BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of a Flea by Anonymous (Stanislas de Rhodes)

The Autobiography of a FleaThe Autobiography of a Flea by Stanislas de Rhodes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Autobiography of a Flea” is a historical work of erotica first published in the late 19th century anonymously, and later was attributed to Stanislas de Rhodes. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, the book is simultaneously a socio-political commentary and philosophical novel. While the erotic elements tend to not be as extreme and perverse as Sade’s work, it shares in common a philosophy of society and a disdain for the clergy and the aristocracy / upper class (Sade’s work was earlier and straddled the French Revolution, and so things had changed on this front.) But, for example, in this book, two lascivious and hypocritical clergymen play key roles in the story that would not be unfamiliar to Sade’s readers.

The story starts with discussions (and wagers) regarding a competition that is coming up between women who work for the village’s main employer, a vintner. Whichever woman tramples the most grapes, wins a substantial prize. Our narrator is a libidinous, little flea who follows the sexual antics taking place in this French village. From the flea, we learn about the competition through discussion before, during, and after amore by two village couples. Two women who are likely to be front-runners make a salacious wager that involves the other’s husband. Each woman confesses the wager to her respective husband, but the husbands each have confidence in his wife to win, and so neither is concerned about the competition. Little do any of them know, the vintner has stacked the deck in favor of the fairest maiden in the village, who he intends to marry – despite the fact that he is old, feeble, and disgusting.

This fair (re: young and gorgeous) maiden has a suitor, and she is about to be intimate with him for the first time, when the village priest interrupts them. The priest then uses his knowledge to manipulate the young woman to his benefit. (Ultimately, he is joined by an English priest on sabbatical who involves himself with a couple village widows as well as in the priest’s nefarious plot.) The village priest simultaneously seeks to please the vintner (because the old man is the church’s leading patron), and at the same time he pursues his own pleasure. So, the young woman is forced into marriage, and into allowing consummation of said marriage — though the old vintner repeatedly shows himself not up to the task and is usually comically premature.

The author echoes a theme from Sade’s philosophy, which a society that is anarchic under its feeble institutions, i.e. in which the strong do whatever they please to the weak. The lead character, the maiden, is constantly humiliated and run roughshod over whenever she tries to move against the flow of this anarchy. Counting on the strong to behave virtuously only gets her punished and humiliated. It’s only when she starts moving with the flow so as to game the system by acknowledging and heeding this power disparity that she starts to see success in getting her way.

As with the Marquis de Sade’s work, this book could correctly be claimed to be excessively pessimistic and Hobbsean (philosopher and author of “The Leviathan” who believed people were brutish and self-interested.) I found it to be cleverer and less gratuitous than the works by Sade that I’ve read. Both the use of the narrating flea to give the reader a well-established point of view and the story — which exists (in contrast to many works in this genre, including Sade’s work “120 Days of Sodom.”) I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and erotica (particularly if one enjoys — or can tolerate — the sado-masochistic dynamic.)

[Note: there are a couple versions of this book, but – as near as I can tell – the story is consistent between them. It’s the character names that vary. The book is set in France, and features one English clergyman (kindred spirit to the village priest.) However, the more common version of the book features more English-sounding names, but there is a version with more typically French names. e.g. the lead, Bella, is Laurette in the latter edition. I read the version with the more French sounding names, but read a plot summary of the other edition, and the story was the same in broad brush strokes at least.]

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan

How to Change Your Mind: The New Science of PsychedelicsHow to Change Your Mind: The New Science of Psychedelics by Michael Pollan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

Psychedelics have been coming back into mainstream interest of late. Until recently, this renewed interest mostly occurred quietly through a continuation of scientific study, a promising line of inquiry that was aborted in the late 1960’s. There is growing evidence that these substances may be useful for combating depression, anxiety, and addiction – as well as their other, long-known benefits. (It should be noted that while it seems the writing is on the wall for these substances to become medically legitimate, it remains controversial whether they will be legalized for use by well individuals – though some were legalized in the US for a small religious group that takes them as a sacrament of their faith.) This book by the immensely popular immersion journalist, Michael Pollan, has brought the topic front and center into mass awareness, and may help turn the tide of a sullied public image.

Because these substances remain widely unknown or misunderstood, allow me to present some background — much of which Pollan discusses in varying degrees. Unfortunately, the term “psychedelic” has become so loaded with layers of meaning that it’s not optimal for discussing the topic at hand. Literally, psychedelic means “mind manifesting,” but its common meaning is tied up in notions of 1960’s counter-culture and even with styles of art and music. However, alternative terms are also troublesome. “Psychoactive substances” (i.e. chemicals that change mind states) encompasses a much broader selection of molecules and medicines – though it’s probably the most neutral term used popularly today. “Hallucinogens” is also problematic because a large portion of consumers of these substances don’t have hallucinations – at least not of the full-blown variety people normally associate with that term (i.e. seeing sights that one genuinely believes exist, but don’t.) Pollan opts to largely stick with the loaded term of psychedelic, and thus will I throughout this review.

Psychedelics are chemical substances that change one’s mindset, typically creating euphoria, shutting down “I”- centric parts of the brain such that one feels a “oneness” commonly described in the mystical traditions from around the world, and which, yes, often generate sensory experiences that aren’t reflective of the actual environment (hallucinations.) The downside is found in the fact that the substances produce constructive experiences, which means they amplify what’s in the subject’s mind, and, therefore, can result in “bad trips” in which people hallucinate terrifying products of their own subconscious mind. Pollan focuses heavily on three of the most popular psychedelics: psilocybin (naturally produced in a common species of mushroom), LSD (a chemical synthesized from ergot fungus that grow on rye), and DMT (which is most famously an active ingredient in Ayahuasca, a concoction long brewed by Peruvian Shamans.) Mescaline, which is well known from the writings of Aldous Huxley, is another popular psychedelic, but one which Pollan only mentions in passing.

To wrap up the background portion of the review, a little history. Psychedelics have been used by shamanic traditions around the world since time immemorial. In 1938, Albert Hofmann, a chemist for Sandoz Laboratories, accidentally synthesized LSD. That marked the (re-) introduction of psychedelics to the modern Western world (the ancient Greeks were believed to have mixed something with their wine that sounded like it had psychedelic properties.) Unbeknownst to most, between Hofmann’s invention and the late 1960’s, there was a promising line of research on the use of psychedelics for various conditions as well as in non-medical domains – e.g. relating the psychedelic experience to religious / mystical experience.

Unfortunately, there was a two-pronged turn of events that would end in these substances being made illegal and categorized “Schedule I” (which deems them not only risky / requiring care of use, but also denies they have any legitimate medical use – the latter seems to be proven demonstrably incorrect.) The well-known prong in the death of psychedelics resulted from the substances becoming tied into the 1960’s counter-culture, at first through shoddy scholarship by academics – most famously Timothy Leary – and then through recreational use that typically stripped away the rituals and “protocols” that had allowed shamans and mystics to safely use these substances for millennia. The second prong was government-sanctioned shenanigans in which LSD was used and misused in an attempt to create everything from truth serums to mind-control agents – most famously the MK-Ultra Program, and its sub-projects such as Operation Midnight Climax during which the CIA illegally used prostitutes to “roofie” their customer’s drinks with LSD so that a spy could covertly watch to determine whether the johns got loose-lipped or not. (Note: Pollan writes at length about the former aspect [i.e. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, et. al.] though not as much as books like Lattin’s The Harvard Psychedelic Club or Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. However, Pollan only gives passing mention to MK-Ultra.) Psychedelics might have remained out of the popular consciousness and only of interest to the fringe of society that was involved with “hard drugs” had it not been (in addition to renewed scientific interest) for a blooming interest by Silicon Valley engineers and executives who took to “micro-dosing” psychedelics to obtain creativity gains.

Now, I’ll get to the review, proper: As I mentioned, Pollan refers to himself as an “immersion journalist,” which means that he provides a two-in-one book. The first element is what one would expect in a popular science book on psychedelics, i.e. he reports on the scientific findings, the key history and background information, and delivers quotes from people he interviewed. The second element, however, is description of his own psychonautic journey. Pollan consumed psilocybin mushrooms, LSD, ayahuasca (DMT), and also a substance excreted by a toad that lives in Mexico and the Southwestern US. The reader gets both Huxlian “trip reports” (though Pollan remains much more scientific-minded and less mystical than Aldous Huxley) as well as the objective overview of the topic.

The book consists of six chapters as well as front and back matter. The first chapter discusses the psychedelic “renaissance,” i.e. how it came to be that these substances brought back from the dead – i.e. being purely of interest to “druggies” and far-flung shamanic traditions. Chapter 2 deals largely with mushrooms, and specifically psilocybe mushrooms that are the most popular and common type of psychedelic mushroom. Pollan spent time with Paul Stamets, a world-renowned expert on all-things fungi and the man who – literally – wrote the book on psilocybe mushrooms. Chapter 3 focuses heavily on LSD, including its development and rocky history. The fourth chapter is a “travelogue” in which Pollan discusses his own experiences in taking these substances. The penultimate chapter is about the neuroscientific findings. There is much that remains to be known, but yet somethings are well-known. These substances generally mimic the neurotransmitter serotonin (though mescaline, for example, mimics dopamine.) There is also a fascinating discussion of how these substances may temporarily reduce activity in the default mode network, which is prominent in generating one’s sense of self. The final chapter examines the findings of research into the use of psychedelics as a treatment for medical conditions – particularly depression, anxiety (especially death anxiety of terminal patients), and addiction (contrary to a widespread notion, resulting from these substances being lumped in with “hard drugs,” psychedelics not only aren’t addictive, but – in many patients – they counter addictions to more dangerous drugs, such as alcohol – yeah, you read that right.)

The book contains the usual ancillary matter, including: a glossary, bibliography, and notations. As the approach is narrative, graphics are minimal.

I found this book to be highly informative and extremely readable. The use of stories to convey information makes it engaging while it educates. I would highly recommend this book for any readers who are interested in psychedelics as medicine or a mystical experience.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManThe Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This is a collection of 18 science fiction short stories by Ray Bradbury, featuring: space travel, androids, time travel, and alien invasions. However, many of the stories use science-fiction – space travel most extensively — to investigate down-to-earth subjects such as: religion, marital relationships, war, and race relations. The fact that the collection deals in everyday subject matter allows it to retain its relevancy. The sci-fi is definitely dated, from the fact that “Martian” is used as a synonym for alien to the Cold War themes, but the stories are still worth reading because they are well-crafted and continue to be thought-provoking.

The stories of this collection are integrated by the titular story. The Illustrated Man is a character who had his body covered in tattoos to continue his employment with the carnival, but the witch who tattooed him made shape-shifting images that told stories. The story of “The Illustrated Man” is the last in the collection, but there’s a prologue that sets it up. It’s not a novel-in-stories, however, as the stories aren’t connected — other than being collected into a universe of this character’s flesh. The end of several stories feature a quick reference to the Illustrated Man narrative arc, but generally there’s no other connective tissue to the stories.

Here is a brief overview of the stories:

“The Veldt”: spoiled kids are given access to a technology that goes one step beyond virtual reality to what might be called mentally constructed reality. They create an African savanna, and things go awry.

“Kaleidoscope”: An accident causes astronauts to be scattered into space, not dying immediately, but knowing the limited resources of their spacesuits will not last long. This is among the more popular stories in the collection.

“The Other Foot”: A white man is forced to take refuge on a planet that minorities had long-ago been relocated to, because now a war has made the Earth uninhabitable. The story deals with the tension between those who are willing to welcome him and those who think he should be treated as they once were.

“The Highway”: A man living and working near a desolate stretch of highway meets a rare visitor who tells him that war is upon them. One of the Cold War end-of-the-world scenario stories.

“The Man”: The Captain of a spaceship is disappointed to find that none of the locals come to see them when they land. Little does he know, they were just visited by a Messianic figure the day before. The tension is between the non-believing, skeptical Captain and one of his men who is a true believer. A commentary on faith and belief.

“The Long Rain”: Space explorers are demoralized by the unceasing rain on a planet they are exploring, a rain that threatens to send them into madness.

“The Rocket Man”: The son of a space traveler wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, but doesn’t know how hazardous a life it is.

“The Last Night of the World”: This story asks one to contemplate what if one knew it was the last night before doomsday. Another Cold War-era sci-fi piece that hinges on atomic apocalypse.

“The Exiles”: A crew of space explorers is falling to inexplicable illness. This story has a great deal of literary allusion with Ambrose Bierce, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens each playing a part. Like Bradbury’s most famous novel, the story considers the issue of censorship.

“No Particular Night or Morning”: This story considers the question of how one knows anything is true. It does so through the lens of a spaceship crewman afflicted with solipsistic delusions – or so his crew-mates assume.

“The Fox and the Forest”: In this time travel story, a couple has escaped a dystopian future into Mexico, circa 1938, but the authorities of their time don’t intend to let them get away.

“The Visitor”: The story of a man with powerful psychic abilities who is coveted by competing factions.

“The Concrete Mixer”: A Martian pacifist is forced to participate in an invasion of Earth, only to find that it is an ill-advised endeavor for reasons entirely different from he’d thought. The story revolves around the centrality of materialism and consumerism in American culture.

“Marionettes, Inc.”: One man gets a look-alike android to cope with a wife who hates him, and another gets one to contend with a wife who is smotheringly needy.

“The City”: Explorers find that the abandoned city they’ve been sent to explore isn’t as free of sentience as they’d thought.

“Zero Hour”: Alien invaders find an unexpected ally in the impressionable youth.

“The Rocket”: A man wants his family to see the stars, but lacks the resources to make the dream come true. So, he gets creative.

“The Illustrated Man”: As referenced above, this story tells the tale of carnival tattoo’d man whose body-art mysteriously tells stories through its images, with special focus on two special designs.

I’ve never found a Bradbury work I didn’t like, and this one is no exception. The writing is beautiful. The story-telling is skillful, and, even when the sci-fi details are dated, there are themes that remain relevant. I’d highly recommend this collection for readers of sci-fi, particularly those who like classic sci-fi.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Superhuman by Rowan Hooper

Superhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our CapacitySuperhuman: Life at the Extremes of Our Capacity by Rowan Hooper
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

There are mounds of books out on the science of maximum human performance, be they on mind-hacking, sports & exercise science, or some combination thereof as applied to a particular pursuit. Hooper creates his niche by way of a broad and varied selection of topics, including: language learning, singing, running, achieving longevity, and sleeping. For the reader who is interested in the topic of how top performers in a given domain achieve that supernormal performance, it makes for an interesting read. However, it may leave some readers scratching their heads as to who the book is aimed at. It should be noted that several of the topics addressed are of much more broad-ranging appeal than those I mentioned (e.g. focus / attentiveness, bravery / courage, and resilience.)

The book is divided into three parts on “thinking,” “doing,” and “being,” respectively. The four chapters in the first part investigate the heights of intelligence, memory, language, and focus. The chapter on language deals with how some people are masterful polyglots, speaking many languages, as opposed to the harder to investigate question of how someone becomes William Shakespeare. Throughout the book, there is a mix of stories and interview insights from those who are peak performers as well as discussion of what scientific studies have found. The former makes up the lion’s share of the discussion, and the central question with of science is how much of peak performance is genetic and how much is built.

Part II, on doing, has three chapters, exploring the topics of bravery, singing, and running. This is where one really sees the book’s diversity. Books like Amanda Ripley’s “Unthinkable” address the question, among related questions, of why some act heroically, and there are a huge number of books on how to be the best runner or singer one can be, but not a lot of books take on all three questions in one section. The book on singing focuses on opera singers who belt out their tunes largely sans technology – i.e. there’s no Milli-Vanilli-ing L’Orfeo. The chapter on running gives particular scrutiny to endurance running.

Part III investigates why some people live longer, are more resilient, sleep better (or do well with less sleep,) or are happier. Since Buettner’s “National Geographic” article on “blue zones” (i.e. places where a disproportionate percentage of the population live well beyond the average human lifespan,) there’s been a renewal of interest in what science has to say about longevity. As mentioned, the chapter on sleep covers the topic from multiple vantage points. Everyone needs sleep, but some perform best with ten or more hours of sleep while others are extremely productive on four hours a day, and some can cat-nap periodically through the day while others need a single extended and uninterrupted period of sleeps. Wisely, Hooper doesn’t simply take on the question of why some people are happier than others in the book’s last chapter, but rather he asks the more interesting question of why some people who have every reason to be morose (e.g. paralyzed individuals) manage to be ecstatically happy.

The book has a references section, but there isn’t a lot of ancillary matter (i.e. graphics, appendices, etc.) It’s a text-centric book that relies heavily on stories about Formula-1 racers, opera stars, ultra-marathoners, and other extraordinary individuals while investigating the subject matter.

I enjoyed this book. I am intensely interested in optimal human performance across a range of skills and characteristics. So, I guess when people inevitably ask who the book is directed at, it’s directed at me and others with this strange fascination. If you have that interest, it’s for you as well.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide by O.T. Oss & O.N. Oeric

Psilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower's Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin EnthusiastsPsilocybin: Magic Mushroom Grower’s Guide: A Handbook for Psilocybin Enthusiasts by O.T. Oss
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This booklet, at around 80 pages, offers step-by-step guidance about how to grow mushrooms – specifically psilocybe cubensis, which are referred to as stropharia cubensis throughout this book. (The book was published in the 1970’s and the mushroom has since been reclassified.) This species is known to induce hallucinations, euphoria, and altered perception in those who ingest it because of the presence of psilocybin, which – converted to psilocin — interacts with serotonin receptors. Most of the information presented could be applied to cultivation of any mushroom (excepting information about identification in Ch. 1, which applies to that one species, and the information about dosage in Ch. 5 that doesn’t matter for edible mushrooms.) The authors did specifically develop this process, but I think that had more to do with the need for a process in between the vagaries of foraging and the large-scale agricultural approach that couldn’t be exploited for the “hobbyist,” than it had to do with the specific needs of this fungi.

The body of the book is divided into five chapters, which follow the progression of steps required to cultivate mushrooms. The first chapter covers locating and identifying psilocybe cubensis as well as how to collect and germinate the spores. The second chapter is about growing mycelial cultures on sterile agar. One of the major challenges presented in the book is keeping mold and other undesirable species from growing on or amongst one’s mushrooms. In the third chapter one learns how to grow the mycelia on sterilized rye. The penultimate chapter explores covering the mycelia infused rye with soil in a process that commercial fungi agriculture calls “casing,” which ultimately results in the generation of the fruiting bodies that we traditionally think of as mushrooms (though in the wild most of the organism is below ground.) The last chapter is about harvesting the mushrooms, preserving them, and determining dosage.

There is a substantial amount of front and back matter book-ending the aforementioned chapters. The front matter gives the reader some history of psychedelic mushrooms as well some insight into their effects. (The Preface and Forward are explicitly written by Terrence McKenna, but it’s said that the entire book is written by McKenna and his brother, Dennis.) The Forward and Introduction are where the book feels less like an agricultural how-to manual, and more like a guide to psychedelics, but the reader should be aware that this book is – first and foremost – a how-to guide. The back matter includes a range of helpful appended sections including a glossary, a bibliography, a timeline of psilocybin mushroom happenings, and a section to help one make conversions — particularly between volume and weights for various materials that are used in cultivation.

There are many graphics employed throughout the book. Most importantly, there are several series of black-and-white photos that help clarify the process being described textually. There are also some line-drawn artworks that depict psychedelic mushroom in their cultural context – both in the ancient shamanic tradition and the more recent wave of use.

This is a quick read that gets into all the processes needed to cultivate mushrooms. The authors compare it to canning preserves in terms of the degree of complexity. (That rings true as both processes rely heavily on sterilization.) It is a how-to guide, and if one isn’t interested in the process of cultivation, one might find the book a bit dry. I found it interesting to learn about the cultivation process as well as the information from the Forward, Introduction, and Chronology about psychedelics, specifically. If you’re interested in cultivating mushrooms or are very curious about fungi, I’d recommend this book.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Sonnets of William Shakespeare by Wm. Shakespeare

The Sonnets of William Shakespeare (Wisehouse Classics Edition)The Sonnets of William Shakespeare by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book consists of 154 sonnets that were published in a quarto dated 1609. It’s not all of the sonnets written by Shakespeare because there were a few stashed in his plays. It’s also not the entire contents of that 1609 quarto, which also included a long-form narrative poem entitled “The Lover’s Complaint.” However, these are the poems typically included in collections of Shakespearean sonnets.

For those unfamiliar with the sonnet, it’s a 14-line poem that’s metered and rhymed. In English language sonnets (and Shakespeare’s, in particular) that metering is iambic pentameter (five feet of alternating unstressed and stressed syllables.) Shakespeare’s sonnets follow a rhyme scheme that is often named for him: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG. (It’s also called English Rhyme, and is differentiated from Petrarchan Rhyme which has an octave of ABBA ABBA and a sestet that can vary, e.g. CDCDCD.) As with all rules of poetry, there is the occasional exceptions taken here and there.

Love, beauty, and death are common recurring themes in the sonnets, but there are occasional forays into tangential topics like lust, infidelity, and immortality through poetry. There are also humorous twists on the expected approach. The most famous Shakespearean sonnet is probably 18 “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”, but we see in another popular contender, Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;”), Shakespeare mocking hyperbole. Of course, he’s not just mocking hyperbole; he’s also saying that he can still love his lover despite the fact that she isn’t in all ways more beautiful than the most pleasing elements of nature (and might even have halitosis.)

There’s no division or formal organization of the sonnets. However, scholars do divide them up in various schemes. One simple way that they are divvied up is to put the first 126 in a category in which Shakespeare addresses a young man. The first 17 sonnets are a subgroup in which the poet attempts to convince the young man to be fertile and multiply. Sonnets 127 – 154 are sometimes called the “Dark Lady” (a.k.a. “Black Mistress”) sequence as they frequently refer to a brunette woman (i.e. the woman whose lips are not as red as coral in Sonnet 130.) One can see the difference in tone extremely contrasted in the two poems mentioned in the preceding paragraph – Sonnets 18 and 130.

Besides the aforementioned sonnets, a few others stand out as personal favorites:
– 55 “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments”
– 27 “Weary with toil, I haste me to my bed,”
– 1   “From fairest creatures we desire increase,”
– 65 “Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,”

But you should read them and find your own favorites. It’s Shakespeare, of course they are highly recommended.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This book offers an account of the activities of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during the mid-1960’s. Kesey is best known as the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a best-selling novel that was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson. The charismatic Kesey led a group of nomadic hippies who came to call themselves “the Merry Pranksters.” There were many counter-culture strains during those years. Some looked East, and pursued spiritual traditions like yoga and Zen. Some were academics who sought to maintain scholarly rigor in adventures through the doors of perception. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters occupied more whimsical territory. As the “prankster” name suggests, taking things seriously wasn’t their way. Their mythology was in comic book superhero tales, and their moral code hedonistic. The titular prank had to do with spiking Kool-Aid with LSD (a.k.a. Acid) – not to be confused the Jim Jones cult which poisoned Kool-Aid and engaged in collective suicide over a decade after the events described in this book took place.

LSD plays a major role in the events of this book. While it’s not mentioned in Wolfe’s book, an interesting thing to note is that Kesey was introduced to hallucinogens through a program funded by the CIA’s nefarious MK-Ultra program. Kesey was working as an Aide at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, and he volunteered for a study on the effects of a number of psychoactive / hallucinogenic drugs. It seems that Kesey took a shine to these substances (most notably LSD) because he kept pursuing psychedelic experiences long after the study was over and even after he’d run afoul of the law (though his arrests were marijuana-related and not about hallucinogens.)

Tom Wolfe used beat-poetic prose to convey the feel of Merry Prankster life. There are even a few free verse poems in the book as well. And, of course, the dialogue conveys the tone of this community. The language is often fun and trippy in a way that contributes to the story. Wolfe put an author’s note amid the book’s back matter that explains his desire to not only tell people about the events but to convey the atmosphere, and I felt he did a nice job in that regard.

The central story hinges on Kesey faking his death (not skillfully) and fleeing to Mexico to evade punishment on his initial marijuana charges, and then — after some time in Mexico — he returned to the US, ultimately doing his time. Over the course of the book, the Pranksters develop a rapport with the Hell’s Angels, they cross paths with the likes of Beat giant Allen Ginsberg and the founders of the Grateful Dead. While it’s nonfiction, and thus not meant to follow a story arc approach beat for beat, Wolfe does tie things up with a nice bow, ending with the Prankster “Graduation” which would see the end of that group before Kesey went off to serve time on his combination of marijuana and evading justice charges. We see a change in Kesey in the last couple chapters as he’s advocating pursuit of the psychedelic state of mind without the use of drugs. It’s hard to say how much of this is trying to cooperate to get better terms, how much it was just growing up, and how much it was a true change in his core beliefs.

I enjoyed this book. It’s fun to read and offers insight into an era with which I wasn’t particularly familiar. I’d only known Kesey from his blockbuster book and a vague reference to his being a participant in a MK-Ultra funded program, and so it was interesting to learn about the intriguing life of this author.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Be As You Are ed. by David Godman

Be As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana MaharshiBe As You Are: The Teachings of Sri Ramana Maharshi by Ramana Maharshi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

In the early days of yoga, before there was Power Yoga or Yin Yoga — or even Hatha Yoga or Raja Yoga, there were three approaches to yoga. Bhakti yoga was devotional yoga, the yoga of the believers who pursued the path through worship. Karma yoga was the yoga of action: practiced by doing selfless deeds. Jnana yoga, often said to the hardest, was the path of knowledge, and it involved intense study and – in particular – introspective study of the jnani’s own mind. Sri Ramana Maharshi was one of the most well-known Jnana yogis of modern times (he lived from 1879 to 1950.)

This book presents Sri Ramana’s teachings in a question and answer format. The editor, David Godman, begins each chapter with an overview of Ramana’s views on the subject at hand, and he then launches into the Q&A exchange that makes up most of each chapter. The preludes are beneficial not only because they set up the topic, but also because they help separate Ramana’s core beliefs from the way he occasionally explained matters to non-jnani’s or those who weren’t ready to grasp what he believed was the fundamental teaching. (There’s a fair amount of, “Until you realize the self, X is true, but after you achieve self-realization Y will be true.)

Sri Ramana’s central teaching is that the jnani must actively inquire about the nature of the true self (a practice called atma-vichara, or self-inquiry.) As such, the book is organized as a guide to building a practice of self-inquiry.

The book’s 21 chapters are divided among six parts. The first part investigates the self as Sri Ramana refers to it. This isn’t the individual self that one is normally referring to in common speech. Part II is entitled “Inquiry and Surrender” and three out of the four chapters, herein, discuss the process of self-inquiry. Three chapters may sound like a lot, but this practice really is the core of jnana yoga. These chapters not only explain how self-inquiry is done and what it’s supposed to achieve, they also contrast the practice with others that bear a resemblance to atma-vichara, such as reciting “Who am I?” as a mantra, as well as, neti-neti — an exercise in negation in which one considers all the things that aren’t the self (e.g. “I am not my body.” “I am not this thought,” etc.)

Part III is about Gurus and transmission of teachings. It takes on such questions as: is a Guru necessary, and what constitutes a Guru (i.e. must it be a living human? Can it be a book?) The second chapter in this part is about sat-sang, which may be literally translated as “sitting with the guru,” but refers to a kind of transference that flows from being together.

Part IV is on meditation and yoga. Sri Ramana differentiates self-inquiry from meditation, though superficially they seem to be similar activities. He discusses dharana (concentration) and mantras in these chapters as well. One inclusion that may seem unrelated to the general theme is chapter 12, which is about the four-stage model of life called the asramas (student, householder, hermit, ascetic.) The chapter on yoga is about the eight limbs of yoga described by Patanjali, and their relevance to the practice of Jnana yogi. It should be noted that Ramana downplays the importance of these practices to the jnana yogi (a.k.a. Jnani) with the exception of pranayama (breathing exercises.)

Part V discusses samadhi, siddhi (supernormal psychic powers that some yogis believe can be achieved), and other challenges and phenomena that may be experienced during one’s practice of self-inquiry. While superpowers sound cool, Sri Ramana (as well as Patanjali) warned against he pursuit of these abilities as they become distractions from obtaining self-realization.

That last five chapters are grouped under the title of “Theory.” These chapters deal in the big “meaning of life” kind of philosophical questions. Much of these chapters consist of Ramana telling the interviewer to stop over-intellectualizing about obscure philosophical matters and start asking oneself who is asking the question (in other words, get back to self-inquiry and forget about abstract navel-gazing.) At any rate, the questions include: was the universe created, and – if so – how? is reincarnation real? what is the nature of god? is karma real? is free will real? etc. They are fascinating questions, and Ramana offers a few intriguing ideas, but mostly discounts the value of philosophizing.

There are no graphics in this book, but there is a glossary, notes, and a bibliography.

I found this book to be thought-provoking. At times it can be a bit repetitive. The key point that Ramana sought to get across is (in theory, not practice) straightforward. At times it seems like the questioner is badgering the witness because he doesn’t like the answer, such as when Godman wants Sri Ramana to elaborate on the nature of suffering and the need for compassionate acts. Ramana keeps telling Godman to just go back to self-inquiry and all will take care of itself. That said, Sri Ramana offers some fascinating thoughts, and generates beautiful food-for-thought.

I’d recommend this book for anyone who wants to know more about jnana yoga or to get a different take on the philosophy of yoga in general.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called LivingEdgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most intriguing writers in American literature. His short life (he died at 40) was productive and inventive. He’s often credited with the invention of the detective story (i.e. “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), and was prolific as a writer of stories, poetry, and criticism. We know him for macabre tales like “Tell-Tale Heart” and the poem, “The Raven.” Few authors invoke such a benighted image.

Yet the popular image of Poe is a bit of a dark caricature, reflecting truths but exaggerating features for effect. Part of this exaggeration probably owes to our collective desire to romanticize the tortured artist – and Poe is as tortured as they come. However, some of the exaggeration of Poe’s faults owe to the fact that he was a harsh critic, and at least one of the authors who felt the sting of his pen found an opportunity to amplify the “drug-addled lunatic” aspect of Poe’s nature in a biography after the great author’s death. That’s not to deny that Poe had an addictive personality. He was both an alcoholic and prone to gambling away whatever funds graced his pockets.

This short biography (less than 150pp.) gives one insight into Poe’s life from birth to death in five chapters. The first of these chapters describes Poe’s childhood, which was marred by the death of his mother, abandonment by his father, and being taken in — but not adopted — by a foster couple. Granted the foster couple was wealthy, but Poe’s foster-father could be a harsh man and the uncertainty of not being formally adopted seemed to have weighed on Poe’s mind.

The middle chapters give special attention to Poe’s life as a writer, noting under what circumstances he was published, starting with a self-published chap book and moving through to becoming one of America’s great men of letters (though he never made enough money to live in comfort.) Poe famously married a cousin who was very young (though of legal age) at the time, and we get some insight into that relationship, which ended not terribly long before his own death. The last chapter gives the details of Poe’s demise.

I found this book interesting and educational. Collins neither gets lost in the minutiae nor give’s Poe’s life short shrift, and it feels as though he reveals the true Poe and not the T-shirt version. I would recommend this book for fans of Poe’s work and for those who are interested in the literary history of America.

View all my reviews