Unearthing The Teachings of Don Juan: An unexpected discovery!

It seems that most often in life it is not the most expensive or sought after things which fulfill us, but the smallest and unexpected. The worn and unassuming paperback, The Teachings of Don Juan by Carlos Castaneda, hidden at the bottom of a Book-Cycle donations box was certainly unexpected. My eyes were immediately drawn by its beautiful cover; an illustration by Wilson McLean. Two faces are interlinked, joined by a rainbow, one representing the internal body, its brain a flower laced with the spectrum of the rainbow, the other simply a seemingly ordinary man.

I had never heard of Carlos Castaneda before (despite The Teachings being first published in 1968) and opened the book at random. It was not like anything I had ever read before; a heady, frank account of an entirely unfamiliar philosophy. As I was flipping through it, another volunteer spotted what I was reading, exclaiming, ‘That book changed my life -’ although she then hurriedly admitted, ‘but perhaps you might not learn anything from it’. Challenge accepted.

This book would be easy to simply disregard as meaningless fantasy. In fact, there is debate as to whether the content of Castaneda’s work is fact (having been originally published as non-fiction) or fiction. Admittedly, the debate seems to be leaning towards the side of fiction. However, to argue either way about the validity of the book’s content seems to me to miss the true value of the text. As does hiding it away within the restricting category of ‘New Age’, in which some may be tempted to confine it. Regardless, be it fact or fabrication, Castaneda’s writing will pull you in: either he has one fantastically crazy imagination, or he has recorded a refreshingly unique way of perceiving and interacting with the world.

For me there is only the traveling on the paths that have a heart, on any path that may have a heart. There I travel, and the only worthwhile challenge for me is to traverse its full length. And there I travel–looking, looking, breathlessly.

The text follows Castaneda’s journey to become a Man of Knowledge. What begins as a simple desire to study peyote (a hallucinogenic drug) turns into encountering the god of peyote, Mescalito, and learning how to use jimson weed and humito mushrooms to discover a new way of ‘seeing’. However, The Teachings is not all hallucinogen-fueled experiences and philosophical revelations. Castaneda offers a lively, vivid portrayal of his relationship with Don Juan, an inevitably likable and endlessly interesting man, as well as Castaneda’s spiritual teacher. The text follows Castaneda’s supposed experiences during his explorations into shamanism, with many nuggets of insight along the way that have a striking relevance to our own everyday life.

Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realises that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.

(However, it’s worth noting that there are a few dozen or so detailed descriptions of ritual preparations to pick through, which may not be to everyone’s tastes.)

Needless to say, I ended up leaving Book-Cycle with both The Teachings and its sequel in hand. Now, having read them both, I will be keeping an eye out for more of the series. If you are looking for something a bit different to read, this is a psychedlic and intriguing escape from the mundane. More than that, if you approach it with an open mind, Castaneda’s writing allows you to explore a new way of perceiving the world around you.  At the very least, you will be left wanting to read more about the mysterious Don Juan and his philosophy.

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My Graduate-Blues Antidote: Volunteering at Book-Cycle!

One of the best decisions I have made since leaving university has been volunteering at Book-Cycle.  There is always the potential for feeling a little purposeless and downtrodden when on the search for employment and living back with your parents, but volunteering has honestly been the best antidote. Not only because it gives me something to do with myself (surprisingly, having oodles of free time is not as fun as it sounds), but also because of the new people and experiences it has already brought into my life.

This illustration by Renate Belina caught my eye!

This illustration by Renate Belina caught my eye!

For starters, Book-Cycle is an absolutely fab charity! I can’t sing its praises enough; it enriches local communities, educates children in developing countries, plants trees across England, (to name just a few Book-Cycle ventures), all whilst providing people with access to a fantastic array of second-hand books in local stores. I have to exercise a ridiculous amount of restraint not to come home with armfuls of books; there is always something interesting to discover – from UFO theories to bestselling fiction. (The more I think about it; perhaps these interesting finds could be incorporated into Miscellaneous Me… Watch this space!)

There’s something about Book-Cycle that attracts not just an amazing variety of books, but people too. At Exeter’s High Street store one day, in between swapping uncanny experiences with a knowledgeable, chilled out dude and a business-man, I met a woman who speaks nine languages, a charming old man interested in military history and the most adorable little girl, her newly-purchased picture book clasped tightly in hand.

Book-cycle is all about environmental sustainability and the power of words for universal educational empowerment, and I can’t think of a more vibrant, worthwhile organisation to give my time to. I highly recommend checking out their website – it is a gargantuan fount of knowledge! There are tons of ways to get involved; you don’t have to be close by. So, have a read, spread the word, and remember:

“Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” — Lemony Snicket

Sedition by Katharine Grant: A Sumptuous Read

sedition katharine grantKatharine Grant’s debut in adult fiction, Sedition, is a tantalising, transgressive tale of sex, music, love and London. Grant makes an explosive entrance into the genre: this novel is not to be overlooked. The blurb is positively delicious, and immediately had me hooked:

‘London 1794… seduction and sensation, insurrection and initiation, deceit and delicacy, subversion and sedition.’

Grant notes that her five times great uncle was the last person in the UK to be hung drawn and quartered; the macabre legacy of her family seems to have infected her work. The stench of the French revolution reeks from across the channel, and Grant’s London is corrupt and dangerous.

If this novel were a film, it would be distinctly Tim Burton-esque. With a mixture of dark hilarity, the text conjures a shady, odd, and outrageously bawdy vision of the city, populated by a cast of distinctively quirky characters. These range from Annie, the unfortunately disfigured, musically talented daughter of an instrument-maker, to the fiercely independent and beautiful Alathea, who uses people as she pleases. The notable female presence is no surprise in a novel published by Virago (publishers of books for and about women); the independence and strength of the female heroines drives the novel in wildly unexpected directions.

The tale begins with a rather perplexed city speculator’s purchase of a pianoforte from Annie’s father, an unpleasant man with a disinclination to sell any of his creations. The pianoforte is required by the speculator and his associates in order to prepare their five daughters for a concert; an event designed to sell them off in marriage to any titled male who might desire them. Following the dubious advice of Annie’s father, they proceed to hire a piano teacher (a young French fellow, no less). However, this plan is not as straightforward as it might seem… Nothing is certain in the subversive streets of London: jealousy, greed, seduction and deception are rife.

Sedition follows the trials and tribulations of the girls, as they embark on an educational journey that is not strictly musical. The humorous observations of Monsieur Belladroit, as he assesses his five pupils, are particularly enjoyable. It would appear Alathea is the only one of the five who is truly desirable, what with Everina’s ill-fitting false teeth, Marianne’s disappointing hair, Harriet’s round nose and Georgiana’s skeletal frame.

Although the content of Sedition can be incredibly dark, the narration is consistently amusing, written with a tongue-in-cheek tone that never fails to entertain, in deliciously unexpected ways. The language employed by Grant throughout the text is rich and varied, without weighing down the story, making reading Sedition a heady, sensual experience. However, this novel is not just a tale of hilarity and licentious relations, it is also a story about music and meaningful relationships.

Although I felt there were certain slow points in the novel, it was never enough for me to put the book down for long. The narrative clatters to a close at a full-blown gallop. All in all, Sedition’s wonderfully eclectic collection of characters, and Grant’s weaving together of the excitement and passion of music and sex with the tedium of respectful middle-class society makes for an outrageously dazzling cocktail.

I look forward to Grant’s future work in adult fiction, and highly recommend this read! Sedition has earned itself a solid 4 out of 5, from me.

A Review of Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase, by Jonathan Stroud.

"Hauntings are our business..."

“Hauntings are our business…”

The Screaming Staircase, Jonathan Stroud’s latest book, is one that you will most certainly not want to miss, and as the first of a new series, now is the perfect time to get on-board.

Stroud is one of those people who have the rare talent of making you laugh out loud whilst your arms still have goose bumps from fear, dropping witty quips slap bang in the middle of a potentially fatal situation in a way that somehow only makes the story more believable. I read Jonathan Stroud’s earlier bestselling series, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, when I was in my mid-teens and immediately fell in love with his uniquely hilarious writing style. The sheer level of depth Stroud puts into creating a crazy, fantastical parallel world for his stories is impressive and had me immediately hooked on his books. Stroud’s latest young adult supernatural thriller, The Screaming Staircase, is no exception.

The first of the Lockwood and Co. series, The Screaming Staircase is set in London, but it’s not the city that you or I would be familiar with. It’s a London that has long been plagued by ‘The Problem’. By dark, the streets are walked by unwanted Visitors. They prowl the streets (which have a gothic tinge reminiscent of Victorian London) when most normal living people are safely tucked up in bed. Oh, and the Visitors happen to be dead. For whatever reason, the spirits of the deceased have taken to returning and only some of them are (relatively) harmless. Seen clearly only by children, but capable of killing anyone of any age, these Visitors are not the type you’d be inclined to offer tea and crumpets to. Talking of types, whilst type-one spirits aren’t much of a problem, type-twos have intent, and type-threes… Well, let’s hope you won’t ever meet a type-three.

Luckily for us, a charismatic, independent team of young agents is on hand to deal with the Visitors: Lockwood and Co. (Although they don’t happen to have the best track record, as far as their past cases go.) These characters are incredibly vibrant, and although, admittedly, they do fit some relatively predictable type castes (the eccentric hero, the ballsy heroine, and the geeky third member), they are far from two-dimensional. (Which is probably down to Stroud’s quirky narration and surprising interpolations of humour, more than any real development of character; my only criticism). Lockwood himself is charismatic, aloof and a little bit batty, whilst his partner George remains a constantly irritating presence and grows only a little more bearable with time. The story follows the young protagonist and newest member of Lockwood and Co., Lucy Carlisle, as she finds her feet as a professional agent in London. Although, as the only company run entirely without adult involvement, Lockwood and Co. isn’t quite what she expects.  Lucy’s opening words sum up the tone and direction of the book well:

‘Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up’.-Jonathan Stroud, The Screaming Staircase. 

The format of The Screaming Staircase is gorgeous; the layout of each page is extremely thoughtful and immersive. The attention to detail, from small, black and white illustrations at the opening of each chapter, scratched and distorted almost like a woodcut, to the two crossed swords below every page number, is refreshing. If you’re still dying (no pun intended) for more when you get to the end, there is also a comprehensive glossary of all the technical thingymabobs you need to know when dealing with a Visitor. (Just another example of the brilliant depth of technicalities included in Stroud’s fantastical reality.)

If you liked The Screaming Staircase don’t forget to keep an eye out for its sequel this September, just in time to get you warmed up (or perhaps suitably chilled might be more appropriate) for Halloween.

I rate this book a solid 4 out of 5; if the characters had been slightly more developed throughout it would be more. I highly recommend picking this one up, whether it’s for yourself, or perhaps to read to someone a little bit younger – in age, if not at heart. It really is a brilliant read for both adults and young people – although neither is exempt from nightmares. Anyone can be drawn in by Stroud’s hilarious horror story – after all, no one is safe from The Problem, adult or otherwise. As you might already know, Visitors feed on fear and strong emotion, so as you read, you should probably watch out.