A Comfortable Book (and that famous dangling O)

As a fiction writer, and one well-published in literary short fiction, I’ve been aware of O Henry forever, but this is the first time I picked up one of the collected volumes of short fiction awarded the annual O Henry Awards.

O Henry Awards 1988

The one I picked up was the 1988 volume, and I was lucky in that it contained stories by Raymond Carver (the grand prize winner), Joyce Carol Oates and John Updike.  It’s tempting to say that these stories were the highlight of the book, just to prove that I know good fiction when I read it, but that wouldn’t be the case.  Other than the Carver, which did stand out because it was very much different, the others were about par for the book–even the Updike’s narrative style became familiar with the passing of the pages.

The thing that surprised me about these stories is how familiar they felt. Except for a few notable exceptions (the Carver again) these stories deal with life on a very small scale, looking at petty infidelities, tempests in the teacup of a small community and sordid little prejudices.

Yes, they can deal with the less-attractive side of the human condition, but they are also comfortable.  The people are not just like the ones you see on the street and at the laundromat, but they might actually be those same people.  It wouldn’t be the first time a writer put a real-life person on a page without telling anyone.  Dipping into this book for a story at a time was like visiting an old friend or wearing a well-stretched pair of shoes.

As a reader, I enjoyed it, much as you might enjoy an afternoon on a rocking chain on th eporch, but as a writer, I found the whole thing a bit puzzling.  The stories were well (often masterfully) written, but there seemed to be little point to them, and the endings were far from satisfying in most cases.

I tend to remember Hemingway, who never wrote about trifles.  He went deep into important things even in his short fiction.  The work sticks with you.

And that is also what I try to do when I write any sort of ficion. I see no reason for literary fiction to be an exception.  I read or heard somewhere that the only two things worth writing about are love and death, so that’s usually where I focus.  Readers and critics will define whether my attempts are successful or not, but at least I try.  Hell, I even titled my first literary collection Love and Death.

Love and Death by Gustavo Bondoni_3d

But these stories deal with neither.  They deal with anecdote and unremarkable people (there is only one story about a murderer in the whole thing, and he is only an accidental killer) doing mainly unremarkable things and giving us the tail, tame end of the journey Joyce and Woolf started in stream-of-consciousness narrative.

It certainly works from a reader’s perspective, taking me to a comfortable world of others’ creation.  I wonder if this is what the writers intended.  I also wonder how I’d have felt if I read these same tales in 1988.  Might the confort factor be brought on by rose-tinted remembraces of the Howard Jones decade?  Perhaps.  Most modern litfic fills me with either annoyance or ennui, but perhaps if I reread in 2050, I might feel nostalgic about how everyone was going on and on about pronouns and health care woes.  Who knows?

Anyway, I recommend this one as a pleasant read without the sharp edges that Hemingway’s work still has even after more than just thirty years.  You will enjoy the stories calmly, and often marvel at the writing… which is always a good thing.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  Quite a bit of his literary short work is collected in Love and Death.  It isn’t comfortable and is full of sharp edges.  You can buy it here.

Proof that a Message Often Mars the Enjoyment

Adam's Rib Courtroom Scene - Catherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.jpg

Adam’s Rib, the Catherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy vehicle from 1949 was a decent film, I guess.

Anyone who’s seen the two in action, and who knows of the off-stage relationship that fueled their on-stage chemistry, might be shaking their head at this point.  To a degree, they’d be absolutely correct in thinking that such a celebrated film with those actors has to be amazing.  You see, the acting is spectacular, the chemistry is obvious, and the comedy and acting are impeccable.

The problem is that the whole thing becomes strained by the film’s message.

Essentially, this is a movie about two lawyers.  One is a district attorney, the other is in private practice.  Everything is working beautifully until, out of an attack of feminist ideals, Hepburn’s character decides to defend a woman that Tracy’s character has put on trial because she shot her husband after finding him with another woman.  The attack was spectacularly botched, but no one doubts that she did, in fact, go after the couple with a gun.

The femenist argument here is that men in similar situations had been acquitted, but that society winked when men sowed their wild oats, so that the woman in question would be unfairly condemned.

While the argument has merit, the situation in the film is strained to the point of being uncomfortable.  The only thing that saves the film from utter disaster is that Hepburn is brilliant in the role, and that the comedy allows one to get past the more painfully embarrasing scenes.

The courtroom scenes could have made for a wonderful, inspiring drama.  The comedy duo, as they proved many times, were capable of unforgettable and enjoyable films.  But the combination, and making the husband and wife team the center of the conflict backfired spectacularly.

The good thing about watching the 1001 movies with my wife is that we don’t have the same taste, so I can often use her as a yardstick with regards to whether I’m reading the whole thing completely wrong.  Her response to this one was, just like mine, “meh.”

After watching Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, a lesser comedy will always disappoint.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer.  His latest book is a collection of dark fantasy stories entitled Pale Reflection.  Buy it here!

A Film Inspired by Bonnie and Clyde which Inspired the Film Bonnie and Clyde

Gun Crazy is a Hays Code era movie about a couple of gangsters united by their love of guns.  Fortunately, his one manages to be both disturbing and sexy despite the era’s often-obtrusive censorship.

Gun Crazy Movie Poster.jpg

Essentially, it follows the death spiral of an initially well-meaning couple, a guy who is the best shot in town who just came out of the army and wants to get a job at Remington to stay close to his passion and a bit of a fallen woman who falls in love with him (and who also has a passion for handguns) and promises to try to be good.

We all know she’s going to fail.

From the very beginning, the wheels start to fall off.  A bad night at a casino puts their back against the wall financially, and the woman, now a wife, bluntly informs him that either they get more muney–a LOT more money–or she’ll walk.

So they turn to armed robbery.  The guy, essentially a country bumpkin at heart, doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, but the girl is the one who is Kill Crazy on the poster above.  She is utterly trigger-happy, and her protestations–probably code-related–that she shoots because she just gets so scared, aren’t really believable.

And that makes it better.  We like our crazies undiluted.

This one is considered one of history’s better b-movies and, though I didn’t love it, I admit that it deserves its position on the 1001 movies list.  And the main reason I didn’t like it is not even the movie’s fault.  The problem with crime flicks under the Hays Code is that the code wouldn’t permit the movie to have a happy ending for criminals… so as soon as they started on the downward path, you knew they were going to end up as a couple of photogenic corpses.

As always, I like to give a shout out to surviving actors from the old films I watch.  In this case, the survivor is Russ Tamblyn, critical in the film because, in his role as a younger version of the protagonist, he is the first person we see on screen.  So hello, Russ!

Watchable, although I wouldn’t classify it among the noir genre, because it didn’t feel like noir to me, this one laid a lot of the groundwork for the later Bonnie and Clyde films, especially the one from 1967.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s crime fiction is best represented by his thriller Timeless.  Just as disturbing, and much sexier than this film, you can buy it here.

So it Wasn’t Aliens After All

Thor Heyerdahl isn’t exactly a household nametoday, but readers of National Geographic in the second half of will remember his particular brand of science.  Essentially, he was the precursor of the Mythbusters, except he didn’t use a safety net.  His crazy experiments were extreme examples of science at work.

And they were fascinating.  From the perusal of an National Geographic in grade school–already old when I saw it–I was aware of the Ra expeditions in which he tried to sail across the Atlantic in a boat of ancient Egyptian design.

Apparently, he also sailed from the American coast to Polynesia on a raft of even more ancient design.  That takes a certain amount of balls.

Aku-Aku - Thor Heyerdahl.jpg

What brings us here today, however, is his 1950s expedition to Easter Island (and other places as well, but Easter Island, as you can see from the cover, is the main course).  The book is entitled Aku-Aku, and it’s a fascinating glimpse into what happens when an archaeological expedition is led by someone who thinks outside the box.

Now, before we talk about the aliens, I want to say that I don’t think I could ever be an archaeologist.  Though I’m not claustrophobic, I would not willingly jam myself into a cave where I can only advance by shrugging my shoulders.  Not for a few ancient artifacts, anyway.

Heyerdahl does this quite often.

But he also teaches us about how an archaeological expedition to cultural sites with a nearly westernized local population was run in the 1950s.  It’s interesting to see the combination of sensitivity to local people while at the same time recognizing and acknowledging that superstitions and certain behaviors belong to the past for a reason.  I wonder if a modern expedition would be that honest.

If you enjoy archaeology, or learning about ancient civilizations, this book is a good read.  Not necessarily a textual joy (although I can’t comment on the merits of the original Norwegian version), but a wonderful look at a team obsessed with looking into the past.

Now, some of Heyerdahl’s conclusions about the origin of the Easter Island natives has been challenged by a genetic study (limited in scope, so there may be hope yet), but one thing is no longer in doubt: aliens had nothing to do with the construction or transport of the island’s famed stone faces.

Essentially, he just told one of the townsfolk on the island descended from the statue-building part of the population that he’d give him a hundred dollars if he stood one of the stones in its pedestal.

So the man did. I won’t tell you how because that is the ultimate spoiler for this book, but the method he used was something that any ancient civilization with access to rocks and a dozen workers could have managed.

When asked to show how the huge stone blocks could have been transported, they used an equally simple and ingenious method.

While this doesn’t prove that the method illustrated is necessarily the one that was employed, it makes it clear that anyone insisting that aliens had something to do with this is worse than a kook… he is an ignorant kook!

So if any of that seems like it might interest you.  Go forth and get yourself a copy.  You’ll enjoy it.

At the very least you can show the photos to your local alien apologist and watch him go into deep denial.  That should be worth the price of admission.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist.  His novel Timeless serves as an outlet for his love of ancient culture.  Set in a monastery complex in Greece, it’s a fast-paced, sexy thriller.  You can check it out here.

Kind Hearts and Black Humorous Brilliance

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started watching Kind Hearts and Coronets.  I thought it would be a historical film–which can often be amazing and equally often be utter tripe.

Kind Hearts and Coronets.jpg

It turns out that this one is actually a comedy, not a drama.  A wonderfully whimsical black comedy of murder and social classes.  I love it when the murderer is a sympathetic man and we’re all rooting for him to win in the end.

I really enjoyed this one, although I’m not sure how well it would play with audiences today.

Essentially, it follows the career of a young man whose noble-blooded mother has been disinherited by her family, and his subsequent quest to murder his way into inheriting a dukedom.  The murders are the funniest part of the film, of course.  Murder, if done correctly, is extremely funny.

Along the way he becomes emotionally entangled with two women and lands on death row for murder.  The murder that gets him locked up, which I won’t spoil for you, is just another piece of delicious black comedy.

This one is seriously old-school, but I think the buttons it presses aren’t the kind of thing that will offend people nowadays (although, to be honest, I have no clue what offends people nowadays… everything?), so I recommend it heartily to everyone.  Go out and watch this one.

If you don’t enjoy it, you’re a humorless twit, and should probably join the nearest holier-than-thou social movement in your neighborhood (does the temperance movement still exist?) at once.

Normal people should love it.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer currenly in Covid-19 lockdown like everyone else in Buenos Aires.  Since we’re all staying at home anyway, why not purchase his latest book, Pale Reflection?  If you look in the reviews, you’ll see that it’s been favorably compared to Stephen King.  You can buy it here.

A Book about England by the Man Who Scooped the King Tut Tomb Opening

I bought a bunch of used books at my local Anglican church about a year and a half ago, and I’ve been working my way through the ones I decided to keep.  The nice part about doing this kind of thing is that I invariably end up with loads of books I would never have bought anywhere else.  Lesser work by authors I’m already familiar with (such as Barnaby Rudge or Silas Marner) and books by writers I’d never heard of before lead the list.

Today’s entry is of the second kind.  When I picked up In Search of England, by H.V. (Henry Volland) Morton, I had never heard of book or author.  But I can’t resist a book which promised a tour of the English countryside, so I saved it as a keeper.

In Search of England - HV Morton.jpg

It was a good choice.  The first thing I noticed is that, unlike Laurens van der Post, who was a workmanlike writer with an emotional bent that makes his work special, Morton is a virtuoso of the pen whose broad historical background made me (as a writer), shake my head in admiration.

But even if he’d been a lesser mortal, the subject is so charming that it would have warranted a place on my shelves.

The story is an account of an automobile journey that Morton undertook around 1926 (the book itself was published in 1927) which started in London and followed, roughly, the contour of England (it ventured into Scotland only following an interesting historical anomaly and only for a few miles).

In search of England Interior.jpg

Avoiding many of today’s tourist traps, the narrative focuses on the villages and unique quirks that make England so special.  The Furry Dance in Helston (there are no people dressed as animals, strangely), and the Chester Rows are prime examples, as are churches large and small and the Bristol Camera Obscura, which I need to write a detective story about.

Of course, he also covers the larger stuff such as Bath or Hadrian’s wall, but he does so with a historian’s eye to minutiae that others would simply pass by.  In each place, he endeavors to tell us something that the average tourist would never learn… and it’s wonderful.

The most poignant part of it all is when he stands on Hadrian’s wall and looks out over Scotland.  You can almost feel the weight of the Roman Empire pushing on your back, and the darkness of the unknown ahead.  Immensely good writing.

As a travel journal, it still holds up today.  By concentrating on things with roots deep in history, Morton manages to avoid the problems of old guide books.  He almost doesn’t mention hotels, gas stations or other stuff that have been superseded by modern life.

It was only after I finished reading and went onto the internet to investigate his life did I learn that both Morton and his “In search of…” series were (or are, depending on your interests) very famous.

Morton, it turns out, was the journalist on the scene when King Tut’s tomb was first opened, and managed to scoop the Times.  In 1923 scooping The Times was a big deal… and Morton became an instant celebrity.  That’s the kind of serendipitous discovery you never make when buying on Amazon or B&N… and it means I’ll continue to peruse the shelves of unlikely places for overlooked gems.

And the series? It was a bestseller in its day and is still in print today.

Well-deserved.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer with hundreds of published stories to his name, as well as several books.  His latest book is perfect for anyone who loves to discover relatively unknown quirks of distant cultures. It’s called Pale Reflection, and Morton would have loved it.  We think you will, too, so check it out here.

 

 

Pale Reflection Published

I’m delighted to announce that my collection of Dark Fantasy entitled Pale Reflection was published on March 1st.  This one dives deep into the indigenous cultures and beliefs of the modern world, as well as going back to pre-Roman times to explore the black magic of that era.

Pale Reflection - Gustavo Bondoni.jpg

The pleasant surprise on this one has been how much the first reviewers have enjoyed the book.  Even the one reviewer who was made uncomfortable by the dark subject matter (although there is no really graphic content in the stories) gave a positive review.

You can buy it here – and if you like (or hate) it, drop me a note (or, better yet, add to the roll call of positive reviews!).

Enjoy!

 

A Reasonable Ending After a Terribly Weak Start

It’s no secret that, unlike Virginia Woolf, I’m not a fan of George Eliot.  Hell, I often think she hid behind a pseudonym not because of the rampant sexism of the time (although that undoubtedly existed), but because she wanted to avoid destroying the cause of female writing forever.  Also, if she proved that women are capable of writing the worst drivel, she would have had to spend the rest of her life avoiding the vengeful ghost of Jane Austen.

Silas Marner - George Eliot

Having said that, I’m happy to report that Silas Marner isn’t as bad as Middlemarch.  Much of that has to do with the fact that it’s a much shorter book, of course–I’ve found that Eliot improves with brevity–but it’s also slightly better.

Basically, this one follows the lives of a few country characters in stultifying detail, and reminds one that detail, when not wielded by an expert (such as Austen or Dickens) can easily go from delightful to boring, and yeah, the first two-thirds of this one were a bit slow.  Also, the “tension” that Eliot creates is not of the delightful kind but of the kind you just want to stop.  Like Dickens at his worst, it’s just piling suffering upon suffering on someone who was already miserable to begin with.  I’m pretty sure no one reads the Book of Job for pleasure, so why read Eliot?

Aside from the style problems, this one shares another issue with Barnaby Rudge, my least favorite Dickens so far, and that is the first part of the book is essentially table-setting and all the action happens at the end… years later.  Essentially, they both bore you explaining who is who and then say: “a few years later we find…”

In both cases, the second pat is where all the interesting stuff happens (except for two incidents in Silas Marner which I won’t spoil for you).

Anyway, focusing on the good side, the end of this book is satisfying.  It isn’t the riotous insanity that actually saves Barnaby Rudge from the scrap heap, but it’s fine.  Had this one not had a decent ending, I would probably have had some sort of apoplectic fit.  As it was, I was merely disappointed to confirm that my impression of Middlemarch was correct.

Not one I’d recommend to people who prefer books to be interesting or entertaining.  If you read the book of Job for fun, though, you might like this one…

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is available here.  He believes it will entertain you more than Silas Marner, but then, he wrote it so it’s not a surprise that he’s saying that.

 

 

It’s not new… the Oscars have always gotten it wrong

When my wife and I watch films in the 1001 movies to watch before you die list, we try to do so with no clue about the movie.  Sometimes, like in Gone with the Wind or The Wizard of Oz, this is impossible.  These movies are so beloved, so well-known and so talked about that, in the unlikely event that you haven’t already seen the film, you will certainly have an impression of the movie in your head.

But the great majority of films never went on to become beloved classics, so we can watch those without any preconceptions.  Many of them are a complete surprise.

The Heiress (1949), starring Olivia de Havilland (who is alive, so hello, Olivia, if you happen to be reading!), is one of those forgotten films that was considered immortal in its time, but hasn’t been a staple of afternoon TV since… which means that it has fallen out of favor with regular audiences.

The Heiress Movie Poster

Before I tell you about the film itself, I want to take a second and give you our reaction to it.  My wife said: “Why is this one even on the list?” and I replied “It probably won the Oscar for Best Picture.”

So when doing the research for this post after watching the film I verified that, yes, this unsatisfying sludge did win four Oscars, albeit not Best Picture, and was nominated for another bunch (including Best Picture and Best Director). I have no real issue with the Oscars it won–Olivia de Havilland was both unattractive and boring in this picture, intentionally so, which makes her a brilliant actress, as she is usually magnetic on film.  She deservedly won Best Actress.  But a Best Picture nomination?  Ugh.

Why ugh?  The film was professionally produced, with a cast of excellent actors, but the story behind it is… I guess we’ll just have to go with “unfulfilling”.  Basically, an heiress is courted for her money.  Everyone knows he’s after her money except for her.  Her father tells her about it–while dealing with his own grief–and she never speaks to him again, even when he’s on his death bed.  Then she says no to the suitor, the film ends and we’re supposed to applaud.

Obviously, the Academy at the time felt it was worthy of several nominations and exuberant praise… which isn’t surprising to anyone who followed the modern Oscars, especially seeing how they ignored better films from this year’s Best-Picture-winning director and then gave it to one that is deficient for what looks like political reasons but might just be cluelessness.

In 1949, I don’t think it was politics (it might have been cluelessness), but more likely it was navel-gazing.  This is a film that seems deep while being perfectly shallow.  It follows the tendency for making art that evokes nothing but reality.  That’s fine, I guess, but don’t expect your film to become a classic.

The one argument I can find is that it perfectly reflects how a lot of people are–a disillusion will turn them into inflexible, bitter shrews (of whatever gender)–so this film represents a good chunk of humanity.

That’s true, but those people are boring.  Keeping them away from literature and film is for the best.

In the meantime, TCM will continue to give much more air time to Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.  Films with emotions people actually want to feel.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer whose book Love and Death is a study of emotions people actually want to read about. No boring, bitter people here (well at least not among the protagonists).  You can buy it here.

 

 

A Mystical Journey to Find the Lost Bushman

Let me ask you a question–if I told you that I’ve read a book written by a British South African of Afrikaner descent born in 1906 about the indigenous race of the southern tip of Africa, what would you think?

If you think it would be some kind of racist, supremacist screed, you need to check your prejudices at the door.

It turns out that Laurens Van der Post is a very different kind of man, and the book, The Lost World of the Kalahari, is a very different kind of book.

Lost World of the Kalahari - Laurens Van der Post

But that’s not what I was thinking when I picked up my copy.  I actually was thinking it would be a typical “white man enters the savage wastes and tells people about it” story.  I like those stories because they not only evoke simpler times that I never experienced, but also because, despite ignorance, the actual descriptions of places and people that no longer exist are usually very well done.  A good case in point is the book on the White Nile I read a while back.

This one, as I said, is different.  Mainly because the author is different.  Van der Post was, apparently, a hippie before hippies were a thing (the book is from 1958, and he was 52 at the time).  The trip into the heart of the Kalahari is a mystical experience as much as it is a geographical and anthropological one.

It makes for a weird read.  He does the basic job of telling us about the Bushmen (a nearly-extinct race of lighter-skinned Africans who were the original inhabitants of the southern part of Africa before darker-skinned people immigrating from the north and Europeans settling in the south squeezed them nearly to extinction.  About 100,000 of them still survive today), but he also goes mystical on you every couple of chapters, giving great significance to omens and spirits.

Normally, this would be a huge turnoff for me, but, for this book, it works.  The primal nature of the African wilderness suits itself to magical thinking in ways that few other places do, and this unexpected mystical side makes Van der Post himself appear more human than just another macho explorer trekking through the veldt and hunting to eat.

Most of all, though, the author comes across as a man who utterly loves his subject, especially the Bushmen themselves, of whom he’s heard since childhood but never actually seen until the expedition.  For those who might be curious, the expedition also filmed a documentary for the BBC, parts of which are on YouTube, here.

It’s a touching book, and one that is a strange departure from that genre’s more usual fare.  I certainly wouldn’t want every exploration book to be like this one, but it was an interesting change of pace.  The spice of life and all that.

Recommended, and I don’t even have to apply my usual disclaimer that anyone who is offended because people in the past had a different attitude about indigenous people than we do should avoid it.  Anyone can read this one without being offended by it.  So go ahead!

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer from Argentina who, like Van der Post, is fascinated by cultures other than the usual Western fare.  His book Off the Beaten Path is a collection of short science fiction and fantasy stories set in non-typical places and cultures.  He thingks you’ll love it, and urges you to buy it here.