Now about three books that I slipped in between some others.
The Librettist of Venice: The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s Poet, Casanova’s Friend, and Italian Opera’s Impresario in America by Rodney Bolt (2006) Venice! Dresden! Vienna! Prague! London! New York! Philadelphia! New York! Lorenzo Da Ponte—poet, sometime priest, lover (the priest thing not withstanding), librettist, and cheerleader for Italian literature—lived a veritable grand tour of all that glittered in the quite glittery, glamorous and grotesque 18th century. He was an okay poet—I’m not much of a judge of poetry, but I’m assuming there is a good reason people study, say, Dante and not Da Ponte—a quick study who taught himself how to write librettos for operas when that was the job available, and an excellent editor and adaptor, two painfully underrated skills. Anyway, I waited ten months for this book (loooong reservation list at the NYPL), and it was fine—a good thing to read if you like to read about 18th century life and a little theater intrigue. I don’t know if it was worth the ten month buildup of excitement, though. Then again, it would have to be one incredible book to overcome that, wouldn’t it?
I was only about 20 pages into The Last Expedition: Stanley’s Mad Journey Through the Congo by Daniel Liebowitz (2005) when I just simply had had it. This book about Henry Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame) and his attempt to rescue Emin Pasha, the German-born, British appointed, ruler of Equatoria, from the rebellious Sudanese after the debacle of Gordon’s death at Khartoum is one of many I have read in the last year or so about 19th century explorers and their expeditions in Africa, the Arctic, the Antarctic, the South Seas. And after reading so many of these stories I was suddenly seized by a sense of irritation, because I knew so clearly what was coming—the choice of a bad route, the lack of provisions, the grumbling of the officers about their treatment by the aloof leader, the fights with the native porters, the flies, the disease, the attacks by local tribes. I stuck with it and read the whole book and my suspicions were confirmed which was no surprise because every book of this type that I have read is a similar chronicle of disaster. Couldn’t anyone plan and adequately finance a trip? Good god, what I wouldn’t give to pick up one of these explorer books and read a diary or letter excerpt that ran something like, “My Dearest Emily, We emerged from the jungle well-ahead of schedule and are currently building an encampment on the lake. We have bountiful amounts of food left for the rest of the journey and are getting along wonderfully well with our helpful and knowledgeable porters. The weather is lovely and we are all in excellent health. Enclosed is a watercolor I painted in my leisure time of some most interesting butterflies. I will undoubtedly be home by Michaelmas. Cheers!”
The Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation by Peter L. Bernstein (2005). About the fight to build the Erie Canal. “What? A canal that runs from the Hudson River to Lake Erie? Why—why—that’s madness!” “No, it’s not!” “Yes, it is!” “No, it’s not!” “Yes, it is!” “Look, it’s done!” “It’s brilliant!” “Hooray!” “Have you hear about this railroad thing?”
You get the idea.