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. 

January 26, 2013

Laura Vaccaro Seeger’s 2013 Caldecott Honor Book, ‘Green’

Filed under: Children's Books,Poetry — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:13 am
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A romanticized view of a popular color honored by the American Library Association

Green. By Laura Vaccaro Seeger. Neal Porter/Roaring Brook Press, $16.99. Ages 2–5.

By Janice Harayda

A half century ago, Dr. Seuss helped children learn about colors with his rhyming trochees: “One fish / two fish / red fish / blue fish.” Laura Vaccaro Seeger takes a similar approach in her celebration of every environmentalist’s favorite color, which begins: “forest green / sea green / lime green / pea green.”

This 32-word book introduces different kinds of green by pairing thumping rhymes with boldly painted pictures and cutouts that, like windows, show a different view depending on whether you’re looking in or out (or, in this case, at the first page on which they appear or the next): A cutout that defines a pea on one page turns into the eye of a tiger on the next.

Green has no rhymes like “bile green / sickly green / vile green / prickly green,” and its romanticized green-is-good subtext borders on an environmental cliché. But Vaccaro Seeger is a fine painter who can make impasto acrylics rest as lightly on the page as a firefly. You just wonder how may 2-year-olds will come away with the idea that zebras have green stripes after seeing such a creature in the illustration for the final line of the quatrain: “Jungle green / khaki green / fern green / wacky green.”

Best line/picture: The picture of the “wacky green” zebra is great even if drags the concept of the book sideways and the joke will sail over the heads of 3-year-olds who have no idea what a zebra is.

Worst line/picture: All of the lines in the book begin with lower-case letters except for “Jungle green / khaki green …” which begins, senselessly, with a capital J. And as others have noted, the one of the cutouts of fireflies on the “glow green” spread doesn’t line up perfectly with what it’s supposed to reveal.

Published: March 2012

Furthermore: Update: The American Library Association named Green a 2013 Caldecott Honor Book on Jan. 30, 2013. Green has emerged as a favorite for the Caldecott Medal (which will be awarded Jan. 28, 2013) in the Mock Caldecott contests sponsored by libraries and others.The trailer for Green shows much of the book. The headline on this review has been changed to reflect its Caldecott honor.

About the author: Vaccaro Seeger wrote First the Egg, a Caldecott Honor book. She lives on Long Island.

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

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

May 27, 2009

Was Wallace Stegner America’s Greenest Novelist?

Filed under: Novels — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 12:11 am
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Wallace Stegner was probably the greenest fiction writer of the late 20th century. His literary reputation rests on his short stories and novels such as Crossing to Safety and the Pulitzer Prize–winning Angle of Repose.

But he had a second fame as a historian and environmentalist who believed people were destroying the West or, as he wrote in his 1960 “Wilderness Letter,” allowing “virgin forests to be turned into comic books and plastic cigarette cases.”

Nancy Huddleston Packer writes in the Spring issue of The Sewanee Review that Stegner was already involved the conservation movement when she began sharing an office with him at Stanford University. She adds:

“One theme that ties his novels and his nonfiction together is the importance of taking care of the natural world. The bad characters in the fiction are those who exploit and destroy the land, such as the blithely destructive hippie Jim Peck in All the Little Live Things. … Even the good guys can be destroyers. In All the Little Live Things Joe Allston attempts to construct an eastern Eden out in the western Los Altos Hills. To do so requires a good deal of killing, of gophers and aphids and snails and indeed all the little live things. This novel is in a sense an argument between Allston, the manipulator and in some ways destroyer of the earth, and Marian, a sensitive, loving, dying young woman who wants to preserve the natural even red in tooth and claw. In the end Marian wins the argument.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

May 9, 2009

Tom Disch’s ‘The Genocides’ – One of the ‘100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels’ Involves an Ecological Catastrophe

Filed under: Fantasy,Science Fiction — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 1:28 am
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Where are the science-fiction novels for sophisticated teenagers? You might wonder after reading Stephenie Meyer’s bestseller about aliens, The Host, which is written at a fourth-grade reading level. You’ll find answers in 100 Must-Read Science Fiction Novels (A&C Black, 2006), written by Stephen E. Andrews and Nick Rennison with foreword by Christopher Priest.

Among the novels tapped by the authors: The Genocides (Vintage, 160 pp.,$12.95) by the late Tom Disch. Andrews and Rennison write:

“When unseen aliens decide to claim Earth for themselves, they sow the planet with seeds that grow into massive plants which begin to destroy the ecosystem. The plants adapt swiftly whenever new toxins are used against them and civilization itself begins to crumble. Then huge spherical incinerating machines descend to raze the cities, clearing the way for the extraterrestrial crop’s full bloom. Following the struggles of a small American community as they try to survive the onslaught of the alien agriculturalists by burrowing into the roots of the monstrous vegetables, The Genocides is an invasion story with a difference: what chance can human beings have against beings who consider us nothing more than garden pests? Using John W. Campbell’s approach to pursuing an idea to its inescapable conclusion while refusing to conform to the psychologically dissatisfying conclusion invasion stories have suffered from since The War of the Worlds, Tom Disch had the audacity to defy decades of convention, consequently producing a marvelous debut that both broke new ground and upset traditionalist SF fans.”

Andrews and Rennison add that despite his occasional “remoteness of tone,” Disch is “a humane author whose highly accomplished and often very funny work marks him as one of the finest writers of literary SF ever to emerge from America.”

© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda,com

April 22, 2009

Eco-Propaganda in Children’s Books by Carl Hiaasen and Others — It’s Always Earth Day in Recent Fiction for Young Readers

Meghan Cox Gurdon takes on eco-propaganda in children’s books in “Scary Green Monsters,” a Wall Street Journal essay that makes point similar to one I made more briefly back in January: A lot of trees are dying for books about rainforests. Gurdon writes in an article linked to Earth Day:

“The patriarch of the vogue for green-themed children’s books is surely Carl Hiaasen, the novelist and Miami Herald columnist who shot to eco-stardom in 2002 with Hoot, a novel for middle-schoolers about three children who foil a corporation’s attempt to build a pancake restaurant over a burrow of endangered miniature owls. Hoot won a Newbery Honor Award, and was followed in 2005 by Flush, a tale recounting the adventures of a different group of youthful oddball allies that is seeking to expose a casino-boat operator who’s been flushing raw sewage into harbor water….

“In all Mr. Hiaasen’s books for children, young readers are asked to sympathize with environmentalists who thwart businessmen, even when the good guys take destructive measures such as sinking boats or torching billboards. And the eco-tropes that have worked so well for Mr. Hiaasen — Good nature! Bad capitalist! — are steadily creeping into books across the age range.”

Gurdon also discusses Joan Bauer’s Newbery Honor book, Peeled (Putnam, 2008), Timothee de Fombelle’s Toby Alone (Candlewick, 2009), Katherine Hannigan’s “risibly didactic” Emmaline and Bunny (HarperCollins, 2009), and Joshua Doder’s popular “Grk” books, such as Operation Tortoise (Delacorte, 2009). She notes that children like routine:

“They’re not put off by predictability in stories. They’re accustomed to princesses being pretty, dragons being fearsome, and, it seems, alas, their fictional businessmen being corpulent and amoral. So it’s probably pointless to object to the eco-endlessness on the grounds of artistic feebleness.

“Yet there is something culturally impoverished about insisting that children join in the adult preoccupation with reducing, reusing and recycling. Can they not have a precious decade or so to soar in imaginative literature before we drag them back down to earth?”

Read all of “Scary Green Monsters” here.

(c) 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

www.twitter.com/janiceharayda

January 16, 2009

Children’s Poems About Rainforests and Their Creatures

Un-acid the rain.
Tell polluters: Refrain!
Help the rain forests gain, not grow smaller.

From “Prayer of the Good Green Boy” in Sad Underwear and Other Complications

By Janice Harayda

Children’s books about rainforests are too much with us. Trees are dying for these books at an alarming rate, creating a literary Robin Hood effect.

But children’s poems about rainforests are harder to find, perhaps because poets of yesteryear wrote about “jungles” instead. One the few I’ve found that would suit grades 3 and up is “Rainforest,” by the late Australian poet and conservationist Judith Wright, which appears in Classic Poems to Read Aloud (Kingfisher, 256 pp., $8.95, paperback, ages 8–12), an excellent anthology compiled by James Berry.

“Rainforest” consists of 12 lines of iambic tetrameter that celebrate the interdependence of the creatures in natural world. Wright makes an implicit plea for biodiversity in the poem, which begins: “The forest drips and glows with green. / The tree frog croaks his far-off song. / His voice is stillness, moss and rain / drunk from the forest ages long.” The most unusual aspect of this poem is that Wright has arranged its lines in the shape of a tree trunk. This is a subtle example of what’s known as a pattern poem, a poem in which the words or letters form a typographical picture that relates to the subject.

Apart from that device, “Rainforest” works better as an environmental manifesto than as art. Judith Viorst has more success with “Prayer of the Good Green Boy,” found in Sad Underwear and Other Complications: More Poems for Children and Their Parents (Aladdin, 80 pp., $6.99, paperback, ages 7 and up). This witty and ironic poem puts a child’s love for the environment in the context of his other concerns, using spirited anapestic lines: “Un-acid the rain. / Tell polluters: Refrain! / Help the rain forests gain, not grow smaller.” The poem ends: “And — oh yes — one more thing. / Could you please make me four inches taller?”

Many good poems, if not specifically about rainforests, deal with creatures who may inhabit them. Classic Poems to Read Aloud also has a section of poems about fish, birds, animals, or insects, including some found in jungles. Among them: William Blake’s “”The Tiger,” Ted Hughes’s “The Jaguar” and Randall Jarrell’s “Bats.” Then there George Macbeth’s “Insects,” which laments the perils of sharing a household with flies, mosquitoes and other winged creatures. Any rainforest explorer might identify with lines like: “I swat at my forehead, I scratch at my ankles, / Mole and wart, and a rash that rankles.”

You may also want to look at a picture book for slightly younger children, Over in the Jungle: A Rainforest Rhyme (Dawn, 32 pp., $8.95, paperback), by Marianne Berkes and by Jeanette Canyon, which I haven’t seen it. It begins: “Over in the jungle / Where the trees greet the sun / Lived a mother marmoset / And her marmoset one.”

You can also follow Janice Harayda (@janiceharayda) on Twitter, where she often writes about books for children or teenagers.

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

November 2, 2008

Two Classics of Environmentalism and Nature Writing – Aldo Leopold’s ‘A Sand County Almanac’ and John Muir’s ‘My First Summer in the Sierra’

On Thursday I wrote about 100 One-Night Reads, a collection of 100 essays on short books — a volume I liked partly for its variety. David and John Major don’t pander to book clubs by focusing on recent bestsellers or other popular choices. They cover many kinds of good fiction and nonfiction – travel, humor, science, memoirs, mystery, fantasy, history, public affairs – though they favor 20th century classics.

Here are excepts from their comments on two books that have helped to shaped the modern environmental movement, A Sand County Almanac and My First Summer in the Sierra:

On Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac:

“Aldo Leopold is one of the heroes of modern environmentalism, and A Sand County Almanac is one of the movement’s classics. In the half century since it was published, this book has inspired readers with its impassioned call for radical change in human attitudes toward the planet that sustains us. …

“The first part of the book is the almanac proper: observations from the Leopolds’ family retreat arranged seasonally. The writing here is memorable; many books remain in one’s consciousness only in general terms, but after reading A Sand County Almanac you will find yourself startled by the immediacy of the author’s vision. … a chorus of sound in the middle distance might bring to mind Leopold’s precise comments on ‘the proceedings of the convention in the marsh’ (March) or the virtues of the songs of the more elusive birds (September).

“The second part of the book, ‘Sketches Here and There,’ collects some of Leopold’s essays written about regions in the United States, Canada, and Mexico, describing perspectives and incidents that contributed to the formulation of his mature views.” www.aldoleopold.org/books/Default.asp

On John Muir’s My First Summer in the Sierra

“After explorations that included a thousand-mile walk to the Gulf Coast, [John Muir] traveled to California, arriving in San Francisco in 1868. In the summer of 1869, he book a job with a rancher acquaintance, overseeing the movement of flocks to mountain pastures.
“As a supervisor of the enterprise, Muir assembled a crew of two – a shepherd named Billy and a borrowed St. Bernard dog, Carlo – to go on the trip. Able to rely on their expert work in dealing with the sheep, Muir found himself with time to indulge his passion for the explorations of nature. My First Summer in the Sierra, based on his contemporary journal (though not published until 1911), is the record of that extraordinary time. Although Muir was in the Sierra that summer for less than four months, we come away from the book feeling that his time there was much longer, and in some sense permanent.”

Read the first chapter of My First Summer in the Sierra at www.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/my_first_summer_in_the_sierra/chapter_1.html

To read the review of 100 One-Night Reads, click here www.oneminutebookreviews.wordpress.com/2008/10/30/ .

© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
www.janiceharayda.com

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