Friday, May 7, 2021

Food of the Gods: The Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, A Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution

Written by: Terence McKenna

First line: A specter is haunting planetary culture—the specter of drugs. 

Why you should read this book: I suppose this will be the last of my COVID reads, but this is another book I've owned for close to two decades without cracking it open. McKenna's now-classic treatise on  psilocybin (magic mushrooms) and related plants delineates his theories on how they guided the development of human consciousness, archaeological evidence for their importance to ancient civilizations, how and why psychedelic experiences fell out of favor as civilization "progressed," what was lost in the transition, what was found when westerners rediscovered them, and what this all means for the future of our species. The book is, at times, heartbreakingly prescient in its discussion of the forces that continue to suppress the knowledge and practices that could heal humans, individually and as an animal species connected to a vegetable world, and yet containing kernels of hope that seem to pop every time another city, state, or country relaxes restrictions on marijuana and psychedelics. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: You are a cryptofascist, or you work for the CIA, or you have a financial interest in the alcohol industry, or you really fell for that lazy D.A.R.E. information someone spewed into your head in the '80s or '90s. 

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Monday, April 12, 2021


Written by: Virginia Hamilton

First line: "You hear that?" Cammy asked Gram Tut. 

Why you should read this book: Cammy spends her free time sneaking into the care home to hang out with her elderly grandmother—her mom works and her brother can't keep track of her and she barely knows her dad—even though she's not supposed to be there without an accompanying adult. She loves Gram Tut, but she hates her perfectionist cousin Patty Ann, whose clothes are always perfect and who never does anything wrong, and she has mixed feelings about Patty Ann's brother Richie and her poor third cousin, Elodie. Cammy thinks she understands her world and her relations, until tragedy turns her understanding of that world upside down.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Some heavy real world stuff for young readers: death, eating disorders, class, family problems. 

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Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Moreta: Dragonlady of Pern

Written by: Anne McCaffrey

First line: Rukbat, in the Sagittarian sector, was a golden G-type star.

Why you should read this book: Another of my "I've owned this volume for decades and never read it" pandemic reads, this is the seventh book in McCaffrey's Pern series, although it's a prequel to the previous six books, taking place so far in advance that the characters of this book are heroic legends sung about in ballads in the later books. Ironically, perhaps, this story is about a planet beset by a deadly pandemic that kills people and livestock and threatens an entire human civilization, and even though it was published in 1983, McCaffrey very accurately predicts the behavior of humans when confronted by a disease of this nature: most grudgingly obey the quarantine, some go for the super extra social isolation quarantine variant, some disregard the safety measures entirely, and some pay lip service to the restrictions while earnestly believing that those restrictions don't apply to themselves and their friends. Masterhealer Capiam recovers from the illness, realizes that his blood must now contain antibodies that can inoculate others, and rushes to produce a vaccine, which Moreta must figure out how to deliver before the second, and surely more deadly wave of the plague destroys the carefully balanced infrastructure required to survive on their hostile world.

Why you shouldn't read this book: You don't believe public health measures apply to you, your friends, or you family. 

The Princess Bride

Written by: William Goldman

First line: This is my favorite book in all the world, though I have never read it.

Why you should read this book: When I was a kid, shortly after the popular film version of this book was released, I wanted to read the original book, but every copy I could find claimed to be an abridged version, and being the intellectual kid I thought myself to be, I wanted to read the full version; only many years later did I understand the concept of the frame story, and the literary devices that Goldman was using terms of pretending to be abridging a more famous and less interesting work when, in fact, he was just very cleverly writing a novel. At any rate, this is still the book you imagine it is, more or less, and while there are things that were changed, added, or left out of the movie, it's basically the same story of a beautiful girl named Buttercup, a poor farm boy called Westley, and the series of event that contrive to keep the true lovers apart until they are reunited at last at the very end. The writing is charming, funny, engaging, and just really smart, and while young readers likely will not enjoy or understand the narrative asides, you can certainly just read the "good parts" if you'd rather. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: It's a good book, really, but some of it feels kind of misogynistic.

Monday, March 15, 2021

Under a Meth Moon

Written by: Jacqueline Woodson

First line: It's almost winter again and the cold moves through this town like water washing over us.

Why you should read this book: Poetic and haunting, this is the brutal story of a high school girl's descent into and ascent out of meth addiction. After losing her mother and grandmother in Hurricane Katrina, Laurel tries to create a new life for herself in a new town, but from the first hit of "moon," her hold on life begins to slip away until her demise seems inevitable. Shines a light on the stark reality of loss, addiction, and the meth epidemic in small town America.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Content warning for meth. Lots and lots of meth.

Root Magic

Written by: Eden Royce

First line: When Gullah people die, babies in the family get passed over the coffin so the dead person won't come back from the beyond to take them away.

Why you should read this book: This absolutely gorgeous novel weaves a rich story about two children who begin to study their family's ancestral knowledge, the traditional root work of the Gullah-Geechee people of South Carolina, after their beloved grandmother's death. It's the early 1960s and Jezebel and Jay must navigate a present made complicated by racism and classism along with the tangled details of the past revealed as they learn and grow and discover what magic is, how it works, and how they will choose to use it. A delightful page turner containing powerful messages about identity and empathy along with just enough spookiness to satisfy a young reader. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: You're a crooked cop.

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Between Worlds: Folktales of Britain and Ireland

Written by: Kevin Crossley-Holland and Frances Castle

First line: As Jemmy strode down the road toward Slane, he began to say praises.

Why you should read this book: It's a very fresh collection of very old stories, made excellent through the author's use of voice, which manages to summon the spirit of oral transmission while remaining accessible to modern readers, and imbues each story with its own character, as if they were collected and transcribed directly from the mouths of dozens of speakers. The tropes and tales are often familiar to students of world mythology and folklore, while retaining their specific regional flair, and impart elements such as setting and culture in ways that come to life as you read. Just a wonderful anthology of rich and detailed folklore, suitable for children, scholars, and dreamers.

Why you shouldn't read this book: Perhaps a bit more drinking and sex than in most children's literature. 

David Mogo Godhunter

Written by: Suyi Davies Okungbowa 

First line: This is going to be a bad job. 

Why you should read this book: David Mogo is a demigod raised by a wizard—he doesn't know his divine mother or his human father, but he's stronger and tougher than an ordinary man—and when his hometown of Lagos, Nigeria was overrun by a variety of god and godlings falling from the heavens ten years ago, it made perfect sense for him to make his living hunting down the weaker godlings annoying his neighbors. He has no interest in tangling with the big gods, but he really needs some money to fix his foster father's roof, so he takes a bad-news gig to capture the twin orishas of abundance for a dangerous and powerful wizard, and there his real troubles begin. Mogo has stumbled into an all-out war for the future of the planet, and he's the only one with the power to stand against the coming onslaught. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: Plenty of supernatural violence, and despite his power, Mogo gets his ass handed to him a lot.


Saturday, February 27, 2021

Man's Search for Meaning

Written by: Viktor E. Frankl 

First line: This book does not claim to be an account of facts and events but of personal experiences, experiences which millions of prisoners have suffered time and again. 

Why you should read this book: One of the most impactful books of the twentieth century, Frankl's narrative is an exceptional source for all seekers of meaning, a philosophy to carry any troubled soul over the waves of existential crisis, an inspirational work highly recommended for all troubling times. While it is, in part, the author's Holocaust memoir and a terrible tale of human suffering under the most horrifying conditions, this is also, and primarily, the foundational work logotherapy, a psychological system that assures us that we can create meaning even in the midst of the most extreme suffering and tragedy. Ideas formulated before the war and refined in the dread crucible of four death camps offer hope in the form of a simple system that transforms hopeless and despair into a viable path forward through meaning. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: You totally have it all together and have never questioned the point of your existence.

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Freedom Riddle

Written by: Angela Shelf Medcaris and John Ward 

First line: It was finally Christmas Day! 

Why you should read this book: It is apparently based on a short story written by William Falkner, which was apparently based on a true story. In the antebellum south, an enslaved Black man named Jim makes a deal: it's Christmas day and slavery is, from a literary perspective, supposed to be nominally less inhumane on Christmas, to the point that a man who is totally cool with owning human beings agrees to allow Jim his freedom if Jim can tell him a riddle to which he can't guess the answer. It takes Jim an entire year and a few observations of the natural world, but he succeeds. 

Why you shouldn't read this book: I guess I'm personally uncomfortable with this type of narrative because it seems to mitigate the horrors of slavery and I'm not sure we need light hearted stories about human bondage, especially in a country where the evils of slavery continue to echo, loudly, through society and continue to harm living people.