Sunday, December 27, 2020

2020 on Goodreads

2020 on Goodreads2020 on Goodreads by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

2020 did not suck . . . as far as reading went. Au contraire, my methodology for limiting my "to read" shelf seems to be working. The secret is: I don't let my list get longer than 30 books. If I have 30 books on my TBR shelf on Goodreads, and I want to read another, I have to remove one. This causes me to be very careful in my pre-assessment of books. I read a variety of reviews (eschewing those with spoilers, of course) and give a good hard think to whether or not I want my "current crush" to displace something else on the list. My pickiness has paid off. I'm going to keep doing this. It also ensures that if I have had something on the list for a while, I better save up my geld and spring for that book before too long, or it might be pushed off the list by something more desirable.

To quote Devo:

Ain't it true
There's room for doubt
Maybe some things that you can do without
And that's good . . .

Another good thing is that I started the year reading Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. This set the tone for my year in many ways. I took two social media "fasts", one in February, one in December, which allowed me to read and write a lot more and focus on some projects that I had been wanting to accomplish for, in some cases, many years, including the publication of my books The Varvaros Ascensions and The Simulacra and the inclusion of a story in an anthology which I was very excited about. I was also able to spend time handwriting letters and snail mailing my favorite literary people (one of which I owe a letter, still). With my resolve hardened to spend more time in the analog world, I hit the books harder than even I anticipated.

I read so many great books that it's hard to narrow it down to my absolute favorites, but among them were definitely:

John Howard's The Voice of the Air

Benjamin Tweddell's A"> Crown of Dusk and Sorrow

Damian Murphy's Psalms of the Magistrate

The Journal of the London School of Pataphysics, #21>

Arthur Machen's
The Hill of Dreams

Colin Insole's Valerie and Other Stories

Louis Marvick's Dissonant Intervals

If you held a gun to my head (please don't), I would probably pick Howard's work as my favorite. I won't go on about it here - go read the review (then buy yourself a copy and read the book)!

Were there disappointments? Sure. I DNF Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, and my expectations for Mark Fisher's Ghosts of My Life were probably unrealistic, going into it. But I didn't read a bad book all year. Unsuccessful? Yes. Bad? No, not really.

For Christmas, my wife bought me five books. That, added to the 15 or so on my shelf, could last all year, who knows? No, who am I kidding? I'll buy more. But only up to 30 at a time! I have my limits!

Note that many of the books on my list this year and all of my favorites listed above, are from boutique small presses. I really do believe in getting the money to the authors directly, whenever possible, and to the publication houses, as the next best thing. Especially when people are struggling, I want my money to go directly to those who are producing such beautiful works, whenever possible. Yes, they are expensive. Yes, they are sometimes difficult to get a hold of. And, yes, I do sometimes buy from that one online book distributor. But I'm trying to keep it direct, as much as possible, since I'm in a position to do so. I know not everyone can do that (did I mention that many of these books are expensive), but if you can, please support the small guys out there. They need it now, more than ever, and I'd hate to see the wonderful sort of literature they are publishing and the beautiful editions that they are producing disappear.

With that, I should be spending waaaaaay less time worrying about the news in 2021, whether because of regime change or because I'm burying my head in the sand during a social media fast (I plan on "fasting" every two weeks for a two week duration, at least for the first part of this year). Oh, and I should mention: I'm not counting Goodreads as "social media" when it comes to the fast. I'm always up for intelligent conversation (or outright goofiness) when talking with readerly friends. You guys are the best!

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A Voyage to Arcturus

A Voyage to ArcturusA Voyage to Arcturus by David Lindsay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A spiritual quest, more than a science fiction novel - much, much more. The protagonist, Maskull (and, ultimately, Nightspore) take the hero's journey not through the underworld, but across the planet Tormance as it orbits the twin stars of Arcturus. He encounters several stock characters in his journey, each of which introduces him to a new perspective or philosophy, sometimes with all forthrightness, sometimes in spite of themselves and their masks. Through it all, Maskull seems to be coming to some sort of conclusion, but the clouds of the different philosophies make it difficult to see where he is headed (in fact, he doesn't know where he is headed, though he gains more confidence in his abilities as he travels further and further north). In the end . . . well, about the end.

Three years ago, I watched my father die. He had recently had surgery for a tumor in his sinuses. The cancer had wrapped around his optic nerve and his eye had to be removed. It was also revealed in the surgery that part of his frontal lobe was occluded and would need to be removed. At this same time, my mother had been hospitalized when her kidney's failed. To keep a four-month long saga of trips in and out of various hospitals, of hopes gleaned, then dashed to the ground, my mother passed away in February of 2018 and my father died in May of the same year. I was there for both instances because I had been the one to take each of them off of life support. Mom passed away after about 10 minutes of being off of life support - truth be told, she was practically dead when we made the decision to take her off. Dad's cancer had invaded his brain and it was riddled with tumors. He was inoperable and wasn't thinking straight because part of his brain had been removed during the initial operation. He was not himself. Dad had always been a highly intelligent individual and I'm fairly certain (he couldn't talk because of the tracheostomy that had to be given to him earlier) that he was in a living hell with part of his thinking machinery, so to speak, removed. It was inevitable that the cancer was going to kill him. There was no stopping it. So, after talking with my wife and a few very close friends and my kids, and after a lot of soul-searching and prayer, we decided to take him off life support.

He lived for two full weeks. I was with him every day, often spending the night in his room with him.

Losing my Mom and Dad was one of the most painful events of my entire life. It still hurts like hell just thinking about it now. Was it right to take them off of life support? I think so. But having to make that decision cut a deep scar in my heart. It will get better, it has gotten better, but it will never fully heal. I've learned to embrace the pain.

As I read A Voyage to Arcturus, I thought of my father, lying in the hospital bed conscious, but deteriorating, over the course of two weeks. By all rights, he shouldn't have lived that long. Dehydration should have killed him in a few days. But my Dad is one stubborn man, and full of fight. I often wonder what he was thinking, what he was even capable of thinking at that time. I know he knew I was there and I know he knew that I loved him and that he loved me. Beyond that, I don't know what was in his head. I suspect that in his painkiller-addled moments of delirium (which were far more frequent than his cogent moments) he was taking a sort of journey himself, maybe something similar to Maskull's journey. In the end, I think they might have come to the same conclusions, which you are free to learn for yourself.

Now, this book, while it tugged at my emotions, is anything but emotional. It is, in a word, flat. The characters are more "everyman" than anything. Their antagonists (and guides) represent ideas, not real people. I can see how this would be tedious to a lot of readers, and the reviews I've read bear this out. The writing is also clumsy and, at times, very stilted.

But for me, rather than criticize the surface appearances of the novel (it is, from a writerly point of view, ugly), I read with my heart, as well as my brain, and was put into a quite contemplative frame of mind. I reflected on the Tarot, of all things. If the Three of Swords could be expanded into a novel, then this might be it. Do I understand all the battling philosophies? No. Do I understand all the symbolism? No. But I understand the feeling that Lindsay was, especially at the end, trying to get across.

I know Krang, and I know him well. You'll know what I mean when you reach the conclusion . . .

. . . The Conclusion . . .

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Wednesday, December 23, 2020

The Unconsoled

The UnconsoledThe Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why, you ask, did I give three stars (meaning "I liked it") to a book I DNF? Because I see what Ishiguro is doing here, and he does it masterfully. Reading The Unconsoled is like reliving some sort of dream, with all the unexplainable rifts in memory and sudden recollections, the impossible-in-real-life shortcuts, and the full knowledge of the context of a situation even though that situation is unfolding in-media-res. But I can only take so much of this. I quite like vagaries in my fiction (I'm a huge fan of Robert Aickman, for example. But there comes a point where I need to be able to at least infer a point, and 39% of the way through, I feel like I am taking one step forward and two steps back and forcibly so. It's one thing to let me noodle about an open ending, it's quite another to feel like I'm being yo-yoed by the author and he's not letting me come to my own conclusions. Frustrating, in a word. And yet, Ishiguro's prose is such a gentle, effortless thing. I fully admire what he's done here, but I'm going to admire this one from afar, as I'm a little tired of being led along. It's time to turn away, be grateful for the experience, and move on to something more substantial.

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Monday, December 14, 2020


 Did I mention that I'm fasting again? Social media fasting, that is. I would get used to it - the less time I spend on social media, the more I like being away from it, or at least limiting myself to blocks of time. At this rate, I will likely be spending more time off of social media than on it. Not that I'm anti-social - far from it - but I find that I just feel mentally healthier when I'm not on it constantly. Having that time allows me to work on writing and RPG projects, write snail mail letters to people I think are really cool, and do more blog posts like this, not to mention doing real-life projects (like I did with the Esoteric Denim). And while I do really enjoy most of my time on social media, I find that life without it, or with an intentionally-limited amount of it, is more fulfilling. I watched my parents die a few years ago, particularly, I spent the last two weeks of my Dad's life with him, and after that, I really took a more close assessment of what I really love to do in life, what makes me feel emotionally full and healthy, and social media was pretty far down the list. I don't disparage my friends who are on social media (some of which I became friends with because of social media), but there are only so many days allotted in a life, and I don't want to look back from my deathbed having spent a regrettable amount of time trying to get likes and getting in heated political arguments with people whom I don't even know, all the while feeling "hollowed out" in the process. Alright, enough of that.

One thing that I love to do, and that we can't really do now because of the coronapocalypse, is travel. Now, I can't afford to travel much. But in Summer of 2019, my wife and I went to Europe to celebrate my 50th birthday and our 28th anniversary. We spent two days in Salzburg as a part of that trip. This is all about day one. We had just spent about a week in Vienna (I'll do blog posts on that at a later date) and, after driving up from Vienna (in our nice Mercedes rental car), we found our AirBnB (man, I sure hope AirBnB survives COVID-19!), We simply crashed out. We woke, to this:

"Sehr schon," as they say, and that was just the view outside our windows! After a groggy awakening (mountain air is thinner, remember), we went online and got our bus tickets (Dear Biden administration: Want to really help the economy? Start subsidizing public transit on a large scale, especially in smaller municipalities. You're welcome.). We were about a ten minute bus ride from central Salzburg. But don't kid yourself - central Salzburg just means the "old town" - it's really not that big of a city at all. 150,000 people or so. And it felt much smaller than that! Still, the bus had to circle around for what seemed like forever before we disembarked, mostly due to that pesky Danube River one has to cross over. Note that the river was far from blue at the time. In fact, it was murky because there had been flooding up in the mountains. We saw chunks of wood rushing through the rapids that might have been pieces of houses, for all I know. After disembarking from the bus, we were here:

I love the high, steep walls abutting the calcareous alps. Cobblestone streets added to the charm, of course, as did the close alleyway shops. It just felt so darned European! Granted, we had been in Europe for almost two weeks by this point, but there was a certain quaintness about Salzburg that we really enjoyed.

We were really hungry, fresh of the bus, so we stopped at, what else? A sausage stand in the city square. My wife got Currywurst, while I opted for the more traditional Weisswurst. Oh, my, oh, my, oh, my. I had forgotten how much I loved that stuff. I don't think I had eaten it since I was a kid and my grandmother (oh, so very German) cooked it for us. It's a good thing we were only visiting, or I would have had to check into the hospital after eating there for, oh, about a month or so. Those lederhosen don't pop out like that for lack of good sausage.

After this nice, hot breakfast, we dove into the alleys and had a look around:

If you can't tell, there are a LOT of churches in Salzburg. You wonder why the joke about Wisconsin is that every town has at least five bars and five churches? Look no further than their germanic roots. Speaking of churches, we ducked into one church, mostly because it was next to the most accessible public restrooms and, given the lines, I needed something to do while waiting for my wife to make it through the seemingly interminable line. Here are some snaps from that:

As to why they had the Witch King of Angmar seated outside one of the bigger churches, I can't tell you. No one seemed to want to approach this statue for reasons I can't fathom. I did have a look a the plaque on the base there, but I didn't think to take a picture of it. This is probably just as well. If I had, I'm pretty sure my eyes would have been scoured out by some vengeful spirit that night, a'la M.R. James.

It wasn't all traditional Austrian tropes there, though. There were some oddities. Take, for instance, these:

The Nazgul looked out on the scene you see in the first picture here. I was practically sitting on his lap when I took that picture. Was that the icy hand of doom I felt on my shoulder? Probably. Yes, that's a human figure atop that gold . . . ball . . . thing. I can't remember who it was. Maybe the founder of the city or some important historical figure, I dunno. Perhaps I should have paid more attention. And what's with the junior Nazi goat? Modern art, that's what! You can direct any further questions to the artist herself.  The Green Man is a more traditionally historic figure, but finding this statue in the middle of a small parking lot behind some buildings was highly unexpected, and yet, creepily welcome. 

After wandering many of the labyrinthine streets of Salzburg, we decided to climb up to the castle. Okay, truth be told, we didn't make it all the way up. Well, we did, but to actually enter the castle would have cost us something ridiculous or at least something out of our budget at the moment. Stupid American tourists thinking you can just walk into a castle for free. Oh well, we still got a great view over the rooflines. I kept waiting for a spontaneous LARP of Assassin's Creed to break out. You can see why in these pictures:

And, yes, we were bedraggled. Once again it rained a bit and we were unprepared for it. Oh well. We dried out later.

Returning to street level, we entered the labyrinth again. While there, I took a photo of the traditional Austrian dress, mostly because I was seriously lusting after the jacket there. Actually, I had been lusting after one since we were in Vienna, but wanted to get a picture of this specific one because I knew I couldn't afford it (did I mention funds were dwindling at this point?). Someday, though, I might spring for one. That Von Trapp getup is rather appealing to me.

I'm not too keen about the lederhosen, but that jacket is. To. Die. For.

There were some other quaint buildings. The courtyard in the first photo is something you don't really see in the US anymore (did you ever?) - a true Biergarten. And the yellow building is something something Mozart's birthplace something . . . 

Speaking of Mozart, one of the highlights of our trip (for me, at least) was attending the Salzburg Marionetten Theatre. Oh, yes, I had those tickets months in advance! I was not going to miss this! We went to see Mozart's Die Zauberflรถte. This was the first full text I read in German in college and I love the fantastical, mystical story, full of occult themes and, well, magic. It was such a treat! If you're ever over there and if you have any liking for The Brothers Quay, Jan Svankmajer, etc., like I do, you cannot miss this! I couldn't take pictures of the performance, of course, nor would I have wanted to. I was too busy being transported into another world to fuss with a camera (besides, it was verboten). I hadn't been so eyeball-deep in a performance in a long time. It truly was magical. While in the lobby, I took some pictures of past puppets, sets, and murals.

I loved them all, but I was particularly enamored of the devil-bugs, though I can't remember what play they were taken from. In any case, they had a strong influence on one of my current (still secret, but you'll hear about it early next year) roleplaying projects I'm working on for Mutant Crawl Classics. If you need a dose of weird inspiration, I give the Salzburg Marionetten Theatre my absolutely-strongest recommendation. A must-see!

The next morning, we awoke and went back "downtown" to await our bus for The Eagle's Nest and Berchtesgaden (a tale for a later day).While we were waiting, I took a couple of shots, one of a garden and another of a stage in the middle of the garden's maze. I texted and told my daughter (a Shakespearean actress - I can call her that because she's been paid to perform Shakespeare) that I would love nothing more than to see her perform on this little, hidden-away stage. Perhaps someday.

Someday . . . 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Orphans on Granite Tides

Orphans on Granite TidesOrphans on Granite Tides by Adam S. Cantwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am sorely tempted to leave you with the one-word analysis of "sublime," but I can't trust that it would cut deeply enough to make an impression unless one spent a very long stretch of meditative time contemplating, studying, cognitively and emotionally meandering around and in and through what that word means. And, yet, this is the only word that (when fully realized) encompasses my feelings as a reader upon "finishing" the work. "Finishing" belied by quotation marks, because the work lingers in the psyche after the words have ceased. The journey is dreamlike, the ending an existential happening, an event that one must participate in from beginning to end to truly understand.

Rather than describe the oneiric plot, the mystery, discovery, and stark, unforgiving realizations, let me simply quote the philosophical crux of the novella, that on which all else hinges, or at least seems to hinge:

At night I lay sleepless and unspooled the secret knowledge I'd been bequeathed by the forest column. By steadfastly refusing to contemplate any reality other than what is; and then, by denying even that - the secret people create and maintain the world in all its terrible collision of potential and materiality and thought and essence, deed and intention and violence.

The secret people, and the others: the hiders and harvesters. The hiders hide but they do not shrink as the secret ones do. I thought on these potencies and felt like I lived on the surface of a soap bubble. I expected at every moment to be engulfed, that the coast would heave up under me, that forces would rend me in the full light of the day while, on the other side, my deserved demise would be noted only by secret ones who would never testify. But of course I was less than nothing to the world, and the world made its way without heeding my disasters . . .

While the story that elicits this response from the narrator and the story surrounding that story (realities within realities) may seem like a simple test of whether the reader believes in the canny or the uncanny interpretation of its contents, it is much more than that. I must admit that it took me a moment to see the folding within the unfolding, to understand that the existentialist questions posed by the work, which might appear to be boldly answered, are, in fact, not answered at all, but are themselves subsumed in an inward, curling spiral at the heart of the story (and the story within the story). When you think you understand the conflict, you will understand that you are, in fact, becoming a piece in it. Your seeming agency, like that of the characters in that of what I will call the "outer" narrative, may not be your agency at all. Your so-called "knowledge" may be utter ignorance. Who can tell?

Be careful. Do not mistake the end of the story as the end. Reflect back on what you have read, how the story within the story reflects the outer narrative and, indeed, the world at large. Then, you will begin to understand that the only word to describe Orphans on Granite Tides is, in the end (if there is such a thing), "sublime".

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Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Fast to Last

 Back in early November, I announced (har, as if anyone listened!) that I would be taking a social media fast for the month. No Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. Now it's December and what have I learned?

1.  I want more. Meaning: I want less. For the next several months, I'll be taking a two weeks on, two weeks off policy when it comes to social media. I would do an every other week fast, but it takes me a week to detoxify/decompress/get in the groove of not being on social media. So, that will be my modus operandi for a few months.

2.  I'm way more productive when I'm off social media. I keep a bullet journal, of sorts. Here's what last month looked like:

The important things are those big X's. That's where I accomplished something I had been meaning to do. Some of those items have been in my bullet journal for a long, long time. For instance, writing the Blackstar Ritual for Carcosa blogpost has been in there since November, 2017. You'll see "finish esoteric denim" there as well. Okay, it's not completely finished, but it is most of the way. Getting there only took a year. I first put that in my bullet journal in December, 2019. Blogging about Oxford? I'd been wanting to do that since August, 2019. There are some shorter-term things I got done, too, but you get the idea. It feels absolutely fantastic to get some of these things done, and it feels even better to be submerged in the process of doing them, giving them the time they deserve and giving me the breathing room I deserve. I feel more accomplished and mentally healthier!

3. I feel more socially-focused, not socially-scattered. I wrote a few letters to friends. Yes, snail mail letters - the original social media! And I plan on writing more. If you're interested in pen-pal-ery, make a comment and I'll fit you in where I can. Going back to Twitter tonight, I noticed there were some people whose feeds I was genuinely excited to read. But I also noticed that there are a lot of people who I want to know better, and some who I really (harsh reality) don't miss at all. Not that I dislike them, by any means, but I feel like I want to focus my time on those who I find the *most* interesting, the *most* engaging, people whom I know I "feed" and who "feed" me in many different ways. There are a few accounts that I follow that will never follow me - that's cool, I'm allowed to have "idols," right? But I don't want most of my time spent on goo-gooing over celebrities I will never meet and who don't do more than merely entertain me. Life is about more than entertainment, though I, like any other human, like my share. I feel more like "me" when I'm interacting and not just gawking. What I really need to do (and might never because it's a lot like real work) is divide those whom I follow on twitter into separate lists and check them on a regular, rotating basis. Organizing my social media usage could be extremely helpful in preventing me from spiraling off into the never-never land of the interwebs.

4. I like blogs. So, kill me. I prefer longform blogs to social media, for the most part. I'm old-fashioned and, frankly, I miss the wild west days of the internet when search engines kinda sucked and there was some crazy stuff out there to discover. Reading blogs gives me that feeling more than social media does. Maybe it's something about the curatorial aspect of blogs that I like more than the spin and scan and skip of social media platforms. Blogs let people's personality shine through more than social media does, by and large, if the blog writer is thoughtful and gives her thoughts room to breathe. I wish all the people who I find the most interesting on social media kept a regularly-maintained blog. I know, I might as well wish for a cure for cancer and to discover the philosopher's stone, but a man can dream.

5.  I have to deal with boredom like I was a kid again. I was in college when the interwebs truly came on line (pun intended). When I was younger, I had to provide my own entertainment. That took many forms, but some of my favorite ways to kill time were to read, work out, and play RPGs. Granted, the coronapocalypse has made this more complicated, but I've found the way and have the time, when not on so much social media, to really dive in. And, of course, I love to write. Not being on social media affords me more time to write both fiction and roleplaying material, and maybe even a blog post or two.

6. This might sound weird, but I've been more keyed in on music. I remember the wonder of discovering new music as a kid and the sonic bliss I felt at times just putting on headphones and drowning myself in music. I listen to music all the time, now - that's one of the cool things about the internet - but it's often only as backgroudn filler while I'm surfing social media. I find it much more rewarding, however, to listen *deeply* to something with nothing but liner notes in front of my eyes. As a result of my social media fast, I'm redisovering the bone-deep joy of new music!

On a peripheral note, I also physically fasted much in the past month. My longest stint was 62 hours of fasting, with three other stints of 37 hours, 38 hours, and 38 hours. Did I lose all the weight I wanted to? No. But man, do I feel healthier. Which is a good thing, given that I'm now sitting here waiting on my Coronavirus test to come back. Yep, I'm pretty sure I got it, since two of my adult sons have tested positive and we spent a lot of time in close contact when they were contagious. I'm feeling a little icky, but nothing terrible yet. Maybe I'm bad at causation, but I find it interesting that I fasted as long as I did, recycling a lot of old, bad cells in the process (autophagy begins about 24 hours into fasting) and, if I am positive, I've had a pretty easy go of it so far. Famous last words, huh? Besides that, though, I have dropped some body fat and built muscle while doing it. I feel and look a lot "tighter," even though my weight hasn't dropped much. I'll probably continue to do this twice a month. If nothing else, it's good to purge old cells and create new ones. And I must admit there is a sort of physical high that happens when you break your fast (slowly, with soup at first). It's exhilarating (but can make you feel "blech" if you eat too much too fast, which happened a few hours after my initial long fast). There's also something to the feeling of self-discipline associated with it, as well. Maybe I have long lost Spartan ancestry I don't know about. In any case: Recommended (after consulting with your doctor).

Alright, gotta keep my bullet journal from filling up with un-done items again. So much analog life to live!