Book Review: Smoke and Stone

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


That was fun! City of Sacrifice applies that same pulse of anticapitalist revolutionary rhetoric that’s showed up in every successful YA series since Harry Potter, and that, in conjunction with all the characters being teenagers, had me shook. Fortunately, this wasn’t YA, due largely to the frequent on-screen mutilations and the liberal (though by no means tasteless) use of the fuck word.

The gods are at war, and they’re jockeying for first place in order to have their chosen avatar become King of the Human Farm where they all live, in the middle of the desert. Damnedest thing is I ran a D&D campaign with the same premise, although I swapped out the tiered communofascist dystopia for the metropolitan seaboard equivalent of Deadwood, governed by Peter Baelish. A great artist steals, I’m told.

But whereas my campaign featured such as fan favorites as Jeffostopheles, affable devil from the lower Baator, and Bango Butterbox, halfling god of… something or other, luck maybe, Fletcher draws heavily from animist and Aztec mythology and populates the stands with ominous figurous with many and ambiguous names like Smoking Mirror and Southern Hummingbird. Also, the star of the show, Mother Death, whose name and job description are more direct.

Several high fantasy orphan protagonists are chosen as representatives of the gods for their useful mental illness and pitted against each other for their ability to take enough drugs to become Animorphs or to stab people really, really well.

I loved this audiobook, couldn’t turn it off. I was going to give it four stars because I just read Beyond Redemption and that blew my mind, so it altered my expectations for Fletcher. However, I recognize that if I’d found this one first, I would’ve called it 5 stars off the bat. I don’t wanna tank his Goodreads MMR. Feels like a dick move. Five stars.



View all my reviews

Book Review: Sleep Smarter

Sleep Smarter: 21 Essential Strategies to Sleep Your Way to A Better Body, Better Health, and Bigger Success by Shawn Stevenson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Sleep deprivation is probably what’s making you crazy, or miserable, or both. Stevenson wheels out the usual old chestnuts of an isolated ascetic cell of a bedroom utilized only for unconsciousness and sex, no screens for infinity hours before bed, wear ridiculous wraparound blue-light blockers, but he supplements the factory-standard sleep wisdom with applicable nutritional information. Almost as though the body and brain are one interconnected organism and the things we do in one sphere bleed over into all the others.

If you’ve read Why We Sleep, you’ve heard most of this already, though Stevenson ranged out into the esoteric toward the end with his electromagnetic barefoot “earth grounding” Mesmerism stuff. Decalcify your foot ions for a restful slumber and bountiful pineal neurogenesis. Sure, Jan.

Good topic, good science, good message. Two stars off for his unbearable, targeted middle-aged woman humor. Someone told him to write jokes to make this more readable, and that turned out to be a mistake.



View all my reviews

Book Review: Beyond Redemption

Beyond Redemption by Michael R. Fletcher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


A genre-defining masterpiece of grimdark high fantasy. Imagine if the Shivering Isles were a novel written in the style of an old-school hard sci-fi heavy hitters like Frank Herbert or Dan Simmons. It’s like they tailor made it for me.

Belief defines reality, and the stronger your belief, the more insistent the manifestation. As a result, those grappling with severe mental illness become superhumans with monkey’s paw reconfigurations of their delusions pushing them toward godhood. The powers come with a price, and all the slapdash combinations of German words that essentially translate to “bugshit crazy wizard” are eventually consumed and destroyed by their reality-bending madness.

Until that point, these deranged solipsists lord over the “sane”, though it’s not sanity as much as a lack of the ill-defined (thus far) demiurgic prowess that lets their delusions to manifests, driven by the maladaptive need that is the source of their power. Slavers enrapture the minds of others, making them flesh puppets in the service of their unquenchable thirst to be loved. Dysmorphics are mutated by their own skewed perceptions into inhuman towers of muscle and sinew. The narcissistic “Greatest Swordsman in the World” cheats the system by sweet-talking everyone in the area into believing he’s better with the blade than he is, and riding that egregore burst to another victory in the ring, killing another vaunted local swordsman and strengthening his legend, and so, his power.

I don’t want to go into the plot itself because the book is too good for me to spoil it in a half-ass Goodreads review. Suffice it to say, all these kooks are trying to exploit the rules of the game for personal gain (as is invariably the case with the self-obsessed), with the end goal of homebrewing a perfect god. But even before you bring insanity into the mix, “perfect god” seems open to interpretation.

A great book. Almost the best book. I can’t wait to read the sequel.



View all my reviews

Book Review: Idiot Brain

Idiot Brain: What Your Head Is Really Up To by Dean Burnett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I liked it! The information was interesting, exhaustively researched, and chattily communicated. Burnett is a funny dude, and he did a great job in dumbing down all this advanced neuroscientific garbling for the slack-jawed layman who reads pop sci.

So why only three stars? Well, Burnett is a victim of his own cuteness. His trying to cram a bon mot in every third sentence (almost rhythmically) made it feel a little forced, to the point that, despite all the rest of the things it had going for it, I had a hard time getting through the book.

It builds to crescendo, though. My mans saved the best for last, and the further into the book you get, the better it is. The last few chapters especially, about hallucinations and addiction, are real show-stoppers.



View all my reviews

Book Review: The One and Only Ivan

The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I used to work as a BSC. A lot of my job was sitting in the back of classrooms “observing the problematic behavior” of my clients, but that only worked when they were being problematic. This kid was a little demon, but he would shut up during story time, and that’s where I first had a chapter of The One and Only Ivan read aloud to me by a kindly but exasperated secondary educator.

I put it on my to-read list, then forgot about it for a couple years, because it’s a YA book (being generous) and I don’t read YA. I was born old, and crotchety. I started into my father’s Stephen King collection when I was in 2nd grade, and to regress to whatever iteration of Harry Potter knockoff is currently sucking the attention of the near-literate would be detrimental to both mind and dignity.

“Don’t be such a fucker,” you might be saying. “It wouldn’t kill you to read YA once in a while.”

It wouldn’t kill me to eat Gerber Strained Peas for dinner once in a while either, but I wouldn’t hit my macros.

Animorphs was my stepping stone between Goosebumps and terrible, pulpy adult video game novels, like the abysmal Doom novels (in every sense of the word), and the Magic the Gathering novels that shared nothing in common with the card game, except that they both occasionally referred to wizards. I was voracious with the Animorphs series, and listed K.A. Applegate as my favorite author on more than a few grim late 90s/early 2000s internet forums, each undoubtedly devoted to one of the four franchises mentioned earlier in this paragraph.

I just sat down and read this book in one sitting, cover to cover. It took me two hours. I cried, openly and like a bitch, no fewer than three times.

The story’s about a gorilla named either Ivan or Mud, depending. His family is killed by poachers and the infant gorilla is sold off to some sleazy mall manager, who tries to raise him like they did to Caesar in the remake of Planet of the Apes. It works because Ivan is far too traumatized to develop a rebellious streak. Eventually, his owner tucks him away in a glass cubicle in his dead mall and charges people to gawk at him and an elderly elephant with an infected foot that never gets treatment.

The book focuses on Ivan’s understanding of himself, his limited grasp of “civilization”, and his avoidance of remembering the joy of his childhood because of the pain it would inevitably bring. It’s driven by the relationships with the wise, sick old elephant Stella and a feral dog named Bob who plays the role of Diogenes. I’m 90% sure that in the first draft, Bob was a rat, and Applegate changed it in order to sew up a happy ending for everyone. Feral rats are rarely adopted.

The mall owner, Mack, becomes an increasingly jaded alcoholic and flirts with animal abuse, though it never shows up. Children’s book, remember.

It really starts to grind up the ol’ heart meats when Mack buys a baby elephant named Rosie, whom Stella begins to raise as her own, for as long as she could. It’s a book about learned helplessness, about the isolation and gradual dying of the soul that comes with captivity, acceptance, complacency. It’s about the horrific ways humans mistreat animals, but also the kindnesses that we can do, however infrequently.

On the surface, that’s what it’s about. But under that, it’s about freedom and security. Ivan liked laying on his pillows in his cute little pajamas, being hand-fed orange soda and watching cartoons on TV, but late at night, the snatches of dreams he remembered were about the jungle, and the wind in his fur, playing with his sister, picking ripe fruit from the trees and weaving himself a nest to sleep in.

And I think that’s true of all of us.

Five stars. Read the book. Absolutely crushing.



View all my reviews

Book Review: The Body Keeps the Score

The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This should be required reading for anyone majoring in psych. Associate’s. Hell, standard grade school curriculum, if that weren’t such a joke. We all need to know this. This book isn’t just going to change your treatment approach, or the way you think about trauma. It’s going to change your life.

The first thing you need to know about trauma in general and PTSD in particular is also the last thing, and they’re both the title of the book. The body keeps the score. Every time you experience a traumatic event, especially of the kind that are so severe that your brain goes offline, your body, like a sketchy 3rd party emulator, takes a save state. There’s an evolutionary reason for this. Every cell you’ve got is convinced you’re facing annihilation – whether this is brought about by physical abuse, incest, or getting royally and publicly dunked on in gym class is only relevant in terms of depth of response – and the system that is You agrees that if you make it out of this alive, whatever you did to survive is obviously the plan you’ll need to stick to the next time something like this happens.

It’s adaptation, and our capacity for it brought us from being tall, gregarious monkeys to owning the world. In PTSD, the triggering event to implement that survival script can get a little overeager. Better safe than sorry, after all, even if the safety save state is blackout violence, a dissociative episode, or full catatonia.

And that, my beauties, is the process a veteran undergoes when he returns from the atrocities he witnessed and, in many cases, committed, and tries to integrate back into society. The fireworks go off, and they sound like gunshots. The save state is quickloaded, and you have to understand, it’s not remembering what happens last time. It’s a complete neurochemical and hormonal overhaul to match the conditions of “the last time this happened”. His brain replicates the circumstances of the war, his endocrine system double-times the adrenaline and cortisol he needs to do whatever it was he did the first time to survive. Obviously, the neighbor kid playing with firecrackers in the suburbs is not the same as his 12th straight day of being shelled in Fallujah, but it doesn’t matter. His body can’t tell the difference, and neither can his brain.

Same is true of an abuse survivor. (Tap out here if you think this might trigger you).

Someone who lived through being molested in their early childhood, when they were dependent on the adults in their lives to literally keep them alive, they internalize the necessity of cooperation, often to the point where they identify with their abuser and condemn their victimized self, because it’s easier to hate yourself than to be without the anchor points of your childhood world. The desire to escape or to fight will necessarily give way to the freeze response, and that “compliance” will go on to fuse with the frustration, the trustlessness, the self-loathing to form a melange of cognitive dissonance that the victim internalizes and eventually spills over onto their adult relationships.

The thing to remember is, should a panic attack and dissociative episode emerge at a triggering point (most likely when the victim is having regular, consensual sex with a significant other who cares about them), it’s not that they’re being reminded of their assault, or drawing similarities or associations. They are quickloaded into their childhood bodies. A flashback is time travel. They are reliving it, and they need to follow the script that let them survive it the first time. It’s not a mind over matter situation, and it’s not a decision they’re making. As far as the whole system of their selfhood is concerned, it’s their only way they’re going to live through what’s happening.

Heavy, right? The whole book is like that. When I say it’ll change your life, I mean it. No matter how self-possessed you are, you’re not going to walk through this particular thicket without getting some scars.

Van der Kolk is the last word in trauma treatment. He’s a psychiatrist (boo hiss) but he rails against overuse of psychopharmaceutical interventions (wooooo yea), especially the widely overprescribed antipsychotics that blunt the physiological responses causing most of the problems. In PTSD therapy, as in most things, the only way out is through.

Van der Kolk suggests that it’s an issue of integration. A good way to think about it is corrupted data. Once upon a time, saving things on a computer took more than a microsecond. If you turned off the power before the file was saved, the data would be corrupted and unusable, and every time you tried to open that file, something bad would happen. Maybe it would just be computer code gibberish, or crash the program, or short out the whole computer. Maybe it would fry your entire motherboard.

That’s trauma. We encode memories on the fly, integrating episodic information into the personal narrative that comprises our life, and from this narrative we extract the information of who we are. Our concept of self comes from our ideas about identity, which we draw from the stories about ourselves, and the only place we can source those are from our memory.

During episodes of extreme trauma, the encoding process shuts off. Huge chunks of the brain shut off. You can’t be running all that extra hardware right now, you’re fighting for your life. We go into shock. So we save bits and pieces of the information coming through – impressions, sensory data, feelings – but not a comprehensive understanding of what happened, because at the time of the trauma, it’s too horrible for us to comprehend, and our thinking brain simply refuses to the task.

But the brain is continually referring to previous experiences for reference, especially in what it deems similar situations. So the brain tries to load that corrupted data, and the whole system crashes, and there’s the sudden onset of explosive PTSD symptoms, dissociation, panic attacks, numbing, crushing depression, and whatever might naturally follow from these experiences (risky behavior as self-soothing, self-harm, suicidality, etc.)

Van der Kolk’s answer is surprisingly direct and intuitive. Integrate the trauma. The flashbacks offer a doorway directly to the trauma, and if we can descalate the physiological response sufficiently to reintegrate the data into our story, we can accept the trauma as “something that happened in the past” and move on, rather than an ongoing experience we continually live and relive.

Since the brain is slackin’ ass, which is the entire problem, and trauma is stored in the body, the body is how treatment is approached. Trauma survivors usually have terrible relationships with their bodies. Eating disorders, obesity, dysmorphia, self-harm, chronic pain, alexithymia, you name it, all born of a disconnect from the body’s wants and needs, originally developing as a mechanism to survive the trauma. “If thine eye offend thee,” and all that. The first step is reconnecting the survivor with their body. Any physical modality will get them there, so long as there’s an element of interpersonal connection to it – martial arts, dance, gymnastics, theater, most forms of structured group exercise. In theory, crossfit would do the job, although weight training alone might be too isolationist, and can worsen things like body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Van der Kolk himself is absolutely horny for yoga. I’ve never heard anyone pop off about yoga with such fanatical adoration. Like, I’ve known a lot of yoga practitioners and teachers, and they tend to be like, “yeah, it’s pretty nice”. Van der Kolk is straight up yoga street-teaming.

It makes sense. The point of yoga is reintegration with the needs of the body, releasing the energy from the muscles, being kind to yourself and compassionate to others. Those are exactly the issues of PTSD. It’s an ideal counterbalance.

Once the body is grounded, the trauma work itself can begin. Van der Kolk is dismissive of “just talk therapy” to the point of contempt, which is not normally what you want to see from a guy who prescribes psychotropic drugs, but he acknowledges it’s a necessary component of childhood trauma processing. The trauma is stirred up, brought to the surface, then “experienced” and processed along with the new arsenal of improved bodily awareness, often “dipping the toe in” a little at a time until the whole of the traumatic experience can be mapped out and integrated into the memory. The reflexive responses that the body needed at the moment are manifested, allowed, and released. The system’s job queue is cleared, and the trauma can be accepted as something that happened, not something that’s happening. The physiological responses to it die off, and the PTSD just… disappears. It goes away. The spirits are exorcised.

Van der Kolk also talks about fringier approaches like EMDR, IFS, and biofeedback, all of which have seen fantastic results in certain populations of PTSD sufferers, and all of which are pooh-poohed by establishment shrinks and researchers because they’re expensive and difficult to understand empirically (beyond the demonstrable improvements in patients), and everybody in the field just wants to rave about how great CBT is, rather than gamble with their tenure.

It’s an incredible book, and everyone should read it. Not just every clinician, not just everyone who’s been traumatized. Every living person. If we all knew this information and we all applied it, it would be a much, much better world.



View all my reviews

Book Review: The Cancer Code

The Cancer Code by Jason Fung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Nobody loves codes as much as iconoclast physician Jason Fung. This is his third code so far. Though it’s easy to suppose they’d be spiritual successors the Robert Langdon trilogy of shitty mystery novels, Doc Fung instead focuses his energy on street-teaming for intermittent fasting and pushing low-carb paleo living without ever saying the word “paleo”, for which we’re all grateful.

Now, full disclosure, I haven’t read the Diabetes Code, but my high IQ and longtime Rick and Morty enjoyment makes me pretty good at recognizing patterns, so I’m still going to take a stab at cracking all three codes for you, right now, to save you the thousand or so pages it would take to assemble the whole picture of “the Wellness Code”, which apparently contains the cancer code, but neither the diabetes nor obesity code. Fung moves in mysterious ways. Coded ways.

Here’s the Konami code to health: Insulin is the devil. Minimize insulin exposure, maximize everything else from disease resilience to longevity to looking sleek and sexual at the beach.

Fung’s money is where his mouth is. I googled him, and he looks pretty ripped, especially for a doctor. He’s not massive or anything, not like that one doctor on Instagram who keeps trying to sell you special rubber bands to use in place of weights. All other things constant, I could beat up Dr. Fung, but I would never, as he inspires me.

The Cancer Code details the sordid history of attempting to treat cancer and its repeated, catastrophic failures. It’s implied that cancer is a disease of civilization, as outside of agrarian societies it’s rare to the point of mythical. Immunotherapy seems to be the most effective, if the least profitable, treatment option, but Jason Fung gently suggests (as most of my favorite practicing scientists, psychologists, and medical professionals tend to) that we don’t know shit about dick and consequently fall back on tried-and-true Hail Marys like radio- and chemotherapy, which poisons everything in hopes of killing the cancer.

Cancer is a disease of irregular cell growth. Normally, cell growth is a pretty good thing, but only if the cells cooperate with what is expected of them within the confines of the tissue they comprise. Cancer is the wires getting crossed and the cells in, say, the liver deciding that cooperation is too chancy and they’ll go it alone from here. The cells revert from eukaryotic function to a more primitive, prokaryotic function, remembered in the DNA from back in the days when each cell was fighting for its own life. And that’s what cancer is. These cells grow and propagate individually as fast as they can, sabotaging and consuming the surrounding cells (who are still being team players). The meme of cellular primeval psychopathy bounces all over the body, setting up satellite colonies, and that’s metastasis. Since these cells only care about individual survival now, the health of the organism isn’t taken into account, and it typically dies, taking the newly expanded cancer empire with it.

So how do we protect against cellular mutiny? As in most nutrition books, the message refines to Michael Pollan’s dietary dictum: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

Doc Fung is always pushing intermittent fasting, so that’s step one. After that, low carb. Step 2. Get some exercise, the human body needs to move. Step 3. Voila. You’re… not quite cancerproof, but you just improved your chances enormously.

Here’s the why.

He repeatedly likens cancer to a sort of weed that grows in the garden of your body. The thing is, it needs specific soil conditions and nutrients to take root and strangle out the rest of the garden. The most important of these conditions, these specialized weed-foods, is IGF-1, or insulin-like growth factor, released whenever we have an insulin response. The more insulin circulating in our system, the more IGF-1 comes with it. Insulin is pivotal for growth and development, especially for things like protein synthesis, testosterone production, and building muscle. We need some insulin, but we need it to serve its purpose.

Keeping the body perpetually inundated with insulin causes all sorts of stupid, avoidable problems, and it turns out cancer is a major one of them. A nonstop stream of IGF-1 keeps cells growing, and growing, and growing, and as soon as one flips the switch and decides it would do better on its own, baby, you a got a tumor goin’.

Caloric restriction, weight loss, and increased insulin sensitivity all help to shrink tumors, sometimes pushing them into full remission. Cancer needs insulin to grow. Burn the granaries and starve the empire.

Intermittent fasting becomes a magic bullet in this situation because not only does your insulin sensitivity improve when you phase out snacking, 16+ hours of fasting promotes increased autophagy, which is sort of like defragmenting your hard drive, if your hard drive was your body. Autophagy means “eating your own damn self” and it’s like a concerted effort within your body of looking for dying, damaged, or junk cells, then catabolizing them into component proteins and energy, potentially stopping fledgling cancer before it has a chance to foment rebellion.

It was a truly fascinating book, and a talisman against the 21st century’s answer to the Grim Reaper. Now that I think about it, it’s kind of ironic that he carried a wheat scythe.




View all my reviews

Book Review: Elric of Melnibone

Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I’m a big Conan the Barbarian fan, which is unfortunate, since I never cared for the books. I’ve always loved the prehistoric aspects of the setting, the easy ferocity of the sword and sorcery genre, and the prospect that all of these ancient and unknowable Lovecraftian evils weren’t an instant sanity-breaker. Once, when men were better, we could oppose them with nothing but steel and sinew, and we could win. It’s a good message. It’s the kind of thing that pushes you to grind out the last few reps in the gym.

What kept me from successfully finishing a Conan anthology is that he’s a Mary Sue. I’m a longtime Doom franchise devotee, for many of the same reasons I like sword and sorcery, so I’ve got a pretty high threshold tolerance for masculine power fantasies, but at a certain point they get embarrassing, and Conan always did a beautiful, muscular yet supple swan dive over that particular precipice within a couple paragraphs.

John L. Howard at his typewriter like: “And then Conan, who is powerful and sexual and smells good, rippled to his feet like a hot panther who girls like and said, ‘I WILL PUNCH YOU! WITH MY FISTS!’ And the crowd roared and cheered in unrestrained delight, for Conan was so honest and handsome with the deepest squat and biggest dingaling in all the land.”

Whereas Elric of Melnibone is a slouching albino goth who maintains a high dose meth addiction to counteract his anemia and perpetual caloric deficit. He’s the emperor of his floundering, ancient, neutral evil nation, but none of his subjects understand him because he reads too many books (which makes him a contemptible nerd) and as a result developed a moral compass.

Essentially, the plot of Elric of Melnibone is if Marcus Aurelius had an autoimmune disease and became a warlock about it.

It was spectacular. The writing was phenomenal, and not even hokey! I didn’t think that could be done, considering the subject matter. It’s easy to see Moorcock’s influence on modern fantasy greats like GRRM, although it might be more fair to call GRRM a past fantasy great, as big boy is never gonna write another book.

Elric has Mary Sue elements, sure, he’s one of the finest swordsmen who ever lived and he’s also the literal emperor, but he’s also deeply flawed. He’s a brooding, melancholy drug addict. A real Sigma male. Nobody understands him and it’s not a phase, mom.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough to anyone who loves high fantasy in general and sword and sorcery in particular. It checked all the boxes. Moorcock is a tremendous writer with an appropriate surname.



View all my reviews

Book Review: Paleo for Beginners

Paleo for Beginners: Essentials to Get Started by John Chatham

My rating: 2 of 5 stars


It could have been a pamphlet.

At no point is the paleo diet ever discussed in any detail, or any reasons provided why it’s a logical, or even sensical choice. This one’s like an arbitrary rulebook that makes vague, buzzwordy reference to things like “blood sugar” and “bad cholesterol” and expecting you to take that at face value, then condemning milk and beans without making any sort of explanation for why that isn’t on paleo.

And then, the “recipes”.

Cook a fish! And some vegetables! Delicious fish and vegetables, serves 4.

Craving steak? Grill a steak! And some vegetables! You won’t go back to eating anything other than meat and vegetables after you try THIS paleo classic!

Do you miss pancakes? Smash a bunch of bananas and eggs together! That’s “batter”, now. Just fry it up in olive oil because butter is dairy! Whatever! Just like the cavemen!

On some dumb.

Two stars because it made me hungry for trail mix, so I made my own trail mix, which rules.



View all my reviews

Book Review: The Culture Code (Coyle)

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


One of my favorite books is also called The Culture Code, so I figured I’d try my luck again. It panned out!

Unfortunately, the culture Coyle is talking about is not the interesting kind, with folklore and recipes, but the corporate kind. That would be enough to turn me off in most instances. I/O psychologists are barely better than advertisers, and advertisers don’t deserve to sleep indoors. But the studies that Coyle pulls and the conclusions he draws all generalize out of the office and into the parts of life that matter. And it was pretty well written, too.

“Safety” is the take home. The more rigid the hierarchy, the worse the performance. The more comfortable and familial the environment, the more people will collaborate, the better the output and happier the participants. It’s not rocket science, but it is actual science, and backed up with a bunch of blind experiments.

Four stars, because that’s the highest rating I can give a business book and maintain my integrity.



View all my reviews