Fugitive Pieces by Lord Byron

Fugitive PiecesFugitive Pieces by George Gordon Byron
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading Byron’s first book of poetry, even though it was recalled before being published and all but four copies destroyed. It’s interesting (sad, funny, and hypocritical) that the edition I read was a photo facsimile of the Rev. Becher’s copy of the book. He was the one who told Byron that several poems were too risqué. In response, Byron recalled the print run and destroyed it. But, the Rev. kept his copy to himself and it has survived.

It was fun to read these early poems, which focus mostly on young love, passion, death and how one will be remembered. Some of his poems reminded me of some lines I wrote during college, showing that some of what makes us human has continued to be passed down through the generations.

One poem that caused Rev. Becher distress was called “To Mary” (p 17-19). It was an exciting piece about a former lover, that dwelt on their passionate moments. Somewhat mild by today’s standards in its choice of words, it remains thrilling and exciting. It shows an inkling of the passion, pacing and fire Byron will bring to his later works. It’s always cool to see a writer progress. It think “The Tear” (p. 43-46) also shows hints of the future Byron, using a single tear to show true and sincere emotion and honor, moving beyond empty words or actions.

I really liked a little fragment (1803) he had about how he wanted to be remembered:

Oh! may my shade behold no sculptur’d urns,
To mark the spot, where earth to earth returns.
No lengthen’d scroll of virtue, and renown,
My epitath, shall be my name alone;
If that with honour fails to crown my clay,
Oh! may no other fame my deeds repay;
That, only that, shall single out the shot,
By that remember’d, or fore’er forgot.

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The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

The Meursault InvestigationThe Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read the Stranger by Camus in high school. Then again after college, then once more, this time in French. I fell in love with his writing, consuming everything he produced. I read biographies of him. But then, I started to see the disconnect he had between what he wrote and how he viewed his birthplace in Algeria, the French colony where the native population didn’t have the same rights as the French colonizers. It complicated him for me and made me want to explore it more.

Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation, is just what I needed. He offers a take on Camus’s defining novel. It turns the story around, to look at the situation from the perspective of the murdered character’s brother. It’s eye-opening, to say the least. I never really thought about this when I read the Stranger, but the person Meursault murders is only called “The Arab.” He never gets a name or any humanity. Even at Meursault’s trial, the focus is more on the main character’s lack of sympathy regarding his mother’s death than the murder. Daoud’s novel calls that out and tries to re-inscribe the dead man, Musa, into the book of humanity. Through a wonderful re-use of The Stranger’s opening paragraph and the narrative device used in Camus’s later novel, The Fall, Daoud explores the murder of the narrator’s brother and what it does to him, his mother and his country.

The narrator beautiful states one core element of his thesis: “You can’t easily kill a man when he has a given name” (Ch. 5, p. 52). Camus called the murdered man “the Arab” or “an Arab”. But the narrator says “Arab. I never felt Arab, you know. Arab-ness is like Negro-ness, which only exists in the white man’s eyes” (Ch. 6, p. 60). Later, “He was Musa to us, his family, his neighbors, but it was enough for him to venture a few meters into the French part of the city, a single glance from one of them was enough to make him lose everything, starting with his name, which went floating off into some blind spot in the landscape” (Ch. 6, p. 61). From these three quotes, I felt a resonance with what is going on today in Baltimore, Ferguson, Sanford, Charleston and others cities across the US. My jaw just dropped, thinking how this Algerian, writing in French, in 2013, so nailed the events and discourses going on today in America.

The author also deals with religion and atheism throughout the novel. One line that stood out for me was: “How can you believe God has spoken to only one man, and that one man has stopped talking forever?” (Ch. 7, p. 69).

The Arab Spring is also touched upon, I believe. While talking about the newly independent Algeria of 1962, I feel he was also talking about today’s Libya, Tunisia, etc. Rebel groups, some extreme, some poor, some illiterate, came together to overthrow a bad government. But, once it was gone, they didn’t seem to want to go back underground, or dissolve. They like their newfound power and are unwilling to give it up so easily. Something to consider, both for countries that underwent these revolutions and for Western nations, especially the US, which want to dive into yet another war, arming anyone who will overthrow the tyrant du jour. A warning: remember that the US, in its proxy war with the Soviet Union, funded and backed extremist in Afghanistan. That didn’t work out too well in the long term for anyone on our planet.

This is an amazing read and one for people to read for so many reasons. And, if politics, religion, philosophy, etc. aren’t your thing, it’s still a really good story, well-paced, well-written and nicely translated.

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The Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Sorrows of Young WertherThe Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before finishing this book, I was thinking I was not going to rate it too high. As Werther’s unrequited love drove him to emotional, and then physical, extremes, I simply couldn’t find him sympathetic. He was intelligent and well off, but his self-centered desire diminished him for me. But, I read quickly to the end and really enjoyed this short novel. I realized that the beauty of the book was its story, so well told by a then 24-year-old Goethe. Even though I didn’t always like the titular character as a person, I wanted to know what he thought and how his story unfolded.

I must say I’m also a sucker for epistolary novels. I like seeing only through the words of the letter writer(s). It’s like listening in on a conversation, but only hearing one side of it. There’s so much you think about, like what the recipient thinks when reading it, as well as what was going on in the letter writer’s mind vs. what they actually put on paper. And, to be honest, there’s also the titillating feature of reading someone else’s private correspondence, as if sneaking a peak at a letter left on a table or discretely reading over someone’s shoulder.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is a book of moods. It looks deeply at relationships and also at nature. It is a Romantic book, the first I’ve read that wasn’t originally written in English. I’m happy to have read it.

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Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Don QuixoteDon Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed reading this work by Cervantes, especially in the older edition that I have. While some have put down Pierre Motteux’s translation, I felt that it was never too slapstick nor too dry. I laughed. I cried. I nodded. I smiled. The effort was also a bit of a workout, with each volume weighing just under three pounds. I really wanted to read this story. I think we all have heard bits and pieces of this story, and many phrases and ideas have been incorporated into Western culture.

While working through the first volume, I wondered what the heck was wrong with me for wanting to read this damn book. Things brightened in the second, especially with the tale of Dorothea and Cardenio. By the third volume, I was hooked, especially by the Duke and Duchess and the events surrounding them. I must say I was saddened as I turned the final pages of the last volume yesterday evening. There was a tad bit of a Hollywood ending, but I still felt close to Alonso Quixano and his alter ego, Don Quixote, and would miss him. Like his squire-errant Sancho Panzo, his hometown friends, family and others he met on his adventures, I cared deeply for this man made mad by romantic tales from the past.

This work is so multifaceted. Cervantes created new forms and brought together old ones in new ways. There are tales, stories within stories, meta-commentary (“breaking the fourth wall”), making the first part (published in 1605) part of the story in the second part (published in 1615) and so forth. He even goes so far as to include, and tease, a person who released a spurious second part that was published before Cervantes had finished writing the real second part to the story.

I liked many parts of the book, especially in the later volumes. As a reader, one I particularly enjoyed, was how an inn keeper recounts that farm workers would gather at lunch, during the hottest part of the day, and the one who could read the best would read aloud from old romances during their meal. It thrilled all of them and filled the listeners with such pleasure (Vol. 2, ch. 5, p. 87). I wrote a little note to myself to say “how wonderful is reading” and also that Cervantes certainly knew that.

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Bibliographical Catalogue Of First Editions, Proof Copies & Manuscripts Of Books By Lord Byron Exhibited At The Fourth Exhibition Held By The First Edition Club, January 1925

Bibliographical Catalogue Of First Editions, Proof Copies & Manuscripts Of Books By Lord Byron Exhibited At The Fourth Exhibition Held By The First Edition Club, January 1925Bibliographical Catalogue Of First Editions, Proof Copies & Manuscripts Of Books By Lord Byron Exhibited At The Fourth Exhibition Held By The First Edition Club, January 1925 by First Edition Club
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For “books on books” freaks like me, this is a fantastic read. Basically, it’s a detailed catalogue of all of Lord Byron’s published material known at the time of the First Editions Club conference in 1925. It pulled from two amazing collections, Mr. Wise and Mr. Murray (yes, of that Murray family). Explicit details of editions, layouts, sizes, signatures, etc. This is the hardcore stuff. I was a happy reader.

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The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace (translated by John Conington)

The Odes and Carmen Saeculare of HoraceThe Odes and Carmen Saeculare of Horace by Horace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was happy to find an eBook version of Horace’s Odes that were translated by John Conington. I have his Aeneid queued up on my shelf and it’s always neat to read multiple works translated by the same person. You kind of get a feel for how they see the original language. But, having found a cool copy of what I wanted to read, I wasn’t overly thrilled with Horace. I’m glad I read this and will turn to it again in the future, I am sure. At least to read two odes that dealt with the seasons and were beautiful.

Book I, Ode 4 (“Solvitur Acris Hiems”) was a wonderful homage to the coming of spring, surely something that many of the Romantic poets must have read and enjoyed:

The touch of Zephyr and of Spring has loosen’d Winter’s thrall;
The well-dried keels are wheel’d again to sea:
The ploughman cares not for his fire, nor cattle for their stall,
And frost no more is whitening all the lea.

The other piece I liked covered the full turn of the seasons, Book 4, Ode 7 (“Diffugere Nives”):

Naked the Nymphs and Graces in the meads
    The dance essay:
“No ‘scaping death” proclaims the year that speeds
    This sweet spring day.
Frost yields to zephyrs; Summer drives out Spring,
    To vanish, when
Rich Autumn sheds his fruits; round wheels the ring,—
Winter again!”

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Reading across the globe

I’ve read a few interesting articles lately about trying to find fiction books that come from more diverse sources. Much of what we read comes from a predominately white, male group of authors. And living inthe US means most of them are American. This isn’t to say many of those books aren’t great. But, there are plenty of great women writers, and writers of different backgrounds in the US. There are also many options from countries across the world. I’ve been very lucky that I’ve been exposed to some of these writers. I thank independent bookstores and online sites that highlight “unconventional” authors.

So, I got to thinking about what I’ve read and tallied up authors from 57 different countries. I thought that was pretty cool.  I’ve read almost all of them in English or English translation, but I’ve read several in French, one in German and snippets of pieces in classical Greek (Homer, Plato, Euclid and a few others). For some of the countries, I only read a short story, but each thing I read was both similar and unique.

I thought I’d share some stats. Countries I’ve read books from: Algeria, Australia, Austria-Hungary, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, China, Czechoslovakia, England, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Norway, Russia, Scotland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United States of America and Wales. I have read one or more novels from 27 different countries. For eight of those countries, I’ve read both male and female authors. They are England, France, Greece, Italy, Japan, Norway, the US and Wales. I only read a female author for Brazil (Edla Van Steen), Czechoslovakia (Iva Pekárková), and Lebanon (Hanan Al-Shaykh).

I’ve read short stories from Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Egypt, Finland, Hungary, Iraq, Latvia, Libya, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Macedonia, Netherlands, Palestine, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.  Most of these came from three books: An Anthology of Modern Palestinian Literature, Arabic Short Stories and Best European Fiction 2010.

This post isn’t meant to “toot my own horn” but to show people that there are so many books out there that are a pleasure to read and mind-expanding.  As you can see from my blog, I read a great deal of 18th and 19th century British literature and poetry, but I still seek out other ideas, other points of view to enrich my life.  I still have a lot to read!

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