The Salem Witch Trials: Book Review
History , Psychology , Religion , Sociology / October 14, 2016

The Salem Witch Trials: A Day-by-Day Chronicle of a Community Under Siege, by Marilynne K. Roach is the ultimate guide to the most famous case of mass hysteria in American history. This tome, weighing in at an impressive 690 pages, contains anything worth knowing about Salem. I already owned several books about the witch trials before I bought The Salem Witch Trials, but this is probably the only book about Salem that I need to own. I imagine that my obsession with Salem probably began in elementary school when my class read a book called The Witch of Blackbird Pond. The idea of witchcraft, rather real or imagined, right in the only outpost of civilization in the dark and dangerous American wilderness simply fascinated me.  I am addicted to the TV show Salem and desperately want to travel there some day to experience Salem in person. The Salem Witch Trials chronicles essentially every word and action that scholars are aware of from the time before, during, and after the trials in one convenient (although heavy) resource. The book is written in a diary form, in which all of the news that pertains to each day is listed and quoted, often directly from primary sources. It is absolutely fascinating to be reading the words…

North Korea Confidential: Book Review
History , Sociology , Travel / October 12, 2016

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors, written by Daniel Tudor & James Pearson, is a recently released, informative peek into the modern day Hermit Kingdom. This is the most unique book that I remember reading about North Korea because it focuses on the reality of life in modern North Korea instead of the state sponsored narrative of which most people are familiar. North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors, as the short and sweet title makes quite clear, focuses on a wide range of activities and situations in the lives of North Korean citizens.  The authors attempt to dispel the myth that all North Korean people are simply puppets who blindly believe all of the lies that the Kim government propagates.  Some of the most fascinating sections shed light on the illegal (yet tolerated out of necessity) capitalist markets run by North Korean women and the inevitable infiltration of outside influences into the country via USB drives.  The traditional notions of a male run society and the Kim family’s claim that North Korea is a paradise compared to the rest of the world have been shattered by these changes. The authors indicate that the famine in…

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War: Book Review
History , Sociology / October 12, 2016

Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War by Susan Southard is a nonfiction book that exposes the suffering endured by the victims of the atomic bomb. Nagasaki is a hard-hitting book that delivers the facts about the atomic bombing regardless of how uncomfortable the truth may be. Susan Southard follows several Japanese victims of the atomic bomb (known as hibakusha) in order to personalize the story of Nagasaki’s destruction. While it is heart-breaking to read about the mangled bodies, third-degree burns, and doomed “survivors” of the initial bombing, Nagasaki hits the hardest when Southard details the suffering of the most prominently featured hibakusha and their families.  It is an odd phenomena of human nature that reading about the horrific deaths of one hibakusha’s brother and sister is more emotionally disturbing than any list of casualty numbers ever could be. In addition to the stories of individual hibakusha, Nagasaki is also full of cold facts and meticulously researched historical information relating to both Japan and America’s response to the atomic bombings. Southard suggests that the Nagasaki bombing was unnecessary even in regard to ending the war because the Japanese government was still considering surrender after the first bombing at Hiroshima.  It makes the Nagasaki bombing all the more tragic in that Hiroshima alone might have brought about a surrender.  The treatment…

The Impossible State: Book Review
History , Sociology / October 12, 2016

The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future is Victor Cha’s analysis of the most mysterious country in the world today.  The book contains insights into the history, culture, and politics of North Korea and is primarily focused on the time since the Kim family took control of the country. It is really difficult to imagine that North Korea even exists in modern times. Thanks to the Lil’ Kim family, the country is so backwards that it makes the first world look like something out of Star Trek.  I knew a bit about North Korea’s situation when I started reading, but Victor Cha does an excellent job of providing an in-depth look into the causes behind North Korea’s abysmal economy, human rights, and freedoms.  His assertions are always well supported and thoroughly explained in a language that should be accessible to thoughtful adult readers. Indeed, Cha’s writing style is generally very fluid.  Some sections of the book, especially those relating to more detailed economic and political analysis can be a bit dry, but that is to be expected.  Some sections may be a bit more difficult to get through, but the whole picture is important in understanding the Hermit Kingdom.  Some of the most…

One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair: Book Review
Comedy , History , Sociology / October 12, 2016

One Thousand Beards: A Cultural History of Facial Hair by Allan Peterkin is a historical/sociological/psychological study of facial hair throughout the ages.  As a man who proudly sports a full beard and mustache combo, I feel a certain camaraderie with my bearded brothers.  I think that in recent years, beards are becoming more socially acceptable but it still feels like I am part of a club with other facial hair connoisseurs. Whether you are bearded, mustachioed, or a full out, Victorian mutton-chops kind of guy, One Thousand Beards is a must read. Roughly the first third of the book is dedicated to the history of facial hair and even the history of shaving.  After this point, the next third of the book examines different types of beards such as “The Medical Beard,” “The Feminine Beard,” and “The Gay Beard.”  One Thousand Beards finishes up with a return to a more historical and sociological approach that focuses on the twentieth century and the evolution of facial hair in recent times. The book was published in 2001 so there is no information about beards since that time.  The book would benefit from an updated edition with an extra chapter to bring One Thousand Beards up to the present day.  Regardless,…

The Forgotten History of America: Book Review
History / October 10, 2016

The Forgotten History of America: Little Known Conflicts of Lasting Importance from the Earliest Colonists to the Eve of the Revolution is a popular history book written by Cormac O’Brien that covers the mysterious and legendary period of America’s earliest history.  Do not be fooled by the short and sweet title that graces the cover of this book!  Cormac O’Brien’s history of colonial America is a near three hundred page account of some of the most interesting and forgotten events from 1528-1763. Colonial American history is a passion of mine that mostly stems from the fact that I find the clash of cultures in early America to be exciting and a major turning point in world history.  The Forgotten History of America does an amazing job of investigating the unending conflicts between the Spanish, French, Dutch, English, and the vast numbers of Native American tribes battling over the North American continent.  There are so many wars and rebellions that are mostly forgotten today that were decisive in the formation of what would become the United States.  King Philip’s War, which was mostly fought between British colonists and New England Indian tribes, wins the unfortunate and shocking distinction as the deadliest conflict (by death…

Mythology: Book Review
History , Religion / October 10, 2016

Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies is a ginormous collection of mythology from all around the world.  The book is beautifully illustrated with so many pictures and captions that I felt like I was wandering through an ancient museum at times.  There is also no shortage of content here since the book is over 500 pages of coffee table style size and format.  Any mythophile (I am pretty sure I just made that word up) or legendophile (I definitely just made that word up) will be impressed with the book’s look and heft. Thankfully, Mythology: Myths, Legends and Fantasies faithfully represents mythology without any sanitation or apology.  Inside this tome’s pages, we find the ancient tales of Thor flattening giants with Mjölnir, Hera taking horrible revenge on the unfortunate (and often unwilling) victims of Zeus’ legendary philandering, and Osiris’ murder/dismemberment at the hands of Seth.  The stories are summarized in an easy to read prose style, but the readers intelligence and ability to handle the content on his/her own terms are respected by the many authors of this anthology. As I expected, the more commonly read mythologies of the Greeks and Romans are covered in impressive detail.  The well known tales of these mythologies, such as…

Severed: Book Review
History / October 10, 2016

Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found is Frances Larson’s study of severed heads throughout history.  As soon as I saw the book’s cover, there was little doubt that I would purchase Severed that very day. Severed is one of those niche books that I instantly realized would be a fascinating read.  I love history, and strange history is often the most entertaining.  The concept of an entire book about the history of severed heads is so brilliant that I am jealous that I did not think of the idea myself! Frances Larson effectively mixes readability with the occasional darkly humorous comment with factual subject matter to produce a history book that is both entertaining and satisfying in an intellectual sense.  Each chapter focuses on a different type of severed head, ranging from shrunken heads to the heads of deposed monarchs, and provides plenty of stories that are stranger than fiction.  For example, I did not know that soldiers during WWII took heads as trophies, but the practice was alive and well in the Pacific theater. From the excellent cover to the illustration of Oliver Cromwell’s head that graces the prologue chapter, there are plenty of pictures that depict severed heads and skulls, so this book is definitely…

John Adams: Book Review
Autobiography/Biography , History / October 10, 2016

John Adams by David McCullough follows the life and times of the second, and commonly forgotten, president of the United States.  It always struck me as bizarre that everyone tends to know about Washington and Jefferson, but that John Adams is generally only appreciated by history nerds like myself. Clearly, the man is no Millard Fillmore, but he does deserve more recognition than he often receives. McCullough’s writing style is fantastic.  The book, which is ample in length, seems to flow in such a way that I could easily read for long stretches at a time.  McCullough’s research is exemplary, and his insights into Adams’ character successfully humanize his subject.  McCullough does not fawn over Adams the way many biographers tend to do with their subjects.  He provides criticism where appropriate, but his overall tone is certainly positive. Without mentioning every incident in John Adams’ life, all of which make for engaging reading, one of the most fascinating incidents involves his legal defense of the perpetrators of the “Boston Massacre.”  Additionally, his role as a diplomat during the American Revolution is at times unintentionally humorous as he tries to come to terms with the French and watches Benjamin Franklin become an automatic…