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Books completed in October 2012:

  1. The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
  2. The Sword by Jean Johnson
  3. Poor Caroline by Elizabeth Mansfield
  4. The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris
  5. Bending the Willow: Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes by David Stuart Davies
  6. The Hunger Moon: New and Selected Poems, 1980-2010 by Marge Piercy
  7. Dracula by Bram Stoker (reading/listening)
  8. All Shall Be Well: Daily Readings with Julian of Norwich translated and edited by Sheila Upjohn
  9. The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

I’m not sure whether to count myself a fan of the BBC’s 21st-century Sherlock, but watching it has had a number of delightful consequences: Discovering actor Benedict Cumberbatch and pursuing his other work; spending rather a lot of time mooning over drawings, paintings, and photographs of Mr. Cumberbatch, and listening to his interviews; rewatching some episodes of the excellent Sherlock Holmes series of the 1980s-90s starring Jeremy Brett; reading about Brett’s work on the show; and finally, and not least important, actually reading the Sherlock Holmes canon for the first time. I have always been mostly indifferent to mysteries, with a couple of exceptions, but I find I am reading (and watching) less and less science fiction and fantasy, more and more mysteries. Stay tuned for further developments.

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  1. The Spirit Cord by R.J. Stewart
  2. Goddess Murder by Aidan Kelly
  3. Witchfather: A Life of Gerald Gardner, V. 1: Into the Witch Cult by Philip Heselton
  4. Drawing Down the Spirits by Raven Kaldera & Kenaz Filan
  5. Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology by Raven Kaldera
  6. OakWyse Utters an Ogham Charm by Walter William Melnyk

I’m still reading volume two of Witchfather and Stalking the Goddess. I’m also reading Merlin’s Mirror by Andre Norton, a noted children’s/young adult author whose work I somehow missed as a child. I got this title for free on Kindle and am enjoying it very much.

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I hate to admit it, but I suck at writing book reviews. Whenever I finish a religion- or magic-related  book, I make enthusiastic resolutions to review it… just as soon as I think it over. And then I think about it for six or eight months, and the review never gets written.

So I’m going to try a different approach here. I’m going to give you progress reports on some books of interest that I’m still reading. I offer this disclaimer: I haven’t finished reading any of these books, but I’m not at all the sort of person who feels obliged to finish a book just because they started it. If I’m mentioning a book at all, chances are very good that a) I will finish it eventually and b) I will have positive things to say about it.

Here we go!

I’m on the second volume of Philip Heselton‘s Witchfather, a biography of Gerald Brosseau Gardner. Heselton’s book is written in a chatty, informal style, but it is extensively researched and annotated, with lots of references to primary sources such as Gardner’s correspondence with friends and the author’s correspondence to people who knew Gardner. I don’t think I ever really grasped before that Gardner’s whole involvement in what he initially called “the witch-cult” began after his retirement, when he was in his fifties. He spent much of his childhood abroad because he was asthmatic and sickly and warmer climes were considered the only cure; he spent most of his adult working life abroad because he had no resistance to English weather. He continued to winter abroad for the rest of his life. He becomes a typical eccentric Englishman by spending very little time actually living in England.  In addition, his peripatetic childhood deprived him of any kind of formal schooling. I don’t think one needs to speculate that Gardner was dyslexic to explain his bad spelling; I consider it sufficiently explained by his never having had a teacher who insisted on good spelling.

Sadly, the Kindle edition of the book is very clumsily formatted. Instead of compiling all the citations into one list with links in the text, as most e-books have, the little blocks of footnotes appear on their own separate pages within the run of the text, so that you “turn the page” on your Kindle and find, instead of the rest of the sentence you were just reading, three or four footnotes, and you have to “turn” again to pick up the thread of the text. There was also a section from which semicolons were entirely absent, and I’m pretty sure Heselton had been using them correctly for a whole volume, so I attribute their disappearance to the editor rather than the author. Notwithstanding, Witchfather is a very entertaining book, which I recommend to anyone interested in the history of 20th-century witchcraft.

Closely connected with Witchfather is Mark Carter’s Stalking the Goddess. Other biographies of Gerald Gardner have been published, and other histories of Wicca, but I don’t think anyone else has attempted what Carter does in this book. He takes one of the crucial texts of 20th-century witchcraft and paganism, The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and slowly, carefully, takes it apart–so slowly and carefully that his analysis is almost as tough a read as its subject.

I’m only about a third of the way into Stalking, but I’m determined to read the whole thing. The White Goddess is, I think, as important to 20th-century Druidry as it is to 20-century Craft, if only because of its extensive use of the Ogham alphabet and of certain poems associated with the legendary (and also historical) Welsh bard Taliesin. While more Reconstructionist pagans tend to dismiss Graves for his treatment of Celtic topics, Aidan Kelly recommends that anyone who takes the Craft seriously ought to read Graves as theology, and I would tend to agree. Carter looks carefully at what Graves’s argument is, what he says about the origins of his own book, and what are his (mostly not specified) sources for his facts. He wrote a guest post on his work for the Wild Hunt recently–check it out.

And now, two titles from Raven Kaldera. The first, which I purchased as a PDF from Lulu.com, is Dealing with Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology. I have actually skimmed this once and am now re-reading it with greater attention. I wish devoutly (pun intended) that I had had this book to refer to when I first began to make contacts with deities (and yes, I did promise to write about them and have not done so yet). Kaldera is one of the clearest, most straightforward writers in Pagan publishing; he writes clean prose, pulls no punches, and never muddies the distinctions between his experience, shared experience, and scholarly opinion. Best of all, this is not just clear thinking but, indeed, practical thinking: Given that we have this theology about multiple deities, now what do we do with it? Just to have it spelled out that one’s relationship with the gods may range from a novice who’s just learning about them, through being a regular devotee or even clergy, to being a god-slave, a horse for spirit-possession, or an actual embodiment of a deity–and that it’s not necessary to try for a gold medal in God-Botheredness, it’s okay just to be a worshipper–is immensely helpful to me, and probably to a lot of other readers.

Kaldera’s collaboration with blogger Kenaz Filan, Drawing Down the Spirits, is sort of the graduate-level text, whereas Dealing with Deities is the 101 book (or even the remedial textbook). Drawing Down the Spirits is about possession, carrying deities or spirits in one’s body, being a “horse” for their presence in the world. While this is not something I think I am called to do, beyond maybe “assumption of god-forms” in the Hermetic sense, the book is fascinating and makes me want to read other books by Filan and to anticipate the authors’ forthcoming collaboration, Talking to the Spirits: Personal Gnosis in Pagan Religion.

I’m coming to terms with what should be a very simple idea: That just because I call myself a Druid, and think of my path as Druidry and Druidry as my path, does not mean I am not going to be interested in other paths, other religions. I can be interested in just about any religion if someone writes a book that grabs me. Frankly, I can be interested in just about any topic if I pick up the right book. So there’s my progress report.

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  1. Out of Mormonism: A Woman’s True Story by Judy Robinson
  2. Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer
  3. Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-Day Saints by Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson
  4. 101 Things You Thought You Knew about the Titanic… But Didn’t! by Tim Malton & Eloise Astin
  5. Fatal Voyage: The Wrecking of the Costa Concordia by John Hooper (Kindle Single)
  6. Death Comes to Happy Valley: Penn State and the Tragic Legacy of Joe Paterno by Johnathan Mahler (Kindle Single)
  7. The Baby and the Bathwater:What I Learned About Spirituality, Magic, Community, Ecstasy and Power from 25 Years in Reclaiming by Anne Hill
  8. Lonely at the Top by Christina Lewis Halpern (Kindle Single
  9. Fire in the Grove:The Cocoanut Grove Fire and Its Aftermath by John J. Esposito
  10. Anatomy of Injustice: A Murder Case Gone Wrong by Raymond Bonner
  11. Priestess of the Fire Temple by Ellen Evert Hopman
  12. In the Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming
  13. A Fountain Filled with Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming
  14. Concubine by Jill Knowles
  15. Big Sex Little Death by Susie Bright

This month’s themes: Mormons, boats, and murder mysteries.

Last month I discovered Books on the Knob, a wonderful blog and website that covers free and very cheap e-books offered by Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The first book I picked up thanks to them was  Out of Mormonism: A Woman’s True Story by Judy Robinson. (Wasn’t Judy the daughter on Lost in Space?) I confess that the book was not nearly as, well, lurid as I expected it to be; it was less about A Brave Woman Escaping The Clutches of Sexist Religion and more about an average married couple impulsively converting to Mormonism, then prayerfully deciding a few years later that it wasn’t The One True Religion (but an evangelical Protestantism was). I also read Mormonism 101: Examining the Religion of the Latter-Day Saints because it was a freebie and found it less a rational critique of Mormon doctrine, history, and practice than an increasingly fervent argument that Mormonism is wrong because it does not agree with the BIBLE!

In between, I re-read Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven, which was not a freebie but was well worth re-visiting. Krakauer interweaves the history of the Mormon church with the story of two Mormon fundamentalists who murdered their brother’s wife and daughter because the wife was insufficiently submissive and was keeping their brother out of the polygamist path. This book has sex, violence, and history in abundance, and Krakauer is, in my opinion, a non-fiction answer to Stephen King–a writer who can grab you by the guts and drag you along after him wherever he wants to go.

Have you noticed that this year is the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic? If you haven’t, you’re just not paying attention. The Titanic disaster is one of those things I find reliably fascinating without being *completely* obsessed by it.  101 Things You Thought You Knew about the Titanic… But Didn’t! whetted my appetite for anniversary reading and gave me a lead-in to a contemporary boat disaster, the wrecking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia. The captain of the Costa Concordia behaved so badly, he makes Bruce Ismay look good.

Disaster themes led me to re-read Fire in the Grove:The Cocoanut Grove Fire and Its Aftermath, even though that book nearly gave me nightmares the first time I read it. The next time you’re in a public venue and see exit signs and overhead sprinklers, think of the people who burnt to death at the Cocoanut Grove nightclub before sprinklers and accessible fire exits were The Law. I am trying to resist reading about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire next; I don’t want nightmares again.

Links from Books on the Knob led me to visit the unknown territory of murder mysteries with Julia Spencer-Fleming. Her series of mysteries features a female Episcopal priest recently arrived in a small town in the Adirondacks. She’s ex-military, and so is the town’s sheriff; he’s also married, but sparks fly between them anyway. The Episcopalians of this series are definitely the classic Frozen Chosen: Affluent upper-class white people who don’t want the wrong sort cluttering up their pews. The problem with mysteries is that I just don’t grok how they work and never know who dunnit until the author announces it.

Big Sex Little Death was my final freebie of the month, an engaging memoir built of short vignettes that illuminated Bright’s relationships with her parents and the connections between her leftist politics and the sexual activism for which she is now best known. It’s a quirky and entertaining read that contains surprisingly little explicit sex.

Some things I have lying around right now:

  • the most recent volume of poetry from the late Adrienne Rich
  • Neal Stephenson’s massive Anathem, on sale for $1.99 for Kindle
  • a couple of new books on druidry, good and not so good
  • Elizabeth Cunningham’s Bright Dark Madonna, third book of the Maeve Chronicles, waiting patiently for me to read the last quarter thereof

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  1. The Tenor Wore Tapshoes by Mark Schweizer
  2. Concubine by Jill Knowles
  3. Trilogy by H.D.
  4. An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order by Nancy Klein Maguire
  5. The Wisdom Jesus by Cynthia Bourgeault
  6. Alone by Admiral Robert E. Byrd

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The cover of Modern Wicca by Michael HowardYesterday I finished reading Modern Wicca: A History from Gerald Gardner to the Present by Michael Howard. I found it a bit rambly and non-linear, especially in the earlier chapters when Howard is reporting information given to him by people he knew personally in the 1960s, when he was a newcomer to the Wiccan scene. However, it was engrossing enough that I dropped a couple of other things I was reading and finished it in two days.

One thing I learned from Howard’s book is that News of the World did not wait for the digital age to engage in skeevy, privacy-violating investigative tactics. No, they were tapping phones, hiring private eyes, and generally smearing people involved in the witchcraft movement long before cell phones were commonly available. Good to know.

Unfortunately, another thing I learned from Howard’s book is that many of the most prominent figures in the history of modern witchcraft were… how can I put this delicately? Oh well–they were lying liars who lie. I have never seen in one place so many examples of deliberate falsification: Half-truths or outright lies about the origins of Wiccan practice, underhanded plots to get someone else’s Book of Shadows and then pass it off as a hand-me-down from dear old Granny, memoirs full of colorful incidents that never actually happened, and enough conflicting stories given to different people on different occasions to fill the holds of the Titanic.

Now, before you start yelling at me for disrespecting the Craft, let me remind you that I am a member of a Revival Druid group that makes absolutely no bones about tracing its origins to some eccentric English and Welsh guys in the 1700s. Plus, I grew up an Episcopalian, but I learned long before Bart Ehrman started publishing that no, most of the books of the Bible were not actually written by the people whose names are on the title pages, and isn’t it funny that four supposedly eyewitness accounts of the life of Jesus are so very different? That is to say, I am not invested in the idea that authenticity equals validity. My practice as a Druid has very little to do with what the ancient druids did: The sole connecting link is that the gentlemen who created the Revival were interested in the ancients (if mostly mistaken about them).

So whether or not Gardner lied about his sources, or falsified them in the interests of creating a better myth, or made it all up out of the Key of Solomon and his own sexual kinks, or as you please, it doesn’t matter: Wicca works, or else people wouldn’t be practicing, studying, writing, and talking about it sixty years later. Still, it’s kind of disturbing that there’s so much self-inflation and backstabbing in this early history, and that the involvement of many of the first witches of the twentieth century ends with them burning their ritual gear and walking away from the Craft more or less permanently.

Then again, it’s also disturbing that so many people who were close to Aleister Crowley for any length of time wound up committing suicide. It’s disturbing that Macgregor Mathers, who claimed to have given the world the most pure Rosicrucian doctrine in the teachings of the Golden Dawn, also seems to have been an egotistical shit. And reading a couple of Bart Ehrman’s books on the early Church will show that it was not Wiccans who invented the flame war, but possibly the followers of the crucified and risen Christ who taught, “Turn the other cheek”. He didn’t add, “Except if the other dude is the wrong kind of Christian”, but you’d think he did.

Is it perhaps inevitable that new religious movements spring up out of lying and infighting and go on to transcend those origins? As the Buddhists say, the pure lotus has its roots in the mud and the dung, but without them, it cannot flower and spread toward the sun.

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