Don Juan, Canto I, by Lord Byron

I listened to an excellent reading of the first Canto of Byron's Don Juan that I downloaded free from Librivox. Byron (a dissolute, corrupt, romantically brooding fellow) completed 16 cantos before his death, becoming more famous and more beloved of his publisher which each volume.

Byron took earlier versions of the legend of Don Juan and remade the character into a light-hearted amorous adventurer who is forever falling in and out of love with women. This first Canto introduces his family and traces his introduction into the arts of love by the beautiful Julia, who is 'married, charming, chaste, and twenty-three'.

There's as much amorous play, though slightly fewer farts, in Don Juan as in Canterbury. It was a pleasure to listen to these rolling verses, larded with editorial asides and commentaries. I've read so much about Byron, but this is the first time I've read any of his longer workss, the ones that made him a celebrity. He was scandalous! A darkly brooding figure who debauched maidens and youths and obsessed about his half-sister. One of his lovers, Lady Caroline Lamb, called him 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know.'

The Canterbury Tales, by Goeffrey Chaucer

The Canterbury Tales is a great example of the kind of work that is best enjoyed by listening to it instead of reading it. First, it's poetry, and for most of its existence poetry was meant to be read aloud. Second, it's riddled with archaic spelling and vocabulary that can be difficult to understand when you are looking at words on a page, but (for me at least) is much easier to understand when you're listening to it. Third, it's full of humor. Sometimes if I'm reading something the humor in it sails right past me. Listening to the various readers in this LibriVox recording (free!) bring the humor and irony of the Tales to life is really a joy.

I've tried to read The Canterbury Tales before, only to give up after a few pages because the effort was too great. And I've got quite a few advantages over the average reader - I've actually studied Old and Middle English, and I speak French and Italian, which allows me to understand most of the Latin words thrown into the verse and figure out from the roots what most of the other unusual words mean. Listening was much easier - I could almost always figure out what an unusual word meant.

I had read that the Tales were similar to The Decameron, but I still didn't expect it to be so.... bawdy. There's farting and adultery and oh so much more! Because the pilgrims come from all walks of life I really feel like I got a good cross-section of life at the time in all its vulgar splendor. At the same time I was surprised by the amount of religiousity. References to Christianity and a concern with moral action pervaded almost all of the stories to an extreme extent. The last tale in particular kind of blew my mind; the Parson's Tale is a seemingly unending litany of sins to be avoided itemized in excruciating detail.

Wikiepedia seems to think that the Parson's Tale is straightforward and not ironic, but listening to the below made me wonder if this wasn't an exercise in irony:

Upon the other side, to speak of
the horrible disordinate scantness of clothing, as be these cutted
slops or hanselines [breeches] , that through their shortness
cover not the shameful member of man, to wicked intent alas!
some of them shew the boss and the shape of the horrible
swollen members, that seem like to the malady of hernia, in the
wrapping of their hosen, and eke the buttocks of them, that fare
as it were the hinder part of a she-ape in the full of the moon.
And more over the wretched swollen members that they shew
through disguising, in departing [dividing] of their hosen in
white and red, seemeth that half their shameful privy members
were flain [flayed]. And if so be that they depart their hosen in
other colours, as is white and blue, or white and black, or black
and red, and so forth; then seemeth it, by variance of colour,
that the half part of their privy members be corrupt by the fire
of Saint Anthony, or by canker, or other such mischance. And
of the hinder part of their buttocks it is full horrible to see, for
certes, in that part of their body where they purge their stinking
ordure, that foul part shew they to the people proudly in despite
of honesty [decency], which honesty Jesus Christ and his friends
observed to shew in his life.

I mean, come on. This can't be serious.

Lady Susan, by Jane Austen

What a delight to discover a 'new' Jane Austen novel!

Lady Susan is an epistolary novel, and Jane's first work. It's funny and naughty and about as far from Mansfield Park as I could imagine. Lady Susan, the wretchedly amoral titular corespondent, pulls everyone she meets into a chaotic whirlpool in the best and most recognizable tradition of drama queens throughout the ages. I can't believe I didn't read this earlier, and I strongly recommend it.

I listened to a free audio version performed by multiple readers from All LibriVox recordings are in the public domain - they are read by volunteers (some of them professional-quality) and available for free download. I love listening to audiobooks so I was very excited to discover it - right now I'm working my way through The Canterbury Tales, and I have several more books lined up after that.


A Series of Unfortunate Events, by Lemony Snicket
I love these books. I've almost finished the series - I just need to read the very last one and then I'll be done.

I honestly think they are better than the Harry Potter books.

I am lusting after this fantastic complete set.

Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson
One of his earlier works, a fun eco-thriller.

Under Orders, by Dick Francis
A chocolate bon-bon of a book. Not his best work, but good enough to eat.

Deathnote vol. 1 and 2
A manga (Japanese comics) about a teenage student who finds a magic notebook that he can use to kill people with. Interesting concept, but a bit slow-moving.

The Mislaid Magician, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermere.
I love me a good epistolary fantasy novel set in Regency England!

Expat: Women's True Tales of Life Abroad, by Christina Henry de Tessan
A collection of essay about an experience close to my own. Enjoyable.

For God and Country, by James Yee
A pretty good book about a horrible story. Not that I'm objective about this one.

1001 Nights of Snowfall, by Bill Willingham
A Fables graphic novel inspired by the stories of 1001 nights. There are some gems here, but it was surprisingly uneven. Fans of the monthly comic will want to read it for the backstory.

Shanghai Diary, by Ursula Bacon
A book club selection about the Jewish expatriate community in Shanghai during WWII. Clumsily written, but a great story.

The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond. Worthwhile, but too popular for my taste, and contains material that has been more satisfactorily explored in Collapse and Guns, Germs, and Steel.

The Mind-Body Problem by Rebecca Goldstein. Another book club selection. Very good, highly recommend.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison

I finally read Beloved, by Toni Morrison, which was da winner of the NY Times survey seeking to crown the best American novel published in the past 25 years.

I had been avoiding it for a while, like I avoid reading many great books. I procrastinate as if they are homework I don't want to complete or movies I can never see for the first time again. In January, while I was 'on vacation' from blogging, the Seattle Public Library sent me an email telling me there was a copy waiting for me on my special shelf, and it was time.

I read it, but I didn't feel I could write about it. I don't feel qualified. In fact I feel grossly inadequate. When the New York Times reviewed it, they asked Margaret Atwood. That's about right.

I am too tired to talk about pain so deep. Having written that sentence, I reread it and realize that my reaction to this book is all about me. Inevitable, perhaps, but disappointingly egoistic.

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells is one of the first science fiction books. Aliens from Mars invade suburban England riding scary tripod machines.

The scariest thing about this book is that it was written in 1898, 16 years before World War I, yet it contains realistic depictions of the use of poison gas.

I saw the Spielberg movie when it came out in 2005, and I was surprised by how closely the plot elements were drawn from the book. The red vegetation, the mad 'curate' in the cellar, and of course the final downfall of the Martians are all the same.

But what worked in 1898 for H. G. Wells didn't work in 2005 for Spielberg. The ending frustrated me. How could alien beings with the technology to cross vacuum be defeated by something as common as microorganisms?

Enter the insightful husband. When War of the Worlds was first published, he points out, germ theory was only a few years old. It was still cutting-edge science, so it seemed reasonable to people that other technologically advanced people might not know about it. Now germ theory is 100 years old so it seems obvious. The newness of computer viruses made the defeat of the aliens in Indepdence Day seem credible ten years ago. Would it be believable today?

What technology of today would be a good choice for bringing down invading aliens? Nanotech? And in twenty years it will seem run-of-the-mill.

The Prince, by Machiavelli

I first read The Prince in high school, and I was tremendously disappointed. It's a small little thing and I was expecting the secrets of the ages. Or at least something that would help me deal with the cool kids who were making my life hell.

This time I decided to use my high school education to understand it better. No, not the mean-halls type of education, actual classroom instruction. That included a detailed history of Florence, where Machiavelli lived, because that was the city my high school was in.

No, I'm not Italian, although I speak it fluently. My parents moved there for work and sent us kids to the International School of Florence. Sounds nice, eh?

I hated it.

13 years later I've gotten over the hating and realized, damn, it WAS nice. I loved Florence, though I didn't love living there.

Machiavelli lived in Florence and grew to adulthood under Lorenzo Medici, who was a shrewed ruler of the city for many years until his death at a comparatively young age in 1492. Lorenzo Medici inherited the rule of Florence, after his father Piero and grandfather Cosimo. Before Cosimo, Florence had been a Republic. Lorenzo was 'Il Magnifico'. After he died, his son Piero was dubbed 'the Unfortunate' for messing everything up and getting the family temporarily kicked out of power.

Machiavelli served as part of the Free Republic of Florence, and when the Medici returned to power, he was tortured and exiled. He wrote The Prince and other political works during this period of exile, but it wasn't published until after his death.

The Prince refers to a surprising amount of chaos. Machiavelli is able to illustrate all of his theories with concrete contemporary examples of war, conquest, betrayal, and error. Italy didn't become a united country until the late 1800's. During Machiavelli's life, it was a boiling pot of different political parties and sovreignties. There was the Pope, who ruled large territories. There were the city-states. There were the neighboring rulers - France, Spain, etc. who had their eyes on plump prizes like Venice. And there was internal warfare as well. Florence tossed the Medici out, then they came back, then they got thrown out again, etc.

The Prince is more of a classification system than a how-to manual. Machiavelli divides the types of Princes into broad categories and outlines the best ways that each must use to hold on to his possessions. He seems to think that the way the Medici came to power was pretty good, because it's not easy for a foreign conqueror to get a Republic to give up its institutions. But of course, the Medici couldn't hold on to power during his lifetime. The book is dedicated to Lorenzo di Piero di Medici, son of Piero the Unfortunate, who is mostly remembered today for the magnificent tomb Michelango carved for him and for being the father of Caterina de Medici.

Why? Was he hoping to gain his favor, or was it some kind of ironic joke?

My theory (tentative and amateurish) is that the dedication is not ironic, and not an attempt at flattery, but made with an honest desire that the person in charge of Florence use his powers for the benefit of the people of Florence. Florentines are intensely loyal to their city.