Tuesday 12 December 2017

For Finnegans sake

John Vernon Lord's breathtaking illustrations for Finnegans Wake is a real treat for Joyce lovers

Finnegans Wake By James Joyce, introduced by David Greetham and illustrated by John Vernon Lord The Folio Society (2014), €120 RRP, *****

I'LL just be up-front about this from the get-go: I am not going to pretend that I have actually read this book from cover to cover.

Here's an anecdote I love trotting out: an American acquaintance was once stuck in hospital in London, and had been trying the whole of his life to read Finnegans Wake. His roommate was an Irish fella who my Yank pal asked to read aloud to him from the book – he said hearing it in an Irish accent made it all make sense to him.

So, read it aloud to yourself, maybe; I couldn't organise Michael Fassbender for storytime for myself, more's the pity. The thing is, though, the works of art supplied via the luxurious and breathtaking illustrations of John Vernon Lord actually sneak you into the text in a way that is not possible otherwise.

Sure, you can page along, hoping for the best, hoping that a familiar turn of phrase will catch your eye – or you can seek out the images and allow your eye to rest upon a facing page, and find yourself caught up in the flow.

There's a reason why some stories are illustrated, and it's nothing (or little) to do with being uneducated. I myself am certainly in possession of all manner of degrees and certificates, and Joyce's work is mainly as impenetrable as the Rosetta Stone.

What happens here is, the works of art inspired me to treat the text as a work of art, and even calling it a 'text' seems to set up all manner of impediments to simply experiencing the words as words, and letting go of any need to figure it all out. Or to sign up for a diploma course designed to help you understand it.

This is the ultimate treat for the Joyce heads amongst us, and probably the most impressive gift you could buy for anyone with a deep and abiding interest in Irish literature. (Fassbender, sadly, not included.)

In Love with Death By Satish Modi Birlinn Limited (2014) €15, ****

THIS feels like the kind of book that you come upon when you're wandering through a bookshop, not really looking for anything, but open to something. It is rather slim, and rather petite in dimension, and the cover is glorious William Morris-y print – and may in fact be William Morris as it is copyrighted to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Lest you are made a bit queasy at the title, this is a gentle muse about the reality of mortality; it has the vibe of the kinds of chats inspired by good friends and red wine, but without the hangover.

Deep Magic, Dragons and Talking Mice: How Reading CS Lewis Can Change Your Life By Alister McGrath Hodder & Staughton (2014) €21.50, ***

I WAS so cross when I found out that the beloved books of my childhood, the Chronicle of Narnia, were actually some class of extended metaphor for organised religion. Especially as I had a serious crush on Aslan; finding out he was actually Jesus made me feel slightly icky. McGrath is a Lewis enthusiast who has written A Life of the famous author; here, he imagines eight conversations with Lewis, in a casual, 'let's have lunch' vein.

I read with interest that the Aslan/Jesus axis isn't really that fixed. There is much here to dip into; I didn't find myself caught up in the flow, and sometimes felt that the tone was trying too hard to be chatty.

The Walker's Guide to Outdoor Clues & Signs By Tristan Gooley Sceptre (2014) €24.50, *****

SO perfect, for actual walkers, and for people who like to read about the outdoors – it may be most perfect for the latter, since the meaty, hardboundedness of my review copy doesn't lend itself to being stuck under an oxter during a ramble up Bray Head.

Basically, Gooley lays out all manner of things to observe when out in the natural world, like if you see a crescent moon in the sky, if you draw a line down the horns, the direction of the line points to the south. The author is from the UK; I would love to see an Irish version. Still, an absolute treat for the nature lover.

Fragrance and Wellbeing: Plant Aromatics and Their Influence on the Psyche By Jennifer Peace Rhind Singing Dragon (2013) €20, ****

I AM fascinated with the effects of scents on our sensibilities, and this is an in-depth, passionate and wide-ranging trip down the garden path.

Rhind presents everything from how our noses work to the influence that different classes of fragrance – like woody v citrus, for example – have on our moods and perceptions.

It is intense, like the sorts of scents I appreciate (amber, vetiver) and comprehensive, in the way that certain smells will always evoke feeling and memories.

That price if for the Kindle, though, based on the sterling – kind of pricey if you're not devoted to the subject.

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