Mirror, Mirror, Off The Wall: How I Learned to Love My Body by Not Looking at it For a Year

Omg I can’t believe I read this so long ago but still haven’t written a word in review. Well, since my style blog has been a big stagnant lately it’s worth a shot trying to remember this one.

I first heard about this book when the author was interviewed on The Daily Show. This is a sociologist who challenged herself to not look in a mirror – or any reflecting surfaces – for an entire year. A year which just so happened to include her wedding day. Now while this may come across as a nice fluffy little self-esteem booster book, the author is well-educated enough to take this subject deeper, and we’re not left without a good dose of accessibly written psychology and sociology. I can’t remember all of the points she made, but the most fascinating one to me was exploring how mirrors almost serve as a form of companionship when we’re alone. We know it’s only the illusion of another person sitting there, we’re not beta fish, but we get a small amount of satisfaction that there is either way. Mirrors also have a way of affirming our existence. It sounds silly, obviously we know we exist, but it was interesting to note how Kjerstin started to feel after some time, almost doubting that because she couldn’t see herself, she wasn’t really there. She could only see other people.

The biggest message I got out of this book though was not that she suddenly started feeling physically beautiful – she was forced to focus more on her emotions, deep within herself, and her loved ones around her, those outside of herself, as opposed to the body in between. She learned to trust those around her more because she relied on them to make sure that she didn’t, say, have a booger hanging out of her nose, and she learned to pay more attention to her emotional self-esteem rather than her appearance. She didn’t feel beautiful because she knew she looked beautiful – she felt beautiful because she felt loved by those around her, and that’s what really mattered. Her appearance still caused her anxiety, especially as she had no idea what she looked like, but she gradually learned not to care. It simply wasn’t important. I think that’s a very valuable thing to take away here. Some people are ugly. Yep. While it’s nice to want to make ugly people, or yourself, feel physically beautiful, I felt the most important thing here was to learn that it just plain doesn’t matter. It’s such a tiny part of life. What matters is your mind, and your soul, and your relationships. Looks are a thing, but they’re not anywhere near being the most important thing. We have so much more to get our validation and happiness from. And while learning these important lessons it was nice to hear about these soul-searching thoughts and every day experiences from a very educated, sympathetic, real-life person. This wasn’t philosophy, it was real. We get to read all of her insecurities, all her learning experiences, and how all her relationships evolve. It was enlightening and it was fun. This was a great book, but it was great in a way that I didn’t expect. I feel that it could easily prove to be an important book for a whole lot of us, women, men, or anybody else.

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The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber

My first impression of this book is not good. It comes across as very a dry and intellectual study that discusses capital punishment on a scientific, social, historical, and psychological level. So it seems far more scholarly than accessible. It’s also undoubtedly biased. I’m not saying I agree or disagree with the author’s views, but my own biased opinion is that we may get the most out of our reading experience if we’re just given the facts and left to come up with out own uncolored opinions. This is of course not to say that you can’t learn from this book. Here are your Strange Notes:

Chapter One

-In 1846 Claude Bernard discovered that carbon monoxide kills by displacing oxygen in the blood.

-The study of things that kill people is very dangerous for animals, especially dogs for some reason 😦

-Eugenicists were the first people to popularize the idea of gas for killing people, and their ideas were surprisingly popular. It hadn’t really caught on yet what a sinister idea this eugenics stuff was. Fun fact – Eugenics is where we get the word euthanasia.

-While people 100-150 years ago searched to find a more humane way of carrying out capital punishment, they didn’t want the method to be too humane, or they feared it wouldn’t work enough as a deterrent. For this and a few other reasons, lethal injection was rejected by a New York commission in 1878. Gas was considered, but it was generally thought the technology wasn’t advanced enough yet and so electrocution won out.

-Many 19th century Americans really hated poor people. They lumped them together with criminals and the mentally handicapped as problem of society best dealt with by simply getting rid of them. Preferably by gas.

-The SPCA in the early 20th century euthanized a shit ton of animals with gas in an effort to prevent the spread of disease.

-Eugenics greatly influenced the Nazis. Big shocker, there.

-Late 19th century and early 20th century society was surprisingly upsetting.

Chapter Two

-Poison gas (chlorine) was used in war for the first time by the Germans, in April 1915 in Flanders during WWI. 5000 people died. It was the beginning of chemical warfare.

-Before this, stink bombs were not just a nasty prank but a nasty weapon of war. Too nasty, apparently, for use even in the American Civil War. No, they thought it more polite to just shoot and hack their opponents to pieces. Apparently fields full of rotting corpses smelled good back then.

-The British responded to the Germans’ use of gas by their own poison gas weapons and protection such as gas masks. A goth fashion trend was born.

-The rest of the allies joined in, and suddenly this whole chemical warfare deal was in full swing.

-The British invented the gas chamber as a way to test different poison gases. Somehow, they actually managed to get volunteers to sit in the thing.

-When America joined the war in 1917, they weren’t prepared for what was being called “the chemist’s war.” They had to get their shit together quick, and everybody pitched in. They did a fabulous job. It scared the shit out of the Kaiser and he surrendered.

-After the war, the leftover gas was dumped into the ocean.

Chapter 3

-Well, the war was over and the government and the people thought they wanted to shut this deadly industry down. But the guys running it said NOPE! and fought to have it continued. Surprisingly, they won, because they argued that it would make sure nobody would fuck with America and because such new technologies can always find nifty uses during peacetime. Though I have the feeling at least a tiny bit of this had to do with them not wanting to lose their jobs. Firefighting masks were invented, bugs were fumigated, and things just marched along.

-Poison gas became so prevalent for its use as a pesticide that this was not good news for food or the environment. Propaganda told people that it was not only totally safe, but even good for you, which must have led people to wonder if they had won the war by loving their enemies to death.

-in 1921, after years of industrial use, it was suggested that lethal gas should be implemented as a humane form of execution. Nevada was the first to establish this with the Humane Execution Bill, signed on March 28, 1921. The idea was to put prisoners to death while they were asleep, and with a dose of gas so high that death would happen quickly.

-Meanwhile, a bunch of really boring political and industrial things went on with these gas companies, and the deaths they caused got overlooked because, hey, there are non-white people trying to get into the country! The horror!

-Hey, maybe we should start using this gas stuff to scare the communists that are obviously absolutely everywhere.

-None of this is making any sense.

Chapter Four

-Nevada got to try out their new execution law 5 months after it was enacted. The case was two men who shot and killed an old man. It was Chinese-on-Chinese gangster violence. Because people were totally racist and viewed Asians as “the yellow peril,” they thought this was just dandy. These became the first two guys “eligible for execution under the world’s first lethal gas statute.” Fun fact: Among the many inevitable appeals, their own lawyer appealed because he thought they had a “racially inferior mental ability” making them unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

-The gas chosen was hydrocyanic acid.

-Eventually one of the two men succeeded in having his life spared. The other did not, as well as a Mexican-American prisoner who had been condemned to death afterwards in January 1924. Then the night before the execution, the Mexican-American was also spared.

-The first execution by HCN gas took 6 minutes. There was no autopsy (unusual) because opening up his body was thought too dangerous.

-The news went around the world and soon enough reached the very interested Hitler.

-Hitler’s idol was Henry Ford. Huh.

Chapter Five

-Well, execution by gas had some bugs to be worked out. One of the things they did was to totally rebuild the shitty “death house” where the executions would take place.

-The second execution, and the first to take place in this new execution chamber, was in 1930. This time instead of gas spraying into the room, 10 cyanide eggs were dropped into sulfuric acid and water to create HCN. The execution was pronounced a success. However they were hiding that it took a while for the prisoner’s heart to stop beating.

-More states started to consider this method of execution. Arizona was the first to adopt it, in 1933. Then came Colorado, which was full of the KKK, so there was a lot of lynching there and they were ready for a change.

-Colorado’s gas chamber was state of the art, and became famous. It was probably huge in Germany.

-The first guy to get executed by gas in Colorado, William Cody Kelly, insisted he was innocent but he didn’t have the $200 it would have cost to prepare a trial transcript. There was a woman willing to help him out but they didn’t want it to get out that she was FDR’s wife’s buddy. So Kelly was screwed. It took him 30 seconds to die. They said it was the most humane execution ever, and the cheapest at 90 cents. It became famous.

-More executions happened, more states adopted the method, and more improvements were made to the system. The world paid attention, particularly, of course, Germany. This was all despite a ton of debate over how humane this method really was. A lot of people were pretty horrified.

Chapter Six

-A lot of people work for a lot of big companies and have ties to the Nazis and it’s all very shady. But I wouldn’t be surprised if shit like that was still happening now. Moving on….

Chapter Seven

-America geared up for WWII. That’s about all.

Chapter Eight

-The Nazis start using gas to “euthanize” mental patients. They progressively get more and more evil. This is of course an extremely important part of history, but I do wonder a little what the use of gas to murder people in Europe has to do with American capital punishment. The Nazis were undoubtedly influenced by this, but maybe this book should have been retitled.

-It was argued that the Americans had known all along what was being done in Germany, and the government was urged to act on this by bombing Auschwitz and/or the railroad line leading to it which carried the jews there. But they didn’t. They thought it was not practical, because air support was needed elsewhere and they didn’t want more retaliation from the Germans.

-The American chemical company IG Farben was implicated in the German gassings and fought to hide the evidence.

-American hypocrisy is not lost on us.

-Bigwigs at the American chemical companies mentioned above got in trouble at the Nuremberg trials.

-I go cross-eyed with boredom.

Chapter Nine

-So everybody was pretty icked out by all the deaths in Germany, so many countries abolished the death penalty in the 50s. America did not, but feelings toward it were mixed for various social and political reasons.

-American executions in the 50s were dramatically down from where they were in the 30s.

-A condemned criminal, Caryl Whittier Chessman, becomes famous and starts a political shitstorm with his writing. After eight stays of execution he was finally put to death on May 2nd 1960 at San Quentin prison in California. He received a reprieve, but it was too late. The execution had already begun. The world was pissed.

-On May 23rd 1960 it was announced that Karl Adolf Eichmamm, Nazi war criminal, was “arrested” (illegally, ie kidnapped) in Argentina. He was executed on May 31st 1962. Everybody was reminded of the Holocaust.

Chapter Ten

-The number of executions dwindled, as the number of states who used it. In 1967 the execution of Luis Mongue became America’s last for a decade.

-On June 29th 1972 the US Supreme Court decided that the death penalty in all forms in which it was then performed was unconstitutional. There’s a lot of detail behind this I don’t care to go into. The debate became a big thing in the 70s. 34 states responded by passing new capital punishment laws. Rhode Island became the only state with the gas chamber as its method of execution. But nobody was ever put to death and the death penalty was abolished there in 1979.

-Ronald Reagan was very pro-capital punishment and suggested lethal injection as a more humane way to do it.

-In the case of Gregg vs Georgia the supreme court had another look and decided that capital punishment in itself was not against the eight amendment. After almost ten years of nobody being put to death, Gary Gilmore ended the streak when he was executed by firing squad in Utah on January 17, 1977. The guy actually demanded to be put to death.

-Texas and Oklahoma became the first states to adopt lethal injection.

Chapter Eleven

-On October 22, 1979, Jesse Walter Bishop became the first person to be executed by gas since Luis Mongue.

-States start to realize that lethal gas is a shitty way to die, and switch to lethal injection.

-Fred A. Leuchter, a consultant on execution methods, is exposed as being a Holocaust denier and Hitler fan.

-On October 4, 1994, the district court a San Fransisco ruled that execution by lethal gas was unconstitutional. They had finally realized that it caused death by suffocation and caused the victims to suffer.

Chapter Twelve

-Walter LaGrand, a German national, became the last person to be executed by gas on March 3, 1999. Germany was pissed and the International Criminal Court found in their favor.

 

My conclusion? That was boring as fuck. I’m relieved that it’s finally over so I can be put out my misery. NEXT!

 

Other strange reads: Edison and the Electric Chair, Doctors From Hell

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s famous “non-fiction novel” is far more famous than the murder it’s about, that of four members of the Clutter family in 1959, in Holcomb, Kansas. I’m fairly sure that this is the most famous True Crime book out there, and this combination of dark and classic reading was what made me want to pick it up. Now maybe it’s because of the year it was published. 1965, but I found this book to be surprisingly non-graphic, even relaxing, though “light” wouldn’t be accurate. That’s a weird assessment, isn’t it? But while it does of course delve into the details of the murder itself, most of the book is focused on the activities of the small town, friends and neighbors of the Clutters, and the two killers after the murders have occurred. This is not a whodunit – We know from the moment we’re introduced to Dick and Perry that these are the dudes everybody is looking for. The real vehicle for suspense then is in how long it will take for these two to get caught, and how will they finally be discovered. These guys hitchhike, laze around in Mexico, and flash back to their childhoods as we drift along with them, all the while wondering where it all went wrong that they turned out to be so very cold. “Cold” is perfect here, because the murders aren’t committed out of any anger or hate. The victims died simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time – their own home in the middle of the night – while the robbery of their home was being committed. They would have been witnesses, and the goal in the robbery was to leave none.

Truman Capote spent a huge amount of time doing the research for this book, interviewing the local residents about how the book’s events all played out, accompanied by his good friend Harper Lee (author of To Kill a Mockingbird). In fact he even spent time speaking with the killers themselves before their eventual execution in 1965, before the book’s publication. Capote’s notes for the book amounted to 8,000 pages, and you have to admire that kind of hard work. A more well-researched and accurate account of these murders simply can’t be imagined, and this could be why the book so outshines its subject. As an introduction to the genre I have to recommend this book,particularly if you’re currently a reader of fiction, as this will be a seamless transition. If it weren’t for the enormous number of facts I suppose it would be fairly easy for the ignorant reader to assume that this was an ordinary novel, for the both the writing style and for the depth that it succeeds in taking us into the characters’ minds. As it creeps teasingly towards the end and the outcomes you know are coming, the suspense is positively juicy. Before I knew it it was 4am and I still wasn’t ready to put it down. This book is in fact a masterpiece, though that must be distinguished separately from books that we may find more dark and shocking. This isn’t something you read just for the shock value. This is quality, and if you appreciate it as such then you’ll probably come out of it very satisfied, as I did. If, on the other hand, you want all the gory details and would prefer to just watch the movie, I warn you that you may be somewhat disappointed. Check out Bea’s review of the 1967 movie adaptation here.

Other recommended reads: The Night the Defeos Died, Severed: The true story of the Black Dahlia.

The Bedwetter

You may feel that comedy books are a waste of precious mind-nurturing time. Especially a book by a comedian who’s famous for fart jokes. Surprisingly I don’t find this to be the case, at least so far. I’m not sure how common knowledge this is, but comedians tend to be some fucked up people. Not in a wacky way, but in a sad and dysfunctional way. Sarah Silverman’s life hasn’t been especially torturous by any means, in fact I kind of wish I’d had her parents. But like all of us, her life hasn’t been perfect, and comedy is a fantastic coping skill. You can either be humiliated by the fact that you wet the bed until you were 16, or you can use it for the amusement of others. You can keep your depression locked up deep inside you, or you can show people that they’re not alone and that there’s hope. I think learning about anyone can have mental health benefits, to show how very weird or quirky or embarrassing or sad we all are, but to just read people’s diaries, including Sarah’s, would be boring as fuck. So we have people like comedians to talk about their lives and their struggles and how they got to where they are in a way that’s purely entertaining. Sure you won’t learn a whole lot about science or history, but you will learn about the history of an ordinary person much like you in a way that feels like you’ve just gotten an extremely long letter from your awesome sister you didn’t know you had, without the creepiness that sort of thing may involve. Everybody has insight to share, and comedy books are a great way of sharing it. I also encourage anyone who can string words together at at least an eighth grade level to blog, but I sure hope they make it fun to read, too. I guess I’m not reviewing The Bedwetter as much as all/most comedy books, but it still stands that I’ve really enjoyed them and found something enriching in each of them. Comedians in a way are our modern version of philosophers, or at least friendly strangers with something comforting to say. If you haven’t really tried them before I highly encourage you to get your pompous ass out there and go find one.

Other recommended reads: Bossypants

The God Virus: How Religion Infects our Lives and Culture

My first impression? “Holy shit, I should totally be an Evangelical Christian for Halloween!” I mean really, the only difference between them and zombies are that they’re alive, and these people are real! Holy crap! Seriously though, despite – maybe because of – it’s admittedly brilliant metaphor of viruses to represent religion, this book does appear quite sensational on the surface. It’s hard not to roll your eyes just a little bit. Nevertheless, having been raised in a very Catholic family, I can’t really argue with any of Darrel W. Ray’s points. I remember how creepy and cultish church started to feel when I got old enough to start questioning everything around me. And maybe I was lucky, because for many people this is very hard to do. The virus has taken a deep hold. I would also like to add regarding this book: though the virus metaphor sounds harsh, the author also uses it in a way that encourages compassion for the “infected.” Like other illnesses, they simply can’t help it. They are likely to be vulnerable in various ways. We may not agree with their views but we still owe them respect and consideration. This was a new and very refreshing point of view to me, and really resonated with my own experiences with religious family and friends. Now I don’t intend for this review to piss off anyone religious. I feel like if you have truly examined your beliefs and find legitimacy in them, good for you. Religion is a comfort for many people and as long as it’s motivating you to be a good person as opposed to one of those Westboro Baptist assholes, then I can’t complain. But this book does remind us to be very critical of what we’re being told, and I feel like this is an important part of being a functioning adult. It’s wrong to follow blindly, dangerous even. Faith is not true faith when you don’t recognize the possibility of any conflicting opinions. If you “know” it’s true, it’s not faith, it’s “knowledge,” and I believe faith is strongest and most authentic when it’s challenged. 12th century religious figure Hildegard von Bingen preached this. So go ahead and challenge what you thought you knew. Question everything you read and hear, including this book. Open your mind and be critical. Because “God” might be infallible, but those who claim to speak for him are most definitely not.

Rather watch a movie? Check out Religulous on FunnyFixation.com

Other recommended reads: American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America

The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England

I wasn’t going to write a review for this because under the new format the review would be almost as long as the book. There is SO MUCH information here. This is very similar to Absolute Monarchy: The History of the Papacy in that it’s an overview of a topic that covers an extremely huge portion of history, so if you actually want to get a full and deep understanding of any of it, good luck. If however you’re in a rush to get to the other books in your pile, and you want an overview similar to reading a pile of articles on Wikipedia (though far better written), this is a book for you. I can’t say anything bad about it as it isn’t actually dry at all, it’s well-researched and full of contemporary pictures, and is exactly what it sets out to be. This is not however a book to learn from unless your mind is like a computer and this is serving you as an introduction to the subject matter. I would recommend this almost as more of a reference than a cover-to-cover read. I can’t say that because I don’t feel I learned anything this is any fault of the book. The project is just too ambitious. No matter how well written, a book covering so much could never be that in-depth unless it was upsettingly long, and as everyone knows, I personally don’t understand politics anyway. There are too many people involved with strange and complicated family trees and multiple changing titles to remember as it is without going over all the key players in a span of a thousand years. Despite this, I found this an enjoyable read, because I’m a nerd. Maybe you will too. If you’re a fan of history at all, give it a try.