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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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.

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

Delusions of Gender

I’m not yet very much in the habit of reading sociology books, so I definitely can’t claim to be anything near an expert on them. But I know what I like. And I like this Cordelia Fine person. She’s witty and intellectual, and she knows how to write in an extremely intuitive way. She makes you ask yourself the right questions, and immediately sets about trying to answer them. The book has flow, and turns what could easily have been extremely dry into a fascinating pleasure. This is a woman I want to have a discussion with at a party, and a woman I would not want to debate. This book never shies away from picking apart the competition in biting personal style.

When I began this book, I’m really not sure what I expected. I suppose maybe an explanation of why men/women is an arbitrary distinction between human beings. But this was my own uncertain hypothesis. What I feel Cordelia Fine is doing in this book is taking various arguments that others have presented about behavior, psychology, and biology, and then either prove or debunk them, while making us wonder how certain sociologists are even still working. There’s no lack of philosophy thrown into the mix. In fact I wasn’t even aware until now that “philosopher” is still an actual job description, and I want to know where to sign up.

I did ask myself if this was going to quickly get boring, as I’m really not a very scientifically minded person, but no matter my doubts, whatever I was reading at the time did make me want to hear more of what Cordelia had to say. “Just one more chapter, then I’ll decide…now let me just finish this next one…” Part of her appeal may be that she is no doubt a feminist, and a spirited one. While other books of this type may either make you fall asleep or make you angry (as certain Victorian sociologists she quoted), this one has you cheering her on. One particularly striking point for me was that the phrases “I think therefor I am” and “fake it till you make it” are actually backed up by scientific evidence. When a group of people were told before a math test, “We want to find out why men do better than women,” the men performed better. If on the other hand they were told simply “we’re measuring your aptitude in math,” the results came out balanced. Likewise, if the people in a group were primed to think about their gender on a test where their gender is stereotypically thought to do worse, through something as simple as checking a box, as opposed to being primed to think about their high level of education, there is also a negative effect on the results. As a person with dealing with depression and anxiety, this came as sort of a breakthrough for me. I don’t necessarily have to think exclusively positive thoughts, but simply priming myself to think of my accomplishments is much more meaningful than being just something people tell you to be nice. Info you can use on the job, for sure!

Cordelia Fine’s incredibly modern view of the world is one I want to see explored in more depth, and her style is bound to get her ideas the attention they deserve. So we have only to sit back and watch it happen. I can’t wait to see what develops.