Starship Grifters

Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese is the first book in the Rex Nihilo Adventures series, but the 3rd volume I’ve read in this universe.

The first volume I read was the short The Chicolini Incident, featuring Rex Nihilo and Sasha, which I understand is included in the third book in the series, a prequel, Book 0, Out of the Soylent Planet. I enjoyed it enough to read this next book in the series.

The second was The Yanthus Prime Job, a damned fine novella featuring the character Pepper Melange, without Rex Nihilo or Sasha. Pepper Melange makes several appearances along the way in Starship Grifters. There’s also Aye, Robot, Book 2 of Rex Nihilo, which includes the Pepper Melange novella.

In spite of the name of the series, I wouldn’t actually say Rex Nihilo is the main character. The story is told from the viewpoint of Sasha, Rex’s robot sidekick. Rex Nihilo is basically an awful person who is more an antagonistic Murphy’s Law force of nature which beleaguers the life of the well-intentioned robot Sasha. This relationship is not at all unlike Zapp Brannigan and Kif Kroker from Futurama. Rex Nihilo also reminded me, for several reasons, of Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero.

I’m kinda pissed that by the very end of the novel I had been tricked into being sympathetic to Rex, because he’s really a total shit, but it was a good twist. I’ve had more than enough of people like him. I’m really just over it, even for humour factor. But, when taken as an antagonist within the story, Rex is certainly easy to hate.

But other than Rex’s constantly creeping ick factor while falling trippingly into success after success in spite of himself, usually being saved by other characters trying to survive the situations Rex creates, the story is amusing, and in places laugh-out-loud funny. There’s a lot of scifi in-jokes, especially at the expense of Star Wars. I guessed some twists way early, but others were well and truly surprising.

I read this synced to the audiobook, and both are well done. The one criticism I have for the audiobook is that the portrayal of Rex’s voice never quite seemed right to me. Maybe it’s an expectation from Zap Brannigan being obliviously boisterous, but for the audiobook Rex has a kind of gravelly voice that sounds like a smarmy Mark Twain to me, and doesn’t quite match the character in the story, or the image on the cover for that matter, to me.

I’m slightly ambivalent about reading more in the series, though it’s good enough. And, I’ve already got the next two books, so I’ll probably get around to them eventually. I find I’d be much more interested in Pepper Melange and Sasha teaming up, but realistically they’d be unstoppable; and Rex is a walking talking crisis creation device, so … Yeah, I just don’t really want to read about Rex anymore, but I might anyway for the rest of it.

I made 29 highlights.

Shibumi

I picked up Shibumi by Trevanian, pen name of the late Rodney William Whitaker, because it appears on screen in John Wick 2, and I was curious. I felt I found some inspirations from the book, but the two are very different.

For the first tenth of this book, I was increasingly righteously pissed off at how shitty it was: poorly written with massive continuity errors; and misogynistic, sexist, racist, prejudiced, semi-literate MRA wet-dream drek. I almost threw this book across the room into the trash. I tried to excuse it because the book was published in 1978, but that didn’t excuse narrative that seemed more a backward drop into the 40s or 50s. But then I realized something. I was reading satire. This isn’t an early James Bond novel. This is Our Man Flint. Partly. It turns into an oblique philosophical treatise, for the most part. At least, once I got over the expectation, the rest started to come into focus.

In fact, this is not at all a spy thriller as it seems to be billed in the promotional copy. There’s damned little spying, and what action around spying there is in this is drawn lightly on paper thin pages. This is a character study in contrasts, a kind of episodic explanation by what seems to be the author’s notion of an ideal man in conflict with a less than ideal world. There’s also a fair amount of resentment and vitriol about the world that seems very much like the author taking the opportunity to vent hardened personal feelings about life experiences not directly biographically detailed here.

In the front matter, the author writes with dry humor that “[a]ll other characters and organizations in this book lack any basis in reality—although some of them do not realize that.” And, there’s an early moment where the author reveals he’s completely self-aware of the tone: “He was out of patience with this fool, who was more a broad ethnic joke than a human being.” The thing is almost all of the characters in the first tenth are broad jokes. These remembered two hints allowed me to re-appraise the first tenth of the book, and I came to terms with most of my early criticism, even that the novel was poorly written. The most egregious continuity error was eventually explained, though not all were resolved.

This is the last book in the saga of Nicholai Hel by the original author, and my first read of any book by Trevanian. An earlier book in the series, The Eiger Sanction, was made into a movie, which I really don’t remember, though I’m sure I’d seen it; and besides, apparently, the author felt it was crap anyway. Trevanian makes several comments about Hollywood in the text and about the movie in footnotes which demonstrate the bad feelings he had for the experience of being adapted to the silver screen.

Nicholai Hel is without a doubt an ubermensch mary-sue, not, frankly, too unlike John Wick, to be honest, and, perhaps, an attempt by the author to paint his own idealized self-portrait. Like Hel’s companion Beñat Le Cagot is a fictional persona adopted by the fictional character. It’s really all onion peelings though when one realizes that the author Whitaker published “translations” of “Le Cagot” stories. Perhaps the foolish characters weren’t the only broad strokes to be found, eh?

“From that moment, Nicholai’s primary goal in life was to become a man of shibumi; a personality of overwhelming calm. It was a vocation open to him while, for reasons of breeding, education, and temperament, most vocations were closed. In pursuit of shibumi he could excel invisibly, without attracting the attention and vengeance of the tyrannical masses.”

And, of course, the way to “excel invisibly, without attracting the attention and vengeance of the tyrannical masses” is to become an infamous international assassin. What. What? Yeah, okay. Turns out it’s just the day job that paid for the semi-retirement-that-can’t-last. Turns out you can’t actually take the mary-sue out of the Great Game without blowback. Oops. Who knew?

In fact, I find Nicolai and Han reminding me a lot, in a general way, of the characters Colin Campbell and Gwendolyn Novak in Robert Heinlein’s later The Cat Who Walk Through Walls.

The thing is, even in contrast to the buffoonery of the antagonists, Hel is still a white German (even his mother’s family history in Russia is excused by her being pure unmiscegenated Habsburg) ubermensch of lofty breeding. There’s a definitely a strong case played out of eugenic superiority here, even if canonically Nazi notions are dismissed, by way of making Hel’s actually Nazi German father a kind of simple idiot sperm-donor. Ultimately this is not so much a contrast the the broad jokes, but rather an attempt to retell those jokes in a serious way. That attempt to seriously detail Hel’s mary-sue eugenic superiority, especially as a white person in Asia excellent at culturally specific tasks, mundane and mystic, became for me strikingly uncomfortable to read in a “white saviour” way.

As the framing story proceeds, almost as an afterthought, or as just enough excuse to tell the rest, the meat of the first half of the book is all biographical flashbacks offering insights into the life and character of Nicholai Hel. The story is travelling through time, catching up to the framing story eventually. Its an interesting mechanism, and lends to the dreamy lofty philosophical stance the is the primary payload delivered by the sneaky conceit of the framing story.

So, not at all a spy thriller. This is a kind of narrative manifesto about what the author feels a superior man is and does and thinks, especially in parallax.

I want to note that while I criticized the writing, the truth is more complex. There is a simplicity to the language which should make this novel very approachable for anyone, there is a technical depth of knowledge within that informs that approachability, and there is occasionally surprisingly erudite language. I ended up at the end feeling oddly ambivalent about the writing.

Many things about this book are both strong and weak. It’s good but not great. It’s interesting but also frustrating. I’m glad I read it, enjoyed a lot of it along with a large number of passages I found myself considering as highlight-worthy, but I have a hard time recommending it fully. Maybe if I’d read some of the earlier novels first, I’d have been less put off by the first tenth, but I feel I’d still be uncomfortable with some things I’ve mentioned that are essential throughout. I just can’t completely divorce the philosophical intrigue from the philosophical flaws. It’s a journey, though. So, take it for what it is in whole, if you’re interested.

After finishing Shibumi, I am less than interested beyond idle curiosity to check out the previous installments in Hel’s saga, and, that’s okay: I’ve no doubt I’d just find this installment the most interesting of the bunch anyway. I find I’m far more interested in the author Whitaker as a person. I’m likely to pick up his autobiographical The Crazyladies of Pearl Street, and am definitely curious about his forthcoming magnum opus, posthumously finished by his eldest daughter, Street of Four Winds.

I made 113 highlights.

Capitalist Realism

I picked up Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? by Mark Fisher, from Zero Books, as my first read and first exposure to Fisher’s work. When he passed away by his own hand, in January 2017, I was struck by how many people were talking about him, and since I hadn’t known of his work before, thought I’d dive into something, and Capitalist Realism was of note.

Although the work contains examples that are a bit dated and specific to the UK or UK academic experience, the topics are particularly fresh in this year of governance by Reality TV, a kind of apotheosis of capitalist realism and late-capitalism. A discussion of the context and meaning of a period with an apparent end of neoliberalism becoming a dystopia of reality warping PR symbolism over substance is new again these days.

The strongest part, but also probably the most dense in references, of the overall work for me was the last, Marxist Supernanny, which provided the hint of a takedown of narcissistic infantile Traditionalist individualism and proposed a direction forward toward organizing around a rejuvenated progressive collective will to address root causes instead of symptoms or distractions.

Overall, a timely-again volume worth reading in these days of surreality in discourse but dark dystopia in events that offers not hope so much as encouragement that hope is at least possible to contemplate.

I made 86 highlights.

Marvel 1602

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, &al, is something I’ve wanted to read for a long time and finally got a round tuit.

This was originally an 8 issue series, now available as a collected graphic novel. Apparently there’s been others created in the 1602 universe, but this is the core story. This is an alternate universe story about the main Marvel superheroes out of time, for some reason, which is eventually revealed. On the main, the cool part is the period drama and how the heroes have turned out in another time, and an extended thought experiment about this alternate reality in which essential natures and essential stories still play out.

I think for me the real feature that drew me to this story was that it featured Doctor Strange, and moreover in the era of John Dee, but it turns out there’s a lot more I enjoyed. Lots of little things that tickled my interests, like Daredevil talking about mystery and audere, Fury and Peter Parker talking about secrets, powers and mysteries, & c.

I think I was really hoping that Doctor Strange would use Dee’s obsidian mirror, but if it was there, even in the background, I missed it. But there’s plenty I found interesting. Two moments that come to mind are the villainization of libertarian, individual as the myopic measure of right Doom opposed to the excellence in a collective of the various others coming together, and an almost Zen parable about tools and weapons that resolves into an oblique takedown of filthy lucre.

On the other hand, I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the Fantastic Four could be seen as the four classical elements. I still don’t enjoy FF much, but it’s a dimension to them I’d not thought about before, that’s kinda obvious now that I’ve read it.

The art is in that almost over-perfect style that is hand-drawn but finished on a computer, which tweaks that peculiar Alex Ross-like trigger of glossy detail while still being minimal. The writing is good, though not stunning, to be honest. The primary novelty is in the time-twist and what-if-ism, which does deliver a solid series. Overall, worth reading and a fun adventure that kept me interested and thinking beyond just what the story presented.

Extracurricular Activities

Extracurricular Activities, a short set in The Machineries of Empire series, by Yoon Ha Lee is a breezily written, as I understand, prequel that tells a bit of backstory about an interesting main character from the other novels in a richly developed future. The language is simple and not at all complex, so this short is an even quicker than expected finish. But, on the whole, the universe in which the story takes place has a beautiful complexity of culture and conception that proves ultimately this is worth more than the sliver of time it took to read.

The cultures of this fiction appear to be based on many social and aesthetic norms within various Asian nations, so if I were more versed in the history and those cultures then I may have recognized more analogy to the real world than I did just well-done fiction. It occurred to me while reading this that my personal immersion in Western and American culture, although I’d certainly claim to be at least cosmopolitan, helped to create a sense of otherness and alienness to the particulars of the story which I might not have felt otherwise. I wondered about the reverse of that experience for readers of sci fi from the East with so much of the science fiction futures that I’ve read have been my Western and American authors. Kinda obvious now that I’ve thought it, but I’m not sure I’d pondered that so specifically before, as I had while reading this. It occurred to me perhaps the world-building might not seem quite as inventive and novel for a reader within those cultures that seem represented in allegory.

It’s short, quick, cheap, and interesting. Plus, after reading this short, I’m certainly more interested than I was to read the full novels in the series. So, well done, author! Well done.

I made 2 highlights.

Legionnaire

Legionnaire, book 1 of the Galaxy’s Edge series, by Jason Anspach and Nick Cole is Generation Kill in space. In spite of the science fiction setting, the particulars are thinly veiled allegory for recent military misadventures, with all the usual suspects and situations. The danger didn’t quite reach the Hidden Fortress level of impossible-situation plot-twists, but it was an entertainingly constant chaos of complications.

For me there was cringingly uncomfortable racist overtones to the description and conception of the main alien species, with the double whammy of being both Innsmouth-look-ish (which for me added a whole other genre can-of-worms by reference) and clearly Middle Eastern inspiration, on the planet where the action takes place, but if you can get over that, or accept it as littérature vérité, the rest is a pretty strong and stirring story about the common (hu)man trying to survive a vertically-integrated perpetual-motion military-diplomatic clusterfuck.

The epilogue felt wildly out of place to me because that little story-within-a-story went completely wibbly-wobbly Flash Gordon science fantasy pastiche. I’m not sure how that bodes for the rest of the series. I hope that was just an anomaly. Otherwise this was a solid first installment in a series with promise for worthy visceral commentary on recent global political-military history through a very thinly-drawn distancing lens of uncomfortably-close-to-real fiction.

I made 7 highlights, but 3 of those were notes about errors.

Zines and Comics and Anthologies, oh my!

I thought I’d post a round up on my personal blog of a few things I’ve been doing, so you can check them out if you’re not following along with my other projects elsewhere. Of course, all but the first are things you could purchase as gifts for yourself or others, and you’d be helping to support the creation of more things like these. Just sayin’.

Back in May, I posted the first Reader’s Theatre for Hermetic Library.

In June, I released the first ever Hermetic Library Zine. Each zine is a wild and wooly whatever of occultura and esoterrata compiled together, generally related to Hermetic Library’s overall mission of archiving, engaging and encouraging the living Western Esoteric Tradition, Hermeticism, and Aleister Crowley’s Thelema.

Back in October, I released BENT BROKEN BEAUTIFUL, from the Odd Order Anthology Project. This was the first ever release from the project, has 14 tracks by 13 artists, all new voices for this inaugural issue.

In November, over at the library I released two things: a collected volume of comics from Inktober and the second issue of the zine.

Finally, on the 20th anniversary of the birth of Hermetic Library, on December 3rd, I released an absolute monster issue of Magick, Music and Ritual 12, with 45 tracks by 41 artists.

As a final note, consider helping me create a Firm Foundation for the Work and the Fun!

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Witches of Lychford

Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford starts out weakly, with what felt like a complex fictional world only superficial developed and told in a rather pedestrian way. I had to go back and check to be sure this wasn’t intended to be a YA novel. But, it develops some fun. It’s kind of like an episode of Buffy, but without the effervescent dialog. The overall story is about a small town facing a big box retailer’s attempt to move in, but this happens in a town with both a paranormal history and a band of nascent defenders, further the big box campaign turns out to be orchestrated by the Big Bad. The titular witches, although not explicitly itemized, interestingly to me, includes a witch, a skeptical new age shop owner, and a new vicar. There’s some interesting themes about finding various faiths in the face of catastrophe and evil. Half way through I wouldn’t have been interested in the sequel, but in the end I enjoyed this enough to be curious. All in all, Witches of Lychford is not as engrossing or developed or thoughtful as Heuvelt’s HEX by lateral comparison, but it was a good enough for a bit of quick escapism.

Paul Cornell Witches of Lychford

I made 28 highlights.

Theoretical Animals

I picked up Gary J Shipley’s Theoretical Animals because a quote from something else Shipley wrote related to Cyclonopedia Studies came up in a conversation so I wanted to check out a full work by him. I got this one because it was an inexpensive short ebook. This turns out to be literary performance art; it has merits but also isn’t for everyone. In editing something, I suppose, there’s a choice whether to fine tune and sharpen the story into a concise narrative or to go the other way and obfuscate and bloat the shit out of it. Don’t get me wrong, both have merits; but Shipley picked and stayed his particular course for this one. For this story, with interesting reflections for me of Farmer’s Riverworld in that there’s a kind of artificial stream of humanity stuck in a mysterious situation, Shipley went for obfuscation. There was lots of interesting turns of phrase, though the vocabulary was not dense; but the story, for me, got lost in a generally unsuccessful experimental outcome. On the other hand, this may be of timely interest to those watching the remake of Westworld, as it has a certain trippy theme of who’s a real human among those stuck in an artificial world … but with more cannibalism and bodies floating in the waters of this Lethean hellscape.

Gary J Shipley Theoretical Animals

I made 89 highlights.

The Assassin’s Road

I’d actually read Kazuo Koike’s and Goseki Kojima’s The Assassin’s Road, volume 1 of Lone Wolf and Cub, with a cover by Frank Miller, back in the late 80’s. I had a friend that introduced me to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight, and ended up checking this out as well, probably due to the cover; but I’d also actually already seen one of the Lone Wolf and Cub movies years before.

I was trying to think of a good way to describe the main character in Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub series, and of course it’s pretty obvious to me that there’s a reflection of Dark Knight here, which probably explains the attraction for Frank Miller and perhaps some influence as well. The main character is an über-mench who outsmarts, out-fights, and out-darks everyone he comes to face; and he’s got hidden tricky gadgets. Cub is even a parentless side-kick who sometimes helps out in a minimal and comedic way.

But, either way, whether there’s an overall similarity for you as there is for me, the specifics are the story. The main character is an anti-hero. He doesn’t really start that way, but it sure turns out that way as this volume progresses. He’s a mary-sue of appearing to be an anonymous underdog but turning out to have been a better prepared and better skilled veiled personage than anyone that mistakes his reserve and self-control for weakness instead of cold and tempered steel revenge. He’ll fuck you up, son. He’ll also let you die if you’re a complication or not worth his notice, so that sucks for you. He’s a right shit at only putting effort into getting to his goal, and you’re in the way today which means it’s your time to die. He’ll stand by while that happens because you’re not important to his story. You got what you deserved, apparently, for being meaningless in his scheme of things.

I don’t know if the language in the original Japanese was compelling, but it’s pretty minimal and not a reason to pick this series up. The story is good, the art is better, but the dialog is underwhelming in translation. The dialog services the story and plot, but that’s about all. It’s not literature, at least, not in English as it appears here.

The art is surprisingly minimal and folksy, but really does something amazing about providing details of environment and expressions; simplicity that provides complexity. There’s plenty of those peculiar moments of non-action action that I love much in other Japanese art and anime, and seems only to be found delivered with confidence there.

All in all, a worthy reputation was earned by this work of art, and I find myself with renewed interest in the following volumes, which I didn’t ever read, as well as not only my beloved Kurosawa movies, but also interest in even re-approaching things like Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, which I also read one volume of and then lost interest, I know not why.

Where is this Eight Gates of Deceit? Looks like a ritual! I want to go to there. Someone needs to write this ritual so I can go to it.

Koike Lone Wolf and Cub 1 Eight Gates of Deceit

Hey, I wonder if O-nibawan (meaning Spy, or “government-employed undercover agents established by the 8th Tokugawa shogun, Tokugawa Yoshimune (1684–1751). They are sometimes described as ‘ninja’.”) is where Obi-wan Kenobi’s name comes from?

Koike Lone Wolf and Cub 1 O-niwaban

Koike Lone Wolf and Cub 1

Her Scales Shine Like Music

Pleasant language pleasantly written, with a few pleasant word surprises, and an interesting future world built quickly in Her Scales Shine Like Music, a short by Rajnar Vajra, was worth reading, though the very end left me slightly underwhelmed as it didn’t feel quite right to me. Seemed to me that the very end would have been more interesting and thought provoking and possibly poignant if ………(spoiler: hover over to reveal)……………….. so as to leave me feeling and wondering more than it did.

Rajnar Vajra Her Scales Shine Like Music

I made 4 highlights and noted 2 errors.

The Sons of Osiris

The idea behind this little ebook-only release is pretty awesome. This little ebook-only release is a fucking embarrassment. This ebook is part of a series Weiser Books put out a few years ago that was a combination of re-packaged, but notable and not readily available, public domain material selected by Lon Milo DuQuette and several Freemasonic side-degrees selected from a private collection, each with a little intro essay by DuQuette. But, it is completely plain that whomever was responsible for producing these at Weiser Books didn’t even bother to so much as glance at the text between simply running source pages through an OCR and quickly pasting the unchecked output into the template for the series.

I picked up several of these, mentioned them on the library blog when they came out, but I have not read any of them after slogging my way through a couple that revealed the trouble was endemic to the series, not just one book in it. I only made three highlights in The Sons of Osiris: A Side Degree. Two were errors that made me laugh aloud, and the third was a particular point in DuQuette’s introductory essay that is of note. This specific book isn’t unreadable, but it is so riddled with enough errors that it hurts to read.

First off, they didn’t even fill in the placeholder text on the copyright page. I mean: they didn’t minimally put in even that much effort.

Originally published as (or excerpted from) [insert original author, title, publisher, and year]

In the introduction, which I presume was not written for this book specifically, and vaguely recall appears as the introduction in another side-degree issue in this series, Lon writes:

What is of primary importance is that the master key to the initiatory method itself becomes a permanently installed fixture in the individual. Once we have learned the process of becoming something greater than we are, we can and eventually will, apply that same alchemy to ourselves to achieve the supreme attainment.

Now this has to be a curious statement that has stuck with me and percolated. The suggestion here seems that it isn’t the Mysteries, the specific content of an initiation, that matters so much as the experience of mystery and the internalizing the overall initiatory process as a lesson. It’s not the content, but the experience of the structure; and internalizing that meta-level of initiation. Lon said something in one of his in-person classes that struck me similarly as an odd thing when, I don’t have my notes at hand at the moment to be more clear or to phrase this how he said it, he suggested that learning the Kabbalah was about getting the ego self out of the way with busy work so it didn’t get in the way of the Work. That and this seem to me to be similar. Isn’t it odd in ostensibly extolling Kabbalah in a class about Kabbalah, Lon says learning Kabbalah isn’t about Kabbalah per se and in talking about initiation Lon says initiation isn’t about the initiation or the particular symbol and meaning system internal to the initiation per se; rather, both are about the meta-level effect of either giving the self busy work so it doesn’t get in the way or of having the experience of the initiatory method which one can internalize. The latter reminds me of something I’ve been known to say about the initiation experience being a way to become comfortable with the uncomfortable experience of not knowing, meaning that there’s a meta-level benefit to the experience (which, I’ve suggested, one wouldn’t get from just a reading of the script or, moreover, ever get from the experience if one read the script beforehand); but, there’s more to this that that. If I ever do an interview for the library with Lon, this will be something I’d love to discuss with him. But, it’s something, if even the only, I’ve felt was a great takeaway from this book and I’ve had in my thoughts ever since.

Then, buried under the bulk of not-at-all amusing textual and formatting errors, I still laugh when I think about Zeus and his “frank incense”.

ZEUS.—“Now spray him with the frank incense of the gods.”

I see and hear Laurence Olivier in full Clash of the Titans costume booming this line out and it just totally cracks me up. Another thing that I imagine from this is some awesome Rocky Horror style audience participation in these side degrees. There’s a little voice in the audience of my imagination that calls back “Don’t laugh!” or “Don’t call me Frank, Shirley!” or something each time I recall this mistake in the text.

Weiser Books hasn’t even corrected a mistake in the Amazon detail text, and this ebook was released in 2012. It’s been like that for years. Obviously, no one has looked at this either, so, you know, par for the course.

Lon Milo DuQuette Sons of Osiris Amazon detail

Apparently no one gives enough of a crap to fix even that, flapping in the wind for all who might otherwise be tempted into purchasing the book to see, let alone to have done it well in the first place. Furthermore as far as I can tell there’s never been an update to the text of the book itself either. A quick glance at the current “Look Inside!” for this book displays this exact same error I highlighted still on the first pages. I can’t bring myself to look further lest I relive the horror because, it turns out by page one of the preview text, it’s even worse than I remember. They didn’t even fill in the copyright year placeholder for their own cover!

Lon Milo DuQuette Sons of Osiris look inside

This is just an awful disappointment, and as much as the source material could be of fun for people to read; there is no way I can recommend this book to anyone. And, unfortunately, this is not the only book I read in the series with egregious errors. There’s another book in the series with many more errors than this one. I’m embarrassed for Weiser Books and embarrassed for Lon Milo DuQuette as his name is attached to this series.

Wish I had access to the source material, in the private collection from which this was curated, so I could put it up on the library because I’d actually proofread it. These side degree rituals are actually of interest both in and of themselves but also something that local bodies of Whatever∴ Whatever∴ & The Other Thing∴ could put on for fun and enjoyment in a local body or something.

But, no. Don’t bother with this edition unless you’ve a strong stomach for dealing with extremely distracting copyediting errors.

Lon Milo DuQuette Sons of Osiris

I made only 3 highlights, all mentioned above, and submitted 60 corrections.

Lost Horizon

I’ve seen the Lost Horizon movies, both 1937 and 1973 versions at least a couple times, but for some reason I’d not picked up James Hilton’s actual 1933 novel. I was very pleasantly surprised.

Of course, this is a classic that introduces mysterious Shangri-La. The book’s framing story sets up the sense of verisimilitude for the narrative in a fun way, provides an instant sense of discovering something through the obscuring mists of memory. The framing story also gives a good sense of longing for what was lost and the sense that the quest is ongoing for everyone, to some degree, no matter how lightly touched by the experience. I felt there was an noir quality to it. There’s essentially a detective story here that unravels a mystery but I was surprised how amusing I found the dialog in places.

I was a bit uncomfortable with the main protagonist and another plot element fulfilling the white saviour trope twice. And there’s an under-developed escape from sexism in the coda that feels like a bit of a let down to me. I mean, it’s a solid story per se, but I guess I feel it doesn’t really rise above the time it was written in some particular aspects. In others, such as the voice and tone of narration and dialog, I felt surprised by how modern it felt to me in spite of being written over 80 years ago.

The philosophical underpinning of Shangri-La should be amusing to those familiar with other quasi-religious abbeys, and while it doesn’t dive into “Fais ce que veulx” territory, there’s another different sense here of interest to those, like me, who ever wondered on which word the emphasis falls in the phrase “all things in moderation”.

“If I were to put it into a very few words, my dear sir, I should say that our prevalent belief is in moderation. We inculcate the virtue of avoiding excess of all lands—even including, if you will pardon the paradox, excess of virtue itself. In the valley which you have seen, and in which there are several thousand inhabitants living under the control of our order, we have found that the principle makes for a considerable degree of happiness. We rule with moderate strictness, and in return we are satisfied with moderate obedience. And I think I can claim that our people are moderately sober, moderately chaste, and moderately honest.”

and

“I can only add that our community has various faiths and usages, but we are most of us moderately heretical about them.”

Lost Horizon is a good casual read, but becomes a welcome addition to the list of remote mountain / travel spirituals with Franz Hartmann’s earlier (both in terms of being written in 1910 and in having been read by me just recently) With The Adepts, perhaps John Uri Lloyd’s 1897 Etidorhpa and, no doubt, plenty others that come to mind, more or less contemporary, such as René Daumal’s unfinished 1959 Mount Analogue and Alejandro Jodorowsky’s 1973 The Holy Mountain.

James Hilton Lost Horizon

I found a lot of interest here as I made 152 highlights.

Nightmare Abbey

As I read Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, published in 1818, I kept seeing this story in my mind’s eye as a darker Dahl, Tim Burton stop action, Fallen London thingy. It felt like one of those modern period pieces. Surprisingly modern to the point of seeming anachronistic to the setting and the period in which it was actually written.

I quite enjoyed the story for itself but also I went a bit highlight crazy on this one because of all the fun thoughts Peacock had about his Romantic friends and milieu, especially Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley & al.

There’s a wonderful sense of bedroom farce absurdity here with the comedy of slamming doors in the face of attempts by the main characters to hook up in some combination, though amusingly the idea of a plural arrangement as a solution to the conundrum is actually contemplated, though dismissed. The whole is only more delicious in that it hides a glimpse of how contemporary society, and Peacock, saw the Shelleys.

I enjoyed the author having a fun poke at friends, society and culture around him. And, there are plenty of amusing little digs at the aspirational political science of the age, which at that time was quite heavily flavoured with active and contemporary Illuminati and Rosicrucian groups.

“He began to devour romances and German tragedies, and, by the recommendation of Mr Flosky, to pore over ponderous tomes of transcendental philosophy, which reconciled him to the labour of studying them by their mystical jargon and necromantic imagery. In the congenial solitude of Nightmare Abbey, the distempered ideas of metaphysical romance and romantic metaphysics had ample time and space to germinate into a fertile crop of chimeras, which rapidly shot up into vigorous and abundant vegetation.

He now became troubled with the passion for reforming the world. He built many castles in the air, and peopled them with secret tribunals, and bands of illuminati, who were always the imaginary instruments of his projected regeneration of the human species. As he intended to institute a perfect republic, he invested himself with absolute sovereignty over these mystical dispensers of liberty. He slept with Horrid Mysteries under his pillow, and dreamed of venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves.”

And there is some solid satire about the method of groups like Weishaupt’s Illuminati, which was a contemporary movement when this was written, in spreading the Enlightenment through authoritarian, even paternal, means and structures.

“Knowledge is power; it is in the hands of a few, who employ it to mislead the many, for their own selfish purposes of aggrandisement and appropriation. What if it were in the hands of a few who should employ it to lead the many? What if it were universal, and the multitude were enlightened? No. The many must be always in leading-strings; but let them have wise and honest conductors.”

Of course, the spreading Enlightenment triggered much larger and less controlled revolution ultimately than such organizations could actually manage. But, for those interested in such things as I am, there is plenty of material like this in the rest of the work to find this an amusing and enjoyable experience.

I picked up the free version of Thomas Love Peacock’s Nightmare Abbey, so I didn’t get the advantage of reading a critical essay about the allegorical nature of the characters. You should get a critical edition, or do some reading online, to get the full flavour of the biting satire and commentary.

Thomas Love Peacock Nightmare Abbey

I made 180 highlights and submitted only 15 corrections, mostly formatting issues.

Off to Be the Wizard

I picked up this series over a year ago but accidentally waited to read Off to Be the Wizard until after it had not only been revised but also upgraded to Kindle-in-Motion, which includes additional art and animation by Liz Pulido, and I quite enjoyed that added bit of flair.

Shades of both reality-in-a-simulation Matrix and humor-behind-the-magic-curtain Myth-Adventures, the story follows what happens when the main character discovers one ultimate secret about reality, and the silliness, with occasional seriousness, that ensues. I enjoyed the idea of technical reality manipulation and time travel, exploring the necessary implications and complications, the setting and situations, and the well-developed characters in dialog; and am pleasantly excited to check out the next installment … but find myself hoping that the subsequent books are upgraded by the time I get to them.

Scott Meyer Liz Pulido Off to Be the Wizard

I made 77 highlights.

Doriana: Succubus at Large!

B L Lacertae’s Doriana is a sequence of three shorter stories about a succubus on vacation, undercover as a librarian, who accidentally becomes a dominatrix for kicks … as one does. I loved the worldbuilding, snarky tone of the main and diabolical character as narrator, and occasional self-aware self-deprecation breaking the fourth wall. Most of that was in the first part, and I could almost recommend stopping there. The second part was almost entirely simple erotica with barely any of the fun narrative frame. The third part finally warmed up to a welcome return to the narrative frame of the main character, and a suitable escalation. A quick and dirty quickly dirty read, with a fun and funny framing story that was the actual worthy part in and of itself.

B L Lacertae Doriana

I made 33 highlights. I didn’t keep track of errors, but there were some.

The Mindful Geek

I picked up The Mindful Geek by Michael W Taft because Al Billings was talking about it. After finishing it, I feel like up until now I’ve been lied to about the purpose, techniques, and outcomes of meditation. I mean, that’s okay, but, if you’re not seriously into meditation and already have had this epiphany long ago, I can recommend this is as a great practical compelling introduction to revolutionize something you probably think you already know about. I feel like my understanding of the purpose, techniques, and outcomes of meditation has been revolutionized.

You can pick up a free copy of this book, and find downloadable audio of the exercises, at the author’s site The Mindful Geek. After reading the book and awkwardly doing the exercises on my own with half an eye on the text, I made a playlist of the audio files. I shuffle the playlist when I set aside time, so I get a random exercise each time I sit during daily practice. But, the important point is that the book and audio files are all free. Check them out, and consider enhancing, or adding this to, your daily practice.

The amply supported discussion of the outcomes for mindfulness meditation described by Taft are grounded neurobiological improvements in concentration and depth of the complex interconnections between physical human sensations, thoughts and emotions. The crux is that Taft details how mindfulness practice has been shown to actually and practically grow the part of the human brain that allows for greater focus and deeper, broader human experience. This is entirely different than the outcomes I have heard espoused in the past. This is an entirely more welcome outcome than I have heard espoused in the past. This revelation alone is enough to recommend this book.

I admit most of my experience has been with the idea that meditation was a tool to clear the mind of thoughts. The techniques outlined by Taft in this book are clear and concise methods to practice focus and depth with thoughts, emotions and feelings. This isn’t mindlessness practice. This isn’t a practice to stop the mind. This isn’t a practice of body hate or combat to kill sensation or volunteering for deliberate extended body torture. This is a set of practices that increase skills with and capacity for focus and depth with one’s mind, body, and emotions.

Even Crowley when talking about “awareness, one-pointedness, mind-fullness” in On Concentration still suggests, and frankly kind of muddling what Hatha Yoga actually was as a precursory practice to prepare the body for and not the same as meditation, “to stop the mind altogether. That is Yoga.” And suggests the idea is to “sit down in Asana to quiet your mind.” However, the discussion of focus in this volume seems to me quite in line with other supporting statements that come to my mind about concentration and focus.

“Your nail must be hard, smooth, fine-pointed, or it will not move swiftly in the direction willed. Imagine then a nail of tinder-wood with twenty points—it is verily no longer a nail. Yet nigh all mankind are like unto this.”—Liber CL, De Lege Libellum

This further revelation of the practical neurobiological outcomes of this practice for me is even more important, I think. The outcome of increasing depth and breadth of being human potential for thought, sensation, and emotion revealed here should hearten every practitioner. But, specifically, as part of leading toward an overall clear, concise and unobfuscated practice of sex magick, the outcome of strengthening the neurobiological capacity for focus and sensation should be obviously desirable.

“Wisdom says: be strong! Then canst thou bear more joy. Be not animal; refine thy rapture! If thou drink, drink by the eight and ninety rules of art: if thou love, exceed by delicacy; and if thou do aught joyous, let there be subtlety therein! But exceed! exceed!”—Liber AL, II, 70–71

Taft has offered here a practical discourse that is quite literally and precisely “the method of science, the aim of religion”, a phrase familiar to readers of Crowley material and here reified. All obfuscation and frou-frou of superstition is keenly stripped from the nitty-gritty details and a case is made clear that practical application of the techniques will bring about outcomes worthy of one’s work.

I was surprised to connect the discussion in this book to New Thought. If one ignored the cruft and superstition, New Thought’s admonition to breathe deeply and engage in positive thinking are, interestingly to me, quite well supported by the practical techniques and proven neurobiological outcomes discussed here.

Another thing I found myself thinking about is a personal hypothesis I’ve long had that damaged people are more interesting, and tend, I think and feel, to be the only people worth talking to. People who have not struggled, not faced hardship and setback, seem to me to be exquisitely boring and useless. As I was reading this book, it occurred to me that the inward facing reaction to strife, the self-examination and inherent reflective practice of hardship in life might be seen as a practice of mindfulness and that creates, as discussed as an outcome of mindfulness practice, an actual neurobiological depth of capacity for thought and emotion and sensation. That which does not kill us, actually does (with apologies to Nietzsche and The Cure) make us stronger; bigger and sleeker and wider and brighter.

Michael W Taft The Mindful Geek

I made 84 highlights and submitted 39 corrections.

Dear NSA

Dear NSA by Harmon Cooper is a collection of more or less purely insane short stories. Stand outs “Pedo Drew” and “Feeding Governor Christie” are worth the sticker price alone for sheer amphetamine wackiness, but there’s more! These are quick reads that have rapid fire internal pacing. Basically, this is a series of fitful indigestion-fueled dreams of a pre-therapy John Cleese funny-walking through your brain.

Harmon Cooper Dear NSA

I made 38 highlights.

The Weirdness

The Weirdness by Jeremy P Bushnell is a terrific twisty toboggan ride of a read. Good thing the author is an instructor because this is a well-crafted writing masterclass in fun fiction.

The protagonist is jerked through a shocking, surprising character arc. There are fun plot twists that change everything. There are several bites of fine, healthy wisdom folded within this narrative confection, but also mixed with some zesty flavor grains of good surreal absurdity. Fun little nods to actual esotericism are just enough chocolate sprinkles on top, but not too much or too literal. The main antagonists have Zelazny’s Amber-level meta-capability compared to the protagonist, and yet, somehow, like Heinlein’s Job, the hero soldiers on through hell, food-service hell, even public-speaking hell, and back, and all with a tidy satisfying aftertaste beyond.

Jeremy Bushnell The Weirdness

I made 69 highlights and submitted no corrections for this book.