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Book Reviews and More

In this blog I look at both old and new books, at fiction and non-fiction, at literature written for adults and for children. I write about my books and the ideas that inspired them; I write about the books of others and the ideas that inspired them; I have a reading list to work through but often get sidetracked by new discoveries.

Quotation of the Day

“Considered etymologically, [the word ‘medieval’] assumes that we have to deal with a threefold division of time, a succession of three periods in terms of Hegelian dialectic. Viewed thus, the ‘Middle Ages’ are a transition from antiquity to modern times; but if by that phrase we mean that they form a chronological link between the two, we convey exactly nothing. ‘What age is not the link between what goes before and that which follows? Every age is a “middle age,” and we ourselves shall one day be regarded as medieval by posterity.’ If, on the other hand, we mean to describe an era of preparation, of quest, and of elaboration, which is to perfect the social order, then, it is to be feared that we are still farther from the truth; for the present scene affords scant evidence of progress, in the moral or the social sphere.”

H Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade, p.6

Quotation of the Day

“The expression ‘Middle Ages,’ when used to designate the period 1050-1350 and the following century, is open to objection. The phrase itself and the notion it is intended to convey were alike unknown to the men of that epoch. Unconscious of any break in continuity between themselves and their predecessors of the ancient world, they had no sense of living, so to speak, in an historical parenthesis. No such idea would ever have occurred to them; their existence was too full to admit the mournful prospect of a transitory age. Their sense of kinship with and loyalty to the past was infinitely stronger than that of the present generation, whose faith is pinned upon the years to come, and who glibly assume that because a thing belongs to the future it is more valuable than its present counterpart. In the ‘Middle Ages’ the opposite was true: every legacy of the past was viewed with respect and received as a model; for until the fourteenth century most Europeans considered themselves lineal heirs to all that was best in ancient civilization.”

H Daniel-Rops, Cathedral and Crusade (tr. John Warrington), pp.4-5

Maximilian Kolbe: The Saint of Auschwitz

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The story of St Maximilian Kolbe’s extraordinary martyrdom in Auschwitz is well known. Ten prisoners were chosen for execution at random because a prisoner had escaped. As one of the men was called out of line, he broke down and pleaded with the guards not to take him because he had a wife and two children back home. Hearing these words, Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish Franciscan, stepped forward and offered to take his place. Amazingly, the guards allowed him to do so.Continue reading “Maximilian Kolbe: The Saint of Auschwitz”

The Fossil Girl and Earth’s Deep History

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Catherine Brighton’s The Fossil Girl: Mary Anning’s Dinosaur Discovery is in many ways a lovely book. The pictures are glorious and the story of the young Mary discovering the first complete Ichthyosaur is fascinating. However, a couple of minor moments mar the whole. The first is a page showing Mary having a tower constructed so she can chip out the enormous fossil she has found in Lyme Regis:Continue reading “The Fossil Girl and Earth’s Deep History”

What is the purpose of education?

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In the preface to his great book, The End of Education: Redefining the Value of School, Neil Postman pointed out that in “in tracking what people have to say about schooling, I notice that most of the conversation is about means, rarely about ends. Should we privatize our schools? Should we have national standards of assessment? How should we use computers? What use can we make of television? How shall we teach reading? And so on. Some of these questions are interesting and some are not. But what they have in common is that they evade the issue of what schools are for. It is as if we are a nation of technicians, consumed by our expertise in how something should be done, afraid or incapable of thinking about why.”Continue reading “What is the purpose of education?”

St Bede the Venerable’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’

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In 1899 an English historian was declared a doctor of the Church. A man who had never had political influence or held high office in the Church was now officially one of the Church’s great teachers. His name was Bede, or the Venerable Bede as he was called even in his own lifetime.

Why was Bede so highly regarded? What difference did he make to the culture in which he lived? And what can this Anglo-Saxon monk and historian teach us today? Continue reading “St Bede the Venerable’s ‘Ecclesiastical History of the English People’”

Jérôme Ferrari’s ‘The Sermon on the Fall of Rome’

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Jérôme Ferrari’s novel, which won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2012, opens with a quotation from one of St. Augustine’s sermons: “Are you surprised that the end of the world is upon us? You might rather be surprised that the world has grown so old.”

In a novel about a village bar, this opening is, at first sight, rather surprising. What it suggests is that The Sermon on the Fall of Rome has big ambitions. On the surface, this is a novel about a struggling Corsican bar and two young students who take it on with ultimately disastrous consequences, but there is much more to it than that: the tragedies that cluster around the enterprise open out into a wider meditation on the world.Continue reading “Jérôme Ferrari’s ‘The Sermon on the Fall of Rome’”

The Writing Revolution

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It can be a dispiriting experience reading the first drafts of students’ personal statements – it can also be dispiriting to read the fifteenth draft but that’s another matter – because many students simply don’t write very well. Their grammar is creaky, their vocabulary is limited, and their paragraphing is all over the place.Continue reading “The Writing Revolution”

Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ – a surprising discovery

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Browsing in a secondhand bookshop yesterday, I found a lovely first edition of Evelyn Waugh’s Officers and Gentlemen, the second book in his Sword of Honour trilogy. Except, to my great surprise, I discovered that the trilogy might never have been written:Continue reading “Evelyn Waugh’s ‘Officers and Gentlemen’ – a surprising discovery”

A Sense of Place

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Even though I was firmly rooted in one place as a child, I struggle to explain where I am from. I was born on the very edge of Frindsbury in Kent, but Frindsbury had been swallowed up by Strood and Strood had been swallowed by Rochester, which was itself merely one of the Medway Towns.  It was as baffling as the relationship of England to Britain to the United Kingdom to Europe, a relationship no Venn Diagram could ever adequately capture.Continue reading “A Sense of Place”

Tim Gautreaux, ‘Waiting for the Evening News’

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Tim Gautreaux is an author who deserves to be better known. The author of three novels, he has also written beautifully crafted short stories about the Deep South, as the subtitle of Waiting for the Evening News describes it, which immediately puts us in mind of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy. Continue reading “Tim Gautreaux, ‘Waiting for the Evening News’”