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Content by Kieran Fox
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Reviews Written by
Kieran Fox (Alam al-Mithal)

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Chronicles of Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master
Chronicles of Tao: The Secret Life of a Taoist Master
by Ming-Dao Deng
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 20.23
49 used & new from CDN$ 1.92

5.0 out of 5 stars "Look. Look! The Tao is all around you...", Nov. 21 2010
On a trip to China earlier this year, I took a bus from my hostel in Xi'an to the legendary mountain Huashan and climbed the insane stone staircases and chain-ladders up to the top, visiting the 5 major peaks and remnants of old temples, wandered through the forests and stared out over the surrounding mountain-scape in awe. I had been determined to visit Huashan for 4 years, since I'd first read this book, and it didn't disappoint. Even with endless hordes of Chinese tourists (I visited on a weekend - big mistake!) the beauty and spiritual (for lack of a better word) ambiance of this mysterious mountain was palpable, and this book is what led me there.

Ignore the gripes on here about the book containing elements of fantasy, or that the 'real-life' version of the master is a fraudulent teacher. It's clear the first 'charge' is true almost as soon as you pick up this book, and I have nothing to say about the second gripe, but I will point out that neither of these complaints has anything to do with the quality of this book itself; rather they reflect people's biases and unrealistic expectations.

The book itself, which is actually three short books combined into one large tome, is beautifully-written and utterly draws you into the world of Taoist martial arts and meditation in no time. The great effectiveness of this book is achieved in its presentation of a vast wealth of Taoist lore and a beautiful evocation of a China in transition from feudal/medieval kingdom to modern Communist state, all through the lens of a single man's life and training. Through the opening section we're transported to an ancient Taoist monastic setting, meditating on mountaintops and training in martial arts - and just when you're comfortably situated in what might be 2000 years ago, the Communists come knocking to shut down religious institutions of all kinds, and you realize that we're still in the modern, 'civilized' world. The protagonist, Kwan Saihung, trained in venerable traditions divorced from 'everyday' life for centuries, is forced out into one of the most tumultuous periods in Chinese, and world, history. From a life constrained to a few lone mountain peaks this simple monk is eventually thrust into hyper-racist 1950's Pittsburg, alone in a foreign land - and still manages to survive and even prosper.

Some people on here have argued that the book is spiritually shallow, but I think this too is an unfair (and untrue) gripe. From my own meager experience in these domains, the descriptions of meditations and spiritual insights ring very true - and I find it difficult to believe these kinds of things can be faked convincingly.

The story is fanciful indeed, and there are a fair number of magical elements, but it's written with great care and humor, a lot of insight, and gives a fascinating peak into a now-vanished form of life in China. Even if a fair bit of this is fictionalized, I don't think it's a problem - the author never seems to take himself or the story too seriously, and readers shouldn't either. Enjoy the ride and the beautiful portrayal of a lost land and way of life. If you don't want to go live in a Taoist monastery by the time you've finished this book, let me know. And when you're done, go visit Huashan and imagine the way it once was.

Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams
Nocturnes: On Listening to Dreams
by Paul Lippmann
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 64.90
17 used & new from CDN$ 54.08

5.0 out of 5 stars An incredibly original perspective on dreams and dreaming, Nov. 15 2010
This book seems, unfortunately, to be neglected (as there are no reviews of it here yet) - unfortunately because I really think it is one of the better, and most original, perspectives on dreaming. I read this book 6 years ago and I'd borrowed it from the library, so I am working from memory here, but as I recall, it straddles the line well between the New Age views, the psychoanalytic theories, and the scientific side. Many books on dreams are far too much of one or the other, delving into theories of astral planes and dream guides, or trying to 'prove' Jungian archetypes or Freudian censorship, or focusing heavily on the neurochemistry and so on. I think all of these approaches are valuable but Lippman instead gives a very personal account which certainly draws on psychoanalysis a fair bit (he is a psychoanalyst himself) but doesn't get lost trying to prove one or another school correct.

The main thrust (again, as I recall now...) is an 'organic' theory of dreams, in which nothing is a waste or mere 'trash', but all is recycled and useful to the whole. For example, Francis Crick's (of DNA double helix fame) theory of dreams is that dreams are the phenomenal experience we have, if we recall them, of the stuff that is being thrown out of the brain as useless information - that is, dreams are literally garbage. Lippman uses an opposing metaphor: imagine that your mental life is a sturdy apple tree out in the greater mind field. Many apples fall and are never eaten (remembered or analyzed) and simply rot on the ground - does this mean they are useless or trash? No, they decompose and feed back into the cycle, 'fertilizing' the tree even as they decay. And from time to time (more often for the dedicated dream explorers), we come to the tree consciously and pick beautiful ripe apples off and can enjoy their taste, be nourished by them, use the seeds perhaps to plant new trees.

Another beautiful image in Lippman's work is that of dreams as 'canaries of the mind', i.e. as the early warning signs of any personal problems with one's health, personal relationships, relationship to oneself, etc. (as per the old story of the canary in the coal mine - I think canaries were very sensitive to certain dangerous gases and so if the canary passed out or died the miners would get out as quickly as possible. I don't know if this is all apocryphal but I believe that's the story and in any case it's the inspiration here). I find this metaphor works very well and is confirmed by my own dream experience over the last 10 years. Lippmann planned to write a follow-up book along these lines but I don't think he ever did.

I can't remember much more from this book, but I can also say that my young (20 year old) mind was so impressed at the time that I sought out Dr. Lippmann and eventually met with him in New York, where he took me out for dinner and we had an extremely memorable conversation, as well as illicit martinis (I was below the drinking age at the time). This is a beautiful book by a wonderful man and is highly recommended to serious dreamers. The price is pretty steep but I imagine good libraries would stock it (my university did).

Discover Astral Projection
Discover Astral Projection
by J H Brennan
Edition: Paperback
9 used & new from CDN$ 6.60

2.0 out of 5 stars Naive but full of interesting ideas, Nov. 9 2010
Even after having read a fair number of books on astral projection and lucid dreaming, this one still offered some fresh insights and practices I hadn't heard of. These are generally well-presented and get straight to the point.

On the other hand, the author seems rather credulous with regard to people's tales of the astral plane and so on. He seems thoroughly convinced that by willing it hard enough you can materialize your imagined beings and so on into this mundane old physical plane, and so on. He takes anecdotes from various people and traditions and concludes that these prove a wide variety of ridiculous claims and metaphysical theories.

In short: good practices, very, very poor philosophy, but well-written and worth checking out (it's only 150 pages).

Astral Projection for Beginners
Astral Projection for Beginners
by Edain McCoy
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 15.95
56 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars Top notch, Nov. 9 2010
Excellent practices, fairly well-written, and absolutely ideal for beginners, as it stresses and explains the crucial practice of alert/conscious relaxation. Well worth it, and what's especially nice is that McCoy is light on the ridiculous astral metaphysics that most of these books insist on pushing on you, as if people really have this vast dimension actually figured out --- we do not.

She also includes interesting insights on inner guides which correspond precisely to my own experiences.

Read it.

Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments
Programming and Metaprogramming in the Human Biocomputer: Theory and Experiments
by John C. Lilly M.D.
Edition: Paperback
13 used & new from CDN$ 39.76

5.0 out of 5 stars Deep, challenging, difficult, Nov. 9 2010
A difficult but enlightening read. An attempt to write an owner's manual to the brain: a guidebook on voluntary neuroplasticity and modifying your own internal wiring. Obviously not the final word but a worthy effort and far ahead of its time (in the West at least).

Lilly was a pioneer in many fields. Highly, highly recommended.

Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness
Sleeping, Dreaming, and Dying: An Exploration of Consciousness
by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.78
46 used & new from CDN$ 9.98

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Meh..., Nov. 9 2010
Don't get me wrong: the Mind and Life institute is doing good and necessary work, and some of their publications I thought were excellent (e.g., The Dalai Lama at MIT) and provide some real food for thought. This book is simply not in this class, however. As the reviewer above noted (Sagan Lazar), what we have here is people who speak completely different languages (literally and figuratively) lecturing each other with little or no real 'dialogue.' There are some occasional interesting diversions, but these are very much the exception rather than the rule.

The conversation on dreams, my own primary interest and field of research, is particularly disappointing. Almost the entire 'Western' section is devoted to the Freudian view! I was shocked that these speakers weren't embarrassed and ashamed to bring to the table a psychology as pauper, outmoded and frankly ridiculous as Freud's, especially when they were sharing that table with people well-acquainted with the vast, subtle Buddhist psychology. As if this were all the 'West' had to offer! The lucid dreaming section is better, but then the Tibetan Buddhist view on dreams doesn't really have anything to do with them... the Dalai Lama mostly rambles on about consciousness and self, then about 2 pages are devoted to 'dream yoga'; but even this section is mostly just platitudes and vague mentions of how diet affects dreaming. None of the very interesting and practical dream yoga advice you can find in other Tibetan works such as "Ancient Wisdom" by Gyatrul Rinpoche and translated by Alan Wallace (highly recommended).

Death: again the section is mildly interesting, but 'dialogue' is conspicuously absent. With the meeting of all these 'great minds' you would expect a lot of fresh ideas and original opinions, but mostly you get a long list of terms and definitions, nothing you couldn't pick up in a textbook of medicine of Buddhist philosophy.

Altogether forgettable; certainly this book doesn't stand out in the subject of sleep, dreams, or death/dying; and in an effort to combine all three it just fades into further superficiality.

A final irritation is the 'narration' by Francisco Varela of the conference. The sickeningly deferential tone towards the Tibetans has become a hallmark of East-West dialogues (I think), and Varela continues (or perhaps even is largely responsible for originating) this trend. Also many a useless paragraph is thrown in; 40 pages of neuroscience and/or Buddhist philosophy will be followed by "and then we all had tea." Who cares? From Varela's narrative, one is given the bizarre impression that mostly everyone laughed a lot and had profound feelings; and of course sometimes the weather was sunny, sometimes it wasn't, and sometimes there were birds chirping outdoors.... why the hell would I put this in a book review, you might ask? Precisely. Why the hell would you put it in this book?

Teach Yourself Spanish Complete Course (Book + 2 CDs)
Teach Yourself Spanish Complete Course (Book + 2 CDs)
by Juan Kattan-Ibarra
Edition: Paperback
19 used & new from CDN$ 58.10

5.0 out of 5 stars Got me through Central and South America - can't complain!, Nov. 9 2010
Most of the complaints I see on this page ( are regarding the audio portion. I have an earlier edition though I assume it is quite similar, and I found it second hand and so didn't have the audio portion. This is really irrelevant! Pronouncing Spanish really isn't difficult - it must be one of the world's easiest languages, especially if you already are a native speaker of English - there are many similarities.

I used this book to self-study as I backpacked through Central and South America this year and within a couple of days I was traveling alone without any real problems. By the end of my trip I could have simple conversations, and I learned almost all of it from this book.

It begins very, VERY simply in little baby steps, so simple that it almost feels just like reading a book rather than 'studying' anything. By the first half you have all the basics you need to get around traveling (and conveniently, much of it is focused on traveling needs and questions, etc.). The second half gets progressively more dense and difficult, but then that's what you want after you've got the basics down, right?

All in all I thought it was great, and the use of real newspaper articles, conversations, drawings and cartoons and so on to aid your memory is I think a great idea (and I'm pretty sure proven to work, though I couldn't cite the research off the top of my head - engaging multiple modalities during learning or something...?).

Excellent for a beginner.

How the Swans Came to the Lake
How the Swans Came to the Lake
by Rick Fields
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 33.11
24 used & new from CDN$ 23.61

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, but uncritical, Nov. 9 2010
This is an excellent read and very informative. It is full of interesting little pieces of Buddhist history you're unlikely to find elsewhere (such as a brief sketching of the history of Buddhism coming to Hawaii - I had never even thought to look into such a topic, personally). Further, and much to Fields's credit, he tends to outline the characters involved (Jones, Thoreau, Blavatsky, Dharmapala, etc.) in a very intimate way such that even in a brief chapter you feel you've gotten to know them, as well as absorbed the key historical part they've played in bringing Buddhism to the West.

One star is taken off because I agree with another reviewer: the book is very uncritical of the various teachers and movements. Not that it is lauding them all, but in the chapter on Blavatsky for instance, he seems mighty credulous regarding what was generally considered (even in its own time) as a lot of charlatanism. Fields of course claims to be writing a "narrative," not a "critical," history, but still, a little more judgment on his part would have improved the book. Maybe he is simply attempting in a Buddhist way to refrain from judgments; or maybe his involvement with the Shambhala and various Zen schools in America (many of them mired in controversies from drug and alcohol abuse to rape) forced him to realize that criticizing all schools equally would not necessarily reflect favorably on his own teachers...

Either way this is a well-written and interesting history of the latest 'transmission' of Buddhadharma to a new land - this time crossing not just mountains, but oceans. A great read and highly recommended to any interested in the (recent and fairly ancient, too) history of Buddhism.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East
From the Holy Mountain: A Journey among the Christians of the Middle East
by William Dalrymple
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 22.74
35 used & new from CDN$ 3.36

4.0 out of 5 stars Great, but..., Nov. 9 2010
This is an incredibly well-written book and you are likely to learn a lot. I could hardly put it down as I traveled through Ecuador and Peru (to my girlfriend's annoyance) and indeed there is plenty in those lovely countries to compete for one's attention (including the woman of course!). So let's say it is fascinating and compulsively readable.

Dalrymple does a great job too of arousing the reader's sympathy for the plight of the Christian minority in the Middle East (nowadays and also through short retellings of past atrocities). But by the end I was kind of wondering what the point of it all was. That minorities tend to be oppressed by majorities? That the "great" monothesistic faiths just can't get along? More to the point:

Dalrymple's thesis, to my mind anyway: Ain't it a shame that these unfortunate Christian minorities just can't get a break in these fundamentalist Islamic nations? These peaceful souls just wanted to live the solitary contemplative life in the deserts, and now look, they've been pushed to the brink of extinction! No one is maintaining hundreds of old churches that no one visits anymore because there aren't any Christians left!

Apparent reality: Well, okay, but every Christian monastic Dalrymple meets seems to be kind enough (to Dalrymple anyway), but basically a judgmental, superstitious hypocrite smugly informing the author of his forthcoming damnation. Is it really a loss to anyone if these maniacs are pushed out of 'their' land? Is there anything for all us 'damned souls' to lament?

I think the answer is no, but this is still an excellent book for throwing a lot of light on an (I think?) fairly unknown part of history and certainly a little-understood part of the world, and as mentioned, witty and well-written.

The Ice People
The Ice People
by Rene Barjavel
Edition: Hardcover
12 used & new from CDN$ 54.18

5.0 out of 5 stars Believe the hype!, Nov. 9 2010
This review is from: The Ice People (Hardcover)
This is the only book I have ever seen on Amazon(.com!) that has nothing but five star reviews - and I am happy to contribute another one. I first found this in English at a cafe in Montreal on the used book shelf and grabbed it for a dollar. What a find! I'm not exactly a big fan of love stories but this one is beautifully told, and the sci-fi elements are very well done. The twist at the ending is really pretty heartbreaking. There are strong undertones of a cautionary tale railing against Cold War politics and 'heartwarming' scenes of Soviets and Americans working together to solve the puzzles that crop up, and these scenes are kind of dated. But on the whole this is an exceptional book. I decided to start reading again in French, and wandered into a small bookstore near where I was living in Montreal to try and find a French edition. Before I could even ask, or even know which section I was standing in, my eyes fell immediately on the spine of 'La nuit des temps' (the original French title), and I picked it up again. I just finished reading the French version (even more beautiful in the original!) and so felt compelled to add yet another glowing review on this page.

Very, VERY worth tracking down.

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