I’m kicking off with a very large post. So large in fact, that I had to split it into two parts to keep the scale more reasonable.
Last year, like the year before, I took on a reading challenge after being prompted by a dear friend. As a result I read over 35 books in 2017.
So this is a recap of sorts of the year behind – a review of my top 20 favourites, part one.
I am keeping the reviews brief, in the hope that some of these will pique your curiosity to pick them up. And if you are interested in the progress of my literary adventures, please feel free to follow me on Goodreads.
1) “The Call of the Wild” by Jack London (1903) USA
A well known work by a master of adventure writing, this book is narrated in first person… by a dog. At the very least, I find this book is significant for this non-anthropocentric perspective. Highly recommended for all the nature and adventure lovers, as it skillfully explores the character of both man and animal. The Canadian frontier setting only adds to the beauty of this book. It is justifiably a standard required read in many schools.
2) “A Charming Mass Suicide” by Arto Paasilinna (1990) FIN
Absolutely hilarious. By circumstance, two strangers decide to form a suicide club for depressed Finns. As more and more people join, they decide not to end their lives just yet, but instead begin to tour beautiful Finnish countryside before the deed, and eventually tour the rest of Europe as well. While exploring the philosophical and spiritual implications of being aware of our own mortality, Paasilinna delivers some wonderful humor and portrays Finnish mentality in their signature endearingly self-deprecating way. I am becoming a true fan of this author. Sadly I am not aware of this book being translated into English yet, but I recommend grabbing a copy of “The Year of the Hare” by the same author.
3)”King Solomon’s Ring” by Konrad Lorenz (1949) AUT / re-read
Konrad Lorenz was an 20th Century Austrian scientist whose life was dedicated to animal behavior studies. He is world-renowned for making amazing progress in this area, and this book is a collection of recounts of his experiments. He described in detail the imprinting behavior in birds, and decoded animal “language” by living in a house full of animals.
I would recommend this famous book to anyone keen to learn more about life that surrounds us, the fantastic creatures we meet, and the friends that we can make in dogs, birds, shrews, fish. It will provide insight, and make you wonder and laugh out loud. As a bonus it features whimsical illustrations by the author himself.
I offer this quote that particularly stuck with me:
“The pleasure which I derive from my dog is closely akin to the joy accorded to me by the raven, the graylag goose or other wild animals that enliven my walks trough the countryside: it seems like a re-establishment of the immediate bond with that unconscious omniscence that we call nature. The price which man had to pay for his culture and civilization was the severing of this bond which had to be torn to give him his specific freedom of will.
But our infinite longing for paradise lost is nothing else than a half-conscious yearning for our ruptured ties. Therefore, I need a dog that is no fantasy of fashion, but a living animal, no product of science or triumph of form-breeding art but a natural being with an undistorted soul. And this, unfortunately, is what very few pedigree dogs possess, least of all such breeds as, at sometime or other, have become “modern” and have been bred with exclusive consideration for a certain external appearance. So far, every breed of dog that has been exposed to this process has been damaged in mind and soul. I wish to achieve the opposite result: my purpose in breeding dogs is to bring about an ideal combination of the psychological qualities of Lupus and Aureus dogs. I want to breed a dog which is specially capable of supplying that which poor, civilized, city-pent man is so badly in need of!”
4) “The Holocaust” by Laurence Rees (2017)
This book explores the historical evidence of the Holocaust and the chain of events that set the stage for it. There was no single event or decision that triggered what now seems unthinkable. We are introduced to the structure of the German army and the SS, the world politics of the time, and how different countries behaved in regards to deportation of Jews, Romas and Slavs. We learn how allies knew about the extermination camps, and the the role played by the UK, USA and Vatican. The book briefly touches on British racism and colonialism, and finally elaborates on the core reason that made Nazism possible: a nation falling in love with the idea that they are somehow better than others.
There is also mention of the important role that Yugoslavian resistance played in delaying the war on Eastern Front, and detailed accounts of life in ghettos and camps. You will also learn of the scale of Soviet sacrifices, millions of human lives, that contributed to the Allies winning WW2. These sacrifices were indeed so enormous that the Soviets’ hard stance on Nuremberg Trials seems not at all unreasonable.
A relevant read for people interested in WW2, but also those unfamiliar with the actual historical background of the anti-fascist movements, a book that helps greatly to understand the dynamics of the challenges that we face today. Here are a couple of passages I found memorable:
“(…) Toivi Blatt, who at the age of 15 was selected as a sonderkommando at Sobibor, was astonished with how the horrific circumstances of the camp can alter the character of those who work there. “People change under some conditions,” he says. “People asked me: what did you learn? And I think I’m only sure of one thing–nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, “Where is North Street?” and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves. All of us could be good people or bad people in these different situations. Sometimes when somebody is really nice to me I find myself thinking: how will be be in Sobibor?”
“Life has sense only when one does good. Am I right? I did not feel the urge to live a public life, I did not care about financial incentives that would let me compare my car with someone else’s car. I did not need to impress anyone.”
5) “The Nuremberg Trial” by Ann Tusa and John Tusa (1983)
A detailed insight into one of the most significant events of XX Century; the trial held in Nuremberg for political and military leaders of the Nazi party. It is an extremely detailed work, based on well-researched material and trial records. Although not a casual read, WW2 History buffs will certainly enjoy it. The book goes to great lengths in discussing responsibility that both Axis and Allies had regarding the start and development of WW2, and provides valuable comparison to what is happening today, with some historical context applied. To me the most interesting part was to discover how big a role USA played in initiating the trial, given the subsequent history. To Quote Noam Chomsky “If the Nuremberg laws were applied, then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”
6) “The Exorcist” by William Peter Blatty (1971) USA
The story made famous by the 1973. movie of the same name. Apart from the classic horror and suspense, it tackles a very essential theme for every spiritual human – the nature of faith and that of loss of faith, and the battle between spiritual and scientific approaches to psychological healing. It also portrays one of the coolest fictional priests that I know of, the ex-boxer Father Damien Karras. There is nice reference to Mesopotamian mythology, although not entirely accurate. If you decide to give it a go, be sure to get the newest edition.
7) “The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn” by Brothers Strugatsky (1970) USSSR / re-read
Brothers Strugatsky’s masterpiece, in my modest opinion. Set in the titular mountain lodge that loses all contact with the outside world after a blizzard, this self-proclaimed anti-murder mystery has it all. From classical tropes of the detective genre, via twists on corny stereotypes of horror stories, to the Strugatsky’s signature blend of absurd and dystopian. I read it in college many years ago and recently decided to refresh my memory. I am now sure I’ll read more works by these writers. Superbly atmospheric!
8) “Tomboy Survival Guide” by Ivan Coyote (2016) CAN
A wonderfully warm collection of short stories by the Canadian author Ivan Coyote. Ivan writes about growing up in Canada’s Yukon region, his family and gender identity. Great inspiration for every masculine-identified person, their admirers, or people wishing to gain more insight. Coyote was a guest of last year’s Sydney Writers Festival.
9) “Liber Null & Psychonaut” by Peter J. Caroll (1987)
Foundation books that defined a contemporary school of magic known as chaos magick, they introduce a very interesting stream in modern occult discourse. If you are a writer, a scientist, an artist, a fan of 70s counter-culture or an anarchist, someone already well versed in occultism or just interested in the subject, this stimulating material skillfully lays down an introduction and prompts further research.
“To oppose repressive forms of order which often impose themselves by evil means, magic aligns itself to a vision of chaotic good. Magic’s commitment to the good is reflected in its concern with individual freedom and consciousness and its interest in all other life forms on this planet. (…)
The chaotic aspect of new aeon magic is psychological anarchy. It is a species of operation mindf*ck applied to ourselves as much as the world. The aim is to produce inspiration and enlightenment through disordering our belief structures. Humor, random belief, counter-information, and disinformation are its techniques.”
10) “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” by Carlos Castaneda (1968) USA / re-read
I first came across Castaneda’s writing sometime in my early twenties and it was a huge revelation for me. He wrote about what I deeply felt to be true and provided valuable direction. A decade later, I felt compelled to review this material again and I can confirm that I still find it very relevant. The Teachings of Don Juan is a series of books of which I only read five, but plan on reading the rest. The material has been criticized by skeptics – but whether or not the Yaqui Indian teachings in Castaneda’s stories are an authentic ethnological study or not is ultimately irrelevant. It provides a working model and its core principles of alteration of consciousness and spiritual reality have been mirrored elsewhere in contemporary research such as Quantum Physics and Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
Carlos Castaneda was an ethnologist who headed to Mexico to research the use of psychoactive substances among Mexican shamans. He got acquainted with Don Juan and consequently becomes his apprentice. In the first couple of books he is struggling to accept the spiritual reality and the universal wisdom that his teacher is offering. As readers, we are gradually frustrated by Castaneda’s failure to embrace the privilege of being initiated into age-old wisdom but his skepticism and ignorance are a device for us to decouple from our own. As the old wisdom says: when the pupil is ready, a teacher will appear. This is true of the book itself. Highly recommended for everyone wanting to get out of their cognitive bubble or comfort zone, that common contemporary disease. These books will not only help you “see outside of the box”, but also help you take a good look at the box itself.
11) “Love and Power ~ Awakening to Mastery” by Lynn V. Andrews (1997) USA
This woman is like a female Carlos Castaneda! Just the right kind of a thing for me to kick-start my spiritual practice again. Highly recommended for everyone looking for their Path, but also those who already well on their way. I learned about this writer in a talk that William Burroughs gave sometime in the 90s, that old warlock never fails. I might be reviewing some more of her writing in the future.
Here is a short passage from the book:
“The circle provides an important focusing tool for understanding yourself. As you begin to understand yourself, you begin to heal yourself, and as you heal yourself, you can than take your power and heal the world around you. As society naturally evolves, out of the language that it speaks, and therefore needs to continually create a new vocabulary, so the natural environment waits for us humans as a species to move creatively into a new world of enlightened evolution. Have you ever asked yourself how animals evolve? How does a two-toed horse become a three-toed horse? By running faster, each day, than it’s capable of running. We as humans evolve by stretching and becoming more than we ever dreamed we could be. So we must heal our fear of taking our power. The well-being of our world depends on it.”
12) “Grayson Perry” by Jacky Klein (2009) UK
A comprehensive look into Perry’s art, life, ideas, technique and artistic process. I thoroughly enjoyed it and would recommend to any Perry’s fan. I read the revised and updated version. It contained a lot of the artist’s work in wonderful detail!