Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer

I rarely see feature films, but I did see "Florence Foster Jenkins" where Meryl Streep played the title role. I have known about this notorious singer since childhood, as she was always listed in the Guinness Book of World Records (which I read annually since I was about nine) under the category Singers. Her "world record" entailed:

"While no agreement exists as to the identity of history's greatest singer, there is unanimity on the worst." 

That's, surprisingly, quite a subjective statement from a source known for its objective argument-settling reputation. At least the book was worth reading under the McWhirters' editorship. So when the new biography Florence Foster Jenkins: The Inspiring True Story of the World's Worst Singer by Nicholas Martin and Jasper Rees came out, in tandem with the movie, I had to read it. First of all, in spite of the cover art, this is not a book adaptation of the movie. It merely capitalizes on it. While the movie concentrates only on Jenkins in her later years as a singer, Martin and Rees have told Jenkins's story starting from before her birth. The authors have done their research into Jenkins's family and birthplace history and provided valuable insight into the development of the woman known, and loathed, for her singing. They do not race through her childhood and time as a young woman. In fact, if the reader only wanted to read about her concert performances as a singer, he'd have to wait until the second half of the book. 

While the juiciest parts of this biography relate to audience reactions and newspaper reviews of her concerts, I found her early life--she was married at fourteen--to be equally captivating. Her marriage to a doctor (a disaster doomed from the start if she was a bride at fourteen) and her troubles with her father's will instilled in her a distrust of all authority figures, and not only doctors and lawyers. 

Jenkins moved to New York City after she separated from her husband and ascended the vibrant social scene, climbing the ladder of high society at tea parties, afternoon dances and music clubs. Jenkins formed her own such club, the Verdi Club, of which she was the president, and sponsored and hosted many musicians and singers over the years. She was a skilful pianist in her own right, and performed at various clubs herself. Jenkins soon became a grande dame of the wealthy social set, and was well respected for her charitable work and for organizing concerts and benefits at her own club. 

An arm injury prevented her from playing the piano at her club's own concerts, and that could be the reason she took to singing later in life. The authors made a solid case for the late blooming of Florence Foster Jenkins: 

"While it is conceivable that Florence's stories of thwarted musical ambition were exaggerated, there are enough different sources which talk of her parents banning her from singing to confirm that, in later life, Florence at least believed she had been held back." 

Her repressive parents and husband hindered her creativity and Jenkins could never break out on her own until they had all died. This psychological straitjacket now removed, she could do whatever she wanted and had the money, her own music club as well as subservient friends to help her along. As long as the Verdi Club's members were partaking of their president's extravagant concerts and parties, the least they could do was indulge her if she decided to take to her own stage:

"Thus the cycle began: in return for her vast social and cultural largesse, Florence received uncritical approbation for her singing." 

None of her close friends dared laugh or tell her how awful a singer she was. To do so might have meant instant banishment from her club and being blacklisted from the New York social scene. So people sat through her concerts by grinning and bearing it:

"It was very difficult for anyone to tell her the unvarnished truth: not Verdi Club membership, not the many opera singers launched upon New York thanks to Florence's patronage, not charities who profited from her fundraising, not journalists (real critics being uninvited), certainly not St. Clair [Bayfield, her common-law husband]. In whatever spirit they were offered, Florence chose to believe every compliment and accept every invitation." 

Her disdain for authority figures carried over towards journalists. She dismissed any critical reviews of her singing and recordings as being from uneducated uncultured heathens. No one knew opera as well as she did and her critics were not in any position to judge her. 

Sadly, her distrust of lawyers had a devastating impact on her common-law husband St. Clair Bayfield. Since Jenkins died intestate (the authors however claimed that she did in fact have a will) Bayfield could not inherit. Jenkins died in 1944 and common-law spouses who did not even share the same residence had no legal standing. Therefore Jenkins's estate went to her next of kin blood relatives: all twenty of her second cousins. Bayfield managed to prove in court a common-law relationship and was awarded only a fraction of her estate. 

Her accompanist, Cosme McMoon, was known to laugh while playing for her and hamming it up for the audience. His testimonials about working for Jenkins are known to be exaggerated, however the few (soundless, thankfully) movie clips that exist of Jenkins in concert prove his point:

"'She added histrionics to every number.' recalled Cosme McMoon, 'generally acting the action, if it were an aria, or other appropriate action if it were a descriptive song, or else she would go into different dances during these numbers, which were extremely hilarious.'"

According to McMoon:

"the audience nearly always tried not to hurt her feelings by outright laughing, so they developed a convention that whenever she came to a particularly excruciating discord or something like that, where they had to laugh, they burst into these salvos of applause and whistles and the noise was so great that they could laugh at liberty." 

Jenkins would often break out of song and acknowledge the applause, bow and catch a few breaths, and then resume singing. Jenkins recorded nine songs on 78 rpm and all of them are available on CD. I own one such CD and can attest to her need for frequent inhalations. She could not see her own need to draw breath mid-song, yet the listeners could:

"And if others could not be relied upon to sing her praises, Florence sang them herself. In one Verdi Club programme she wrote, '[Luisa] Tetrazzini took three breaths to sing this phrase, I do it in one.' A woman at a recital begged to differ: 'She did it in twenty-four.'"

The line that bowled me over and continues to do so upon subsequent rereadings is the reaction of audience members who did not have to act so sycophantic:

"Verdi Club concerts were free to the members but tickets could be bought by the public, which meant that audiences soon started to swell with non-loyalists who had never been to a Silver Skylark ball or a Rose Breakfast. Word spread in the early 1930s about the unique phenomenon of the singing president. In 1934 the audience contained a rogue element who paid $2 for a guest ticket, made their way to the back of the auditorium and laughed their heads off."

Jenkins's common-law husband sums up his wife's talent quite succinctly:

"The recitals acquired a cult popularity. In St. Clair's estimation this was down to what he called her 'star quality'...'There is something about her personality that makes everyone look at her with relish. That is what my wife had.'"

Monday, August 13, 2018

Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search For The Afterlife, Immortality and Utopia

By day Michael Shermer is the author of several bestsellers including The Moral Arc and The Believing Brain by night he is a world-renowned skeptic. How exactly does one build one’s reputation as a skeptic? In Shermer’s case he founded the Skeptics Society and is editor-in-chief of its periodical Skeptic magazine he also contributes a column here and there to Scientific American. Shermer is perhaps best understood as a scientific skeptic, that is, a skeptic whose opinions are informed by science in its procedures and what it accepts as evidence. Heavens on Earth is Shermer’s latest book and in it he tackles the human obsession with death and legacy.

Why can’t we live forever? Would we want to live forever?

These are a few of the seminal questions humans have contemplated for millennia. For human beings it is not enough to simply desire life everlasting we also burn to know why mortality is our lot—all the better to fight inevitable demise, one supposes. Human history is dotted with written accounts of individuals who have claimed access to an eternal realm, or seen the abode of the gods, or have experienced God himself in his divine home. It is hard to know what to make of these claims. They seem extraordinary and tantalizingly mysterious. For anyone who has lost a loved one belief in continued existence after death may provide joyful solace. But are these claims of proof in a life beyond the grave verifiable? The answer ultimately is no they are not. Why not? Because science provides our best standards for verifiability and these extraordinary claims of post-mortem survival do not stand up to the rigours of the scientific method.

The same verifiability standards set against the proofs for heaven are applied with equal precision to beliefs in immortality, broadly conceived, and to the attainment of utopian existence here on earth. None of these ideas and the evidence that supports them fairs well under the lights of the scientist’s microscope.

The pattern in all cases is the same. Shermer takes a belief and then subjects it to the scientific sniff test. Beliefs (thoughts and feelings) turn out to be nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. Things that are seen or felt beyond the grave as, for example, some have claimed to have experienced after a so called near-death experience are illusions or the distortions that naturally occur when the physical brain is under stress or in some cases damaged. After the analysis ideas of heaven, immortality, even God are deemed unverifiable and likely false. One can’t help feeling that we are left with a purposeless universe of atoms moving in a void.

So no heaven no meaning to life, right? Not according to Shermer. He argues that a purposeful life is achievable despite the apparent purposelessness in the universe.  Meaning and purpose in life is personal. You get out of life what you put into it. Love and family, career, social and political involvement, setting goals for oneself these are all ways that people can have meaning in their lives without the need for any transcendent deity or eternal heavenly abode.

It is hard to argue against Shermer because he will accept no other court of appeal than the physicalism of scientific experiment and verification. Atheists will find much in this book to bolster their opinions. Shermer, it should be noted, isn’t arguing against the fact that humans have hopes and dreams of immortality and utopia. His point is much more circumscribed. He looks at what has been offered as proof for the existence of a heavenly realm, and claims people make for immortality. Each bit of evidence on offer is scrutinized and found inadequate. 

To begin this brief book review I wrote that Shermer was a scientific skeptic. I want to return to that. To be a scientific skeptic is to accept as evidence for an argument such experiential criteria that can be observed and quantified.  Science is extraordinarily effective (and useful) as an exercise in telling us what something is, what its parts are, and also how that something works, that is, science can provide categories of analysis and functional explanations for most of what surrounds us in the universe. I wrote “most”. Beliefs about the afterlife and ideas concerning immortality and utopias have much more to do with human desires, hopes and aspirations. Hope is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down on the petri dish of scientific experimentation. Why? Because there is something non-physical about thoughts and ideas. Defining exactly what that “something” is, well that is another story. The usual strategy for a scientific skeptic is to reduce all experience to objective, physical stuff, but is this reductionism legitimate? Do we not lose something … something important? I think we do. Life (or experience) has an inside and an outside. The outside can most definitely be analyzed by scientific methods and we can learn much from examining the world in this way. But the inside subjective quality of experience cannot be reduced to atoms and void so it remains stubbornly beyond the reach of scientific method. Physical proof of heaven, nope, but hope springs eternal.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About: Collected Nonfiction

When the author Saul Bellow died in 2005 at the age of 90, I was saddened and disappointed by the scant attention paid to his passing. Bellow was one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century. His novels are still relevant, in a way that many of past generations are not. And his writing... his writing is simply astounding.

With this in mind, and my love of nonfiction, I looked forward to reading There Is Simply Too Much To Think About, a collection of Bellow's nonfiction. I assumed that Bellow's intelligence, insight, compassion, and precision command of language would make for some fascinating reading. I was right.

The essays, speeches, and literary criticism collected in this volume display a towering intellect, but not a cold one. Bellow's view of the world is always humane and compassionate. He observes keenly, he understands deeply, but he also feels deeply. His gift is the ability to convey that feeling in a way that feels completely novel, bringing the reader new insights into the human condition.

There Is Simply Too Much To Think About recalls, for me, my favourite nonfiction collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace. Both Bellow and Wallace are willing to play out a train of thought as far as it will take them, both broadly and deeply. Both were gifted observers who possessed an astounding command of language. But beyond all that (which is a lot), both observed with compassion, and with love.

At the time Wallace was writing the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing, novels, film, and visual arts were stuck in the ironic mode. Everyone was jaded; everything was viewed with rolled eyes. Wallace wrote about the overuse of irony, and in his own work, he eschewed that orientation for something more meaningful, and more compassionate. (If you're not familiar with this, this piece in Salon may be useful, and if you want more, Wallace's "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction".)

Bellow, of course, didn't grow up in a world of ironic observation, but he similarly comments on an orientation from his own eras -- the academy, and the theoretical approach to literature. In many of the essays in There Is Simply Too Much, Bellow discourses on his own methods as being free from theory. He digresses to tell us, in essence, that he writes from his heart and his mind -- and he hopes you will read with yours. Bellow wants us to stand in front of a work of art and gasp at its beauty, and be awed by the emotions that beauty stirs in us -- not read about that art in a guidebook, or worse, be told what it symbolizes.

The writing collected in There Is Simply Too Much, selected by Benjamin Taylor, is organized chronologically, but there's no reason to read it that way. For me this is a book to dip into, to read it bits and pieces, perhaps in between novels. The writing is extremely clear and precise, lively and not dense, but it's heady stuff, requiring time and thought. Reading it from start to finish could be a test of endurance, and there's no point turning such good writing into a drudgery.

These essays contain a huge number of references to people that readers may not be familiar with, both because their fame may not have made it to our era, and because Bellow must have been the most well-read man in the world. Some of the references I knew, others I was able to understand through context, and for a few, I employed Google. In the end notes, editor Benjamin Taylor explains:
Bellow's references are typically to well-known persons and phenomena and I have preferred not to impose on the reader with unnecessary footnotes. If certain of his allusions are less familiar, details about Viscount Bryce, Elbert Hubbard, Freud's Rat Man, Boob McNutt, Colonel Bertie McCormick, Billie Sol Estes and Oh! Calcutta! are nowadays at one's fingertips.
Given how many footnotes would have been needed -- how often the flow of Bellow's writing would have been interrupted -- I applaud Taylor's choice.

The book jacket blurb calls this book "a guided tour of the twentieth century...conducted by one of modern life's most inspiring minds". I'll go with Taylor's words, as he thanks Janis Freedman Bellow, Bellow's wife and partner: it is "a book of wonders". [This review was also posted on wmtc.]

Monday, July 23, 2018

Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages

I enjoyed Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren. In a little under three hundred pages Dorren profiled sixty European languages. That's not all the languages on the continent, of course, but he did cover some of my favourites. This book was originally published in Dutch and was translated by Alison Edwards. I saw the German translation when I was in Berlin last week. Some of the language chapters were written by other authors, and I wish Jenny Audring, who wrote the chapter on Finnish, had let a native speaker or Finnish linguist read it first. She made one error about Finnish vowel length. More to come about that.

I generally avoid books like this, because three to five pages about a language is not going to provide me with any knowledge I didn't already know. For an armchair linguist such as myself, I like to think I know a bit already about European languages, how they got there, which language family they are from and who speaks them. My own language studies have taken me into the world of severely endangered European languages as well, so I know a lot already about Romansch, Breton and the Sami idioms. I was thus glad to read that the object of this book wasn't just to tell a very concise history of each of these languages (and in many cases, he didn't do that at all). Instead, Dorren wrote about quirky moments from a language's history, or about a certain linguistic phenomenon, or how a language developed its written form, or about anything else that may have caught his fancy. He centred on one specific episode and made the reader laugh while reading about it.

Indeed, I took a liberal amount of notes over the course of my reading, both for further items of study as well as for citing in this review. Dorren asked the question: What does Greek think about non-Greeks inventing terms using Greek roots that would not, strictly speaking, form a legitimate Greek structure? How do foreign-built compounds fit into the modern Greek language? Do Greeks laugh at them or roll their eyes as they use new terms such as ontogenesis and android? These are, in effect, "loanwords in Greek, albeit ones of Greek origin". Turns out that the Greeks treat these words as if they were home-grown. I never would have thought that five pages on the Greek language would have included a discussion of this.

Audring had me laughing with her remark about the length of Finnish words. Words that are so long need a lot of paper to write them down on,

"But a nation with such an abundance of forests is hardly short of paper."

Where Audring erred is in her confusion regarding the meaning of vowel length. Finnish employs vowels that are pronounced longer (meaning that they are pronounced for a longer duration) than other vowels. This difference in length of pronunciation can affect the meaning of a word. For example, Toronton means "of Toronto; Toronto's" whereas if you lengthen the time you enunciate the final vowel, and write it accordingly with a double O, such as Torontoon, that means "to(wards) Toronto; in the direction of Toronto". The O-sound in the final syllable of Toronton is a short O. The O-sound in the final syllable of Torontoon is a long O. Audring confuses "long" and "short" with its grade-school English phonics class context, where she calls the vowel sounds in words such as foe and though as "long" yet the vowel sound in the word swap as "short". They are not comparable as they are totally different vowel sounds. The issue of vowel length in a Finnish context cannot be compared with the "cod/code" issue of vowel length (or shortness) in an English context.

English does have long vowels and short vowels as does Finnish, yet native English speakers don't even realize it. Take for example the two pairs coat and code and cot and cod. In the examples ending with the T-sound, the vowel sound is pronounced in a shorter duration than the vowel sound in the words ending with the D-sound. Say the two words in each pair over and over again and you will hear that you say the O-sound a little bit longer when it is followed by the voiced consonant, the D. That's how English works, or specifically, how English is spoken in my region of Canada: all vowels are lengthened before voiced consonants.

The chapter on Finnish (chapter 54) was followed by Faroese, which was chapter 55. So for the first fifty-three of sixty chapters I was okay. Dorren impressed me with his linguistic tidbits and he whet my appetite for conducting further research. However he ruined my otherwise faultless impression of his book (Audring's Finnish glitch notwithstanding) by his wholly dismissive and insulting opinion of the Faroese language and those who wish to study it. Why should one study Faroese anyway, when "you could chat to the locals in the somewhat more useful Danish language. All Faroese speak it and, to cap it off, with much clearer accents than the Danes." The nerve! I have just returned from a holiday in the Faroe Islands and whenever and wherever I travel, I always try to converse with the locals. My Faroese is quite limited, yet the smiles and looks of appreciation I received when I greeted people and thanked them in their own language! Not in English and definitely not in Danish. I spoke with them as a foreigner in their own language (or, admittedly, tried to) and they loved it. Dorren wrote admirably about the Faroese language's case system and the adoption of the written Faroese language, then dismissed all efforts to learn the language:

"Oh, whatever. Learn Sorbian or Basque instead. They'll be of more use to you."

Maybe I should just let this roll off my back but Faroese will be of use to you in the Faroe Islands. Sorbian will be of use to you in southeast Germany. Basque will be of use to you in Euskal Herria. But anyway, don't insult my beloved føroyskt. Maybe Dorren ought to read No Nation is an Island: Language, Culture, and National Identity in the Faroe Islands.

Dorren covered certain endangered languages and their varying degrees of success at revival. Irish, for example, seems to be on the right track and is gaining speakers who are motivated to use it outside of the classroom. Dorren writes:

"Of the 90,000 or so people for whom Irish is part of their daily lives, an increasing number are urban, highly educated second-language speakers, and their Irish is, well, just not quite the same as the old language. Some politely call it urban Irish. Others mock it as 'Gaelscoil' ('school'), 'broken' or even 'pidgin' Irish.
"The differences are quite significant. Linguist Brian Ó Broin observed a few years ago that urban second-language speakers had trouble understanding native speakers, whereas native, mostly rural speakers found the Irish of urbanites jarring on the ear."

In the end, though, Dorren wonders if urban Irish will supplant the purer rural Irish.

At the end of every chapter Dorren listed some words from each language that have been adopted into English. For French and Italian there are hundreds and hundreds of examples. For some languages, such as Monégasque, there are none. He also highlighted words that existed in each language that perhaps could find a use in English (lacunae). My favourite was the Hungarian example madárlátta, which means "food taken for an outing but brought back home uneaten".

In the acknowledgements I found it sad that Dorren credited a proofreader who obviously missed a very unmissable name. Robert de Kock is thanked by Dorren for providing help about the Basque language, yet in the following paragraph (on the same page) he is referred to as de Cock. Which is it?

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian

Last year I read and wrote about The Maximum Security Book Club: Reading Literature in a Men's Prison. Avi Steinberg's Running the Books: the Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian starts out disappointing, but once it kicks in, is a wonderfully satisfying and beautifully written book.

When we meet Steinberg, he is somewhat adrift, having abandoned his religious studies at Yeshiva University, escaping to Harvard, but graduating with no discernible direction or passion to find one. The writing is snarky and self-deprecating; the tone is pure staccato. I thought Running the Books might be one of those "guy reads" that I find shallow and irritating.

But when Steinberg accepts a position as a prison librarian -- with no experience in either prisons or libraries -- the writing slows down, and it blossoms. Perhaps the early tone is meant to reflect Steinberg's state of mind at the time. Once it kicks in, the writing is beautiful, and the book is a wonderfully satisfying read.

Steinberg introduces the reader to the prisoners -- both men and women -- who frequent his library, with a keen eye for detail, a wry humour, and a voice suffused with compassion.

The library is a prison hang-out, a somewhat less supervised space where inmates can interact a bit more freely. In this way, Steinberg is witness to interactions an outsider normally would never see. Steinberg also runs a writing class, where inmates reveal bits of their lives and emotions.

The library also functions as an underground post office: prisoners leave each other messages -- known as "kites" -- in books. Many of these messages are romantic in nature, as the male and female inmates live in separate areas, and their paths rarely cross. Steinberg is supposed to destroy these notes, but he cannot bring himself to be so punitive about communication. He copies the messages into a notebook, and they form a sad, lonely core at the heart of this book.

I really liked Steinberg's writing, but I liked his point of view even more. He writes about the inmates with open eyes, not trying to romanticize or sugar-coat their crimes, but also with an open heart, one that recognizes the social complexities that may bring one person to prison and the other to rehab, with completely different outcomes. He is clearly changed by his experience, but he leaves it up to the reader to judge both how he changed, and how much. [A version of this review appeared on wmtc.]

Monday, June 25, 2018

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World

Dinosaurs are a persistent source of fascination for many people. Everything about earth’s ancient prehistoric past freezes the workaday humdrum reasoning part of our brain and liberates the imagination. Asking the question, What would it have been like to live back then? is inevitable with even the slightest perusal  into this topic (FYI, for much of the time, especially for the first generation of dinosaurs, it would have felt very much like living in a sauna). Author Steve Brusatte is a paleontologist at the University of Edinburgh and his book The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs reads like an epic.

The book is all about the dinosaurs but also discusses the planetary conditions that lead up to the proliferation of the many dinosaur species. Included in the narrative are several of the mass extinction events with special emphasis on the Permian extinction event roughly 250 million years ago.  The Permian extinction wiped out perhaps as much as 90% of the living species on earth. Slowly over millions of years the living animate things rebounded and the stage was set for the rise of the massive reptilian creatures of popular imagination. And there were many, many species of these house sized reptiles. One of the startling facts encountered within the pages of this book is the ongoing and frequent discover of ever new species of dinosaurs.

What makes Brusatte’s story so interesting and what separates his account from many others I have read is the emphases placed on current technology and the creative efforts of scientists to “get inside the heads” of the dinosaurs. What did they think? How did they sense the world? How did they hunt their prey? Researchers in our day with all the latest gadgets that the year 2018 has on offer are attempting to squeeze every ounce of information out of the fossil records.  The results are intriguing and provide an almost visceral glimpse into the lives of these huge creatures.

For a topic of this size (pun intended), The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs is not an overwhelming read. The tone is actually quite conversational and is filled with the author’s observations about his profession. His enthusiasm for the subject and his delight with every new discovery is evident on every page. If you wanted one volume on the latest research into all things dinosaurs this could be the book for you.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence

The word "Psychedelic" has many connotations for people. When I hear the word I tend to think about the 1960s and Hippie culture---a time of experimentation and a more casual attitude to recreational drug use. But those carefree years are long gone. A plethora of warnings about abuse and the potential lethal nature of psychedelics ended the carefree part of the 60s. Governments around the world have prohibited the recreational use of these substances noting the growing list of dangers to public health. So what are psychedelics? They are drugs that alter the normal functioning of the brain; essentially they are chemicals that if not taken with extreme caution can permanently damage one's cognitive capacities, even potentially kill the one taking them. Given this reality, the reader will be surprised to find author Michael Pollan's considered suggestion that society rethink its ban on psychedelics, and even make access to them more available to the general public.

LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) is one of the better known psychedelics but there are many others. Mind altering drugs have been used by people since fire was invented and food was retrieved only at the end of a stone tipped club and after a major chase. That is to say psychedelics have been around for a long time. However, it has only been relatively recently that scientific experiments have been conducted on these substances and the true natures of their chemical compositions have been identified. A good part of the narrative of the book is taken up with tracing the harrowing experiments by naive researchers who took rather large doses of these drugs all in the name of scientific progress. These unexpected trips to La-La-Land make for interesting reading.

Without spoiling the surprise, the author takes the drugs.

Michael Pollan wanted to write from experience and so he tried a variety of psychedelic drugs in controlled environments (or as close to controlled as he could get) with an assortment of characters ranging from doctors to New Age gurus. His own honest (even to the point of embarrassing) revelations about his experiences are genuine and interesting as is his research into the possible uses of these drugs to help with an assortment of psychological ailments form depression to addiction. Pollan talks to many experts in the medical field as well as non-professionals who have spent their lives promoting and "researching" the use of these substances. Every one of them has something of value to add to the discussion.

The most interesting portion of the book, for me, was the connection he draws between the experiences people have while under the influence of these drugs and the experiences mystics have especially during meditation. The seeming similarity of the experiences raises fascinating questions. What is consciousness? How is it created by the brain? Is it a creation of the brain? Can consciousness happen without the brain? The mystics and the drug-tripping connoisseur have each experienced---in their own admittedly very different ways---an ineffable bliss and a something else. What is this else? Pollan wrestled mightily with the the nagging question that, perhaps, lurks behind every sentence in this book: what do these psychedelic experiences mean? Is it too simplistic to say "Its just the drugs talking."

The mysteries of the mind are ancient. Psychedelic drugs raise many interesting questions about the brain and altered states of consciousness. Pollan provides no simple solutions and the mysteries remain once the covers of the book are shut. Yet, after his experiences using psychedelics he is now more open-minded about the possibility of a realm beyond our everyday waking-conscious state. This  revelation combined with the now growing evidence of the potential health benefits of controlled use of these substances make for good reasons to reassess society's stance on psychedelic drugs.