reading 2010: final vol


Psychomagic – Alejandro Jodorowsky

Woo-ha! The book I have always wanted from Jodorowsky but didn’t know I wanted. Two book length interviews, chronicling the intertwined development of his creative and spiritual lives, culminating in his development of a highly idiosyncratic style of therapy. Jodorowsky is larger than life in every way, and this is a massively entertaining account of an artist achieving enlightenment. Exactly the right book at exactly the right time; totally recommended. Fabulous, superb. As ever, his art seems tame compared to his life. And recall that Holy Mountain was decades ago, and he has been nonstop doing awesome crazy shit before and since. Works as more or less a companion piece to his bio The Spiritual Journey of Alejandro Jodorowsky.

Mystical Dimensions of Islam – Anne-Marie Schimmel

Classic study of Sufism, its history and development. Excellent.

Millennium – Felipe Fernandez Armesto

Never uses a simple word where a complex one will do. But yeah, a really exceptional study of the last thousand years of world history, with excellent human level detail and great sweeps. Particularly valuable as a comparative study of human empires, giving equal time to those who achieved much but fell by the wayside.

The Seven Basic Plots – Christopher Booker

Exceptional tome analysing why we tell stories. Identifies 7 basic forms of plot, and argues fairly convincingly from a Jungian archetypal perspective that they are really about providing models for achieving psychological integration of the Self. This is part one of four. Where it gets interesting is when he applies this, describing how things have changed, and why, in the past two hundred years, and how it applies to culture and identity and more.

Extremely stimulating. Will probably get a full post at some point. Recommended to all who have an eye on story as a profession, if only to work out why you disagree with him.

A thousand rooms of desire and fear – Atiq Rahimi

Short novel by afghani writer. Man, Afghanistan is fucked and in pain, and has been for a while. Beautiful and sad.

Who is Bugs Potter – Gordon Korman

Found this at the bach and ripped through it. Loved Korman as a teen. Man, these books go. Fun.

Tomorrow When the War Began – John Marsden

Found this on the street one day. Pretty solid, good grip on teen dynamics, really tight and tense. Can see how this is the start of a wildly successful series.

Endless Things – John Crowley

Final book in the Aegypt Quartet. Which is one truly colossal novel in four parts that took 20+ years to emerge.

Again, the sequence deserves a full post sometime. But in short: a while back I blogged Russell Hoban saying “The real reality, the flickering of seen and unseen actualities, the moment under the moment, can’t be put into words: the most that a writer can do – and this is only rarely achieved – is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page.”

Aegypt achieved more of those moments than anything else I have read. Just sublime. Effortlessly – well, subjectively – beats the living crap out of most fiction.

The speculative chapter about Giordano Bruno surviving his execution, and how, and what he did next, basically destroyed my mind in terror and exultation and opened a rent in space-time. Books are cool.

For the first time ever I am writing a fan letter to an author.

Aboriginal Men of High Degree – AP Elkin

Classic study from the early 20th century of aboriginal karadji and their powers. (Was a primary resource for Eliade’s Shamanism.) Fascinating, and stark; aboriginal culture lost a hell of a lot through contact with the west, and this study was from when living memory knew about what it had lost.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – JK Rowling

The Harry Potter cycle will get its own lengthy post soon. Oh yes.

The Call of Silence – Abdullah Dougan

Complete text of the Tao Te Ching, with a commentary on it by an NZ Sufi sheikh. Seriously amazing.

Our Life with Mr Gurdjieff – Thomas de Hartmann

Russian aristocrat and noted composer who, with his wife, followed Gurdjieff for twelve years, sticking with him closer and longer than anyone. Amazing account of working with a master, and life in Russia during wartime, and Europe, and the world.

When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World

The 200 years of the Abbasid Caliphate. Includes stuff about Haroun Al-Raschid, famous as the Caliph in the Arabian Nights, and his reign. Fun evocation of a fascinating time – a high point in culture in many ways not eclipsed until the Renaissance.

The Imperial Capitals Of China – Cotterell

China is seriously different than everywhere else. Geography and history are the same thing.

the dragon reborn (robert jordan), the high king (lloyd alexander), several harry potter novels (4, 5, 6), how to win friends and influence people (dale carnegie), a book on Babylon: Myth and Reality by a museum, and Richard Bandler’s ‘Get the Life You Want’, which is really pretty brilliant, after 30 years of changing people’s brains.

Have started Kevin Kelly’s What Technology Wants, which looks as thought it has the potential to be truly brilliant. And The Conquest of Morocco, which looks interesting, if, say, you wanted to travel to Morocco soon.

Norman Spinrad on the publishing death spiral

Norman Spinrad survives cancer at 70 and comes out pulling no punches about the state of the publishing industry, writing, and their future. Parts One and Three are *required reading* for any writers reading this. Part Two is interesting and salutary, but not essential.

wade davis

is the man.

I blogged one of his TED talks a while back, and since then have explored further. Last year he gave the 2009 Massey Lectures in Canada. They are fucking awesome, and if you snoop around you will probably find the audio available somewhere online (Not sure if it is legit, so not linking; his SALT talk on the same themes is here.) (EDIT: actually, the talks seem I am on about seem to be here fairly legally 🙂 )The lectures are collected into the book The Wayfinders.

His fundamental message – that the diversity of world-views adds to the collective wonder of humanity, and that each of these world-views has astonishing depth and richness and makes a unique contribution to that collective – comes at an incredibly relevant moment in time.

We are facing a cultural mass extinction, and a corresponding impoverishment of the human collective. We face a linguistic catastrophe – around half the languages spoken in the world are going to be dead in a generation. With each language we lose a world-view, a way of understanding and being, a unique set of answers to the questions posed by humans – who are we? what are we? why are we? how do we survive? what does our existence mean?

His grasp of diverse cultures and ability to express them is second to none. His talks are a hell of a ride. Appreciating what is at stake through his examples is literally mind-blowing. The diversity of human belief and behaviour is staggering.

I find it flat out inspiring. There is a massive convergence with my own work on consciousness, belief, and world-views, though from a really different point of entry; and I can see potentials that excite the heck out of me. There is something hugely important here.

Reading 2010, vol 4:

Uncle Ramsey’s Little Book of DemonsRamsey Dukes
Fairly fascinating argument for anthropomorphising life’s troubles as demons and engaging with them, from one of modern magic’s great philosophers. Hilarious slaying of any number sacred cows. Incidentally contains the most virulent and vicious offhand Thatcher bashing ever. (eg dropping occasional bombs like “British society is on its deathbed thanks to the Thatcherite cancer rotting its organs while maggots like Blair gorge themselves on the gangrenous residue of her destruction. It is probably too late to save our country, or the world, but this book can at least teach you how to put on a condom and hold your nose before you fuck the corpse.” in what is an another wise witty and genteel ride. 🙂 )

Don’t Sleep, there are snakes! – Daniel Everett
Missionary/linguist went to the Amazon, discovered the tribe he was with were a) unconvertable due to their language/consciousness and b) their language has features which defy Chomskyian grammatical theory.

Hands on Chaos Magic – Andrieh Vitimus.
Best practical book on magic I’ve ever encountered. By miles. To the point that I’d recommend reading some more theory oriented stuff first, just to have more grounding.

The Eight Circuit Brain: Navigational Strategies for the Energetic Body – Antero Alli

20 years on, Alli updates his take on Timothy Leary/Robert Anton Wilson’s 8CB model. The bulk of the book is a practical course dedicated to gaining experiential understanding of the circuits. His key notion of development of the lower circuits being necessary to anchor energetic shocks/experiences on the higher circuits rings true, and accords with my experience. Good shit.

Daemonomania – John Crowley

I am in utter awe at what he is doing. Dude is an absolute master. With this he is now elevated to my pantheon of favourite authors ever, and the Aegypt Quartet (of which this is book 3 (books one and two reviewed back here)) seems like a defining literary event of the age. Of course, it feels like he wrote this just for me…

The Aegypt Quartet is a novel of staggering ambition, split over four novels, that has taken about 24 years to complete (despite the action so far taking up less than a calendar year.) The characterisation and quality of the prose is simply astounding.

This book has given me chills, blown me away intellectually, and scared the crap out of me. For starters. I don’t really have the words to express how impressed I am with what he has achieved; I suspect that will wait until after the final book is read, and I have let it all settle in. But ultimately, what it deals with is the fundamental nature of the mystery of existence, how we create meaning, and the stories we tell ourselves. And it does these things better than anything else I have encountered; uncannily well.

I have the final volume lying around, but am a little afraid to start it.

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K Dick

Felt an urge to read a PKD novel. It happens every now and again. Fun but sort of a let down. Easily one of the weakest of his I’ve read, along with Radio Free Albemuth. The ideas are pretty wild/interesting, and he is using them to explore his usual post-Valis themes, but it somehow didn’t work so well as a narrative – a bit half assed and disinterested.

the moment under the moment

The real reality, the flickering of seen and unseen actualities, the moment under the moment, can’t be put into words: the most that a writer can do – and this is only rarely achieved – is to write in such a way that the reader finds himself in a place where the unwordable happens off the page.

– Russell Hoban

While I have been disappointed with the past few (admittedly masterful) efforts in his canon, when he is on he is light years beyond his contemporaries. Today was saved by walking along the shore, plucking away at his collection The Moment Under the Moment, short stories and essays and oddities from his earlier years, and rediscovering how much I love his genius.

Most of Hoban’s early-middle period are singular works of genius comparable to nothing but themselves. In particular, read Pilgermann someday. I still don’t know what that book was. But it definitely propels the reader into wondrous unwordable places.

Advice on writing a novel, part five

Part Five: Research

Writers need to be omniscient as far as their writings go.

Any sentence in your book needs to be justified. If you don’t know what the hell you are talking about, don’t write the sentence. In general, you need to know more about what you are writing than anyone likely to be reading it, and be able to pass muster with those who do know more than you.

A book is a world the reader enters. The experience must be complete. Seamless. Ideally, the reader is actually paying attention, and will notice if things don’t make any sense. Holes in the fabric of the tale woven ruin the reader’s experience. Stupid gaps in a narrative’s logic tell a reader they may as well not bother. The author is not up to maintaining their end of the bargain.

Every plot point needs to be solid, especially important ones. You can maybe get away with not being sure about less important points; but if they aren’t important, why are they there in the first place?

What all this means is that tonnes of the work of writing is in research. Research is pound for pound going to take up at least as much time as the actual writing. (This is one reason they say write what you know… if you already know it, you don’t have to research it.) Luckily, finding out shit is half the fun. There is an arcane joy to be had in suddenly realising it is vitally important you understand something utterly obscure to make sense of a character’s decision, and then going off to figure it out. Life, the universe, and everything is pretty interesting. Some parts are more obviously interesting than others, but hell, basically anything is pretty fascinating once you scratch beneath the surface.

You will probably never use most of what you come to learn while researching. (It has to come out somewhere. Thus writers make wonderful, if potentially insufferable and boorish, dinner party guests.) There is definitely a line beyond which the returns diminish – you need to know when to grit your teeth and just write – take the leap, enter the flow, and make shit up where necessary. And you will discover that all that painstaking detail you have learned will in fact be omitted to make the story flow. But what is left out is what makes things work as much as what you put in. What matters is that it makes sense. That it has the feel of a tangible whole. This quality – and its absence – is obvious on reading.

Another way to approach research is the understanding that, from the point of view of writing, everything is material. Every random fact, perspective, or experience, can someday find a home in a piece of writing. Be interested in everything. Insatiable curiosity is a strength in a writer. Notice things. Wonder why. (I think Burroughs’ first piece of advice to writers came down to “keep your damn eyes open”.)

But yeah. As fun as research is, you got to sweat blood out your eyeballs and write something someday…

[See the earlier parts in this series: 1, 2, 3, and 4.]

maybe day

Dunno how I missed this, but apparently July 23rd was Maybe Day, after Robert Anton Wilson.

(At least, according to the Guardian it is.)

This pleases me.

in my language

This is really quite extraordinary. Please do watch it. A video from an autistic woman, communicating first in her own terms, in her own language, then explaining where she is coming from in english.

The first part is in my “native language,” and then the second part provides a translation, or at least an explanation. This is not a look-at-the-autie gawking freakshow as much as it is a statement about what gets considered thought, intelligence, personhood, language, and communication, and what does not.

Yeah. Amazing.

update-o-rama (may contain unseemly chest-beating)

Those who know me and have paid any attention to my mutterings over the past few years may recall rumours of a non-fiction book I was going to write sometime maybe. Some may recall specific vague mutterings about “consciousness, language, belief and the nature of reality, and how they interact” as a general subject area.

A month ago when I announced a refocus and subsequent absence of blogging it was to focus on that book.

Today I finished a rough rough draft of the non-fiction book.

In the past 31 days I have written approximately 65000 words. (There was also an application for post-production funding which ended up being 5000 words, and a total pain, in the mix.) During that time I have taken one day off due to nervous exhaustion/collapse. I’m getting close to that point again, so it is well that I can take a bit of a break.

When I first sketched out the schedule, it seemed pretty unlikely. Somehow it came off. Aided somewhat by my Outward Bound course being cancelled, which allowed me to relax and stretch out the final few days, rather than panic them into a couple of days; but I’ve only gone three days over.

All in all, I’m a little stunned right now. This book is kind of a major long term thing. Like culmination-of-work-and-thought-as-an-adult-so-far territory. (Although, having said that, I now know what my next non-fiction book needs to be.) There was a lot of self-doubt to get over. I mean, really, who the hell am I to write a non-fiction book, to stand up and say what’s real? Especially in what is in essence a book of philosophy dealing with fundamental questions. So sitting down and just cranking a draft out was probably the ideal way to do it. There was no time for second guessing. It’s also quite heartening that the material was there to come out. I think I cited maybe 5% of what I’ve actually read.

Something liberating I realised before writing was that even if everything I wrote could be proved false, that is useful to the process I am engaged in.

Of course, I haven’t read it yet, so maybe it’s gibberish. But the process is the thing. The past few days, writing the concluding chapter, stuff came together in a new way. I developed new insight; no, I expressed insight that I recognised from the words of others in my own language, on my own terms, and understood the truth of what I was saying. The understanding is part of me now.

The word is not the thing. Knowledge is not understanding. You have to do it yourself.

So yeah. At this point it feels like the fundamental argument I am making is sound. The basic structure is right. The book can be made a lot prettier and more coherent, but that is rewriting’s job. I’ve got a fair idea what I need to read up on, and what bits need fleshing out. All in all, it has been a hell of a ride. Intense and ridiculously hardcore, but lots of fun, too. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to do this.

Apologies to anyone I’ve interacted with (or was supposed to interact with) in the last month. I suspect my head has been… elsewhere.

Now I go to bed with cookies and mindless entertainments. I may be some time. Bring me women, wine, grapes, and chocolate.

On writing characters

Have been meaning to post something along these lines for a long time.

Often I have heard that “male writers don’t write female characters well”. However, I cannot recall anyone ever giving an example of a female character that was written particularly well, by any author. So, my first question is, can anyone give me an example of a really well written female character, by any author, male or female?

Musing further, however, there seems to be some kind of implicit corollary assumption that male characters *are* being written well by male authors (and presumably female authors). From a fairly extensive amount of reading that seems really unwarranted to me. Most characters are by necessity shallow and service a plot. They reflect the limitations in awareness and insight of their authors.

I have long had severe reservations about the ability of anyone to write any character convincingly – and certainly of my own ability to do so. And here, by convincingly I am meaning to write a character of the depth and complexity that I experience in myself and people I know. I don’t think we are particularly unusual specimens of humanity, but personally, I think that if I were going to write a character of that depth, it would take a very long novel, and that would be *all* the novel would be doing. (Notwithstanding that we are creatures of habit, that patterns recur, and much of our nature and disposition can be represented well and discerned by those who know us… but each perception is only a fragment of the whole, and it is the whole that is the character.)

An entire field of writing – namely, biography – sets out to examine the character of an individual human in depth. Yet two biographies of the same person can paint radically different pictures of their character.

I think it is entirely possible to write characters that ring true, that are emotionally resonant, that act believably, even that we feel as though we are inside the skin of. Further, it is the duty of the writer to ensure that all their characters achieve this.

My second question, then, is what is the most completely realised character you have ever read?

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