I read books last year! I thought I’d write up an easy breezy top picks post rummaging through them. If you want the Full List, you can always browse around my twitter thread. There likely won’t be any big lessons, and I don’t want to write traditional reviews, but we’ll see how this goes.
I’m separating this from science fiction, even though they’re the same thing, for ease of use. I read more fantasy novels than anything else, which is not a surprise. I’m going to set aside Lord of the Rings for now, so here’s my top five fantasy novels I read in 2021. They are not in any particular order.
Kingdoms of Elfin (Warner): collection of shorts about fairies written by a brilliant modernist author, Sylvia Townsend Warner. Remembers that fairies are not nice and is equally hilarious and tragic in turns.
Killing Commendatore (Murakami): Murakami being Murakami. He keeps getting better and better at this, even though there’s some truth to the criticism that he does the same thing over and over. This will remind you strongly of Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but I think I may have enjoyed it even more. An artist goes through a divorce and his friend sets him up in a house in the country to get back to painting. The house belonged to the friend’s dad, a famous artist from the WW2 generation who did traditional Japanese art after studying European art obsessively.
A Night in the Lonesome October (Zelazny): a cast of horror movie tropes, including the Wolfman, Dracula, Jack the Ripper, a witch, a druid, a Russian mystic, and a pair of Golden Dawn initiates come together in the month of October when the full moon will rise on the 31st to fight over control of a portal that can be opened, releasing Lovecraftian horrors on the world. Half fight to open it, half fight to close it. The narrator is a dog, who tracks the portal, makes deals with the other magicians’ familiars, and dodges the investigations of Sherlock Holmes. It’s so funny and good.
Descent into Hell (Williams): I’ll be writing on this in full soon, but read it as soon as you can. Occult-tinged Christian mysticism (Williams called his novels “metaphysical thrillers”). A young woman afraid of her doppelganger meets a poet who helps her come to realize the Christian ideal of transference, while the neighborhood historian falls deeper and deeper into his onanistic obsessions. “Sin” is walling oneself off while “virtue” is making connections.
The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (Carter): Angela Carter is best known for her collection of feminist fairy tales The Bloody Chamber, but this novel is also excellent. A representative from a city invaded by thoughts and desires is sent to track down the titular Doctor Hoffman, who is producing them. It’s a picaresque through a landscape that can be shaped by desire.
Lord of the Rings
I reread it again. You don’t need me to tell you about it. What was interesting this time is that I let myself read it normally, as opposed to the calendar reading I usually do. That let me take more time and notice a ton of details I’d forgotten or never registered, such as Faramir leading grace to the Valar in the wilds.
The big thing in SF this year for me was rereading M. John Harrison’s novels Light and Nova Swing and finally reading the third book in the trilogy, Empty Space: A Haunting. They are wonderful, tragic, sad, funny books. I was apparently visibly upset at the end of the second novel, which I remember not actually liking very much when I first read it in undergrad. I suspect the additional years has made it easier for me to understand what it’s like for the people looking for meaning in a jumble of spaces all coexisting as their lives calcify. Read these books.
The biggest book I read all year wasn’t Lord of the Rings, it was Philip K. Dick’s Exegesis, the journal he kept while he tried to make sense of his religious experience. If you’re into PKD, science fiction, or religious studies, you’ve gotta read it. The edition edited by Jacskon and Franzen is good, and you pretty much have to ignore all the footnotes and nearly everything else the editors produced. They are consistently condescending and sneering about Dick’s religious experiences, and say, outright, that it’s only worth taking the Exegesis seriously because they take PKD seriously. But in that admission it’s clear they don’t take PKD seriously, because a person’s religious experiences are a part of them just as their political iconoclasm or their postmodern writing techniques are. No one suggests we ignore Blake’s religious writing or push it off into a corner because we want to seriously consider all his work, but not really that stuff. And Blake saw angels in treetops, so this is pretty comparable actually.
Apart from PKD I recommend Garden of Pomegranates by Israel Regardie for a good take on non-Jewish Kabbalah / Qabalah sourced out of the original Jewish texts as much as from other sources, and the Sefer Yetzirah, or I suppose really I’m recommending Hayman’s edition, since, I mean, if you want to read the Sefer Yetzirah you don’t need me telling you to.
I can’t recommend Daniel Foor’s Ancestral Medicine enough. It’s an excellent introductory guide to getting in touch with, and figuring out relationships with, one’s ancestors. It’s methodical, careful, delicate, and will work in any tradition or magical practice. Foor’s both a magical initiate and a practicing therapist, so he values the reader’s well being at all times.
Smith’s The Way of Fire and Ice is a great introduction to Nordic inspired heathenry that not only avoids the volkisch fascism common in heathenry but actively fights against it. In fact, over a third of the book is how to protect spaces and organizations from infiltration by racist shitheads. The book does this thing that seems to be common in heathenry where it won’t talk much about magic, as though it can’t be learned from books (Solomonic practitioners probably have some words they’d like to say). But apart from that, it’s very good. The exercises are simple but useful; the guides to the gods and spirits are clear and don’t get irritating and breathless; and the section in organizing does seem like it would be a clear and useful basic outline for starting up and maintaining a group while keeping evil out.
I specialize in prose fiction, so it’s always difficult for me to say why poetry is good. But I read a lot of good poetry this year, by Stevie Smith, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ursula K. Le Guin, W. B. Yeats, and Charles Williams. The best general collection of poetry was Smith’s All the Poems, a beast that, I think, is the only posthumous collection of poetry I’ve read that didn’t irritate me as much as it enthralled me. They’re not all winners, we have to remind ourselves as we read some Library of America collection… except with Smith they were. That tends to be true when someone has a sense of humor, I find. Maybe not all the poems are incredible, life-changing works of genius, but if they’re a little funny then they’re at least always worth your time to read them.
For theurgists and magicians, Taliessin through Logres and The Region of the Summer Stars is good, and like Williams’ novel above, probably coming up soon on the blog on its own.
I reread some of the yuri I picked up in 2020, and so once again I recommend Conditions of Paradise and its sequel as well as I Married a Woman to Shut My Parents Up. The best “new to me” manga I read was My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness and Hakumei & Mikochi 1. Loneliness is the first part of a three part autobiographical sequence (so far at least), detailing the manga-ka’s struggles with depression, eating disorders, cultural homophobia, family relations, anxiety, living alone, and many other things that will make you laugh and then feel both seen and also deeply sad. A+ work! Hakumei & Mikochi is if David the Gnome was full of sumptuous drawings of cooking and woodlands. Two gnome like ladies meet inventors, take part in singing competitions, fix windmills alongside weasel overseers, and take the beetle public transit to and from town. For your mental health, read this book.
Assorted Odds and Ends
I read Transgender History by Stryker, which is an excellent introductory text, though focused primarily on the 20th century and on the US. It helped me accept some parts of my brain that were conflicting, in that it provides a useful and pragmatic definition of transness that focuses on what it actually means: “trans” means to move away from something, not toward something. So one is trans if one is moving away from the gender assigned at birth. It’s not required to be moving toward some other specific gender, especially not along the old-fashioned binary model, to be trans.
I also read Tale of Genji again, which really was even longer than Exegesis above. It’s so good, and weird, and redolent of its culture, time, and artistic temperament. I think there’s a shortened version by the same translator? Read that sometime.
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