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Sverre Svendsen "Uni" (Canada)
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The Aspern Papers
The Aspern Papers
by Henry James
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 4.75
42 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A novella about deceit, July 21 2015
This review is from: The Aspern Papers (Paperback)
This novella is James ‘light,’ easy to read and follow. This is not a typical thriller but it has most of the characteristics of that genre. The unnamed narrator, an American, is a biographer of the deceased Jeffrey Aspern, a renowned poet, who in his young days had a passionate relationship with a Juliana Borderaeu. Now Juliana is old and feeble. She and her niece Tita, expatriate Americans, have lived reclusive lives in a Venetian castle for more than twenty years. Juliana has a store of mementos from her lover, including much sought after letters, poetry and writings of Aspern. Those treasures seem to be all that gives Juliana a purpose for living. Her niece, now middle-aged, has lived a forlorn existence as her much older aunt’s companion.

Others had previously made attempts to get access to the Aspern papers but were rebuffed. The narrator schemes to succeed where others failed. By subterfuge, a false name and bogus identity as a student and writer, with a passion for gardens and cultivating flowers, he is able to rent space in the castle, hoping to inveigle himself into the Bordereaus’ confidence to get his hands on the Aspern papers. He overcomes their suspicion and reluctance by daily donations of flowers and stealthy courting of Miss Tita. He sees his way to acquire the prized papers by ingratiating himself with her. As their relationship develops he reveals his true identity and objective to her. Eventually Tita, having become enamored, realizes that she has the ace up her sleeve: She offers to provide the papers if the narrator accepts herself in marriage—a bribe to become the bride. Then follows an excellent unexpected ending.

Gunnar's Daughter
Gunnar's Daughter
by Sigrid Undset
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.62
36 used & new from CDN$ 7.09

5.0 out of 5 stars An emotional and suspenseful yarn, July 16 2015
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This review is from: Gunnar's Daughter (Paperback)
This was Undset’s third novel, published in 1909, when she was twenty-seven. It was a precursor of sorts to the ‘Sigrid Lavransdatter’ trilogy (1920) and the four volume ‘The Master of Hestviken’ (1925), all set in medieval Norway. ‘Gunnar’s Daughter’ is historically set in Norway and Iceland at the turn of the millennium, 1000 AD. It is written to mimic the descriptive narrative style of the Viking sagas. The phrasing is succinct and the words chosen in this translation are lyrically expressive. The Introduction and Explanatory Notes in this Penguin edition provide the reader with accurate historical background.

Viking women were known for their self-reliant confidence. Vigdis, the heroine of the story, is one such woman. Although the northern culture was patriarchal, women were generally allowed a great deal more authority and respect than in other parts of Europe. The time period Unset selected for the novel is one in which the impact of Christianity was having an increasing influence on the pagan beliefs and traditions. But most disputes continued to be resolved by violence. The cost of dishonoring someone’s pride or besmirching their reputation was often maiming or death. Scores are settled by vengeance, even from one generation to the next.

An Icelandic trader, Ljot, visiting Norway, is smitten by Vigdis’ beauty, intelligence and confidence. But she is reluctant to accept his proposal although she has become enamoured of him. He seals his own fate when he forces himself on her. To avoid the vengeance he knows will come his way he returns to Iceland in ignorance of the fact that his rape has conceived a child. Year after year he languishes. He cannot forget Vigdis. He worships the memory of her like an icon. Even though he marries a dutiful wife and has children he is never happy. Meanwhile Vigdis harbors no forgiveness and she lives in fear for Ljot’s return to Norway. Their son Ulvar has grown up to be a proud warrior. To him she expresses the desire to one day possess his father’s decapitated head.

Undset does not gloss over the brutal ways of the medieval Norse culture. But she skillfully weaves the tale with loving relationships, fateful coincidences and tragic occurrences that emotionally and suspensefully involve the reader in the eventful lives of Vigdis and Ljot.

Cream of the Jest
Cream of the Jest
by James Branch Cabell
Edition: Paperback
10 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

2.0 out of 5 stars The cream curdles, the jest jabs, July 12 2015
This review is from: Cream of the Jest (Paperback)
Just as a good cup of coffee should have a good aroma, a good fantasy novel should have a good fantasy motif. But I found this novel’s motif to be too incongruous to support a pretension of fantasy. The only elements of fantasy are to be found in time-traveling dreams in which the main character meets the woman of his romantic reveries in various settings associated with famous people in historical settings. Those enigmatic episodes could have been fleshed out and lengthened to provide credence to a fantasy motif. But they were not. Instead this novel is a pastiche of critiques about social customs and beliefs, about power and politics, about religion and philosophy, and perhaps about the futility of reaching a meaningful conclusion in the pursuit of happiness. It seems farcically cynical. It highlights an author’s grandiose assumption to literary greatness. Cabell had a great reputation for literary creativity in the fantasy genre. If so, this book is an anomaly and not representative of his better works.

Lost Christiantiy
Lost Christiantiy
by Jacob Needleman
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.00
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2.0 out of 5 stars A book for academics, philosophers and theologians, July 8 2015
This review is from: Lost Christiantiy (Paperback)
I bought this book many years ago. I read a dozen or so pages but decided to put it away for another time. Now was the time. I took it out of storage because I have an ongoing interest in Christianity. In the meantime I have read a lot of other books about religions and spirituality. The author, Jacob Needleman, is an esteemed academic specializing in philosophy and spiritual psychology. Obviously, he is a man who deserves to be taken seriously.

I only completed one third of the book therefore my criticisms may be unfair, but after reading that much I had a premonition that if I succeeded in completing the book I would be no closer to finding out what “Lost Christianity” was all about or how it might practically be of benefit to myself and mankind. Actually, there seemed to be a case for arguing that at the outset Needleman had a strong assumption about a ‘lost’ Christianity. He could not describe it. He could not define it. But if he traveled the globe, interviewed x number of people and immersed himself in the works of other academics, he would eventually ‘find’ the ‘lost’ Christianity. I asked myself ‘is the author lost?’ or ‘is Christianity lost?’

This is a biography by a man on the search for answers. His writing style is cerebral, the vocabulary scholarly. Meanings are frequently obscure. He tosses into his narrative various references to people, books and beliefs to enhance his arguments. Instead I was distracted and befuddled. I failed to flow with his rambling stream of consciousness. I found myself having to go back to reread the previous sentence or paragraph, to, for example, connect which ‘the latter’ he was referring to. I resigned myself to admit that the book was written for academics, philosophers and theologians. Who was I, trying to make sense of it?

Invisible Worlds: Annie Besant on Psychic and Spiritual Development
Invisible Worlds: Annie Besant on Psychic and Spiritual Development
by Kurt Leland
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 38.95
18 used & new from CDN$ 29.37

4.0 out of 5 stars Good collection of a prominent esotericist’s lectures and essays, July 5 2015
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The Theosophical Society [TS] continues to exist, almost 150 years after its founding. Many like to credit the organization with, directly or indirectly, planting the seeds that flowered with the popularization in the West of New Age, New Thought, Ascended Masters, psychic channeling, and Eastern religious thought (Hinduism, Buddhism, Zen, Hare Krishna, Yoga, meditation). In that sense theosophy has helped to transform the spiritual and religious beliefs and mindset of millions of people. But, the Society itself, since its founding, has experienced division, controversy and stagnation. A book such as this, containing the writings of Annie Besant (1847-1933), a social activist and esotericist, who served four terms as president of TS, provides an overview of the society itself as well as its main teachings which have endured.

The organization’s three aims and ideals are admirable: 1. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity, without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or color. 2. To encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science. 3. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man. Other than believing in the aims and ideals there are no requirements for membership. The third ideal is really what most theosophical literature and study material is all about and this book has a good sampling of it. Besant was a very astute and intelligent woman, a true genius, and her writings and lectures reflect those attributes.

I am no stranger to most theosophical concepts, as my list of books will attest, and did not get much new information from this compilation. But it did provide an excellent comprehensive review of what the TS represented for the serious student of metaphysics at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, and how it has evolved into the 21st. Besant set the bar very high for novices. It seems that only the purest of the pure could hope to have any hope of making progress on the winding path to higher consciousness. And she warns repeatedly about the dangers of skipping over the basics, making shortcuts that could enmesh the aspirant in illusory confusion and darkness.

Except for her English compatriot Alice Bailey (1880-1949), Annie Besant, was probably the most prominent esotericist who sincerely attempted to reconcile biblical and Christian doctrines and themes with theosophical philosophy and spiritual wisdom. There are many biblical references in these articles which shed light on universalistic religious interpretations, bridging the religious East and West. The book includes an appendix of over fifty pages of Kurt Leland’s clarifying notes which by itself makes the book a valuable reference resource. The index is also an excellent resource to assist the student to consolidate scattered references into a coherence.

Meeting at the Milestone
Meeting at the Milestone
by Sigurd Hoel
Edition: Paperback
22 used & new from CDN$ 7.83

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful psychological and analytical wartime drama, June 20 2015
Sigurd Hoel (1890-1960) was a prolific acclaimed Norwegian writer of about thirty novels and collections of short stories and articles published in the span of four decades from the 1920s to the 60s. He spent some years in his mid-thirties (during the 1920s) in Germany and France studying and writing. During the German occupation (1940-45) he became active in the Resistance and had to escape to Sweden in 1943. Besides writing, and translating foreign authors’ works to Norwegian, he had an ongoing interest in psychology, politics, governance and languages (English and German, but especially the two official Norwegian languages, landsmål and riksmål).

‘Møte ved Milepelen’ (‘Meeting at the Milestone’ is the English translation) was published in 1947, soon after the war, when Norway was preoccupied with the trials of traitors and the meting out of fines and punishments to those who had in some way assisted and collaborated with the Nazi occupiers and the Quisling puppet regime. The novel became a significant part of the private and public debate about what caused about two percent of the Norwegian population to swear allegiance to Hitler’s political megalomania and as much as another five percent to cooperate with, and financially benefit from, dealing with the Nazis. Hoel drew on his own experiences from his Norwegian pre-war environment, active wartime resistance to the occupiers, and his Swedish exile to write this book.

The novel, which is narrated anonymously by ‘The Spotless One’, as he was called by his Resistance compatriots, is comprised of four parts. The first is made up from notes made in 1947 about events from 1943. He is renting a property in the capital Oslo which is part of the underground network to temporarily hide and shield resistance workers from being caught, interrogated, tortured, imprisoned and/or executed. Those who have found shelter there will be helped to escape to Sweden. The second part contains the notes he made in 1943 about friends and acquaintances from his youth in which he analyzes the occurrences which might have contributed early on to some of them becoming members of the Norwegian Nazi party. He details his conflicts and confrontations with some of them.

He also relates his personal experiences in the early 20s that include two relationships with young women. These are events that have a large bearing on what happens twenty years later, related in the third part of the book from notes made during his Swedish sojourn in 1944. In this part we learn what happened when he went on a mission to a southern town to meet with a Resistance cell to try to discover which one of its members was leaking information to the enemy. He makes dramatic discoveries and is caught and subjected to torture but escapes with the assistance of an unlikely rescuer. The fourth part is an introspective postscript written in Norway in 1947 in which he tries to make sense of his life’s failures, his guilt and the role responsibility plays in keeping personal honor. He weaves a mental picture of how each person is assigned a grid on which to weave the fabric of life, the emotions, griefs and joys, accidents and coincidences providing the colors and patterns of the material.

This novel asks more questions than it provides answers to about how and why people make the critical choices they do. It is a wonderful psychological and analytical wartime drama which has become a classic of Norwegian literature.

The Orenda
The Orenda
by Joseph Boyden
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.20
19 used & new from CDN$ 9.40

2.0 out of 5 stars A theme of calamity, futility and tragedy, June 4 2015
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This review is from: The Orenda (Paperback)
This is not light reading. Having read its five hundred pages, it is not a book soon to be forgotten. It is masterfully crafted historical fiction based on considerable amounts of research and advice. The readers can easily become immersed in the people, culture, climate and geography which are expertly described. I can understand why Joseph Boyden has become the darling of Canadian reviewers and the literary arts community based on three previous books and this thick volume in which he reaches the pinnacle of success. It would almost seem a sacrilege to the national literati to find fault with this work. Yet, I shall venture to dare to do so.

The story is told by three people who take turns narrating. I found it annoying that chapter headings did not denote who was about to relate their experiences and point of view. True, readers will fairly soon catch on to who is speaking but sometimes it takes half a page or page to be certain. Why? It is as if Boyden gives the readers a little assignment at the start of every chapter to test the reader’s perspicacity. Unnecessary. After having read a few chapters I discerned that the three narrators address themselves not to the reader but to deceased relatives or religious icons. It might have been helpful if the author had explained that modus operandi in a preface. Instead, upon first encountering this quirk, the reader asks himself to whom the narrator is directing his or her statements.

Novels—even those based on historical veracities—should engage the reader intellectually or emotionally to at least one of the characters. I thought the largest failing of this book was that until well past halfway there was not a single character to like or with whom to find common verve. That deficiency does gradually correct itself towards the conclusion but even then I found a reluctance to throw my lot in with any of them.

Boyden must have felt driven to reflect historical accuracy about the Huron and Algonquin barbarisms and calculated sadisms to their enemies. We are provided with dozens of pages with specific descriptions of the cruelest tortures man has ever inflicted on men. And the more drawn out the better, lasting three or more days. If victims succumbed to their wounds and pains by losing consciousness, they would be revived and temporarily restored—courteously and with good humor—so that further ritualistic atrocities could be delivered. I thought the author went way overboard with repeatedly recounting the exact specifics of these orgiastic torture rituals. Such accounts are not recommended for bedtime reading. The book should be R-rated for violence; it is not for the young or squeamish.

The book provides drama but much of the anticipation is neutralized by foreshadowing or the reader’s foreboding intimation that the story’s overall theme is one of calamity, futility and tragedy. Thankfully there is a flicker of light at the very end but for me it was not enough to overcome an overwhelming sense of anguish about what had occurred so many times earlier. I give it two stars for the quality of the writing itself which redeems it from being rated a single star.

New Glory: A Novel
New Glory: A Novel
by Günter de Bruyn
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 24.73
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3.0 out of 5 stars A psychological novel about the contrasts and quirks of personalities, May 17 2015
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This review is from: New Glory: A Novel (Paperback)
For me this novel written by an author who resided in communist East Germany (GDR) all his life is more noteworthy for its qualities of remoteness or alienation than for closeness and intimacy. Viktor, the main character is a dispirited young man impaired by an innate case of the blahs. New Glory is the name of the isolated rest home where Viktor spends a winter to complete his research and thesis for graduation. Academically he sets goals for himself but lacks conviction to pursue them. He dawdles and procrastinates, being more intent on socializing with the operators and guests of the establishment. He does pursue a love interest, Thilde—the only girl in his sequestered environment that could possibly be a sexual attraction. But she is fixated on taking care of her eccentric and senile grandmother and lacks emotion commitment to form anything even approaching a passionate liaison with Viktor. Their relationship, overshadowed by Thilde’s deteriorating health, endures more by lingering insufficiencies, inadequacies and failures than by heartfelt engagement. Viktor’s father is a blowhard functionary, highly placed and admired in the GDR’s bureaucratic maze. As his son Viktor rides on his father’s coattails, receiving attention and deference from the common folk because of it. But his father disapproves of Thilde who lacks education and breeding as well as having a swarthy, Gypsy-like, complexion.

This is a psychological novel, a study in behavior contrasts and quirks between the inhabitants of New Glory. It lacks any kind of emotional intensity or any suspenseful anticipation, Like, Viktor, it has a case of the blahs. It offers some irony and humor. It does not give much insight about the political environment of the GDR or the domineering Soviet influence. The book was first published in West Germany but the book’s appearance in East Germany was repeatedly delayed due to de Bruyn’s failure to highlight GDR’s achievements and the merits of Marxism. New Glory received popularity and praise in the West which resulted in the East being shamed into releasing it there, with some ‘revisions’ to correct some of its failings.

I was interested in learning about conditions in the GDR in the 70s and 80s. This book provided little information. Not only that but in terms of historical fiction it does not offer much to maintain reader interest other than learning about the characters’ humdrum habituated existences. But overall this tale is about Viktor’s failure to confront his wimpish approach to life.

The Bishop's Heir
The Bishop's Heir
by Katherine Kurtz
Edition: Hardcover
24 used & new from CDN$ 0.98

5.0 out of 5 stars High tension with dramatic uncertainty, May 8 2015
This review is from: The Bishop's Heir (Hardcover)
“The Bishop’s Heir” is the first volume of “The Histories of King Kelson” trilogy. Out of the sixteen Deryni novels, this comes 13th chronologically, following “High Deryni”, but it was the 7th to be published in 1984, following “Camber the Heretic” in 1981. I read this book twenty-five years ago and read it again with equal pleasure.

This book exemplifies what makes Katherine Kurtz a grand author of medieval regal fantasy. She weaves a tapestry of likable Deryni characters and their loyal supporters who are confronted by self-righteous adversaries whose cruelties know no bounds in order to denigrate the Deryni to achieve power and influence. Here we once more meet the previously deposed Deryni-hating Bishop Edmund Loris who has been confined for two years to an imposed exile in a remote monastery. But he has managed to form a liaison with the elderly Princess Caitrin, pretender to the throne of Meara. Meara was an independent realm two hundred years ago but has since been a principality held by Gwynedd. Bishop Loris has devised a scheme whereby he will regain his former position, looking to become Archbishop, through the restoration of a sovereign Meara under the rule of Caitrin and her heirs. By the aid of his accomplices Loris escapes his confinement, joining forces with Caitrin and a group of Mearan rebels, who defeat defending forces loyal to the Haldane (and Deryni) King Kelson. Lord Dhugal MacArdry, Master of Transha, an estate in Meara, who is the foster brother of King Kelson, is captured and taken in hostage. The King recruits an army to rescue Lord Dhugal and to confront the forces of Caitrin and Loris. This tale revolves mainly around King Kelson and Lord Dhugal. They are supported by Duke Alaric Morgan, the King’s constant defender since his childhood, and Duncan McLain, Deryni priest, Morgan’s cousin, and also a close friend of the King since they were boys. The significance of the book’s title does not become apparent until near the end.

Kurtz has created a very enjoyable story characterized by high tension with dramatic uncertainty. As the book concludes there are prominent ongoing conflicts and hostilities yet to be resolved. Volume two of the trilogy, entitled “The King’s Justice” will pick up where “The Bishop’s Heir” comes to a climactic and heartrending conclusion.

The Seth Material
The Seth Material
by Jane Roberts
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 23.93
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4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting, fascinating and perplexing, April 24 2015
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This review is from: The Seth Material (Paperback)
I am tempted to pursue an analysis of some propositions made by Seth. But which one to choose? There are so many interdimensional layer upon layer in his universe of realities and multidimensional personalities. Readers are offered a Pandora’s Box of revelatory treasures about our material and psychic existence to ponder. Many of them ring true but others cave in on themselves, like black holes of incomprehensibility.

But this is a fascinating and interesting account by Jane Roberts about her encounter with Seth, an “energy personality essence no longer focused in physical matter". For a long time Roberts was concerned that the Seth Material originated from her subconscious self. However, it becomes convincingly obvious to her that the material originates from another discarnate consciousness that with her consent uses her body and faculties to channel itself audibly to her husband Robert Butts who records the energy personality’s expositions.

How to rate this book? Readers should have a strong interest in the channeling phenomenon whether they believe it has worth and value or it is a ruse to gain fame, fortune and followers. Personally I am convinced that Roberts was not in it for personal gain. And she was careful not to allow any religious cult-like following. Readers should also be prepared to compare their own authentic rationality vis-à-vis Seth’s assertive claims to metaphysical legitimacy. I admit that scenario had me feeling like a first-grader taking on PhD with the highest credentials. I accept much of what “he” says as serious food for thought and that ‘seeds’ are offered to plant and cultivate for the commonweal. But I could not avoid feeling that if the material was meant to have profound revelatory significance for mankind’s future it fails to provide a focused and structured learning opportunity. It is all over the map and frequently ‘off the map’ altogether. This book deserves a second or third reading to absorb its physical sense versus Inner Sense implications and its cosmic energy synthesis.

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