Pilgrims and proselytisers

Septentrionalium Regionum Descriptio, by Abraham Ortelius (ca 1570): the ghost terrain St Brendan’s Isle is marked bottom left.

Lives of the Saints.
The Voyage of St Brendan;
Bede: Life of Cuthbert;
Eddius Stephanus: Life of Wilfrid.
Trnslated with an introduction by J F Webb.
Penguin Classics, 1970 (1965)

Three insular saints —  a sixth-century Irish abbot, two seventh-century English clerics — form an interesting contrast in this trio of hagiographies translated from the Latin. By far the bulk of the text deals with the lives of English saints Cuthbert and Wilfrid, both composed in the eighth century CE by named authors, but at the head of this collection is the curious Navigatio which I personally find more interesting and which will be the main focus of this review.

All three narratives — two being true hagiographies or vitae sanctorum, while the navigatio is really a fantasy travelogue — are full of miracles and homilies, designed to encourage belief and strengthen faith but, beneath accounts of devils being cast out, the dead being restored to life, and hermits being sustained for years solely by spring water, one can discern historical facts and chronological events, all attesting to growing religious influence in the early medieval period.

But in addition to all that is the sense of two different cultures, one Celtic and the other Anglo-Saxon, struggling for primacy on these islands on the northwestern fringes of Europe, cultures that were outward-looking while also closely connected with their continental neighbours.

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All at sea: #Narniathon21

The Dark Island by Pauline Baynes

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
by C S Lewis,
illustrated by Pauline Baynes.
Puffin Books 1965 (1952)

When an author takes many of their childhood obsessions — and not a few of their adult ones too — and stirs them around in the cauldron of their imagination they may well produce a dish similar to that which Lewis has concocted for us here. Some may consider it a mess of pottage, others a culinary triumph, but there’s no doubting that there is richness here, drawing on many different and mostly complementary flavours.

As he did in Prince Caspian Lewis plunges us in medias res with a call to adventure, the context for which we are told in a backstory. The fact that, after a brief preamble, that call requires three youngsters to be summarily thrust into the middle of an ocean is daring enough; that there is a ship conveniently passing by proves fortunate; and that from the start there is conflict to be resolved is sufficient to entice us to join the youngsters in their unexpected dunking.

If what follows may at first be seen as a series of random episodes, it soon becomes clear that there are patterns to be discerned and processes to be revealed as the voyage of many weeks and leagues wends its way towards a final goal. And we may be sure that, as this is Narnia, Aslan will be coming back into the picture.

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March in books

© C A Lovegrove

For the last few years March has found my reading dominated by particular themes. This year will be no different, and I shall aim to have book-related posts put up on particular dates.

Reading Wales #Dewithon22 Bookjotter.com

First up: 1st March is dedicated to St David, the patron saint of Wales, and Paula of Bookjotter.com is again running the Dewithon, aka Reading Wales Month, for which I aim to post a couple of reviews by Welsh authors.

The much missed Terry Pratchett (who died on 12th March 2015) will be celebrated with March Magics hosted by Kristen of webereading.com, and the theme for 2022 will be Friends Old and New. I’d like to think I will manage at least one title, or even two, by him over the thirty-one days

Terry Pratchett

Ireland’s St Patrick also has a feast day this month (on 17th March) and Cathy of 746books.com is again marking the occasion with Reading Ireland Month, affectionately known as Begorrathon. Again I have a couple of promising books to read and review during the four weeks.

Also missed this month is Diana Wynne Jones who left us on 26th March 2011, and she too is included under the #MarchMagics banner (formerly just known as DWJ March). I suspect one of my reads at least will be a reread since I think I’ve already read and reviewed about 95% of her published work.

Finally, I shall be reading the next published instalment in our Narniathon21 readalong, C S Lewis’s The Silver Chair. This was the fourth of the Narniad titles to appear, meaning we’ll have reached the midway point in the whole sequence. A discussion post will appear on the last Friday of the month, the 25th March, and my review a few days later.

WordPress Free Photo Library

So that’s my March mostly planned out — we’ll see how it proceeds! Are you planning to join in with any of these events?

© C A Lovegrove

Marching off

The end of March, and a quarter of the way through the year after the year. Many readers have reported a slump in their reading (like many authors have noted lethargy where their writing is concerned) and I do understand that: the current global situation makes us all anxious and that hits us in different ways.

I find though that I can only really keep up my positivity through books; if I didn’t have access to books I’m not sure how I’d cope mentally because I’m an inveterate reader — social media, newspapers, food wrappers — and even my fallback, playing the piano, involves me doing a fair amount of sightreading scores.

Apologies, then, to those who are finding your literary mojo dampened: I do sympathise — even as I seek out the next thing to read, for my tottering TBR piles seem at the moment to be inexhaustible.

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Digging with a squat pen

© C A Lovegrove

Death of a Naturalist
by Seamus Heaney.
Faber 1999 (1966)

It’s fascinating to read this collection of nearly three dozen short poems, individually each a gem, collectively a story of childhood and young adulthood leading to marriage. It very much reminds me of an album of photographs, or even those selections of instrumental miniatures called Albumblätter or Feuilles d’Album.

What do we observe? Scenes of countryside activities from the author’s childhood in County Derry, glimpses of individual lives in Belfast, reminiscences of a honeymoon taken, a sojourn on the islands of Aran. Vignettes they may be but they’re vivid and intense, self-contained and demanding to be savoured.

I’ve met one or two of these before, for example Blackberry-picking, which inspired me to write ‘I Hunted Dragons Once’, but to encounter them in their entirety is a very different experience. Too many to comment here on each individually, it’s also hard to make a selection of favourites because each one has its own merits; but try I must.

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A man of a certain age

Dublin: WordPress Free Photo Library

Charlie Savage by Roddy Doyle.
Jonathan Cape 2019

As a man of a certain age myself, the titular character of Roddy Doyle’s Charlie Savage is a kind of blood brother even though we don’t have the obvious things in common — football, the pub, dogs; for in this collection of reminiscences Charlie (via the author) reveals his bewilderment at changes in the world even while he valiantly tries to come to terms with them, a state of affairs those born in the middle of the last century may well recognise.

As a Dubliner himself Doyle is in an excellent position to portray Charlie’s daily habits in Ireland’s capital with a sympathetic eye — it helps that he appears to share a birth year with his eponymous hero — though we mustn’t be misled into thinking this Charlie is coterminous with his author.

The fifty-two vignettes, written as weekly instalments for the Irish Independent, chart Charlie’s stumbles through 2018, two years into a man-baby’s presidency and another two years before a global pandemic. But many of Charlie’s observations continue to have contemporary and, even with their Irish perspective, universal relevance.

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The best-laid plans

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

Each year recently I’ve resolved to either eschew reading challenges altogether or make them manageable by calling them goals or wishes. And each year I find myself sorely tempted by shiny new-to-me memes.

It will surprise none of you that 2021 seems to be the same old same old. In 2016 I succeeded in completing the quantity of books I’d aimed (in the Goodreads Reading Challenge) for by year’s end simply by underestimating the number I was certain to finish, and that’s continued to be the case for five years. But other goals have been more elusive: the fifty titles I listed to be ticked off for the Classics Club challenge ending 2020 remained unachieved, even though I changed some of my choices.

So, Twenty-Twenty-one, how goes it?

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Bookish thoughts

Book-ish, Crickhowell

You may remember that I made a conscious effort to resist acquiring books new to me for as long as possible, bearing in mind the many, many unread titles that I already had teetering on my shelves.

As we’re now a quarter of the way through 2020, you bibliophiles out there may (or, more likely, may not) be wondering how well I’m resisting.

The brief answer is, not bad, as I’ll explain. But I’m now in a quandary.

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Where the Wildean Sayings Are

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde:
Only Dull People Are Brilliant at Breakfast
Penguin Little Black Classics, No 119, 2016

There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

This volume’s selection of sayings was taken from Nothing . . . Except My Genius: the Wit and Wisdom of Oscar Wilde (2010), itself a collection of the man’s pithy witticisms and epigrams. Being only some fifty-odd pages long any review of this mini-treasury will of necessity not be very long but I can’t resist adding a somewhat spurious commentary.

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Book lover’s leap

You may remember that at the start of 2020 I’d decided, in a bid to reduce the number of unread books I’d accumulated, to see how long I would go before forking out hard cash for new.

Now, at the end of February, on this intercalated leap year day, it might be interesting to see how I’m managing. And the answer is…

I haven’t bought any new books in the first two months of this year! That, as far as I’m concerned, is a cause for celebration, because I’m an inveterate browser in bookshops and rummager in secondhand book stores. But …

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