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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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

Halloween

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After a mere 4 days into reading this book – the last day – Mike asked me why it was taking me so long to read what he thought was a kids book. This is a book about halloween, with a big jackolantern on the front, and not that many pages. So I know why he would think that. But then I handed it to him and gave him a paragraph to read.

“[…]Whether we find the neo-freudian analysis compelling or not, it has the great merit of setting the “Halloween” cycle within the larger contemporary debate about the future of the American family, one that in the 1970s was preoccupied with high divorce rates, the rise of double-income households, gender politics, and same sex coupling. This debate, with its anxieties about working mothers, single-parent families, and unsupervised children, provided the social space in which Myers’s sanguinary escapades could strike admonitory chords.[…]”

Wow, I never thought I would read anything like that about a slasher movie. Needless to say this is not a kids book at all.

Short as it may be, it does a great job of telling the story of where our Halloween customs come from, if in a pretty dry style of writing. It describes how Samhain, which we actually know very little about, fused with All Souls and All Saints Day. I found it fairly surprising to learn that Halloween is a lot more about All Souls than it is about Samhain, which makes the arguments of the Christian Right against it seem pretty ridiculous.

Halloween is also a lot more about transition than it is about horror. As a time marking the end of the year in the celtic calendar, and the transition between fall and winter, this was a time of divining the future and sealing relationships. “Horror” as we see it was involved only to the extent that people were honoring their dead, and pranks abounded. Disappointing? Yeah, I admit as a lover of spookiness it is. But that doesn’t make it any less enlightening. I should also note that Halloween, Christmas, and Mardi Gras share an amazing amount of similarities in how they’ve been celebrated. It’s something for you all to look into.

Fundamentally though, halloween has been largely about absorbing elements of the society around it rather than being a festival with a certain set of values. In its early days in Canada its celtic roots caused it to be celebrated as a way to honor the contributions of the Scottish to Canada.Then in the 1970s it became a way to express contemporary fears through the movies, as in the quote above. And now at the turn of the century there’s the issue of its merging with the Mexican Day of the Dead along the US-Mexican border, and the attitudes of each country towards this change.

In the end what this book tells us is not why we employ the imagery of ghosts and witches and black cats so much as that this is a festival rooted in change, and as the years go by it will continue to evolve.

Other recommended reads: The Battle for Christmas

Life in a Medieval Village

Life in a Medieval Village

In it’s simplicity, Life in a Medieval Village reminds me of my 8th grade humanities class. The problem is, that class had a lot more style. We even had a medieval fair in the school library at the end of the semester. But this book is extremely well-researched. So well in fact that after reading one anecdote on a certain subject I often had to skip over four more. It’s full of quote after quote from contemporary court rolls too, also demanding to be skipped. But at least it made this already short book a quick read. This would actually be a great book to hand out in those humanities classes. All the information is here, in a way that anyone can understand, and it’s right to the point. And the lack of style, while boring for the layman, means no unnecessary homework time for a high schooler. It’s also not written in grand academic style, which would be a total snoozefest.

What I did find interesting was how very intermingled religion, politics, and the economy were at this period. They were all linked, as the peasants and villeins were to the lord they served, and remained virtually locked together this way for hundreds of years. While this book in theory is intended to describe life in medieval villages across Europe, it focuses almost exclusively on the real village of Elton in Huntingdonshire, England. This gives the anecdotes and history an excellent sense of continuity, but left me feeling like other areas were being unfortunately neglected, and this is a terrible omission to make. Britain is often the focus of histories theoretically pertaining to all of Europe, just as New York is so often the focus of histories theoretically pertaining to all of America. I would have found this study to be more valuable if it had perhaps focused on three or four cities in different countries instead of just the one. It wouldn’t have been too great a departure from the structure of the book as it already stands, and we would have the additional benefit of comparing and contrasting the structure and development of society in a few different areas. There’s no way that they were all the same. This certainly doesn’t make it a worthless study in any sense, but I feel like it should at least be retitled to indicate the British focus.

It’s impossible not to compare this to another book I read this year, Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, about every day life in the early modern period, roughly 400-500 years after life described in Life in a Medieval Village. This was similar in subject matter, but vastly different in approach. Hubbub focused on the oft neglected unpleasant side of life for every day people, and was an absolute riot to read.┬áIts focus was on four English cities. The intent here is to focus on England alone, but keeping the spotlight on four different cities allow us to get a better scope of the issues. While both focus on the every day ordinary person, Hubbub focused more on the negative aspects of life and the experiences of specific individuals, while Life in a Medieval Village is more about the structure that supports that every day life, and the larger group of people living it. This is interesting stuff, if you like history, but it definitely lacked that personal touch. I’m glad I read Life in a Medieval Village, but part of me can’t help but wish Hubbub had gone over there and shaken some life into it.

Other recommended reads: Hubbub: Filth, Noise & Stench in England, Life in a Medieval City, The Great Mortality

The Nun’s Story

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Written in another style, this book could be terrifying. Kathryn Hulme offers us visions of the ultimate in conformity, silent figures in black and white bound to the strictest obedience of the slightest detail, including thought itself. The main witness seeing not even a hint of emotion as a dead nun she just found with a knife in her back is carried off like an object no longer needed. She knows they care, but any display of such besides a few carefully chosen words uttered discreetly don’t seem to belong in this 1984-ish world. Indeed, the nuns seem to function on telepathy, and there are no secrets here. And this is her struggle, to live “a life against nature,” “all for Jesus.”

But as it is written, this story based on true events about the lives of nuns and the trials of Sister Luke is for the most part eerily peaceful, as it has a way of dropping you gently right into the middle of her world. Even the vagueness of time is presented here, as nearly every day in her memory passes indistinguishable from the last. As an outsider the answers to many of the questions and difficulties she faces may seem obvious, and you want to reach through the pages to shake her, and ask, “Why the hell is it like this? How is this good for anybody?” But as this book spends so little time explaining every little detail, and really shows it to you instead, you understand. You feel for her, alien as her life may be. You know what it’s like to try so hard to be perfect, but constantly question yourself and find yourself wanting. And this is ultimately what draws you in and makes you accept it.

The nuns seem to live as though they’re hypnotized. Detachment from the outside world is considered essential. Even their age and gender cease to matter, in certain key ways. Only The Rule matters. Those who evolve into Living Rules are the ultimate aspirational figures. But this would be a struggle for the strongest of people with the strongest of faith. For Sister Luke doubt is her only real companion, and it’s constant, even as she grows in her spiritual wisdom. Even when everyone else believes in her and she accomplishes her goal of working in the Congo missions, doubt continues to haunt her, as much as her memories of growing up with her doctor father. The hardest part is that for her the separation of herself from the outside world must be largely symbolic. Sister Luke follows in her father’s footsteps in the medical field, and thus is thrust into it through the care she must take of ordinary people. People of every kind.

This intersection of worlds is where the story climaxes. Because in the outside world, violence is a reality. And so is war. But in the nun’s world, unconditional forgiveness is too. God commands his followers to love their enemies. There is no excuse for not obeying The Rule. The ultimate battle of Sister Luke revolves around whether or not she is capable of this, whether or not she really does belong in a convent living the life of a nun. As the years pass, she begins to feel more and more like a fraud.

Arguably, you could say that she begins to wake up from the hypnotism that never fully had her in its grasp. Unshakable hate for the Nazi enemy, and a sense of duty to her country of Belgium takes over. The ideology that it’s up to God alone to judge people for their sins is in itself admirable. But it raises the question of where to draw the line. How brutally wrong does someone have to be before we step up and take action for ourselves? Whether or not Sister Luke is able to accept all the death and destruction around her, whether she can uphold her vows or will instead seek a divorce from God is up to the reader to find out. And as you do, you might find yourself wondering what you would do in the same situation, not as an outsider, but as someone dedicated to the religious life as she is. Poetic to the end, this book compels you to examine the state of your own soul.

Other recommended reads: Black Like Me