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

Edison and the Electric Chair

In a fascinating combination of science and history, Edison and the Electric Chair reveals a fast-paced account of how the electric chair came to be with the help of the brilliant inventor Thomas Edison. While some may find the specter of death to be the most alluring aspect of this book going in, it is much rather Edison himself whom we find ourselves very much wanting to learn more about. He’s a man of child-like curiosity and endless enthusiasm, clever from the very start. The book recounts a story of his early days in the telegraph business, when some men at a new job tried to haze him by sending over messages they hoped would be far too quick to translate. Edison couldn’t be tripped up, and when the correspondent on the other end started going so quickly he made mistakes, Edison replied “You seem tired, suppose you send a while with your other foot.” From then on, he was fully accepted into the group.

But apart from being a lively, ebullient man of science, Edison was also incredibly intriguing. He was fiercely competitive, and even devious. He was strongly against capital punishment, and yet he did what he could to push electrocution as a humane new method of execution in order not only to ease the sufferings of the condemned, who until then had been hanged, but to discredit his competition, Westinghouse Electric. This web of intrigue and legal battles form the heart of the book and leave us wondering even more who exactly Edison was and what made him tick. Most of all, throughout the descriptions of his huge array of inventions, I was left wondering what exactly he would think of the technology of the world today. What would the man who invented the light bulb and the electric typewriter think about computers, for instance? This book could easily serve as a gateway to a full blown fascination for all things Edison.

For those of you far less scientifically-minded, the details of how dynamos, transformers, and voltages work might prove to be a little on the dry side. And they are extremely detailed, though thankfully keeping in mind that very few readers are electricians and going to have an ingrained understanding of them. I suspect it may also serve as a gateway in this sense in encouraging some readers to start dabbling more in science books, and if I had a better grasp of these things, and not such a strong disposition towards history above all else, I may be one of these people. In fact I’m sure a great deal of you will find these sections to be altogether delightful.

Those who pick up the book based on their taste for the macabre won’t be disappointed when the fatal moment arrives. The account of the first execution by the electric chair is riveting. Large undertakings such as these rarely work the very first time, and the results can be gruesome. I won’t say any more about this and ruin it for you, it’s arguably the best part of the book.

One thing I personally found missing was Edison’s relationship with Nikola Tesla. I know almost nothing about the man, but knowing at the very least that he existed and that there was a rivalry between them made me curious to know more, especially since each inventor has quite a following with very strong feelings against the other. This omission to me is glaring, but I suppose will have to remain a subject for another book. I wonder if others will feel the same way. It seems to contribute to the book somewhat going out with a fizzle instead of a bang, offering just one teasing glimpse to remind us that there might be more to the story than we were given.

So Thomas Edison, against capital punishment, encouraged the electric chair as a form of execution. In this way he professed to save lives as it would warn the world about the dangers of alternating current and therefor cripple Westinghouse electric. It didn’t work, and instead of being a step towards the abolition of capital punishment, the new method only encouraged it because of its relative humanity, and America’s culture of fondness for all things new and improved propelled it on a different course than the rest of the Western world. It is exactly as the title says, a story of light and death.

Other recommended reads: Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World, Dark Light: Electricity and Anxiety From the Telegraph to the X Ray