The Poetical Works of John Milton

The Poetical Works of John Milton, with Life. Complete EdThe Poetical Works of John Milton, with Life. Complete Ed by John Milton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The selections of Milton from this volume, excluding Paradise Lost, left me wanting. Paradise Regained lacked the power, dialogue and themes of Paradise Lost. It felt more like a Sunday school session rather than the philosophical argument. ‘Regained’ and many of the other selections felt two-dimensional, trying to pontificate rather than entice and convince. This book is worth the time for Paradise Lost. See my review of a standalone version of that work if you are interested.

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The Diary of Samuel Pepys

The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Modern Library Classics)The Diary of Samuel Pepys by Samuel Pepys

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Diary of Samuel Pepys is an interesting book, especially in the edited, single-volume version I had from Modern Library. If I were doing research, I would grab the full edition. But this condensed volume provides a wonderful sampling of an upper middle class life from 1660 through mid-1669. Pepys is witness to several important events, including the Restoration of the monarchy with the coronation of Charles II, the Great Plague (1665-66), the Great Fire (1666) and the second war with the Dutch (1665-67).

His entries on the plague are haunting. His first entry that I remember was of a Dutch plague ship with 300-400 dead (9/24/1664). By mid 1665, there are plague houses popping up in London, marked with red crosses. On June 15th, 112 are reported dead for that week. By the 21st, people begin to flee London. He writes on August 31st that there were 6,102 deaths this week. Thankfully, by November 15th of 1665, the deaths were down to about 1,300 per week. By spring 1666, the plague had mostly subsided.

This was just in time for the Great Fire, which came on Sept. 2nd. Pepys, his wife and her maid all could see the fire burning the first night. The fire burned until Sept. 8th. A French shop owner was accused of the fire and hanged shortly afterward. By February 24th, 1667, Pepys still believed that man had done the fire, but modern research suggests that it was likely started accidentally by a baker’s oven.

While Pepys documents some of the greater events of his day, he also gives us an insight into the everyday life of a businessman with ties to the Admiralty, the upper class and his community. He is an avid reader, collecting books and having them bound in the same style bindings (1/18/1665). He studies Latin (6/21/1663) and music, even taking lessons on many different instruments. Many of the things that happened day to day there still go on today: getting mad at a dog pooping in the house (2/12/1660) or being awakened by your sleeping partner elbowing you in the face (1/1/1662). During the Great Fire, he buried his parmesan cheese and wine in a hole in the ground, to protect it from the flames (9/4/1666). By 1668, his vision is getting weaker, he thinks due to his constant diary keeping. For this, he takes a doctor’s cure, having 14 ounces of blood let out (7/13/1668).

Pepys is a bit of a shallow man. He covets his money, regularly making entries about how much he is worth. He regularly yells at and often strikes his few servants. He is perpetually lusting after other women, following them around, having affairs with some, and getting caught and not showing much remorse. He was supposedly a supporter of Oliver Cromwell, but eagerly gets behind Charles II when he was to come to power.

Overall, this diary provides an impressive, daily insight into one man’s life in London during the 1660s and was well worth the time to read it.

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South with Scott by Edward R.G.R. Evans

South with ScottSouth with Scott by Edward R.G.R. Evans
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve always been fascinated by Antartica, it’s natural beauty, people who’ve tried to explore it, and, to be honest, it was the setting of one of my favorite John Carpenter films, The Thing. (I realize that film was shot in British Columbia, but the id of the place is conveyed, I believe, accurately.)

I was turned onto this book in a weird way, in that I saw a copy of it come up for sale from a rare/antiquarian bookseller. The copy was valuable due to its provenance, being owned by a more recent mountaineer who recently died.

The book is the story of the “Terra Nova” expedition of 1910-1913. This event was the British attempt to be the first to the geographic South Pole. The expedition wasn’t solely for heroics or fame, there was also a rather large scientific component to it. It included physics, marine biology, geology, etc. and many samples were collected over the entire period. Unfortunately, Scott arrived five weeks after the Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first to have arrived at the Pole. On Scott’s return trip, many problems arose and his entire party died.

I enjoyed reading this book, all the while realizing that it did, at times, romanticize the final Antartica expedition of Capt. Robert Scott. But, it was written by one of the men who was on the expedition, suffered injuries himself, and was writing about Scott less than ten years afterward. So, I did try to set any judgements aside and enjoy the story being told. It was a quick read. One section that captured some of the beauty was in Chapter 8, “The Winter Closes In”:

”One passed out of the hut hourly at least and, on moonlight nights especially, one found something beautiful in the scenery about Cape Evans. At full moon time everything turned silver, from towering Erebus with gleaming sides to the smooth ice slopes of Ross Island in the north-east, while away to the southward the high black Dellbridge Islands thrust up from a sea of flat silver ice. Even the conical hills and the majestic Castle Rock, fifteen miles away, stood out quite clearly on occasions.”

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Bitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters and Amari

Bitterman's Field Guide to Bitters & Amari: 500 Bitters; 50 Amari; 123 Recipes for Cocktails, Food & Homemade BittersBitterman’s Field Guide to Bitters & Amari: 500 Bitters; 50 Amari; 123 Recipes for Cocktails, Food & Homemade Bitters by Mark Bitterman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This great gift from dear friends was a fun read and I will return to it in the future as a guide and reference tool. Neat tidbits on the history and science of bitters and a great little chapter on my favorite digestive, Amaris. I also loved the little table describing the different types of raw and white sugars (p. 48). Looking forward to playing with Manhattans (p. 61), Negronis (p. 64) and adding a spoonful of Campari to a dry martini (p. 183).

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Paradise Lost by John Milton

Paradise LostParadise Lost by John Milton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For me, reading Paradise Lost was like the first time I read Homer’s Odyssey. It is immersive, interesting and stokes both heart and mind. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m glad I waited so long to read it. I needed some experience and growth before I could appreciate it for its depth. Interestingly enough, I first became aware of Milton’s epic poem as a child, from the “Space Seed” episode of one of my favorite TV series, Star Trek. The line in that episode was spoken by Satan in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven” (I: 263).

This poem is about the Fall of man in the garden of Eden. The Tree of Knowledge is one of the two forbidden trees in the Garden. In Book IV, Satan says of that tree:

“Can it be a sin to know?
Can it be death? And do they only stand
By Ignorance? Is that their happy state
The proof of their obedience and their faith?”
(IV: 517-520)

Satan furthers it in Book IX, the exciting beginning of the Fall. Satan sneaks into the Garden of Eden. Speaking to Eve alone, he says of the fruit of the forbidden tree,

“Why then was this forbid? Why, but to awe;
Why, but to keep ye low and ignorant,
His worshippers”
(IX: 703-705)

Eve gives in to desire and reaches for the fruit. I would too. Knowledge is food for me.

Another favorite quote of mine from Paradise Lost is one that was used as an epigraph in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Paradise Lost is one of the three books that the Creature finds in the woods and with which he teaches himself to read. (The other two books are Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther and one volume of Plutarch’s Lives.) The quote is:

“Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man? Did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me”
(X: 743-745)

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Miscellanies (vol. 1) by Lord Byron

Miscellanies vol. 1Miscellanies vol. 1 by George Gordon Byron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This first volume of Byron’s Miscellanies (1853 edition) contains “Hours of Idleness” (his first, official published collection), English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, The Curse of Minerva, Hints from Horace, The Waltz, Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte, Hebrew Melodies, Domestic Pieces, Monody on the Death of Sheridan and The Dream. I’ve written a bit already about some of these works, so this review will touch on those I haven’t covered.

I picked up this book primarily to get a copy of the Curse of Minerva. This is Byron’s piece attacking Lord Elgin for stripping the Parthenon in Athens of many friezes and metope panels, which came to be called the Elgin Marbles. I stand with Byron then and Greece today in demanding that the British Museum return these stolen antiquities to Greece. The introduction by the editor of these volumes seems to echo the then contemporary, and still today, line that the Marbles were “saved” and would have been destroyed if left there. This ignored the fact that these items had been fine in situ for more than 2,200 years. As for the poem itself, I thoroughly enjoyed it, especially as Minerva (Athena) actively interacts with the narrator.

Hints from Horace was good, a kind of sequel to English Bards, with Byron still going after Robert Southey. The Waltz wasn’t that great, and I’ve read that Byron tried to say someone else wrote it and used his name after the poem was so ill-received. I thought Hebrew Melodies was weaker than his other works, lacking bite and wit. But, there was one that I liked, “The Destruction of Senneacherib (p. 319). For me, it foreshadows the horse ride in Mazeppa, echoing the gallop, rhythm and flow. In Domestic Pieces, I liked “Fare Thee Well” (p. 328) and Epistle to Augusta. In the latter, I was moved by the line “Even for its own sake, do we purchase pain” (p. 336).

Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte was an interesting piece. Per the editor’s notes, only the first 11 stanzas were part of the original poem. The publisher asked for more stanzas to avoid a stamp duty for publishing only a single sheet. The original stanzas were powerful and moving, while the ones added afterward were awful. The final 3 weren’t even published in Byron’s lifetime.

Finally, I have to say that I read every set of endnotes and learned something valuable from each of them. Well done to the editor.

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The Poems of Robert Frost

The Poems of Robert FrostThe Poems of Robert Frost by Robert Frost
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I really couldn’t get into this selection of Robert Frost’s poems. It brought together seven of his published collections, which was kind of neat, covering the period from his first book in 1913 up to A Witness Tree in 1942. I read a lot of poetry, but I’m primarily drawn to works from the 18th and 19th century, especially Byron and Percy Shelley. I think Wordsworth would have liked Frost, as both focused on nature, simpler life, etc. It might be that I’m not as excited about Modern poetry, except for a few pieces, mainly Howl by Ginsburg. I also couldn’t get drawn into the folksy, rural tone.

But, having said that, there were some nice moments. In his North of Boston collection, I liked the mood set by “Good Hours” (p. 114). I also loved this part of “The Fear” (p. 111):

What’s a child doing at this time of night-?

Out walking. Every child should have the memory
Of at least one long-after-bedtime walk.”

In the Mountain Interval (1916) collection, most people are drawn to “The Road Not Taken.” I thought it was interesting, especially when reading some background material about how it is one of his most misunderstood poems. But, more important to me was his short piece “A Time To Talk” (p. 133). It deals with true friendship and tells us not to worry about what work we have to do when a friend stops by but to go right over and talk to them. Important life advice.

In New Hampshire (1923), there’s his famous “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” (p. 238). I like the rhythm and mechanics of the last stanza.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

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