Books to Note: Spring 2011

Carolyn De La Peña. Empty Pleasures: The Story of Artificial Sweeteners from Saccharin to Splenda. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010. 320 pp. $32.50.

In Empty Pleasures, Carolyn de la Peña takes us on a journey from laboratory benches to kitchen tables, the same journey taken by artificial sweeteners. She reveals the changing attitudes that allowed a place for these sweeteners in American lives. Beginning with consumers’ rejection of saccharin as a sugar replacement in the Progressive Era, Empty Pleasures tells the story of these faux sweets through photographs, promotional campaigns, biographies, and accounts from the people involved in their creation and consumption. Saccharin, Sucaryl, NutraSweet, and Splenda have since become symbols of a culture of consumption without consequences. De la Peña also weaves women’s history into the story, focusing on the different roles men and women played in the consumption of various artificial sweeteners. Overall, the book provides an accessible cultural history without neglecting the chemistry crucial to the origin stories of all artificial sweeteners. One may never look at the pink, blue, and yellow packets the same way again.-DR


Benjamin E. Zeller. Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America. New York/London: New York University Press, 2010. 256 pp. $24.00.

Despite its unfortunate title, Prophets and Protons successfully extends the scholarly study of the relationship between science and religion into the late 20th century. Benjamin E. Zeller’s cultural history of the Unification Movement (the “Moonies”), the Hare Krishnas, and Heaven’s Gate untangles the extensive and often contradictory references to “science” in the texts of these three religious movements. His analysis reveals that all three had a fundamental reaction to the epistemological, methodological, and cultural power of “science.”  The Unification Movement wanted to guide science away from fragmentation and moral relativism. The Hare Krishnas wanted to replace materialistic science with Indian spirituality, harmonizing with trends in the American counterculture. Heaven’s Gate absorbed the naturalistic epistemology of science, centering their religion on physical metamorphosis—a doctrine that eventually led its followers to mass suicide. Clearly and carefully written, Zeller’s work offers a fascinating, thoughtful reflection on the complexity of the relationship between science and religion in the modern world.-R. Scott Sheffield


Steve Lerner. Sacrifice Zones: The Front Lines of Toxic Chemical Exposure in the United States.  Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2010. 368 pp. $29.95.

In Sacrifice Zones, Steve Lerner argues that the U.S. pursuit of military and industrial supremacy has created numerous “sacrifice zones” within its borders, occupied by low-income and/or nonwhite individuals at increased risk for toxic chemical exposure, adverse health conditions, socioeconomic and political isolation, and internal fragmentation. Official notions of “National Sacrifice Zones”—places affected by military weapons development—and more than 30 years of academic research generally support his argument. Lerner also uses two years of personal observations, hundreds of interviews, and archival material from twelve sacrifice zones throughout the U.S. to bolster his claim. Ultimately, Lerner gives a textured account of the struggles of community members and environmental-justice activists who live and work within a zero-sum economic system, where discriminatory zoning laws and inconsistent health and chemical regulatory structures are a fact of life. Furthermore, the book provides a valuable introduction to the problem of environ­mental injustice and racism, lessons for environmental-justice activists working on “the fenceline,” data for academic research, and a list of policy recommendations worthy of more serious regulatory attention.-Raoul S. Liévanos


Keith Wailoo, Julie Livingston, Steven Epstein, and Robert Aronowitz, eds. Three Shots at Prevention: The HPV Vaccine and the Politics of Medicine’s Simple Solutions. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010. 352 pp. $65 cloth; $30 paper.

In this insightful collection a diverse group of scholars and clinicians examines the 2006 debut of a vaccine against the human papillomavirus, a sexually transmitted virus associated with an increased risk of cervical, anal, and penile cancers. The authors deftly analyze the ensuing controversy in the U.S., where the vaccine spurred debate over young women’s sexual activity, knowledge, responsibility, risk, and morality. Three Shots at Prevention’s reach extends well beyond the U.S., exploring vaccine politics in the United Kingdom, Europe, and Africa. Using this powerful comparative lens, the authors demonstrate that the politics of biomedical technologies and practices are decidedly regional, even if biomedical knowledge can be seen as global. Local cultural and historical contingencies (especially previous experience with vaccination and existing attitudes toward governmental authority and competence) emerge as key factors conditioning the public’s attitudes toward vaccination. Hence, the authors conclude, what seems a simple tool for cancer prevention turns out not to be so simple in practice. -Donna Messner