Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life by Edna O’Brien

Poetry sucks. Just admit it. Every single one of us hated reading it in school. The older stuff from the Romantic and Victorian periods isn’t so bad, but I’d rather have my fingernails removed then have to read a single line of “free verse” ever again (unless it’s by Stevens or Cummings). Byron is one of the few poets I’ve enjoyed, mostly anyway. Naturally, since Byron is actually worth reading, that means that you’ll never read much of him in the schools and colleges, aside from a couple of his short poems and snippets of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, that self-indulgent mess.

Those of you interested in game or seduction will enjoy Byron in Love, a recent biography focusing on his love life. Byron’s reputation as a womanizer is well-known; it’s from him that we take the term “Byronic hero,” the model for the antihero in just about every decent work of literature in the past hundred years. Byron in Love chronicles the man’s sexual exploits from his early days in school to his “Satanic” life abroad in Italy and Greece. Think of him like a 19th-century Roosh.

Marianna’s nemesis came in the person of another fiery young woman, Margarita Cogni, the Fornarina, wife of a baker, also young, with tantalising black eyes, the Venetian looks and the spirit of a tigress. Murray would be told in gleeful detail of the contretemps between these two women, La Segati and her gossips discovering by the neighing of his horse that he had gone late at night to meet the Fornarina, whence they followed, staging an operatic brawl, screams, curses, the throwing back of veils and in explicit Venetian, the Fornarina telling his amica: ‘You are not his wife, I am not his wife, you are his Donna, I am his Donna’, then stormed off. She then made herself indispensable to him in the running of the Palazzo Mocenigo, former home of the Doges, which he had rented for £200 a year, the Fornarina walking about in hat and feathers and a gown with a tail, intercepting his mail, paying a scribe to write letters for her, and servants continuously ‘redding the fray’ between her and any other feminine persons who visited. Her Medea traits and Venetian ‘pantaloonery’ amused for a time, but when she became ungovernable and he asked her to leave, she refused, wielding a knife, Fletcher had to disarm her. Boatmen carried her out whence she presently threw herself in the canal and was brought back intending to ‘refix’ herself in the place. Byron threatened that if she did not quit the premises then he would, and ultimately she was returned to her irate husband.

Click here to buy Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life.

Read Next: BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara

Oh, to Die Young and Leave a Beautiful Corpse!

Choose life.

That’s the unofficial motto of our times. Americans fear nothing more than death. The federal deficit is sky-high because Baby Boomers are abusing Medicare so they can stuff their faces with prescription pills of every variety, anything to postpone the inevitable. Ads for suicide prevention hotlines are ubiquitous, and Christians condemn people who take their own lives as immoral. Life is great! Why would anyone not want to be alive?

From my perspective though, death looks like a pretty good career move.

Take Kurt Cobain. Last year, the twentieth anniversary of Nirvana’s Nevermind, we got treated to a week-long orgy of self-congratulatory GenX tearjerking. Poor Kurt, tragic genius crushed by his self-doubts. Why didn’t he choose life?

I don’t want to rag on Cobain too much; annoying whiner though he was, he was a talented musician and songwriter. But the only reason people worship him is because he killed himself. If Kurt had chosen life, he would have quickly faded into J Mascis-esque irrelevance. “Who’s J Mascis?” you ask. My point made.

Or take John Lennon. If there’s a heaven, Lennon ought to be up there thanking God that he was gunned down by a fat manboy, spared from devolving into a grotesque monstrosity like his fellow Beatles. I mean, have you seen Paul McCartney lately? Ghastly.

How about Jim Morrison? Do you think crazed Doors fans would be mobbing his grave if he’d put down the smack and died peacefully of old age?

Amy Winehouse? Sales of her albums skyrocketed after her liver gave out, nevermind that only her first one is worth listening to.

This extends outside the realm of music as well. Take Marilyn Monroe. Once you adjust for “moral inflation,” you realize that she was nothing but the Kim Kardashian of her day, her only talent being standing around and looking pretty.

Choosing death was the smartest career move she could have made.

Sylvia Plath? If she hadn’t choked on gas fumes, people might actually have the courage to laugh at those poems where she rages against her daddy for not hugging her enough. I’m not kidding you; she has a poem where she compares him to a Nazi.

And college students are expected to take this drivel seriously.

Yup, if you’re a prospective artist, death looks like a pretty great bargain. But you have to do it right.

The best time to die is when you’re at your career’s apogee or close to it. Obviously, if you die before you become famous, you just become another statistic. But if you wait too long, after your career has shriveled up, nobody will care. There are some exceptions to this rule, Hunter Thompson being the most notable. Now there’s a guy who was courageous to the end; he was sick of life and figured that age 67 was a good enough time to check out of the hotel. The cowards who feasted on his corpse have not a tenth of his bravery and honesty.

Elvis Presley is a case study in how to go about dying the wrong way. By the time Elvis kicked the bucket, he was a fat loser relegated to performing in Vegas, world capital of has-beens. All that coronary did was cement his place as a punchline for late-night TV hosts. Whitney Houston is another star who took too long to die; now that we’re past the two weeks grieving, she’s been dumped in her grave and forgotten.

Cobain, Monroe, Winehouse, Morrison, they all did it the right way. They were around long enough to make their mark on the world, but not long enough for us to get sick of them.

There’s some people out there who will interpret this blog post as a cry for help. “Don’t do it, Matt! You have so much to live for! Choose life!”

Relax, hombre. I’m not planning on dying anytime soon.

At least not until I’ve had the pleasure of kicking some of you pious motherfuckers in the teeth.

Read Next: Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major by Aaron Clarey

BUtterfield 8 by John O’Hara

Most people have forgotten John O’Hara and this book by extension, one of his finest novels. If they do know BUtterfield 8, it’s only because of the movie based on it, and then only because Elizabeth Taylor won her first Oscar for her role in the film. O’Hara was an immensely talented novelist, referred to by Fran Lebowitz as “the real F. Scott Fitzgerald” for his uncompromising, unpretentious depictions of American life during the 1920’s and 30’s. His first novel, Appointment in Samarra, is a great read, but BUtterfield 8 is truly his masterpiece, an underrated classic of the American canon.

The novel revolves around the life of Gloria Stannard, a party slut-cum-call girl living a seedy life in Depression-era New York. The novel opens with an account of her death, inspired by a news story O’Hara had read several years prior. While it wouldn’t be hard to slip into a sentimental tone with this kind of subject matter, O’Hara deftly avoids this trap, cross-examining Gloria’s life with a frank and non-judgemental eye:

“—for a decent bathing cap. Jimmy, before we go, I want to tell you again, for the last time you’ve got to stop saying things like that to me. I’m not your mistress, and I’m not a girl off the streets, and I’m not accustomed to being talked to that way. It isn’t funny, and no one else talks that way to me. Do you talk that way to the women on newspapers? Even if you do I’m sure they don’t really like it all the time. You can’t admire my dress without going into details about my figure, and—”

“Why in the name of Christ should I? Isn’t the whole idea of the dress to show off your figure? Why does it look well on you? Because you have nice breasts and everything else. Now God damn it, why shouldn’t I say so?”

Click here to buy BUtterfield 8.

Read Next: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell by Joseph Pearce

Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major by Aaron Clarey

This review in one sentence: man, I wish this book was around six years ago.

Aaron Clarey (aka Captain Capitalism) is on a mission to save America’s youth from throwing away their money and time on useless college majors. That’s the purpose of Worthless; educate youth as to why most majors are worthless and expose the gigantic conspiracy to get young’uns to sell themselves into debt slavery for a Master’s in Puppetry.

Much of the content of Worthless is pretty standard fare for the kinds of people in this section of the blogosphere: most non-STEM degrees are a waste, any degree that doesn’t involve math is a waste, and the entirety of American academia is a scam designed to bleed students dry and enrich itself at any cost. What separates Worthless from the avalanche of “you stupid kids shoulda majored in something useful!” finger-wagging coming from the media today is that Clarey is blunt and sympathetic. He recognizes that while yes, teenagers are making dumb decisions, their elders (Generation X and the Baby Boomers) are actively encouraging them to make dumb decisions, either because they themselves are ignorant or they stand to profit off of those dumb decisions.

Smart as you may think you are, you aren’t the only one to come up with the genius diabolical plot to major in a cake subject and then somehow hope you land some kind of easy, government, non-profit type job. Matter of fact, two entire generations before you came up with that exact same idea! Millions of people before you also majored in Philosophy, Women’s Studies, Communications, English and all the other worthless degrees. Where do you suppose they ended up?

This is why Worthless is such a powerful and important book; it not only offers practical advice, it illustrates the big picture in an easy-to-understand way. Clarey doesn’t sugarcoat the truth, but he isn’t needlessly hostile or antagonistic either. Because of this, as Frost wrote last week, his book actually stands a good chance of altering peoples’ thinking.

My biggest beef with Worthless is a bit irrelevant to its purpose, but I’ll get it out there anyway. Clarey, like most writers on this subject, urges young college-goers to major in STEM disciplines or learn a trade because those are the only disciplines that are in any kind of demand. The problem is that if everyone (or a critical mass of students) were to follow this advice, we’d be back at square one; a glut of graduates, not enough jobs for them.

The ultimate problem here isn’t useless college majors, it’s the uselessness of college itself.

If the institution of college isn’t going to be burned to the ground, it needs to be radically reformed. Having a bachelor’s degree should not be a minimum requirement to enter the middle class, because only a small minority of the population needs to go to college (the ones majoring in something worthwhile). Kids interested in entrepreneurship should be encouraged to start businesses instead of going to college and so on. But again, since Worthless’ purpose is to advise kids on how to plan their futures, and not about reforming the American educational establishment, this is not that important.

Bottom line: if you’re a teenager planning on going to college, buy this book. If you have a son or daughter planning on going to college, buy them this book. If you have a friend or SO planning on going to college, buy them this book. It’s way cheaper than tuition and can be read in a single afternoon.

Click here to buy Worthless: The Young Person’s Indispensable Guide to Choosing the Right Major.

Read Next: The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield

The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle by Steven Pressfield

I credit this book with encouraging me to get off my ass and change my life.

The War of Art is a brief guide on overcoming procrastination and laziness on your way to accomplishing your dreams. Steven Pressfield identifies the enemy of artists as Resistance, a nebulous force that saps your will and prevents you from doing the things that you want to:

Have you ever brought home a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic? Ever quit a diet, a course of yoga, a meditation practice? Have you ever bailed out on a call to embark upon a spiritual practice, dedicate yourself to a humanitarian calling, commit your life to the service of others? Have you ever wanted to be a mother, a doctor, an advocate for the weak and helpless; to run for office, crusade for the planet, campaign for world peace, or to preserve the environment? Late at night have you experienced a vision of the person you might become, the work you could accomplish, the realized being you were meant to be? Are you a writer who doesn’t write, a painter who doesn’t paint, an entrepreneur who never starts a venture? Then you know what Resistance is.

In a series of concise bullet points, Pressfield breaks down Resistance and why it is such an insidious and dangerous enemy. Overcoming Resistance is what separates amateurs from professionals. The final third of the book is dedicated to helping you cultivate the mindset to defeat Resistance once and for all. He gets weird near the end talking about the Greek Muses and whatnot, but his ideas work.

If you’ve wanted to accomplish something great but’ve kept putting it off, I urge you to read The War of Art as soon as you can.

The amateur believes he must first overcome his fear; then he can do his work. The professional knows that fear can never be overcome. He knows there is no such thing as a fearless warrior or a dread-free artist.

What Henry Fonda does, after puking into the toilet in his dressing room, is to clean up and march out onstage. He’s still terrified but he forces himself forward in spite of his terror. He knows that once he gets out into the action, his fear will recede and he’ll be okay.

Click here to buy The War of Art: Winning the Inner Creative Battle.

Read Next: Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell by Joseph Pearce

Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell by Joseph Pearce

The South African poet Roy Campbell (1902-1957) is a perfect example of how “great literature” is defined more by politics than by actual talent. While far from perfect, Campbell’s verse is energetic, masculine and passionate, a joy to read. Think Hemingway in iambic pentameter. But the reason you’ve never heard of him is because he made the fatal mistake of siding with the wrong group of thugs: he was a passionate supporter of Franco’s Nationalists during the Spanish Civil War when every major literary figure was on the Republicans’ side. Merely because of this, Campbell was wiped from the public consciousness, condemned to languish in the backs of college libraries.

Of course, Campbell was a far more complicated character than his enemies made him out to be. A lifelong iconoclast and outdoorsman, he became notorious for attacking the racism of his fellow South Africans in his satirical poem The Wayzgoose; relocating to England, he became active in the Bloomsbury Group, the circle of intellectuals and authors that included Virginia Woolf, Vita Sackville-West, John Maynard Keynes, and Bertrand Russell. Tiring of their snobbery, Marxism and anti-Christian attitude (and upset over Sackville-West’s lesbian affair with his wife Mary), Campbell shredded them in another satirical poem, The Georgiad. Relocating to southern France and later Spain, Campbell and his wife converted to Catholicism and became Nationalists after witnessing first-hand the horrors of the Red Terror. Despite his fascist sentiments, he later enlisted in the British Army during World War II despite being well over the draft age, when the communist chickenhawks who had been agitating for war with Germany in the first place either fled the country (W.H. Auden) or slithered into noncombatant positions in the civil service (Stephen Spender).

So whatever you may think about Campbell, he was definitely difficult to pigeonhole.

If you want a comprehensive and unbiased look at Roy Campbell’s life and works, Unafraid of Virginia Woolf is your best bet. Author Joseph Pearce covers Campbell’s life from his childhood to his untimely death by car crash, extensively quoting from his poems and interviews with his daughters. The book also includes rare photographs of Campbell and his associates. While Pearce is overly critical of Campbell’s satiric verse, his treatment of the man’s career is unparalleled and worth a look.

Getting your hands on any of Campbell’s actual books is difficult nowadays as they’re all out of print. If you can, I recommend Selected Poems, a compilation of all his poems released before 1946 (just as well, as everything he wrote after that was forgettable anyway). Here are some of my favorites:

The Zulu Girl

When in the sun the hot red acres smoulder,
Down where the sweating gang its labour plies,
A girl flings down her hoe, and from her shoulder
Unslings her child tormented by the flies.

She takes him to a ring of shadow pooled
By thorn-trees: purpled with the blood of ticks,
While her sharp nails, in slow caresses ruled,
Prowl through his hair with sharp electric clicks,

His sleepy mouth plugged by the heavy nipple,
Tugs like a puppy, grunting as he feeds:
Through his frail nerves her own deep languors ripple
Like a broad river sighing through its reeds.

Yet in that drowsy stream his flesh imbibes
An old unquenched unsmotherable heat-
The curbed ferocity of beaten tribes,
The sullen dignity of their defeat.

Her body looms above him like a hill
Within whose shade a village lies at rest,
Or the first cloud so terrible and still
That bears the coming harvest in its breast.

The Sisters

After hot loveless nights, when cold winds stream
Sprinkling the frost and dew, before the light,
Bored with the foolish things that girls must dream
Because their beds are empty of delight,

Two sisters rise and strip. Out from the night
Their horses run to their low-whistled pleas—
Vast phantom shapes with eyeballs rolling white,
That sneeze a fiery stream about their knees:

Through the crisp manes their stealthy prowling hands,
Stronger than curbs, in slow caresses rove,
They gallop down across the milk-white sands
And wade far out into the sleeping cove:

The frost stings sweetly with a burning kiss
As intimate as love, as cold as death:
Their lips, whereon delicious tremours hiss
Fume with the ghostly pollen of their breath.

Far out on the grey silence of the flood
They watch the dawn in smouldering gyres expand
Beyond them: and the day burns through their blood
Like a white candle through a shuttered hand.

Mass at Dawn

I dropped my sail and dried my dripping seines
Where the white quay is chequered by cool planes
In whose great branches, always out of sight,
The nightingales are singing day and night.
Though all was grey beneath the moon’s grey beam,
My boat in her new paint shone like a bride,
And silver in my baskets shone the bream:
My arms were tired and I was heavy-eyed,
But when with food and drink, at morning-light,
The children met me at the water-side,
Never was wine so red or bread so white.

Autumn

I love to see, when leaves depart,
The clear anatomy arrive,
Winter, the paragon of art,
That kills all forms of life and feeling
Save what is pure and will survive.

Already now the clanging chains
Of geese are harnessed to the moon:
Stripped are the great sun-clouding planes;
And the dark pines, their own revealing,
Let in the needles of the noon.

Strained by the gale the olives whiten
Lke hoary wrestlers bent with toil
And, with the vines, their branches lighten
To brim our vats where summer lingers
In the red froth and sun-gold oil.

Soon on our hearth’s reviving pyre
Their rotted stems will crumble up:
And like a ruby, panting fire,
The grape will redden on your fingers
Through the lit crystal of the cup.

Click here to buy Unafraid of Virginia Woolf: The Friends and Enemies of Roy Campbell.

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