Recent reading

I’ve been trying to keep up with the pile of ‘to read’ books, and struggling. The pile never seems to go down! But here’s some recent ones I’ve ticked off:

I finally got to Magic Dirt, a collection of shorts from over-achieving Australian Sean Williams. There are a bunch of lovely stories here, most with a preface from the author about how they came to be. Two of my favourites are ‘Passing the Bone’, a gorgeous take on the zombie story, and ‘White Christmas’, a very different approach to the apocalypse. There a goodly number of SF stories, some concerned with Williams’ ongoing fascination with the idea of just how humanity might cope with the distances of space, and other post-human conundrums, and one that isn’t spec fic at all.

Note: There is also a superb Aussie rock band called Magic Dirt.

And for something completely different, I rolled Rant, by Chuck Palahniuk. This was a delightfully quick read, the story of the eponymous Rant being told through the accounts of those around him, documentary style. It’s cleverly done and the characters are drawn with considerable relish and appeal, and I much enjoyed the dystopia that the alternative history provides with all its Ballard-lite car crashing and diurnal/nocturnal divide. I didn’t quite go for the final conceit of just what was happening here (it belongs to a certain plot device that I always have trouble getting my head around), but didn’t mind so much, the ride had been so enjoyable.

  • Check out Chuck’s writing tips
  • Over on the non-fiction shelf, there’s A Field Guide to Demons, Fairies, Fallen Angels and Other Subversive Spirits, by Carol and Dinah Mack. This survey of, well, the title says it all, really, was going pretty well as it discussed fey folk of water, mountain, forest and soforth. It sets out each entity by description, then a little story about them, and then a section on disarming and dispelling them: identify, case study, coping technique. But the guide loses traction with a few of its inclusions, the spirits being so specific (such as St Anthony’s demons) and so powerful (such as Kabhanda and several deities) that the guide’s ‘disarming and dispelling’ section is rendered irrelevant, there being neither disarming nor dispelling available (it might as well have been renamed ‘put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye’). The inclusion of psychological entities such as Freud’s Id and Jung’s Shadow seemed a step too far. Still, as an introductory guide to mythology, not bad, and the introduction to the role of spirits within each domain gave cause for reflection.

    On a similar theme, there’s Anthony Finlay’s Demons: The Devil, Possession and Exorcism, the author being a former Catholic priest who offers up a history of Christianity’s relationship with Satan and his minions and the Church’s changing attitude to possession and Satan. It’s a good starting point for an overview of how Satan came to his position within Christian dogma, Finlay showing a lovely balance between logic and faith as he charts the course in conversational, approachable prose. There’s some discussion of the role of evil in the world and Christianity’s loss of ground to materialism and atheism and other alternative viewpoints. Finlay cites historic cases of possession, introduces pop culture portrayals through the likes of The Exorcist, but doesn’t reveal too much detail about his own experiences. I suspect this book is aimed at readers from within the Church, but I found the basic history and information to be thought-provoking.<p
    Here's a fitting sign-off:

    Wendy Rule, Midsummer fairies and the Christmas club

    wendy rule

    Wendy Rule

    It’s Midsummer tomorrow here in Melbourne and we’re in the swing of the season with drinks tonight and what should be a fab outing to the Botanic Gardens for A Midsummer Night’s Dream tomorrow. We kicked off last night with Wendy Rule’s Fairy Ball at the gorgeous Thornbury Theatre (except for the loos, which smelled like a bat cave by the end of the night, and the absence of napkins to accompany the scrummy finger food).

    Rule is a Melbourne singer-songwriter with an international reputation in pagan circles. She and her guitars were backed with cello, vibraphone, percussion, violin and clarinet last night, playing two sets that included songs from her forthcoming album, Guided by Venus, as well as favourites such as Wolf Sky, Artemis and Hecate.

    The first set, heavy on slow songs, struggled to make an impact over the chatter and the delightful squeals of children dancing and playing with balloons, but the second, ramping up the tempo and volume, got us where we needed to be, and filled the dance floor.

    The most powerful gig I’ve seen Rule play was in a delicious venue in Brisbane, a converted church, where, to judge by the vibe and appreciative quiet in the room, the audience was mostly pagan, there not just for the music but for the message as well. There was a similar atmosphere last year when Rule and cellist Rachel Samuel played a gig in our backyard. That was a different ‘our’, and a different backyard, but the magic of that night endures.

    A highlight of last night’s gig was Zero, a song Rule dedicated to the energy of creativity. Midsummer was a good time, she said, for looking ahead to projects about to begin, and back to those accomplished. A time to take stock, and draw up energy for the year ahead.

    Sitting at the gig, watching the parade of fairy wings and glitter faces, I was reminded of a recent discussion on Radio National about atheism. The discussion itself was illuminating, offering a wide variety of experiences explaining why callers did not believe, or had abandoned their belief, in a deity. (The Life Matters episode was anchored off a new collection of essays about atheism, 50 Voices of Disbelief co-edited by Aussie Russell Blackford.)

    The program’s website has a comment board, where one delightful respondent opined that those who didn’t belong to the Jesus club had no right to celebrate Christmas. So, presumably, all these little fairy kids in front of me, prancing and laughing in their colourful costumes, were denied a present under the tree because of their parents’ non-Christian beliefs. As if Santa Claus has anything to do with the Christian faith. Given the festival has been appropriated from pagan origins anyway, how downright cheeky and short-sighted. And, of course, how bloody typical of the fascism that turned me off organised religion in the first place.

    Humans are social animals who like to feel they belong. I get that. What I don’t get is that we make this feeling through a policy of exclusion. You can belong to God’s love club, but only if you meet certain requirements. Otherwise, you burn, and good riddance to you. Is this “with us or against us” approach really the best social construct we can find?

    Don’t get me wrong. I fully appreciate the commonsense laws, fundamentally Christian, that grease the wheels of modern Western society. The do unto others, the shalt not kills and covets… a lot of these make perfect sense. But to tell me who I should love? To dictate my path to understanding my spirituality and my relationship with the world and the people around me? To tell a whole lot of other people that they’re damned because they belong to a different club, and treat them as such? I don’t think so.

    Christmas is a time to get in touch and share the love. We should be doing it all year round, but we’re busy, aren’t we? But to take time out as a community, to draw a breath, once a year, and remind ourselves of who and what’s important, of our blessings and our achievements and our goals, well, that seems a good idea to me. Regardless of which club you belong to.

    Merry Christmas. Or whatever you call it, and however you celebrate it. Enjoy, and share the love. Blessed be.