Posts Tagged ‘book review’


52 Loaves by William Alexander. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.

A few years ago, I took a notion that I would like to work on breadmaking skills. Once the weather turns cold the appeal of the fireside is undeniable and a loaf of bread baking in the oven, filling the house with that warm, fresh-baked aroma, certainly helps to complete the ideal. There is a certain mystique around breadmaking, but the process is actually quite simple, at least for a basic loaf. I wrote about baking bread on a snowy pre-spring day back in March. You will find that post here.

A year or two ago, when I expressed an interest in breadmaking, my sister gifted me Bill Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves, for Christmas. Like many readers, I have a shelf full of books awaiting me. After joining the queue for an extended period, 52 Loaves finally made it to the top of my reading list. With another winter at hand, I enjoyed this foray into Alexander’s experiences with bread.

The book’s title, 52 Loaves, suggests to me that Alexander experiments with a different bread every week for a year. That’s not the case. Rather, Bill sets baking the perfect loaf of one particular type of bread as his goal and sets out to achieve this perfect loaf by experimenting with the baking process over a year of weekly sessions.

The loaf in question is peasant bread, or Pain de Campagne, which uses just four basic ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. Alexander’s search for perfection leads him in many directions across the year. He experiments with growing his own wheat and processing it into flour. He visits a yeast production factory in Montreal. He builds his own backyard oven. He experiments with the baker’s percentage. He develops his own levain, or sourdough starter. He takes a baking course in Paris at the famous Ritz Hotel. He visits a traditional market and communal baking oven in Tunisia. And finally, he shares the art of breadmaking with monks in France!

Alexander is a convivial and informative guide to the many aspects of breadmaking. His book is at once an entertaining read and a source of interesting facts and data about the staff of life, bread. Quite highly recommended for anyone who has ever enjoyed a loaf of bread.

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The Secret History of the War on Cancer by Devra Davis. Basic Books 2007.

NOTE: Exerpt from Wikipedia. The ‘War on Cancer’ began with the National Cancer Act of 1971, a United States federal law. The act was intended “to amend the Public Health Service Act so as to strengthen the National Cancer Institute in order to more effectively carry out the national effort against cancer”. It was signed into law by then U.S. President Richard Nixon on December 23, 1971.

For more than a century, the pollution of our air and water has been routine, business as usual. As outlined in The Polluters, reviewed here, the mantra of big business has been “Spill, Study and Stall”. Governments on every level have enabled the poisoning of our land, turning a blind eye to infractions and failing to protect citizens from even the worst abuses of polluters. Additionally, we live in a veritable sea of synthetic estrogens and other hormones and are routinely exposed to materials that never previously existed, with more than 80,000 chemicals in widespread use. Fewer than 1,000 have been tested for toxicity and how these chemicals interact is an open question.

There are prices to be paid for the convenience of unbridled polluting and the underregulation and inadequate testing of new potential toxins. One price is cancer. Countless people pay for pollution of underregulated workplaces and poisoned air and water with their lives.

The connection between our environment and cancer has long been recognised. At a 1936 International Congress of cancer researchers, reports showed that many widely used agents were known to be cancerous for humans, including ultraviolet and x-ray radiation, arsenic, benzene, asbestos, synthetic dyes and hormones. Researchers reported that excessive sunbathing could lead to skin cancer and that exposure to estrogen could produce breast tumors.

Yet just as there has been a widespread failure to limit pollution, curbing the known causes of cancer has also been slow. Although researchers reported in 1936 that excessive sunbathing could lead to skin cancer and that exposure to estrogen could produce breast tumors, the National Toxicology Program of the U.S. government did not formally list both estrogen and ultraviolet light as definite causes of human cancer until 2002!

Since World War II, information on the cancer hazards of the workplace and the environment has typically been discredited, dismissed, or disparaged. The tobacco companies’ long campaign to obscure findings on the dangers of cigarettes was successful for decades and served as a model for other industries to follow in a combination of deceptive advertising, sophisticated scientific spin and strongarm politics. Scientists who speak out have often been targets for funding cuts and career derailment.

A revolving-door policy has often seen regulators and cancer researchers move in and out of cancer-causing industries. Some early leaders of the American Cancer Society, for example, left to work for the tobacco industry. Distinguished researcher Sir Richard Doll discredited the findings of other scientists without revealing that he was on the payroll of the chemical industry for years. The life-saving test for cervical cancer, the Pap smear, was not put into widespread use for more than a decade because of fears that it would undermine the private practice of medicine.

To this day, the Cancer Society speaks little about reining in the causes of cancer, or at best, concentrates on personal lifestyle choices rather than broader exposures to toxins. It’s all about the cure! Run for cure! Donate for the cure! Wear a pink ribbon for the cure! When quite obviously, it would be better not to get cancer in the first place.

Devra Davis, Ph.D. is the Director of the Center for Environmental Oncology at the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute and a professor of epidemiology. In more than 450 pages, she looks at how we have failed to address the causes of cancer. Davis writes “I believe that if we had acted on what has long been known about the industrial and environmental causes of cancer when this war first began, at least a million and a half lives could have been spared, a huge casualty rate that those who have managed the war on cancer must answer for.”

Secret History is by no means a light read, but it is often eye-opening and interesting.

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The Polluters: the Making of Our chemically Altered Environment by Benjamin Ross and Steven Amter. Oxford University Press 2010.

The Polluters is a history of industrial pollution in America from the early days of industry in the 18th century to the changing times of the 1960s and 70s. On page 3 of the book, the authors write:

Wastes were a problem from the earliest days of chemical manufacturing. But the American chemical industry of the nineteenth century lagged far behind its European competitors, and the emissions from its factories drew little notice beyond their immediate surroundings. …As pollution worsened and new problems emerged in the course of the 1920s and 1930s, scientists and the public increasingly saw the need for control and demanded action.

Leaders of the industry recognized the need for cleanup, but they were allergic to government oversight. Chemical companies insisted on doing things themselves, at their own pace, with their own means, and they gathered their forces for the fight to keep the government out. An armament of methods was developed to fend off outside pressure. One of the industry’s common tactics can be summed up as “spill, study, and stall.” When outside pressure to do something about pollution became strong, a study of the problem would be launched as an alternative to expensive action. The study would be carried out by the polluters themselves or, if it was feared that a blatantly self-serving study would lack credibility, under their influence.

…When study could not be avoided, friendly researchers would offer a predetermined conclusion. They would cherry-pick data, design experiments to give a desired answer, or sometimes offer reassurances backed by nothing more than the sheer force of assertion. The exercise of political, financial, and public relations muscle would turn this into “authoritative science,” often in the face of criticism from scientists of much greater attainment.

That, in a few paragraphs, sums up the contents of the following 170 pages. The authors go on to examine various examples and follow the seesawing attempts of assorted individuals to bring industry to heal and curb the unfettered polluting of the nation’s air, water and groundwater resources. Across the years, thousands of new synthetic compounds were developed and released into the environment without testing. Chemicals were treated as safe until proven otherwise, often by some catastrophic event. It was deemed that industry had a right to use available air and water as simple conduits for waste disposal unless there were prior claims for their use. The natural world itself, on the other hand, had no rights whatsoever.

It seemed to me that few stories can be more readily divided into “good guys” and “bad guys”. Not that the authors attempt anything but a balanced report, but the facts speak for themselves. For most of the period under study, industrial leaders found friends in high places, men who were happy to do their bidding. These men condemned to death countless unknown workers and citizens who they failed to protect, often turning a blind eye to clear and readily available scientific evidence showing the dangers of pollutants.

Public concern and awareness rose after the 1962 release of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the first Earth Day in April 1970, and highly visible incidents such as the Love Canal scandal. The Clean Air Amendments of 1970 were signed into law. The Clean Water Act was passed in 1972. The Environmental Protection Agency was created. And a Superfund was established to identify and clean up America’s most polluted hot spots in 1980.

However, those hopeful steps of the 1970s have not been sustained. In fact, there have been giant steps backwards. In 2005 Congress, at the behest of then Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO of gas driller Halliburton, exempted fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Here in Canada, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have been making giant strides backwards, undoing years of small victories in environmental protection so that corporations may once again pollute unfettered. Even when regulations are in place, polluters are not prosecuted. A recent report showed that Alberta is enforcing fewer than one per cent of potential environmental violations in its open-pit mines.

Even more depressing is the fact that climate change was under discussion in the 1950s. Evidence of rising temperatures had begun to accumulate and by the 60s, prediction of increasing temperatures again appeared in leading scientific publications. Here we are, half a century on, and we have chosen to saddle ourselves, through apathy and fraudulent election practices, with an ineffectual, backwards government that fails to look to the future and refuses to address the inconvenient truth of climate change. The authors note:

The emission of greenhouse gases goes on, protected with the time-honored techniques of toothless laws and twisted science. The tactic of spill, study, and stall, now approaching its centenary, is still in use. Well-funded institutes continue to paste a veneer of scientific research onto political propaganda. Hard truths are countered with convenient but unlikely hopes.

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Toms River: A story of science and salvation by Dan Fagin. Bantam Books 2013.

For most of its existence, the community of Toms River, in New Jersey, was a sleepy little hamlet set on the banks of its eponymous river. Things began to change in 1949. That’s when a major chemical company, Ciba, purchased a huge 1,350 acre property with one edge bordering the river. The Swiss-owned company hollowed out a 35 acre site in the midst of the dense pine stands that covered the property and set about building the facilities where they planned to produce thousands of pounds of vat dyes every day, around the clock, as cheaply as possible. Ciba had been making vat dyes in Basel since 1907 and in Cincinnati for almost as long before moving to Toms River.

Ciba became a major employer in the depressed area with limited opportunities and, at its peak, had more than a thousand employees. Toms River began to grow rapidly and suburban areas sprang up outside the factory gates. Ciba was a good neighbour, offering well-paying jobs and supporting community undertakings. But Ciba was also a major polluter. The huge amounts of toxic waste that were produced in the dye manufacturing process had to be disposed of. Toxic waste was dumped in the waters of little Toms River, buried in lagoons where it leaked into groundwater, incinerated and released into the air, and pumped through a miles-long pipeline into the Atlantic Ocean. Nor was Ciba the only polluter. Union Carbide was also responsible for the improper storage of waste poisons.

There was plenty of blame to go around for the resulting mess. The town’s water supplier kept problems with water quality secret as it struggled to keep up with burgeoning demand, and government officials at every level turned a blind eye to the pollution. After decades of polluting, Ciba eventually wound up its operations in Toms River, with some of the production work moving to cheaper Asian factories. But not before the town’s water supply was impacted and some people began asking questions about the number of childhood cancers being diagnosed in the area.

After government investigations costing millions of dollars were completed, some 60 families with children with cancer received compensation. The factory dumps and the Union Carbide dump site became Superfund cleanup initiatives.

That’s a very brief accounting of events. In Toms River, Dan Fagin relates the six decades that followed the arrival of the chemical plant in detail. His writing is thorough and unrushed, but never dull. The facts are fleshed out with interesting background information about the chemical industry, the history of cancer research, and the difficulties relating to recognising cancer clusters. Many citizens of Toms River, factory workers, medical workers, state employees, researchers and others are brought to life in the pages of Fagin’s book. Although Toms River is not light reading, it doesn’t drag and there is some feeling of closure in the conclusion. Fagin looks only at human costs of the pollution and does not attempt to address the toll pollution has taken on the natural world.

The book is subtitled A Story of Science and Salvation. Science, maybe, but I don’t know about salvation. Things will never be completely “normal” in Toms River. All those chemicals can never be 100% reclaimed. And as for improved oversight, as recently as 2005, two senior executives working for the town’s water supplier, United Water, faked a safety test and filed a false report rather than take wells offline over concerns of radium contamination.

The thing about Toms River is that although the details are specific to one town, the larger story is told again and again and again, ad nauseam. A quick search with Google turned up the ongoing battle of citizens in Pompton Lakes in northern New Jersey. A report by Ben Horowitz for the Star-Ledger reads:

DuPont manufactured explosives at the 570-acre site from 1902 to 1994 and has been responsible for the cleanup since 1988. Its practices contaminated surface water, soil, sediment and groundwater both on and off site, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has primary responsibility for investigating and overseeing the cleanup of the former manufacturing facility, while EPA is the lead agency for the cleanup of the nearby Acid Brook Delta, the EPA said.

Lisa Riggiola, executive director of Citizens for a Clean Pompton Lakes, said the groups believe full federal control “will bring true oversight and ensure that a goal will be set for a high-standard residential cleanup.”

Riggiola said Acid Brook, which links the DuPont site to Pompton Lake, was recently found by the EPA to be “recontaminated.”

Christie defended the DEP’s management of the site at a press conference Tuesday, when the groups presented petitions signed by 10,000 people demanding the Superfund designation.

“I would say to the folks in Pompton Lakes, be careful what you wish for,” Christie said. “There are EPA Superfund sites all over the state that have not been remediated under the supervision of the EPA under any administration … I think the DEP has a good plan and they’re moving forward with it.”

Jeff Tittel, director of the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter, said the DEP “has mismanaged this site for years, and it has only worsened with toxic chemicals spreading under people’s homes.”

While the chemical dumps involved in these cases were established years ago, there is no sign that things are changing. For an eye-opening look at the trampling of citizens’ rights to clean drinking water, Gasland II is essential viewing. The documentary was shown on HBO recently and is well worth catching. Here’s a link to the Gasland website.

Here in Canada, of course, we have the Alberta tar sands disaster well under way. While governments should be protecting the rights of citizens and ensuring that development only progresses at a pace that allows for adequate oversight and the preservation of water resources, instead governments at every level abdicate their responsibility. A recent report showed that Alberta acts on less than 1% of environmental violations in the tar sands. Citizens of Fort Chipewyan have had an uphill battle looking for help with concerns over cancer.

Even the recent Lac-Megantic disaster can be laid at the feet of government agencies that looked the other way as safety regulations were gutted. Maude Barlow’s article on this topic is linked here. The following is a short excerpt.

Starting back in the 1970s, the US government deregulated rail transport, allowing deep staff reductions, the removal of brakemen from trains and lower safety standards for shipping hazardous materials. Canadian governments followed suit and allowed the railways to self-regulate safety standards and continue to ship oil in the older, accident-prone tanker cars of the kind that crashed into Lac-Mégantic.

Just last year, Transport Canada gave Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways the green light to run each train with just one engineer, which explains how one man came to be in charge of 72 cars and five locomotives carrying combustible energy through inhabited communities.

For an introduction to environmental cancers you can do no better than Sandra Steingraber’s fine book Living Downstream, also available as a documentary film. Toms River is a worthy addition to the literature of industrial pollution and cancer.

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Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet by Bill McKibben. Alfred A Knopf Canada 2010.

My 84-year-old aunt doesn’t believe in climate change. Here’s the thing, though. Climate change is a lot like gravity. It doesn’t matter one whit whether you believe in gravity. When you jump up in the air, you’ll still land on the ground. It’s the same with climate change. You can not believe all you like, but you will still be affected.

Bill McKibben is a long-time believer. The End of Nature, now marking its 20th anniversary, was one of the first popular books to warn of world warming. While the lack-lustre, criminally negligent politicians currently running the show here in Canada continue to play the denial game, McKibben observes that it is already too late to head off serious trouble. Climate change is already well underway, and if we would avoid the very worst the need to act is ever more urgent.

For the full review, link here to Willow Books.

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Boomerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis. W.W. Norton & Co, 2011.

Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve been going about your daily life, paying the phone bill, making dinner, and one day you look up and find all hell has broken loose? The U.S. government is bailing out banks, people are losing their homes, Iceland is bankrupt, Ireland is in crisis…. Really? Don’t they fish in Iceland? Wasn’t Ireland booming just the other day? If you have felt a bit dazed by it all, Boomerang is the book for you.

For a full review of Boomerang, visit Willow Books here.

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