5 of My Favorite Trippy, Mind-bending Books

I love books that send one down the rabbit hole. Here are a few of my favorites. [Note: as I was putting this post together, I realized that I’d left out Philip K. Dick entirely. That is a glaring oversight as almost any of his books could make this list, but I’m too lazy to make a bigger list right now, so you’ll have to wait for Part II.]

 

5.) The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard: A man crashes a small aircraft into the Thames, and after struggling up from the wreckage he discovers he can’t leave the town of Shepperton — though he can do just about anything else he likes.

 

4.) The Lathe of Heaven by Ursala K. Le Guin: George Orr believes his dreams shape reality. At first, he’s taken for a crazy man, but then his therapist begins to wonder.

 

3.) Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami: A man hired for his skill at using his mind as an unbreakable encryption device, finds out that the job that seemed too good to be true, was.

 

2.) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov: The devil comes to Moscow with his  rogue’s gallery, throws the city into disarray, and it’s all tied to a novel based on the life of Pontius Pilate.

 

1.) Alice in Wonderland  & Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll: Tumbling down a rabbit hole or walking through a mirror, Alice is transported to a whimsical land where everything is strange and exhilarating.

Let me know of any oversights [besides the aforementioned PKD.]

BOOK REVIEW: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and OthersStories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This collection of eight smart short stories is most well-known for the eponymous story that served as the basis for the movie “Arrival.” The stories are sci-fi, but in the broadest sense of that word. “Speculative fiction” is probably a more apt descriptor. At any rate, the pieces all have nerd appeal and offer philosophical food-for-thought as well as entertaining stories.

1.) “Tower of Babylon:” The Biblical myth re-imagined. What if god didn’t sabotage construction by introducing varying languages and spreading humanity to the four winds? What if, instead, the tower did eventually reach to the heavens?

2.) “Understand:” A man who suffered severe brain damage due to a fall through thin ice, is put on an experimental medicine that begins to stimulate neurogenesis on a massive scale. The protagonist becomes preternaturally intelligent, realizes that such super-intelligence is considered a threat, but is able to keep one step ahead of the ordinary minds who pursue him. That is until he runs into another patient who had a similar accident and treatment. A thinking man’s “Lucy” (referring to the Scarlett Johansson movie), this piece considers the question of how different people would use such a gift, and whether differences could be reconciled.

3.) “Division by Zero:” If a scholar’s life was invested in an idea or way of thinking about the world, but then the scholar proved that that way was in error, might it cause a descent into madness and even a crumbling of one’s world?

4.) “Story of Your Life:” This is the story that the Amy Adams’ movie “Arrival” is based upon. The protagonist is a linguist charged with helping to communicate with a newly arrived alien species that has a very different approach to language. In the process of learning their language and interacting with them, she begins to see the world as they do – time being an illusion. Stories from her daughter’s life, which the lead character has seen in full before conception, are interspersed with the description of her work with the alien language.

5.) “Seventy-Two Letters:” This is a golem story. In this world, names have the power to animate matter and golems can be created. (A Golem is a living being created from inanimate matter; the idea comes from Jewish folklore.) The story ads a layer to the question of what would be created if humans could make a simulacrum of themselves – e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster style – and asks the reader to consider what would be the reaction to the dawn of an era in which the golems might be able to make themselves.

6.) “The Evolution of Human Science:” This is one of the shorter pieces and is also the least story-centric entry. It considers philosophical questions around the development of meta-humans.

7.) “Hell is the Absence of God:” This story is also not as story oriented as most of the others, but it is thought-provoking. It revolves around a support group for people who’ve lost significant others in tragedy and asks one to consider the various approaches to belief in the wake of tragedy.

8.) “Liking What You See: A Documentary:” This clever piece imagines a technology that prevents wearers from being able to recognized beauty (and ugliness as well.) As the subtitle suggests, it’s presented as if it were a documentary that is following a college’s debate over whether to require the student body to use said technology.

I enjoyed this collection of stories. “Understand,” “Stories of Your Life,” and “Seventy-two Letters” are gripping stories, and all eight are thought-provoking and well-written. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of short fiction, particularly speculative fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry

Careless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love PoetryCareless Whispers: Pritish Nandy Recreates the Best of Sanskrit Love Poetry by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the third in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets though not – strictly speaking – translations of these poets’ work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.” This book is different from the preceding volumes in a couple of ways that result in it having a different feel. First, the poems anthologize from the works of various poets rather than having a single inspiration. Second, they changed artists, and the artwork bears little resemblance to the previous volumes except with respect to being erotic in subject matter.

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to the anthology which serves as the basis for the poems included, as well as to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. The source matter is said to have been originally anthologized by a Bengali Buddhist scholar named Vidyakara.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and black and white line drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems. Unlike the previous collections, it is quite clear where one poem begins and the next ends because these are attributed to different authors.

The artist who did the drawings is M. F. Husain. The drawings are not only monochrome, but are more crudely drawn and stylistic. (I’m not suggesting the artist is less skillful. They may well be purposely cruder, intending to reflect a historical artistic style rather than being modernistic like the previous volumes. The previous volumes’ art was very 1980’s.)

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliché and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru

Unchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of AmaruUnchained Melody: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Amaru by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the second in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Amaru) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Amaru and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach. Amaru was a Sixth Century poet and anthologist. As for why Nandy rewrote, rather than translating from the Sanskrit, he offers an Italian quote that says that poetry translations are like women, “the more beautiful, the more unfaithful.”

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear. One can choose to read them as short pieces or as a longer flowing pieces.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes or romantic pop culture references, these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari

Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of BhartrhariUntamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the first in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Bhartrhari) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Bhartrhari and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes (except this one which appears to be taken from an American romantic comedy film), these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and MargaritaThe Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The Devil comes to Moscow with his entourage of henchmen – a tram-riding cat, a fallen angel turned assassin, an ex-choirmaster, and a vampiress – and chaos and malevolence ensue. While most of the story unfolds in early 20th century Soviet Union, a few chapters focus on the story of the crucifixion as seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. We learn well into the book that Pontius Pilate is the subject of a novel written by the character who calls himself “the Master.” A love story between he and Margarita is central to the story, though mostly in the latter half of the book.

While Bulgakov’s book is whimsical and humorous in places, its theme is demons and supernatural beings acting in a rational, modern world that has abandoned belief in the supernatural. The Devil (who goes by the name Woland, a variation on a Germanic word for demon) and his troupe perform a black magic show that the audience assumes to be illusionism though it produces far more disturbing effects than a David Copperfield show. The story is a dark carnival tale (think Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” but not so much horror as a macabre comedy. One will also note that the relationship between God and the Devil is more on the order of Pratchett and Gaiman’s “Good Omens” than the Biblical rendition.)

While the book is pure fantasy in its story, it presents a thinly veiled commentary on Soviet life. Part of the reason why the mischief of Woland and his lackeys goes unthwarted is because it takes place in a world where the government “disappears” people on a regular basis and in which the quashing of religion means that even seeing doesn’t result in believing. Anyone witnessing a supernatural act is written off as drunk, insane or – at best – easily duped.

Although, as I think about this, it might not be so much a contrasting and ancient and modern life as it appears. After all, Pontius Pilate is at the fore of the historical part of the novel. Pilate, who viewed Jesus as a harmless lunatic, was troubled by the decision to execute him when the violent figure of Barabbas was selected instead for release based on a Passover norm. (Hence, Pilate’s famously “washing his hands” to the whole business of Jesus’s execution.) In this light, it may be more of a general commentary on humanity’s simultaneous need to believe in, and inability to believe in, the supernatural.

This novel is well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a work of dystopian fiction set in post-pandemic America. It’s the Zombie apocalypse sans Zombies, but with something additional: arts and entertainment. The fact that, not only is there an arts and entertainment industry but that it’s central to the story, is critical to Mandel’s ability to set her story apart amid the sea of post-apocalyptic wasteland stories that have been gracing the shelves of bookstores in recent years. Other branches of dystopian fiction have entertainers (e.g. “Hunger Games”) – often in a morbid form of gladiatorial combat – but one of the ways that post-apocalyptic wasteland stories show how dismal and colorless life has become is to eliminate all mentions of art or entertainment – presuming that in survival mode people “put away childish things.” Mandel, on the other hand, places members of a traveling symphony that roams about performing music and Shakespearean plays among her core characters.

The title, Station Eleven, is the name of a sci-fi comic book. I won’t get into specifics as it’s involved in the resolution of the story in a way that I don’t want to spoil. However, I will say that emphasizing what seems like a minor element of the story (through most of the book, anyway) is interesting in that it’s another way in which the author shines a light on how art – highbrow or low – will inevitably shape human culture, behavior, and mythology.

Mandel also shows how, even in a world in which the majority of the species have been killed off, there will always be connections in the web of human interaction. Through out the book flashbacks to pre-apocalyptic happenings are offered, mostly around an actor who – if not patient zero – was one of the early casualties of the pandemic. The actor was married multiple times and sired one child that is known about, and these characters – as well as friends and acquaintances — are seen in pre- and / or post-apocalyptic settings. And this allows the reader to imagine a web of humanity surviving massive fatalities. Often in this sub-genre, at most a dyad (e.g. Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”) survives, and that existence amid strangers is part of how the wasteland is shown.

This is a highly readable book, and well worth the read. Even if one is prone to think, “Ugh, another post-apocalyptic wasteland novel,” one will find something a bit different in its supposition that art is necessary and inevitable for humanity and that there aren’t enough degrees of separation to kill off all connections without killing off the species.

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BOOK REVIEW: Less by Andrew Sean Greer

LessLess by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

The book’s eponymous protagonist, Arthur Less, goes on an eight-country world tour in order to avoid the wedding of his ex-boyfriend and the emotional turmoil inherent in that event. Faced with a looming invitation, Less isn’t up for the torture of attending, but neither can he decline without a good reason without seeming petty, sullen, or both. And, even if he does decline, he doesn’t want to be around the acquaintances who will pity him, attempt to comfort him, or both. With that in mind, he gathers together a collection of invitations for writing assignments, a writers’ conference, and an adjunct teaching assignment, and cobbles together an itinerary that will keep him out of the country until well after the wedding.

Less is a novelist of some renown, which is to say one of his books was highly regarded — though his others were far less so — and he long-lived in the shadow of one of America’s great men of letters with whom he had a long-term relationship. The comedic tone of the book is set by the hapless nature we see in the character. He finds himself a secondary figure in the high-brow world of American literature, but is never completely at ease and confident in that space. Of course, when he sets out traveling in Mexico, Europe, Morocco, India, and Japan, he finds himself even less at ease than usual.

There are various mishaps along the way that make this book comedic in nature, but it also has a nostalgic melancholy about it. Not only did Less’s relationship break up followed rapidly by his ex-boyfriend becoming engaged, but one thing will happen during his travels that he can’t escape – he will turn 50. This milestone causes him to reflect upon what he might have done differently, but also causes him concern that he hasn’t enough life left to make a good go of living – either as a writer or as someone who would like to be in a relationship again.

I won’t get into the ending in detail, but will say that I was pleased to see that it didn’t just peter out into Less’s return home, but rather leaves the reader with some food for thought via the turn of events one learns about.

Needless to say, I’d recommend this book for fiction readers – particularly literary fiction readers, though it is light, readable, and short for literary fiction. This book won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

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10 of My Favorite Books from 2018

10.) Here is Real Magic by Nate Stantiforth: A professional magician, disillusioned because he has lost the sense of wonderment that it’s his job to create, travels to India to look at magic anew.




9.) Superhuman by Rowan Hooper: An evolutionary biologist examines how extreme specimens of humanity got to be that way. How come some people easily manage fluency in a couple dozen languages while some of us stumble on just our native tongue? Why is it that some people can run 100 miles non-stop when the average person’s body would start disintegrating before 20? What is the role of genetics and epigenetics versus practice and will?




8.) Anarcha Speaks  by Dominique Christina: A collection of poems formed into the story of a slave woman used for medical experimentation by a man many have called “the father of modern gynecology.” The books is a rare mix of story, history, and poetry, but it isn’t a narrative poem in the usual sense of the term.




7.) The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil: A womanizing poet and painter living in New York returns to his native India for a final show of his work. Along the way, the reader is presented with a host of fascinating characters.




6.) The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed./trans. by Jay Rubin: This collection of Japanese short fiction includes works by Haruki Murakami, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, and Akutagama Ryunosuke and covers a swath of the timeline from the days of the samurai to the meltdown at Fukushima Dai Ichi.




5.) Milkman by Anna Burns: A young woman tries to brush off the attentions of a mysterious character known as the Milkman, but is really in a fight to avoid becoming the center of attention generally.




4.) How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan: Pollan, best known for his works on food such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” tells the story of a resurgence of interest in psychedelic substances such as psilocybe mushrooms, LSD, and Ayahuasca for medicinal use as well as for mental and spiritual development. Included are descriptions of his experiences with mushrooms, LSD, Ayahuasca, and even a pyschoactive substance milked from the glands of a toad.




3.) Circe by Madeline Miller: This book tells tales of Greek Mythology with a lesser-known goddess at the fore. Circe is a daughter of the powerful sun god, Helios, but is an underdog character herself, which makes her stories all the more gripping.




2.) A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: This is the story of a man who fled North Korea, leaving his family behind, during the famines of the 90’s. Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a Korean father, and his father moved the family to rural North Korea in the late 1950’s under a “repatriation” program designed to gain workers for a war-torn North Korea while allowing Japan to offload some of the Koreans it’d forced to move to Japan as laborers during the Second World War.




1.) The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris: A love story set in the Nazi death camp in Poland. Based on a true story.

BOOK REVIEW: When I Walk Through that Door, I Am by Jimmy Santiago Baca

When I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother's QuestWhen I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother’s Quest by Jimmy Santiago Baca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a narrative poem telling the story of an El Salvadoran woman who is separated from her child after illegally immigrating to the United States. It’s quite a timely topic, but as a work of literature and a “call to arms” it could have done much better.

This poetic novella is gripping to read, but is over-the-top in spots, and that does it a disservice in two ways. First of all, it takes the reader out of the story as they may become lost in the disbelief. Secondly, it takes a work that could have been a persuasive call for change, and turns it into an angry rant. To give a prime example, at one point early in the piece, the lead character has been (gang-)raped four or five times over the course of two pages, by varied factions including US law enforcement officers. Even if one were to accept the author’s presumed premise that American federal law enforcement agents are morally equivalent to the gangs of the drug cartels (a premise not likely to be accepted by the meaty-middle of society), one is left to ignore the fact that female prisoners, once in custody, aren’t left unsupervised with male guards. I know the reader may say, but this is a technical detail in a fictitious narrative poem. However, given the way the piece is presented (discussed more below), it reads like it’s telling us a story that is meant to move us through the proposition that this is the world in which we live. But once one reads one falsity, one is left wondering whether any part of the story is reflective of reality.

The idea that this woman is exploited by every male she comes into contact with, whether they are gang members or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, has poetic merit. It’s pointing out that without legal status, she is in a perpetually vulnerable state. Yet, it seems lazy and sensationalist to make all such exploitation rape. When one morally equates gangs with agents of a democratic government, one isn’t just saying that the individuals are equivalent, you are casting aspersions against the entire system of rule of law. (Because, of course, protections should be in place, and — failing them — the means to lodge complaints. And I think most would argue that both are the case.) The bigger problem, one found throughout the political spectrum in the US, is that individuals vilify each other, pretending they are being persuasive, when in reality they are just more deeply etching an “us-them” divide. By this I mean to say, one can’t tell people how vile, despicable, and evil they are, and then expect them to see your perspective.

The narrative poem is delivered in a combination of free verse and poetic prose all of which verges largely on just plain prose. That is to say, the emphasis is on telling a story and not so much on the usual core components of poetry, i.e. sound, imagery, and metaphor. (Unless some of these fictitious elements, e.g. the astounding number of rapes, are meant to be metaphorical. Then my concern would be that one risks diminishing a horrible thing, if one throws around that word as metaphor.)

This is a quick read, and, as I mentioned, it’s presented in a gripping fashion – if hyperbolically so. I suspect that it will be mostly read by a demographic determined along political lines, which is a shame. It could have been so much more.

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