"Money was maliciously introduced in ancient times as a tool of enslavement" -
Michael Tellinger

"The present belongs to the future and future generations, and all old laws, religious and other, should be abrogated immediately. Free us!" - Vinay Gupta on Twitter

"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete." - R. Buckminster Fuller

"You find the strangest ways to be positive!" - Diane Duane, Wizards Abroad

Sunday, May 9, 2010

In which I thumb my nose at skeptics and fuddyduddies: A quintet of magical books (book reviews)

Early in my time as librarian-reviewer for School Library Journal, aka SLJ (recommending adult-level books to adults and older teens - and no, I'm not in that cover photo, I just liked the image), they sugested that I write an opinion piece about UFO literature. My working title was "UFOs: True, False, or Does it Matter?" I expected them to think up their own title, but they went with that one. Which I regretted, because I hadn't thought much about it. What I really meant by it was not that UFOs don't matter, but that framing the subject as "true or false" was not a meaningful or useful kind of question in the context of our work. (Don't we all hate true-or-false questions?) This researcher summarizes my argument nicely, in this chapter of an interesting book on the uses of contemporary folk literature, so I won't repeat that here.

IMO most of the publishers who specialize in subjects such as UFOs, magic, witchcraft, Tarot, metaphysics, and contemporary folklore tend to publish a lot of junk (but then I guess this is typical of most publishers, actually). Still, some good authors do sneak into their ranks from time to time.

The books we considered for recommending in the SLJ "Adults/High School" short-review column had been published for the adult market, but on our committee we were on the lookout for any that would also appeal to, or be recommendable to, older teens who were reading at an adult level, as well as to the intended adult readers. Therefore (with a few exceptions) the books we reviewed there were all recommendations. (That's because if we didn't think one of these adult-market books was a good one to recommend to older teens, there was usually no reason to mention it at all.)

Needless to say, given the medium (reviews aimed at school and public librarians and their customers/patrons) and the controversial (for many librarians - and/or the parents they'd have to answer to) nature of this kind of subject, I had to be rather picky about what I recommended, and careful how I did it. So it was a neat kind of challenge. The thing is, I'm just as skeptical about skeptics as I am about believers. I like having an open mind about just about anything, and can entertain opposing views with no difficulty at all. It makes living on the planet more fun.


Spellbound: From Ancient Gods to Modern Merlins, a Time Tour of Myth and Magic by Dominic Alexander (2002)

This attractive, fact-filled volume offers a bracing and clear-headed approach to an often-confusing subject. A scholar of religious history, the author shows that science, religion, and magic "have always enjoyed a more complex relationship behind the scenes than their manifestos would suggest."

Alexander's own perspective is unequivocally that of the scientist: there are few paranormal thrills here, but neither will readers find justification for religious dogma - and the treatment of myth isn't really aimed at the Joseph Campbell crowd, either. Yet readers can be entertained, challenged, and enlightened as the author demystifies many traditionally occult subjects, and they might be inspired to think more critically about contemporary beliefs.

The book's brevity could disappoint, and certain conclusions irritate, some knowledgeable readers, but Alexander's broad cultural perspective and tolerant insight into human psychology inspire confidence and command respect. The subject covered in the most depth is witch-hunting, and these chapters serve as a powerful warning (both to potential finger-pointers and accused) of the appalling human cost of such campaigns.

Abundant illustrations, from ancient times to Harry Potter, reflect a wide range of topics and relate cleverly to the text. With its solid content, stylish graphics, and eye-catching sidebars, Spellbound can be browsed casually or read cover to cover. Whatever preconceptions readers might bring to this book, they will find much good information and a trustworthy foundation for further study.

(That book was actually published by Reader's Digest Association. I have no idea how it got past their notoriously right wing bias, considering its expose of religion! Probably because of the solid academic credentials of the author - and maybe they didn't read it too carefully?)

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Tarot Tips by Ruth Ann Amberstone and Wald Amberstone (2003) 

Here, the cofounders of the Tarot School in New York offer a "simple, direct, practical" approach to what is usually presented as an esoteric topic. Drawn from the school's e-mail newsletter, the content here reflects questions asked by students.

Tips are grouped into six chapters dealing with types of decks and their care and handling; interpretation and meaning of cards; reading techniques; types of spreads and layout design; other uses of Tarot (for example, in meditation); and ethical concerns that a practitioner might encounter. The writing is clear, light, and literate. Whatever their level of knowledge and expertise, students will feel that they are in the company of friendly, down-to-earth mentors and colleagues.

Those who are simply curious about the subject will find an accessible view of today's eclectic Tarot as it is experienced by real people. This engaging and useful book provides a unique and valuable contribution to the subject.

(With that one, I just brazened it out.)

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Garden Witchery: Magick from the Ground Up by Ellen Dugan (2003)

With good-humored flair, Dugan offers a practical introduction to gardening that incorporates an eclectic blend of Wiccan and magical traditions rooted in solid horticultural practice. The author encourages readers to work hard to make the garden "a place where both our metaphysical and ordinary lives begin to thrive together."


Outlining basic principles such as working with the directions and the elements, moon phases, and color, the author shows how this lore, rooted in a respect for nature, also forms the basis of good gardening practice. She offers succinct and useful information on a great variety of topics such as astrology, fairies, herbal spells and charms, crafts, and journaling, and on dealing with an equal variety of garden situations and types.

Throughout, she suggests excellent sources for further information, including the Extension Service, the Poison Control Center, and the public library. The extensive bibliography mostly covers literature about magic.

The good advice and sound horticultural practice found here can help novices and/or budding garden witches to discover their own style and get off to a solid start, and can also enrich the experience of those who are already knowledgeable in gardening or magic.

(With that one, my background in horticulture and a Master Gardener certificate provided most necessary grounding/legitimacy for reviewing the book; I also asked a local certified herbalist to look it over, and she approved all the content.)

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The Dark Horse Book Of Witchcraft by  Mike Mignola (Author, Artist), Gary Gianni (Author), Tony Millionaire (Author, Artist), Jill Thompson (Author, Artist), Scott Morse (Author, Artist) (2004) (Comic/Graphic novel)

This anthology by the top fantasy publisher, featuring such top artists as Tony Millionaire, Mike Mignola, and Jill Thompson, has predictable appeal to fans of graphic novels and high-quality comics. However, the images chosen for the cover and the book design, which evoke the Dark Ages, belie the range, depth, complexity, originality, and ambition of this remarkably modern compendium. (This is why I'm not including an illo of the cover, here.)

The eight substantial horror tales include cartoon witches from Macbeth, a "Hellboy" story, and one set in Salem. Illustrated mostly in color and in widely different styles, each one draws readers into another perspective on witchcraft and the place it holds in the Western cultural imagination. A "rare, unexpurgated" version of Clark Ashton Smith's "Mother of Toads" is a disturbingly clear and explicit expression of the vicious misogyny that underlies many stories on the subject.

At the other end of the psychological scale, in "The Truth about Witchcraft," High Priestess Phyllis Curott speaks personably as a scholar and insider, providing a reality check that amplifies the dark fantasy of folklore and lends the collection another dimension and still greater depth. That–and the concluding animal fable, "The Unfamiliar," a heartbreaking morality tale–will challenge some readers with much more than they bargained for.

(No problem about reviewing that one: as a graphic novel or "comic book," it wouldn't be taken seriously from the get-go. The real subversion was in the way the publisher treated the subject with respect.)

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Animal Miracles: Inspirational and True Stories  by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger (1999)

The Steigers, coauthors of a great many popular works on a wide variety of outre subjects ranging from angels to UFO abductions, focus here on latter-day animals as heroic (and perhaps angelic) beings.

They begin with the story of Brando, a mumbling macaw who had never spoken an intelligible word until he suddenly came out with a clear and urgent "Help me! Somebody please help me!" (thereby alerting his householders to the plight of an injured man). The book then offers 50 brief anecdotes that tell of amazing and seemingly miraculous animal feats.

Since many of these selections were sent to the authors by readers of their previous books, they reflect a variety of spiritual traditions. A similar diversity is shown among the animal heroes, which include not just cats, dogs, and dolphins but also crows, a potbellied pig, one very large and one very small sea turtle working in tandem, sea lions, and even a rat in a coal mine.

After about 175 edifying pages that describe deliverances from such dangers as fire, drowning, sharks, and unreasoning fear, the Steigers touch very lightly upon a number of related topics including the health benefits of pets, pet ghosts, and animal ESP.

Satisfactory and enjoyable browsing material for adults, teens and ESL readers.

(Books with "miracles" in their titles are not as likely to be targeted by the usual set of book censors.)

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Related posts:
Seven Seasons of Buffy
WomanSpirit Index
Fantasy literature rich in magical tradition

I'll try to find my UFO-type reviews and do a collection of them, too. Fun stuff! Maybe that'll happen by my NEXT birthday... [Update: well, that didn't take long. I'd already started a draft, so I just finished it.]

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