Weirdly fascinating non-fiction book charting the history of psychedelic drug use by the 1960s counterculture, and the resulting backlash, to the recent resurgence of LSD as a tool to help with mental illness. Pollan explores how such drugs were invented as well as the more traditional use of plant-based psychedelics like mushrooms. It came as news to me but research into these substances is being conducted by many respected medical institutes like Johns Hopkins. Clinical trials suggest psychedelics help with depression, addiction and the terror that accompanies terminal illness. The author also looks at mystical aspects, with many test subjects reporting a better understand of God and collective consciousness. In the right circumstances, psychedelics can open the mind to experiences our brains shut down as we age and neural pathways become fixed. Authenticity is provided by Pollan having tried several of these substances himself. Fear would probably prevent me from volunteering for this kind of research, but I enjoyed reading about the possibilities. While the book stalls sometimes due to excessive detail, like the mind numbing discussion of mushroom species, it’s a unique, well-written read.
I still remember the day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris walked into Columbine High School in Colorado, killed twelve students, a teacher and wounded twenty-four others before committing suicide. It wasn’t the first such shooting, but it was the biggest at the time, ushering in a new era of fear for school aged children. Many of us wondered how such a tragedy could occur. Where were Dylan and Eric’s parents? In this book, Dylan’s mother, Sue, shares her grief and shame, and with unflinching honesty, describes the signs she might have missed. What’s truly alarming about her story, though, is that the Klebolds were a normal middle class family. There may have been subtle signs Dylan was in trouble, but no large red flags. The Klebolds could be any of us. And, until we remove all impediments to treating people for mental health, the scenario is bound to happen again and again. A frightening, yet fascinating, glimpse inside the life of a mass murderer in the making.
Okay, so maybe this isn’t one of the best books of all time, but it’s an enjoyable non-fiction read, an interesting glimpse into the life of an EMT/Paramedic. After 9/11, Kevin Hazzard feels something’s missing so he decides to train as an EMT, working his way into an ambulance position with Grady, a hospital serving the worst sections of Atlanta. Frightened at first, he quickly gains mastery and thrives on the adrenaline rush. He describes the calls: a car crash so devastating he finds his hand resting in someone’s brain; a heart attack victim who insists on walking to the ambulance and dies as a result; drug deaths and situations where he and his partner are in grave danger from dealers and unruly crowds; and domestic calls where responders are attacked by the women they are trying to help by arresting their abusers. Hazzard lasted a decade in an industry where months or a year or two is the norm. A very well written, fascinating look into an arena where any of us may suddenly be thrown.
Bill Bryson is a king of non-fiction. He has a way of writing about historical events both extraordinary and mundane that makes them interesting and accessible. In this book, he tackles the summer of 1927 in America, a busy period in the nation’s history. The stock market was booming, President Calvin Coolidge worked just four hours a day, a sculptor came up with a crazy idea to carve four giant heads into Mt. Rushmore, and a young aviator named Charles Lindbergh flew a flimsy airplane across the Atlantic for the first time-among other things. It was the summer that ushered in the talking picture, television was invented, Al Capone was terrorizing Chicago, and an over-the-hill baseball player named Babe Ruth returned to greatness. The book is an entertaining read, a brawling tale of adventure and reckless optimism. Bryson is best known for his book, A Walk in the Woods. However, this one with its cast of eccentric characters, when America began flexing its muscles for the first time, remains my favorite.
Henrietta Lacks was a poor black tobacco farmer who died of cancer. No one would have remembered her name if her cells hadn’t proven so unusual. Known as HeLa to scientists, her cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 and, because of their unique properties, used to help develop the polio vaccine as well as in cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization and more. Her cell’s have generated millions, but her family can’t afford health insurance. This well-written non-fiction book takes readers from the “colored” ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore where Henrietta was treated for cancer, to laboratories with freezers full of her cells, to her small hometown of Clover, Virginia, to East Baltimore where her children and grandchildren struggle to survive today. This is a riveting story about ethics in medicine. Do we control the very stuff of which we are made? (On a personal note, this review is dedicated to Freddie Gray who died in Baltimore in the spring of 2015 at the hands of the Baltimore police. Let’s hope his sacrifice sparks change.)
I do love my pets and this book, although not literary fiction, was a joy to read and quite the emotional journey. In it, John and Jenny are just beginning their life together when they bring home an adorable, active puppy named Marley. He quickly grows into a ninety-seven pound Labrador retriever who crashes through screen doors, drools on guests, steals women’s underwear, and eats everything including dry-wall, couches and fine jewelry. Although he fails at obedience school, Marley’s joyful approach to life, his love and his loyalty are as boundless as his bad behavior. Marley shares with John and Jenny all the highs and lows of their young adult life, including the birth of their children. Yet, a dog’s life is not as long as that of a human, so we must also bear witness to Marley’s decline in the last stages of a well-lived life. This book is a true testament to unconditional love and the bond that can form between animal and human.
This is a deeply felt memoir about relationships, reconnecting and the meaning of life. Morrie is Mitch’s favorite college professor. They establish a great rapport. Morrie actually cries when Mitch graduates. Mitch promises to stay in touch but he doesn’t. He becomes a newspaper reporter, working constantly. Work consumes his life. Sixteen years after graduation, Mitch learns Morrie has ALS. He begins to visit him every Tuesday. They discuss a range of topics: regrets, death, love, money. Mitch is intrigued by Morrie’s views. He takes notes and makes recordings. Some of Morrie’s ideas include following self-created values, loving others and learning to accept the inevitability of death. They hit home with Mitch who is struggling to balance work and family. With each visit, Morrie gets sicker. At their last visit, Morrie is bed-ridden and near death. They hug, but now it is Mitch who is crying.
In this non-fiction book, the author describes his 1996 expedition to scale Mt. Everest, a disastrous climb which claimed eight lives. Initially, Krakauer was to have climbed only to the base camp to do a report on the commercialization of the mountain for the adventure magazine Outside. However, the story awakened a childhood desire, and he decided to train for a climb to the summit instead. The book stirred up controversy because in it Krakauer alleges safety is compromised by guides competing to get clients to the summit. His account is disputed by certain climb participants and mountaineers alike. I can’t speak to the controversy, but I did enjoy the book itself. I found it well-written, and an exciting read.
This fascinating book about the history of cancer and the fight against it, won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction and rightfully so. It provides an extremely comprehensive overview of everything that is cancer. It is at times a bit of a slog for those of us who have no medical background, but ultimately it is well worth the read. I learned a lot about one of our biggest enemies. Check out Mukherjee’s resume: Rhodes Scholar, graduate of Stanford University, University of Oxford and Harvard Medical School, Assistant Professor at Columbia University and cancer physician at Columbia University Medical Center. Not exactly a slouch, is he? If I get sick, I think I’d like him as my doctor, please.