Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain  – ★★★
From lucid dreaming and hallucinations to hypnotism and various effects of LSD and DMT, science journalist James Kingsland takes the reader on a journey explaining the altered states of consciousness and the present state of knowledge in this field, making his case that inducing altered states of consciousness is beneficial, and much can be gained by experimenting with psychoactive substances. Am I Dreaming? is an unnecessarily chaotic book, but if you are prepared to sift through the author’s more obvious statements on consciousness and his not-always-so-clear scientific explanations, there is some insight gained as the author talks about more recent studies and people’s first-hand experiences.
The mystery of dreams and dreaming has been fascinating artists since ancient times. Many famous artists (from Hieronymus Bosch, Francisco de Goya and William Blake to Gustav Klimt, René Magritte and Salvador Dalí) had tried to give life and form on canvas to the wondrous and bewildering nature of dreams. Whether taking folklore, mythology or biblical scenes as their main themes, artists’ greatest challenge was to enable the easy differentiation in the painting between the waking and the dreaming lives of their subjects. Below is just a snippet of this fascinating art tradition.
I. The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of/Dreams  by John Anster Fitzgerald
John Anster Fitzgerald (1819 – 1906) was a British painter of the Victoria era known for producing detailed, colourful artwork depicting various mythological figures: fairies, ghouls, demons, and also effects of drug-consumption. Dreams is just one of his paintings that depicts a young girl sleeping and seeing dreams. Those dreams “materialise” around her in this piece, showing various mischievous spirits playing musical instruments at the foot of the girl’s bed, while the more benevolent ones dance in the painting’s background, encircling the girl’s most pleasant dream of forming a couple with a (real or imagined) man she loves. The girl’s chic dress is probably also a part of her dream, and the red drapery around the girl’s bed work almost as stage curtains further emphasising the effect of an ongoing performance.
I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum  by Tyler Anbinder – ★★★★
I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlansky’s The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York. In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.