Lord High Executioner

 

Howard Engel is a writer most known for his fiction, and here in his first foray into non-fiction, it shows. And it’s really quite delightful, as far as books about death go. His presence in the text can be felt so much that it’s positively gonzo, and some parts of it read more like the narration of a movie than a book, as he takes you here and there to show you different things and introduce you to different people. I’m sure you’ve noticed how much I appreciate personality in writing style. It’s important to me. It really can’t be underrated and I have to say that this book is extremely successful in this area. Howard Engel comes across as very friendly and highly interested in his chosen subject.

Now there is of course a flaw here that unfortunately nobody could avoid, and that’s the fact that the information the book is about can be very hard to come by. It tries very hard to introduce us to certain executioners and give us a bit of a bio and understanding of their personality. This is fascinating and exactly why it’s being written about. But part of that fascination comes out of mystery, and some mysteries just weren’t meant to be solved. Not very many executioners are known to us, so as a result we get a lot of more general information about how and why executions were performed rather than the book being completely devoted to specific people.

But even here, the author makes the most of it. While most books focus on Western Europe to the point of excluding almost every other part of the world, Engel has done his best here to bring us some diversity and show us a bit about capital punishment in other countries such as Canada and Japan. Could this be because the book itself is Canadian? Probably. But that doesn’t mean we can dismiss it. It’s very refreshing and something we really should see more often.

Dare I say this book was a fun read? Yes. Because as long as we’re not the ones getting killed, death as a general area of interest can’t not be deeply fascinating. It’s mysterious. It’s scary. It’s why we love horror movies. And this is really about as close to that kind of little ride as a non-fiction book can get. And isn’t it so much better when it’s real anyway? Totally.

Other recommended reads: The Last Gasp, Edison and the Electric Chair, Public Executions.

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Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty

Ever wonder why babies are cute, why gentlemen prefer blondes, or why the human ballsack is the size that it is? Hmmm, ok maybe not that last one, but the answers are pretty interesting.

The subject of beauty is far from only skin deep, and it strikes me how very perfect the book’s title is. Beauty isn’t just incidental, and the source of frivolous fun or petty envy. It’s deeply tied into our instincts as living things, something we share with even the flowers, and goes back virtually as far as we do. This book leaves no stone unturned, and encompasses science, sociology, and of course biology in a way that’s truly fun to read. Not only that, but Nancy Etcoff’s own personal touch is extremely compelling, and this alone makes the book worth a read. This combined with the huge amount of learning inside is likely to leave you with a whole new perspective on a subject you once held strong and long-lived opinions about.

What’s interesting here is the particular way that this information offers up new meaning to the subject of beauty. To understand how beauty has transformed us biologically and culturally into the creatures that we are, it becomes both more important and yet less important all at once. Without beauty, we simple would not be, but who we have become also gives us the power to appreciate it in the most enlightening way possible. This isn’t a book so much about sitting in front of the mirror, putting on makeup and poking at your belly as it is about humanity itself. It strikes me as extremely valuable, and it can and should be read by people of all genders and ages. This book is awesome, and as it meets both my demands of educational and entertaining, I can’t recommend it enough.

Rather just see the movie? Well, there isn’t one exactly, but you might want to check out The Human Face.

Other recommended reads:  The History of Beauty, Sex in History.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

When I got my new copy of the first in this series in the mail today (because it doesn’t look too much like the other one is going to get returned to me), I felt I really had to write a review on these. Is there a person alive who doesn’t remember and love these books? Is it possible to show one of these to anyone born in the 80s and not be met with a squeal of remembered joy?

I’ll tell you. And the answer is no. No it’s not.

There are two things that set these books apart from all the other horror stories from your childhood. First, obviously, is the art. If you remember nothing else, the truly creepy illustrations by Stephen Gammel are surely etched into your brain forever. I want to frame these things and hang them on my walls. Surely this artwork has inspired scores of artists in love with the macabre ever since these first came out in 1981. 33 years later these illustrations as well as the stories themselves remain a top childhood favorite. I don’t need to mention what a shame it is that these books were re-released in 2011 with illustrations from Brett Helquist. We’re all angry about it. Sorry kids, but if you just can’t handle the first generation of Scary Stories I’m afraid you’re just not going to make it in the world. Shame.

 

 

The art stands alone, but the stories retold from folklore by Alvin Schwartz are great too. I think these are a perfect example of the difference between scary and creepy, and how creepy can’t be underestimated. The creep factor here is evident in the way these books toy with your imagination, and let you fill in the blanks with the most horrible things your brain can conjure up. These stories don’t try too hard. It’s their subtlety that makes them so chilling. And they remain so well into adulthood.

There isn’t more I can say that you can’t say yourselves. Comment below with your own memories of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and why you think they remain a childhood horror classic.

Roe v. Wade: The Abortion Rights Controversy in American History – An Anti-Review

Hey look, another book review that will probably generate a lot of controversy! Bring it on Strangers, because I’m not going to get into that debate here; this is just about the book itself. Now I will say that I am pro-choice, and I’m not going to pretend I’m not. But my reasons for that don’t really apply to this discussion, and just because I’ve chosen a side also doesn’t mean I necessarily think a book like this should (without at least explicitly presenting itself as such), even if it agrees with me. It’s quite obvious that this book is pro-choice, and it cites some pretty horrifying facts of misogyny from times past (or present, who am I kidding?). It’s just that I think we learn the most effectively when there’s been care to equally represent both sides. Otherwise what are we doing but just congratulating ourselves on our so very enlightened view of things? The truth is, this book presents itself as explaining to us the history of this controversy, NOT the history of one side of the argument. That would be ok too, but if you picked this book up based on its title I imagine that’s not necessarily what you’re looking to learn here. I’m interested in the debate and I’m interested in facts. The opinions I end up landing on are based as much as humanly possible on facts rather than gut emotion. So I am going to have to fault this book for being somewhat misleading.

Once you get that out of the way, there are two reactions I have to this. “Holy shit this is fucking dry,” and “Wow, that’s fascinating!” This book is yet another victim to a great topic bogged down by just plain boring writing. Such a loaded topic should be at least a little fun to read, shouldn’t it? I don’t mean all-out sensationalism, but at least try to match the wild ride that is online arguments. Just, of course, with more information and fully researched points. Just because we want to learn while we read doesn’t mean we don’t also care about enjoying ourselves while we do it. Otherwise we’d probably sit in on an actual class that covers these sorts of things.

I wonder if I’m being unfair here by suggesting that this book be both unbiased and riveting. But I really don’t think I am. The documentary Lake of Fire proves that this is possible. This movie made a point to not try to sway its audience, but to portray both sides equally, in both all their glory and all their horror. The filmmaker’s efforts in my opinion were entirely successful. And it was one of the best damn movies I’ve ever seen. I think the fact that it was unbiased made it far more interesting, because not only does it really make us think, but it doesn’t shield us from the ugly side of our chosen side. And the ugly side is important, not just because it’s sure to get a rise out of us. Let’s not pretend that either group is a bunch of angels, because they’re not. If we don’t face the facts, and if we’re just not interested in the whole truth, then isn’t it a total waste of time to even bother? I really feel this book could have proven its point here by being entertaining, so because this means it falls short on two levels, well, just damnit.

I’m not being a hypocrite either. Obviously I’m not particularly interested in an unbiased recounting of slavery, or Nazis, or serial killers. But the difference is that society as a whole is pretty much done weighing in on these things. Opinion is now fact. It’s no longer a valid opinion that racism and murder are cool. But as much as pro-life people annoy the shit out of me, the fact remains that their opinion, at the time of this writing, is still valid. I don’t agree with it, but if so many people feel that way, shouldn’t we find out why? Besides, it doesn’t do much good to poke holes in an argument you don’t know much about.

And this was all written by the time I got to page 46.

I’m not in the mood to summarize what I’ve learned here, mostly because I just don’t feel like it’s a whole lot. There’s almost just too much information, it’s so complicated (legal stuff always is), and based on other reviews I question some of its accuracy. Misogyny in the past was very dark! Opinions about abortion, inextricably tied to opinions about women’s place in society, oscillated constantly with changing social issues such as war and women’s suffrage! Goddamn do I wish I cared more about the details. Keep in mind, I’m reviewing this from a layman’s perspective. I’m not a literary expert or an expert on this subject. Most likely you won’t be either, which is why my relatively uneducated, overly simple everyman opinion is so valid here. I’m NOT enjoying this book. And I’m starting to question how much longer I’ll keep trying to before I give up and try replacing it with a different one on the same topic.

What I AM learning, or maybe just bringing more to the forefront of my mind, is that “interesting” and “boring” almost don’t exist. They’re only in the mind of the beholder, more influenced by presentation than the qualities of the subject itself. It’s a moving target. Whether you care or not about a topic has everything to do with how the way it’s been presented so far relates to your personality. My personality would rather watch well-informed people fight about this on Facebook. I’m not as highbrow as I’d like to be. So with that, I’ll leave off here for now. If it works out in the end, I’ll update with a real review.

Rather just watch the movie? Check out Lake of Fire.

Haunted: The Incredible True Story of a Canadian Family’s Experience Living in a Haunted House

Warning: contains spoilers

Ah, sweet ghost story mind candy. Something I can never resist. The first thing I need to get out of the way right now though, which unfortunately is a spoiler, is that it’s NOT SCARY. I don’t mean this to say that it was supposed to be scary but the whole thing was just too wimpy. Despite this being a first-hand account rather than a story written by an established horror author, this is relatively well written. No, the thing about this is that none of the ghosts are “bad guys.” They don’t want to scare the pants off anyone, they just want to be buds. They rather liked this nice young family who came into their house, and none of this story involved the typical “GET OUT!” kind of stuff we may come to expect. That’s why I find the ooky spooky font used in the title and chapter titles to  be kind of hilarious. You can just picture someone reading this story at a campfire going “and then the ghost… gave them some flowers! OOOOooooo!!” Haha! Well, I guess that would make this a great ghost book for those of you easily find yourselves going to sleep with the lights on. It’s fun, easy, short, and not that big a burden on your anxiety levels. My only real criticism here is that the author, likely out of a need for some sense of privacy, only gives as many details about her family as are absolutely necessary. We aren’t told anyone’s ages, and are left having to guess how old the kids are by the descriptions of events, like really terrible detectives trying to solve a really boring mystery. We also don’t know what any of the family members looks like, and this creates an unfortunate sense of distance between us and the story. Dare I suggest it may have been easier, if they wanted to keep their privacy, to just… make something up? Come on, draw us in! Well, as I did mention in the beginning, this is not a story written by an established horror author. For all her inexperience, the author of this book does come across as very real, if not likeable. And that certainly counts for something.  Not a bad little break from all these serious history books at all.

Other recommended reads: The Amityville Horror, Canadian Ghost Stories

African-American History for Dummies

So you all know by now that I’m a Canadian who loves American history. But American history just isn’t complete without making sure we get the black perspective on it as well. And you just can’t learn everything there is to know about black people by watching The Cosby Show. You still won’t know what the jazz is all about!

So here we are, once again taking on a Dummies book to get as complete an overview as possible in order to better understand the content of books that focus on more specific portions of this subject. And it really does take us all over the place. It’s not just about slavery and civil rights but about sports, literature, and the media. The contributions of black people to American society are not just huge, but 100% necessary. America just would not be America without them, so as far as I’m concerned the American History section of my bookshelf isn’t complete without a copy of this book either.

I like how this book is actually organized in two different ways. There’s the chronological way, which starts with an overview of various African cultures, then moves into the slave trade, slavery itself, the civil war, and the civil rights movement. But then equally important are the separate sections discussing different aspects of black culture such as education, religion, and the media. This book has the typical issues that are unavoidable in other For Dummies books and others like them that have such a huge mass of information to cover in a relatively short amount of space. It inevitably goes into a few subjects you just don’t care about (personally I don’t give two shits about sports, no matter what color the people playing them) and leaves you really wanting more on the subjects you do. It’s hard for me to say which part was my favorite, but I suppose I could say it was the part about movies. This is the kind of book that may be slow going for you if for no other reason than you’re tempted to stop and refer to the other media it references, so that you end up spending half your time youtube-ing and downloading music and movies to really be able to grasp just how influential these works are. I spent AGES on The History of Jazz listening to so much music I should have gotten a university course credit for it all. I didn’t stop to explore the works mentioned in this particular book, but I am fully intending to, and the Part of Tens included in every For Dummies book is a great reference to turn to if your thirst for the subject still isn’t satisfied.

So I don’t feel satisfied by this, I really don’t. But we need to understand that with books like this, the very point is that you’ll catch the bug and want more. If they covered everything it would take ten years to read them. No, these are just very large appetizers. If they’ve done their job they just leave you hungry for other books with a more specific focus, so that in the end your knowledge of these fascinating subjects becomes a huge multi-course meal. Yum!

Rather just watch the movie? Check out The Butler.

Other recommended reads: Twelve Years a Slave, Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade.

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.