God bless the skiers and the ice skaters. Those of us who don't enjoy those vigorous activities have less reason to delight in the bluster of January in Western New York, except for one thing:
This is a wonderful period of time in which to read. When your work is done, you've spent time with your family, and it's finally that precious period of time when you get to do something entirely for yourself, you could watch people calling each other names or eating worms on television, or you could read.
Get yourself a comfortable chair or couch, perhaps put on some gentle music which won't intrude itself into your thoughts, curl up next to the dog, and set your mind free, to examine the lives of others, to travel to places and climes which are new to you, or to recapture thoughts and feelings which were once an important part of your life, but which now only cling to the edges of your memory.
It improves your memory, it broadens your understanding of the world, it takes your mind away from your cares, and it costs little or nothing. Sometimes it even gentles your personality. What better activity in the world?
LOST DIARY OF DON JUAN
No one is sure if there ever really was a person named Don Juan, but he has taken on such a life that even someone who takes fierce pride in not reading or studying literary history, knows what you mean, if you say, ''He's a real Don Juan.''
Douglas Carlton Abrams has taken on the historical elements which are usually connected to the great lover, and made a novel which reverses the traditional portrait of a self-loving libertine who seduces or even rapes woman after woman. Sources as impressive as George Bernard Shaw and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart have condemned his immortal soul to the fires of Hell.
First some basics: Don Juan, whether he really lived or he was a fictional character, created by poets, playwrights and novelists, lived in Seville, Spain, in the late 1500s. His full name was Don Juan Tenorio - ironic, since Mozart made him a baritone.
''Don'' in this case means ''Sir.'' ''Don Juan'' translates into Italian as ''Don Giovanni,'' and he is the focus of Mozart's opera by the same name. In English, he is ''Sir John,'' and I've read literary critics who believed that Shakespeare meant to connect the historical reputation to Sir John Falstaff, that great failed lover of ''The Merry Wives of Windsor.''
He lived in the reign of Spanish King Phillip II, the great-grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella. It was Phillip who sent the Spanish Armada in the hope of conquering England and stamping out the Protestant religions, of which England's Elizabeth I had set herself up as the champion.
In Phillip's Spain, people lived in fear of the Spanish Inquisition, the series of church-sponsored courts which arrested and tortured people who it believed to be enemies of the Church, eventually burning some of them alive, while people stood around and watched them suffer.
Also in Phillip's reign, shipload after shipload of gold, silver, and precious jewels came to Spain on a regular basis, bringing the riches of Mexico and South America home to the mother country. That wealth set off an incredible inflation, which ironically widened the already wide gulf between rich and poor and left many hard-working people unable to earn enough money to feed and shelter their families, while nobles had their ceilings painted with real gold and had pure silver threads woven into their wives' dresses.
Don Juan had the reputation of becoming the lover of a long list of women. In some versions of the story, he is a rapist who climbs into the windows of helpless women, during the night, and rapes them, if they will not surrender to his seductions.
Novelist Abrams accepts the basic story, but his Don Juan is a kind and sensitive man who recognizes the misery of ''respectable'' wives and daughters who are supposed to stay home and knit while their husbands and fathers enjoy the freedom to wander about the world and the legal right to indulge in whatever sexual adventures they might choose, as long as they don't attempt to enjoy the female ''property'' of some more powerful man.
The novel's protagonist loves and respects women, and establishes his reputation by offering company and comfort to those who would otherwise be miserable.
Abrams creates a lively and believable reality. His word choice is varied and powerful, and as his hero crosses swords with the king, possessive noblemen, and a lustful and savagely cruel Inquisition, he matches wits with beautiful and elegant women, of a wide variety of ages and social stations.
The most famous element of Don Juan's story is his seduction of Donna Anna. Her father was an aging but experienced and feared soldier. When her father attempted to drive away the intruding lover, the two fought a duel and the father was killed. In many versions of the story, Don Juan is later passing a stone statue of the old man, and flippantly invites the statue to his home for dinner that evening.
In the story, the statue actually comes to dinner, and drags the unrepentant Don, off to Hell.
All of those elements are in Abrams' novel, but with a very different meaning.
The novel is historically well-set and full of action and adventure. ''The Lost Diary of Don Juan'' was published in 2007 by Astria Books, and imprint of Simon and Schuster. It has 290 pages, and has a list price of $25, in hardcover edition. Find it with ISBN number 978-1-4165-3250-7. There is one copy available in the Chautauqua-Cattaraugus Library System, as of this writing, located in the Olean Public Library.
BYRON IN LOVE
Changing from 16th Century Spain to 19th Century England, and from fiction to history, we find another story of a man who was known for his many seductions and his scandalous life style: George Gordon, Lord Byron.
For more than a century, Byron has enjoyed a reputation as a great poet, and some of his verse continues to be printed in anthologies, especially ''She Walks in Beauty, Like the Night.''
In recent years, it has become more fashionable to treat his poetry with disrespect, and to claim that the most significant thing about him was his passionate, profligate, and romantic lifestyle. The book I'm reviewing here is ''Byron in Love: A Short, Daring Life,'' by Irish biographer Edna O'Brien.
The book is short, and since it focuses almost entirely on its subject's contempt for normal morality, it makes for juicy reading. On the other hand, if you wish to understand Byron as a human being, you might rather choose a different biography.
A list of Byron's misdeeds is shocking, even by modern standards. He had a reputation of being an Adonis, although he was born with a deformed foot which caused him pain and embarrassment throughout his life, and in his 30s, he began to need to struggle with his weight.
Byron acknowledged love affairs with dozens of people, both men and women, although later historians believed he might have invented, rather than hidden, some of his affairs, for their effect on his public persona. Among his known lovers was Lady Caroline Lamb, the wife of England's Prime Minister, who chased him about from house to house, when he finally rejected her, and once was found lying in the gutter, outside his London home, claiming that she loved him and would rather die than be without him.
He fathered at least two children by his own half-sister. He cast his wife out of their home in the first year of their marriage, and later alternately begged for her forgiveness and called her names and created characters in his writing which clearly represent her, although they are monstrous people.
Visitors in his home complained that they were served wine in human skulls. Merchants, doctors, and others complained that he rarely, if ever, paid his bills. He sent his only legitimate daughter to an Italian convent at the age of five, having taken her from her mother's care by the laws of those days, and never saw her or wrote to her again.
He dashed his way through France, Spain, Italy, and finally Greece, where he died of malaria while encouraging the Greeks to fight for their independence from the Turks, all the while encouraging people to give up their homes and professions and join him in a life of drink and dangerous adventures, usually to no gain but for the sake of adventure.
Interestingly for this column, one of his most famous long poems was titled ''Don Juan,'' although it had almost nothing to do with the great Spanish lover.
If you enjoy eccentric personalities, and prefer a good scandal to an analytic examination, this book might be for you.
''Byron in Love'' has 216 pages in hardbound edition. It was published by W.W. Norton, in 2009, with a suggested selling price of $24.95. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-393-07011-8. The library system has 27 different books by Ms. O'Brien, including a much better-reviewed biography of James Joyce, but as of this writing, there are no copies of this particular book.
MOON RIVER AND ME
We're switching yet again, from the distant past to the present, and from men who relished the reputation for immorality to one whose life could be described as angel food, to Lord Byron's Devil's food.
Singer Andy Williams is a gentle man, often clothed in casual clothes and comfortable sweaters. His singing is smooth, pleasant and mild, rarely challenging the listener. After a long career of singing in nightclubs and on television, he has settled in Branson, Mo., where he owns and operates his own nightclub called ''The Moon River Theater,'' where he still sometimes performs, although he is now nearly 80.
The names of his nightclub and of his autobiography, come from the Henry Mancini-written song, ''Moon River,'' which was his most successful record, and which is recognized by nearly everyone as his theme song. Always self-identified as an entertainer, rather than an artist, Williams' memoirs will probably please the audience who has come to love his style, and disappoint those who seek deeper self-analysis than nobly taking full blame for the failure of his first marriage, because he was too concentrated on his career.
Williams writes his book with almost a sense of amazement that he has had such success. He describes his birth in tiny Wall Lake, Iowa, a town too small to have even one traffic light. He was the youngest of four brothers.
When he was 9, the boys' father became determined that they would become a successful performing act. He would move the family from city to city, eventually quitting his job, hauling them around to radio stations, which in those days employed singers, comics and other live performers.
Williams admits that his father would repeat, time after time, that he and his brothers weren't as good as other performing acts, and that they would need to work harder than anyone else, in order to succeed. Although he finally claims at the book's end that he has come no longer to believe that evaluation, it clearly is still lodged firmly in his personality.
The arc of his career is interesting, especially his glimpses of performers such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Judy Garland. He admits to some periods of heavy drinking and to some love affairs, from fellow performers at night clubs to Kay Thompson, the famed night club performer who heard the Williams Brothers and first introduced them into clubs in New York, Chicago, and around the country.
His difficulty in getting started as a solo act when his brothers decided they needed a life where they lived in one place and came home to their families and quit the business, were fascinating, especially his admission that for a while he found himself eating dog food, because he was hungry and it was less expensive than things intended for human consumption.
More critical readers will find there are some errors in the book, such as claims of when some events took place, and when they really took place. His description of his divorce from French singer Claudine Longet becomes suddenly sparse in detail, especially when she was arrested and convicted for shooting her lover, a French professional skier with whom she took up, after the divorce.
His description of the events is virtually identical to his lawyer-coached testimony in the trial.
In the same vein, his friendship with Ethel Kennedy, after her husband's assassination, is described with considerably less detail than other areas of the book.
Williams' participation in events surrounding the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy is moving. Music lovers will chuckle to read that when he was asked to sing ''Panis Angelicus'' at Kennedy's funeral, he was unfamiliar with the song, and suggested substituting ''The Battle Hymn of the Republic.'' Leonard Bernstein, who was in charge of the music at the funeral was a bit shocked.
I enjoyed reading the book. I feel I know a bit more about the music industry, although I can't say I feel I know the singer any better than I did.
''Moon River and Me'' has 308 pages in hard cover edition, and has a suggested price of $25.95. It was published by Viking Books, in 2009. Find it with ISBN number 978-0-670-02117-8. The library system owns three copies of the memoir, and they're located at Silver Creek, Franklinville, and Olean.
Anyone who was alive in the 1950s, who remembers the pride with which our nation greeted Texan Van Cliburn's stunning victory at the normally slanted International Tchaikovsky Competition, will be pleased to learn that after all these years, the competition has been revamped, so that it no longer favors Russian artists.
The new chairman, conductor Valery Gergiev, has vowed that the competition will be designed with transparency, musical excellence, and fairness as the central principles. International judges, rather than entirely Russian judges will be appointed.
This year's competition will take place June 14-July 2.