Friday, July 29, 2011

Friday Review Post, 7/29/2011

First, I'd like to remind anyone who was thinking about submitting an entry for the Zombies vs. Unicorns contest that Sunday is the last day to do that. At present, I have had only one submission...

Two books this week.

Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie - Slow Death by Rubber Ducky

This book will make you afraid to cook or eat anything, to bathe yourself or clean anything in the house, or to go outside, or to stay inside. Basically, Smith and Lourie spent a weekend deliberately poisoning themselves with toxins that arise in the sort of things we use on a daily basis, and then recording the change in their bodies' levels of those toxins. They looked at phthalates (in rubber toys [like ducks], and cosmetics [as scent]), teflon (in frying pans and stain treatments for carpets and furniture), PBDE's (fire retardant in furniture, electronics, and childrens' sleepwear), mercury (in tuna), Triclosan (anti-bacterial chemical, in soap, and garden hoses, and pizza wheels, and trash bags), 2,4-D (pesticide), and BPA (in plastics, like baby bottles and water bottles and all manner of other things). The results are really alarming. Their levels of these chemicals start out alarmingly high - suggesting that we all have fairly considerable background levels of some pretty serious toxins - and they get a LOT higher. Smith and Lourie don't do anything particularly weird with the chemicals - they don't drink teflon straight or anything like that - they just spend a weekend in a room treated with stain treater, eat a bunch of tuna (ok, Lourie eats a somewhat absurd quantity of tuna), cooking with teflon coated frying pans, using phthalate laden bath products, and drinking their coffee out of baby bottles (on the grounds that people heat baby bottles in the microwave all the time - plus BPA is in a lot of things that people heat in the microwave and then eat out of).

There's a lot in the book to make you angry too - the lengths that companies will go to in order to avoid dealing with the fact that they're poisoning their customers, for one. DuPont, which makes teflon, has bought off people in the West Virginia town where the stuff is made on two different occasions. The companies that make PBDEs lobby for more strenuous anti-fire legislation in order to put PBDEs in more stuff - never mind that there's no solid evidence that the rate of fires in the home has been affected one way or the other by having the chemical present in your TV and your couch. Although there is no evidence that antibacterial soap makes your household any less prone to catching colds and such, it has proliferated all over the place - possibly contributing to super-bugs, diseases which are resistant to standard forms of treatment (to be fair, an over diagnosis of antibiotics by doctors has contributed as well).

The last chapter is hopeful. It offers suggestions on how to avoid toxins in your every day life, and also points out that North American and European societies have been increasingly quick to act to prevent the spread of toxic substances. A large portion of the last chapter details the successful effort in Canada to have BPA removed from consumer products like baby bottles - a first, since Canada has generally fairly lax toxin laws, relying on more strenuous laws in the United States and Europe to keep toxins out of the Canadian market place. You could probably skip the rest of the book, which is scary, and read just the last chapter.

The problem with the book - well, there are a couple. First, the writing isn't that great. Lots of choppy sentences and sentence fragments, to no good effect - they aren't used to convey emotion or a need for haste or anything of that nature, they're just there. Second, the suggestions for avoiding toxins are expensive. Eat organic food from your farmers' market. Cook in cast iron or stainless steel, not teflon. Use scent free cosmetics. Avoid cheap children's toys. Smith and Lourie point of that a cast iron frying pan will last longer than a teflon pan - it will pay for itself in the long run - and works as well, if not better. But, if you can only afford a cheap frying pan, being told that it won't last as long as an expensive one (and might hurt you in the process) is not helpful. This is a fine example of what Terry Pratchett calls the Sam Vimes Theory of Economic Injustice:

"The Sam Vimes "Boots" Theory of Economic Injustice runs thus:
At the time of Men at ArmsSamuel Vimes earnt thirty-eight dollars a month as a Captain of the Watch, plus allowances. A really good pair of leather boots, the sort that would last years and years, cost fifty dollars. This was beyond his pocket and the most he, Vimes, could hope for was an affordable pair of boots costing ten dollars, which might with luck last a year or so before he, Vimes, would need to resort to makeshift cardboard insoles so as to prolong the moment of shelling out another ten dollars.
Therefore over a period of ten years, he, Vimes, might have paid out a hundred dollars on boots, twice as much as the man who could afford fifty dollars up front ten years before. And he would still have wet feet."
Finally, there's a strong sense of "this is hopeless" about the whole thing - as quickly as consumer groups and governments get one toxin out of the marketplace, a new one steps in to take its place - PCBs becomes PBBs becomes PBDEs, and so on. The solution to that, perhaps, requires rethinking the way we, as societies, reward corporations - but that's an entirely different story.
George R.R. Martin - The Game of Thrones
So. Martin is a huge name in the fantasy publishing world right now, and this book (the first in the Song of Ice and Fire series) is a big reason why. The most recent book - A Dance With Dragons - came out July 12th, and I decided that I would re-read the first four books before tackling that one. Which is a problem, since everyone else seems to have had the same idea - I had to borrow this book from a friend, because the library had no copies available any time soon. Kinda like whenever a new Harry Potter book came out - you couldn't re-read unless you owned the series, because the books were not on the shelves. A further complication, of course, is the fact that HBO is currently showing a TV adaptation of the novels (or, at least, the first one) which has met with considerable acclaim, and so people are just now discovering that there are books.
Anyway. If you're already reading the series, there's not much I can tell you that you don't already know. If you aren't, and you like thick, meaty, character driven books packed full of revenge and blood and politics and lots and lots of gloom and grey, then this series is for you. (I like all of those things, incidentally. I like them a lot). These are dense books that document the way that a fantasy kingdom falls apart when the strong hand at the middle withers and dies. Martin doesn't pull punches - he kills off characters left and right - and he is indiscriminate - honorable characters and dishonorable characters are equally likely to get the chop. Actually, the line between honorable and dishonorable is really hard to draw in these books - Martin is very very good at generating sympathy for characters you thought you hated - and also at making  you hate characters you thought were fantastic and lovely. He switches between points of view with each chapter which is a little distracting, since the characters he follows are rarely in the same place - this makes it hard to follow a specific plot line. Never to the point where you want to skip a chapter to get to the plot line you wanted to continue - at least, not in this book - but it's a little frustrating. Every chapter is a cliff hanger, and the next chapter never picks up where the first one left off. The character switching, though, means that you get a good sense of how various people think of themselves as well as how others think of them - this is part of how Martin is able to manipulate reader impression so deftly.
A complaint - Martin seems incapable of finishing things. It's clear from this book that there's a whole series of books ahead - currently another four, and I have no idea if Dance of Dragons ends the cycle or not - and Martin writes slowly. I'm not complaining about the long wait for the latest book - that would be uncouth (and, as John Scalzi points out, Martin has written and published as many words since 2005 as Scalzi has - but all in one big book instead of several little ones) - but it would be nice to see that there was some sort of end in sight. I'm not saying I'm not going to forge ahead - indeed, I've already read the first four books, so I'm covering familiar ground - just wish I knew that there was somewhere to get to at the end of it all.