Book Reviews

Book Review - The Portable Frank


A few days after reading Jim Woodring's Weathercraft, I moved onto another strange tale in the Frank universe—this time it was The Portable Frank. Unlike the first Frank comic I read, which is a full-length graphic novel with a cohesive plot through and through, The Portable Frank is a more typical book in the Frank universe because it contains various vignettes that are only tangentially related to one another.

This book's description reads:

[A] unique, visionary comic, exquisitely drawn and so fully realized that adults and children alike find themselves drawn deeply into Woodring's hallucinatory landscape. The stories, almost entirely wordless, unravel like a good puzzle, rewarding re-reading, providing an experience as immersive as that first love affair, that first samadhi, or that first breath. Simply put, the world of Frank must be experienced to be understood.

I couldn't put it better myself. The Portable Frank is a special book, capable of launching readers on a journey into outer (and inner) space without the use of any psychoactive substances. The main character, who goes by the name of Frank, is a fun-loving anthropomorph that looks like a cross between Mickey Mouse and Goofy. Frank lives in a peculiar landscape called the Unifactor, where he wanders around on surreal adventures with his housedog-like pet Pupshaw. On their way, they encounter Manhog, the main character from Weathercraft, as well a variety of several other creatures ranging from adorable to downright terrifying.

I really enjoyed this book and I imagine if I read it a few more times I'd probably love it even more. If you're into weird art of the mind-bending variety, then you should get your hands on a copy of The Portable Frank.

4/5 stars. 200 pages.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my review of Weathercraft.

Book Review - Weathercraft


This is a pleasantly (and at times, downright terrifyingly) strange book created by a weird visionary artist and creator by the name of Jim Woodring. I first heard of Jim on the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast a couple years ago. Their conversation went to several interesting places—art, vedanta, meditation, and of course Jim's Frank series of graphic novels. Even though I'm not necessarily a devotee of the anime/comic book/manga/graphic novel genre, I knew I had to check out this series because Jim's genuine interest in esoteric topics and Duncan's fantastic description of his artistic style really piqued my curiosity.

So I checked out three Frank books from my local library a few months ago and took them to the beach with me for a two-week vacation. My travel partners and I ended up eating a fairly large dose of psilocybin mushrooms (5 grams) in the middle of our vacation and it was during the come-up of that trip that I pulled this book out and started to enter the Frank universe.

Weathercraft seemed like the best Frank comic to start with compared to the other selections I had (The Portable Frank and Fran) because of the book's description on Goodreads:

For over 20 years now, Jim Woodring has delighted, touched, and puzzled readers around the world with his lush, wordless tales of “Frank.” Weathercraft is Woodring’s first full-length graphic novel set in this world—indeed, Woodring’s first graphic novel, period!—and it features the same hypnotically gorgeous linework and mystical iconography.

Without much knowledge about the Frank series, I thought that the "first full-length graphic novel set in this world" would be a good place to start. And I found out that although the reader can certainly jump into this universe with any of the comics, the main character in Weathercraft is merely an extra in the other books, not the protagonist of the series. This one isn't really about Frank much at all.

Even though Frank has a brief supporting appearance in this book, which actually stars Manhog (a pathetic, brutish everyman who regularly shows up in other stories), I really enjoyed reading it. Especially while I was tripping on magic mushrooms—the psychedelic art and bizarre story mixed quite well with them.

So what happens in this story? Well, after enduring a nearly unbearable amount of unfathomable suffering, Manhog sets off on a transformative journey and attains enlightenment. Along the way, he encounters the cruelest foes imaginable, mind-bending landscapes, and various flavors of truly twisted torment. Weathercraft is horrifyingly magnificent and similar to the psychedelic experience by being frustratingly ineffable. It's all very strange and beautiful and must be experienced firsthand to be understood.

Ultimately, even though I was a bit disappointed when I realized that Weathercraft was not about Frank very much at all, I did find it to be an excellent introduction to this world. If you're looking for a trippy book to spend an afternoon or evening with, you should definitely owe it to yourself to check out a Frank book, and Weathercraft would be an excellent one to start with.

4/5 stars. 104 pages.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my review of The Portable Frank.

Book Review - Breakfast with Buddha


Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a cross-country road trip with the Buddha? If so, you should check out Roland Merullo's spiritual novel Breakfast with Buddha, which will give you a glimpse of that experience.

My mother recommended this book to me a couple years ago and I filed it away on my "Want to Read" list but had mostly forgotten about it until an alert from Bookbub informed me that it was on sale for Kindle last year. So I bought it and then promptly forgot about it again. But I eventually got around to adding it to my list of "Books I'll Read Next" and started reading it in July.

The book sucked me in pretty quickly. It's narrated in first-person by the protagonist, a nice and caring family man named Otto Ringling. He is a highly intellectual editor of food books who has a bit of a skeptic streak running through his veins. At the beginning of the story, Otto's parents pass away, and he plans to drive his eccentric sister from New York to his home state of North Dakota in order to settle their family's estate. But somehow he ends up traveling with a Siberian monk by the name of Volya Rinpoche instead of his sister. Otto's disbelief toward spirituality or religion makes for a hilarious dynamic as the pair teach each other about their different backgrounds, cultures, and views on life—all while stuck together in a car for 1800 miles.

Breakfast with Buddha is perfect for someone who is looking for a lighthearted tale to kick back and relax with. But it's not all just fun and games. While there are plenty of laughs, there are also inspirational life lessons scattered throughout this book, and I look forward to one day reading the other books in this trilogy: Lunch with Buddha and Dinner with Buddha. I don't know much about them at this point, but my mom says that each one is better than the last. And she might be right—after all, she was about this one!

4/5 stars. 353 pages.

Book Review - The Center of the Universe Is Right Between Your Eyes But Home Is Where the Heart Is

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Prepare to have your mind blown. Matthew Pallamary's most recent work, The Center of the Universe Is Right Between Your Eyes but Home Is Where the Heart Is (published last November) is clearly the result of a lifetime of dedicated research and lived experience. He wrote and published 12 books before this one, but this is the first book of his that I have read so far and it turned out to be everything that I had hoped for and so much more. So what exactly is it about?

Well, that's a bit difficult to effectively pin down, because this book covers a wide variety of topics. From shamanism and visionary states to cognitive neuroscience and sacred geometry, The Center of the Universe covers a lot of ground. It opens with the thought-provoking question "Who or what are we really?" and spends the next 200+ pages delightfully unpacking it.

At its core, this book is a study in perception. Pallamary explores the idea that we are in full control of how we choose to interpret the external stimuli that we use to create our own realities. He backs that up with a lot of science, diving deep into the research that explains why we are able to do things like watch a gorgeous sunrise, listen to a symphony of croaking frogs, or taste the blissful sweetness of an orange.

The section titled "How We Perceive Reality in the Physical World" goes into depth on the concept of sense perceptions, and it's packed to the brim with factoids about how our physical bodies work. For example, did you know that the average individual is capable of distinguishing over one trillion unique odors? How about the fact that some bears in North America have a sense of smell that is seven times stronger than that of a bloodhound, enabling them to locate food underground?

Pallamary also argues the point that—contrary to popular belief—shamanism is the world's oldest profession:

"[Shamanism] is an amalgam of the world's oldest professions with roots that range well beyond our historical stereotypes of witch doctors, wild men, and demonically possessed primitives. Among other things, shamans were the first doctors, performing artists, musicians, storytellers, teachers, priests, psychologists, and magicians, who performed critical functions in their societies."

In addition to all of those roles, shamans also played an important role in discovering the potentials of plants. Pallamary includes a brilliant quote from a scientist who said, "Each time a medicine man dies, it is as if a library has been burned down." If you thought you knew a lot about shamans before, just wait until you get a chance to read what he has to say about them—you're sure to learn a thing or two.

Moving on from shamanism, a section on the Jungian concept of the "dark side" (also referred to as the "shadow") explains how each of us has an unconscious aspect of our personalities that the conscious ego does not identify in itself. We not only store the least desirable aspects of our personalities there—positive aspects can be found in the shadow as well.

I was especially moved by a chapter in the book titled "The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind." Shamanistic cultures revered and respected elemental spirits like the Wind, a formless, invisible energy that literally caresses us both inside and out, flowing into our mouths and down our throats to fill our lungs so that we can stay alive. It's unfortunate that our Western societies do not have much respect for elemental spirits, but I believe that we are building our momentum in that direction. Hopefully we will get there before it is too late.

The Center of the Universe also dives deep into the Hero's Journey, a popular structural form taken from Joseph Campbell's book The Hero With A Thousand Faces. Pallamary shows how it has its roots in shamanism and occurs in every culture, every time, and is "as infinitely varied as the human race itself." Popular stories like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings follow this structural form closely, which is part of the reason why they are enjoyed by so many people around the world.

The last few chapters of the book cover the topics of sacred geometry, the infinite octave in art and music, and resonance. I wasn't that familiar with these concepts before reading this book, but I became so enthralled that at this point I couldn't put it down. The Center of the Universe finishes quite strong, enticing the reader to keep turning the page.

All in all, I'm extremely glad that I read this book. I encourage you to read it as well, and I'm confident that you will find great value in it if you choose to take on the challenge. Similar to a psychedelic journey, its contents have the potential to evolve you into a higher being.

5/5 stars. 214 pages.

Be sure to check out Matt's website and new book here. If you liked this book review, you might also enjoy reading an interview I conducted with him that wanders through psychedelic history, shamanic exploration, and Palenque. In addition, here is an excerpt from The Center of the Universe that explores the ways that shamanistic cultures revere elemental spirits like the wind.

Book Review - Dreamland


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.