding ring.”

© Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

August 2, 2009

Yes, New Jersey WAS Always So Crooked — Helene Stapinski Remembers When Corruption Ran in Her Jersey City Family in ‘Five-Finger Discount’

Filed under: Memoirs,News — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 6:52 pm
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You know those studies that show that you really do become more sensitive to the weather as you get older? A similar principle might apply to the ability to cope with New Jersey corruption, because the 44 recent arrests here seem to have outraged even people who thought they’d become inured to the vast pay-to-play game that is Garden State politics. For anyone who’d like to know more about how it works, a book that relates tangentially is Helene Stapinki’s memoir of a growing up in a Jersey City family, Five-Finger Discount: A Crooked Family History (Random House, 2002). I read this one for fun years ago when I was briefly AWOL from reviewing, so I didn’t bring much of a critical sensibility to bear on its tale of growing up with relatives such as a bookie and a grandfather sent to prison for armed robbery. But Stapinski tells her story with mordant comedy, if with inconsistent results, and I enjoyed it. She also relates her family’s crimes to the major-league corruption of the Hudson County Democratic machine, a group of power brokers sullied again in the July 25 dragnet. Michiko Kakutani had more on the book in her New York Times review.

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