Thursday, December 31, 2015

A Morbid Taste For Bones by Ellis Peters

Source of Book: I own this.

I’ve been meaning to read some Ellis Peters for some time, and finally got around to doing so.

In some ways, this is an interesting contrast to Dissolution by C. J. Sansom, which also involves monks and murder. While Dissolution is set in the days of Henry VIII, and the dismantling of the monasteries in the wake of the English Reformation, this book is set during the heyday of the English monasteries, the 12th Century.

Ellis Peters is the nom de plume of Edith Pargeter, who also wrote under her own name. This book is the first of her most famous works, the Cadfael Chronicles, written between 1977 and 1995, when the author was in her 60s, 70s, and 80s.

Many in the series are based in part on historical events, although obviously the connection is tenuous, given the limited records from that time. In this book, the relocation of the bones of Saint Winifred from a graveyard in Wales to the Shrewsbury Abbey. (You can read the story of Saint Winifred here if you like.

 St. Winifred. 1934 Stained Glass at Saint Non’s Chapel.

I grew up as a Protestant, and my ancestors were Mennonites, so the whole saint thing was not at all part of my upbringing. Thus, I had no idea that Saint Winifred was apparently a significant character, making an appearance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and in a fragmentary poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins. Her shrine in Wales was popular, but the one at Shrewsbury was legendary until its destruction in the Dissolution under Henry VIII. (Weird how stuff connects in my reading sometimes.)

In Peters’ story, the current prior seeks to add to the prestige of the abbey - and to his own glory and ambition - by obtaining a relic for the monastery. Prior Robert appears to be based on a real person, who eventually realizes his ambition to become abbot of Shrewsbury. 

The remaining portion of the original Abbey at Shrewsbury

In order to obtain these bones, a group of monks travels to Gwytherin, Wales, to secure the relics. They are met with some resistance from the locals, who aren’t too keen on letting the English - or Normans in particular - obtain their local saint. Then, the chief objector, a local squire, turns up dead. Brother Cadfael, who is Welsh himself, sets himself to solving the mystery.

Cadfael is an interesting character. He has entered the priesthood late in life. (Well, at around age 40, which was pretty darn late in those days.) He once fought in the Crusades, and has been around the block in more ways than one. He has a knowledge of the medicine - herbology - of the time, and is the monastery’s gardener. It is also strongly implied that he has had quite a number of flings with women, some more serious than others, in his younger and wilder past. Cadfael is also the voice of modernity into a Medieval world. He has a bit of a feminist streak, and a leaning toward a future understanding of social egalitarianism and human rights. Which makes him quite subversive of the established social order. Although Peters does make sure to keep the romances which occur strictly within class lines. This is definitely more realistic in that sense, I suppose, as a true cross-class romance (as opposed to the more usual predatory sexual relationship) would have been rare indeed.

Cadfael also falls into the long tradition of English mysteries, wherein the sleuth relies on a combination of psychological insight and careful attention to the details. One might see an echo of Father Brown (written by G. K. Chesterton) who fell later in time, although he was written nearly a century earlier.

This was an enjoyable mystery, with good plotting, and careful and consistent clues. I intend to read the rest of the series as well.

I should mention one really good line. One of the Welsh characters opined that a priest could not be the murderer because “Holy men do not murder.”

Cadfael responds as follows:

[T]here are as holy persons outside orders as ever there are in, and not to trifle with truth, as good men outside of the Christian church as most I’ve met within it. In the Holy Land I’ve known Saracens I’d trust before the common run of the crusaders, men honorable, generous and courteous, who would have scorned to haggle and jostle for place and trade, as some of our allies did. Meet every man as you find him, for we’re all made the same under habit or robe or rags. Some better than others, and some better cared for, but on the same pattern all.

I cannot agree more.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas Books 2015

For three of the four years since I started this blog, I have made a short post about the books I received as gifts for Christmas. In addition to being fun, it also serves as a teaser for the reviews to be written in the upcoming year.

Here are the past editions:

Here are the ones I received this year:

  1. Have His Carcase by Dorothy Sayers

A gift from my wife. We discovered that we do not own this installment in the Lord Peter Wimsey series, and I have read the previous books already. I enjoyed Sayers starting with a few short works I read in high school, but did not discover Lord Peter until a Law School classmate lent me Murder Must Advertise during a conference. I expect this one will be enjoyable as well.

    2. The Essential Neruda (Mark Eisner, editor)

A gift from my brother-in-law, who has a knack for finding interesting books. I have previously read a Neruda collection, borrowed from the library. (Review here.) I wasn’t particularly impressed with the translator in that case, but enjoyed the poetry. (I wish I had learned Spanish…) In that light, this book is interesting because it features eight different translators (including Eisner), each of whom translate a number of poems. The original Spanish is included, so I can at least fumble through them phonetically. I am glad to have a Neruda collection of my own to add to my poetry shelves.

Another gift from my brother-in-law. This one looks intriguing as well, as it is an insider biography of Jack Kerouac written by Johnson, who was part of the Beat circle in the late 1950s, and had a short relationship with Kerouac. This means I will have to actually read some Kerouac, as I have been meaning to for a while.

    4. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human by Harold Bloom

From my wife. A perusal of the cover indicates that this book analyzes the various plays in light of Bloom’s theory that the concept of the dynamic character, who is capable of growth and change, originated in the form we know it in Shakespeare’s plays. This large volume should be a good addition to my Shakespeare reference collection, alongside Asimov's Shakespeare, and Dover’s Shakespeare Lexicon.

5. Bad Astronomy by Philip Plait

I really enjoyed reading Plait’s other book, Death From the Skies!, (reviewed here) and have enjoyed his astronomy blog. I also highly recommend his YouTube series, Crash Course Astronomy. This book debunks a number of astronomy-related myths. Should be fun.

    6. The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul by Douglas Adams

I discovered the Hitchhikers’ Guide series in my teens, and have loved Adams ever since. I reviewed his fascinating non-fiction book on endangered species, Last Chance to See here. Fortunately, a number of friends and relations are also fans, or nobody would get my weird references to the End of the Universe, Infinite Improbability, or depressed robots. I will admit that a high point of my legal career was when I got a chuckle from a judge with a reference to a “Someone Else’s Problem Field.” I have not yet read any of the Dirk Gently books, so this one should be fun.

    7. Poems and Sketches by E. B. White

Whether you know White from Charlotte’s Web, Stuart Little, The Trumpet of the Swan, or for his classic work, Elements of Style with William Strunk Jr., his works are true classics in the best sense of the word. I read the stories over and over as a kid, and got my own copy of Strunk & White as soon as I got my own place. Still one of the best books on writing ever. I’ll admit I am not familiar at all with the poems, so I have no idea if he was any good. The essays have a solid reputation, in any case. I’m looking forward to reading this one as well. 

Check back later to see what I thought of these after reading them. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Christmas Poems 2015

It’s been quite a while since I did a topical poetry post, but I decided to do this one after my pastor quoted Love Came Down at Christmas, by one of my earliest poetic loves, Christina Rossetti. I’ve finally finished the Christmas gigs, and have a quiet evening by myself while my wife tends the sick at the hospital, so why not look up some interesting Christmas poems in honor of the season. 

I’ll start off with Christina Rossetti, who captured my youthful heart when I was still a child. While I eventually came to consider Robert Frost and Emily Dickinson to be my very favorite poets; and even after discovering other favorites in my 30s, such as Ranier Maria Rilke, Rabindranath Tagore, and Seamus Heaney, I still find that Rossetti speaks to me. Her devotional poems often sound simple, but on further reflection, they reveal a depth of passion and devotion which resonates with those of us who find faith to anything but simple.

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

Rossetti always shows tremendous mastery of form, so this poem is intriguing. Throughout, she uses a 3-4-3-4 pattern, with a feminine ending on the odd numbered lines. So, one could almost say she was approaching a standard four foot line in each case, but with a half of a foot missing in the odd numbered lines.

The theme, though, is even more intriguing. What is to be our sign as Christians? “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Rossetti’s final stanza is a more poetic way of stating this. A lovely and profound poem.

Now, to switch gears entirely, there is Ogden Nash. Known today largely for his humorous rhymed couplets (“two-liners”?), his style was, shall we say, a bit tongue in cheek. This poem about the unpleasant child who refused to believe in Santa - and behaved likewise as if there was to be no consequences - ends with one my favorite comeuppances.

The Boy Who Laughed At Santa Claus

In Baltimore there lived a boy.
He wasn't anybody's joy.
Although his name was Jabez Dawes,
His character was full of flaws.

In school he never led his classes,
He hid old ladies' reading glasses,
His mouth was open when he chewed,
And elbows to the table glued.
He stole the milk of hungry kittens,
And walked through doors marked NO ADMITTANCE.
He said he acted thus because
There wasn't any Santa Claus.

Another trick that tickled Jabez
Was crying 'Boo' at little babies.
He brushed his teeth, they said in town,
Sideways instead of up and down.
Yet people pardoned every sin,
And viewed his antics with a grin,
Till they were told by Jabez Dawes,
'There isn't any Santa Claus!'

Deploring how he did behave,
His parents swiftly sought their grave.
They hurried through the portals pearly,
And Jabez left the funeral early.

Like whooping cough, from child to child,
He sped to spread the rumor wild:
'Sure as my name is Jabez Dawes
There isn't any Santa Claus!'
Slunk like a weasel of a marten
Through nursery and kindergarten,
Whispering low to every tot,
'There isn't any, no there's not!'

The children wept all Christmas eve
And Jabez chortled up his sleeve.
No infant dared hang up his stocking
For fear of Jabez' ribald mocking.

He sprawled on his untidy bed,
Fresh malice dancing in his head,
When presently with scalp-a-tingling,
Jabez heard a distant jingling;
He heard the crunch of sleigh and hoof
Crisply alighting on the roof.
What good to rise and bar the door?
A shower of soot was on the floor.

What was beheld by Jabez Dawes?
The fireplace full of Santa Claus!
Then Jabez fell upon his knees
With cries of 'Don't,' and 'Pretty Please.'
He howled, 'I don't know where you read it,
But anyhow, I never said it!'
'Jabez' replied the angry saint,
'It isn't I, it's you that ain't.
Although there is a Santa Claus,
There isn't any Jabez Dawes!'

Said Jabez then with impudent vim,
'Oh, yes there is, and I am him!
Your magic don't scare me, it doesn't'
And suddenly he found he wasn't!
From grimy feet to grimy locks,
Jabez became a Jack-in-the-box,
An ugly toy with springs unsprung,
Forever sticking out his tongue.

The neighbors heard his mournful squeal;
They searched for him, but not with zeal.
No trace was found of Jabez Dawes,
Which led to thunderous applause,
And people drank a loving cup
And went and hung their stockings up.

All you who sneer at Santa Claus,
Beware the fate of Jabez Dawes,
The saucy boy who mocked the saint.
Donner and Blitzen licked off his paint.

Yup, I’m a bit irreverent myself, I’m afraid, and find Nash delicious.

If Ogden Nash had his tongue surgically grafted inside his cheek, Gerard Manley Hopkins instead embodies the tradition of introspection and self-doubt. I love his poetry because of its often lacerating honesty - and also for its unusual use of rhythm and language. Hopkins seems torn between his calling as a Jesuit and his other calling as a poet. (There is some evidence as well that he was gay, and that his sexuality found its only legitimate - for a priest - expression in his poetry.) In any case, his passion and devotion is no less evident than that of Christina Rossetti, who was one of his key influences.

Moonless darkness stands between

Moonless darkness stands between.
Past, the Past, no more be seen!
But the Bethlehem-star may lead me
To the sight of Him Who freed me
From the self that I have been.
Make me pure, Lord: Thou art holy;
Make me meek, Lord: Thou wert lowly;
Now beginning, and alway:
Now begin, on Christmas day.

Such a simple poem, and yet the internal rhymes and cross rhythms are fascinating. It gets better with each read-through. Hopkins, in everything he writes, seems to turn inward. He has a keen eye for nature, and these observations make many of his other poems. But even in those, his heart reflects and changes what he sees, so that the inner and outer life become interwoven. As one who shares Hopkins’ love for creation and his introversion, I find this interconnectivity to reflect my own feelings.

The final selection is by a living poet, Richard Wilbur. He was the US Poet Laureate from 1987 to 1988, and may be best known for his lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. I’ll also note his work in translating MoliĆ©re.

Wilbur is a “formalist,” so his poems tend to have traditional rhyme and meter. A Christmas Hymn is no exception. The refrain of “And every stone shall cry” is repeated at interesting intervals. Three lines, then six, six, six, then three at the end. Wilbur uses two ideas to tie the entire poem together. First is the stars. Or perhaps the “worlds” which shall be reconciled. The second is that of the stone which paves the highway, made straight in the desert, for our God. From the close up of the rock, to the vastness of the stars, the poem shifts perspective while drawing the connection that unites both.

Like Rossetti’s poem, Wilbur’s also notes the descent of God to the world of mankind, with Love as the motivation and purpose.

A Christmas Hymn

A stable-lamp is lighted
Whose glow shall wake the sky;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
And straw like gold shall shine;
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
This child through David’s city
Shall ride in triumph by;
The palm shall strew its branches,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
Though heavy, dull, and dumb,
And lie within the roadway
To pave his kingdom come.
Yet he shall be forsaken,
And yielded up to die;
The sky shall groan and darken,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
For stony hearts of men:
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s love refused again.
But now, as at the ending,
The low is lifted high;
The stars shall bend their voices,
And every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
In praises of the child,
By whose descent among us,
The worlds are reconciled.

Although these poems may seem disparate in mood, theme, and construction, I believe they all connect through an idea. God reached out to man, and left us with a decision. What shall our response be? Rossetti suggests that Love is to be our sign - the sign of our encounter with Love Incarnate. Hopkins seeks that he may commune with the Divine. Wilbur suggests that the worlds are reconciled, even though some refuse Love. And Nash, in his own irreverent way, reminds us that those who choose to mock the idea of Love, choosing instead the harming of others and the mockery of virtue, may just, perhaps, be licked by a reindeer.

Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And may God bless us, everyone!