Review by: Jason Frye
Published in the July / August 2013 Edition of “The Humanist” Magazine
This is the story of a young Matthew Alper, author of the highly acclaimed 1997 book, “The God Part of the Brain: A Scientific Interpretation of Human Spirituality and God,” a rather ambitious project that explored religion as a natural phenomenon. Some sixteen years later, Alper has returned with Icarus of Brooklyn, a personal narrative that’s a prequel of sorts to The God Part.
Alper’s writing style throughout “Icarus” is conversational yet complex. While “God Part” allowed the educator in him to present complicated issues in a comprehensible manner, Icarus is more raw, with a compelling and organic authenticity–vulnerable but not self-indulgent–from a man who has truly lived. In it, Alper exudes that abrupt yet jovial, no-bullshit affect that is unmistakably New York. In terms of their relation to other contemporary works in the atheist genre, both of Alper’s books refreshingly avoid admonishing or bullying their subjects.
When The God Part of the Brain explores the nature of religion, it does so with maturity, sincerity, and an intellectual integrity sorely needed as a role model for today’s nonbelievers. As a textbook on religion as a natural phenomenon, Alper’s book is a matter of fact investigation. Yet there is a really interesting story behind this author. Alper’s second book, Icarus of Brooklyn, draws back the curtain.
Through Icarus’ compelling personal narrative, Alper puts an endearing and identifiable face upon the destruction of the ego, the search for spiritual truth, and the reestablishment of the self. From a toddler discovering self-conscious awareness to a child learning about the concepts of death, spirit, God and infinity, Alper sets off on a personal journey. Through the course of events, Alper tries to find his place in an ever-expanding universe, tests his boundaries of experience, and eventually loses all attachment to any sense of self-identity. He takes us on a voyage through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood in which his struggle to find God nearly kills him.
As an adolescent Alper experimented with marijuana and psychedelics. The rebellious teen took blotter hits and a lesson from a shamanic Coney Island acid dealer named Ray-Ray. His drug use extended into his short time at Vassar College, and his existential crisis deepened after his expulsion.
Alper masterfully layers a great story that ambushes you at the right moment with biting humor. He asserts that, like the namesake of the book, he flew a little too high in his quest for answers. Yet, unlike Ovid’s character, he lived to tell about it.
Icarus also ranges into more serious emotional depth (including a failed suicide attempt). In his pain, disillusionment, and confusion Alper places a human face on an existential journey and calls us to engage more deeply with him as our philosophical tour guide. In short, Icarus soars.
We need more thinkers like Matthew Alper. We need to cultivate less sloppy thinking, and more honesty and dignity. The byproduct of Alper’s work may be a corrosion of the foundations of supernaturalism and superstition, but his goal is far superior: that of learning, understanding, and truth.”
“Icarus is a treasure, an epic tale—beautifully written—of the expansion and conquest of one’s own mind told with humor and humility that is impossible to put down. As Alper skillfully guides the reader through this universal, yet deeply personal quest for ultimate meaning, he meets his biggest fears—simultaneously forcing us to meet ours. Icarus is an inspiring and highly entertaining story, not just a book really but an experience with astonishing transformative power. Any teenager, adult, atheist or spiritual seeker who opens this book will not be the same person at closing it—guaranteed.”
-J. Perch, MD, Princeton University, Medical Center
“Bold, Innovative, Triumphant! Siddhartha meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. A must read for anyone who’s questioned the meaning of existence.”
—A. Sadwin, MD, Chief of Neuropsychiatry, Graduate Hospital, University of Pennsylvania
“A philosophical rollercoaster ride that will make you think, laugh out loud and cry all in one sitting. In a word, Brilliant!”
-S. Harnay, Ph.D., Baruch College
"First off, this book cost me a night's sleep as once I got started I couldn't put it down. It's a superbly written chronicle of questioning, experiencing and experimenting from which an innocent child is transformed into a conscious being. Each chapter lays out some fundamental aspect of personal, spiritual and philosophical development like stepping stones on a path to self-awareness. And though the book is filled with existential inquiry, it is so utterly playful and entertaining that, even at its darkest moments, it never failed to make me laugh throughout. This is a unique work, masterfully conceived."
"What first struck me about this moving story of self and identity is the weight and seriousness with which the narrator treats the interior landscape of himself as a young child. He begins his story with the dawn of his first self awareness, a very small boy alone in his room who discovers that the world he sees when he closes his eyes differs from the outside world; it's a realm entirely his own. What unfolds is a a richly nuanced and multifaceted story of self discovery told from the point of view of a brilliant and cerebral young man mired in the earthly and often comical realities of growing up in a middle-class Jewish family in the 60s, 70s and 80s Brooklyn. The young Matthew Alper is insatiably curious and accepts almost nothing at face value. In a sense his is a typical childhood whose comforts perhaps propel his precocious nature as he pushes the boundaries of what's possible. This alchemy of intense curiosity and a dose of hubris lead him to the brink of peril from which he only narrowly manages to return. I found this narrator so endearing and the world he populates, replete with vivid scenes and punchy dialogue and vibrantly familiar characters, is truly memorable. Thought-provoking and at turns laugh-out-loud funny and chilling, this is an authentic story of American boyhood."
"This is an enjoyable read and probably useful to many readers who have experienced the same issues as Alper. I read his other book, "The God Part of the Brain" more than 10 years ago. It is a great treatment delivering some very objective ways of looking at religion". Usually, before I read something I study the author. In this case there was nothing to study. This book gives a pretty good insight into who Alper is and how he thinks. Surprisingly, in this case I think I would have gotten a different impression of "The God Part..." if I had read "Icarus..." first. I'm glad I didn't read "Icarus..." first and recommend both."
"I heard this author on the radio recently and was immediately intrigued as I had read his first book, "The `God' Part of the Brain." "Icarus of Brooklyn" is the story of Alper's near-obsession in early life with finding out if God really exists. The story unfolds through a series of very humorous vignettes as young Matthew sets out to discover the nature of the world, physical and otherworldly, and along the way confronts his own powers and limitations. As the story progresses from childhood to adolescence, the themes become deeper and provide an opportunity for the reader to reflect again on his or her own philosophical and spiritual choices. Much of the book is laugh-out-loud funny, but as the subtitle suggests, the story takes a dark twist. (Fortunately for the author and the reader, the book does have an uplifting ending.) Although this story is thoroughly unique, anyone who has pondered life's big questions will find much to relate to. This is a great read for young seekers, fans of "The `God' Part of the Brain" and anyone else hungry for a book that is both highly entertaining and though-provoking. I loved it."
"Highly recommended compeling story that takes you to an amazing personal journey.
A must read! Excellent book."
"A must read for anyone who has ever questioned their personal interpretations of a higher power, even just a little. Matthew Alper brilliantly articulates his own personal experiences (both good and bad) in his quest for answers. Each chapter leaves you no choice but to move onto the next, be prepared to burn the midnight oil."
"The most honest read I have encountered. Starts fun and slow but soon enough you stumble upon chapters that will hook you so deep and so raw that you end up finishing the book in one sitting."
"Honest, dark and at times hilarious, loved it. Thank you Matt Alper for this great gift."