Friday, August 19, 2016

Dark Fire by C. J. Sansom

Source of book: Borrowed from the Library

A colleague introduced me to Sansom last year, starting with the first book in the series, Dissolution. I enjoyed that book very much, so I decided to push on to the next.

There is a saying about second efforts in all genres that has a certain amount of truth to it. It isn’t unusual for a second book or album to be a disappointment. If nothing else, the first success was the result of a long effort, while the second is sometimes quickly thrown together to capitalize on the success of the first.

This is definitely not the case with C. J. Sansom. If anything, the second book, Dark Fire, is even better than the first. 

Sansom is an English solicitor, sort of (but not exactly) analogous to a transactional lawyer in our United States’ legal system. The protagonist, Matthew Shardlake shares this profession - but in the time of Henry VIII. Shardlake is a hunchback, somewhat outside of the approval of society. It is this alienation - and the alienation of several of his associates - that makes him who he is.

While the previous book dealt with a murder committed at a monastery which was being secularized as part of the reforms under Thomas Cromwell (who hires Shardlake to investigate), this mystery is set in London itself. There are two parallel mysteries, in fact. The first is a private case that Shardlake has undertaken: defending a young woman accused of murdering her cousin. The second is another commission from Cromwell with much bigger stakes.

Cromwell has been approached by an alchemist who claims to have rediscovered Dark Fire (aka Greek Fire) in an old monastery. A demonstration is made - successfully - and a time is set to demonstrate for the king himself. But the circumstances are odd, and Cromwell seeks to investigate. Before things can go very far, though, the alchemist is brutally murdered, and all traces of the formula and the Dark Fire disappear.

Throughout the long investigation (the book is nearly 500 pages), it becomes increasingly clear that there are a number of major political figures of the era involved, and that the outcome will determine the fate of England itself.

Sansom has clearly researched his books thoroughly. I did a bit of reading on my own to refresh my memory as to the actual history, and Sansom carefully hews to the known facts whenever the plot involves real events. The dark fire mystery may be fictional, but the players and the fall of Cromwell are most certainly not. Likewise, Sansom put in the time to understand the science behind Greek Fire, both the chemistry and the physics of the delivery mechanism. Equally challenging in this case was to keep the knowledge of the characters limited to that of the 16th Century. Avoiding modern anachronisms is a tough task, but Sansom does his work well.

There is also great skill evident in the historical detail. Whether it is the sights, the sounds, the social issues and arguments, the religious sects, and especially the smells of the city, Sansom brings them to life convincingly. I have yet to detect any errors in any of this - and I care about science and history. It is this attention to detail combined with vivid writing that raises this book above the usual crowd of historical fiction or mystery writing.

The one thing that does strike one as slightly out of place is that Shardlake is a rather modern thinker. Let me hasten to add that this is clearly intentional on the author’s part. Shardlake is both a character, and a stand-in for the author and the reader. Probably an average lawyer of the time wouldn’t have thought in feminist terms or with the same eye to both skepticism and human rights. I mean, the Enlightenment was still a century or more away. But this isn’t as much of a stretch as one might think. Shardlake is an admirer of Erasmus, who himself was far ahead of his time. There is also evidence that a number of intellectuals were already thinking and writing things which would eventually lead to the Enlightenment, so it isn’t unthinkable that others thought the same way, but were unwilling to risk life and property to say them out loud.

In addition to the atmosphere, Sansom has also brought realistic writing to the society itself. Prostitution is (in practice) legal and regulated, women face difficult choices if they become pregnant out of wedlock - and these choices are determined in significant part by wealth. The poor live in deplorable conditions and, like in our own day, the wealthy use their influence to avoid regulation of the slums.

There are a few other things that I thought were interesting about this book. First, Shardlake has a new sidekick. Mark, his original one, eloped to Europe under circumstances that demanded he stay there, so he was obviously not going to be back. I was never a big fan of Mark, though. He was okay, but not a great foil for Shardlake.

Replacing Mark is one of Cromwell’s lackeys, Jack Barak, a rogue of dubious history, with a semi-secret Jewish heritage. (Not good in an era when the Jews had been forcibly expelled from England. Ah, the good old days…) Barak was educated as a child, so he is able to assist in the legal matters, but he later joined the underworld, so his real talents are, well, more physical. At the outset, the two of them do not get along, each suspicious of the other (for good reason) and at odds over both social niceties and social issues. Shardlake, after all, has never known true poverty. He may be compassionate, but he doesn’t really get the experience of the side. Barak, on the other hand, loathes the nobility, and has a tendency to forget his manners at the worst time. This all makes for a nice bit of frisson when they are forced to rely on each other to solve the mystery - and indeed to stay alive.

Like Dissolution, Dark Fire explores the key issue of the day in England: whence Church and State? Henry VIII initially made common cause with the reformer Thomas Cromwell in persecuting both Catholics and Non-conformists. Cromwell was disgustingly bloody - a fact that makes Shardlake uncomfortable even as he must submit to Cromwell. This eventually leads Shardlake to become disillusioned with the Reformist cause, and increasingly question his faith. Toward the end of the book, Shardlake has a conversation with Guy, a Catholic moorish apothecary we meet in the first book - a man who is lying low trying to live his life without being persecuted for his differences: black skin, African (and Muslim) origin, and forbidden religion.

‘Why does faith bring out the worst in so many, Guy?’ I blurted out. ‘How is it that it can turn men, papist and reformer both, into brutes?’
‘Man is an angry, savage being. Sometimes faith becomes an excuse for battle. It is no real faith then. In justifying their positions in the name of God, men silence God.’
‘But have the comfortable belief that, having read the Bible and prayed, they cannot be wrong.’
‘I fear so.’

This is a conversation that has played out in my head over the last few years, as I see my own tribe gearing up for jihad against all who believe differently, Christian, Atheist, or Muslim.

Many of the best conversations (in both books) come between Shardlake and Guy. They are both “outsiders,” so to speak, and both have modern sensibilities. And both have a love for truth and goodness that few of their contemporaries - who grasp for political power and wealth at any cost - share. This means that they often are out of step with the times, trying to find their own way by the light they have. As Guy puts it in context with scientific discoveries:

‘I am with those thinkers who consider God means us to uncover the secrets of the earth by the slow, sure path of observation rather than mystical formulae in ancient books.’

Sansom makes it clear that this difference in approach has also led to the problems in religion and statecraft as well. Creed always wins out over human realities in this world of the past. And sometimes too often in our own as well.  

While not too many major characters in each book are female - the first book is set in a monastery and the second involves high intrigue -  Sansom make the most of the characters he does employ. Even the minor female characters are complex and have histories that make their actions understandable. As in any era, some are expressly feminist, as in Lady Honor, who greatly enjoys the freedom that her wealthy widowhood brings. Others seek to gratify their ambition through carefully orchestrating their descendents’ social rise, as Mrs. Wentworth does - at any price.

The author also notes one of the interesting results of the Protestant Reformation. Often forgotten in any discussion of that history is that it was the beginning of the loss of authority for institutions in general. With Martin Luther and the rest, the shocking idea that the average (literate) person could and should read and interpret the Bible without depending on the experts of the priesthood - that man needed no mediator to access God - led eventually to the collapse of church authority. In the setting of these books, the State and the Church are struggling to figure out how to function when non-conformists insist on doing and believing as they wish, without granting political loyalty to a particular faction.

This crumbling of authority led to the Enlightenment, of course, in which interpretation of, well, nearly everything, became divorced from dogma. Instead, science, reason, and investigation became the new method for determining truth. I won’t spend too much time on the effect this had on science, human rights, and so on.

I do want to mention that this idea also led inevitably to feminism. After all, if the average person could interpret the Bible and determine his own actions based on his conscience and intellect, why couldn’t women do the same? This didn’t necessarily go over well with everyone. As one traditionalist lawyer says, “Not just apprentices. Even silly little women fancy they can read the Bible now and understand God’s Word.” The same later brags that he has never read the Bible, and never will.

But of course, once you let women think for themselves, they might want to vote, control their own money, determine their own destiny.

Just a couple more little tidbits that should be noted. First, as I am not a fashion mavin, I had to look up “farthingale.” Thank goodness I never had to wear one. Forget petticoats. How about a wicker frame to carry around with you under your dress? Yikes.

A reminder that today's fashions aren't nearly as silly as those of the past.

I’ll end with this one. Early in the book, Shardlake mentions this annoying case he has, where the opposing party...well, I’ll let him describe the sort of person all of us lawyers know all too well:

[H]e was one of those maddening rogues whom lawyers encounter, who take perverse pleasure in spending time and money on uncertain cases rather than admitting defeat and making proper remedy like civilized men.

Dark Fire can be heartily recommended for anyone who loves a good mystery, a good historical novel, or just history and good writing in general.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Birthday Books 2016

For the past several years, I have posted about the books I got as Christmas presents. This year, since my lovely wife found a number of interesting books for me, I figured I would do a birthday post as well.

  1. Collected Poems of W. H. Auden

I previously borrowed a copy from the library and read a play and some early poems. You can read that review here. I greatly enjoyed Auden, and hoped to get a copy of my own. My wife obviously knows me well, as she found a lovely hardback edition.

2.     Within the Plantation Household: Black & White Women of the Old South by Elizabeth Fox-Genovese

This was a random used book find by my wife. I wasn’t particularly familiar with this work, but did a little research. While some of the conclusions are considered a bit dated, it was an important work in examining (from primary sources) the lives of women in the Antebellum South. In particular, Fox-Genovese is credited with exploding the myth that Southern women leaned abolitionist, instead showing how dependent Southern women were on forced labor to maintain their idealized lifestyles. This promises to be an interesting one.

3. The Private Dining Room by Ogden Nash

I realized when my wife gave me this that it has been far too long since I read any Ogden Nash. His brilliant and wicked sense of humor never gets old. (See, for example, this one with a Christmas theme.) Stand by for a review of this one as my next poetry selection.

4. 100 Classic Hikes in Oregon and Eastern Oregon

These are from my in-laws, who got them for me after learning that the kids and I plan to visit eastern Oregon next August, to see (we hope) the solar eclipse. As with the National Parks books they got me a couple of years ago, these look fantastic, with plenty of ideas that I will, no doubt, use.

As usual, check back from time to time, as I plan to link the reviews as a read them.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Winter Words by Thomas Hardy

Source of book: I own this

I’ve had kind of mixed feelings about Hardy ever since I read Jude the Obscure a decade or so ago. Yeah, I know, perhaps not the best place to start, but I owned it already, and it was controversial, so why not jump in and see? Well, the controversy part was easy enough, with its frank (for its time) sexuality and non-conventional family. Likewise, it wasn’t hard to see both the digs at academia (inaccessible to those lacking wealth or status) and the church (more concerned with enforcing sexual mores than with true morality.) In fact, both of these ideas seem every bit as relevant today as then. After all, our own modern time sees higher education becoming ever more expensive, and the most politically powerful church organizations calling for policies that would harm those who break the sexual rules. (Jude’s family starving because he couldn’t get work or housing? That sure sounds relevant these days.)

No, what actually bothered me most about Jude the Obscure was that it is the most misogynistic book I recall reading. I don’t mean “mere” sexism, but bitter, bitter hatred of women.

It turns out that there is a reason for this.

Hardy’s mother - like the father of Elizabeth Barrett Browning - made clear to her children that they were never to marry, but were to remain as “bachelor siblings” and live together for life. When Hardy did marry Emma Lavinia Gifford at age 30, he was made to know his mother’s displeasure.

The marriage with Emma started off happy, but became increasingly estranged. The last 20 years of her life, they lived on separate floors of their house, and rarely saw each other. It isn’t clear entirely what happened. The two of them made sure their correspondence was destroyed, and much of what survived of Emma’s was later burned by Thomas after her death. There are some hints, however. Hardy was a difficult man, to say the least. Emotional and high strung, he seems to have taken Emma for granted. On her part, she seems to have married for more platonic reasons, and resented her life from early on. They never had children, which may have contributed as well. Further, Hardy himself appears to have suffered from bouts of depression, and Emma is believed to have had mental health issues of her own.

Whatever the underlying causes, it appears that, like Sue in Jude, Emma retreated into religion when she hit middle age, and cut Hardy off from sexual contact. Needless to say, Hardy’s tendency to put the autobiographical details of his failing marriage into his novels didn’t exactly thrill Emma.

Odd to say, after her death, Hardy seems to have felt terrible about it all, and tried to deify her in his later poems.

All this to say that Hardy’s experiences in a failed marriage led him to believe that women, particularly middle-aged women, were out to take advantage of men, and wield their sexuality as a weapon.

I did later read Under the Greenwood Tree, which is from the earlier, more optimistic period of his works. But I’m not sure I ever recovered from the trauma of Jude.

So, with that lengthy introduction, let me proceed. 



Winter Words is Hardy’s last collection of poetry. They were generally written in the 1920s, after the horror that was World War I changed England forever. The last of the collection was dictated on his deathbed - his intention to release the collection on his next birthday had failed. Considering he started putting it together at age 87, he didn’t do too badly.

Hardy introduces the collection by noting that the critics considered his last one to be too pessimistic and gloomy. With his characteristic wit, he quips, “However, I did not suppose that the licensed tasters had wilfully misrepresented the book, and said nothing, knowing well that they could not have read it.”

The collection starts with a peculiar poem, “The New Dawn’s Business,” which expresses the feeling that Hardy has been ready to die for some time, but life keeps on.

The New Dawn’s Business
What are you doing outside my walls,
O Dawn of another day?
I have not called you over the edge
Of the heathy ledge,
So why do you come this way,
With your furtive footstep without sound here,
And your face so deedily gray?
‘I show a light for killing the man
Who lives not far from you,
And for bringing to birth the lady’s child,
Nigh domiciled,
And for earthing a corpse or two,
And for several other such odd jobs round here
That Time to-day must do.
‘But you he leaves alone (although,
As you have often said,
You are always ready to pay the debt
You don’t forget
You owe for board and bed):
The truth is, when men willing are found here
He takes those loth instead.’

Perhaps pessimistic. Perhaps just melancholy. Hardy has other moods, however. I liked this one:

Concerning His Old Home
I wish to see it never –
That dismal place
With cracks in its floor –
I would forget it ever!
To see it once, that sad
And memoried place –
Yes, just once more –
I should be faintly glad!
To see it often again –
That friendly place
With its green low door –
I’m willing anywhen!
I’ll haunt it night and day –
That loveable place,
With its flowers’ rich store
That drives regret away!

Hardy’s poems are quite traditional in meter and form, and the level of craft is apparent. In the above, the internal lines of each stanza rhyme with each other throughout the entire poem, which I found to be an interesting way to tie the form together.

The craft is evident in many of the pictures Hardy paints as well. The first stanza of this one is memorable: the picture of the sky as a pot with a slightly askew lid.


A clamminess hangs over all like a clout,
The fields are a water-colour washed out,
The sky at its rim leaves a chink of light,
Like the lid of a pot that will not close tight.

She is away by the groaning sea,
Strained at the heart, and waiting for me:
Between us our foe from a hid retreat
Is watching, to wither us if we meet. . . .

But it matters little, however we fare—
Whether we meet, or I get not there;
The sky will look the same thereupon,
And the wind and the sea go groaning on.

Another example of melancholy, rather than true pessimism.

One of the themes that runs through this collection is the loss of the naivete of the past. For Hardy, this means the loss of his religious beliefs, the loss of faith in mankind, and the devastation of the passage of time. Whether you agree with his assessment or not, these are some of the best poems in the collection. Here are a few that stood out.

I won’t quote all of “Drinking Song,” which recounts the gradual loss (as Hardy sees it) of the “God in the Gaps” of ancient times. The great thoughts of the past lose their mystery as science explains them. I don’t agree with Hardy on the philosophical point, perhaps because I never liked the God in the Gaps argument in the first place. But the poem itself has a humor about it. Sure, we have to adapt as we discover, but no need to despair. Thus, at the end, Hardy concludes that even without the great thoughts of the past, we can still do good in the world. The best stanza in my opinion is the one on Einstein. (Recall that Relativity was a new concept when the poem was written…)

And now comes Einstein with a notion —
Not yet quite clear
To many here —
That's there's no time, no space, no motion,
Nor rathe nor late,
Nor square nor straight,
But just a sort of bending-ocean.


Fill full your cups: feel no distress;
'Tis only one great thought the less!

This loss of faith seems to be particularly lacerating to Hardy around Christmas. There are two poems with this theme, the first of which is one of Hardy’s better known late poems.

Yuletide in a Younger World

We believed in highdays then,
And could glimpse at night
On Christmas Eve
Imminent oncomings of radiant revel—
Doings of delight:—
Now we have no such sight.

We had eyes for phantoms then,
And at bridge or stile
On Christmas Eve
Clear beheld those countless ones who had crossed it
Cross again in file:—
Such has ceased longwhile!

We liked divination then,
And, as they homeward wound
On Christmas Eve,
We could read men's dreams within them spinning
Even as wheels spin round:—
Now we are blinker-bound.

We heard still small voices then,
And, in the dim serene
Of Christmas Eve,
Caught the far-time tones of fire-filled prophets
Long on earth unseen. . . .
—Can such ever have been?

Should I live as long as Hardy, I truly hope I never lose the ability to see the wonder. On the other hand, I suppose one can see why Hardy felt that way. World War I caused so many to recoil in horror at the hatred that mankind has for mankind. And I share Hardy’s frustration that all the centuries of Christian faith seem to have done little to nothing to prevent it.

Christmas: 1924

'Peace upon earth!' was said. We sing it,
And pay a million priests to bring it.
After two thousand years of mass
We've got as far as poison-gas.

A bitter little epitaph, although it misses the point that mankind has yet to find any creed, sacred or secular, that appears to be able to overpower the tribalist instinct.

Turning from that wretched taste, here is one that shows more good humor: his lament by an old newspaper. (Had he only seen the Digital Age…)

The Aged Newspaper Soliloquizes

Yes; yes; I am old. In me appears
The history of a hundred years;
Empires’, kings’, captives’, births and deaths,
Strange faiths, and fleeting shibboleths.
- Tragedy, comedy, throngs on my page
Beyond all mummed on any stage:
Cold hearts beat hot, hot hearts beat cold,
And I beat on. Yes; yes; I am old.

Two things I love about this one. The use of semicolons to slow the repeat of “yes.” It’s brilliant, and I’m not saying that just because I love semicolons. The other thing I adore is “fleeting shibboleths.” Every age has them, the litmus tests, the signs of belonging to a tribe - and the means of excluding outsiders. Just a great picture.

Another poem also uses tragedy and comedy in a creative way. This may be my favorite of the collection.

He Did Not Know Me
(Woman's Sorrow Song)

He said: " I do not know you;
You are not she who came
And made my heart grow tame?"
I laughed: " The same!"

Still said he: " I don't know you."
" But I am your Love!" laughed I:
" Yours — faithful ever — till I die,
And pulseless lie!"

Yet he said: " I don't know you."
Freakful, I went away,
And met pale Time, with " Pray,
What means his Nay?"

Said Time: " He does not know you
In your mask of Comedy."
" But," said I, " that I have chosen to be:
Tragedy he."

" True; hence he did not know you."
" But him I could recognize?"
" Yea. Tragedy is true guise,
Comedy lies."

Two contrasting poems also caught my eye on the way that age steals beauty. In the first, the narrator never catches the object of his love, but wonders if she would have faded to him. (Perhaps like Emma.)

A Countenance

Her laugh was not in the middle of her face quite,
As a gay laugh springs,
It was plain she was anxious about some things
I could not trace quite.
Her curls were like fir-cones — piled up, brown —
Or rather like tight-tied sheaves:
It seemed they could never be taken down. . . .

And her lips were too full, some might say:
I did not think so. Anyway,
The shadow her lower one would cast
Was green in hue whenever she passed
Bright sun on midsummer leaves.
Alas, I knew not much of her,
And lost all sight and touch of her!

If otherwise, should I have minded
The shy laugh not in the middle of her mouth quite,
And would my kisses have died of drouth quite
As love became unblinded?

But not for everyone does love lose its luster.

Faithful Wilson

" I say she's handsome, by all laws
Of beauty, if wife ever was!"
Wilson insists thus, though each day
The years fret Fanny towards decay.

" She was once beauteous as a jewel,"
Hint friends; " but Time, of course, is cruel."
Still Wilson does not quite feel how,
Once fair, she can be different now.

Anyone who has known a couple who has had true love for many years knows this to be true.

There are a lot of poems in this collection - over a hundred pages worth - and they span many other moods, genres, and forms. Hardy may or may not be your taste, but I found his poems to be better than I expected, with many having a psychological and philosophical depth that went well with the superb craftsmanship.

I’ll end with this one, another favorite, that might be seen as an argument between an extrovert and an introvert.

A Private Man on Public Men

When my contemporaries were driving
Their coach through Life with strain and striving,
And raking riches into heaps,
And ably pleading in the Courts
With smart rejoinders and retorts,
Or where the Senate nightly keeps
Its vigils, till their fames were fanned
By rumour's tongue throughout the land,
I lived in quiet, screened, unknown,
Pondering upon some stick or stone,
Or news of some rare book or bird
Latterly bought, or seen, or heard,
Not wishing ever to set eyes on
The surging crowd beyond the horizon,
Tasting years of moderate gladness
Mellowed by sundry days of sadness,
Shut from the noise of the world without,
Hearing but dimly its rush and rout,
Unenvying those amid its roar,
Little endowed, not wanting more.