79. The Upanishads 

Here is another little detour into the world of spiritual classics. You may remember that a while ago that I read and enthused over the Bhagavad Gita, and enjoyed it’s wonderful contemporary feel while it is terribly old. This positive reading experience led me to trying the Upanishads hoping to maybe glean a little more or have a similar epiphany driven read.

The Upanishads is an interesting collection of material that deals with very similar themes and ideas found in the Bhagavad Gita. However for me because the Upanishads are a little more fragmented and lack an over arcing narrative, they just didn’t quite have the same kick that the Gita had.

The Upanishads (Translation Juan Mascaro)

But this is still a worth while read. It deals with philosophical and moral debate, hashes out ideas such as Karma and really reflect some of the universal human condition to figure out why we are here and what that means. There is also a significant weight put on unity and the interconnected nature of the world we move in. It is an easy to read collection which is a little like a series of yarns being spun by a set of voices from behind a fire.

This text ripples at the surface of a deep wellspring of religious thought from India and Hinduism, although for me it lacks the kick of the Gita it is a good companion read to the Gita. Both together are a little like a window into religious thought that I know very little about and have been quite an enlightening experience as a unit.

However, I am not entirely sure if am sold by Juan Mascaro’s translation. His introduction is a little sensationalist. He celebrates the Upanishads in a very long winded sort of way that didn’t actually make me enthusiastic to dive into the text. It also didn’t seem to feel as big enough fanfare for this text but he does point to some ideas on how to enjoy and understand the Upanishads. I am not sure if a different translation would reveal more of the poetry of the Upanishads but I would be very curious to experience the difference in another transition.

Over all I think that if you want to read some Classics in Spirituality, for whatever reason, even if like me you are just curious, then I think this is a good station to stop at on that journey.

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78. On Anarchism 

The last time I travelled anywhere, I decided squarely that it was a trip where a few lines would be made through several parts of my life and perhaps also under a few things that I hadn’t taken enough time with. Chomsky’s collection of essays and interviews in On Anarchism seemed to be something to take a good bite out of and I must admit I had a small love affair. Anarchism to me is Sid Vicious and God Save the Queen. It is leather jackets and ripped jeans, every square inch of fabric and/or skin bolted or tattooed. The image of anarchy to me is industrial or working class.

While culturally this is a popular image of anarchism it is the best starting point for breaking into On Anarchism. The anti-establismentarialism dirty punk, flipping the V’s into the camera while screaming primal poetry above a thunderous cage rattle is the kind of image that make’s most mothers (including mine) say “Oh no you don’t want to be an anarchist.” But surely in our left-wing, socialist household, our political position feels something like anarchy lately?

On Anarchism – Noam Chomsky

That is a larger question for another day perhaps. On Anarchism doesn’t describe a societal modal we should aim for however, it doesn’t provide a blueprint and I don’t think Chomsky could if he tried to. But it does outline a few ideas that are incredibly enticing, particularly to me and my outlook on how the world is currently.

Chomsky reiterates many times during On Anarchism that human beings should be (to the greatest extent possible) free. That we should have our own autonomy, that we have a right to not be subjected to what he calls wage slavery, that anything that limits our freedom should be challenged. In fact he goes almost to the extent that as the subject being limited it is our duty and right to challenge it.

He does however, acknowledge that there are some instances that an authority which automatically reduces freedom is justified. For example such as a parent limiting the freedom of a child when they run into the street, yelling “stop!” is a justified way of protecting the child by preventing them from running. However he suggests that any institution, structure or relationship must be questioned, as it is the authority’s responsibility or burden to provide proof to justify the existence of limiting freedom.

Chomsky tends to argue that there is no authority that limits freedom that is wholeheartedly justifiable. Ultimately from his premise these powers should be eroded.

That isn’t to say that he is not in favour of systems or institutions that provide for the welfare of people. Merely for the justification of those positions of authority that have perhaps taken undemocratically, or laws that limit boarder control even in times of great need. It is when an authority from a far away land causes war and then refuses to assist the civilian casualties caught in in the cross fire, and refuses refugees access to safety that anarchy seems to be at it’s most important. Anarchism seems to be a significant component in combatting anti-abortion positions and also in the access to significant healthcare for certain groups of individuals.

On Anarchism, I think this is a very significant read. It’s accessible, easily understood and doesn’t generally use intimidating language to get the point across. I am not sure to what extent I  am on board with his ideas, this text is a little like anarchism itself, it’s a molotov cocktail that quickly starts to spread to other ideas and set them alight. I do really want to read more of his work and in particular re-read this text and cover it in pencil scribbles. It’s one of those works that you begin thinking about and applying to life and it’ll make you a little angry. But in a good activist sort of way.

There are some very compelling ideas here that I think in some way will inform your political stance regardless of what it is and I recommend it.

77. Sourcery 

Returning to Pratchett always seems like returning to a very comfortable armchair. I am quite comfortable with what I expect from Pratchett and the Discword (the world hurtling through space on the back of a giant turtle). I’m comfortable with it’s slightly slapstick qualities, the humour and the twists and turns and unexpected heroics. It is getting to the point where Pratchett is a necessary staple for travelling, it’s a necessary break between heavy books or anything that takes itself a little too seriously. Sourcery, is a great read and one of the more enjoyable Discword novels I’ve read so far. This one follows Rincewind and tells of the dangers of what happens when a wizard is squared.

Sourcery – Terry Pratchett

Yes, that was my terrible attempt at a math joke. If you are familiar with the novels you should also be familiar with the rule that the eighth son of an eighth son becomes a wizard. But this novel explores what happens when a wizard has an eighth son, who as it is a wizard squared, must be a Sourcerer.

Sourcery is a terrible thing in the Discworld. It is pure creation and power and unlike wizards who spend their lives committing books to memory, a Sourcerer will create without effort (and perhaps without knowing how).

Rincewind, the hero from the Colour of Magic, and the Light Fantastic, is the first to realise something is amiss in the magical world when he places his head against the wall of the Unseen University and hears it screaming. The Sourcerer (a young boy who is being bullied by his dead father’s spirit who occupies the staff he inherited from the living father), arrives at the University and divides the staff almost immediately.

The Orangutang Librarian, sneaks away into the library and locks himself in with panic stricken books. While some of the staff begin to form a mutiny against the Sorcerer-come-tyrianical-overlord, which of course will result in perhaps the worse fate for the disc, another magical war.

Rincewind (our very unlikely hero/coward) and the Luggage, the wonderful many legged box who possess a tendency to eat people it doesn’t like once again find themselves on an adventure to save the world. And this time, poor Rincewind is armed only with a brick in a sock.

This is certainly not my favourite Pratchett, but it is an enjoyable ride with some silly humour. Some find it the weaker out of Rincewind’s three novels so far, but actually I found it had gained a little more depth and traction because of the novels it follows. The wizards of the Discword aren’t my favourite, but they are fun and a little silly and have their own quirks that can only be Pratchett through and through.

The narrative of this one is simplistic and at the end seems to get a little tangled to the point that it can only really end one way. I always seem to enjoy Pratchett throwing very unlikely wannabe heroes at me and in this one there is a barbarian second or third day on the job wearing long underwear beneath his loin cloth and carrying a guidebook.

Sourcery takes similar themes to Equal Rites, and the idea of self restraint, and the resolution implies that sometimes over indulgence in a thing is short sighted. But it doesn’t quite have the charm of the Witches. The Luggage of course has it’s own story arc and seems to have a bit of an existential crisis ultimately finding itself quite bewildered at one point and knowing that it needs to find it’s owner.

This is a good staple Pratchett read and it builds on existing tropes that ultimately become the wider Discword Universe. I would say though that it is a novel that doesn’t shine as brightly as some of the others for me personally, but is still worth reading.

76. Abaddon’s Gate 

Hello! So I’m back again and am well and truly settled back in after a little adventures in Scandinavia. It’s been a quiet few months on the blogging front, I have been having one of those fabled ‘slumps’ with reading and honestly have been quite distracted. So thank you for your patience if you have been waiting for the next (hopefully less sloppily – cut me some credit I was in a hostel bar – written) post.

Well well well, I am a little excited to write this post because the Expanse series – one of those wonderful little on going adventures I have that I recommend everyone – has got a few curve balls in the third novel Abaddon’s Gate. 

Abaddon’s Gate – James S. A. Corey

Aghast was I, on reading the first few chapters and realising that this is not another book about a missing girl! HUZZAH! *trumpets fanfare* But before we get ahead of ourselves in celebrating this switch in narrative structure by the collaboration behind the Expanse: this is still sort of a novel about the aftermath of a missing girl. (I’ve made it sound a little more squishier than it is.)

So. We all remember Julie right? Julie Mao, the girl from novel one who had run away from home to explore live in the Belt away from the wealth of her family? Well my friends, she has a sister who is angry, who is obsessed and who is convinced Holden is the reason Julie is dead and also her family has been ruined. *Spoiler* (let’s just forget about all that questionable shit her father was doing with those super not safe vomit zombie spawning molecules am I right…? No, no… it was Holden, in the drawing room… with a candle stick.)

Said sister, Clarissa, has had a few body modifications done that have turned her into this super psycho nut job by the flick of her tongue to the roof of her mouth. She’s changed her identity (because money can do that) and has landed herself a job in the right niche to attempt to trap Holden and his Crew.

While all this is going on, we remember Venus right? And all that weird stuff that jizzed out into space? Well, that weird stuff formed a ring which seems to go no where, until an idiot tries to fly a space ship through it for kicks and simply disappears. Cue everyone in the universe panicking because said idiot broadcasted it live.

Following suit with the last two books we have a other characters that help build into the story, a older OPA general, Bull, and Reverend Anna, a Russian Priest. Both interesting characters but at times it seems a little too good to be true that Anna pops up and saves the day or amazing that Bull seems to not get his face pushed in by the powers he serves. But after the second book being a little slower for me and a little “ah… more of this.” I actually really enjoyed the pulp action and heroics.

The novel is sort of circling the theme of ‘what people do when they are stupidly afraid’, and this sort of ties in with an idiot erratic Belter Captain and a frightened Holy Man who are ready to sacrifice themselves and everyone else on the ship even though it is stupid. It’s a stupid thing, everyone is screaming NO through the tannoy’s but sense has flown the nest and only FEAR lives here now. *Face palm… much face palm*

The human violence in this novel is far more noticeable than the last two books. Instead of the vomiting zombies or villainous viruses or flesh eating bugs or whatever else might appear, there is a lot of *OUT THE AIRLOCK! ba-byhyyeyeee!!!*. Or just mindless murder which does it’s job well in the novel, but perhaps begins to point at the pulp fiction heroics a little more strongly than it has done before. Perhaps our dangerous duo, Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck are getting a little too close to the cartoonish for comfort, I’m not sure. There has been critique on this novel for some of the cartoonish elements but… I don’t really care?

Because I enjoyed it anyway!

Why would you read a sci-fi space opera if you weren’t expecting a little pulp fiction fun! Also also also, the best for last – Miller is back. Yes Miller. That cliffhanger from book 2, that really annoying one that made you want to rip all of your skin off is okay and is worth it. Because he’s back folks! And he is weirder and weirder…. than ever.

I am pumped for the next one, I am ready to get out of my “read-12 -books-you-already-own-and-make-yourself-miserable-and-then-you-can-buy-more-books” torture thing that I have going on right now. Because I have several great series to get on with and I’m currently BARRED from that. It’s been a pleasure as always! Read this series!

75. The Fires of Heaven 

Hello (from Stockholm)! Five volumes into the Wheel of Time series and I find myself a little overwhelmed by the volume of things I feel I should be paying attention to. As I am sure I have entioned before, this is a complex series that is an epic fantasy marathon. The Fires of Heaven was a long read for me, but not because of the content. It seems to have pulled away from some of the other problems with the earlier novels and very like the Shadow Rising, it’s another novel that does a good job in establishing this series outside of the trilogy format. It had been a little while between my visits to Jordan’s world so I felt some duty to give it a bit of time and breathing space. 

There are a few twists in this novel, a bit more character development but a few of the characters are completely absent! This is a new move for Jordan, instead of sacrificing the narrative of the novel and spreading it a little too thinnly across all of our favourites he has given priority to solid plot lines. I felt this novel was a little more complete than the last one, a few things about the Shadow Rising seemed a little rushed as a few of those plots were tied up a little too neatly. But! Lik all long series this one develops! 

The Fires of Heaven – Robert Jordan

Some have said that this novel again highlights some of Jordan’s more annoying tendencies to repeat the same line of approach, certain behavioural ticks become annoying after a while. Rand sometimes seems petulant, some of the women obsess over men and generally nobody seems to be able to talk to the opposite gender without preconceived ideas of who and what gender does. But this novel goes a little further than that and also brings into play some cultural behaviour within female circles that are judged and deemed ‘improper’ in polite and conservative society by those such as Nynaeve. I find much of the talk of ‘correcting’ one another between female groups with violent behaviours charming or particularly thrilling to read. It also becomes tiresome to read how often men are presumed ‘stupid’ and ‘block-headed’ even when they have the best of intentions. 

Rand, Mat, Moraine, Egwene: Some of the high points of the novel surround Rand who is in pursuit of a rival claiming his position. This Shaido warrior, Couladin, ravages through the land burning people in the streets to provoke Rand and presumably because he believes it is his right. There is a lot of conflict and slaughter in this novel in a way that we haven’t really encountered before in the series. Rand is a little mystic, a little untouchable and he is taking charge of things with a no nonsense approach. He is also suffering memories that belong to his past lives bleeding into his own thoughts. Couladin is one of the smaller threats in the novel that seems to hold a pivotal position but is dealt with relatively quickly, it may be considered by some as a little anticlimactic. 

Rand seems to have Moraine at his beck and call, as she has surrendered to his stubbornness at last in an effort to try to help him. Mat is struggling with being close to Rand, in between rolling the dice in his head and gambling with his luck. But he is also struggling with some inner conflict from his past lives and in effect leads troops in battle with experiences informing his actions that dont belong to him. He seems a little small in this novel and seems to be in attendance to give perspective on the ground in battle. But! Although Mat’s part in this novel is small, it is impressive and has great value. 

There are clan stresses and the questions of alliances and cultural differences, but some of this unravelling can feel a little woolly and a bit like wading through mud to get to battles. I think book six will probably rectify a lot of this ‘setting up’ and living of pieces on the board. 

Meanwhile, Nyvene, Elayne, Thom and Juilin are in disguise and fleeing civil war. This is a harder novel for Nyvene, she is beginning to learn that she is no longer entitled to lord over and bully the fellow women in the novel, and she almost gets killed by a Forsaken in the dream world. They spend much of the novel flitting between disguises and almost being discovered until they stumble upon a circus troop. At this point they run into one of Elayne’s brothers who is set on sending her home against her wishes, and they seek the help of a mad Prophet, leaving destruction in their wake. (Of course, who doesn’t leave without a little drama?)

Elsewhere, the White Tower has split and the Foresaken are preparing to trap Rand and Siuan is adjusting to her new identity and the Queen, yes you hear me correctly, THE QUEEN HAS RUN AWAY! 

Generally this is a complicated book on Jordan’s part, there is so much going on that it is a difficult novel to read quickly. The subplots are interesting and there are a few inevitable plot points which I won’t spoil. But yes, totally saw that coming *rolls eyes at Rand*. 

It is difficult to sell something that has such a well established history, but again I implore you, little epic fantasy fan who is reading this post, to get your thumb out of your ass and get your head into the Wheel of Time. Don’t waste anymore time, do it now, do it quickly, do it, do it, do it. For all of it’s flaws, you will not be disappointed. 

74. Post Office 

Picking up a cult classic is always a little bit of apprehensive for me. I had read a little of Bukowski’s poetry before reading this novel, one in particular kept me creatively driven through difficult circumstances. But from what I’d been told about Bukowski’s writing and reputation I expected machista, bold gritty machismo writing with a good helping of the lewd, depressing realism that comes from a cynic. I was pretty bang on if I do say so myself. (But don’t let that put you off)

Someone once told me this was a funny book. But I don’t agree. The protagonist Henry Chinaski is a chocolate teapot person. His biggest commitments are to alcoholism, gambling, and finding places to put his cock. He comes across depressed and downtrodden and seems to run on superficial quick fixes rather than addressing the real unhappiness in his life.

Post Office – Charles Bukowski

The actual Post Office is continually in the background, a monolithic structure that seems to be the only tangible thing in Chinaski’s life. But it breathes tainted air in the background, it fills the novel with dread by the end. The rest of Chinaski’s time is a blur that sometimes seems as mediocre and mundane as his job. Chinaski is an ordinary man, who flits from woman to woman and discovers his terrible capacity for grief when one of his ex’s dies. This is really a quite depressing novel when you take a glance at it from afar but close up it is more of a frank untucking of a shirt while the narrative wobbles drunkenly on a bar stool. It sways a little, it’s probably dribbling into an empty glass, but it certainly isn’t pretending that it isn’t drunk.

At the start of the novel Chinaski hears that the Post Office are throwing jobs at people and finds himself as a substitute mailman quicker than he can blink. His days are a little unbelievably, a little outrageous, like a comic he dodges dogs, butts heads with his petty boss and pursues horny housewives. Away from work he boozes with his girlfriend Betty but after two years delivering mail he packs it all into gamble at the races.

This first part of the novel still seems to have some sort of vague optimism. But that begins to change when another woman comes along and he gets married. Joyce is from a well-moneyed background but insists on them working and proving that they are self sufficient. Reluctantly Chinaski agrees and goes back to the Post Office as a Clerk and stays there for the next twelve years and from there everything seems to spiral downwards.

Bukowski’s writing is direct and casual, sometimes dry and tense but generally it can be described as abrasive. Often I wondered if I could light a match from the printed pages, as this novel sometimes seemed the antithesis of the deeply sensitive and touching. Because of that at times I felt it seemed a little two dimensional, a little too much surface without much underneath. But this is a novel that I think is supposed to hold you at arms length while it barks the story at you (well lubricated with spittle). It is a novel that wants to fight with you, it wants to argue it’s point and more than anything it tries to refuse your empathy.

I have been thinking about this novel for a while and I’m not entirely sure if I like it. Post Office has a brilliant advantage of being Bukowski’s semi autobiographical account of his life at the Post Office as a college drop out. Mostly it doesn’t feel elegant or fabricated to the point that outrageous details sometimes seemed dulled. Perhaps this is because the novel cuts quite close to the nerve of a working class life, that anything outrageous is tarnished and a little lost.

The mundanity and sometimes desperation was a little bit too relatable at times, certain moods, certain power trips, certain procedural nonsense seemed to be the bulk of what I related to in this novel. This is a common man in an ordinary job and the longer he stays within his sense of stasis, the more broken he seems to become. Perhaps this is the part of the novel I could find enjoyment in. If Henry is a chocolate teapot, the tea tray he spends most of his time sitting on is a stark and a desperate reality that anyone living pay check to pay check can potentially find themselves in. It doesn’t read like cathartic writing, but it does read as something cruelly honest that isn’t hiding it’s ugly side.

It reads easy enough, but on the hole I’m not altogether convinced by the Post Office. It strikes me as a novel that you either love or hate but I’m not sure where I fall. I think I need another Bukowski novel to make up my mind.

73. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? 

That’s the big question isn’t it, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Again we have arrived at a novel that seems to have appeared just at the right time. I have had a busy few weeks and have lost some of the reading momentum that I gained last month, but I have also been to Paris and finally graduated. In Paris I was lucky enough to find a couple more members of what I consider my ‘tribe’ and certainly came home a little more myself than when I left for the airport. In my downtime it was of course time for something that would make me ponder. Why Be Happy is Jeanette Winterson’s silent twin to Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. But instead of the cover story of surviving adoption into a strictly Christian household Why Be Happy is a reflection on the reality of Winterson’s upbringing and herself.

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson

This is one of those novels where Winterson’s writing is at it’s best. It is generous with humour, it is beautiful in agony and it takes you on a journey into madness and out again. But Why Be Happy  also reads an analytical exploration, if one was sitting across from Winterson having a chat about her upbringing, life, love, political views and how books may have just rescued her more than once.

A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place. – p. 40

When I picked up this novel I knew nothing about Winterson really other than I enjoy her work and she is an author I always seem to gravitate towards. After putting this novel down, I admire her. I admire her resilience, the blunt manner she unravels herself with and most of all I admire such close to the bone honesty with the reader. Even in moments where someone else may feel they have lost dignity or made ill informed decisions, Why Be Happy retains an integrity that is unshakable because of it’s frankness.

It is the story of Winterson’s life from Birth. Adoption, her mother (probably depressed), eternally describing the coming apocalypse of quite honestly not feeling like the ‘right’ child and being told that frequently by Mrs. Winterson. A quiet almost absent father who remarries later on in life after Mrs. Winterson has passed away. From what seem to be grim beginnings, that include poor grades and a disrupted school life, there are still books. The beginning of this book is full of dislocation, a screaming baby that is nicknamed the ‘devils child’, and a mother who tries to want to be soft and longs to find her adopted child is the child she expected.

Were we endlessly ransacking the house, the two of us, looking for evidence of each other? I think we were – she, because I was fatally unknown to her, and she was afraid of me. Me, because I had no idea what was missing but felt the missing-ness of the missing. We circled each other, wary, abandoned, full of longing. – p. 103

When young Jeanette Winterson discovers the library she begins reading from Literature from A to Z. But the private war that has always belonged to the Winterson household, sometimes seen by the neighbours when Jeannette is locked out for the night and sleeps on the doorstep, still rages. Mrs. Winterson has banned books from the house (except the bible). But Jeannette smuggles them in. They are promptly burnt on discovery. But this does not dissuade Jeannette, but seems to encourage her thirst for knowledge for what is outside her family and she hangs onto what she loves and who she is with even more violence.

Books, for me, are a home. Books don’t make a home – they are one, in the sense that just as you do with a door, you open a book, and you go inside. – p. 61

Then there is first loves, and specifically falling in love with women which is distinctly not ‘normal’ or acceptable in the eyes of Mrs. Winterson. And then university and publication and after a lifetime of not knowing, Jeanette Winterson decides to find her birth mother and unravel the mystery of her beginnings.

It is a poignant novel that speaks volumes about mental health and even in part the creative processes and the misconstrued ideas that couple with them. But this novel also ends at what almost feels like a midpoint because Winterson is obviously not done with her own story and life has an inevitable ending that can’t be written, beyond an obituary.

Creativity is on the side of health – it isn’t the thing that drives us mad; it is the capacity minus that tries to save us from madness. – p171

But it also encourages the reader not to think of happiness as a continual state or of something that can be achieved like a goal in a race. It demonstrates that happiness is something to work on, and work for. It is sometimes fleeting, it sometimes escapes us for months, but it is worth pursuing in the long run. I often find myself thinking of this novel as a bit of a warning. Overall this read was much more satisfying to me than Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. I felt that one seemed to be a deflection, it lacked something for me that didn’t quite grasp me but instead encouraged me to look elsewhere which I suppose vs. Why Be Happy was the point of that novel.

Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal is a text I take a good helping of hope from I am a young working class writer, dyslexic, and recently graduated from an MA and differ greatly from what is ‘usual’. Normality, or at least Mrs. Winterson’s version of normality is a bleak place where she disappears for days at a time when she leaves egg custard in the kitchen, and is forever unpleasant to her daughter and insisting that the apocalypse is coming so we must all be miserable in time for that.

So I entirely agree. Why be normal, or someone else’s version of it, when you could be happy.