Saturday, July 13, 2019

T-Minus 4 days

In an earlier post, I had mentioned my upcoming trip to Europe. That time is almost upon me, and I've made general announcements that I will be off social media for a couple of weeks, so I thought I'd make the same announcement here. I hope to be off social media, including the blogosphere, for two weeks. Technically we don't fly to England until July 18th, but I may turn things off sooner than that, even, so I can concentrate on getting ready and enjoying our once-in-what's-left-of-a-lifetime trip.

What exactly will we be doing and when? Glad you asked!

We will start our trip flying from Chicago to London. We're going to try to stay up all night and through the next day to get our body clocks adjusted. We'll see what these old bodies can do. If I was in my twenties again, I'd say "no problem". But I'm turning 50 while we're in Europe, so . . . 

Next day is our trip up to our AirBnB, with a stop in Oxford. I love Oxford. When I lived in England, I made a few trips there with friends (it was about two hours away by bus) and fell in love with that city. But we won't have a ton of time there. I'm hoping to see the Bodleian Library and The Eagle and Child, the pub made famous by it's patrons J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and, I think, Mervyn Peake (I could be wrong on that last one). Then we will wander a bit and then head to the little cottage we're staying at on the north end of the Cotswolds.

Saturday, we road trip to the famous Welsh "booktown" Hay-on-Wye. I'm not bringing any books with me except these:

I am really hoping to focus on my writing while we are away and plan on taking extensive notes on oddities, story ideas, experiences, etc. So I am not taking anything to read. But I am saving some space in my luggage for books that I will surely buy in Hay-on-Wye. I hear from people whose opinions I value that Hay Cinema Bookshop is not to be missed!

Sunday, we go off to Bedford, near where I used to live as a teenager. We'll go to church with my old congregation. Here's to hoping that I'll see some (very) old friends there! Then we will tour The Priory at RAF Chicksands, the haunted priory that my friends and I used to . . . visit . . . late at night . . . through a window . . . often.

Monday will be our actual "tourist" day in the Cotswolds. We have booked the day through Kooky Cotswold Tours and are very excited to tour with them! We shall be seeing Cirencester, Bath, and Bibury as part of that itinerary. Tuesday we will take a self-guided walking tour, also courtesy of Kooky Cotswold Tours. We are very much looking forward to some long walks through the English countryside! Of course, we will take pictures!

Wednesday we have the morning before we need to get to London to catch our next flight. I am hoping we can quickly visit one of the many ancient monuments in the area (barrow mounds, roundhills, standing stones, etc). I've got some advisement on must-see locations, now I just have to pick one or maybe two.

We fly from London to Munich Wednesday afternoon. We will pick up our rental car, a Mercedes convertible (yes, I am very excited about this!), spend the night in Munich, then test the Autobahn the next day. We will need to make our way down to Vienna by that night, but I am hoping to hit some unlimited stretches of the Autobahn on the way down and see just how fast this car can go! I'll have to start out slow, though, as I will have been driving on the wrong side of the road for a week and will need to get my frame of reference back.

Alright, I need to cut this short - things to do. Short story: 1 week in Austria (Vienna and Salzburg): Kunsthistorisches Museum, National Marionette Theater performance of The Magic Flute, The Eagle's Nest, then a day in Munich. See ya!

Monday, July 8, 2019

Songs from the Black Moon

Songs from the Black MoonSongs from the Black Moon by Rasu-Yong Tugen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'm an existentialist, at heart, but not an earnest nihilist. While I do enjoy staring into the abyss from time to time, I don't dangle my feet over the edge for too long.

When I bought Songs from the Black Moon, I expected something dark and brooding. But I should have known from Ligotti's endorsement ("A book of beautiful and strangely tranquil outbursts of disaffection and dissolution. I wish everyone on earth lived by the sentiments expressed within it." (note the absence of exclamation points)) that this work is just a little too hopeless for me.

That's not to say there isn't beauty in this book. Ligotti is correct on that point. Whether it is in longer stretches of prose poetry:

I remain open to all the songs of abrogation that seem to course through my brain in the tear-laden sleep of cognition. You remain open and remain more open, infinitely open - even, and especially, open to what I most fear. You remain open to the seraphic and invertebrate dusk, to what could be or should have been, to our hermetic and deep mauve moonstone sleep. In myriad dimensions tarnished chromatic pieces of bark and branch and lichen fall upon your slender fingers and wrists and your reverberant and tranquil black hair.

Or in some of the "outbursts":

Across your tranquil, tenebrous forehead pass apparitions retrieved from the dimly-lit dusts of oblivion.

the Baroness de Tristeombre's words are resplendent.

And, yet, they are often too self-aware, in the way that poetry shouldn't be. I'll with-hold examples here, but there are many times when the works are full of blatant gothic posturing, odes to depression for the sake of depression, devoid even of a sense of rebellious energy. Just a big bag of giving up.

And I'm not about that. Here we have some diamond flakes among just too much coal. I would have liked things, if not shinier, at least a tiny bit less enthusiastic about an utter lack of enthusiasm.

View all my reviews

Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Star of Gnosia

The Star of GnosiaThe Star of Gnosia by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

To reduce each piece of fictional art in this book to a "story" does it a profound disservice. This is a gathering of esoteric art and thought, a journey, if you will, into the hidden orders of the heart and mind. Each piece is unique, yet of a kind, in the same milieu, but with specific differences from one another. However, I will not dwell on the specifics of character, setting, and plot, as I feel that each reader must discover these touchpoints for himself or herself, as the reader's own experience will inform their interpretation of these elements. So I speak of each section only in the vaguest of terms, because I think they are so important and so subject to personal interpretation that I can only speak of them obliquely. It would be an injustice for me to interpose my own lens of experience here; in fact, it would be an injustice to me, since my interpretation is so very personal that I consider it a sacred thing. That said, this is not an overt religious text, though it may be interpreted as such by a few. It is a book full of symbols where the interpretation of these symbols and the events surrounding them are subject to the pre-existent experience of the interpreter. Your experience will not be mine, nor should it be. I cannot proscribe or even describe to you what you will feel as you read this work. Nevertheless, I can offer the following:

"The Imperishable Sacraments" is itself a ritual journey, but not without heart and light. i caught myself wanting to rush forward, but trained myself to stop and examine the details in this tale, soon becoming unaware of time, lost in the sacrifice of my sense of urgency to the rewards of attention (even if fought for against the weariness of the preceding day).

"The Apostatical Ascetic" is a foray into the frustrations of reaching out to the beyond, wrestling with the banal and with our lackadaisical acceptance of the everyday grind. Enlightenment comes on its own time, of its own accord. Our attempts at reaching are really only concentrated attempts at waiting for the ineffable to work itself into us. This is as much an occultic primer of yearning as it is a "story".

"A Perilous Ordeal" is not so much a story as it is an initiation or the ripples of an initiation through the surface fiction. This piece should be read and read again and again, as there is and will be something to gain, something to learn, with every repetition, as with every effective ritual.

Reading "The Hour of the Minotaur" was a truly transcendent experience. The prose initiates the reader into deep mysteries, the story strips the veil between reader and narrator, between subject and object. One becomes the mystic journey. Astounding.

"The Star of Gnosia" is three rituals in one: an act of rebellion, a recounting of strictest discipline, and the winsome gambol of a trickster goddess. It is a vision of possibilities tailored to the inherent strengths and weaknesses of the practitioner, their particular foibles, needs, and desires. it is yet another labyrinth where one stumbles from the banal to the sublime. A sort of awkward meditation that does not quite resolve fully - nor should it. As with all practice, one must return again and again to "sort it out". Experience will change the emphasis upon re-reading.

Overall, The Star of Gnosia is a deep well from which one can gather fresh water for, I am guessing, a very long time. For those who are scared away by the mystical references - there is nothing to fear here, outside of the fear of your own self-discovery. Am I a practitioner of "the arcane arts"? No. Do they interest me? They always have. Do I feel like I've compromised my integrity by delving into such a work? Not at all. I feel that I've read some amazing writing that has caused me deep reflection and given me some new avenues of meaning and world-viewing. I don't feel imposed upon and I don't have to impose my views or interpretations on the work itself or others to read it. To do that would not only rob the work of the "breathing room" it deserves, but would be to rob others the joy of discovering this remarkable work for themselves and rob me of the "widening of the gaze" that it has afforded me. And I am no thief, unless I am guilty of stealing insight!

One thing I see a lot of in my future is reading the works of Damian Murphy. His writing is truly unique. I can think of no other work quite like his, though Borges' most mystical writings approach the tenor of his work. There's a hint of Calvino's playfulness and the occasional snap of the literary trickster's fingers reminiscent of Robert Aickman. Now that I've used the names of three of my favorite authors ever in trying to describe Murphy's work, you can bet that I hold this man's writing in very, very high esteem.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Analog Europe

I am approaching a once-in-a-lifetime trip (once in a lifetime for me because I doubt I'll be able to afford to make one like this again) for Europe: One week in England (mainly in the Cotswolds) and one week in Austria. One of my goals on this trip is to go mostly analog. Yes, I will have my phone with me, but outside of emergencies, I am hoping to use my phone only as a camera, GPS, and maybe for a little musical interlude here and there (but not often). In fact, I've been getting calls to upgrade my smart phone for a couple of weeks now. I'll pass for the moment. My reasoning is that when I lived in England as a teenager, there was no such thing as a smart phone, there was no internet, and, outside of a few dumb choices that I made that led to grim consequences, I really miss the feeling I felt there - often - of being fully engaged in life: hearing the trees and grass, smelling rain on the air, feeling heat and cold and wind wet and dry, talking to humans, walking in the landscape and feeling the Earth under my feet, all as a participant, rather than an observer. I want to be fully in this trip!

Today, the day before the release of Stranger Things 3 (which I intend to watch, digitally, on my Fire TV - which, incidentally, I won at a drawing at work: I didn't buy it), out comes another episode of my favorite podcast, Weird Studies, this one using a fabulous series of essays by J.F. Martel entitled Reality is Analog.

I originally read this essay several months ago, around the time that I posted a blog entry entitled Analog Kid (yes, after the song by Rush). In that post, I tentatively posited my thoughts on how I desired to return to a more analog existence. That notion hasn't diminished and has, in fact, grown stronger. I have begun the Snail Mail RPG I referred to, have written more letters since then than I did in the previous twenty years combined, and am spending a lot less time on social media. Yes, I'm still there, but in a passing way. I can "unhook" from social media much more easily now than in the past. I am also writing more, again, just having finished another short story.

Now, I am a believer that when one writes something down and presents it to the world, one is more committed to it. That's why we sign written contracts, n'es-ce pas? There is something like a covenant with oneself that one makes when one seriously puts a commitment down "on paper". In this case, I want to put a commitment on my blog, so it's publicly known, so I'm accountable.

While in Europe, I will not use my phone for social media. No Facebook, no Twitter, no Instagram, no Mewe, no nothing. Two weeks. Even though I've been leaning this direction for some time, this is a painful thing to type. Really, this is extremely difficult to commit to, and it makes me downright nervous. But I want to do it. Take a "fast," if you will, from social media. I reserve the right to contact my children through Email and text, but I am not going to post anything for the last two weeks of July.

One thing that I am hoping will help: When I'm travelling, I usually do the social media thing at night, when I'm getting ready for bed. Instead, I have purchased a pair of beautiful Rhodia Landscape Webnotebooks (yes, I am aware of the irony here), within which I will take notes, jot down thoughts, maybe even do some sketches (thought I am not a visual artist, by any means). I'm not even taking something to read, which is near-blasphemy to me. Now, I am very likely to pick up a book or two, especially when we visit the booktown, Hay-on-Wye, in fact, I have a list of authors for whom I will be a-hunting. But I am really hoping to fill my time and brain with writing; creating, not consuming.

 Two weeks.

Who's with me?

Friday, June 21, 2019

Deadhouse Gates

Deadhouse Gates (The Malazan Book of the Fallen, #2)Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As I stated in my review of the previous book in this series, I am typically not a series reader. I very much dislike series, especially series composed of thick novels. The fact that I read the second book in this series says plenty about how good this pair of sword and sorcery novels are.

I shall not even attempt to write a summation of this excellent novel. There are all sorts of summations out there. Go and read.

But I cannot just leave it at that. Because, while my actions might be a good indicator of my like for this book, I’d like to tell you why it is so darned good. I am liable to repeat myself from my review of Gardens of the Moon, for which I apologize in advance. There are just not enough superlatives.
Steven Erikson has a gift for packing complexity in his characters and revealing it with the subtleties of dialogue. As a writer who struggles with dialogue (I really have to work at it and edit it like crazy), I admire that. He's pretty amazing at it. The dialogue here opens a window into the character’s internal thoughts and shows their feelings about each other without pedantry towards the reader. That’s a tough thing to pull off, and Erikson does it with panache.

That’s not to say that I like all of the characters – far from it. Yes, I love the assassin Kalam, who kills more people than you think he will in any given chapter (though you know it’s going to be a high number), and High Fist Coltaine is the greatest military strategist in Sword and Sorcery literature. But Felisin, I hated. This noble brought low (who is eventually exalted again, sort of, but not in the way you might expect) was every bit as whiney as Holden Caulfield, whom I hate with a flying passion. Now, Felisin, unlike Caulfield, had reasons for her whininess, but still, I just wanted to throttle her. And I have no doubt that Erikson wrote her that way. So, well-played, Mr. Erikson, well-played. You jerk.

My favorite character, though, was the ex-soldier, now-Historian (yes, capitalized, as in this is his title) Duiker. And it’s not just his personality that I like. I like how Erikson used him in the novel. Erikson's clever use of Historians such as Duiker is a shrewd maneuver. The Historian has to be at the crux of every important event or recitation, thus the reader gets to see much that a non-Historian observer would not have access to. In fact, the Historian is not only invited, but often required to see events personally, to facilitate the proper recording of such events. Erikson baked the storyteller right into the story, dodging the fourth while and breaking it at the same time. Duiker’s perspective as an ex-soldier, now Historian, often in the thick of combat, makes me remember that I would not have liked to have been a sword-wielding warrior, if I could have avoided it. I'll take the desk job, thank you.

There is plenty of fighting to be had in this novel. It is a military sword and sorcery novel, unapologetic in both its vividness and scope. Still, Erikson wields his weapons subtly, at times, portraying large, important sections of the combat and tactics off-screen, particularly when presenting the early engagements involving Malazan forces led by High Fist Coltaine. By presenting them from “around a corner” or “through a veil,” as it were, the author builds up a sort of mythical aura in the reader’s mind. Later, we learn that this mythical aura surrounding Coltaine’s conquest is shared by those in his world. Thus, we become observers of Coltaine’s exploits in the same manner as those who encounter him in the book: first as a shadow, then a rumor, then as the person he is, and the Ascendant that he is becoming.

“What is an Ascendant?” you ask. Frankly, I don’t know. There are many things I don’t know about this world, just like the characters themselves. We learn through their eyes, though there are many cultural assumptions and phrases that we just have to learn as we go. Yes, there are several very short glossaries to help you from going completely off the rails, but they are sparse and intentionally vague, leaving you to fill in the gaps as you go – or not: several things about . . . well, things, are never fully explained. Ascendancy is one of them. We know it happens and that those who are ascending are greater than mere humans. But are they gods, demigods, or merely heroes?

These vagaries are often presented in poetic language (and sometimes outright poetry). For example, one of the more epic battles in fantasy literature, the Battle of Sekala Crossing ends:

If not for a dumb beast's incomprehension at its own destruction beneath the loving hands of two heartbroken children.

Where else do you find poetry like that in fantasy literature (in a sentence fragment, no less), especially at the end of as grim a scene of combat as you've ever read?


Nowhere, at all.

Finally, Erikson shows a clever wit. The running dog jokes throughout are hilarious. I love Erikson's sense of humor. Kalam describing Salk as "breathtakingly sardonic" and the merchants' excuse to leave Tremorlor, that place of utter horror: "Now we must flee - ah, a rude bluntness - I mean 'depart' of course. We must depart."

I laughed out loud, which typically does not happen when I’m not reading Wodehouse. This lightness makes the darkness all the more bearable.

Still, I shall probably not read another volume of the ten-volume set. Honestly, this is the best sword and sorcery novel I’ve ever read, and I really don’t want to spoil it. I don't want to leave this higher ground.

And, yet, I’m still curious about that lapdog. Oh, that rare lapdog . . . I mean, the raw one . . . you’ll know what I mean when you read it. Enjoy!

View all my reviews

Monday, May 27, 2019

Last Jigsaw

I don't think I ever posted this here. My last jigsaw puzzle. Only took about a year and a half to complete. My next one is full of scary dolls. I'll be putting that one together in the basement . . . alone . . .

No photo description available.

Snail mail RPGing

Back when I was a kid, I remember reading "wanted" ads in Dragon magazine and White Dwarf magazine where people were looking for play-by-mail players for their RPG. Invariably, there was a fee involved, usually rather exorbitant. I didn't play them, because, as a kid, I couldn't afford to. This was back in the '70s and '80s. Lo and behold, the mid-'90s rolled around and with it, the interwebs. This has opened up a plethora of opportunity to game with those who live far away from you, something I take advantage of every week or so, while running and/or playing AD&D 2e with old friends and new. Currently, I am DMing a Dark Sun campaign, as I just wrapped up playing in a Greyhawk campaign. Good fun (until Google hangouts dies, then we have to move to some other technology).

I will admit that during the time from about 1994 until now, I have spent WAY too much time online. It's really gotten under my skin, and this past year, I decided to do some things about it. I am cutting a lot of my time on social media and will dispense altogether with Facebook (except to have my account still there and available for people to contact me, if they wish) once a volunteer commitment for my church is done and over in August of 2020. I'm looking forward to turning my back on FB, honestly - just a breeding ground for family and non-family arguments, by and large. Not only that, but I am trying to fill my time with more analog pursuits: taking time to read more real physical books, getting out and hiking like I did when I was younger, exercising more regularly (i.e., more than every couple of weeks), doing more jigsaw puzzles (which I love and which keeps my brain young), and taking the time to write actual, physical, snail mail letters to people I really dig.

As a part of this, I've invited a few people who I know are excellent roleplayers or who are incredibly interesting persons, to participate in a snail mail campaign with me. We had to coordinate things via email, to begin with, but I think the groundwork is laid. I just prepared the first snail mail letters to send out this week:

The central conceit is very loosely based on the Trail of Cthulhu supplement Bookhounds of London. But this is a horror game without tentacles. We have agreed to a theme of Cosmic Horror, but cosmic horror in the abstract, NOT Cthulhu and friends, which has gotten a bit old. We are also interweaving themes of "The Weird" and "Cults and Conspiracies" throughout. Our main ruleset is DeProfundis, second edition. And for a twist, we are using the rules to the little-known (but rather clever) solo RPG English Eerie to create some randomness on the individual level, which will play into the interaction between the six of us. I will also draw heavily on the Chaosium supplement for Berlin: The Wicked City and the graphic novel (can you call it that?) Night Falls on the Berlin of the Roaring Twenties, for reasons I will outline below.

We settled on a timeframe starting in 1933. The biography for my character, Felix von Wagner, goes a little something like this:

Felix von Wagner – An English-born German raised in the England by a German father, Alric, and Irish mother, Alaia. His childhood was spent on the edge of the Cotswolds, just west of Oxford. His father was a wealthy man, having inherited a stipend via his petty- noble family (hence the “von” designation}. The elder von Wagner had left Germany to open a pharmacy in the town of Burford to live with his love, Alaia, whom he had met while on holiday in Venice in his early ‘20s.

The child, Felix, showed academic promise at a young age. Recognizing this, Felix's father sent the boy to attend Magdalen College School, where he received honors and eventually landed at Oxford to study Medieval History with emphases on Catholic Architecture, Irish Catholicism, and German Folklore. He graduated - barely - spending "far too much time" in the Bodleian Libraries and not enough time concentrating on his core studies. His fascination for the printed word led to indiscretions, thankfully never discovered, which gave him a (stolen) start in the rare book trade. His knowledge in his chosen subject matter has served him well in this trade. Being raised bilingual, with enough knowledge of Latin to get by, has helped in sourcing books, as has a knack for finding books that are desirable to his clientele. A touch of risk-taking has given him opportunities that the squeamish and highly-principled might not enjoy.

Felix currently resides in Berlin, where "anything can be bought," though political unrest has lately made the procurement of desirable tomes more difficult and has led to some close brushes both with the civil authorities and those elements who would subvert them. 

I say that the bio is a little something like that because there are several things about Von Wagner that I am not yet ready to share. It might be too much of a temptation for my fellow-players to sneak a peek online and learn too much too soon!

Now, how do we play this? Frankly: I don't know. We write and make stuff up, really. Everyone has a character with a different background, from different places in the world. I think we have two characters in different areas of Canada, one in northern Minnesota, one in Milwaukee, one in NYC, and Felix in Berlin. The thing that binds us together is our search of rare and strange books. But, really, I am relying on these five interesting people, all of whom are great roleplayers, and each of whom has some common interest with my own (and, I am certain, they will discover what interests they share with each other). 

As a practical matter, we are willing to accept some limited level of anachronism. For example, some of the events in Berlin in 1933 might be just a titch out of order, else Felix's story veer wildly out of control from day one. Yes, the Nazis are still screwing things up today (don't even get me started). But for the most part, we are sticking to 1933, a very interesting time, given the Great Depression, the repeal of prohibition, and the rise of Fascism. A crazy time, indeed.

I shall provide updates, from time to time, but since I will be handwriting all of my correspondence for this (except for the Raro Libro Quaestores Aerarii or RLQA newsletter), you may have to settle for scans of letters, etc. Others are, so far as I know, going to write by hand or by typewriter, for those who have one. And I am all about the wax seals on my letters! I love the smell of molten sealing wax!