Book reviews: magick, mysticism and missing legs

Well, I’ve managed to read three books since I last posted (and another couple hundred of The Anatomy of Melancholy) so I figure it’s about time for another catch-up. I’m still making my way through my list, and am about to break my way into the whopper that is Ducks, Newburyport, so it’s as good a time as any to catch up with my reviewing.

Two of the books – the latter two – came courtesy of NetGalley, and were offered in exchange for a review. I’m not sure they’ll be that impressed, but hey-ho, not everything’s a rave I guess.

Pictured: book reviewing.

The Quareia Apprentice Study Guide by Josephine McCarthy.
My rating: four stars

I’ve been interested in the esoteric for most of my life, and most of that interest has been from the armchair. The practicalities of working in that kind of sphere – something of a strange concept for one as agnostic as myself – have been something I’ve not really pursued. It’s been more of an armchair interest than anything else.

Enter Quareia. It’s a form of training that aims to provide the sort of information normally found either in expensive courses or dense grimoires. It’s put together by Josephine McCarthy, author of a variety of texts, and is all available for free. More importantly for me, a natural curmudgeon, it is designed around the idea of lone study – there is no requirement to find another collection of babygoths or mystically-inclined swingers to undertake the work.

While the Quareia course – essentially an esoteric course aiming to provide the tools with which one can work on oneself – exists in a series of beefy tomes (if you go the physical route), this slim book is perhaps best viewed as the patch notes for the endeavour. It contains things McCarthy has figured out post-publication, and offers helpful advice to the newbie.

Much of what’s included within is applicable to anything requiring dedication and practice: meditation, music, or sport, which ensures it’s potentially of interest to anyone with an interest in any of those fields. (And not just mystical wonks like myself.) McCarthy has a background in ballet training, and her approach is rigorous and brooks no bullshit. She makes it clear that doing the work – and not skipping ahead to the cool bits before you’ve mastered the pieces you don’t like – is crucial to the endeavour.

The author comes across as a bit of a hard taskmaster, but really it’s just the northern bluntness of shit-or-get-off-the-pot: either do the work or don’t, but don’t waste anybody’s time. It’s a reasonable stance, and I feel a bit more confident and informed after finishing the text.

Is there a chance it could all be a big wank? Sure. But I guess I’m only going to find out by diving in, so let’s see what happens.

(If you are interested in reading this book there is a copy available for free online.)

The Symphonies by Andrei Bely.
My rating: two stars

Andrei Bely was a noted Russian symbolist, so it’s probably unsurprising, given that movement’s penchant for mysticism and reexamining the everyday that The Symphonies is a dense, often cryptic work. It’s also probably unsurprising that – even though there’s a lot of very helpful footnotes throughout the text – this book is best consumed by people with a decent grasp of Russian culture and history from the time when Bely was writing.

The work is musical, as you would expect from the title. It collects four novellas – or Symphonies – and presents them, occasionally with prefaces, though these do not provide much of a guide to the terrain. The stories slide between the everyday and a sort of fairytale land, suggesting a semipermeable membrane between realities, with transitions between the two a distinct possibility. But nothing is certain: the giants galumphing about the place could be metaphors, or they could just be really fucking big dudes.

It’s easy to latch on to the musical nature of the work: lines are numbered, as in a score, and figures and images run throughout the stories, though their repetition is often more graspable than is their meaning.

Look. I’m a literature grad. I’m someone who has read my share of Russian literature, including some of the other entries in this brilliant series, released by Columbia University Press. I like odd fiction. But for almost the entirety of this work, I wore this face.

I do mind, the Dude minds. This will not stand, ya know, this aggression will not stand, man.

The notes I took as I read began to take more cryptic forms as I continued. “Someone fucks a nun and then there’s diamond snow (again)!” was a typical line. I probably should’ve just let go and enjoyed the book as a flow of imagery, but the belief that it would all make sense at some point goaded me into looking for a through-line, which was probably my downfall. I mean, this is one of the more comprehensible passages in the work:

The mad abbot carried his avenging sword over the buildings and his mouth gaped with a dark opening–a dark wail.
“I’ll smother them with snow–shred them with wind.”
He lowered his sword. He tore at his robes. He brimmed with tears of rage.
And the tears fell, fell like diamonds, pelting the windows.
He flew up.
And from the heights he fell like a horse: pissing a stream of snow over the city.

Not for me, sadly. I made it through but spent a lot of time wondering why.

And yes, he looks PRECISELY as I had imagined he would.

Medieval Military Medicine by Brian Burfield.
My rating: two stars

The Middle Ages, early surgery and military wounds are three topics that probably have a bit of a niche audience, and Brian Burfield’s text – a pandemic-written work with its roots in his parents’ twin interests of history and medicine – provides plenty of gross tidbits for those staunch enough to profess a yen for leeches.

Over eight chapters, the author examines different types of injuries – fear not, there’s plenty of detail about skulls, teeth and STDs! – and the way they were treated. Noted healers, the transmission of texts and the role of both the Church and blacksmiths (!) in the treatment of injury are discussed, as are the mental effects of battle.

There’s a selection of full-colour images, and plenty of supplementary material towards the end of the text, should you wish to examine sources more fully.

I’m conflicted about this text, though. Burfield’s work certainly made me aware of a lot of things I didn’t know – or half knew – and it does provide some real nuggets of interest. But something about it didn’t grab me, and the unevenness of tone (admittedly worked out as the book continues) gave me reason to pause. The writing seems clunkier when it is more personal, and better when the author is at a remove from the text: some chapters talk a bit much about what will be discussed in the chapter rather than, y’know, getting on and discussing it. I wasn’t entirely convinced with some of the bows drawn (see what I did there?) in the final chapter on mental struggles resulting from wars, and it seemed a weaker note on which to end the work.

It’s difficult to see who this book is for: it’s not snappy enough to be pop-history, but it’s also perhaps not specific enough for serious medievalists. There’s some good stuff here, I just couldn’t picture an ideal reader. Again, it’s probably not me, no matter how much I enjoyed seeing images of fake shrine limbs.

I’ve started to run only partial versions of my reviews on Goodreads. I’ve been a bit weirded out by the tenor of that site, and so I’m pretty keen to keep my stuff over this side of things. My profile is still there, but I’ll pretty much be using it solely for tracking and teasing full reviews. Why? Read this and see for yourself.

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