Review-orama 2014

It’s that time again, so let’s take a look back at the last year in reading and see how my basic impressions stack up. Click on the book title to go to the full review, where I’ve written one.

1. British History for Dummies, finished Jan 4th. These books are always well-done and succeed in their intended purpose. The difficulty is that no matter how much you try to dumb it down, it still ends up being way too long.

2. Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, finished Jan 14th. This book was fascinating and well worth the read.

3. Doctors From Hell: The Horrific Account of Nazi Experiments on Humans, finished Jan 22nd. An important bart of the world’s past that I feel it’s important to know.

4. A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, finished Jan 28th. Not a waste of time, but those who are not incredibly interested in the history of feminism may find it boring.

5. Freedom Summer: The Savage Season That Made Mississippi Burn And Made America a Democracy, finished March 2nd. Damn, I sure read books with long titles. This book is important. Read it.

6. Madame Du Barry: The Wages of Beauty, finished March 14th. Surprisingly boring.

7. Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, finished March 16th. The content is fascinating, but the scientific descriptions were right over my head, and I got bored.

8. Push, finished March 17th. Very good, just like the movie.

9. Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1518-1865, finished March 26th. Very interesting content, but the writing could have been less dry.

10. The Night the Defeos Died, Reinvestigating the Amityville Murders, finished March 31st. Hands down my favorite book of the year. Awesome.

11. Knocked Up: Confessions of a Hip Mother-To-Be, finished April 4th. This is just fluffy entertainment. Nothing that great or valuable here.

12. Twelve Years a Slave, finished April 13th. Very personal and moving.

13. High Society: The Life of Grace Kelly, finished April 21st. Totally boring.

14. The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England, finished May 5th. Antonia Fraser is always a delight, but this book may be more suited to have around just as reference, or it can get very long.

15. The God Virus: How Religion Infects Our Lives and Culture, finished May 8th. As I try to think of something to say here, it occurs to me that this book was forgettable. But I do remember liking it.

16. The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee, finished May 10th. Maybe it’s just the authors I’m choosing, but I find comedy books to be more valuable than people probably give them credit for.

17. In Cold Blood, finished May 16th. Awesome. There’s a reason this book is a classic.

18. The Last Gasp: The Rise and Fall of the American Gas Chamber, finished May 20th. Dark books are my weakness, but this was without any flavor at all.

19. African American History for Dummies, finished June 13th. Even though the For Dummies books are by different authors, my impressions of them are always the same.

20. Haunted: The Incredible True Story of a Canadian Family’s Experience Living in a Haunted House, finished June 17th. Mildly interesting, but not the least bit scary. Poop.

21. Survival of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty, finished July 12th. Very interesting, very much worth the read.

22. Lord High Executioner: An Unashamed Look at Hangmen, Headsmen, and Their Kind, finished July 22nd. A surprisingly light read for such a dark subject.

23. Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, finished August 29th. A valuable read for every kind of woman.

24. Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine, and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill, finished Sept 8th. Horrifying.

25. Sasquatch: North America’s Enduring Mystery, finished Sept 12th. A very complete explanation, but still a little meh :/

26. The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, finished Sept 22nd. Both depressing and uplifting at the same time, and all around very impressive.

27. Dead Until Dark, finished Sept 23rd. Surprisingly fluffy and weak, considering such a great show came out of it.

28. The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, finished Oct 6th. Pretty interesting, very engaging novel-like style.

29. Wicked River: The Mississippi When it Last Ran Wild, finished Oct 16th. Well-written, and cool information, but arguably with limited importance. That sounds bad…

30. Vittorio, The Vampire, finished Oct 24th. It’s an Anne Rice book, enough said.

31. Living Dead in Dallas, finished Nov 16th. More fun and interesting than Dead Until Dark, but still fluff.

32. Prince Lestat, finished Dec 5th. Well worth the wait.

33. Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson, finished Dec 27th. Perfection.

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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.

Twelve Years a Slave

You can read Black Cargoes and learn quite a lot about slavery in America, but there’s nothing quite like a first hand account written by someone who didn’t just learn about it, but actually experienced it. Though it’s not jam-packed with a wide array of facts, it’s something very special, as long as you go into it fully understanding the context in which it was written.

First of all, this memoir was written around 1853, so the language is not in the modern style that we’re used to. Though obviously this isn’t particularly difficult to understand, it does tend to slow me down a bit. Solomon Northup is also not a writer, and his style can come across as very formal and even awkward at times. He is however, a talented and brilliant man not afraid to stand up for himself, far smarter than me or almost anybody I know, and this, along with the fact that this is a first-hand account from an outsider-turned-insider, kept me going until things REALLY got good. The part that first brought this book to life for me was the description of Christmas among the slaves, and you can really feel the joy he describes as it seems to jump off the page and you can’t get the picture of Solomon with a huge smile on his face and wistful eyes out of your head. The moment is magical. It’s obvious that what he says about it is true, it is a slave’s most favorite part of the year, and their excitement is tangible. I loved reading his detailed descriptions of those days more than any other part, and even if I had found the earlier part to be dry, these memories would have easily made the whole thing worth it.

Of course this book is not dry though, not when you consider that all the facts related here are absolutely true. And towards the end as the wheels get in motion towards restoring Solomon to freedom, the suspense builds for the reader nearly as much as it did for him as he waited to learn whether he would ever meet his family again or live out the rest of his life as a slave. His story is brief, but detailed and honest, and definitely a worthy investment of time.

Other suggested reads: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.

Black Cargoes: A History of the Atlantic Slave Trade

As much as I enjoy writing more traditional reviews, I don’t seem to have a ton of motivation when it takes time away from the next billionty books on my to-read list. I also read way too much non-fiction to ever have room enough in my head for everything to stay there more than like a week. So! New format. I’m going to tell you a bunch of cool things I learned, so I don’t forget and so you don’t have to read the whole book if you don’t feel like it. You’re welcome for helping you cheat on your homework.

So here’s what I’m learning from this book.

-Slavery existed in Africa as well, and many of the slaves brought to America had also been slaves in Africa. Another source was prisoners of war (usually not so much a war but a good old fashioned pillaging), “criminals” (often due to entrapment) and if all else failed, kidnapping either by the local king or the white foreigners. Shady business dealings are not even remotely new.

-Slavery started out as more of a religion thing than a race thing. Many of the earliest slaves were white, sentenced to either a stint of several years or even a lifetime of indentured servitude for crimes they committed. It was thought that the whole institution was ok as long as the slaves weren’t Christian. Eventually however the black people started converting to Christianity, taking away their excuse, and white runaways just couldn’t be as easily identified as slaves. So they pulled a new and horrible excuse out of their asses, the one that stated black people weren’t even actual human beings and so their conversion just didn’t count. And so the age of racism as we know it began.

-There were originally slaves in the northern states as well, but because the climate didn’t lend itself to the plantation system it never thrived and somewhat quickly dwindled away.

-It is guessed that an average of 50% of slaves died before they could be put to work, either on the trip itself or shortly afterwards, usually from disease, hunger, or suicide. Despite this, it wasn’t uncommon for the ship’s crew to be treated even worse than the slaves. This is because slave lives were worth a profit, while the crews were not even worth that. When this created difficulty in getting recruits, men could simply be rendered insensibly drunk and carried aboard by “crimps.”

-The slave trade prepared the economy for the industrial revolution.

-Importing or owning slaves was illegal in Georgia until 1750.

-For both moral and economic reasons, there was strong opposition to slavery since even before the American Revolution, and many laws were put into place to either ban or severely restrict the trade. This of course is not to mean that slavery itself was placed under such restrictions this early in the country’s history. Many politicians did want to see slavery itself ended, but primarily under pressure from South Carolina and Georgia, who threatened secession, it didn’t quite pan out.

-Slavery was abolished in England in 1772. The slave trade there lasted until 1807. It became illegal in America a year later. Enforcing these laws of course was another matter altogether. Since ships under the American flag kept getting caught by British ships, then finding legal technicalities and loopholes to keep them out of trouble, it nearly started a war between the Americans and the British, until a treaty to finally enforce the suppression of the slave trade in 1842. American actions under the treaty were not at all enthusiastic, and they did only the bare minimum. For the rest of the duration of the slave trade, Britain remained the only country to give a shit.

-There is a huge amount of overlap between the slave trade and pirates. See Under The Black Flag for more about that.

-In the 1850s, extremists the American south called Fire-Eaters wanted to add new slave states to the country from around the Gulf of Mexico and including Cuba. They called this the “golden circle.” They fought to reopen the slave trade as the only means of getting the new states established. This movement was defeated by both moderates and by the border states, who had a surplus of slaves and didn’t want to see their value decrease. Nevertheless the slave trade saw an increase.

-The (illegal) slave trade continued all the way until 1864.

Phew, so there you have it. I enjoyed the first half of this book, and then got bored. But as you can see there is a ton of information to be found here if you’re interested in the subject.