The Major Ordeals of the Mind, and the Countless Minor Ones By Henri Michaux

major ordealsIn the 1950s, French writer/poet/artist Henri Michaux began experimenting with mescaline, LSD and hashish in an effort to understand the workings of the human mind.  An earlier book of his, Miserable Miracle, is an immediate journal of these experiments, while Major Ordeals is Michaux’s attempt to make sense of and draw conclusions from these experiences.  “Just as the stomach does not digest itself, just as it is essential that the stomach do no such thing, the mind is constructed in such a way that it cannot grasp itself, cannot directly, continuously grasp its own mechanism and action, having other matter to grasp,” he writes in the introductory chapter “The Marvelous Normal”.  The use of hallucinogenic drugs reveals this otherwise ungraspable “mechanism and action” to Michaux, and the majority of Major Ordeals is spent documenting the many vertiginous states that leave the author helpless.  Rather than the “expanded consciousness” motif that is the takeaway from Aldous Huxley’s similar The Doors of Perception, Michaux conveys instead a modest amazement at the amount of unconscious, fugitive labor the mind must perform for human beings to be able to engage in even the simplest tasks.  Because Michaux is a poet, the descriptions of the drugged states are so vivid that the reader experiences something like a contact derangement by simply engaging with the text. Huxley’s book may have launched a thousand visionary acid trips, but Michaux’s comes to grips with the inevitable philosophical hangover that awaits the traveler upon their return.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

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The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers

The Queen of Katwe is the true story of Phiona, a Ugandan girl from Katwe, one of thequeen of Katwe world’s most dreadful slums.  Amazingly, despite her desperate poverty, she learns chess well enough to represent her country in international chess Olympiads.

As the book begins, Phiona and her family often have only one meal a day.  Since the slum is in a swamp, the floor of their shack is frequently deep in water.  There are no free schools in the area, and since Phiona’s mother has almost no money to pay for tuition, Phiona has had very little education.

When Phiona is nine years old, she sees a man teaching a group of boys how to play a game – chess – that she’s never seen.  Those who come to learn chess get a bowl of porridge each day.  She wants to learn – and to fill her empty stomach.  She proves to have a talent for chess, as well as great determination.  Within a few years, Phiona is winning games in international competitions and discovering such wonders as airplanes and flush toilets!  She also receives a scholarship to return to school.  The money that Phiona receives from this book and from a movie contract makes it possible for her family to move from the slum and into a home that is free from flooding.

This inspirational tale is fascinating, even to people – like me – who don’t play chess.

The movie based on this book won awards from the African-American Film Critics Association and from the Women Film Critics Circle.  It stars David Olelowo, Lupita Nyong’o, and Madina Nalwanga.

The book’s author lives in Chapel Hill.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Passages in Modern Sculpture by Rosalind E. Krauss

Sculpture has always been an “unreadable” and opaque art form for me.  While I canpassages look at classical and figurative sculpture and appreciate the labor and skill that went into its making, I couldn’t tell you what the underlying meaning of the work was.  By the time you get to the non-figurative, conceptual sculpture of the 20th and 21st centuries, I am at a complete loss and feel like I have no idea what I’m looking at.

Rosalind Krauss’ Passages in Modern Sculpture was the first book to really teach me how to look at and think about modern/contemporary sculpture.

Chapter One examines Rodin, a sculptor many would consider “classical” insofar as he deals with recognizable human forms, and demonstrates how the conceptual and abstract properties of later sculpture are already at work here.  By treating Rodin as a transitional figure, Krauss helps the sculpturally illiterate (like me!) bridge the daunting gap between representational and abstract art.

Subsequent chapters tackle Duchamp’s readymades, Giacometti’s surreal constructions, installation art, and environmental sculpture.

In her introduction, Krauss points out that she wrote her book with student readers in mind, so the text is lucid and refreshingly jargon-free.  If you are up for an adventurous stroll through the enigmatic sculpture gardens of the past hundred years, Rosalind Krauss makes an excellent tour guide.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

David Lynch : The Man from Another Place By Dennis Lim

David LynchWhen the Twin Peaks revival was announced a few years ago, a veritable cottage industry of Twin Peaks-related books, think pieces, and apparel appeared virtually overnight to cash in on the news.  Missing from this welcome deluge of material was a concise, accessible critical/biographical overview of David Lynch, co-creator of the cult TV show and arguably the reason most folks were excited about the prospects of the new season.

Dennis Lim’s The Man From Another Place successfully fills that void with a breezy, readable introduction to the life and work of David Lynch. Lim does an excellent job incorporating the many projects Lynch has been involved in, including his art work, “industrial symphonies”, songwriting, Transcendental Meditation advocacy, and even his four-panel comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World.

Lim’s book is saved from being a glorified Wikipedia page by the copious amount of interviews he conducted with Lynch and various artistic collaborators, so that someone who has read, say, the 700-page David Lynch biography Beautiful Dark, will still find new insights and information here. The author is also gracious enough to provide interpretations of Lynch’s films for the newly initiated, giving the perplexed a way into the labyrinths of these visionary works (indeed, Lim has me convinced I now “understand” Inland Empire.)

If you’ve heard the name David Lynch and never understood what the fuss is about, this book is an excellent place to start.

(Chris Fox, Central Library)

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

killersIf you like to read about history and like true crime books, you’ll probably find this book a fascinating tale.

The time?  The 1920s.  The place?  The Osage Indian lands in Oklahoma.  The situation?  These Indians, after the discovery of oil under their land, were the world’s richest people per capita.

Then Anna Brown, an Osage Indian, disappeared.  Her body showed up in a river; someone had shot her through the head.  This was the first of many deaths among the tribe’s members – from gunshot wounds, from suspicious illnesses, and from an explosion in the home of an Osage couple.  Local investigators were unable to solve these crimes, and some of these investigators also met untimely deaths.

The FBI was rather new at this time.  J. Edgar Hoover, its young director, sent a former Texas Ranger, Tom White, to investigate the matter.  The FBI estimated a total of twenty-four murders, and later estimates are much higher.  White and his team were partially successful in determining the cause of the murders; later investigators, including this book’s author, have made more discoveries.

Grann also wrote The Lost City of Z; I have not read that book but did enjoy seeing the movie version of this true story about exploration in the Amazon region.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson

Stevenson, an attorney, heads the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit seeking to help just mercypeople who are serving unjust sentences.  One priority is assisting innocent people who are on death row.  Another major initiative is assisting juvenile offenders sent to adult prisons.  Stevenson successfully argued a case before the U.S. Supreme Court that put an end to sentencing juveniles to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

A major part of the book involves Walter McMillan, a black Alabama resident who was on death row, awaiting execution for murder.  Stevenson, believing that Walter was innocent, decided that EJI would try to save Walter.  This is the most detailed of the compelling stories of injustice and of EJI’s success in helping many of these accused people.

The New York Times Book Review included these words, “Just Mercy will make you upset and it will make you hopeful.”  Every American would profit from a fuller understanding of criminal justice issues, and this fascinating book is a good start.

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Unsettlers : in search of the good life in today’s America by Mark Sundeen

UnsettlersWe’ve all heard about eating organically, as “organic” foods and products proliferate in most grocery stores nowadays.  But, is eating organically eating ethically?  Particularly if certain organic products are shipped here from Chile and other parts beyond, then how is consuming them an ethical act, considering the fossil fuels required to get them to our tables?

The Unsettlers raises the questions of food ethics as it focuses on three couples who have made it their collective callings to not only grow their own food and sell the surplus, but to live without much of the big box store “conveniences” that modern living entails, even if they have access to such conveniences.

The first couple has created an intentional community in northeastern Missouri.  Their way of life is perhaps the most extreme covered in the book.  Ethan and Sarah completely reject use of automobiles and electricity; those wishing to visit or intern at their farm find out about it via word of mouth rather than electronic media.

Olivia and Greg are an interracial couple; both grew up in the Detroit area but from completely contrasting backgrounds.  They came together sharing a love for gardening and a strong determination to create a future for their crumbling crime-ridden city – a future that includes better food options for inner-city residents and a stronger sense of community.

Steve and Luci are the oldest couple; they have done the “back to the land” lifestyle longer than most.  They have weathered the changes of perception towards natural and organically grown foods, for better and worse – better in that more people are eating said foods, and worse, as organic products become just that – products of huge corporations that are anathema to what these folks have believed in and worked for, for over thirty years.

The couples highlighted in The Unsettlers have their preachy moments, but much of what they expound upon makes sense.  The collective beliefs – eating locally, investing in the immediate community, and using less or no fossil fuels – make much more sense than continuing to support the conglomerates labeling everything “organic” in an attempt to get rich off the feel-good moment, while polluting the world to get it into our grocery stores.

The book will definitely have you considering what you eat, and how you acquire it.

(William Hicks, Information Services)