Monday, 29 October 2012

The Anglo-Saxons

BBC Radio 3 have started broadcasting a new series of 15-minute essays on the Anglo-Saxons, including such key figures as St Cuthbert, St Augustine, and Hild of Whitby.

You can read an introductory essay here and can download the series from iTunes and elsewhere.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Mo Yan and the Nobel Prize

There might well be room for debate about this year's recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize but I reckon Mo Yan fully deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Ever since the death of Shen Congwen, China has lacked a serious contender for the prize, mainly because Chinese literature had such a desperate time between 1949 and the late 1970s. During the Cultural Revolution a mere 12 novels were published per year on average but, even before then, Chinese fiction suffered terribly. However, when China began to open up in the late '70s and early '80s, there was also a renaissance of Chinese writing and the greatest author to have emerged at that time was Mo Yan.

(And no, I haven't forgotten Gao Xingjian, who won the Nobel Prize in 2000. I suspect it came as as much of a surprise to him as to followers of Chinese literature both inside and out of the country.)

Arguably Mo Yan's greatest novel was one of his first, Red Sorghum, a great war novel which, like J.G. Ballard's Empire of the Sun, redefines the very way in which we see the Second World War. For a start it reminds us that there was more to the war than what happened in Europe between 1939 and 1945. More significantly, it also challenged Maoist versions of Chinese history, which is why it was originally published by the Liberation Army Publishing House with some rather significant cuts.

I haven't got space here to give a full book review but it's certainly worth a read, though you'd have to tread carefully before teaching it to school children.

Mo Yan often raises deals with topics which are of great interest to Catholics even if the way in which he deals with such topics is often far from Catholic. For example, from as early as his 1986 short story, 'Abandoned Child', through to later works such as the often savagely surreal The Republic of Wine and Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out (perhaps the most readable of his later works), he examines the place of children in modern China, showing a specific interest in children, child abandonment, and adoption.

Another common approach in his work is the use of an unconventional family history to challenge conventional Chinese political history. Sadly, he has not always escaped religious prejudice in his attempt to challenge political prejudices. In Big Breasts and Wide Hips, for example, one of the main characters develops a bizarre breast fixation that stunts his emotional growth into adulthood partly because he is the illegitimate son of a cowardly Christian (and possibly Catholic) missionary priest.

Mo Yan's work is challenging in many ways but he's clearly a highly significant author from a country which is going to become culturally as well as politically and economically more important as the century progresses. We in the West need to engage with works like his.

So let's finish, slightly flippantly, with a view from China: it's a real sign of the times when the People's Daily seems to be more interested in how much money Mo Yan is going to make from winning the prize than in his cultural value.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Lord Alton on Tolkien

I have just come across a talk given by Lord Alton last year on Tolkien's faith, life and work. It's only a basic introduction but basic introductions are sometimes what is needed.

What's particularly useful is that David Alton offers not only the transcript of his talk but also the accompanying PowerPoint presentation and an audio recording.

Monday, 22 October 2012


The Theos website has an interesting review of Francis Spufford's latest book. I greatly enjoyed The Child that Books Built but was a little surprised to see the subject matter of Spufford's latest book.

I can't say that the title greatly inspires me - the fact that Christianity still makes emotional sense is neither surprising nor a great basis for belief in my view - but the book certainly sounds intriguing and worth a read even so.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Hemingway's 47 Endings

A new edition of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms has just been published. What makes this particular edition a must-have for admirers of Hemingway's work is the inclusion of the 47 alternative endings the author came up with. I, for one, find it tremendously reassuring that a great author like Hemingway should have had so much difficulty (and taken so much care) over his novel's final words.

To hear some of these other endings and an interview with Seán Hemingway, the author's grandson, click here.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Newman, Hopkins, the Saints and Literature

It has been quite a fortnight for saints with a literary connection.

Today is the Memorial of Blessed John Henry Newman, the only novelist (I think) to have been recognised as a saint (see hereherehere and here for my earlier thoughts on Newman). Not that his work as a novelist (any more than St Thomas More's work as a writer) was what led to him being beatified.

Newman was an inspirational figure in all sorts of ways even during his own lifetime as I was reminded when I was in the Church of St Aloysius Gonzaga in Oxford this weekend, because not only did Newman preach there but it was also where Gerard Manley Hopkins, who was received into the Church by Newman, was a curate (see also here).

In recent days we have remembered St Francis of Assisi (4th October) about whom the novelist Julien Green (among many others) has written, Blessed Columba Marmion (3rd October) whose Christ in His Mysteries (available here for free in French and here for a price in English translation) inspired Messiaen's Vingt regards sur l'enfant Jesus, and the Holy Guardian Angels (2nd October), whom I mentioned the other day. And that's without even starting on those great writers: St Therese of the Child Jesus and St Jerome.

I should also mention Henry Garnett's The Blood Red Crescent and the Battle of Lepanto in connection with the Memorial of Our Lady of the Rosary last Sunday.

That should keep us going for a while.

Monday, 8 October 2012

Fr Tim Finigan on Evelyn Waugh's 'Vile Bodies'

As so often, Fr Tim Finigan has an amusing and informative post on his blog, this time on Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies.

This Week's Catholic Herald

This week's Catholic Herald is definitely worth getting hold of. There is a fascinating interview with Walter Hooper, C.S. Lewis's personal assistant in the last months of the writer's life, and a good article on Jack Kerouac's rather tortured Catholicism.

However, that's not all. There's a great article by Edward Norman on why he has converted to Catholicism and an interesting series of articles on the documents of Vatican II.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Good to Read

One website that's good to read is, a parent's guide to children's books. Here is part of what the site's creator says about his approach:

Why another site about children's books? One answer to this is easy: you can't have too much of a good thing. Why have more than one sweet shop on the High Street? They all sell much the same things at much the same price, but perhaps you find the people in this one easier, or the display in that one more appealing. There are many websites that give information about children's books, and there are many people with different tastes in websites.

On another level, this website offers a slightly different approach from the majority: it doesn't assume that a well-structured book with a good spread of vocabulary and a certain depth of subject matter is unquestionably a book any child should read. At we believe that children and young people can benefit from some guidance as to their reading. This may mean recommending a book especially or discouraging a certain book or author on account of the poverty of style or unsuitability of the subject matter. Especially when a series is popular or often recommended, it might mean going over the subjects presented in the book with your child to make sure the youngster has benefitted from it and not been harmed.

To read the whole page (and it's a page worth reading), click here.

All this sounds very good but the test is what happens in practice. A useful test case might be what makes of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy so here's the link.

That seems to me to be a very fair-minded, balanced and honest appraisal from a thoughtful Catholic so I'd heartily recommend the rest of the website.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

La Porte des Anges

I was going to save this post for a little while but given that Saturday was the Feast Day of Saints Michael, Gabriel and Raphael, Archangels, yesterday was the Feast Day of St Therese of the Child Jesus, and today is the Feast Day of the Holy Guardian Angels, it seemed appropriate to post it now.

La Porte des Anges is a wonderful French language series of fantasy novels for children of 12 upwards. Le Complot d'Ephese starts with a 15 year old boy, Jean-Baptiste, unxpectedly witnessing a fight between the Archangel Michael and a demon in his back garden. They are fighting over a boy (who turns out to be Eutychus, the boy who fell asleep and out of the window while listening to St Paul) and, when interrupted by Jean-Baptiste, drop an old nail, which turns out to be not only one of the nails that held Jesus to the cross but a key to la porte des anges.   

It's action-packed, fast moving, often funny, and jam packed with angels; I'll post a full review when I've got to the end.

What is fascinating is that this sort of book should exist at all. The author draws upon a range of sources to develop his Catholic fantasy novels and has clearly made a big impact in France. These books, as one reviewer on puts it, are "mieux qu'Harry Potter". And the first volume is also now available as a graphic novel. Let's hope for an English translation before too long.

But what about St Therese? Let's just say that Michael Dor is not the author's real name and that you can discover more about his background from this site

Monday, 1 October 2012

An Unusual Patron Saint of Lost Causes

A few days ago it was the Hail Mary pass, now it's "Seve Ballesteros, the patron saint of lost causes". At least that's what Iain Carter, the BBC's Golf Correspondent reckons

So what's going on here? Sport seems to be bringing out the religious (or pseudo-religious) in people this year in all sorts of different ways. I suspect calling Seve the patron saint of lost causes is just a throwaway comment but it's tempting to see it as something more: a residual belief in the efficacy of praying to saints or, even more interestingly, a new influence to Britain coming from Catholic countries like Spain. 

And it's not just golf. Now that so many footballers cross themselves when coming onto the pitch it's almost as if Henry VIII never broke with England's thousand-year Catholic past. Almost.