Al Gore doesn't tweet about many books (except maybe his own) but he really wants you to read this one: Toms River, by Dan Fagin -- probably the best thriller about toxic dumping since "A Civil Action" came to a theater near you. The Nobel Peace Prize winner for his environmental activism called Toms River "[a]n important read for all" -- and on top of all that, it's a yarn from our backyard, a.k.a.New Jersey.
Full disclosure: Dan is an old friend from back at Newsday a long time ago, back before anyone imagined that Newsday would become (sort of) the stuff of Broadway legend. I know first-hard that Dan is one of the best environmental reporters in America -- a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize who now teaches the craft at New York University when he's not writing books. Since my recommendation might be polluted (see what I did there?) by our friendship, check out what the objective New York Times said about Toms River:
IT’S HIGH TIME a book did for epidemiology what Jon Krakauer’s best-selling “Into Thin Air” did for mountain climbing: transform a long sequence of painfully plodding steps and missteps into a narrative of such irresistible momentum that the reader not only understands what propels enthusiasts forward, but begins to strain forward as well, racing through the pages to get to the heady views at the end.
And such is the power of Dan Fagin’s “Toms River,” surely a new classic of science reporting. Even when the trek to the summit fails to provide the expected Hollywood vistas of sunshine and blue sky, the exhilaration and sense of accomplishment are undiminished. This is, after all, no fairy tale, but a sober story of probability and compromise, laid out with the care and precision that characterizes both good science and great journalism in a territory where both are often reduced to their worst.
The question at the heart of the story is straightforward enough. Toward the end of the 20th century, the residents of Toms River, N.J., a community about 50 miles from Philadelphia and near the Jersey Shore, could count an assortment of longstanding industrial intrusions on their horizons. Foremost among them was a large chemical plant on the outskirts of town, with a long, leaky pipeline channeling wastewater into the ocean and a smokestack periodically belching colored smoke into the prevailing breeze.
So the book answers the question...just who is this Tom, and why does he have his own river? OK, kidding, it's actually an environmental detective story -- why are the citizens of a middle-class New Jersey community dying at an ungodly rate. It's a story about science, industry, the law and government, but like any good tale mainly it's about people.
Speaking of people, the man behind the book is going to be in Philadelphia tomorrow (Wednesday. 6/12) -- you can hear Dan tomorrow at 11 a.m. on WHYY's "Radio Times," (for the full hour, as Larry King used to say), and then come out and talk about the book, buy it and get Dan to sign it at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore at 36th and Walnut at 6 p.m.)
Tell him that Al sent you.