Belle Cantos

"I WANT a hero," Lord Byron began his rollicking epic poem, "Don Juan," completed in 1823 when Byron was 35. The only hero that he could find "fit for my poem" was the handsome, innocent, rather brainless Don Juan, whose adventures, sexual and otherwise, served as Byron's vehicle to satirize the warmongering rulers and pretentious aristocrats of his time. "This is the age of oddities let loose," he writes.

"Don Juan" is the perfect epic poem for the busy reader. While its 16,000 lines of verse seem insurmountable at first, Byron's comic and self-deprecating style is a light read, easy to pick up and put down. And there are plenty of witty phrases to remember. "But who, alas! can love and then be wise?" says Byron, mourning the fate of the lady who was tempted by the seductions of the 16-year-old Juan, "And whispering 'I will ne'er consent' -- consented."

Juan is shipwrecked, rescued by the "gazelle-eyed" daughter of a pirate, sold as a slave to a sultan's bride, who disguises him as a harem-girl in a "labyrinth of females," becomes a soldier in the Russian army, and then a paramour of the lusty and warloving Empress Catherine ("She could repay each amatory look you lent/ With interest . . . for though she could widow all/ Nations, she liked man as an individual.") Through it all, he is pursued by women, those fair creatures who "hate all vice except its reputation."

Byron especially skewers English society ("these thick solitudes/ Call'd social"), especially the "Honourable Misters" whose "Honour was more before their names than after" and the Reverend "Who did not hate so much the sin as sinner." Of the English aristocracy, he writes, "Society is now one polished horde/ Form'd of two mighty tribes, the Bores and the Bored."

Sometimes beautiful, sometimes ribald or sly, always charming, "Don Juan" is a book to sneak out between meetings for the sheer pleasure of Byron's message: "Let us have wine and women, mirth and laughter,/ Sermons and soda-water the day after." SCOTT H. JACOBS Washington

Queen for a Day

FORD MADOX FORD's The Fifth Queen is as fine a historical novel as I've ever read. It tells the story of Catherine Howard, Henry VIII's fifth wife and queen. The novel does not just recount the events leading up to this unfortunate woman's execution, but also tells a story of how a corrupt society can destroy a good person. One senses that Ford detected a Tudor lie, and history has responded by portraying Catherine as a wanton. When one considers the probable character assassinations of Richard III and Anne Boleyn, it is not difficult to imagine Catherine receiving the same treatment from Tudor historians.

The Catherine who emerges from Ford's novel is a woman as learned as she is beautiful. She aspires to the nobleness of the Greeks and Romans of Plutarch and Seneca, and, until proven otherwise, sees Henry and England, once again joined with the Roman Catholic Church, entering a golden age. Ford shows an English court filled with liars at whose center the flawed Henry rules with an innate but immoral sense of survival. Queen Catherine is warned by several characters that unless she becomes part of this world of Tudor Realpolitik she will not live long.

The Fifth Queen is currently available from Ecco Press in paperback. It can also be found in any good public library. STEVE HARRIS Alexandria

The Thoughts of Youth

THE PREMISE seems cliche'd enough: Two baby-boomers take a nostalgic look at their childhood by dredging up their old baseball-card collections and swapping stories about them. Given the glut of publications doling out 1950s nostalgia and baseball trivia, it doesn't sound as if you'd find anything new here.

The Great American Baseball Card Flipping, Trading, and Bubble Gum Book was published, however, in 1973, when the idea that there was anything in the naivete of the 1950s worth preserving was less popular than it is today. Because of this, the writing exhibits a freshness that subsequent baseball card books lack. Moreover, authors Brendan Boyd and Frank Harris have chosen a tone and style perfectly fitted to their subject.

Although the prose is certainly "adult," the perspective is the enthusiastic one of the child -- specifically the youngster thumbing through his baseball cards. Players are heroes, or they are goats. They have funny names, or they stand in goofy poses. The did something on the field the other day which thrilled or infuriated you, or they suffered a career-ending injury, or sometimes a tragic death. In other words, there is a heightened sensitivity in the fandom here, one which you'd probably forgotten you'd ever had.

The book is composed in three sections. The first is a reconstruction of the sensory atmosphere of youth in postwar America -- a sort of Marcel Proust in Levittown. The second is an account of a pilgrimage to the Topps bubble-gum factory in Brooklyn, and last and third is the book's principal focus: a trip through the card collection, complete with a full-color reproduction of each card's obverse, and an anecdote -- sometimes only a sarcastic comment -- about each player. Each one is individually interesting but it is the cumulative effect of seeing each face and reading each story that does the trick. The profiles remind the aging child why the world was such a fascinating place when you were first getting to know it and, for some of us, why baseball was such a fascinating sport.

The book was originally published by Little, Brown and regrettably is no longer in print. I had to have a professional book-search done to locate my copy, although a diligent searcher may be able to find one at a used-bookstore. CHARLES P. BLAHOUS Alexandria

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