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Last Words of the Executed

Robert K. Elder

University of Chicago Press, $22.50/hardcover

"Make it snappy," he said, and so they did. Those were the last words of Charles H. Simpson, convicted of murdering a California grocery store owner during a $3 robbery. As the late Studs Terkel noted in his forward for this anthology, we all know we're going to die. But those sentenced to death, also know exactly when and why. Whatever we expect from condemned men and women, their last words rarely supply it. Rambling pleas; lectures to avoid vice; funny, pithy or preachy, these statements have one thing in common: They're the final things any of these people said. Eva Dugan displayed her smarts when she stated "The world loves a good sport and hates a bad loser" at the scaffold in Arizona in 1930. Then she was accidentally decapitated by the noose as she dropped through the trapdoor. You'll wish it were easier to look away, then wonder why you didn't. — Kel Munger

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Did Somebody Step on a Duck? A Natural History of the Fart

Jim Dawson

Ten Speed Press, $9.99/paperback

Yes, not only did someone write a 172-page book about flatulence — the author's third full work of "fartlore" — but I actually pulled it from our shelf of unsolicited books and read it. Aside from what this says about Dawson, or me, or anyone who opts to buy it, taken on the whole, it's fairly entertaining. Despite the low brow subject matter, Dawson's a pretty smart writer with a knack for storytelling. His 46 brief chapters cover everything from former president Bush Jr.'s penchant for poot pranks, to a sad specimen who's rigged his office chair to Tweet each of his farts to thousands of followers, plus elephant farts, celebrity farts, and the annoying toot sound the vuvuzelas make, ruining our enjoyment of the World Cup. With this book, you know exactly what you're getting: something you guiltily laugh at and are happy to blame on someone else. — Matthew Schniper

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The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

Philip Pullman

Canongate, $24/hardcover

All the people who were upset because they felt The Golden Compass was anti-Christian had better hold onto their hats, because Philip Pullman has really done it in this novel about the birth of a major religion. In Pullman's re-telling of the most famous story in the West, a bit of skepticism creeps in to tales about things like a virgin birth. What's more, young Mary bears twin sons: one is a God-serving, humble, the-Kingdom-is-coming kind of guy known as Jesus and the other is a manipulative, church-building weasel nicknamed Christ. Guess who wins out in history? It's a fast-paced little parable that puts a common-sense tweak to numerous miracles while reminding us how much of the Gospel is devoted to social justice and compassion. The way Pullman tells it, the Christian church we've got is precisely what we'd have ended up with if the weasel had won. Go figure. — Kel Munger

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