Book Reviews

Book Review - Dreamland

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The United States of America is in the midst of a widespread opiate epidemic that has devastated hundreds of small rural towns and suburbs across the country. The captivating story of exactly how this came to be is expertly told in acclaimed journalist Sam Quinones' fantastic book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic, which was published in 2015.

In Dreamland, Quinones magnificently blends together two seemingly-independent narratives: the overly generous prescription of pain medications during the 1990s (including Purdue Pharma's ambitious campaign to aggressively market and sell OxyContin) and the unforeseen—and unprecedented—arrival of cheap, consistent, high quality black tar heroin from one small county in Mexico. According to Quinones, these developments joined forces in a dangerous synergy that ultimately resulted in America's modern-day opiate epidemic.

The book opens with a ridiculously thorough timeline that begins with the distillation of morphine in 1804, moves on to the invention of the hypodermic syringe in 1853 (did you know that the inventor's wife was the first to die of injected drug overdose?), glances at the release of OxyContin in 1996, and ends with the FDA's 2014 approval of Targiniq ER, which combined timed-release oxycodone with naloxone. This timeline, which provides plenty of insight into what went on in between those four events, sets the stage for the book's narrative and successfully primes the reader for the information that follows.

And the actual book doesn't disappoint, either—as the dust-jacket blurb states, it introduces "a memorable cast of characters—pharma pioneers, young Mexican entrepreneurs, narcotics investigators, survivors, and parents, and Quinones shows how these tales fit together." Sure enough, about midway through Dreamland, the reader begins to see the sophisticated web that was woven by several groups of people who were simply following the capitalist dream (operating in their own best interest in an attempt to make as much money as possible), and the once-hidden connections between the people and places involved become as clear as crystal.

When it comes down to it, Dreamland is the best book that I've read so far this year. The story is compelling and unfolds beautifully, in a masterful manner that constantly tempts the reader to read the next chapter. The level of detail that is crammed into each page is truly impressive, but never overwhelming. Simply put—I enjoyed every single word. The topic isn't necessarily the most popular (for the average reader), so I'm not sure that I would recommend this book to someone unless they're already interested in America's opiate epidemic. However, if you are at all intrigued by the topic, then I wholeheartedly recommend this book to you. It will likely take a while to read, because it is packed so densely, but it will be worth your investment of money, time, and energy. And I will keep an eye out for any future books and articles by Quinones, as his writing is an absolute joy to read.

5/5 stars. 385 pages.

Banner image by jplenio, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Book Review - Peace is Every Breath

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I love me a good Thich Nhat Hanh book. They're usually quick and simple to digest, chock-full of easily-applied sage wisdom from one of the most influential Buddhist leaders in the West. Peace is Every Breath is no exception.

Hanh is a world-renowned Vietnamese Zen Buddhist master, poet, scholar, and peace activist who attempts to show people how to incorporate the practice of mindfulness into each and every waking moment. The followup to his bestselling classic, Peace is Every Step, the chapters of this book flow together as a helpful guide that the reader can use to live a fuller life.

He writes:

Mindfulness is what brings us back in touch with what's happening in the present moment in our body, in our feelings, in our thinking, and also in our environment. It enables us to be present in the here and the now, mind and body together, aware of what's going on inside us and around us. And when we are very mindful of something, we are concentrated on it.

This book shows the reader how it is possible to practice cultivating mindfulness in each and every moment, featuring short chapters on various everyday activities that are often tedious and unmemorable for most of us, such as waking up each morning, eating breakfast, and brushing your teeth. I think that Hanh successfully unpacks the concept that we can continue our meditation or yoga practice even if we have gotten up from our zafus or stepped off our mats for the day. While I enjoyed the first book, Peace is Every Step, a bit better than this one, I still think that Peace is Every Breath is well worth reading and would encourage you to check it out if you're in need of a relaxing deep breath.

3/5 stars. 160 pages.

Banner image by Larisa-K, courtesy of Creative Commons licensing.

Book Review - An Appeal to the World

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This is a short—but incredibly sweet—book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It was published in 2017 and contains myriad great wisdom for troubled times. The Dalai Lama once told the co-author of An Appeal to the World, Franz Alt, "I don't have any enemies, only people I haven't met yet." He has spent his life cultivating this positive attitude, and it can be found on every page of this book.

Today's world is marked by division. Politicians are promoting borders rather than inclusion, economic inequality is running rampant, and religion is breeding violence. Yet the need for unity has never been more urgent, because the crises that humanity faces are affecting people all around the world. Many people have lost all hope for the future and wonder what we can possibly do to move forward.

Well, they're in luck, because the Dalai Lama and Alt have created a brilliant book that is capable of watering the seeds of world peace that are already located inside of each and every one of us—even though many people do not know or believe that they exist. He reminds us that all people have two things in common—our universal pursuit of happiness and the compelling desire to avoid suffering. Finding common ground and engaging in an open dialog is an effective way to mitigate the division that we otherwise experience.

One theme that the Dalai Lama repeats several times throughout the book is the concept that ethics are more important than religion. He even goes on to say, "On some days I think it would be better if there were no religions. All religions and all scriptures harbor potential for violence. That is why we need secular ethics beyond all religions." He explains that the core tenets of secular ethics are mindfulness, education, respect, tolerance, caring, and nonviolence. I was pleasantly surprised by how strongly and frequently he spoke about our need to cultivate secular ethics throughout the book.

I was also happy to see that the topic of Trump was also addressed in the book. A lot of people are experiencing suffering because he is currently our President, and hopefully the Dalai Lama's words on this topic will help soothe their psychic wounds.

An Appeal to the World is already a major international bestseller, and for good reason. It's an inspirational, powerful book written by one of the most revered spiritual leaders of our time that has the potentially to truly change the world. It would probably take the average person between one to three hours to read it from cover to cover, and I highly recommend that you do.

4/5 stars. 128 pages.

Book Review - The True Light of Darkness

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This is the most recent book written by the psychedelic writer/speaker/podcaster James W. Jesso—it was published three years ago, in 2015. I reviewed Jesso's book Decomposing the Shadow: Lessons from the Psilocybin Mushroom last summer, if you would like to check it out

In the author's note at the very beginning of this book, James W. Jesso lets his readers know upfront that while The True Light of Darkness was written for the play of reading and storytelling, it should primarily be considered a serious cautionary tale. Although its true that psychedelics can be used as a tool for psychotherapy and alleviating depression, he writes,

"The cautionary elements of this book are to expose how dark, painful and potentially damaging these experiences can be when they lack certain support structures, such as a guide, a supportive community and an understanding of one's psychology."

Later on in the author's note, Jesso mentions that the deepest intention behind writing the book was "greater health, understanding and wisdom for all of us through sharing stories and welcoming conversation." The book is structured in three main parts, which explore the outcomes of three separate challenging experiences that Jesso had with psilocybin mushrooms.

The first chapter in the trip trilogy of chapters is titled 2 Friends, 5 Grams, and a Box from Cusco, Peru and it describes a high-dose mushroom experience that Jesso had with two other friends, during a period of his life when he had recently worked through the feeling of lacking a sense of general direction. That feeling left him confused and perplexed about the purpose of life, but he identified that his life purpose was to write a book about his experiences with psilocybin mushrooms, which eventually became his second book, Decomposing the Shadow: Lessons from the Psilocybin Mushroom. However, that book had not been finished when he embarked on this trip—in fact, he was still in the process of writing it. After making what Jesso considers to have been a "terrible breakfast decision" (consisting of "a toasted kamut grain bun with butter, jam, and hemp seeds, followed by a big bowl of oatmeal and a cup of black tea"), a wave of nervous anxiety washed over him, eventually leading to a series of challenging events that escalated quickly. These events included things like the development of paranoid feelings about a dirty box from Peru, the thought of being attacked by germs in an unhygienic bathroom, and the belief that the Internet was alive and under immediate threat. At one point in the trip, one of Jesso's friends asked him a question about the direction his life was going that sends him into an existential crisis of sorts. However, he ultimately ended up learning that he desperately needed to change the way he approached his writing project, which turned out to be beneficial for his wellbeing.

The next trip trilogy chapter is titled Discovering the True Light of Darkness. It takes place after a thirteen-month practice where Jesso worked with psilocybin mushrooms once per month, always during the full moon, and always solo. He noticed that after more than a year with this practice, he was a noticeably changed man—and for the better. So Jesso decided to break the model he had established and embark on a psychedelic journey outside of the full moon ceremony framework, with one of his close friends, and prior to the December 21, 2012 (a date that was predicted by many, including Jesso, to bring about great change). Both Jesso and his friend were experiencing feelings of anxiety and depression and wanted to work with the mushroom to learn how to alleviate those feelings. Jesso makes a point to describe the custom blend of tea that he consumed at the beginning of his trip, which I found to be an intriguing side note and something to research further on my own in the future. After working through several challenging thoughts during a meditation, a walk in nature, and a productive mind mapping session, Jesso was able to identify the source of his negative emotions and made plans to change his behavior so that he could live a less stressful and happier life.

The final chapter of the trip trilogy is titled Facing Forgiveness; Embracing the Shadow, and it takes place in a unique location: a float tank. Once again, Jesso found himself battling an especially rough round of depression and decided to combine the use of psilocybin with the distraction-free environment of a sensory isolation tank. Although I have not had any personal experiences with float tanks at the time that I write this review, I am aware that they are intense on their own, without the addition of any psychedelic compounds, so it seemed to me to be both extremely courageous and also somewhat foolish to work with the mushroom while floating. However, I also knew that Jesso is not a reckless psychonaut and would not embark on a journey of this caliber without ensuring that he would be in a safe, supportive environment that would minimize any potential physical risks that could occur during the experience. He describes the entire evening's events, including the humble beginnings of consuming a chocolate drink made with the mushrooms, a simple-yet-transformative walk to the float center, and the wild contents of his psychedelic trip inside the tank. Once again, Jesso ends up working through psychological material that was hidden within his unconscious and finds himself healed by his experience with the mushrooms in the tank.

I really enjoyed The True Light of Darkness and found it to be a brutally honest inside look at Jesso's more challenging psilocybin experiences. As someone who has had a fair share of challenging psychedelic experiences, I appreciated how forthcoming Jesso was when describing the things he had to work through (and the methods that he employed to do so) and how these psychedelic experiences positively impacted his life. If you're interested in psychedelics, and especially if you want to know how challenging they can be, you owe it to yourself to check out this book. At the very least, I encourage you to head over to jameswjesso.com and look at all of the work that he has produced, including three books, a collection of writings, a podcast called Adventures Through The Mind, and a series of videos. As a fellow writer and content creator, I definitely look up to Jesso and strive to create content that is similar in both quantity and quality. Perhaps one of these days I will write a book that is as honest and insightful as The True Light of Darkness, but for now the psychedelic community is blessed to have books like this one.

4/5 stars. 156 pages.

Book Review - A Walk in the Woods

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This one remained on my "To-Read" list for several years, but it sat there untouched until I recently started getting more interested in hiking. Sometimes going into a book knowing next-to-nothing is a good idea, whereas other times it can help to have a solid foundation of what to expect. I didn't know much about A Walk in the Woods before I cracked it open other than that it was about hiking the Appalachian Trail, and I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

In this book, author Bill Bryson weaves together a captivating tale with well-researched information about the Appalachian Trail's history and the surrounding sociology, plants, animals, and people. The story starts with an interest in hiking the trail that grows in him after moving to New England and follows Bryson on his voyage through the wilderness alongside his old friend "Stephen Katz". Their general naïveté concerning the art of hiking and frequently-clashing personalities make for some hilarious (and occasionally foolishly dangerous) situations.

The book is written in a style that cleverly mixes together gut-busting humor and Bryson's serious storytelling ability into an extremely satisfying concoction. I wholeheartedly recommend reading A Walk in the Woods if you have any interest in hiking, nature, or having a good laugh. It's no wonder that this book made The New York Times Best Sellers list and was named the funniest travel book ever written by CNN—Bryson's ability to be honest and vulnerable about the myriad of challenges that he and Katz faced on the trail make for a compelling and entertaining read.

4/5 stars. 305 pages.