Tuesday, January 12, 2021

The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt

The Academy Outside of IngolstadtThe Academy Outside of Ingolstadt by Damian Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If it's not apparent that I'm a fan of Damian Murphy's work, you've not been paying attention to my reviews. That said, I do believe that every work has to stand on its own merit, so I approach the work of those whose work I have liked in the past with what I think is an objective, although anticipatory, frame of mind. Consider this mind blown.

I absolutely adore the strange characters of Abyssinia. I am fascinated by the subterfuge of The Acephalic Imperial. I was swept away by the intrigue of Psalms of the Magistrate. But all of that left me unprepared for the epic journey that is The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt.

This is literature at another level: the level of the sublime. From the beginning, with Franz's holocaustic vision of angelic destruction (a prophetic waking dream of the future in store beyond the book), which propels him to return to The Academy, to the era before the beginning, where Franz discovers what true catharsis is, and back to the present, where past and future coalesce in a time that is not time, the sideslip alley of memory (or of memory of memory) and of prophecy, we sense, no, we know that one can never fully know. And there is comfort in that. There is strength in the unseen. But there is also strength in revelation, even if the veil never fully tears apart, or if we discover that beyond that veil is another.

Above all, in reading this book, I felt a sense of one-ness with the characters and their experiences. For instance, the notion of a map constructed wholly from memory resonates with me. I often dream of places I've lived (and I've lived in a lot, being an Air Force brat) and visited again in dreams. My oneiric wanderings always take me to impossible nooks and crannies, skipping gulfs in a few steps, folding and unfolding interstices that were never there (and I've proven they were never there by visiting again). The Academy Outside of Ingolstadt has pushed me to meditate (yes, literally) on those dream-visions. Good fiction causes one to think. Great fiction causes one to act. And I will act on this by doing a (near) future blogpost about my wanderings. Call my upcoming blogpost . . . an offering.

Franz's escape from his threat and his sense of utter, eternal freedom is something I've experienced, albeit under very different circumstances (mine involves a literal threat of prison sentence and banishment from the place I loved, but that's a different story). It leaves an indelible impression on the soul. It's not always easy to recall it and draw upon it for strength, but it's always there. Once you've experienced it, there's no going back. Oh, yes, there can be denial, but such things are carved on the heart, forever. It's the Three of Swords, stabbed through and hurt, but still alive and pyrrhicaly-triumphant. The wound has become a part of you, your bleeding has become your freedom.

I've also experienced the sensations that are described in the little red journal around the student, Una's experience with participating in a marionette theater. Una's transformation is a slippage from puppeteer to puppet, then from puppet to self-aware being. She is, with full intention, but without full awareness, becoming herself by denying her self, that she is becoming a doing by doing a becoming. "I AM that I AM," in full praxis.

Finally (for the purposes of this review - there is no "finally" to this book, as far as I am concerned) the following quote caught my eye, then caught my soul:

The intoxicating flavor of the past, so he reflected, was sweeter in his memory than it could possibly have been at the time it was experienced.

Now that I'm over fifty, I can say that this is true. The ephemeral is often the most beautiful. Nostalgia is a strong drug that can intoxicate your world, whether in your waking hours or your dream-time. The world says "seize the day". The world beyond the world says "seize your memory of the day past".

My cryptic ramblings have headed in no particular direction. And I don't intend on giving them any direction. This matches my feelings, now, about how to approach this book. Approach it from whatever angle you like. Read it from beginning to end or flip to a random page and read backwards. No, it's not a structurally fluid as, say, Finnegans Wake. But there is a spiritual breathing to the work that allows you to enter the story at any inhalation or exhalation. Where you enter doesn't matter, what matters is that you be in it. And I plan on being in it again and again and again and again. One does not read this book, one breathes it. One is it. This has been my experience. Profoundly moving, profoundly still, profoundly here. The story is the Academy.

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Monday, January 11, 2021

STGM: The Conclusion of the World and What Rose After

STGM: The Conclusion of the World, and What Rose AfterSTGM: The Conclusion of the World, and What Rose After by Valin Mattheis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am a big fan of Valin Mattheis' art. I have two prints of his up in my writing area and one of his paintings adorns my own book, The Varvaros Ascensions. So, when I heard that he was producing a book from sketches he made during Inktober 2020, I dropped everything and bought a copy. I really do believe in buying books 1) directly from the author whenever possible, 2) directly from the publisher when that's not possible, 3) from a local bookstore when I can't buy it direct from the author or publisher, 4) from Ziesings.com (my favorite online bookstore - they also have a paper catalog - remember those?), 5) from Ebay or Abebooks, then, finally, 6) from the good sponsors/owners/whatever of Goodreads. In this case, I was able to go with choice #1, and that brings me a great deal of satisfaction.

The book is divided into four chapters: i: The Great Sorrow, ii: Black Earth Revival, iii: Harold Rose Up, and iv: The Three Pilgrims. The story is mythic in scale, and each chapter follows from the other, although from different perspectives. The whole is made cohesive by the strand of destruction, change, and maybe, possibly, hope among the darkness. A grim hope, but hope, nonetheless.

The art is saturated with color, even while the water-color backgrounds and spectres give a ghostly quality to the whole. It is a beautiful book and the emphasis is squarely on the art. There are, as you might guess, lots of skeletons and a morbid sense of humor running throughout, but the book is never so silly as to throw one out of the grim mindset. The "slim" story, again in a mythic mode, helps to maintain a mood of solemnity, even a touch of reverence.

As an added treat, there is a detailed commentary in the back explaining some of the more obfuscated iconography. This added a great deal of depth to the story, but I hope that, in future volumes, not too much is given away. This was just enough to be helpful, but not enough to strip away the mystery. And I hope that some mystery remains. Some things are best left unexplained.

There are also a few pages of sketches, art that was unused in their nascent form, at least (and some of it not used at all) in the main body of the book. This gives a little peek into Mattheis' creative process, a window into window through which the artist was constructing his representation of the view in his mind. I'm excited to continue exploring these vistas. As the afterword states "This is the conclusion of the world, and what rises after."

I am excited to see what rises after the after . . .

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Promethea

Promethea (Promethea, #1)Promethea by Alan Moore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Confession time: I'm not a huge fan of superheroes. Yes, I grew up reading comics and even collected some titles (Metal Men, Defenders, Thor, Star Wars, ROM, Silver Surfer, Doctor Strange, Conan ), but when I discovered Dungeons & Dragons at age 10, I sort of went sour on the whole superhero thing. Not completely. but mostly. I even tried to get back into things by playing some superhero RPGs with friends, but it just wasn't my thing any more. That's not to say I completely abhor them - I like the Marvel movies just fine. DC, not so much. I never was much of a DC fan. I did pick up Grimjack (possibly the best comic of all time, at least for me) in the '90s, and still have those, as well as Albedo Anthropomorphics.

But notice something about my comic book taste: It's mostly scifi and fantasy (or an admixture of the two). I'm just not that big on straight-up superheroes. Call me jaded.

But I am big on magic. Interpret that however you like. I like magic. I believe in magic, though I might call it any number of things besides "magic".

And here, with Promethea, we have something that tries to tow the line between the two. If I had to pick a comic precursor, Doctor Strange is the obvious choice. But Promethea is smarter than the good doctor and far more "hip". I'm not talking about the characters themselves, I mean the comic as an idea and an act of art and writing. I'm sure Stan Lee was a smart guy, but could he even compare to Alan Moore in terms of sheer genius. Nope. 'nuff said.

And while I do love Jack Kirby's artwork and am very fond of John Buscema's Conan (et al.), J.H. Williams III has some serious drawing and, even more so, design chops. The layout itself, in all its variation, is stunning, framing the story perfectly almost the entire way through, threading together what can be a meandering narrative, holding it all together with pictures and a flow that is . . . magical.

I really like the main character, Sophie, as she grows in knowledge both about who she is and about who Promethea is (and was). There is a lot here to learn, and seeing her go through her "Chapel Perilous" endears her to the reader.

My only problem here is that there is so much for her to learn that reading about it can be tedious. This is a magic for beginners book. If you have any knowledge of esoterica, the tarot, chakras, the hermetic tradition, etc., you'll find a lot of lessons here you already know. It can feel a little pedantic, at times.

However, I have to concede: Moore's intent here was to teach. At least that's how it seems. At first, I was disappointed. But then, I thought, this book wasn't just written for me. It was written for a lot of people. So, if you don't have a whole lot of knowledge about the subjects I've mentioned, this will be a great education for you. And if you happen to like superheroes, I suppose this thing might be your bag, too. I can see this series going much deeper from here, or I can see it getting more shallow (and more stock-superhero-story-ish), possibly. But I don't think Moore will go there. We'll see. So far, so good.

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Monday, January 4, 2021

Hay-On-Wye

Skip back to 2019, before the coronapocalypse, and my wife and I spent a two week trip to England, Wales, Germany, and Austria. It feels like an eternity ago - in the meantime, I have lost a job and started a new one, a volunteer commitment with my church was fulfilled after three (very fulfilling) years, we moved from Madison to Janesville, and we gained a grandchild in that time. It's like a dream of another lifetime, when one could roam as freely as one could afford, when we were all looking forward to the deposition of the worst President in US history, and where one only wore a mask the majority of the day on Halloween.

Since we're all pinned in by the pandemic, I've done a few posts on some of our stops, and there are more to come. My hope is to provide a little moment for you to "travel" out of your quarantine box and get to "see" and hear about a bit of this good world. I've already covered Oxford, a day hike in the Cotswolds, and Salzburg. I still "owe" posts on Vienna (which might take two or three posts), The Eagle's Nest and Berchtesgaden, Bath and the Kooky Cotswolds tour, Bedford / Chicksands, and The Devil's Quoits. 

This time around, it's a quick post about our day trip to Wales, more specifically, to the village of Hay-on-Wye, a well-known (among bibliophiles such as myself) "booktown" in the Powys area. This would qualify as one of the "places I'd be happy to die in" from this trip (Vienna being the other). When I think of the D&D outer plane of Elysium, Hay-on-Wye is what comes to mind: a beautiful plane of goodness, quaint scenes . . . and lots of bookstores. The population, when we visited, was 1600 people, and the village has (or at least had) 26 bookstores. TWENTY-SIX BOOKSTORES!  That's one book store for every 61 residents. How can that not be heaven?

Our drive from Moreton-in-Marsh was, if I remember correctly, about an hour and a half or so. What they don't tell you is that a full half hour of that drive is through skinny winding roads with head-high hedges (but no fences) on either side of the road, making it impossible to see around the next curve. When you're trying to learn to drive on the other side of the road, this can be very, very unnerving. In fact, it was a little terrifying. I suppose you got to go through hell before you get to heaven, as Steve Miller put it.

Eventually we made it there. And in one piece! Well, until I pulled into this parking lot:


I don't even remember which car was ours. But I do remember when I accidentally side-swiped someone while trying to park. ARGH! And the people I swiped? They had just gotten out of their car. The one woman said to the other "He just scraped my car!" Yes. Yes, I did. Thankfully I had taken the dealership up on that insurance (you know, the one I never take when driving in the US?). I am so glad that I did that. Note that it also came in handy in Germany when someone poked a hole in the the bumper of the Mercedes I was driving! THAT one was not my fault. But THIS one, yes, it was all me. We called the rental place and got it all worked out. Her people talked with my people, and we went on our way. I still feel stupid, even now. But they drive on the other side of the road! I was so glad when we had a chauffer the next day, but that's a different story.

After our harrowing parking experience, we set off into town on foot. I use the word "town" to mean "village". It's very small and very quaint. Look, even the clocktower is small:


And, yes, before you ask - this photo was taken near the end of the day, rather than the beginning. As I was saying, the clocktower is small, but quaint. Where in the US will you find a genuine clocktower like this, in the middle of the road (I mean this quite literally)? Sorry, Walt Disney World does NOT count. Get a life.

As a further piece of evidence regarding just how small Hay is, note this sign:


This is the gospel truth. Hay-on-Wye, in fact, all of eastern Wales, from what I could see, was clearly unsuitable for large vehicles.

While I would have gladly just laid down in that little village and died (and nearly did die of embarrassment after the parking incident), we were there to find books! In all honesty, I didn't take a lot of pictures in Hay because I was bent on book hunting. Who had time for pictures? Still, I got a few.


This was one of the first windows I saw. A harbinger of good things to come and a stark reminder that we were (thankfully) not in America any more. 

Like I said, I didn't take many pictures. We visited ten bookstores, and I only took one picture of one. Otherwise it was a mad sprint from shop to shop digging through the piles, some of them well-organized, some of them spewing printed material from the mouth of chaos. I reveled in both. Oh, and it wasn't all books:


See, there were models as well as books. And art, a ton of art. They especially like Rackham there. In fact, I picked up a Rackham book whilst there, from the same bookstore that I found these models in. I had to take this photo for my friend, Tom, as I know he loves models. 

One bookstore that came highly recommended to me by several literary friends was the Hay Cinema Bookshop, located in - yes, you guessed it you smart cookie, you - what used to be Hay's Cinema. 


This picture did not do it justice, as it was honestly an afterthought as we were leaving there for another shop. But I must tell you  that this was a treasure trove. Though they didn't have a copy of The Yellow Book Quarterly, and I really was looking to pick one up. In fact, we spent a good amount of time in ten of the 26 book shops in Hay and none of them had any copy of any volume of TYBQ, though the curator at Hay Cinema Bookshop said that he had just sold a full set a couple of weeks before. Sigh. One day . . . one day . . .

After all this running (sometimes literally) from bookshop to bookshop, we were famished, so we stopped at an Indian restaurant in town and had some great vindaloo and curry and I can't remember what all else, except that it was delicious and fairly spicy for food served in the UK. Here's a view out the back of the restaurant:


By this time, the shops had all closed, and we wandered the streets, finding this alley, which is not notable for anything at all expect that it's an alley in Hay with a view of the hills beyond.


And, speaking of hills, I took this shot of the "quilted" hills in the distance.


And this last photo from the now-notorious car park. The white spots on the hills are sheep. There are sheep everywhere there.

Finally, after what was far too short of a day, we were off back to Moreton-in-Marsh. Here is a claustrophobic view of the hedges we were trapped between until we were near the English border:


And as much as I gripe, I would return there in a heartbeat. Supposedly there is some Welsh ancestry on my Mom's side of the family. I'd say it felt quite a bit like "home" there. Yeah, I could live there for a very long time - if I wasn't killed trying to drive there. But, like I said, Hay-on-Wye is a place I could happily die in.

Why all the morbidity? Well, take a look at the books I picked up. To be fair, the M.R. James collection was picked up in Oxford the day previous, but . . . 


And I must note here that I hunted and hunted for a book by Machen, whom I believe was from just south of Hay, and I found The Hill of Dreams, which is a remarkable book. Go read my review here. and Robert Graves, who wrote The White Goddess (also reviewed on my blog) had all kinds of connections with Wales, especially on the poetic front. I mentioned Rackham earlier. And while James and Shiel were both very much English, at least I bought their books on the same island. The Spiegleman book was the one book (I know, I know . . .) my wife picked up. And the Art Deco book was just one I couldn't pass up as genuinely good art books are sometimes hard to come by, especially used, in the US. We are such Cretins!

And, lastly, what are some of the notable books I passed up? I coudn't buy everything, folks, and I only had so much space in my luggage. So, I missed out on: The Complete Short Fiction of J.G. Ballard, Maupassant's Complete Short Stories,  Frazier's The Golden Bough (abridged edition), The Complete Poems of John Betjeman (note that my wife did get me a copy of this for Christmas this year!), and Asterix in Britain. If I would have had oh, say 600 quid to spare, I would have picked up several first edition volumes from a collection of occult books that someone had just sold to Hay Cinema Bookshop. Alas, I did not have that kind of money (having spent it instead on plane tickets, car insurance, and such). But, oh, did I want them. Oh my, oh my.

After that long (and yet so short) day, we returned to our little air-b-n-b "loft", pictured below. Note the skylight in the roof, out of which we could see the stars over the Cotswolds. By the Welsh and Breton gods, it was beautiful. Nothing like falling asleep in that cozy loft, looking up through the roof at the stars.