July 2011 wrap-up

July 31, 2011 at 11:17 pm (military SF, mystery, Nonfiction - history, science fiction)

Not especially to my surprise, I’ve fallen behind on reviewing the books I’ve read this month.  So here’s a quick summary of the ones I haven’t managed to write a full review of:

Zoe’s Tale by John Scalzi (2008).  I’m not an unreserved Scalzi fan overall, but I enjoy his work.  This one is interesting – a parallel version of events in The Last Colony, explaining a bunch of things that happened from the perspective of Zoë, teenage adopted daughter of the heroes of the other “Old Man’s War” series.  It holds together quite well as an independent novel, though.  A lot of it revolves around Zoë’s peculiar relationship with the alien Obin – those who’ve actually read all the Old Man’s War series (which I found I hadn’t, actually) will know what I mean, and those who haven’t should get to enjoy the reveal.  Zoë is a really engaging first-person narrator, the personal and political events are very well done, and I recommend the book.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1819).  This concludes my reading of Austen.  She takes a noticeably different approach here, trying to directly undermine the conventions of the novel (the first line is “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would have supposed her born to be an heroine”).   More interesting is the portrayal of two (or perhaps three) fundamentally dishonest people, and how difficult they can make the lives of the honest and straightforward.  There are also bits about the danger of letting one’s imagination run away with one.  And of course a happy ending.  Certainly worth reading.

Buttons and Bones by Monica Ferris (2010).  This is one of the cozy mystery series I’ve been following, courtesy of the public library – my goodness, this is the 14th “Needlecraft Mystery.”  Anyway, the conceit is that Betsy Devonshire owns a needlework shop in a small Minnesota town, and has a knack for solving mysteries.  Not all of the series hits the mark, in my opinion, but this one definitely passes it.  Maybe I’m biased because it has a significant historical element – the mystery is about something that happened during or after World War II – but I think it holds together very nicely, and the needlework element was, umm, woven in particularly well.  Though I did figure out what happened before the characters did, which I rarely manage to do.

Planet of Twilight by Barbara Hambly (1997).  My son picked up this Star War tie-in from the library, and I grabbed it one day when I was looking for a bit of light reading.  Boy, was that a mistake: this is serious stuff, even grim and depressing.  And very well written, not that I’d expect less out of Hambly; I’ve read at least one really bad Star Wars tie-in novel, and probably would’ve ignored this one if it hadn’t had Hambly’s name on it.  Anyway, it’s a fairly involved mystery-type plot revolving around exactly what Seti Ashgad is up to, and what is going on in a nearly lifeless world called Renat Chorios.  There is also plague, nasty alien life forms, intrigue, etc.  And like I said, kind of depressing, but a good book.

The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy by David Stuart (1988).  A bit of nonfiction I picked up at the flea market a while back and have been slowly going through.  I wouldn’t call it a valuable reference book by any stretch of the imagination; it’s a rather rambling narrative, with only a few shallow attempts at real historical analysis.  But it was interesting, if one is interested in historical gardening (which I am, to a certain extent). 

Extremis by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon (2011).  Another library book – military SF, this time.  I think I may have read one of the earlier books in this “Starfire” series; at least, the life circumstances of one of the human characters seem familiar.  At any rate, the novel revolves around the conflict between alien refugees (their star went nova) and the humans who already colonized the plant they’ve arrived at.  Communication between the two is hampered by the fact that the aliens have an empathic/telepathic form of communication rather than a verbal one, and interstellar war is the result.  There is some good character work going on here, particularly with the aliens; the parallels between the two sides’ political situation are perhaps a little too obvious, but didn’t break it for me.  And there were some really good space battles, triumph and heroism, that sort of thing.  Not bad work at all.

This month I also re-read three Mercedes Lackey novels – one of them because it’s set almost entirely in cold winter circumstances (there was a major heat wave).  So, that’s a total of 13 new-to-me books read this month, plus three re-reads.

Yes, I read a lot.  That’s what the point of this month of reviews was supposed to be!  It’s no wonder I can’t find the time to fully review them all.


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Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak (2010)

July 8, 2011 at 1:14 pm (Nonfiction - history)

Subtitle: An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed.

During World War II, the United States needed uranium.  The Navajo Nation had uranium deposits and needed jobs and money – and was glad to be helping the war effort, as well.  After the hot war, the Cold War required uranium for American nuclear weapons.

But the mining was carried out with no safety standards.  No ventilation, no dust remediation, no breath masks, and not a word to the workers that the substance they were excavating might be dangerous.  Pasternak notes that this was true at mines worked by whites as well, but truly vast quantities of uranium were mined on the Navajo Reservation by people who often did not speak English and usually were illiterate.  This went on for approximately twenty years.

For about forty years, many of the Navajo people lived next to mine tailings piles that scattered dust all over their homes and workplaces, and drank water contaminated with uranium and arsenic. Having no idea that the “yellow dirt” was dangerous, people used the tailings to make concrete for houses and floors.  For decades, the mines themselves were left open to the elements and anyone who wandered through.  Cancers and birth defects became common causes of death across the reservation.

All together, there were about sixty years of occasional individuals trying to raise the alarm, and being silenced by business interests, government interests, bureaucratic buck-passing, and lack of both money and the willingness to try to get the money to clean up the hazards.  Even when money was available, it was often tied up in language that addressed only a fraction of the problem.

Meanwhile, a town in whites’ territory whose residents had done equally foolish things with the local uranium mill’s waste material (used it for fertilizer, for adobe, etc.) had every scrap of contaminated material cleaned up and properly disposed of, and the yards, houses, etc. repaired and replaced (or even improved).  Part of that, the book makes clear, was because the town’s problem caught the interest of a powerful Congressman.

In fact, it seems likely that the Navajos’ problem has only been dealt with because it caught the attention of a powerful Congressman, Henry Waxman.  In 2007 – a year after the author’s newspaper series about the slow-motion disaster appeared – he brought the heads of the relevant agencies in front of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  They listened to Navajo testimony, and testimony from several of the people who’d tried to help in the past, and got reamed out by another interested Congressman, Tom Udall.

You can read a transcript of the testimony here.   It’s not all that long, really.

You can also read this book.  It’s painful, but necessary.  Those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.  And frankly, it would be all too easy for the agencies who are supposed to protect these people – just like the rest of us – to drop the ball again.

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