Opinions of Saturn

A potpourri of classics, pagan books, cookbooks, noir, queer lit, and whatever's ended up on my bookshelf.


This is the BookLikes edition of my reviewing blog. Currently I'm the reigning emperor of gay and a practicing polytheist. Expect pedantry, pretentiousness, and overthinking.


1080 pages, and three weeks to read it...

Words of Radiance  - Brandon Sanderson

When I was younger, I used to challenge myself by checking out the longest fiction books in the library and see if I could finish reading them before the due date. Figured I'd get back into the habit now that I have several months of free time left on my hands before heading off to law school.


I know absolutely nothing about this author or series. Ought to be fun!

Ten Days in a Mad House by Nellie Bly

Ten Days in a Mad-House - Nellie Bly

I probably would have liked reading Bly’s landmark investigative journalism more if this edition didn’t include a host of similar articles at the end with titles like “Nellie Bly as a White Slave.” A better description would be “Nellie Bly Doesn’t Realize References and Work Experience is Important, Shocked to Discover Entry Jobs Universally Suck.”

The true meat of TEN DAYS IN A MAD-HOUSE isn’t the lackluster reporting Nellie Bly did on factory girls and servant agencies, but her undercover work in one of the toughest mental wards in New York City. It’s not hard to see why Bly’s articles spurned on immense reform after their original publication, as Bly’s experiences with the rampant mistreatment of the 1880s’ medical world feel shocking even to this day. In addition to the truly appalling conditions she and her fellow inmates were forced to endure, the nurses openly tortured and gaslighted their charges to the point that any relatively sane woman swiftly found themselves spiraling into mental breakdowns. The doctors, unaware the “mad” complaints made about their nurses had any factual basis, felt justified in keeping their “delusional” charges locked up forever in consequence.

At the same time, I find myself loathe to side with Bly’s conclusions about her stay and fellow inmates. Either due to her stylistic flair or completely unrealistic expectations, she puts just as much emphasis on like bad tasting tea as she does literal torture—in fact, she spends more time complaining the food than everything else combined. Furthermore, she’s quick to assume everyone around her is completely rational and sane after only a conversation or two, so long as they don’t exhibit anything short of violent or hysterical behavior. Armchair psychology might have been the bee’s knees for a sensations reporter in the nineteenth century, but it reads as wildly ignorant now. Granted, it’s better than the doctor’s “madness measurements” and eye exams, but not by much.

Is the book and Nellie Bly’s journalism worthy of respect and acclaim? Of course. Is it also dated and biased? Yes. It wouldn’t surprise me if Nellie Bly is the reason that ~*Victorian women were committed for anything all the time because they had no rights!*~ garbage is still preached as truth to this day. But it’s an agenda piece about genuine problems, written with a respectable goal in mind and it led to important healthcare reforms afterward. Worth a read if the subject matter interests you.

Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards

Death Was the Other Woman - Linda L. Richards

So, what were the plucky secretaries of rye-guzzling PIs doing while their employers moped about gorgeous women and betrayal? They did the actual detective work around the office, apparently.


DEATH WAS THE OTHER WOMAN is a feminine take on the hard life of a struggling P. I. and his assistant during the harsh years of the beginning of the Depression before the Prohibition repeal. Both the investigator and the crime are pure throwbacks to classic hard boiled crime: a glamorous woman walks into a P.I.’s office and pays the investigator for some simple work, which inevitably leads to dead bodies and danger. What makes the story stands out is that it is told from the perspective of said investigator’s secretary, a young woman named Katherine “Kitty” Pangborn.


I freely admit that I’m a snob when it comes to neo-noir and hardboiled crime. It’s not uncommon to see writers capitalize on the style without an inkling of how the dark themes of classic hard boiled crime related to the American world at large. What might be portrayal as “tough” or “cool” in another book is shown in a harsh light, especially alcoholism and the cultural despair created by the Great Depression. Huge swathes of the book are spent with Kitty’s inner thoughts on the economic devastation underlying the glamorous veneer of Los Angeles. As Kitty herself went from the ideal American heiress to a penniless working girl after the stock market crash, she adds unique commentary that isn’t often found in a genre dominated by male/middle class attitudes.


The mystery itself is underwhelming. The setup is cliché as hell, and the book does little to make it stand out against the grain. Much of the detective work is buried underneath Kitty’s day-to-day social life, and there are only a handful of moments where Kitty’s ingenuity shines. Too many of the plot twists are saved for the last couple chapters, leading the book to feel unbalanced in consequence. The ending likewise feels too abrupt, as if watching a movie that ends with the second act. None of the characters are given substantial arcs, and we don’t even see any aftermath in the office after the whodunit is revealed.


Whether the reader likes DEATH WAS THE OTHER WOMAN depends entirely on if the Depression Era setting of Los Angeles appeals to them. To that end, it’s a solid read. Noir buffs might get a kick out of the story, otherwise, there are better books for mystery lovers out there.

Another Kind of Love by Paula Christian

Another Kind Of Love - Paula Christian


ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE is a reprinting of two stories from the late pulp era. One of them is very good, and the other… isn’t.


Both stories are very much of the time, for better or worse. Multiple characters consider their same-sex attractions and tendencies to be some sort of psychosis, while stereotypical dykes and closeted femmes wander in and out of the Village scene exclusively for hook-ups. The leads bemoan their inability to have children while hating themselves for their romantic interests as the author takes great care to describe the size and texture of everyone’s breasts. Trust me: you already know whether you’d like this type of book.


Paula Christian’s lesbians are unmarried and divorced career women with an emphasis on the emotional toil of relationships. They earn their happy endings, often by trying to incorporate a level of monogamy in their relationships despite the prevalence of the hook-up culture surrounding them. Christian’s women are fascinating in their own historical context: at the time of the story’s original publishing, the FDA had only approved the birth control pill a year earlier, THE FEMININE MYSTIQUE wouldn’t be published for another two, and Stonewall wouldn’t happen for almost a decade. The women grew up in the mist of the post-War golden age amongst loving families as society itself became more progressive in relation to education and career opportunities. They are smart, capable, and otherwise completely normal—and the stories, more importantly, treat them as such.


The titular short story, “Another Kind of Love,” tickles the allure of lesbian relationships in old Hollywood, where movie moguls held the press in an iron fist while their star machines ate aspiring actors and actresses alive. The story itself follows Laura, an editor of a fan magazine, and how she falls in love with the girlfriend of one of Hollywood most glamorous superstars of the era. Does she sacrifice her happiness and her morals to be with the woman of her dreams, or does she stay with her love struck (and soon-to-be divorced) boss? The premise might be cliché, but the presentation of Laura’s “coming out” is both nuanced and sympathetic, even when expressing the attitudes of an outdated era.


Many of the concerns Laura expresses feel authentic, and it’s the sort of story I would have loved to have read when I started coming to terms with my own identity. While it may not have the best answers to some of the issues that it discusses—it’s over fifty years old, after all—seeing the validation of seemingly unspoken questions is refreshing. It’s not just about liking women; it’s about establishing the lines between sex, love, and friendship on a completely different playing field.


The second story, “Love is Where You Find It,” takes literally everything applaudable about the first story and douses it with a good dose of old-fashioned cynicism. After years of living with an abusive but gorgeous girlfriend, a photographer named Dee finally calls it quits after finding her lover cheating on her. A new woman practically serenades her way into Dee’s life, while one of her younger co-workers seems determined to find her way into Dee’s secret life. Unlike the first story, Dee is an embittered veteran of the New York lesbian scene, and spends most of her time hiding her orientation from her business partners. While the story itself isn’t terrible, and it contains some of my favorite post-sex scene banter, Dee’s attitude is awful. She does everything in her power to turn one of her lovers straight, insults nearly everyone around her, and quietly endures rampant homophobia without complaint. Her actions are believable given the time period she lived in, but it doesn’t make her compelling in consequence. I often found myself wishing we were following her love interests instead.


Even with its flaws, both stories are enjoyable reads in women loving women genre. A good pulp ages like fine wine: a touch acidic with undertones of sugar and spice. ANOTHER KIND OF LOVE hits the mark where it counts, and that’s more than enough for me.

Ancestors and Hero Cultus: Walking the Worlds, Vol. I, Issue I

Ancestors and Hero Cultus  (Volume 1) - Walking the Worlds

Walking the Worlds a venture spearheaded by Galina Krasskova to put explicitly polytheist beliefs in a semi-academic format. Beginning with the topic of death is entirely intentional, as honoring the dead is something that almost all polytheist traditions hold in common.


Many of the essays within ANCESTORS AND HERO CULTUS are written by popular pagan authors and bloggers, and it shows. Topics range from cultus reconstruction to animal extinction, and the quality of the articles varies from author to author. Some articles are rambling opinion pieces, while others are articulate and well-researched in their subject matter. There is at least one article for most Eurocentric forms of pagan polytheism, although heathenism by far has the most attention devoted to it. Exactly how much the reader will take away from the issue itself depends entirely on how relevant highly devotional and reconstructive polytheism is relevant to their practices.


Perhaps unrelated to the writings within, but the production value of the journal is top notch. The professionalism of the physical copy in addition to the content itself matches what one would expect from a peer-reviewed journal. It’s a worthwhile beginning to a noble endeavor.

An Introduction to Roman Religion by John Scheid

An Introduction to Roman Religion - John Scheid

John Schied's INTRODUCTION TO ROMAN RELIGION is a fantastic short beginner's guide to the complicated beliefs and practices of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. Scheid concentrates on the civic aspects of the religion and how the culture's dependence on rites and omens shaped the society around it. The book takes the reader through the many and often intricate steps that had to be taken in order to honor the gods, and how participation in said activities established a Roman's place in society. The book mainly focuses on practices within Rome itself stretching between the second century B.C. to the rise of Christianity, and pulls from both ancient and modern sources to paint a complete picture for the reader.


What keeps AN INTRODUCTION from being a perfect read is that Scheid's interpretation of Ancient Rome feels extremely atheistic. While he dabbles in the philosophical attitudes expressed by prominent Romans at the end of the book, he never quite establishes what the Romans as a whole believed about their own beliefs. While it's repeatedly stated that was no dogma dictating specific interpretations of the gods, it doesn't excuse the lack of a general summary of the major figures of the Roman Pantheon. An unfamiliar reader may feel lost in consequence.

Blood and Mistletoe by Ronald Hutton

Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain - Ronald Hutton

So, it turns out almost everything we “know” about the druids can be attributed to blatant fraud and propaganda.


In typical Hutton fashion, BLOOD AND MISTLETOE isn’t a history of the druids, but a history of the historians of the druids. As there are precious few accounts and artifacts left of Druids—and what little we have is so unreliable that it isn’t even certain if the legendary order even existed—Hutton cross-references a multitude of sources instead to explain how the modern concept of the Druid came to be. It’s as much as a discussion on the effects of revisionism and belief as it is a book on the druids. The first third of the book focuses on how Roman and British politics and idealism contributed to the modern conception of the Druids in equal measure, while the second portion deals with the transformation of the druids’ image in relation to Romanticism and the rise of the British Empire, while the final section explores the Druids’ place in modern reconstructionism, popular culture, and archaeology.


Hutton’s thorough and multi-layered research makes BLOOD AND MISTLETOE a heavy read—person X believes/believed Y because they reinterpreted record Z to mean V, but theory Z was based on possibly flawed accounts of W, etc., etc. The book’s a companion piece to one of his earlier works, THE DRUIDS, so Hutton doesn’t spend a lot of time establishing the basics. Meanwhile, the font is tiny, making the already lengthy book feel hundreds of pages longer than it is. While Hutton is a strong enough writer to give life to the minutiae of details he’s collected, heaven help the reader who’s bad at memorizing names and dates.


Someone at my local library must have been very interested in druidry, as almost every neo-pagan book available there is about the Druids or the Celts. BLOOD AND MISTLETOE is easily the most factual of the bunch, and it showcases why Hutton has such a good reputation in both academic and pagan circles. The book was partially funded by the Order of Bards and Druids, and Hutton always takes care to be respectable of modern druidic beliefs, even when he’s criticizing the foundations they’re based on. Highly recommended for history nerds and pagans alike.

Reading progress update: I've read 342 out of 492 pages.

Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain - Ronald Hutton

From the 1930s... [came a] novel called In the Grip of the Druids by a spinster, Beth Coombe Harris [was] designed to educate children in the need to embrace a fervent Christianity, it portrays the adventures of a native family in Roman Britain eluding the attempts of the druids to acquire them for sacrifice. The efforts made to capture them are from determined in that they have brought back Christianity from Rome, which the Druids are determined to keep out of Britain lest it stir up the people against their tyranny. [...] A retired naval officer contributed a forward, adding a warning to its juvenile readers against the evils of Roman Catholicism.


Old-timey children's books were weird, man.

Historical Romance Square: The Black Knight

The Black Knight - Connie Mason


Joining in a bit late on the Romance Bingo fun. This is a book that's been sitting on my IRL shelf for three years. Some fun trivia about my copy:


1) I bought it for fifty cents at a swap meet three years ago. 


2) Whoever owned it before me scribbled a short review in the corner of the first page. It reads: "Fast read. Simple story. 11/29/99." 


3) There are two covers. After opening up the first cover, there's a second cover of the two leads snogging. Lovely.

Reading progress update: I've read 274 out of 492 pages.

Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain - Ronald Hutton

[Morien] wrote extensively on ancient Druidry, making a very personal and idiosyncratic reconstruction of it [...] He was another example of an author who, like Aubrey and Iolo, was incapable of writing a book in the normal sense of the word. True to his profession as a journalist, he tended instead to turn out what was effectively articles -- short, disconnected reflections on different aspects of a subject -- and then collect and bind them together under a common title.   


In addition to everyone dying of syphilis, I am highly amused that most of historians of Druidry would probably be bloggers if they were alive today.


On a side note, Welsh names are ridiculous. So far there's been Clwydfardd, Hwfa Môn, Myfyr Morganwg, Iorwerth Dywysog... and that last one just translates to Prince Edward!

The Hearth Witch's Compendium by Anna Franklin

The Hearth Witch's Compendium: Magical and Natural Living for Every Day - Anna Franklin

DISCLAIMER: This is a review of an uncorrected proof of THE HEARTH WITCH’S COMPENDIUM. It was received for free with no expectation of a review. The review may not reflect the final version of the book.


Over the past two decades, the Llewellyn publishing house has amassed a reputation for producing an inordinate amount of trend-following (and sometimes ill-researched) beginner witchcraft and New Age spirituality books. While the company has been trying to clean up its image for the last two or three years, they are somewhat reasonable for flooding the market with mediocre encyclopedias, compendiums, and similar collections of spells and folklore. As such, when Llewellyn introduces yet another witchcraft reference guide into the world, the book needs to work hard to stand out against its peers.


The HEARTH WITCH’S COMPENDIUM, thankfully, tries to be a refreshing take on the tired genre. The book can be divided roughly into three sections: food and drink, home life, and herbs/essential oils. Where most published spell collections focus on things like making charms or burning colored candles, the COMPENDIUM incorporates everything from wine-making to everyday soap into the titular hearth witches’ lifestyle. Anna Franklin’s evident expertise makes for a very well-rounded read, especially in sections like the aforementioned wine-making chapter. Self-sufficiency is the name of the game, although Franklin is more than happy to include interesting historical or scientific trivia to go along with the various recipes themselves.


However, there are a few noteworthy problems with THE COMPENDIUM’s writing style and organization. Since Franklin believes eliminating harmful products from one’s life is inherently magical, there are entire chapters so focused on practicality that they end up ignoring magic entirely. For example, there are nearly 150 pages between when essential oils are introduced to when their magical uses and correspondences are explained. Meanwhile, almost all the recipes are very short and easy to misinterpret. It’s a classic mistake that happens when an author includes only the basic information that they personally need without considering that the reader might not be at the same skill level as the them.  


As an author, Anna Franklin is one of dozens that started out during the witchcraft publishing boom of the 90s. Her reputation is typical of her demographic: most of her books aren’t noteworthy enough to recommend as must-read, but they’re not worth avoiding either. Her books tend to follow trends, and her most well-known are her Sabbat books and tarot decks. The COMPENDIUM feels like more of the same fodder, as it’s overtly trying to appeal to the organic living crowd. Exactly how much the reader will like it corresponds directly to how much they like being told repeatedly that chemicals are bad. The HEARTH WITCH’S COMPENDIUM won’t change that image of her, but it’s worth a look as a solid introduction to natural living with a magical twist.

Reading progress update: I've read 372 out of 528 pages.

The Hearth Witch's Compendium: Magical and Natural Living for Every Day - Anna Franklin

So-called "magical herbals" give instructions on how to collect a plant by drawing a circle around it, telling it a little rhyme before hacking it about, and leaving a coin or pinch of tobacco to recompense for its trauma. What good these are to it remains a mystery. Some books will tell you that you must ask a tree or plant for its favours--walk around three times and say "can I have a bit?" How many people know when they have got an answer? Is the plant even listening? You might as well buy herbs off the shelf supermarket, or pick up a dead twig from the forest floor.


1. Pffft. I'm pretty sure I own at least one herbalism book that actually tells the reader to ask a plant for its clippings via poetry.


2. I'm dimly reminded of an environmentalist fairy tale parody I read not too long ago where the would-be princess winds up destroying local animal populations due to her critical misunderstanding about how nature works. 


3. I have one hour to read two hundred pages before I have to return this ARC. Heaven help me.

Faust by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (trans. Bayard Taylor)

Faust - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Bayard Taylor’s translation of FAUST is one of the very few recommendable public domain translations of any classic, period.


As a very successful poet back in his day, Taylor used his expertise to stay true to Goethe’s original without feeling overwrought or stilted in turn. According to the introduction, Taylor wanted to fill a void that other FAUST translators of his time overlooked: to stay true to both the underlying intentions and poetic meter of the entire work. He clearly put a lot of effort and research into overcoming the numerous problems that come with such a translation, and the introduction even quotes Goethe’s own opinions on translating to support Taylor’s own technical decisions. The quality still shines through over a hundred years later.


If there are any major flaws with the Taylor translation, it’s that the English language has evolved since the late nineteenth century. The English text is archaic at its core, and your mileage may vary as to how well it works. Frequently huge chunks of book were easy to follow, only be to thrown off entirely by one confusing word or sentence. This Kindle edition does not contain any footnotes aside from the introduction from the translator, so it might be confusing to readers who aren’t familiar with the author or source material. The Kindle dictionary does provide definitions for most of the obscure word choices that Taylor made, however.


The play itself is an adequate read. FAUST follows the story of a doctor who sells his soul to the devil to fulfill all his desires. Mephistopheles, the demon, plays the role of a servant while secretly masterminding the doctor’s downfall. Goethe’s version of the folktale draws most of its attention not to the inner-conflict of Doctor Faust, but instead it focuses on the effects his immoral actions have on society. Faust himself isn’t so much interested in knowledge like in the traditional version of the story, but simply needs a distraction from his own problems. Disappointingly, this kindle edition does not include Part II, so the story ends on a nasty cliffhanger.


FAUST is more interesting to discuss thematically than it is to read. As there are no stage directions, most of the action is described passively by the characters present. The constant philosophizing doesn’t help make the play any more engaging, especially when none of the characters are particularly likable. Goethe’s brand of melodrama and humor is well-written, of course, but finishing the book became a chore after a while. The plot is easily the weakest link—after all the time build up to the deal being made, the Faust and Mephistopheles seem content to hit on girls, attend random witch gatherings, and play pranks on strangers. It’s not exactly the most profound quest for knowledge in the universe.


If you’re the type of person who loves reading Shakespeare, you’ll probably like Taylor’s translation of FAUST. Otherwise, I’d recommend moving on to a much easier classic instead.

Reading progress update: I've read 100%.

Faust - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Will put up review later today, maybe. I'm sitting on almost a dozen half written reviews right now and have no drive to finish any of them.


Either way, definitely a much more enjoyable read this time around. On my unofficial "classics I respect but never ever want to read ever again" scale of likability, it sits firmly under Anna Karenina but miles above Hamlet and Wuthering Heights.

Existentialism and Human Emotions by Jean-Paul Sartre

Existentialism and Human Emotions - Jean-Paul Sartre

EXISTENTIALISM AND HUMAN EMOTIONS is a collection of essays by Jean-Paul Sartre, one of the most well-known intellectuals of the 20th century. They all share common ground regarding how existentialism affects the mind. The topics range from mental anguish to war to sexuality, with the toning swinging between practical to pretentious at the drop of a dime.


Exactly how much the reader likes HUMAN EMOTIONS will depend entirely on how much they like Sartre in general. Sartre didn’t want existentialism to be an excuse for self-doubt or lazy inaction even though he understood the validity of such emotions. His writing, in consequence, is littered with extended diatribes and contradictions. It isn’t helped by the fact that the translator clearly translated the original French manuscript word-for-word, as there are multiple words and phrases feel awkward in English. Many of the essays are taken from longer works, which makes it difficult to follow when Sartre references earlier chapters/writings that weren’t reproduced or summarized in HUMAN EMOTIONS. However, through the incredibly dry and often confusing discourse, there’s a genuine heart to his work that fosters a unique positivity to the purposelessness he supports.


The book shouldn’t be recommended to beginner philosophers, as a certain level of familiarity with the intellectuals Sartre likes to namedrop is necessary to understanding the text. It is, however, possible to go in blind to Sartre’s philosophy itself, as he provides a solid explanation of existentialism and its criticisms. The latter half of the book hasn’t aged well at all, but the first half is strong enough to enjoy on its own merits.

Reading progress update: I've read 0 out of 528 pages.

The Hearth Witch's Compendium: Magical and Natural Living for Every Day - Anna Franklin

My bookclub meeting place just received several Llewellyn ARCs this week, and thus I walked out with this one today! It's also available on NetGallery. 


Llewellyn's tried hard to shake off the "worst pagan publisher" label for the last couple years, so it'll be interesting to see what a semi-established author like this--particularly one who got her start in the terribad '90s witchcraft craze--comes up with. I'm optimistic. The little I know about Anna Franklin is that her research tends to be shallow 101 material, but her recipes are fantastic. The COMPENDIUM is almost entirely recipe-based.  


It looks good from my casual skimming thus far. The contents are focused on practical applications of the Craft (and also winemaking) instead of the ever-popular abstract rituals and meditation exercises. The design work is very pretty, too.

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